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Second Lebanese protester dies after succumbing to wounds

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:51
Second Lebanese protester dies after succumbing to wounds
Ahmed Tawfiq was reportedly shot in the stomach during protests in Tripoli in November
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:51
Tawfiq was buried in the town of Qabreen in Akkar on Tuesday (Screengrab)

A Lebanese man has become the second person to be killed by gunfire during the country's protests, nearly three months after he was shot in the stomach in Tripoli, according to Lebanon's Al Jadeed television station.

Al Jadeed's website reported that Ahmed Tawfiq, who was in his twenties, died of his wounds overnight Tuesday having undergone several surgical operations since being wounded.

It is unclear who shot Tawfiq on 19 November in the Gemayzat area of Tripoli, with both security forces and the bodyguards of a former MP blamed on social media.

Demonstrators in Tripoli have called for a "day of rage" in the northern city, which has witnessed largely peaceful protests since they erupted in October in response to endemic corruption and governmental mismangement.

Tawfiq was buried in the town of Qabreen in Akkar on Tuesday.

On 12 November, protester Alaa Abu Fakhr was shot dead by a soldier, who was trying to open a road closed by demonstrators, in Khalde, a coastal town south of Beirut.

Hundreds of protesters have been wounded during the demonstrations, amid demand for the wholesale removal of the country's political class, which the activists condemn as inept and corrupt.

Libya is 'world's largest theatre' for drone attacks: UN

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:39
Libya is 'world's largest theatre' for drone attacks: UN
Libya also has the world's largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile, as conflict between warring sides continues
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:39
Since 2016, there has been a gradual build-up of Emirati infrastructure and aircraft, including drones, at Libya's al-Khadim air base (AFP/File photo)

The United Nations has described Libya as the "world's largest theatre for drone technology," and warned that the nine-year conflict was taking an "incalculable" toll on civilians.

Yacoub el-Hillo, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said that the protracted conflict was "severely impacting civilians in all parts of the country on a scale never seen before", with nearly 900,000 people needing humanitarian assistance.

'Everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems'

- Yacoub el-Hillo, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya

"The increasing use of explosive weapons has resulted in unnecessary loss of life," Hillo said in a video briefing to journalists from Tripoli.

And when it comes to the use of drones: "Everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems."

Despite a UN arms embargo against Libya, foreign actors have repeatedly been accused of transferring arms to forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Since 2016, there has been a gradual build-up of Emirati infrastructure and aircraft, including drones, at Libya's al-Khadim air base, which is about 105km east of Benghazi.

Last month, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) said an attack on a military school, which caused the deaths of 30 students, was carried out by a Chinese-made Wing Loong II drone belonging to the UAE.

'Serious violations'

Libya has been wracked by violence since 2011 when a Nato-backed uprising overthrew longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, multiple foreign powers have become involved in the country.

Following disputed elections in 2014, the country has been divided between competing administrations, with the UN-recognised GNA based in Tripoli trying to fend off an offensive by forces loyal to Haftar. 

'Reckless disregard for civilians': Haftar's forces accused of using banned cluster bombs
Read More »

On 19 January, a peace plan for Libya was agreed to by 12 key leaders in Berlin, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia's Vladimir Putin, France's Emmanuel Macron, and Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Still, Hillo pointed out that the 55-point road map for ending the war in Libya had seen "serious violations" in the last 10 days, with fighting escalating in and around Tripoli.

Hillo said that by the end of 2019, more than 345,000 people had fled their homes, with nearly 900,000 Libyans in need of humanitarian assistance.

"Unless we speak so bluntly and openly ... unless we start naming and shaming, we will have the resolutions but the reality on the ground will remain appalling," Hillo said.

Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have doubled since 2019, resulting in at least 650 civilians either killed or wounded.

'It's going pretty well'

On Tuesday, heavy smoke could be seen billowing from Tripoli's port after a warehouse was hit by forces loyal to Haftar.

The attack happened as representatives of the parties prepared to meet for a second round of talks in Geneva under the auspices of the UN.

Both sides refused again to sit in the same room, UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told reporters, although he said he was hopeful of making progress.

Haftar forces block UN flights in and out of Libya amid Tripoli shelling
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"So while the situation on the ground remains a situation where the truce is very fragile... nobody has so far reneged on the principle of accepting the truce and the political process is trying to find a way to move forward," he said.

He added that a ceasefire was not a precondition for advancing on other matters such as how to better distribute state revenues from oil, saying economic discussions were going "pretty well".

"It is going pretty well on the economic side, but it is harder on the military side," he said.

Salame said he had received conditions from tribesmen allied to eastern forces to lift a blockade of eastern oil export ports, but said they were quite general and would have to be tackled through UN-led dialogue.

Tribesmen and other groups allied to the LNA joined with Haftar's forces a month ago to block major ports in eastern Libya and the southern Sharara oilfield, reducing oil output by more than 1 million barrels a day.

Salame had spoken to some tribal leaders to hear their conditions to end the blockade. A further round of discussions is planned in Geneva next week.

Oil giant BP accused of racism in Mauritania after overlooking black students

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:38
Oil giant BP accused of racism in Mauritania after overlooking black students
At least nine out of ten BP-sponsored scholarships went to Arab-Berber students in the majority black nation
Amandla Thomas-Johnson Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:38
Just two of the scholarship recipients were women (Social media)

BP has been accused of contributing to "state racism" in Mauritania after awarding at least nine out of ten study abroad scholarships to students drawn from the country’s minority Arab-Berber group, with none appearing to go to the majority black population.

Crossing the river: Black Mauritanians haunted by mass expulsion to Senegal
Read More »

The London-based oil giant, which has stepped up its investments in the West African country in recent years, also came under fire for the few women awarded the scholarship. However, it insists the students were chosen on merit.

The controversy, which erupted online after BP posted a photo of the recipients, has added to an ongoing debate about diversity in a country where racism and slavery persist, with Mauritanians pointing to governmental discrimination as a factor.

BP made the announcement last Tuesday, posting a photo to Twitter and Facebook showing nine of the 10 students sitting in traditional garb. 

“We are happy to announce that we have sponsored 10 Mauritanian students for a four-year baccalaureate in France, Tunisia and Morocco!” a short message read. “Congratulations to them, we wish you a lot of success.”

But social media users soon piled in.

One Twitter user posted a picture of Mauritania’s multi-ethnic football squad for the 2020 Under-20 Arab Cup beside the BP photo. “This is Mauritania,” the tweet said in French, referring to the first image.

“But for BP and others, we blacks are not Mauritanian.”

Faut bien regarde la première photo

C’est ça la Mauritanie
Mais pour BP et les autres nous noirs l. est pas Mauritanien pic.twitter.com/cRW9elF8II

— Nebame sireme (@MamadouRella1) February 12, 2020

One Facebook user, writing under the name Malkom Xamsa Fall, wrote: “Thank you BP for your contribution to state racism in Mauritania.”

Speaking to Middle East Eye, some Mauritanians blamed the government, which has been dominated by Arab-Berbers since independence in 1960.

Speaking from Nouakchott, the nation's capital, Marieme Mbaye, a 27 year-old agronomy student, said: “The government wants to eliminate the other communities by giving all the positions of responsibility to a single community, which do not represent the majority of people.”

Speaking from France, Koundou Soumare, a 41-year-old blogger, said: “There is an unequal educational system at the grassroots level and a system of nepotism based on your social and family networks that benefits some to the detriment of others. Mauritanian authorities must urgently grant equal opportunities for all citizens without distinction of race or community.” 

Middle East Eye has asked the Mauritanian government for comment.

'Thank you BP for your contribution to state racism in Mauritania'

- Facebook user

An estimated 70 percent of Mauritanians are black. Yet Arab-Berbers, who make up just 30 percent of the population, dominate every sphere of society - from government, to business, to religious leadership.

Among the black population, Haratins, the Arab-speaking descendants of black slaves that were once owned - and in some cases still are owned - by Arab-Berbers, make up 40 percent of the population. Others belong to a number of black African ethnic groups.

Aggressive "Arabisation" policies enacted since Mauritania won independence from France have solidified the Arab-Berber hold on power, to the detriment of other groups, while the country projects an exclusively Arab image abroad.

“Traditional social structures and cultural prejudices continue to marginalise the Haratin and black African (Halpular, Soninke and Wolof) communities, particularly in terms of access to education, employment, housing, health care, social services, land and natural resources,"  a UN report said in August.

BP have hit back, telling MEE that students were chosen on merit rather than based on race or ethnicity. 

“For BP, equal opportunity is a matter of fairness, respect and dignity,” the oil company said in a statement. “Everywhere we work, BP ensures its decisions are based on merit - not on race, colour, national origin, religion, gender and others.”

The initiative, BP said, was based on a partnership with the Ecole Superieure Polytechnique, an elite engineering school based in Nouakchott, with the students taking up scholarships to study at universities in Tunisia, Morocco and France.

