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Libya's warring sides agree to Eid al-Adha truce as deadly car bomb rocks Benghazi

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 14:42
Libya's warring sides agree to Eid al-Adha truce as deadly car bomb rocks Benghazi
Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar's forces agree to ceasefire as blast in eastern city kills two UN staff
MEE and agencies Sat, 08/10/2019 - 15:42
The explosion in Benghazi happened in front of a shopping centre and bank in the eastern city (Reuters)

Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA), have separately agreed to a UN-backed humanitarian truce around Tripoli for the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha.

Hafar's spokesperson confirmed on Saturday his intention to hold his troops back from fighting during the Muslim holiday, while the GNA said earlier it was conditionally willing to accept a truce for the three-day festival which starts on Sunday.

The United Nations had called on the two sides to commit to a humanitarian truce by midnight on Friday.

Haftar's forces "announce a halt to all military operations ... in the suburbs of Tripoli," Ahmad al-Mesmari, Haftar's spokesperson, said at a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi.

His announcement came as a car bomb was set off in Benghazi killing two UN staff, several medical sources confirmed to the Reuters news agency. 

The explosion happened in front of a shopping centre and bank. At least one burned-out UN car could be seen at the scene.

Truce conditions

The GNA had listed four conditions for the truce, saying it was eager to "ease the suffering of the citizens and allow rescue workers to accomplish their mission".

The reasons behind Turkey's ongoing military support of Libya
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Among its four conditions included measures that the ceasefire must be observed in "in all combat zones, with a cessation of direct and indirect fire and movement of troops".

It also said the truce must include "a ban on flights and reconnaissance overflights across the entire (Libyan) airspace as well as a halt to flights from airbases".

The GNA had also called on the UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to "ensure the implementation of the truce and note any breaches". 

Repeated calls

Despite the truce, it remains unclear whether the ceasefire will hold. 

More than 105,000 people have been displaced during the clashes, according to the UN.

Haftar's self-styled LNA launched an offensive against the Tripoli-seat of the GNA in early April. 

Over the past four months, 1,093 people have been killed in the fighting and 5,752 wounded, according to the World Health Organisation, while more than 120,000 people have been displaced.

Forces loyal to the GNA are keeping Haftar's troops at bay on the southern outskirts of the city.

UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame has already called several times for humanitarian truces, without success. 

Yemen government says UAE-backed southern separatists staging coup in Aden

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 12:15
Yemen government says UAE-backed southern separatists staging coup in Aden
So-called Security Belt forces have overrun three military barracks and surrounded the presidential palace
MEE and agencies Sat, 08/10/2019 - 13:15
Southern separatist forces shout slogans as they patrol a road during clashes with government forces in Aden (Reuters)

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government has accused United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed southern separatists of staging a coup in Aden after their fighters took over all military camps in the southern port city.

"What is happening in the temporary [internationally recognised government] capital of Aden by the Southern Transitional Council is a coup against institutions of the internationally recognised government," the foreign ministry said in a Twitter post.

Southern separatists have taken control of all government military bases in Aden, local officials confirmed on Saturday, as fighting mounted between the two former allies. 

The so-called Security Belt forces overran three military barracks belonging to unionist forces and were surrounding the presidential palace, sources close to the Security Belt told the AFP news agency.

The separatists took control of all military camps in the city belonging to the government, a government official also confirmed to the Reuters news agency.

Medical sources told Reuters that at least eight civilians had been killed during fighting on Friday.

Civilians trapped in their homes

The warring parties are both members of the Saudi-led pro-government coalition which has been battling Houthi rebels since March 2015. 

The Security Belt forces are trained by the UAE, a key partner in the coalition which intervened in Yemen to prop up the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as it battled with the Houthis.

UN accuses UAE-backed Yemeni forces of 'retaliatory attacks' against northerners
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Southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990 and the north is widely perceived to have imposed unification by force.

Saturday's clashes initially centred on the all-but empty presidential palace in the predominantly residential Crater district, near Aden International Airport, and in a neighbourhood where Interior Minister Ahmed al-Mayssari lives, residents said.

The separatists also took over Mayssari's house, which he had already vacated, officials said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said the battles had trapped civilians in their homes with dwindling supplies of food and water.

The aid group said prolonged fighting in Aden, a gateway for commercial and aid supplies, could impact efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis gripping the rest of the country.

UN chief call for 'inclusive dialogue'

The clashes began on Wednesday after the separatists accused an Islamist party allied to Hadi of complicity in a missile attack on a military parade in Aden, one of three separate attacks earlier this month that targeted southern forces.

The separatists and Hadi's government are nominally united in their battle against the Houthis, who chased Hadi from the capital Sanaa in late 2014, but they have rival agendas for Yemen's future.

Caught between an air blockade and southern suspicion, Yemeni patients are left to die
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The UAE said on Saturday that all efforts should focus on defeating the Houthis, and called for an end to the escalation in Aden.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed called on UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths "to deploy efforts and exert pressure" to that purpose.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday urged the parties to cease hostilities and engage in "inclusive dialogue".

The United Nations is trying to de-escalate tensions countrywide as it tries to implement a peace deal in the main port city of Hodeidah further to the north, to pave the way for wider political talks to end the war.

Drone attack

Separately, the Houthis' Al-Masirah TV quoted a military spokesman as saying the group had launched a drone attack against Saudi Arabia's civilian Abha airport on Saturday, targeting the fuel depot and control tower.

Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV said air traffic at the airport was normal.

The Houthis, who have stepped up cross-border missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia, control Sanaa, Hodeidah and other major urban centres, while Hadi's government holds Aden and a string of western coastal towns.

The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say their revolution is against corruption.

The UAE scaled down its military presence in Yemen in June amid pressure from Western allies to end the war and concerns about rising tensions with Iran in the Gulf.

US court overturns verdict allowing seizure of Iran-linked $1bn New York skyscraper

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 11:42
US court overturns verdict allowing seizure of Iran-linked $1bn New York skyscraper
The US Department of Justice had hoped to sell the 36-storey building located at 650 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan
MEE and agencies Sat, 08/10/2019 - 12:42
The skyscraper on New York's prestigious Fifth Avenue (Wikipedia)

A jury verdict allowing the US government to seize a midtown Manhattan office tower that it said was effectively controlled by Iran was thrown out on Friday by a federal appeals court, which cited several errors by the trial judge.

The 3-0 decision by the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan is a defeat for the Department of Justice, which went to trial hoping to sell the 36-storey building at 650 Fifth Avenue, perhaps for close to $1bn, and distribute proceeds to victims of bombings and other attacks linked to Iran.

Jurors had found in June 2017 that the non-profit Alavi Foundation, which had a 60 percent stake in the partnership that owned the building, violated US sanctions imposed against Iran in 1995 because it knew that the 40 percent owner, Assa Corp, was a front for an Iranian state-owned lender, Bank Melli.

US court allows seizure of New York skyscraper linked to Iran
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But in Friday's decision, Circuit Judge Richard Wesley faulted trial judge Katherine Forrest, who is now in private practice, for "a troubling pattern of errors on relatively straightforward issues," the Reuters news agency reported.

Wesley said these included admitting videotapes of former Alavi board members repeatedly invoking their constitutional right against self-incrimination, and refusing to let Alavi gather evidence to show the government sued too late.

"If this case returns to trial, a properly informed jury may or may not find for the government - a topic on which we have no opinion," Wesley wrote. 

"But getting to any outcome requires a fair and procedurally adequate process, something that has been lacking in this case. There are no shortcuts in the rule of law."

'We are obviously pleased'

Separately, the same appeals court panel set aside Forrest's 155-page opinion, which followed a non-jury trial, in favour of victims of alleged terrorist attacks linked to Iran, who sought damages from Alavi and the partnership, 650 Fifth Avenue Co.

The court said victims could pursue some claims in a retrial, but not others because the partnership was not a "foreign state," as Forrest had wrongly concluded.

A spokesman for US Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan, whose office represented the government, declined to comment to Reuters.

"We are obviously pleased," Alavi's lawyers Daniel Ruzumna and John Gleeson said in a joint statement. "All we have ever wanted and asked for is a fair shake."

A lawyer for attack victims did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, then the Shah of Iran, founded Alavi in 1973 as the Pahlavi Foundation. 

Its mission, according to the organisation, includes the promotion of Persian culture, including Islamic studies, in the United States.

Amnesty raises concerns over Anthony Joshua fighting boxing rematch in Saudi Arabia

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 10:44
Amnesty raises concerns over Anthony Joshua fighting boxing rematch in Saudi Arabia
Rights organisation calls on British boxer to be prepared to speak out about kingdom's 'abysmal human rights record'
MEE and agencies Sat, 08/10/2019 - 11:44
Ruiz, left, produced one of boxing's biggest upsets by beating 29-year-old Joshua with a seventh-round stoppage in June (AFP)

Amnesty International has attacked the decision to sanction Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight  boxing rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia, citing the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights violations and the conflict in Yemen.

The fight, set to take place on the outskirts of the capital Riyadh on 7 December, was approved by the International Boxing Federation (IBF), World Boxing Association (WBA) and World Boxing Organisation (WBO) on Friday.

Joshua, who will is aiming to take back his heavyweight titles after unexpectedly losing his first professional fight to Ruiz in New York at Madison Square Garden on 1 June, welcomed the announcement on social media with the message: "Neutral grounds - LETS GO."

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK's head of campaigns, called for Joshua to "inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out about Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record".

"If Anthony Joshua fights Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia, it's likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to 'sportswash' their severely tarnished image," he added.

"Despite some long-overdue reforms on women's rights, Saudi Arabia is currently in the grip of a sweeping human rights crackdown, with women's rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted.

"There's been no justice over the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen is carrying out indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals and market-places with horrific consequences for Yemeni civilians."