'For BP, equal opportunity is a matter of fairness, respect and dignity'

- BP

The partnership was struck in order to “develop the talent pipeline” for Mauritania’s fledgling oil and gas industry, BP said, adding that two recipients were women but that only one was able to take part in the photograph released online. 

The announcement of the scholarships came in the same week that BP agreed to buy all the liquefied natural gas from Greater Tortue Ahmeyim, an offshore gas field it is exploiting in waters belonging to Mauritania and Senegal that the company estimates could yield more than 15 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. 

The field is among a series of lucrative finds made off Mauritania’s Atlantic coast in recent years, which look set to transform the country’s economy.

The Senegalese portion lies within the Saint-Louis Offshore Profond block, the subject of a BBC investigation last year that alleged BP had agreed to pay Frank Timis, an Australian-Romanian businessman, up to $10bn for a stake in the coveted gas field, raising concerns the London-based company had engaged in corruption. BP denied the claims.

Iraqi and British activists protest BP’s sponsorship of Assyrian exhibition
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In a statement, the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights, said it was prepared to launch legal action against BP if it did not “take into account the ethnic diversity of Mauritania” when recruiting.

“Until now, foreign companies had been particularly distinguished by their efforts to take into account the country's ethnic diversity in their recruitment, unlike the Mauritanian authorities,” the US-based organisation said.

“Mauritanian Network for Human Rights calls on BP Mauritania to immediately review the selection criteria for sponsored students and to take into account the ethnic diversity of Mauritania in the recruitment of all its staff throughout the country," it added.

“Our organisation is also considering further legal action if no measures are taken by BP to ensure transparency in its future recruitment.”

Dakar, Senegal

Netanyahu's corruption trial to begin 17 March

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 13:57
Netanyahu's corruption trial to begin 17 March
Proceedings to start while prime minister may be attempting to negotiate with parties to form a government
MEE staff Tue, 02/18/2020 - 13:57
A woman walks past a banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the words "Crime Minister" outside the Justice Ministry (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial is set to begin on 17 March, a fortnight after the country’s parliamentary elections, the justice ministry said on Tuesday.

He is the first sitting prime minister to be indicted, and his trial on three charges of corruption will commence at a time when he may be negotiating with parties to form a government – and fighting for his political survival.

In January, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit formally indicted Netanyahu in three cases: Case 1,000, Case 2,000 and Case 3,000.

Netanyahu was charged with breach of trust and fraud in all three corruption cases, as well as bribery in one of the investigations.

In the most significant case, dubbed Case 4000, the premier is accused of making decisions benefiting Bezeq - Israel's largest telecommunications company - in exchange for positive coverage on the website Walla News, which is controlled by the company's former chairman.

Netanyahu is accused in Case 1000 of receiving gifts from Israeli-born filmmaker Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer in exchange for political favours, including promoting their business interests and helping them obtain visas. 

Finally, Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu struck a deal with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth to receive favourable coverage from the Israeli newspaper.

Netanyahu's corruption cases

+ Show - Hide

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing potential charges in three cases focused on corruption, known by their codes 4000, 1000 and 2000. 

Case 4000: Netanyahu accused of granted regulatory favours to Israel's leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for positive coverage of him and his wife Sara on a news website controlled by the company's former chairman.

Case 1000: Netanyahu and his wife allegedly wrongfully received gifts from Israeli filmmaker Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer, including champagne and cigars.

Case 2000: Netanyahu suspected of negotiating a deal with the owner of Israel's best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of a rival daily newspaper.

Netanyahu could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if he is found guilty of bribery.

He could face three years in prison for fraud and breach of trust.

The prime minister had sought to pass a bill through parliament that would give him immunity from prosecution, though he dropped it last month as it became clear it would not get the support he needed.

Israelis head to the polls on 2 March for the third time in a year, following two inconclusive elections that have left Israeli politics in limbo.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main challenger and head of the Blue and White party, has ruled out joining any Likud party-led government while the prime minister is facing corruption charges.

The prime minister has rejected the charges, and described them as a "witch hunt".

UK says Israel-Palestine position unchanged despite welcoming Trump deal

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 13:00
UK says Israel-Palestine position unchanged despite welcoming Trump deal
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Trump's proposals for the region needed 'genuine and fair consideration'
MEE staff Tue, 02/18/2020 - 13:00
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) greets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside 10 Downing Street in central London (AFP)

The UK government's position on Israel-Palestine is unchanged in the wake of Donald Trump's new proposals for the region, but the US president's plan should be given "genuine and fair consideration," Prime Minister Boris Johnson was revealed to have said on Tuesday.

In response to a letter from leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson said the British government would not be altering its position regarding the status of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"The UK’s position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is clear and has not changed," he wrote.

"These settlements are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace, and threaten the physical viability of a two-state solution."

He added that the UK would continue to fund the UNRWA refugee agency - unlike Trump, who ended American funding last year - and said London would continue to support a "just, fair, agreed and realistic" solution to the question of Palestinian refugees and their right to return to their ancestral homeland.

Johnson’s reply about Trump's Middle East plan flies in the face of reality. Palestinians unanimously rejected the plan, and Johnson’s letter shows the UK government’s own positions contradict it. So the PM can't seriously claim Trump’s plan offers a route to genuine peace talks. pic.twitter.com/JCsHPRQ04V

— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) February 17, 2020

However, the letter stopped short of criticising Trump's recently revealed "deal of the century", which is widely seen as a one-sided blueprint for Israeli annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank.

"Only the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories can determine whether the US-led proposals can meet the needs and aspirations of the people they represent," the letter read.

"We encourage all to give these plans genuine and fair consideration, and explore whether they might prove a first step on the road back to negotiations."

Trump's plan was unveiled on 28 January to much criticism from Palestinians, the Arab League and the international community.

The plan will see the recognition of the vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and allow the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which makes up around a third of the territory.

The right of return for refugees expelled from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948, as well as during subsequent conflicts, will also be denied.

Corbyn said Johnson's letter flew "in the face of reality."

"Palestinians unanimously rejected the plan, and Johnson’s letter shows the UK government’s own positions contradict it," he tweeted.

"So the PM can't seriously claim Trump’s plan offers a route to genuine peace talks."

Egypt building new wall along Gaza border

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:24
Egypt building new wall along Gaza border
The new construction, both above and below ground, is being carried out with Hamas consent to stem the use of cross-border tunnels with the blockaded strip
Adam Khalil Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:24
A photograph taken from the besieged Gaza Strip shows Egypt construction machinery across the border working on building a wall (MEE/Adam Khalil)

Egyptian security and military forces are working around the clock to build a new concrete wall on the Egyptian side of the border with the besieged Gaza Strip which they aim to have completed by mid-2020, Palestinian sources told Middle East Eye.

Egypt embarked on the first stage of construction on 27 January in the area extending from the Karm Abu Salem commercial crossing to the Rafah crossing. The wall is set to extend along two kilometres in its first stage, and stand six metres tall above ground and five metres deep below it.

Security expert in the Hamas-run Gaza Interior Ministry Muhammad Abu Harbeed said that the Palestinian leadership in Gaza understood Egyptian security needs, adding that the construction of the new wall enhanced the "security interests" of both sides.

But the move has not been welcomed by all in the besieged Palestinian territory, where some view the timing of the construction as suspicious given the recent unveiling of a US plan for Israel and Palestine that has been categorically rejected by the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.

Monitoring progress

The border between Egypt and Gaza is some 14 kilometres long in total.

The new wall is about ten metres away from an existing wall built by the Egyptian army after Palestinians stormed the border in early 2008, MEE was able to observe from the ground.

'Sinai is our Vietnam': Horror stories Egyptian soldiers tell from the front line
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According to available information, the second stage of construction of the wall will focus on tightening control of separate border sections that extend from the Rafah border crossing to the Mediterranean Sea - sectors which the Egyptian army believes are weak points used for infiltration and smuggling in and out of Gaza.

A Palestinian officer working for Hamas’ security forces in Gaza revealed to MEE that Egyptian engineers and security and military experts have been periodically monitoring the progress of construction work from the Palestinian side of the border.

An Egyptian engineering and technical delegation visited Gaza Strip on 13 February and made a field tour along the border. 

This visit came after a similar tour a few days earlier by an Egyptian security delegation led by Palestinian Major General Ahmed Abdel Khaliq, a member of Gaza’s General Intelligence Agency, on 10 February.

The Palestinian security officer, who requested anonymity, said that the construction of the wall and the Egyptian tours have been coordinated with Hamas, the de facto ruling party in the blockaded Palestinian territory, within the framework of new security arrangements with Egypt to prevent the infiltration of militants into the Sinai Peninsula.

Crackdown on tunnels

The decision to build a wall reaching deep into the ground is no accident, as Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has sought to shut down tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Province.

Only a few hours after five Egyptian soldiers were killed by an explosive device near the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid on 3 February, the Egyptian army announced that it had discovered a tunnel three kilometres long between the Palestinian and Egyptian sides of Rafah - a city which was split in two following Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. 

'Leaving hell to live in hell': The bribes and checkpoints from Gaza through Egypt
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Egyptian security sources said at the time that the tunnel was intended “for the infiltration of terrorists from the Gaza Strip to plant improvised explosive devices on the Egyptian side and transporting weapons and explosives".

Since then-president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in a military coup in July 2013, Egyptian authorities have intensified their security and military operations in the Sinai, particularly cracking down on smuggling tunnels to Gaza.

The Egyptian army has largely succeeded in destroying hundreds of tunnels that Palestinians have dug to circumvent the suffocating siege imposed by Israel on the small coastal enclave since 2007.

In addition to destroying tunnels or flooding them with sewage water, Egypt has established a 1.5-kilometre long buffer zone along the border.

Hamas’ relationship with Egypt, which had been strong under Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi’s rule, suffered after army chief Sisi rose to power.

But the Palestinian movement has since been able to somewhat mend its ties with Cairo by taking a series of measures that included establishing a 100-metre buffer zone along the border and clamping down on tunnels - in exchange for fewer closures at the border crossings with Egypt.

Egyptian security

While Egypt seeks to enhance its security in the Sinai by building the wall and taking new security measures and arrangements, Hamas sees the move as beneficial to its fight to eliminate drug trafficking, prevent criminal activities, and get rid of extremists on both sides of the border, according to Abu Harbeed, the Palestinian security expert.

“The operations of the Egyptian army on the Egyptian side of the border do not stop, and the construction of this wall falls within the context of a complete Egyptian security plan to impose security in the Sinai by strengthening some security-weak sections on the border, and ending the phenomenon of tunnels that are no longer necessary in light of an Egyptian commitment to open the Rafah crossing for individuals and basic needs of the population,” he said.

Hamas security services have thwarted several attempts by members of groups believed to be affiliated with or inspired by the Islamic State (IS) group to smuggle out of the Gaza Strip into the Sinai.

But an informed Palestinian security source revealed to MEE that a number of militants had succeeded in entering the Sinai recently, leading Hamas to commit to take more stringent security measures on both sides of the border as part of its agreement with Egypt.

Abu Harbeed said that Hamas and Egypt have passed the stage of exchanging accusations of responsibility for infiltration, and have reached a stage of understanding and agreement on the need for joint control.

According to Abu Harbeed, Egypt provided security forces in Gaza with equipment and other means to help them tighten control on the Palestinian side of the border in line with Egyptian security needs.

REVEALED: Trump's 'deal of the century' map for a future Palestine, Israel
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But Ibrahim Habib, a lecturer at the al-Rebat police academy in Gaza, does not see the value of building the new wall in terms of security.

He described the timing of the construction as "suspicious" given the US administration’s unveiling in January of its controversial plan for Israel and Palestine, saying the proposal known colloquially as the “deal of the century” was “forcing the resistance in Gaza to accept the status quo”.

The construction of the wall and new security measures on both sides of the border coincide with US President Donald Trump's proposal to expand the Gaza Strip by adding to it new lands in the Negev desert adjacent to the Egyptian Sinai - while formalising the annexation of East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and large swathes of land in the occupied West Bank, and creating a demilitarised, fragmented Palestinian state with little to no sovereignty.

Habib wondered why Egypt has focused on its short border with Gaza, while there are many entry points for the infiltration of militants, whether by sea or through Egypt’s long land borders with other countries.

“Hamas has been making great efforts for years to protect Egyptian national security through security reinforcements from the deployment of additional forces and new buildings on the Palestinian side of the border," he said.

"I do not think that this wall has a real security dimension. Its construction is in line with the [Israeli] occupation’s policy of building walls.”

Abu Harbeed, however, refused to link the construction of the wall to the Trump plan: “It has nothing to do with the deal; it’s all about security for Egypt.”

Rafah, besieged Gaza Strip

Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others acquitted in Gezi Park trial

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:09
Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others acquitted in Gezi Park trial
Defendants were accused of attempting to overthrow the government by organising nationwide protests in 2013
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:09
Kavala has been in custody for more than two years and the case had drawn strong criticism from Turkey's Western allies and rights groups (AFP)

A Turkish court acquitted leading businessman and rights activist Osman Kavala and eight other defendants on Tuesday following a controversial trial over the anti-government "Gezi Park" protests of 2013. 

Kavala and two other defendants had been facing life sentences without parole, while the other defendants were accused of aiding them in attempting to overthrow the government by organising the protests.

Turkish philanthropist faces life in jail over 2013 Gezi Park protests
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The judge said there was "not enough concrete evidence" against the suspects as he delivered the landmark verdict, which was followed by loud cheers from supporters when Kavala walked free from the courtroom.

The case of seven further defendants - who are abroad and were being tried in absentia - was separated, but arrest warrants for them were lifted, Reuters said.

One lawyer said they were also expected to be acquitted.

Philanthropist Kavala has been in custody for more than two years and the case had drawn strong criticism from Turkey's Western allies and rights groups.

In December, the European Court of Human Rights called for his immediate release, saying there was a lack of reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offence.

Erdogan denounces Soros over jailed Turkish philanthropist
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According to the indictment, the defendants had prepared for the Gezi Park protests since 2011 and were "top management" organisers.

The 2013 protests originally began as a demonstration against the demolition of one of the last green spaces in Istanbul, but quickly spiralled into an expression of opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule.

More than three million people were involved in the demonstrations across the country.

'Who is behind him?'

Kavala was chairman of the Anadolu Kultur (Anatolian Culture) foundation, a non-profit organisation founded in 2002 that aims to "develop mutual understanding and dialogue and overcome regional differences and prejudices" in Turkey and the wider region.

He has repeatedly been accused of having links to the Hungarian-born financier George Soros, blamed by some governments for fomenting unrest and promoting "globalist" politics.

"Who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew Soros," said Erdogan in November, 2018.

"This is a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them. He has so much money and he spends it this way."

That same month, Soros's Open Society Foundations said it would cease activities in the country following Erdogan's comments.

Turkey ramps up Gulen crackdown with nearly 700 arrests

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 09:39
Turkey ramps up Gulen crackdown with nearly 700 arrests
Those arrested over alleged links to group accused of attempted coup in 2016 include military and justice ministry personnel
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 09:39
Nearly four years since the attempted coup, the police still routinely carry out raids targeting suspects (File pic/AFP)

Turkish prosecutors on Tuesday ordered the arrest of nearly 700 people, including military and justice ministry personnel, intensifying moves against a network accused of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt.

Authorities have carried out a sustained crackdown on alleged followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen since the failed bid in July 2016, in which about 250 people were killed.

Nearly four years on, the police still routinely carry out raids targeting suspects.

US think tank report ignites concerns over new military coup in Turkey
Read More »

The size of the latest operation marked an escalation by police against alleged supporters of Gulen, a one-time ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who subsequently became his arch foe.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, has denied any involvement in the attempted coup.

In the latest moves, prosecutors ordered the arrest of 157 people, including 101 serving officers, in an investigation of the Turkish armed forces, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

About 100 people have so far been detained in this operation, the private Demiroren news agency reported.

In the capital Ankara, 71 people were to be detained in an investigation targeting alleged Gulen supporters in the justice ministry, Anadolu said.

It subsequently reported that prosecutors had issued arrest warrants for another 467 suspects across the country over links to Gulen as part of an investigation into corruption in police examinations held in 2009, Reuters said.

'Parallel state'

Erdogan has for years accused Gulen's supporters of establishing a "parallel state" by infiltrating the police, judiciary and other state institutions.

Since the coup attempt, about 80,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 civil servants, teachers, military personnel and others sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Last month, a US think tank report on Turkey’s foreign policy caused controversy after it suggested a new military coup attempt was plausible.

The report by the RAND Corporation for the US army alleges that the Turkish government’s decision to expel hundreds of officers after the failed coup caused huge discontent in the Turkish military.

“Mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges,” the report said.

“This discontent could even lead to another coup attempt at some point, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan appears to take the threat seriously."

Turkey's Western allies, including the European Union, as well as rights groups, have criticised the scale of the crackdown, while Ankara has defended the measures as a necessary response to the security threat.

US think tank report ignites concerns over new military coup in Turkey

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 09:00
US think tank report ignites concerns over new military coup in Turkey
RAND Corporation report for the US army says Turkish defence minister is particularly close to American military
Ragip Soylu Tue, 02/18/2020 - 09:00
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar chats with his US counterpart Mark Esper at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week (AFP)

A US think tank report on Turkey’s foreign policy has caused controversy in the country after it suggested a new military coup attempt was plausible and that the Turkish defence minister was extremely close to the US military.

Released last month, the report by the RAND Corporation for the US army alleges that the Turkish government’s decision to expel hundreds of officers after a failed coup attempt in 2016 caused huge discontent in the Turkish military.

“Mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges,” the report said.

Turkey arrests opposition mayor in anti-Gulen sweep
Read More »

“This discontent could even lead to another coup attempt at some point, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan appears to take the threat seriously.”