The Mexican-American world heavyweight champion Ruiz produced one of boxing's biggest upsets by beating the 29-year-old Briton with a seventh-round stoppage.

Joshua, previously undefeated and fighting for the first time in the United States, was defending his IBF, WBA and WBO titles but was knocked down four times in the fight.

Promoter Eddie Hearn had already confirmed three days after the bout that Joshua had triggered the contracted rematch clause for what he called a "must-win" fight for the 2012 Olympic super-heavyweight champion.

Full steam ahead as more Yemeni women take the wheel

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 09:08
Full steam ahead as more Yemeni women take the wheel
Despite social pressures, a rising number of women have started driving in the country since the 2011 uprising
MEE correspondent Sat, 08/10/2019 - 10:08
Kawthar al-Thubhani has been driving since 2008, but says many more Yemeni women have since taken up driving (MEE)

Yemenis have grown used to the chaos in Sanaa's traffic-jammed streets. Cars frequently backed up in long lines, competing with an ever-increasing number of taxis. 

In the midst of gridlock, traffic police stop drivers, asking to see licenses and handing out fines as congestion grows and horns blare in frustration.

In the past few years, however, a new sight has become more and more common: women behind the wheel.

Across Sanaa, and in most cities around the country, women have increasingly taken up driving, despite harassment from passersby, motorcyclists and fellow drivers.

Attitudes have been slowly changing since the uprising that began in 2011 - and has since made way for a devastating war - as women have openly defied family and societal restrictions and criticism to gain greater mobility and autonomy.

Newfound independence

Until six months ago, Abeer al-Bareda, 25, used public transportation to get to meetings with clients of her graphic design company.

But she faced mutiple hurdles, including sexual harassment and theft, not to mention the many hours lost to slow commuting.

“Last year, a biker stole my bag and I couldn't defend myself because I was walking in the street,” she told Middle East Eye. “I used to face a lot of sexual harassment on public transportation.”

For Bareda, cars are "a safer way for women to move around”.

“Even though all women might face some sort of sexual harassment, the ones who are in their own cars suffer less, since they can just shut their car windows and ignore any bad words or negative behaviour," she said.

Bareda believes that as the number of women entering the workforce or starting their own companies has increased in Yemen, so too has their need for mobility.

“They've been eager to drive since it helps them pursue their work," she said.

Bareda bought a car six months ago and asked a friend to teach her how to drive. These days, she says she can move far more easily to offer her services to prospective customers in different parts of Sanaa.

Kawthar al-Thubhani, 35, has been on the road for more than a decade, but it hasn't always been easy.

“Before 2011, it was very difficult to drive, as both men and women used to get into rows with women drivers, but nowadays there are many women who drive so it’s become easier,” Thubhani told MEE.

“Women have only recently started to defend their freedom and rights, and driving is a basic right all women should get.”

Tradition over law

Fadhl Mohammed, a social expert and sociology professor at Taiz University, explained that while Yemeni law had never prevented women from obtaining driving licenses and operating cars, social norms had long been the main barrier to women sitting behind the wheel in large numbers.

'I tried to persuade those who were opposed to it, but they did not understand me so I ignored them'

- Abeer al-Bareda, graphic designer

“In a conservative society like Yemen, social traditions are stronger than laws, so only a few women drove then, when society criticised them strongly,” Mohammed told MEE.

While the public perception of female drivers has relaxed over time, some religious figures, like Sanaa-based imam, Ahmed al-Nabhi, claim that these women are disobeying Islam.

“Islam prevents women from going outside alone, and that means women driving cars is not permitted, since women can be hassled if they drive by themselves,” Nabhi told MEE.

“It’s in the women’s interest, so that they're not bothered by anyone. So women should obey Islam and enjoy their lives within the permitted boundaries.”

Thubhani and Bareda said they were keenly aware of the views shared by Nabhi and others, but that they remained undeterred.

“Some people aren't educated enough, so sometimes we hear some bad words, and some nasty people try to harass us in the streets, but we ignore that kind of behaviour,” Thubhani said.

“Some members of the family encouraged me to drive and others criticised me,” says Abeer Bareda (MEE)
'Some members of the family encouraged me to drive and others criticised me,' says Abeer Bareda (MEE)

She said she felt lucky to have family members who stood by her and supported her efforts to get about independently.

Bareda, meanwhile, said she faced criticism from relatives, but has not given in to their pressure.

“Some members of the family encouraged me to drive and others criticised me,” she said. “I tried to persuade those who were opposed to it, but they didn't understand me so I ignored them.”

Unexpected perks

Both Bareda and Thubhani said there were unforeseen benefits to being some of the few women on the road, including less scrutiny from traffic police and fellow drivers.

“Many women don't know the rules of the road, but the traffic officers cooperate with women and they don't stop us to check our driving licences,” Bareda said.

Once, she said, she accidentally hit a motorcyclist, yet a passersby sided with her against the cyclist. Even so, she gave the motorcycle driver her father's contact details in case he needed treatment.

Thubhani said she had never been stopped by police - nor by soldiers at checkpoints - since she started driving 11 years ago.

Amin Obadi, a 39-year old traffic officer in Sanaa, told MEE that he had definitely noticed an increase in women drivers over the past three years, not only during the daytime, but also at night.

He confirmed that he was less likely to pull them over out of respect for social mores regarding interactions between unrelated men and women.

“Stopping a woman to check her driving licence would be a shameful thing to do,” he told MEE. “We cooperate with them and hope that the beginners go and learn in driving schools.”

Obadi said he was supportive of more women being behind the wheel, emphasising that Yemeni law did not prohibit them driving.

“It is good that women depend on themselves to drive instead of waiting for a man to take them to their work or anywhere else,” the policeman said.

Mohammed, the Taiz University professor, said he saw a clear connection between the 2011 uprising and women’s increased presence in the public sphere, even as the political and humanitarian circumstances in the country have become more dire after years of war.

“The revolution of 2011 helped women defend their rights - we saw thousands of women take to the streets to demand their rights, including Nobel peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman,” he said.

“Women drivers are only one facet of developments that have happened for Yemeni women since 2011, as women have become more aware about their rights and defend them.”


Yemen: Deadly clashes break out between pro-government forces and separatists

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 19:22
Yemen: Deadly clashes break out between pro-government forces and separatists
Fighting in Yemeni city of Aden highlights divisions among forces battling Houthi rebels
MEE and agencies Fri, 08/09/2019 - 20:22
Southern Transitional Council fighters patrol in Aden on 8 August (AFP)

Renewed clashes in Aden killed at least six civilians as a violent flare-up between pro-government fighters and southern separatist forces rocked the Yemeni port city.

At least six civilians were killed and a dozen others hurt in the fighting on Friday, AFP reported, citing a security source. A mortar round crashed into a house, killing six people, four from the same family, a security source told the news agency.

Reuters, which cited medical sources in the city, said at least eight civilians were killed. MEE could not independently verify the death toll.

The fighting highlights divisions between two camps that are each opposed to the country's Houthi rebels. It began earlier this week after separatists accused an Islamist party allied to Yemen's internationally recognised President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi of being complicit in a missile attack on a military parade.

While both sides have fought the Houthis as part of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the separatists are aiming for independence in the south, while pro-government forces are calling for a unified Yemen under Hadi's leadership.

South Yemen was formerly an independent socialist republic, which dissolved and joined the north in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

While the separatists and pro-government forces fighting the Houthis have clashed in the past, tensions between them have intensified since UAE troops, which had supported the secessionists, began withdrawing from Yemen last month. 

The fighting is complicating efforts by the United Nations to reach a ceasefire agreement in Yemen, which faces a dire humanitarian crisis as a result of the ongoing war.

Doctors Without Borders said on Friday that it had treated 75 people in a surgical hospital since Thursday evening, seven of whom were in "critical condition".

2/3 Since yesterday’s clashes in #Aden, most of the patients we admitted are civilians and were injured by shrapnel during shelling on their houses or stray bullets. #Yemen pic.twitter.com/7YNCn4Hmde

— MSF Yemen (@msf_yemen) August 9, 2019

"Most of the patients we admitted are civilians and were injured by shrapnel during shelling on their houses or stray bullets," the group said on Twitter.

It added that an MSF-run hospital in Aden remains open despite the fighting.

The Saudi-led coalition had been widely backing anti-Houthi forces, including southern secessionist troops, but cracks within the alliance have became more apparent in recent weeks since the UAE announced plans to draw down its presence.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, sought to dispel fears in late July that the drawdown might lead to new fault lines in the fighting.

"Just to be clear, the UAE and the rest of the coalition are not leaving Yemen," Gargash said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

"While we will operate differently, our military presence will remain. In accordance with international law, we will continue to advise and assist local Yemen forces," he said.

Still, MEE reported a few weeks before Gargash's comments that tensions were rising between southern separatist forces and fighters loyal to Hadi as a result of the Emirati announcement.

Local activists and security officials said earlier that the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), a group challenging Hadi's government throughout the southern provinces, was training a new group of fighters.

Dubbing itself "the southern resistance," the group has recruited thousands of fighters over the past few months, the activists and security sources said.

'Help me get my mother back': American teacher detained in Egypt over Facebook posts

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 18:34
'Help me get my mother back': American teacher detained in Egypt over Facebook posts
Family members and activists are calling for release of Reem Desouky, who was arrested in Cairo last month
MEE staff Fri, 08/09/2019 - 19:34
Desouky was detained on 7 July (Social media)

Activists are calling for the release of a US citizen who was arrested in Cairo last month over Facebook posts critical of the Egyptian government.

Reem Desouky, an Egyptian-American teacher who lives in Pennsylvania, was detained at Cairo International Airport after she landed there on 7 July with her 13-year-old son.

On Friday, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, urged US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to "seek [Desouky's] release".