Police still routinely carry out raids targeting coup suspects, with Turkish prosecutors ordering the arrest of nearly 700 people, including military and justice ministry personnel, on Tuesday.

Since the report’s release, several officials have deliberated in closed-door meetings on the possibility of such a coup, but the overwhelming feeling in Ankara was that it was just a rumour, nothing more.

However, several pro-government columnists have taken the report's findings seriously and fired off articles saying that a coup might be in the making.

Hasan Basri Yalcin, an academic columnist at Turkey's Sabah newspaper, wrote on Monday that everyone needed to take the report seriously because Rand was working directly for the US Defense Department.

“No one should look at this issue as a conspiracy theory,” he said. “If you don’t see how all of these are finely scripted and coordinated from one single centre, I have nothing to add. Don’t get surprised if a coup attempt emerges.”

Yusuf Kaplan, a conservative writer at Turkey's Yeni Safak newspaper, predicted on Monday that instead of being undertaken by followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the next coup would be perpetrated by Kemalist and secularist groups within the military.

Gulen is accused of masterminding the coup on 15 July 2016, a charge he denies. Kemalists uphold the values of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secularist Turkish republic and was the country's first president. 

Defence minister in awkward situation

Erdogan, too, delved into the issue over the weekend. Without directly talking about the report, the president said that the Turkish people’s resistance to the 2016 coup attempt should be a lesson for everyone.

“Our people have earned a great and serious experience,” he told journalists accompanying him on a visit to Pakistan on Saturday.

Turkey ramps up Gulen crackdown with nearly 700 arrests
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“Next time they won't even question whether to go out [to resist]. Everyone will pour out to the squares.”

In a speech at a party event on Sunday, Erdogan pointed out that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had the highest number of members in Turkey with 10 million people.

Ferhat Unlu, a government-aligned writer, said on Twitter: “Isn’t it meaningful that Erdogan highlighted his party’s membership number as coup rumours are heightened by the RAND report?"

The report also put Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar in an awkward spot by describing him as the go-to person for US-Turkey relations in a country where around 90 percent of the population currently hold anti-American views.

“Throughout this turmoil, Hulusi Akar has remained a key interlocutor for the US and other foreign militaries,” the report said.

“His retention of his position as TGS (Turkish General Staff) chief in 2017 and subsequent appointment as minister of defence in July 2018 in the first presidential decree under the new executive presidential system suggest that he will continue to be the leading figure in Turkish defence affairs for some time.”

In a statement released earlier this month, after several weeks of silence, the Turkish defence ministry said the report was unreasonably ambiguous and the comments referring to the Turkish military were baseless and unserious.

“We are saddened to see that some expressions in the report have been consciously, or unconsciously, twisted and used in the country,” the statement said.

Turkish military’s 'insular culture'

The report also claimed that the Erdogan government had established the National Defence University as the ultimate educational body for the military after the coup attempt in order “to break down the Turkish military’s insular culture as guardians of secularism”.

In response, the defence ministry said the Turkish military and its units were following the country's laws and regulations, and its commander-in-chief, the president.

In what was seen as a further attempt to address the criticism, Akar himself talked about the issue last week.

“I received the [RAND] report with sadness that the statements [in the report] about myself, the Turkish military and the National Defence University were scripted disingenuously to be used by circles to put a wedge between us,” he told a Turkish newspaper.

Some have claimed the whole debate was started in order to control the narrative within the Turkish media and public as the government battles domestic and foreign problems such as the economy and war in Syria.

“New coup allegations are scripts written by the government to save itself from its woes,” said Alican Uludag, a reporter on legal affairs at the secularist Cumhuriyet daily.

“Yes, this government will leave. However with an election, in a democratic way.”

Istanbul

Saudi Arabia to 'upgrade' relations with Israel after peace deal is reached, says minister

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 18:26
Saudi Arabia to 'upgrade' relations with Israel after peace deal is reached, says minister
Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud's comments come after Adel al-Jubeir praised Trump's controversial 'deal of the century'
MEE staff Mon, 02/17/2020 - 18:26
Israel has been building relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to create a large anti-Iran bloc (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has said the kingdom will develop relations with Israel once a peace deal has been struck with the Palestinians.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said on Sunday, "Upgrading relations with Israel will occur only when a peace agreement is signed and is in accordance with Palestinian conditions."

The comments came shortly after Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's state minister for foreign affairs, said there were "positive elements" in the Trump administration's plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last month, when the Trump administration unveiled its controversial "deal of the century", Saudi Arabia was one of the main supporters of the plan.

'Upgrading relations with Israel will occur only when a peace agreement is signed and is in accordance with Palestinian conditions'

- Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, Saudi foreign minister

Since it was unveiled, the plan has been repeatedly condemned by the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Iran but praised by Gulf countries along with Egypt.

The heavily-maligned deal allows Israel to keep all of its settlements in the occupied West Bank and annex about a third of the territory in exchange for a dwarfed, disjointed Palestinian state with no sovereignty over its airspace, territorial waters or borders.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab states have increased their engagement with Israel, raising concerns that they are seeking to normalise ties and sideline the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

As Middle East Eye has previously pointed out, plans have been underway since 2018 to present Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as a peacemaker in the mould of the former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

A source told MEE at the time that the Saudi crown prince was "keen" to take on the role.

Last week, Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom reported that the US was attempting to convene a summit by early March that would host a historic meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS.

'It wasn't a mistake': Palestinian boy loses eye after being shot by Israeli police

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 17:27
'It wasn't a mistake': Palestinian boy loses eye after being shot by Israeli police
Malek Issa's father says an Israeli policeman shot his eight-year-old son between the eyes in an unprovoked attack
Sondus Ewies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 17:27
An undated photo of Malek Issa, along with a photograph taken at the hospital after Israeli police shot him in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet (Social media)

An eight-year-old Palestinian boy lost his left eye on Tuesday, a few days after being shot by Israeli police with a rubber-coated steel bullet after he stepped out from a restaurant in occupied East Jerusalem.

According to the boy's family and eyewitnesses, Malek Issa was deliberately shot between the eyes on Saturday after he bought a sandwich in the East Jerusalem village of Issawiya. 

Medics said the impact of the shooting was so severe that Issa may have suffered brain damage.

"Malek is awake but his condition is difficult. The shot has caused fractures to the skull and face, and brain haemorrhage," Issa's father, Wael Issa, told Middle East Eye.

Eyewitnesses said there were no violent protests or stones being thrown when Israeli forces started firing.

Wael said Israeli forces had come to the area to detain a man, and when they saw a crowd begin to gather, they started firing at random.

Israeli police, meanwhile, said its officers had employed "riot control measures" during an operation in Issawiya.

However, footage from the scene contradicted the Israeli account, showing normal activity in the street moments before the shooting.

Israeli police have said the incident is being investigated.

The shooting comes after months of frequent raids on Issawiya, which resulted in more than 750 arrests among Palestinians. 

'It wasn't a mistake'

Wael said a bus had dropped Malek and his sisters at a stop 200 metres away from their home. Their mother said they could walk home since weather conditions were suitable.

Malek went into the shop to buy a sandwich and was shot on his way out, his father said.

The officer who shot Malek claimed he was not aiming at him but rather at a wall to calibrate his sights and that he thought the boy was hit by a stone thrown by a Palestinian, according to Haaretz newspaper.

But Issa's father rejected his claims and said the officer was clearly targeting Malek.

"It wasn't a mistake. The policeman knew that he was aiming between the eyes from a close distance. It was 100 percent intentional," he told Middle East Eye.

Mohammed Abu al-Homs, a member of an Issawiya community committee, said Israeli forces have been present in the village every day for the past 10 months.

"The constant pressure on [us] is a part of a continuous policy by the occupation against all the people of Jerusalem," Abu al-Homs told MEE

An undated photo of Malek Issa (Social media)
An undated photo of Malek Issa (Social media)

In November, schools in Issawiya were shut down to protest the arrest of a 16-year-old student from school grounds.

Residents saw the incident as a breach of an agreement reached between locals and the Israeli police earlier that year stating that the latter would not operate near schools during teaching hours.

Abu al-Homs said the agreement has been violated several times.

Abu al-Homs believes that one of Israel's pressure tactics is targeting children in areas such as the head and the eyes "in order to scare and deter the young generation of Palestinians".

"This is political pressure and a barbaric targeting of children, specifically those aged between 10 and 12 who do not pose any threat," he said.

"They want to pressure this generation, particularly the students, in order to hinder the education of Palestinians, especially in Issawiya."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Issawiya, occupied East Jerusalem

Egypt just banned ‘mahraganat’ music: Listen to five of the most popular tracks

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 16:55
Egypt just banned ‘mahraganat’ music: Listen to five of the most popular tracks
Singers of the electric folk style music, mahraganat, have been warned they will be penalised, along with any establishments that work with them
Nadda Osman Mon, 02/17/2020 - 16:55
Mohamed Ramadan (L) and Mohamed Oka (AFP and Instagram)

Egypt’s musician’s union has banned the popular street music mahraganat after one song was deemed too "immoral" for the Arab world's most populous country. 