Hi ⁦@SecPompeo⁩ - will you also seek release of an American teacher, Reem Mohamed Desouky, whom #Egypt has arrested during her visit there saying she criticized the government on Facebook? https://t.co/kIdxCcUjZD

— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) August 9, 2019

Dozens of activists echoed that call earlier this month, using the hashtag #FreeReem in Arabic on social media to draw attention to her case.

Desouky's son, Moustafa Hamed, said the Egyptian authorities confiscated his and his mother's phones during their interrogation at the airport in Cairo.

He said he was released 11 hours later, but his mother was held.

"I just want my mother back. She didn't do anything wrong," Hamed told the Washington Post in an interview published on Thursday.

The US newspaper confirmed that Desouky was detained in relation to Facebook posts criticising the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Hamed is staying with relatives in Egypt while his mother remains in jail.

"My mom is an arts teacher and a translator. She's a single mother raising me on her own," he said in a video posted on Twitter earlier this month.

'I told my mom I'd wait for her, and I don't want to leave back home for school unless she was with me. Please help me get my mother back'

- Moustafa Hamed, Desouky's son

"She loves both Egypt and the USA. We were excited to come to Egypt, so we can spend time with our family during the summer break. When we arrived, we were arrested. It was a horrifying experience for me."

In the video, Hamed said he will continue to wait for his mom to be freed, at the risk of missing the beginning of the school year in the US.

"I told my mom I'd wait for her, and I don't want to leave back home for school unless she was with me," he said. "Please help me get my mother back ... please."

Lancaster Online, a news outlet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Desouky lives, first reported on her detention last month.

"I'm very worried because so many people get caught in situations like this [in Egypt] and spend half of their lives until they get released," Radwa Matar, one of Desouky's friends, told the newspaper at the time.

"We need to do everything in our hands to help her."

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Mohammad Soltan, a former political prisoner in Egypt who started the US-based Freedom Initiative advocacy group after his release, told the Post on Thursday that Desouky's case exemplifies the ongoing human rights crackdown in Egypt.

"Her arrest is emblematic of the levels of repression Egypt has reached under Sisi," he said.

Human rights groups estimate that Sisi's government has jailed as many as 60,000 dissidents since a 2013 coup against Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

In an email to MEE this week, the US State Department said it was aware of reports about Desouky's detention, but did not provide additional information for privacy reasons.

"As always, when we learn of the report of a detained US citizen, we request immediate consular access from the Egyptian authorities," a department spokesperson said.

When contacted by MEE, the office of Republican Congressman Lloyd Smucker, who represents the Pennsylvania town where Desouky resided, also declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns.

Khaled Hassan's case

Desouky is one of six dual nationals arrested in Egypt in recent months, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Friday.

The rights group called for an independent investigation into the detention of US citizen Khaled Hassan, a limousine driver who lived in New York.

Hassan was arrested by the Egyptian authorities in January 2018 and tried to kill himself in an Egyptian jail in July, HRW said.

In an earlier report, HRW said Hassan was beaten, tortured and raped in detention. The Egyptian government denied the allegations at the time.

"Khaled Hassan’s prison nightmare is shared by many detainees across Egypt, from Cairo to North Sinai," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. 

"Egyptian authorities have sadly earned their miserable reputation for mistreating prisoners, including denying them safe and sanitary prison conditions."

Israeli leaders promote West Bank annexation in wake of soldier's killing

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 17:17
Israeli leaders promote West Bank annexation in wake of soldier's killing
Discovery of 19-year-old's body prompts politicians to call for extending Israel's sovereignty, a discourse analysts say is now in the mainstream
Lubna Masarwa Fri, 08/09/2019 - 18:17
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press at the site where an off-duty Israeli soldier was found dead with stab wounds near the settlement of Migdal Oz in the occupied West Bank (AFP)

At first, Israel's response to finding 19-year-old Dvir Sorek's body near a settlement in the West Bank on Thursday was the same as previous times a soldier had been killed in the occupied territory.

Israeli security forces fanned out across the neighbouring towns and villages, blocking off main roads between the cities of Hebron and Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders issued statements sending their condolences to Sorek's family, condemning the attack and Palestinian factions, and vowing retribution.

Notable, however, was the direction the discourse turned.

Hours after the manhunt began, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a cornerstone-laying ceremony in the Beit El settlement. There he spoke of building hundreds of housing units and deepening Israeli roots - "in all its parts".

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"Our mission is to establish the people of Israel in our land, to secure our sovereignty in our historic homeland," Netanyahu said.

Though settlement building and increased Jewish presence has long been a common refrain in right-wing Israeli politics, extending sovereignty and indeed full annexation of the West Bank is becoming an increasingly aired discussion.

And Israel's premier wasn't the only leader to take Sorek's death in the Gush Etzion settlement block as a cue to bring it up once more.

Parliamentary Speaker Yuli Edelstein said Israel's response to the attack must be decisive: "The application of Israeli sovereignty in all localities - and Gush Etzion first."

Naftali Bennet, the former education minister and prominent member of the newly former United Right slate, also waded in.

"Today - yes, today - Israeli law in Gush Etzion must be applied through a government decision," he tweeted.

Reaching the mainstream

Annexation burst into the mainstream in earnest in April, days before Israeli's parliamentary elections, when Netanyahu made a play for right-wing votes by pledging to apply sovereignty in West Bank settlements.

The West Bank has officially been under military occupation since it was captured in 1967, and all settlements since built there in contravention of international law operate under a separate administrative system to Israeli communities within the country's 1948 boundaries.

But in recent months, the right wing has sought to extend Israeli sovereignty and annex parts or all of the territory, mirroring moves made in other areas captured in 1967, such as East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Those annexations have never been recognised by the international community.

"It is certainly meaningful that the debate has become mainstream," Meron Rapoport, a veteran Israeli political analyst, tells Middle East Eye. "The words 'annexation' and 'sovereignty' can be heard said by politicians daily."

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The debate isn't restricted to Israeli settlements alone.

Earlier this week, leader of the far-right United Right slate Ayelet Shaked called on her list's members to declare their commitment to extending Israel sovereignty over "the territories of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley," referring to all of the West Bank.

With the United Right on course to win around 10 seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, such discourse could become a prominent part of a future right-wing government following Israel's 17 September elections.

Already, many in Netanyahu's Likud party are calling for the same.

"The majority of Likud MPs speak about sovereignty, annexation and development of settlements," Rapoport says.

"But don't forget that it's election time, when politicians back more and more radical positions."

For Rapoport, annexation without providing citizenship for the West Bank's Palestinian residents - which number around 2.8 million - would officially make Israel an apartheid state. But, he says, were the right wing to fail, it would pose serious questions.

'Don't forget that it's election time, when politicians back more and more radical positions'

- Meron Rapoport, political analyst

"Annexation is one of the right wing's chief political agendas. So if it fails to gain approval to annex the West Bank, it would cause a huge crisis amid the right."

Salah Khawaja, a Palestinian anti-occupation activist, says annexation is already in motion on the ground.

He notes that much of the Palestinian population once residing in Area C, the territory directly administered by Israel, has been pushed elsewhere in West Bank due to a combination of Israeli policies.

Meanwhile, talk of a two-state solution is totally absent.

"Israeli right-wing parties no longer talk about a Palestinian state," he tells MEE.

"Annexation is becoming institutionalised."

Sudan paramilitary funnelling weapons into Central African Republic, UN report reveals

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 14:42
Sudan paramilitary funnelling weapons into Central African Republic, UN report reveals
Sudanese commander Hemeti met with CAR rebel leader several times in 2019 as arms and military vehicles crossed the border, according to UN experts
Kaamil Ahmed Fri, 08/09/2019 - 15:42
CAR militias have been buying weapons from Sudan's Rapid Support Forces (AFP)

Sudan's notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary has been selling weapons and military equipment to rebels from the Central African Republic, fuelling a military buildup that could threaten the country's peace process, according to a UN report.

The RSF's commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, commonly known as Hemeti, also met with Khartoum-based CAR militia leader Noureddine Adam several times in 2019.

Since the turn of the year, when a huge protest movement began in Sudan, Hemeti has been positioning himself as one of the country's most powerful leaders and had a key role in the removal of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

Groups previously part of the Seleka coalition of rebels, who forcibly took power in CAR in 2013, have been buying weapons and pickup trucks from the RSF, despite signing peace agreements with the government, according to the report published at the end of July.

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"FPRC [The Popular Front for the Rebirth of CAR] and UPC [Union for Peace in CAR] have continued to acquire weapons, ammunition and pickup vehicles from and/or through Sudanese territory, with the complicity of elements from the Rapid Support Force," said the report authored by a panel of UN experts. 

According to the report, former Seleka groups purchased pickup trucks in Sudan's western Darfur region between January and May 2019. Darfur borders CAR and is the birthplace of the Janjaweed militia, from which the RSF was formed.

The report details how several CAR rebel groups travelled between the Darfuri towns of Nyala and Birao, across the border in to the Central African Republic, to buy vehicles, assault rifles, grenade launchers, ammunition and uniforms. 

Dozens of machine gun-mounted pickup trucks were spotted in Birao in January 2019, as rival groups displayed their replenished arms stocks. The RSF deployed 60 vehicles of fighters to the border at the time. 

According to the report, the rebels claimed they were acquiring weaponry to prepare for potential government offensives against them. 

Exiled Sudanese broadcaster Radio Dabanga has previously reported that Russian forces have trained former Seleka rebels from a base near the border in south Darfur

The UN report also notes that Russian military instructors had been involved in the transfer of "material" from Sudan into CAR. 

The largely Muslim Seleka fighters were accused of abuses against CAR Christians during their military offensive on the capital Bangui in 2013, which prompted a backlash by rival "anti-Balaka" militias that targeted Muslims.

The Associated Press news agency estimated that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the conflict by September 2014. 

In February, the CAR government signed a peace agreement with 14 militias in Khartoum, but there have been concerns about how to disband the militias or absorb them into regular forces. 

Violence has continued, however, and the UN report raises concerns about the potential for further violence, as groups continue to acquire weapons from the RSF and traffickers in Chad. 

Rights groups question 'sincerity' of Canada's review of Saudi arms deal

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 14:23
Rights groups question 'sincerity' of Canada's review of Saudi arms deal
Ottawa is reviewing $11bn contract with Riyadh, but advocates have raised concerns about lack of answers
MEE staff Fri, 08/09/2019 - 15:23
Justin Trudeau has been under pressure to halt weapons exports to Riyadh (AFP/File photo)

Canadian human rights groups and arms-control advocates have questioned the government's ongoing review of a historic weapons contract with Saudi Arabia, urging Ottawa to make its decision on the deal's fate known.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week, a dozen groups, including Amnesty International and Save the Children Canada, demanded "a clear answer" on the government's position.

Ottawa previously gave the greenlight to a contentious $11bn ($15bn Canadian) weapons deal to ship Canadian-made, light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Riyadh.

But it launched a review of the exports last autumn after international pressure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country's Istanbul consulate reached a fever pitch.

"No update with respect to the progress of the review has been offered, bringing the sincerity of the effort into question," the groups said in their letter, which calls on Ottawa to cancel the agreement.

'We are deeply concerned that meaningful action will come too late – that is, once the transfers are complete or nearly completed'

- Human rights groups in letter to Justin Trudeau

Rights groups have urged Ottawa to halt the deal for years, arguing that Saudi authorities could use the LAVs to commit human rights abuses both inside the country and abroad, including in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has waged war since 2015.

Yet despite the global uproar over Khashoggi's assassination, and widespread concerns about the devastating humanitarian effects of the Yemen war, Canada previously said it must honour the existing contract or risk leaving Canadians to foot a $1bn bill.

Trudeau said in October 2018, however, that Canada could freeze the exports if the equipment was used in human rights abuses.

"We strongly demand and expect that Canadian exports are used in a way that fully respects human rights," he said in parliament, as reported by Reuters at the time.

"We have frozen export permits before when we had concerns about their potential misuse and we will not hesitate to do so again."

'No final decision'

But in their letter, the rights groups said government figures showed that 127 "full system 'Armoured Combat Vehicles'" were exported from Canada to Saudi Arabia last year.

"In light of the rapid pace at which the LAVs are being exported, further delays to completing the above-mentioned review and your government's ultimate decision will substantially undermine their meaningfulness," the groups said.

"We are deeply concerned that meaningful action will come too late – that is, once the transfers are complete or nearly completed."

The groups raised alarm over the situation in Yemen in particular, saying the conflict has worsened and there exists an ongoing risk that Canadian-made weapons could be used in serious human rights violations.

The situation in Yemen is "such that Canada must join the swelling ranks of countries which have ended their military transfers to Saudi Arabia," the letter states.

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A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada told MEE in an emailed statement on Friday that Ottawa is "reviewing export permits to Saudi Arabia and no final decision has been made".

"While this review is ongoing, no new permits have been issued," John Babcock said.

Babcock said the government has strengthened Canada's arms export controls system, passing legislation last year that will allow it to become a party to the UN Arms Trade Treaty next month.

"Bill C-47 creates a new legal requirement that the Canadian government must deny export permits if there is a substantial risk that the export would result in a serious violation of human rights, including serious acts of gender-based violence," Babcock said.

Still, the weapons contract - and the strained relationship between Canada and Saudi Arabia - looks like it will become an election issue as Canadians head to the polls in October.

The opposition Conservatives said this month that they intend to boost commercial deals and aid to the Gulf region in an effort to mend Canada's ties to Riyadh.

Those relations were strained last August when the Canadian foreign affairs ministry publicly called on Saudi Arabia to immediately release rights activists detained in the Gulf kingdom.

The diplomatic spat has now dragged on for more than a year, with Saudi officials insisting that Canada must apologise for meddling in the country's internal affairs.

Canadian man freed after eight months of detention by Syrian authorities

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 12:44
Canadian man freed after eight months of detention by Syrian authorities
Kristian Lee Baxter says he feared he would never be released after being detained in November 2018
MEE and agencies Fri, 08/09/2019 - 13:44
Canadian citizen Kristian Lee Baxter, who was being held in Syria, next to the Canadian ambassador to Lebanon, Emmanuelle Lamoureux, at a news conference in Beirut following his release (Reuters)

A Canadian man has been released after eight months of detention by Syrian authorities, the former prisoner and Lebanon's security chief said at a news conference in Beirut on Friday. 

Kristian Lee Baxter, 45, was detained while travelling to Syria last year. 

According to Canadian media, his mother, Andrea Leclair, had described her son as an "adventurer" and "world traveller".

"I didn't know if anyone knew if I was alive," the British Columbia native said, struggling to speak as he choked back tears while sitting alongside Canada's ambassador to Lebanon, Emmanuelle Lamoureux, and the Lebanese security chief, Abbas Ibrahim.

'I didn't know if anyone knew if I was alive'

- Kristian Lee Baxter

The Canadian government has issued travel warnings against travelling to war-torn Syria since the uprising and the ensuing deadly military conflict broke out there in 2011. The country has also severed its diplomatic relations with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad since 2012.

Baxter arrived in Syria on 26 November 2018, and went missing a week later following his arrest.

"He is on his way back to Canada," Abbas said, thanking the Syrian authorities for what he described as their swift response on the issue. 

The ambassador said she could not give any details about the case.

"Due to privacy laws in Canada, I'm not able to comment on specifics of the case," she said.

Baxter thanked both the Canadian embassy and the Lebanese authorities for helping him get out of Syria.

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Lamoureux thanked Ibrahim, who last month mediated the release of US citizen Sam Goodwin in Syria.

Ibrahim said Baxter had been detained for reasons related to breaking Syrian law.

"I thought I would be there forever," Baxter said.

Several Western citizens have been held in Syria since the civil war began there in 2011, including some by militant groups such as the Islamic State.

The United States has said it believes US journalist Austin Tice, who has been held in Syria since 2012, is alive, and Washington has sought the help of the Syrian government's ally Russia to free him.

Last year the family of another American, Majd Kamalmaz, told the New York Times that he had disappeared at a government checkpoint in Damascus in 2017.

How Israel’s religious right is now in the driving seat

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 11:30
How Israel’s religious right is now in the driving seat
Next month’s election is not a contest between the right and centre-left. It’s a battle between different nationalist camps
Jonathan Cook Fri, 08/09/2019 - 12:30
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past an electoral billboard with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (AFP)

The real fight in Israel’s re-run election next month is not between the right wing and a so-called “centre-left” but between two rival camps within the nationalist right, according to analysts.

The outcome may prove a moment of truth for the shrinking secular right as it comes up once again against an ever-more powerful camp that fuses religion with ultra-nationalism.

Will the secular right emerge with enough political weight to act as a power-broker in the post-election negotiations, or can the religious right form a government without any support from the secular parties? That is what the election will determine.

An earlier election in April, which failed to produce a decisive result between these two camps, nonetheless confirmed the right’s absolute dominance. The Zionist centre-left parties, including the founding Labor party, were routed, securing between them just 10 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Knesset after April elections

Netanyahu, the interim prime minister, was forced to stage new elections, on 17 September, after April’s ballot left him unable to rope together secular and religious parties on the right.

To secure a majority in parliament, he needed to include the five seats of the anti-religious Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman eventually pulled out of coalition talks, saying he was not prepared to sit in a government with two parties effectively run by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. This time, he has indicated he won’t sit with any of the religious parties.

Vehicle for protest

Much of the rest of the secular right has deserted Netanyahu’s Likud party. At the last election, they mostly found a political home in the new Blue and White party, led by a former military chief of staff, Benny Gantz.

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Polls suggest Lieberman may also attract a larger share of these voters after his recent stand-off with Netanyahu. He has demanded an exclusively secular right-wing government, comprising Likud, Blue and White, and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party. 

Blue and White has presented itself chiefly as a vehicle for protest against Netanyahu. They oppose a decade of governments in which he has allowed the religious right to play an increasingly assertive role, and the ever-deepening corruption scandals he has been embroiled in. Netanyahu is expected to be charged with fraud and breach of trust in the immediate wake of next month’s election.

Blue and White has been misleadingly labelled as centrist by some observers. But it tied with Netanyahu’s Likud, at 35 seats each, in April by appealing to a largely secular strain of right-wing nationalism that three decades ago was the domain of the Likud party.

Now Netanyahu and the religious right hope to work in tandem to secure between them a narrow majority of seats to form a government without relying on the secular right-wing parties of either Lieberman or Gantz.

A more polarised Israel

Yossi Gurvitz, an Israeli journalist and researcher on religious extremism, said the rise of the religious right was an indication of wider shifts in Israeli society.

“Israel is getting more religious, and its religious parties are getting more extreme, while much of what’s left of Israeli society is becoming more militantly secular in response,” he told Middle East Eye. “Israel is polarising, and each is side is increasingly intolerant of the other.”

The secular camp, however, has been playing a less significant role with each passing government.

Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, said he doubted whether it was still possible for a secular government to be established without including some of the religious parties.

“It would be a nightmare,” he told MEE. “Any move, whether allowing transport on Shabbat, dismantling settlements or talking to the Palestinian leadership would face an enormous social backlash if it was made without the sanction of the religious factions.”

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A poll of Israeli Jews last year by the liberal Haaretz newspaper highlighted Israeli society’s growing religiosity, which closely aligns with the rise of ultra-nationalism.