The head of the Musicians Syndicate, singer Hany Shaker, said on Sunday that mahraganat singers would no longer be allowed to work in Egypt, and would be denied licences to perform anywhere in the country. 

“This type of music is based on promiscuous and immoral lyrics, which is completely prohibited, and as such, the door is closed on it. We want real art,” he said in an interview with pro-government host Amr Adeeb. 

Mahraganat, Arabic for "festivals", is a style of electronic folk music that originally started out in some of Egypt’s most impoverished districts and quickly gained prominence, with artists amassing millions of views on YouTube and SoundCloud. 

The style of music, which can be described as "electro shaabi" (popular working-class music) is typically played in taxis, tuktuks and more recently, weddings. 

In a press release that has circulated widely on social media, the syndicate warns all tourist establishments, including Nile cruises, nightclubs, fairs and cafes, not to deal with mahraganat singers. 

The decree also states that the syndicate would take all legal measures possible against the singers and the establishments that deal with them if they violate the decision.

The ban came after a Valentine’s Day concert held in Cairo Stadium, where popular mahraganat artists Hassan Shakoush and Omar Kamal perfomed the song "The Neighbour's Daughter", whose lyrics notably include: “If you break up with me... I will drink alcohol and smoke weed”.

Alcohol and marijuana are considered taboos in Egyptian society. 

Mahraganat
The statement from Egypt's Musicians Syndicate, warning establishments not to engage with mahraganat singers (Social media)

The genre of music started in poorer slums and areas of Cairo around 2006, when DJs and music artists started combining influences of grime and rap with Egyptian shaabi music.

It quickly became a way for people to express their feelings about politics and the ongoing turmoil in the country, particularly during the 2011 revolution which ousted long-time president Hosni Mubarak. The music, fast and loud, was made using cheap computers at home by people who could not access expensive studios.

Since then, mahraganat has commonly been used by young, burgeoning artists to highlight social issues.

The style of music is considered to be "lower class" or vulgar by more traditional or conservative listeners, due to its use of explicit language and favoured topics, some of which include drugs and violence. 

Initially, the genre was not given attention or airtime within Egyptian society nor on radio stations. However its rapid growth in popularity has resulted in a rise of music producers capitalising on its success. 

Hakim singer afp
Egyptian singer Hakim is known as the 'Sheikh of Shaabi' music, a style of working-class song that is sometimes played at weddings (AFP)

The banning of the music style has caused outrage on social media, with people posting satirical posts and suggesting that this is a threat to Egyptian culture and society. 

Social media users have criticised Shaker for the decision, claiming that banning the genre of music will only make people want it more. 

Popular mahraganat singer Mohamed Ramadan, who has amassed more than eight million subscribers on YouTube, caused controversy last year, when he posted a rap video entitled "They Want Chaos" - taking a subtle swipe at actor-turned-whistleblower Mohamed Ali.

In the music video, the singer claims that Ali is a failed man and knows nothing about life on the streets because he is too busy in cabarets. 

Here are some of the top mahraganat songs that have gained prominence in Egypt in recent years: 

1. ‘Bent el-garan’ (The neighbour's daughter) by Hassan Shakoush

2. ‘Hagarein al-shisha’ (Two coals on a shisha) by Hoba

3. 'Elaab Yala' (Play, dude) by Oka Wi Ortega 

4. ‘Bayza eshti’ (My life is ruined) by Hamo Bika

5.  'Wedaa ya donya, wedaa' (Farewell world, farewell) by Hamo Bika

Qatar should 'amend, change or withdraw' laws that impede free speech: EU

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 16:35
Qatar should 'amend, change or withdraw' laws that impede free speech: EU
Special representative for human rights raises concerns after Doha recently enacted a 'vaguely worded' fake news law
MEE and agencies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 16:35
Rights groups have criticised Qatari authorities for encouraging self-censorship among publishers (AFP)

Qatar has been told to scrap several laws that impede freedom of speech and expression after the gas-rich nation recently enacted a "vaguely worded" law that criminalises the publication of "false" news with up to five years in prison.

Speaking in the Qatari capital on Monday, Eamon Gilmore, the European Union's special representative for human rights, said he was "concerned about some pieces of legislation which relate to freedom of expression and freedom of the press".

Gilmore, who was attending an event in Doha promoting the online rights of activists, raised specific concerns over a cybercrime prevention law passed in 2014 which carries a three-year sentence to anyone convicted of creating a digital platform for "fake news".

'Freedom of expression is a very important part of the way in which the European Union sees human rights'

- Eamon Gilmore, EU special representative for human rights

The penalty was recently increased to five years in cases where "ill intent" could be proved.

However, no definition of what constitutes "fake news" was given in the act.

"We urge that those laws be amended, changed or withdrawn," Gilmore said.

The laws were also flagged as problematic during Qatar's most recent Universal Periodic Review, the scrutiny process which all 193 UN countries must undergo approximately every four years, he added.

Gilmore said he raised the concerns with the foreign affairs ministry and the National Human Rights Committee which is staging the two-day conference.

"Freedom of expression is a very important part of the way in which the European Union sees human rights. We attach a very high priority to it," he said.

Independent UN experts have previously warned that Qatar's strict "lese majeste" laws, which prohibit disrespect of the ruler or other officials and carry custodial sentences, could amount to arbitrary detention because they violate free speech rights.

Mashrou' Leila

Earlier this month, Qatar was criticised after a talk to be given by Mashrou' Leila - a popular pro-LGBTQ Lebanese band - at Northwestern University's campus in Doha was cancelled.

Northwestern University released a statement stating that both the band and the university "mutually agreed" to change the venue to the university's campus in the US state of Illinois over safety concerns.

Qatar Foundation challenges university's reason pro-LGBTQ band event cancelled
Read More »

However, the university's local partner, Qatar Foundation (QF), challenged Northwestern's allegations, with a spokesman implying that the event was axed because it did not comply with Qatari laws and culture. 

"We place the utmost importance on the safety of our community and currently do not have any safety or security concerns," a QF spokesman told Reuters. 

Rights groups have repeatedly criticised Qatari authorities for encouraging self-censorship among publishers as the tiny Gulf nation prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

On Saturday, Human Rights Watch issued a stinging rebuke of Qatar, saying efforts to ensure the payment of workers' salaries were falling "short" of international standards.

Arabic press review: Bahraini who burned Israeli flag jailed for three years

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 14:45
Arabic press review: Bahraini who burned Israeli flag jailed for three years
The raising of fuel prices in Saudi Arabia sparks popular anger and Yemen's government agrees to a prisoner exchange with Houthis
Mohammad Ayesh Mon, 02/17/2020 - 14:45
A Bahraini who set fire to an Israeli flag, as seen here in Lebanon in October 2019, was jailed after his appeal was rejected (AFP)

Bahraini appeal over flag burning rejected

A Bahraini man who burned an Israeli flag during a pro-Palestine protest was jailed for three years, Al-Bilad reported.

The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bahrain rejected an appeal lodged by the Bahraini man, who was convicted of organising an illegal gathering and rioting. 

The court upheld the three-year sentence, and said the man "intended to endanger people's lives and properties, to destabilise public security and to disrupt traffic".

The verdict sparked a wave of indignation among Twitter users, who claimed that it was the first time in the history of the Arab world that a person had been punished for burning the Israeli flag.

A well-known Bahraini journalist tweeted: "It is the first time that Bahrain punishes citizens for burning the Israeli flag. It is striking that it is the same punishment prescribed in the Israeli Penal Law (3 years imprisonment)."

Bahrain, like other Gulf countries, has no official diplomatic relations with Israel. However, visits by Israeli officials to Bahrain and reports of ongoing talks suggest improved ties between Tel Aviv and several Gulf countries. 

Saudi Arabia fuel price rise sparks popular anger

A decision by Saudi state oil company Aramco to raise fuel prices has sparked widespread anger on social media, according to a report in the New Khaleej.

Twitter users said the fuel price rises were "unacceptable" as global oil prices continue to fall. Some justified the anger towards the price rises as commodity prices are set to rise with the introduction of VAT across the Gulf kingdom. 

Aramco said in a statement that the monthly price hikes will be announced on the tenth day of every month, while the application of the new regulations will be on the morning of the 11th day, in accordance with procedures for pricing adjustment of energy and water products.

Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer worldwide, as it produces about 10m barrels of crude oil per day. Fuel prices, however, remain low in Saudi Arabia compared to neighbouring countries. 

Yemeni prisoner swap deal agreed in Jordan

The Yemeni government has reached an agreement with the Houthi movement in Jordan and agreed to exchange prisoners and detainees, Asharq Al-Awsat reported.

The Saudi-backed newspaper quoted Yemeni and UN sources and said the agreement came after a week of consultations. 

Maged Fadail, deputy minister of human rights in the Yemeni government and member of the government negotiating team, stated that “the interim agreement would eventually lead to the release of all detainees in exchange for the other party’s prisoners”.

The Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement praising the efforts of the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, tasked with reaching an agreement to release the prisoners.

* Arabic press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye

EU agrees on new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 13:55
EU agrees on new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo
Foreign ministers announced new operation in the Mediterranean to uphold a UN arms embargo that is routinely flouted
MEE and agencies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 13:55
Italy's foreign minister said that the mission would include a naval element, which had been a sticking point for some EU member states (AFP)

EU foreign ministers said on Monday that they have agreed to launch a new mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on Libya that is currently routinely flouted.

"We all agreed to create a mission to block the entry of arms into Libya," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said.

Di Maio said that the mission would include a naval element, which had been a sticking point for some member states.

The news was confirmed by his German and Austrian counterparts, AFP reported.

Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) are battling fighters from eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar's forces launched an offensive in April to take the capital Tripoli, but are being held back by the GNA forces.

'The arms embargo has become a become a joke'

Libya has been under an arms embargo since the 2011 uprising that led to the removal and killing of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The arms embargo has been regularly violated by different groups, according to the United Nations.

Since 2014, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have provided the LNA with military equipment including aircraft and helicopters, while Moscow has provided mercenaries.

Libya's UN-backed government receives military hardware in spite of arms embargo
Read More »

The support has helped the Haftar gain the upper hand in Libya's eight-year conflict, according to previous UN reports.

The GNA is being supported by Qatar and Turkey, which has sent as many as 2,000 fighters from Syria.

On Sunday, Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, said the UN-backed arms embargo had become a joke and the country’s financial position was deteriorating rapidly, after foreign ministers met in Munich to try to enforce a ceasefire between the two warring sides.

Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for enforcement of the arms embargo and a ceasefire.

Williams said: “The arms embargo has become a become a joke. We all really need to step up here. 

"It’s complicated because there are violations by land, sea and air, but it needs to be monitored and there needs to be accountability.”

Report: Shamima Begum says 'whole world fell apart' when stripped of UK citizenship

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 12:21
Report: Shamima Begum says 'whole world fell apart' when stripped of UK citizenship
Speaking to ABC News channel, Begum criticised how UK officials informed her of the decision to remove her citizenship
Areeb Ullah Mon, 02/17/2020 - 12:21
The Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled against Begum and said former UK home secretary's decision to revoke her citizenship did not make her 'stateless' (Reuters)

Shamima Begum, the British woman who at 15 travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group, has told a US news outlet that her "whole world fell apart" when she lost her UK citizenship - in an interview yet to be aired.

Pictured for the first time without her black abaya, as part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces deradicalisation programme, Begum said she was dismayed by the decision.

"When my citizenship got rejected, I felt like my whole world fell apart right in front of me [...] especially the way I was told. I wasn't even told by a government official. I had to be told by journalists," Begum told an ABC News journalist, who shared excerpts of the interview on social media. 

Earlier this month, Begum lost the first stage of her appeal against former UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid's decision to strip her of her citizenship. 

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) ruled that Javid's decision did not render Begum "stateless" and said she could apply for Bangladeshi citizenship, where her parents are originally from. 

Begum was stripped of her citizenship in 2019 after she was found in a detention camp for suspected IS members and their families by a journalist from the Times newspaper. 

From the UN blankets they're given, they've made a small sofa. And Kimberly has knitted cushions with the flags of the countries that seem not to want them anymore, for each of her friends. Signs and pictures of loved ones are out on display.

9/23 pic.twitter.com/vgtxqJa9XZ

— James Longman (@JamesAALongman) February 16, 2020

While held in captivity, her son Jarrah died at three weeks old. Prior to Jarrah's death, Begum had given birth to two other children in Syria, both of whom also died. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rebel group moved Begum to the al-Roj camp after other inmates had allegedly threatened her inside the al-Hol refugee camp. When asked about previous comments she made to the Times about IS, Begum said she was "afraid for my life".

Pictured in a maroon headscarf and jeans, with a Union Jack flagged pillow in the background, Begum said: "I had just come into the camp. I had just given birth. I was hearing all these stories about women threatening other women, you know, folks uncovering their faces [...] or speaking to men or doing interviews or anything like that." 

'Hanged' if taken to Bangladesh

SIAC ruled against Begum, now 20, on three grounds and said Javid did not expose Begum to human rights abuses by leaving her in the Kurdish-controlled camp in northern Syria where she is currently detained. 

However, SIAC acknowledged that Begum was unable to mount an "effective appeal" due to her current incarceration. 

In 2018, judges at the SIAC ruled that the British government had wrongly determined that two British men of Bangladeshi descent were Bangladesh nationals and ordered their citizenship to be restored. The government is appealing those cases.

Bangladesh's nationality laws say that any individual who has parents with Bangladeshi citizenship is also automatically deemed entitled to citizenship. 

The law, however, states that this entitlement expires if the individual has not claimed it before the age of 21. 

Last year, Bangladesh's foreign minister, Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, said that Begum could face capital punishment and be "hanged" if brought to his country.

Speaking to ITV News, Abdul Momen reaffirmed Dhaka's stance that Begum was not a Bangladeshi citizen. 

Pro-Assad forces bomb hospitals in rural Aleppo as clashes intensify

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 11:21
Pro-Assad forces bomb hospitals in rural Aleppo as clashes intensify
Turkish officials in Moscow seeking ceasefire, as Damascus vows to push on with offensive
Harun al-Aswad Mon, 02/17/2020 - 11:21
A rescue worker in an Aleppo countryside hospital bombed by pro-Syrian government forces (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Relentless bombing by the Syrian government and Russian forces has targeted towns, villages and two hospitals in northwest Syria, as Turkish officials in Moscow desperately seek a ceasefire.

Territory in the Idlib and Aleppo countrysides is falling fast to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which on Monday said they had captured dozens of towns as they continue to push ahead with an offensive.

The fighting's frontline is mainly in the western Aleppo countryside, where the town of Darat Izza and two hospitals were heavily bombed. 

Adnan al-Imam, an activist from the outskirts of Aleppo city, said Russian jets were believed responsible for the eight missiles fired at the hospitals.

"The attacks directly targeted the hospitals. Rescue teams evacuated the wounded and the hospital staff," Imam, who visited the scene of the attack, told Middle East Eye.

'Al-Fardous hospital provides its services to more than 300,000 people, and its disruption increases the suffering of thousands of displaced civilians'

- Obaida Dandush, Syrian Organisation for Relief and Development

The Syrian Civil Defence, a search-and-rescue organistion also known as the White Helmets, said that the Russian air strikes had put the hospitals out of service.

"We have evacuated two wounded people, one of them is the hospital guard," Ibrahim Abu al-Laith, head of the White Helmets office in Aleppo, told MEE.

"The hospitals are located in close proximity to each other. We have secured the evacuation of all hospital staff."

These two hospitals were the last operational medical centres in western Aleppo, according to Obaida Dandush, an administrator in the Turkey-based Syrian Organisation for Relief and Development (SRD).

The Kinana hospital specialised in general surgery, while the al-Fardous hospital, which receives support from the SRD, is dedicated to gynaecology and children.

"Al-Fardous hospital provides its services to more than 300,000 people, and its disruption increases the suffering of thousands of displaced civilians in the surrounding area," Dandush told MEE.

On Sunday, Syrian government forces took control of large areas west of Aleppo and declared full control of the city, after a rebel collapse in Khan al-Asal, the last western neighbourhood in opposition hands. Civilian flights will resume to Aleppo's airport this week for the first time since 2012, state media said.

Russian jets also on Monday targeted the town of Ariha, south of Idlib city, activists said. Ariha, a town on the coveted M4 highway, has been largely emptied of its residents by the bombardment.

"The raids extended to the vicinity of Ariha towards the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, and violent clashes erupted south of the area," Hudhaifa al-Khatib, a displaced activist residing in the city of Idlib, told MEE.

"The rebels retook the town of Kafr Sajnah, which government forces has seized yesterday."

map

Nearly a million people have been displaced by Syrian government forces towards the Turkish border since the offensive began in December, with over 300 civilians killed.

Around 82,000 of those are living in tents pitched in exposed fields, subject to freezing winter temperatures, the UN said last week. More than half of the displaced are children.

Turkey, which backs rebel groups holding out in northwest Syria, is anxious that hundreds of thousands of displaced people might pour over its border, joining the 3.5 million Syrian refugees already hosted by the country.

In recent days Ankara has poured arms, men and vehicles into Idlib province, the Syrian opposition’s last redoubt, with more coming across the border on Monday morning.

Turkey's threats against Damascus and support for rebel groups has also increased, with the two sides’ artillery clashing last week with deadly effect.

In pictures: Idlib's empty Ariha
Read More »

Anti-aircraft weapons have been provided by Ankara to rebel fighters, who last week shot down two Syrian government helicopters, which previously were able to freely bomb civilian areas.

Turkey has held several meetings with Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally and partner on the ground, hoping to reach some kind of ceasefire, though all attempts have been unsuccessful.