Some 54 percent of the Jewish public expressed a belief in God, with that figure rising to 78 percent among those describing themselves as on the right.

An overwhelming majority of right-wing Israelis – 79 percent – view Jews as the chosen people, and a similar number, 74 percent, believe Israel exists by divine promise. 

Younger voters are markedly more religious than their grandparents – 64 percent compared to 22 percent. Exactly half of young Israelis reject the scientific theory of evolution, and 58 percent believe in life after death. Haaretz noted a clear correlation between Israeli youth’s growing religiosity and their embrace of right-wing views.

“If you think Israel is religious, conservative and hawkish enough as it is, wait for the fundamentalist theocracy that's lurking around the corner,” the paper’s analyst Chemi Shalev concluded

Rallying the right

How Israel’s coming election plays out will depend on how successful Netanyahu is in rallying religious voters to the polling booth, either for Likud or for a handful of more overtly religious parties.

The religious right itself is characterised by three main blocs. All believe that the occupied territories belong exclusively to the Jewish people, and are united in their unabashed support for the settlements and the entrenchment of the occupation.

Political differences relate chiefly to matters of how quickly and brazenly the occupied territories should be annexed and how the Palestinian population there should be dealt with.

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More significant than ideological differences, however, are the varied religious constituencies that each bloc represents.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is the largest, and draws primarily on the support of religious traditionalists – Israeli Jews who are generally observant and socially conservative.

Likud, Gurvitz noted, has moved more firmly into the religious camp since 2005 when its then-leader, Ariel Sharon, pulled the last remaining settlers out of Gaza. A backlash from the settlers effectively forced Sharon and his supporters out of Likud to create a short-lived secular faction called Kadima.

“What was left behind in Likud was the hard right,” he said. “The party has been moving ever further to the right under Netanyahu.”

Since then, the settlers and their allies have come to dominate Likud’s internal committees, meaning none of its parliamentary candidates wish to risk alienating them, according to Gurvitz.

Politics of the rabbis

The second bloc comprises two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which look to their respective chief rabbis for political direction. Between them they won 16 seats in April.

The main difference between the two relates to ethnicity. United Torah Judaism represents the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, whose recent ancestry is traced to Europe. Shas, meanwhile, represents the Mizrahim, Jews whose families hailed mostly from the Arab world.

'The ultra-Orthodox parties are today effectively in the bag for Netanyahu'

- Yossi Gurvitz, journalist and researcher

Shas, observed Gurvitz, has blended its rigid belief in divine law with nationalism more easily than UTJ because of its long-held anti-Arab positions. A section of its followers serve in the army. Some also work, unlike most Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox men, who devote themselves to studying the Torah.

The UTJ, by contrast, has adapted more slowly. Historically, it was anti-Zionist, rejecting the secular institutions of an Israeli state – including the army and the courts – until the Messiah arrived to build God’s kingdom.

But over the past two decades, its leaders too have gradually, though more reluctantly, moved into the nationalist fold.

That change, according to Gurvitz, has happened because, given the ultra-Orthodox public’s high birth rates, many have been forced to seek cheap housing solutions in the settlements.

“As they move into the settlements, their politics shift further rightwards,” said Gurvitz. “Nowadays they give their leaders hell if they don’t stick fast to ultra-nationalistic positions, or if they try to cut deals with parties outside the right.”

Gurvitz added: “This means the ultra-Orthodox parties are today effectively in the bag for Netanyahu.”

Orders from God

The third bloc comprises various small far-right parties representing what are known in Israel as the national-religious camp – those who subscribe to the ideology of the settler community.

Gurvitz estimates the camp numbers close to one million – or about one in seven of Israel’s Jewish population. About half live in the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The majority are religious, but not all of them.

The camp has proved fractious, but its three main parties established an electoral coalition last week called United Right, which polls currently suggest may win up to 14 seats. 

The oldest of the parties is Jewish Home, whose new leader is Rafael Peretz, a former chief rabbi of the Israeli army and currently serving as Netanyahu’s interim education minister.

Peretz has caused controversy recently by referring to a trend of American Jews marrying non-Jews as a “second Holocaust” and by speaking out in favour of gay conversion therapy, claiming to have performed it himself successfully in the past. 

The second party, Tkuma, is led by Bezalel Smotrich, currently the transport minister. After being appointed, he declared that he took his orders from God, not Netanyahu. 

Smotrich has in the past called for a shoot-to-kill policy against Palestinian children who throw stones, and demanded segregated maternity wards to prevent Israeli and Palestinian citizens mixing. He has also described himself as a “proud homophobe”. 

Both Peretz and Smotrich were due to deliver speeches this week at a ceremony honouring Yitzchak Ginsburgh. The controversial rabbi has praised the King’s Torah, a notorious handbook that sanctions the murder of Palestinian children, and has previously lauded Baruch Goldstein, who massacred dozens of Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in 1994.

Gaza’s ‘little snakes’

The third party in the coalition, New Right, which broke from Jewish Home late last year, narrowly failed to pass the electoral threshold in April, costing Netanyahu his victory.

Now led by Ayelet Shaked, a secular politician, New Right downplays the role of Jewish religious law. It has tried to appeal to secular, nationalistic Jews by adopting a more tolerant stance on identity issues, such as gay rights and feminism. 

Shaked, who previously served as justice minister, has been outspoken in rejecting liberal democratic values, however, calling them “utopian”. She has said: “Zionism should not – and will not – bow before a system of individual rights interpreted universally.” 

During Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, she also declared that “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy”, and appeared to approve of the slaughter of Gaza’s civilians, calling for Palestinian mothers to be killed to stop them giving birth to “little snakes”. 

Three smaller national-religious parties are outside the United Right coalition and, barring last-minute changes, are not expected to make it into the parliament.

Leader of the far-right Zehout political party Moshe Feiglin speaks to his members in Tel Aviv earlier this year (AFP)
Leader of the far-right Zehout political party Moshe Feiglin speaks to his members in Tel Aviv earlier this year (AFP)

Noam is a backlash party from within the national-religious camp to the social liberalism of Shaked’s New Right, demanding a “normative” Jewish family life.

Jewish Power comprises the unrepentant remnants of the virulently anti-Arab Kach party, led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, that was outlawed in Israel in the 1990s.

And the libertarian-nationalist Zehut party, led by Moshe Feiglin, an exile from Likud, demands full annexation of the West Bank.

State agencies infiltrated

Gurvitz observed that the three main national-religious factions all place a strong emphasis on military service, and have focused on getting settlers into senior roles inside the army. 

Rather than rejecting the state’s secular institutions, as the ultra-Orthodox tend to do, the settler parties have been working hard to infiltrate and gradually take them over, with some success in the case of the police, the courts, the education system and even the ruling Likud party. 

They view themselves as in a culture war, trying to infuse Israel with a stronger Jewish identity.

A rabbi speaks to a soldier with the Ultra-Orthodox 'Netzah Yehuda' Israeli army battalion at a swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem (AFP)
A rabbi speaks to a soldier with the Ultra-Orthodox 'Netzah Yehuda' Israeli army battalion at a swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem (AFP)

The three parties have minor differences over their approaches to annexation of the West Bank, likely the biggest issue facing the next parliament.

Shaked’s New Right and Peretz’s Jewish Home demand formal annexation of most of the West Bank, denying Palestinians there equal rights and imposing apartheid-style rule over them.

Since Donald Trump became US President, Likud has moved closer to openly adopting this as its policy.

Smotrich, meanwhile, would prefer to annex the entire West Bank and has been more explicit in suggesting it would be necessary to ethnic cleanse Palestinians as part of that annexation process. 

Courts intimidated

Paradoxically, two of the three religious-dominated blocs are led by secular politicians: Likud by Netanyahu, and the coalition of settler parties by Shaked.

Shaked’s leadership role is the more surprising given that national-religious rabbis have pushed to remove women from public life. 

However, Shaked has won support from influential figures such as Avichai Rontski, a former army chief rabbi. He has approved partnerships with nationalist secular politicians, calling them “religious in the broad sense of the word”. 

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Analysts noted that Shaked has won a dominant role in the political leadership of the national-religious public, over the rabbis’ objections, for two reasons.

First, she proved to be a very effective justice minister for the settlers in Netanyahu’s last government. She intimidated the courts and promoted a large number of conservative religious judges, including to the supreme court.

Equally importantly, noted Gurvitz, she changed the justice ministry’s position on settlement “outposts”, built in violation of a settlement freeze agreed by Israel in the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s.

Traditionally, justice ministry officials accepted – at least in public – that these 100 or so outposts were illegal and that they should be dismantled when the army or the government viewed the time as right.

But officials under Shaked changed tack, arguing to the courts that the outposts were in essence legal, but had been created with administrative irregularities that needed correcting. The Regularisation Law formalised this approach, clearing the way to future annexation of much of the West Bank.

Nationalism as ‘a bridge’

Second, Klein pointed out, Shaked was seen as a bridge between the religious and secular nationalist right that could maximise its electoral vote.

The complexity on the right, he said, was caused by the fact that “Jewish” identity had both religious and ethnic components.

“For some people their Jewish nationalism is based on theology and religious observance. For others, like Shaked and Netanyahu, their nationalism derives from an idea of Jewish peoplehood, without a religious element. You can find both types supporting Likud and the national-religious bloc.

Will Ayelet Shaked be able to bridge religious and secular nationalists and draw in maximum votes from the right? (AFP)
Will Ayelet Shaked be able to bridge religious and secular nationalists and draw in maximum votes from the right? (AFP)

“The ‘peoplehood nationalists’ are not interested in universal values. They think the Jewish people are special, and that they have extra rights as Jews. Any religious sentiments they harbour are subservient to this idea of peoplehood," he said.

Polls have shown Shaked to be remarkably popular among religious nationalists, coming out way ahead of her rivals.

For all three parties to pass the electoral threshold and avoid wasting votes, Klein observed, they needed to unite.

In fact, to maximise votes for the religious right and avoid needing Lieberman’s seats, Netanyahu pushed hard to get the openly anti-Arab party Jewish Power into the United Right coalition – without success

Klein noted that Netanyahu preferred working with the religious over the secular right. In the run-up to the election, all the religious parties have been keen to pledge allegiance to a Netanyahu government.

“They are very easy partners for Netanyahu,” he said. “Give them a few ministries and some budgets for their community and they will get behind whatever he wants to do.”

‘Difficult dance’ for votes

Shaked and Netanyahu are politically similar. Shaked worked as Netanyahu’s bureau chief back in 2006, and a short time later brought in Naftali Bennett, her current partner in New Right. Both left four years later after a personal falling out with Netanyahu.

The Israeli media widely reported Shaked’s efforts to return to Likud before the September election. Netanyahu rebuffed her. That may be in part because he fears she could be a major challenger for his Likud crown were she to gain a foothold. 

Gurvitz observed that Netanyahu was involved in a “difficult dance” with the settler parties for votes.

“He needs their votes to ensure he can form a government, but he doesn’t want them so strong that they can dictate terms to him," he said.

Gurvitz believed that, with the United Right now certain to pass the threshold, Netanyahu would seek to steal votes from them in the final stages of the election, as he has done before.

The fact that Likud and the United Right compete for largely the same pool of voters had fuelled even more extremist positions on the right, he added.

“The national-religious parties need to offer more extreme policies to distinguish themselves from Likud, otherwise they will lose votes to Netanyahu,” he said.

“But that then encourages Netanyahu to take more extreme positions to ensure he doesn’t look less nationalist than his rivals. It ends up creating a spiral of extremism.”

Palestinians urged to pray in Al-Aqsa for Eid as settlers threaten closure

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 11:15
Palestinians urged to pray in Al-Aqsa for Eid as settlers threaten closure
Calls for prayers comes after Jewish groups threaten to storm compound on Jewish holiday falling on same day as Eid
MEE staff Fri, 08/09/2019 - 12:15
Palestinian women fly helium balloons near the Dome of the Rock at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city on the first day of Eid al-Adha in 2018 (AFP)

Palestinian organisations have called on Muslims to perform Eid prayers in Al-Aqsa mosque this Sunday after Jewish groups announced plans to storm the compound to mark a Jewish holiday on the same day.

The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice) and the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) will both fall on Sunday.

The Al-Aqsa compound is usually closed to non-Muslims during Muslim holidays, and is also scheduled to be closed for Jewish visitors on Sunday, according to the Jerusalem Post

But some setttler groups have been lobbying Israeli authorities to allow Jewish visitors on the site during Tisha Be' Av, so they can mourn the destruction of a temple believed to have been located there 2,000 years ago. 

The presence of both Muslim and Jewish worshippers at the site on a Muslim holiday has previously triggered violent clashes. 

In June, violent clashes broke out in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa compound when the Israeli holiday of Jerusalem Day overlapped with the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and Israeli police allowed the Jews to enter the site. 

In response to calls by Jewish groups to enter the compound on Sunday, Muslim organisations instructed imams to announce during Friday prayers that all mosques would close on Sunday, and that Eid prayer would only take place in Al-Aqsa.

“This decision comes after the organisations of the alleged Temple requested the occupation government to allow Jews to break into Al-Aqsa during Eid," said the Higher Islamic Commission, the Council for Waqf and Islamic Affairs, and the Supreme Council of Fatwa in a joint statement.

Meanwhile, the Mufti of al-Quds, Sheikh Mohamed Hussein, announced during the Friday noon prayers that the Eid prayers in Al-Aqsa will be delayed for one hour, to start at 7:30 instead of 6:30 AM on Sunday, after the announcement by settlers.

The status of the Al-Aqsa compound is one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Al-Aqsa compound - which includes Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock - is considered the third holiest mosque in Islam. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from there, as mentioned in the Quran.

Since occupying East Jerusalem in June 1967, Israelis have been praying at the Western Wall, a remnant from the Second Temple, which is considered the holiest site in Judaism.

Jews are allowed to visit the site during set hours but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.

However, Israeli settlers who regularly enter the compound often perform Jewish prayers on the site.

Some right-wing Israeli activists and politicians have called for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to make way for a third Jewish temple, and such action is deemed highly provocative.

Increasingly, right-wing Israeli activists have sought to build support for increased Jewish presence at the site, despite a longstanding joint guardianship agreement between Israel and Jordan, which retains control over Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Caught between an air blockade and southern suspicion, Yemeni patients are left to die

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 10:10
Caught between an air blockade and southern suspicion, Yemeni patients are left to die
While the Saudi-led coalition imposes restrictions on Sanaa airport, forces in the south prevent those seeking treatment abroad from leaving through Aden
MEE correspondent Fri, 08/09/2019 - 11:10
A Yemeni woman suffering from cancer lies on a bed as she receives medical treatment at the National Oncology Centre in the capital Sanaa (AFP)

Hussein Saeed, 45, has been suffering from liver cancer for the past year and has tried to receive proper treatment in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital currently held by Houthi rebels, without success.

The Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis imposed restrictions on Sanaa airport on 9 August 2016, and with no commercial flights able to leave or enter, medicines cannot arrive in the city.

Over the past year, Saeed’s health has declined, and although he has been moved between several hospitals in the capital he has failed to receive proper healthcare.

Having heard of dozens of cancer patients dying in Sanaa, Saeed decided his best option would be to leave the country to receive medical treatment in India, where many other patients have received treatment for the disease.

“I haven't heard of anyone receiving proper cancer treatment in Sanaa, as there are no suitable cancer medicines there and those that are available have been smuggled into Yemen so are not safe," he told Middle East Eye.

“There was no option but to leave Yemen for any other country where patients can receive cancer treatment.”

Unfortunately for Saeed, leaving through Sanaa's airport is not an option, and with no Indian embassy in Yemen, getting hold of a visa is severely challenging.

'Better to die than be insulted'

Saeed used to make a living as an electrical engineer, but when he started to suffer from cancer he could no longer work and became dependent on relatives to help him eke out a decent living for him and his family.

Eventually, he decided to travel to Djibouti and apply for a visa from there.

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The closure of Sanaa airport means the only option for those in Yemen's north who need medical treatment abroad is to travel by road to the airports in the southern cities of Aden and Sayun, jetting off from there.

Both options present an arduous route that can take 15 to 24 hours, and involve crossing checkpoints and conflict frontlines. In addition to the cost and strain, some choose not to make the journey due to fear of arrest and retribution when they cross from territory controlled by one side to another.

Early on Sunday, Saeed took his bags and travelled towards government-held Aden together with his wife.

"I sold my wife's jewellery and left Sanaa for Aden, because health is more important than possessions,” said Saeed.

“When I arrived at the entrance of al-Dhale province, I found dozens of cars and buses were being stopped by the Security Belt Forces," he added, referring to the Emirati-backed militia controlling the area around Aden.

"Some had patients inside them, who were being prevented from entering Aden because they were northerners.”

Tensions in Yemen's south are sky high.

Last week, two separate attacks on a police station and military parade were claimed by militants and the Houthis, respectively.

A day later, al-Qaeda gunmen killed 19 soldiers in an attack on an army base in southern Yemen, according to security officials.

'I sold my wife's jewellery and left Sanaa for Aden, because health is more important than possessions'

- Hussein Saeed, cancer patient

In response, the Security Belt Forces have begun retaliating against Yemenis travelling from the Houthi-held north.

“Passengers, including myself, remained for a few hours and then returned towards Sanaa as there was no way to get to Aden or Sayun, where the airports are open for civilians to leave," Saeed said.

Despondent, Saeed returned to his home in Sanaa. He is now so pessimistic about getting medical treatment abroad that he has decided not to try again.

“It is better to die at home than to be insulted by the southern forces,” he said.

“The war has deprived us of many things, but healthcare was the biggest loss and there are daily victims.”

'Condemned to a premature death'

In a press release on Monday, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the aid organisation CARE International said the three years of restrictions imposed on Yemen’s airspace by the coalition had prevented thousands of sick civilians from seeking urgent medical treatment outside of the country.

“In the three years, as many as 32,000 people may have died prematurely because they were unable to travel abroad for treatment, according to the ministry of health in Sanaa,” said the statement.

Mohammed Abdi, the NRC’s country director in Yemen, said: “As if bullets, bombs and cholera did not kill enough people, the airport closure is condemning thousands more to a premature death.

“There is no justification for preventing very sick civilians from leaving the country to get life-saving medical treatment."

The western-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognised Yemeni government that was ousted from power in Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.

Four years of war have devastated the country’s already fragile health system, with less than half the medical facilities in Yemen fully operational.

A Yemeni man suffering from cancer lies on a bed as he receives medical treatment at the National Oncology Centre in the capital Sanaa (AFP)
A Yemeni man suffering from cancer lies on a bed as he receives medical treatment at the National Oncology Centre in the capital Sanaa (AFP)

Much of the country’s medical equipment, including in Sanaa, is obsolete and urgently needs to be replaced, according to the Houthi-run health ministry in the capital.

An almost complete halt to commercial shipments and medicines through the airport, coupled with the restrictions on imports through Hodeidah port, has caused prices to more than double, making essential medicines unaffordable for most of the population.

'Millions in Yemen are suffering from a lack of access to things that we in most other countries take absolutely for granted'

- Johan Mooij, CARE

The health ministry reports that before the war, around 7,000 Yemenis were travelling abroad from Sanaa International Airport each year for medical treatment not available in Yemen.

Those journeys included treatments for heart, kidney and liver disease, blood conditions, cancer and other long-term health problems.