Turkish officials are currently in Moscow for talks. “We hope to reach a joint vision to reduce tensions in Syria,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

Monday's dialogue concluded without results, with the two sides set to convene again the next day.

"Our delegation highlighted that the tensions on the ground should quickly be reduced and humanitarian situations shouldn’t be worsened," a Turkish diplomatic source said.

"We exchanged opinions on measures on how to completely implement the Sochi agreement and prevent violations."

On the ground, however, pro-Syrian government forces are showing no sign of letting up. The Syrian army said in a statement it would continue its "sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organisations wherever on Syria's geography they are found".

Damascus’ chief objective currently is securing the area around the highly strategic M5 highway, which runs from the Syrian capital to Aleppo via the cities of Homs and Hama.

According to al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Assad government, civilians are expected to be able to use the recently seized sections of the highway by the end of the week.

Ragip Soylu contributed to this report.

‘No one is listening’: Pakistani mothers jailed in Saudi Arabia call for help

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 10:30
‘No one is listening’: Pakistani mothers jailed in Saudi Arabia call for help
A year ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the release of 2,100 Pakistanis from Saudi prisons. It's unclear how many have actually been returned
Suddaf Chaudry Mon, 02/17/2020 - 10:30
On the outskirts of Lahore, Babar holds a photo of his family including his mother, Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017 (MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)

Mohamed Saeed sits on a bed, looking at pictures of his mother who has been held in a Saudi jail for the past three years. 

For years Saeed’s mother Zohra Naveen, a housewife, had been desperate to perform umrah, a Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, but was unable to afford the trip. 

'I knew that if I spoke, my son would be harmed'

- Zohra Naveen, housewife held in Saudi prison 

So when Naveen met a woman named Pomi at a local clothing store who said she could cover the entire cost of the journey, Saeed and Naveen’s friends say she jumped at the chance.

“Zohra is a sweet-natured woman. She only saw the good in people,” Riffat, a neighbour, tells Middle East Eye. “She was duped.”

It was only when Naveen was en route to Saudi Arabia that someone travelling with her revealed that she had drugs in her bag and that her son, Salim, was being held by Pomi's associates back in Pakistan.

Speak up when they landed, she was told, and put Salim's life at risk.

(MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)
Zohra Naveen had dreamed of visiting Mecca for years. When she was offered a free trip, she jumped at the chance (MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)

“I was not screened or questioned in Islamabad, but I suspected something was wrong. I knew that if I spoke, my son would be harmed,” she told MEE from Dhahban Central Prison in Jeddah where she is permitted to make regular calls home.

Naveen is among 3,240 Pakistani prisoners currently being held in Saudi jails, according to the latest figures released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Many of those, say human rights campaigners, are people like Naveen who went to the kingdom to fulfil religious duties or pursue jobs, but instead ended up in prison, often as a result of serving as unwitting drug mules.

One year later

These prisoners are clearly on the radar of both Saudi and Pakistani officials. During a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad a year ago this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the plight of the prisoners and, while still in the country, the crown prince ordered the release of 2,100 prisoners. 

But so far, it is unclear exactly how many have come back.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says that 2,080 have returned while the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis puts the figure at 1,790. Both ministries say their totals are based on lists shared by the Saudi government.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greet one another in Islamabad last February (AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greet one another in Islamabad last February (AFP)

MEE repeatedly asked officials in both ministries why their figures are different, but could not get clear answers.

Frustrated by the confusion and what they describe as the government's hands-off approach, relatives and rights campaigners are pushing for greater action and more transparency.

Sarah Belal is the executive director of the Lahore-based Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit which has taken legal action to force the government to do more and has been attempting to verify the figures released by the ministries.

“Less than 5 percent of Pakistanis have been repatriated since the crown prince’s royal pardon,” Belal says her organisation has established. “It is unclear what the hold up is.” 

Billions at stake

For decades, Pakistanis have been heading to Saudi Arabia in search of employment opportunities. Currently, 2.7 million Pakistanis live in the kingdom and reportedly sent back more than $3.7bn in remittances last year. 

In addition to remittances, the kingdom has become increasingly important to Pakistan’s economy after offering $6bn in loans in late 2018 to avert a balance of payments crisis. 

Imran Khan: Pakistan cannot afford to snub Saudis over Khashoggi killing
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Three months later, during the Saudi crown prince’s visit to Pakistan, the kingdom signed another $20bn in investment deals. 

Caught in the middle of all this are Pakistani prisoners in the kingdom who fall into a no-man’s land of bureaucracy and language barriers once behind bars, say campaigners.

“If you are a foreign national in any jail, you are at a huge disadvantage because they do not understand the legal system,” said Belal. 

Under an international treaty signed in the 1960s, there are a specific set of obligations required of a host state and a state with visiting citizens in these kinds of situations. But reality works out a bit differently than what’s on paper, she said.

“The constraints on resources to engage lawyers or legal aid means the entire process itself is stacked against inmates because the detainee does not have a network of support. Therefore, they are inherently at a disadvantage,” she said.

According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, Saudi officials frequently failed to inform Pakistani consular officials when Pakistani citizens were arrested, leaving the burden on detainees and their family members.

Zohra and 18 other Pakistani inmates with whom she is being held told MEE that they have not been contacted by any Pakistani government officials since they entered prison. They have been working with Justice Project Pakistan to initiate a dialogue with the government, but so far to no avail.

Swallowing stones

In rural Kasur on the outskirts of Lahore, Babar, who declined to give his last name, tells MEE about his mother, Bilqis, who was arrested in Jeddah in 2017 after customs officials found drugs in her system.

Babar didn’t speak for long: soon Bilqis rang for her weekly call to her family from prison. Her ordeal, she said, started at the factory where she worked and befriended a woman named Shagufta.

'She claimed the capsules contained precious stones. I had to swallow them in order to avoid excise duty'

Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017

Shagufta, in turn, introduced Bilqis to her friend, Wassim, and the two offered her a free pilgrimage to the holy land. The only catch? She would just need to swallow some capsules ahead of her flight which would be given to a contact in Saudi Arabia once they were passed.

“She claimed the capsules contained precious stones. I had to swallow them in order to avoid excise duty,” Bilqis said.

“I know what you think. I’m not crazy. I honestly believed this woman and her husband were helping me fulfil my wish as a Muslim to go to Mecca.”

Barbar jumps in. “Why was my mother not screened at the airport in Lahore? She has been in jail for two years after falling victim to this criminal couple,” he said.

If his mother had been questioned in Pakistan, he said, she would not be in the mess she is in today. “We have no access to legal aid or a lawyer. I don’t know what will happen. I'm terrified for her future,” he said.

Bilqis was arrested along with two young boys and another couple, all Pakistanis who were on the same flight. The young boys, Abdul Nohman and Abdul Oman, were returned to Pakistan in 2018. 

When they came back, the boys now aged nine and five years old, couldn’t explain what had happened in Saudi Arabia easily because they only spoke Arabic.

Pakistani children released from Saudi prisons wait for relatives in Islamabad (AFP)
Pakistani children released from Saudi prisons wait for relatives in Islamabad (AFP)

“The boys were very traumatised. They received no after care from authorities,” said Sohail Yafat, a Justice Project Pakistan investigator.

“Many families, once they receive loved ones back, do not want to discuss the issue any further due to threats and concern that the situation may repeat itself.”

Fuzzy figures

Even now, a year after Imran Khan raised his concerns for prisoners with Mohammed bin Salman, there is a lingering discrepancy among Pakistani officials over just how many of the country’s citizens remain in Saudi prisons.

MEE asked Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, minister of overseas Pakistanis, why his ministry – which says that 1,790 Pakistanis have been released – has different figures than the foreign ministry claims that 2,080 have come home.

He insisted that it was a complex situation, and that the delay and confusion had been caused by Saudi Arabia.

“I do agree with the NGOs that the Saudi authorities were slow at the beginning. They needed a mechanism in place,” Bukhari said.

'Neither the prime minister or the crown prince understand or know the real details on this issue'

- Sarah Belal, Justice Project Pakistan

MEE asked Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to comment on the discrepancy in figures, but he declined to comment.

MEE also repeatedly asked the Saudi embassy in Islamabad to answer a series of questions, including why there is confusion over the official number of Pakistanis in Saudi jails and why so many are being held, but embassy officials declined to comment.

Belal says that after a JPP investigation, her organisation believes that 500 prisoners who are being counted by both ministries had actually already returned before the Saudi crown prince’s pardon. JPP has filed a petition in court to further investigate the government’s list. 

“Now the ball is in the Pakistani government court to approach the Saudi authorities to get some clarity on the issue. There was no sustained follow up by the government to verify the list that was shared by the Saudi authorities,” she said.

“I think given the fact the Saudis released a list of 500 and the Pakistanis accepted, neither the prime minister or the crown prince understand or know the real details on this issue. I think that if they did, they would be incredibly embarrassed on both sides.” 