“People are dying because they cannot do the simplest of things, which is fly from their own airport,” said Johan Mooij, CARE International's country director in Yemen.

“The continued closure of Sanaa airport has become a symbol of a country that is not functioning for its own people.

"Millions in Yemen are suffering from a lack of access to things that we in most other countries take absolutely for granted.

"This must end, and all ports - land, air and sea - must be kept open.”

Obstacles to entering the south

Mohammed Abdullah, in his 50s, is another cancer patient in Sanaa hoping to travel abroad to receive medical treatment. But he believes that it is difficult for weak people like him.

“I am sick and can hardly walk to the bath, let alone the long trip to Aden,” Abdullah told MEE.

“Moreover, it is difficult to get a passport nowadays as the authorities in Aden and Sayun airports reject passports issued by authorities in Sanaa.”

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With Sanaa-issued passports now useless in southern airports, Yemenis have to go through the ordeal of getting hold of one issued from Aden or other areas held by the government. The process can take months, even before would-be travellers attempt to get visas.

Abdullah likened the conditions imposed on northerners to a siege.

“Our only sin is that we were born in the north, and this was not in our hands," he said.

"So I call on the international community and the UN to intervene and free Yemenis from the Saudi-led coalition, which imposes this siege on Yemenis.”

Abdullah said that if it wasn't for the unlimited support for the Security Belt Forces by the United Arab Emirates, which is a key member of the coalition, they would not dare prevent Yemenis from entering the south.

“Before the war, we used to travel to Aden normally and go abroad from Sanaa airport for any purpose, but today there is no easy way to go abroad,” Abdullah said.

Earlier this week, Abu Meshal, a Security Belt officer in Aden, confirmed to MEE that the situation in the south is unstable and "allows the security forces to do whatever they believe will secure Aden".

"Many of the northerners in Aden work as spies for the Houthis," he said.

"In 2015, we discovered that many vendors and labourers were spies for the Houthis, and others fought with the Houthis.

"The battles are still ongoing with the Houthis, and exiling suspects from Aden is permissable. The safety of Aden is a priority for us."

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While the Security Belt Forces may have some pretext to prevent some northerners from entering the south, Dr Shukri Masoud said the patients are the biggest victims of the air and land blockade.

“Some patients cannot afford the trip from Sanaa to Aden, so they wait for death in their homes. Others who can afford the trip cannot now enter Aden,” he told MEE.

“Patients face many obstacles to travelling abroad, so we hope that the warring parties, and especially the Saudi-led coalition realise the suffering of the patients and open Sanaa airport for commercial flights.”

Saeed, the cancer patient, has the same dream as Masoud and hopes the warring parties reach an agreement over Sanaa airport.

"Opening Sanaa airport is a dire need for civilians, especially patients, so I hope the warring sides reopen it soon,” he said.


Yemen’s Houthi movement says leader’s brother ‘assassinated’

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 09:41
Yemen’s Houthi movement says leader’s brother ‘assassinated’
Ibrahim al-Houthi killed by 'hands affiliated with the US-Israeli-Saudi aggression', according to rebel-run media
MEE and agencies Fri, 08/09/2019 - 10:41
Ibrahim Badruddin al-Houthi (Twitter)

Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement said on Friday that its leader’s brother had been “assassinated” by its adversaries. 

According to a statement carried by the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV channel, Ibrahim al-Houthi, the brother of the group’s leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, was killed by “treacherous hands affiliated with the US-Israeli-Saudi aggression”. 

The movement did not provide details on how or when Houthi was killed, but it threatened to “pursue and arrest the criminal tools that carried out the crime”.

According to the Emirati-owned Sky News Arabia, Ibrahim Badruddin al-Houthi was “one of the arms of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in the [military] field, particularly the military operations near the Saudi borders”.

Middle East Eye could not immeditately verify whether Houthi did indeed carry out that role.

Since ousting Yemen's internationally recognised government in late 2014, the Houthis have battled a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition that entered the conflict in an attempt to reinstate President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi's administration.

ANALYSIS: Houthi leader's death strikes at heart of Yemeni group
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The Houthi movement, which says its revolution is against corruption, holds Sanaa and other important urban centres, such as the strategic port city of Hodeidah.

The conflict, widely perceived as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has left tens of thousands dead and millions on the brink of famine.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of arming the rebellion in Yemen - a charge both Tehran and the Houthis deny. 

Houthi is not the movement's first prominent leader to be the victim of a targeted assassination.

In April 2018, the Houthis' political leader, negotiator and military commander Saleh al-Samad was killed in a likely targeted air strike.

Analysts at the time told MEE that targeted assassinations pose question marks over the security of the Houthi leadership, and may suggest that the coalition is recieving better intelligence about leaders' whereabouts and movements.

Israeli press review: Uproar after police plant gun in Palestinian home

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 08:46
Israeli press review: Uproar after police plant gun in Palestinian home
Likud MPs pressured into signing Netanyahu loyalty pledge, while election ads targeting ultra-Orthodox parties are accused of being antisemitic
MEE correspondent Fri, 08/09/2019 - 09:46
A member of the Israeli border police stands guard in front of buildings demolished by Israel in the West Bank village of Dar Salah adjacent to the area of Sur Baher in East Jerusalem (AFP)

Gun planted by police in Palestinian home causes scandal

A scandal has erupted after Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that a reality TV show about police work in Jerusalem fabricated the discovery of a firearm in a Palestinian's apartment.

The popular documentary series “Jerusalem District” is set in the holy city, although most of the scenes were filmed in the occupied East Jerusalem suburb of Issawiya.

The ninth episode was aired on 23 June and showed the police raiding an apartment in Issawiya and discovering an illegally stashed firearm. However, Haaretz revealed that the gun was planted by the police in the apartment without the residents' knowledge.

The police issued an apology to Samer Suleiman, whose apartment was raided by the police and who was shown being interrogated on camera regarding the gun that was “found” in his apartment.

Suleiman’s son, Saleh, was blinded in one eye by a sponge-tipped bullet fired by police forces in Issawiya five years ago, when he was 11 years old. Eventually Saleh lost vision in his other eye as well.

John Brown of the “Local Call” blog site reported that the police initially promised to investigate the blinding of Saleh Suleiman, but a year later it denied that any investigation against the conduct of the police had taken place, and that no such investigation was planned.

Ynet news site reports that three additional scenes of the popular documentary series are being investigated for possible planting of evidence in order to create dramatic effect, through presenting residents of Issawiya as criminals.

In one of the scenes drugs were “discovered” by the police in front of the cameras, but the following day the police reported that no drugs were found.

The series was broadcast by the public broadcast agency Kan 11, which took down all of the episodes from its website and YouTube, and announced that it will cut all ties with the producers of the series.

Academic fired from education ministry committee over controversial West Bank university

Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz has laid off a member of the ministry's budgetary and planning committee over his opposition to the creation of a new department in a controversial West Bank university.

Newspaper the Marker reported that Yossi Shain of Tel Aviv University was allegedly fired over his opposition to the establishment of a medicine department in the controversial Ariel University, built in a settlement near the Palestinian city of Salfit in the occupied West Bank in violation of international law.

The department of medicine was announced last year, to be named after American business mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is notable for bankrolling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu and US President Donald Trump's election campaigns. Adelson donated money to found the department.

The opening of the faculty was eventually cancelled this February, after the majority of the budgetary and planning committee voted against it.

Peretz replaced Shain with Aryeh Eldad, a former member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, for two right-wing religious political parties: the National Union and Power for Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to the Ariel University (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to Ariel University (AFP)

Eldad openly promotes the annexation of Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.

Senior Tel Aviv University professors, including the president and rector, protested Shain's dismissal. They pointed out that this would be the first time that a member of the committee was denied a second term, and expressed concern that Shain was dismissed because of his political opinions.

Yeshayahu Talmon of the Israeli Institute for Technology resigned from the budgetary and planning committee in protest at Shain's removal, which he described as “the polarisation of the committee, manifested by appointing members based on their loyalty to a certain ideology rather than according to skills”.

Likud members pushed to sign Netanyahu loyalty pledge

Likud MPs were pressured by party chairman David Bitan to sign a declaration stating that they will support no party member except Benjamin Netanyahu for the role of prime minister, according to Haaretz.

This comes on the heels of a statement from Netanyahu's rival and Israel Our Home party leader Avigdor Lieberman that he would seek to form a “unity government” between Likud and the Blue and White party.

Lieberman added that if Netanyahu would oppose such a unity government, Lieberman will try to find another member of Likud to lead it, and mentioned Yuli Edelstein, the chairman of the Knesset, as a possible replacement.

Lieberman used to be Netanyahu’s prime minister office manager before forming his own party. However, he ruled out joining Netanyahu’s coalition after the 9 April elections, prompting fresh ones to be slated for 17 September.

Netanayu’s son Yair tweeted that Lieberman was seeking disloyal members of the Likud party to organise a “putsch” against the premier, but deleted the tweet shortly thereafter.

The loyalty declaration carries no legal weight, though Lieberman said that it was reminiscent of North Korea’s style of government.

Political ads accused of promoting racist tropes

Two video campaign ads published by the Blue and White party ahead of the upcoming elections have drawn criticism for using racist tropes, according to Ynet.

The first ad showed customers paying a special levy at the grocery store, a “Netanyahu tax” to keep the prime minister from going to jail.

Chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri pointed out that the shopkeeper who is cheating his customers in the ad speaks with a Mizrahi accent (referring to Jews originally from the Middle East), has darker skin and is presented as a mindless fanatic supporter of Netanyahu.

The second ad showed a fake WhatsApp conversation among right-wing political parties in response to the loyalty declaration from the Likud party.

The two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) write in the conversation that Netanyahu’s lack of confidence is an opportunity to ask for money.

Shas, represented by Deri, demands “a trillion Shekels” and UTJ, represented by Yaakov Litzman, demands “all the money in Israel”.

The ad drew widespread criticism for pandering to the trope that religious Jews are greedy. The Shas party called for the video to be banned and Netanyahu himself called it antisemitic.

Blue and White number two Yair Lapid is the author of the second of the two ads, and responded to the criticism by saying he does not regret publishing it.

Turkish central bank sacks chief economist and department managers

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 06:54
Turkish central bank sacks chief economist and department managers
Leading Turkish economist describes move as an attempt to 'uproot' central bank system
MEE and agencies Fri, 08/09/2019 - 07:54
A board screen displays US dollar and Euro exchange rates in Turkish liras as man changes money in Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey's central bank has dismissed its chief economist and a number of other senior figures in the latest shake-up of the body as the country's economy continues to falter.

The dismissal of Hakan Kara - along with the heads of units covering banking and finance, markets, monetary policy and institutional risk and research - was ordered by the bank's assembly, a document seen by Reuters showed on Friday.

It comes in the wake of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dismissal of the bank's governor Murat Cetinkaya last month, saying he failed to follow instructions on interest rates and the bank had not properly fulfilled its role.

Among those dismissed were the bank's research and monetary policy general manager Pinar Ozlu, markets general manager Orhan Kandar, and banking and financial institutions general manager Yavuz Yeter, the document showed.

It detailed a reorganisation of bank departments under the bank assembly decision taken at a meeting on 8 August and showed that more than 10 people were dismissed in total.

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The decision was effective from 9 August. The central bank declined to comment to Reuters.

At its first meeting under new Central Bank Governor Murat Uysal, the bank's monetary policy committee slashed its key interest rate by a more than expected 425 basis points to 19.75 percent to spur the recession-hit economy.

Erdogan, a fierce critic of high interest rates, has repeatedly called for lower borrowing costs to boost the economy.

The lira was slightly firmer at 5.4680 against the dollar after the latest central bank move.

Leading Turkish economist Ugur Gurses said that many of those who were sacked had been at the bank for decades, and their dismissal was "not wise at all".

"[This is] an attempt to uproot the central bank system," he told Deutsche Welle.

"Ali Cufadar and Orhan Kandar had been at the bank since 1988; they started from scratch at the bank."

Tunisia's PM Chahed confirms he will run for president in September election

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 20:00
Tunisia's PM Chahed confirms he will run for president in September election
While a likely frontrunner, Youssef Chahed's popularity has dipped amid persistent economic problems in Tunisia
MEE staff Thu, 08/08/2019 - 21:00
Chahed is among more than 50 people who have registered to run in next month's vote (AFP/File photo)

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed confirmed he will run for president, as the North African country prepares for an election next month.

Chahed made his announcement at an assembly of his Tahya Tunis party on Thursday, just over a week after his party said it intended to back him in the race.

"I have thought hard and decided to put myself forward for the position of president of the republic," Chahed said, as reported by AFP.

By Thursday, more than 50 people had already registered to run in the presidential election, AFP said.

The 15 September vote comes after former president Beji Caid Essebsi, the first leader to be democratically elected in Tunisia after a popular uprising in 2011, died last month at age 92.

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On Wednesday, the country's biggest political party, Ennahda, announced that its deputy leader Abdelfattah Mourou would also run for the top post.

Mourou, 71, is Ennahda's first-ever presidential candidate since the movement was established 38 years ago.

The party's main political rival, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, said it would back the incumbent Defence Minister Abdelkarim al-Zbeidi, 69, in the race.

Zbeidi, a former Essebsi ally, officially submitted his papers on Wednesday and will be running as an independent.

Independent businessman and media mogul Nabil Karoui, 56, has also officially submitted his candidacy.

Under pressure

While he will likely be one of the frontrunners, Chahed's popularity has dipped over the past year as his government was blamed for failing to fix Tunisia's high unemployment rate and stagnant economy.

He reshuffled his cabinet in November 2018 in a bid to end the crisis, saying at the time that the move aimed "to make the work of government more effective and to put an end to the political and economic crisis".

Still, Essebsi's son and the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, called for Chahed's dismissal, blaming the prime minister for the dire economic situation.

Tunisia’s president controls foreign and defence policy, governing alongside a prime minister chosen by parliament who has authority over domestic affairs, according to Reuters.

Since the toppling of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, nine cabinets have failed to resolve a set of persistent economic problems in Tunisia, including high inflation and unemployment.

A string of attacks has also hurt the country's tourism sector.

The presidential hopefuls have until 9 August to register for the election.

Each candidate must get at least 10,000 signatures from the public, or have the backing of 10 members of parliament or 40 elected municipal leaders, to get their names on the ballot.

Tunisia's electoral commission will announce the full list of candidates by 31 August.

Trump accuses French president of sending Iran 'mixed signals'

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 18:32
Trump accuses French president of sending Iran 'mixed signals'
It was unclear what US president was referring to in series of tweets critical of Emmanuel Macron's Iran policy
MEE staff Thu, 08/08/2019 - 19:32
Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron meet at White House last April (AFP/File photo)

US President Donald Trump criticised his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron for allegedly sending Iran "mixed signals" and falsely purporting to speak for the United States.

Trump tweeted on Thursday that the Iranians "want desperately" to talk to the United States, "but are given mixed signals from all of those purporting to represent us, including President Macron of France".

"I know Emmanuel means well, as do all others, but nobody speaks for the United States but the United States itself. No one is authorized in any way, shape, or form, to represent us!" he continued.

It was not immediately clear what Trump was referring to in his tweets.

Iran is in serious financial trouble. They want desperately to talk to the U.S., but are given mixed signals from all of those purporting to represent us, including President Macron of France....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2019

Reuters said that news website al-Monitor reported that Macron had invited Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to this month's G-7 summit in France to meet Trump amid the heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran.

However, a French diplomat denied the report on Wednesday, Reuters said.

Trump's comments highlight a growing sense of unease that has festered between Washington and some of its European allies, which have sought to defuse the rising tensions between the US and Iran.

European leaders have voiced their opposition to Trump's decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

Washington has since reimposed a series of economic sanctions on key Iranian industries and top leaders, including the country's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

For its part, the Iranian government has said it will no longer meet some of its commitments under the nuclear agreement as a result of the US pressure.

Iran asks UN to push back against US sanctions on Zarif
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In a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on 7 July, Macron expressed serious concern about the further weakening of the 2015 accord, a statement from his office said.

Macron planned to consult with the Iranian authorities and other concerned international partners to make sure "the necessary de-escalation of tensions related to the Iranian nuclear file takes place", the statement read.

Iran has urged the European Union to defend it against the renewed American sanctions, and a joint European-Iranian mechanism known as INSTEX has been set up to circumvent the US measures.

Still, the heightened tensions continue to cause alarm, with states, rights groups and political observers urging both sides to maintain calm and avoid a direct confrontation.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged restraint.

"When I ask for maximum restraint, I ask for maximum restraint at all levels," Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Tuesday.

That same day, Rouhani said he was open to holding talks with the US - but only if the Trump administration lifts its sanctions.

At least 12 killed in renewed clashes in Yemen’s Aden

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 14:34
At least 12 killed in renewed clashes in Yemen’s Aden
Renewed fighting between southern separatists and presidential guards kills three civilians and nine fighters
MEE and agencies Thu, 08/08/2019 - 15:34
Fighters from the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) drive their pick-up truck in Aden on 8 August (AFP)

At least 12 people were killed in Aden on Thursday in renewed clashes between southern separatists and presidential guards, highlighting divisions within local forces battling the country's Houthi rebels.

The clashes in the southern Yemeni city come one day after fighting killed at least two, local sources told Reuters news agency. 

Witnesses and residents told Reuters they heard gunfire and saw smoke and fire rising from the Jebel Hadid area in the Crater District where the presidential palace is located. 

Four Emirati-backed Security Belt fighters and five fighters affiliated with the Aden-based government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi were killed, along with three civilians, according to medics who spoke to AFP news agency.

After a lull, expect more fighting in Aden today. Clashes reportedly underway in Crater now.

— Peter Salisbury (@peterjsalisbury) August 8, 2019

On Wednesday, two members of the Security Belt Forces were killed in clashes with loyalist fighters, according to AFP.

Reuters reported a third fatality in an exchange of fire near the hilltop presidential palace between anti-government separatists and presidential guards. 

It was the same area in the centre of Aden where militants last week targeted a police station with a car bomb, followed by a Houthi assault on newly trained cadets at a military parade.

How will the Saudi-UAE alliance react to a rising Houthi threat in south Yemen?
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In a statement, Southern Transitional Council (STC) officials in London said late on Wednesday that forces loyal to the government had fired at civilians and the movement "was left with no choice but to mobilise Southern defence forces to ensure protection of the civilian population and restore a level of stability".

"Our aim remains de-escalation of violence, hence why we are trying to stabilise the situation in Aden and ensure the rule of law in the absence of a credible legitimate government," the statement said.

Southern separatists, armed by the UAE, and the Hadi government are united in their battle against the Houthi rebels. But the two camps differ on their agendas for the country’s future. 

In 2015, Saudi Arabia and its regional allies waged a bombing campaign in Yemen to restore Hadi's government after the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa.

The war has killed thousands of people and brought the country to the verge of famine. 

The UAE said in June it had begun to withdraw its forces from Yemen, while Saudi Arabia started to deploy troops in areas vacated by UAE forces in Aden on Thursday, according to Yemeni officials who spoke to Reuters.  

The US State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about the violence in Aden.

"We call on all parties to refrain from escalation and further bloodshed, and to resolve their differences through dialogue," the department said in a statement late on Thursday. 

"Inciting further divisions and violence within Yemen will only increase the suffering of the Yemeni people and prolong the conflict."