The upper hand

Pakistan is currently awaiting approval from the Saudi government for officials with the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis to visit prisons in the kingdom, but officials have said they expect to make their trip this month. 

As time passes, analysts say it is becoming clear that Islamabad lacks the power to effect real change in the situation. 

Talat Masood, a retired three-star Pakistani general and political commentator, told MEE that the stalled efforts cast the country’s leadership in a poor light. 

“It is not a good reflection on Pakistan that so many prisoners are languishing in the jail of a friendly nation. The Saudis would be concerned that this move to return Pakistani prisoners does not set a precedent that rules can be broken.”

I tell him, ‘I am not a smuggler’. I ask him, ‘Please, tell the Pakistani authorities’, but I worry that no one is listening

- Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center, said Saudi Arabia has the upper hand.

“I don’t think Islamabad is in a position to complain about any perceived delay, given that Saudi Arabia is still releasing prisoners, albeit not at the pace that Islamabad would prefer,” Kugelman said.

The Saudis are also, he added, “providing extensive financial support to Islamabad as Pakistan struggles through economic distress. So there is a leverage factor that works in Saudi Arabia’s favour”.

These points, however, are moot for prisoners like Bilqis and her family, left in limbo. At the end of her weekly call, she begins to cry.

“I am neither alive or dead in this jail. There are women from all over the world. Some have been sentenced to over 15 years. I will only be released if someone pardons me,” she said. 

“The Saudi embassy sends an adviser, but he does not document my case or listen. I tell him, ‘I am not a smuggler’. I ask him, ‘Please, tell the Pakistani authorities’, but I worry that no one is listening.”

Lahore, Pakistan

How AIPAC is losing bipartisan support in Washington

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 00:07
How AIPAC is losing bipartisan support in Washington
It was once described as the 'most effective' lobbying group in Washington, but AIPAC is beginning to lose support as it turns on critics - most of whom are Democrats
Ali Harb Fri, 02/14/2020 - 00:07

"A true friend of Israel."  These were the words Barack Obama used when describing himself to AIPAC, a day after he secured the Democratic party nomination in 2008.

Standing in front of thousands of attendees in Washington, Obama, who was only 47 at the time, went on to thank the pro-Israel lobby for helping advance "bipartisan consensus to support and defend our ally - Israel."

Those comments were a far cry from the latter stages of his presidency, when the interest group rebuked America's first black president and spearheaded efforts to derail his signature foreign policy accomplishment - the Iran nuclear deal. 

AIPAC, short for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has always presented itself as a bipartisan organisation aiming to maintain support for Israel from across the US political spectrum.

Republican and Democratic presidents have praised the group, and some of the measures it has pushed have gained unanimous bipartisan support in Congress.

But times are changing. Once dubbed "the most effective general interest group" by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, AIPAC was called a "hate group" by a senior Democratic congresswoman on Wednesday.

"Hate is used as a weapon to incite and silence dissent. Unfortunately, this is my recent experience with AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee," Congresswoman Betty McCollum said in a blistering statement. 

Her photo had been featured - along with fellow House members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar - in AIPAC ads accusing "radicals in the Democratic Party" of pushing antisemitic and anti-Israel policies "down the throats of the American people".

The posts, which have since been deleted, went as far as likening Congress members critical of Israel to the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as ISIS.

Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.

I doubt our fearless colleague @BettyMcCollum04's voice is shaking, but I know she comes from a place that believes hate that incites violence doesn't belong anywhere. I commend her courage. https://t.co/uMV9cux3qg

— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) February 12, 2020

McCollum, who had introduced a bill aiming to prevent US assistance to Israel from contributing to the imprisonment and abuse of Palestinian children, was having none of it.

"AIPAC wants its followers to believe that my bill, H.R. 2407, to protect Palestinian children from being interrogated, abused, and even tortured in Israeli military prisons is a threat more sinister than ISIS," she said. 

"This is not empty political rhetoric. It is hate speech."

The response came days after AIPAC took down the ads and half-heartedly apologised for them. But the episode highlighted that the erosion of that bipartisan consensus over Israel that Obama cited in 2008.

AIPAC's conundrum

Three months after Democrats assumed the majority in the US House of Representatives last year, their top leaders appeared at the annual conference of AIPAC, assuring the group that Congress will maintain its steadfast support for Israel.

There had been warning signs that the bipartisan consensus in favour of Israel may be eroding. Left-wing progressives had been growing their clout in Democratic politics, shifting the conversation about Israel and Palestine amongst Democrats in the process.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have kept their word to AIPAC in pushing pro-Israel measures in the congressional chambers that they control - including a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

But with President Donald Trump giving the right-wing Israeli government everything that it wants and then some, top Democrats have found it difficult to fully back the White House's policies. 

In fact, many of them forcefully rejected the president's AIPAC-backed plan to end the conflict, which would allow Israel to annex all of its settlements in the West Bank. Meanwhile, progressives' criticism of Israel became more vocal.

That has created a conundrum for AIPAC - how to favour the policies of one political party without alienating the other?

"AIPAC is dealing with a fundamental contradiction. They are promoting a policy of no accountability for Israel - a carte blanche for whatever Israel does; and they want to be bipartisan," said Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group.

'As the left progressive flank of the Democratic Party grows, which it clearly is, that means that there's also going to be less support for groups like AIPAC'

- Beth Miller, JVP Action

"There's a problem here. The reality of our political discourse is that no accountability for Israel is not a bipartisan issue."

The ads against Democrats and McCollum's forceful condemnation of the group expose that contradiction, he added.

"I really suspect it's really a matter of time before we see the next outburst," Baddar told MEE.

Beth Miller, government affairs manager at JVP Action, a political advocacy group linked to Jewish Voice for Peace, echoed Baddar's comments, saying the American progressives are adopting the Palestinian cause as a core issue on their agenda. 

"It used to be true that AIPAC had bipartisan support, but that is strongly waning… As the left progressive flank of the Democratic Party grows, which it clearly is, that means that there's also going to be less support for groups like AIPAC," Miller said.

She added that advocacy for Palestinian human rights is becoming a "natural part" of the push against Trump's agenda.

"The more we as Americans learn about what is happening in Israel, the more people are supporting Palestinian human rights," Miller told MEE.

"And so, we are in a moment where groups like AIPAC that are strongly trying to push anti-Palestinian policies and anti-Palestinian rhetoric are finding themselves in an increasingly partisan space."

The presidential race

With Democrats moving to pick their nominee who will try to unseat Trump, that schism between the pro-Israel lobby and the party is likely to become sharper. 

AIPAC will not merely be torn between unconditionally supportive Republicans and Democrats more critical of Israel. Trump himself will be on the ballot, facing an opponent who will likely draw distinctions with him on foreign policy.

'I do envision a scenario in which AIPAC is going all out in attack against candidate Bernie Sanders if his lead continues'

- Omar Baddar, AAI

Moreover, Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner in the Democratic race, has called for an even-handed approach to the Middle East conflict, where US policy would not only be pro-Israel, but also "pro-Palestinian". The Vermont senator is also proposing conditioning US aid to Israel if it does not work to end the occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

"I imagine that relationship is going to become more and more antagonistic," Baddar said. 

"As time goes on, that contrast will be sharpened. I do envision a scenario in which AIPAC is going all out in attack against candidate Bernie Sanders if his lead continues."

In fact, an AIPAC-linked group has been running negative ads against Sanders, centering on his health and electability - not foreign policy. 

Columnist Jonathan Tobin argued earlier this week that it was no longer feasible for AIPAC in 2020 to deliver on its mission of defending Israel in a bipartisan way.

"At a time of unprecedented hyper-partisanship, and with the possibility that support for Israel will be a point of partisan contention in the fall presidential campaign - especially if the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, it’s hard to see how AIPAC can continue to navigate between the parties," he wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz

"It just isn’t possible to attack Democrats who are anti-Israel without sounding pro-Trump."

'Vile attacks'

The rise of Sanders in the polls and the AIPAC ads attacking Democratic Congress members point to an indisputable shift in support of Palestinians within the party.

Yet, many - if not most - Democrats in Congress have maintained their strong commitment to the US relationship with Israel and ties with AIPAC.

In fact on Thursday, the pro-Israel lobby posted several tweets thanking top Democratic legislators for denouncing the UN Human Rights Council over publishing a list of businesses with ties to West Bank settlements considered illegal by most of the international community.

AIPAC's language is intended to demonise, not elevate a policy debate. Vile attacks such as this may be commonplace in the Trump era, but they should never be normalised

- Betty McCollum, congresswoman

McCollum had called on the Democratic Party to "take a stand" in support of human rights.

"AIPAC's language is intended to demonise, not elevate a policy debate. Vile attacks such as this may be commonplace in the Trump era, but they should never be normalised."

In her statement, McCollum challenged AIPAC's claims of being a bipartisan group.

"AIPAC claims to be a bipartisan organisation, but its use of hate speech actually makes it a hate group," the congresswoman said.

"By weaponising antisemitism and hate to silence debate, AIPAC is taunting Democrats and mocking our core values. 

"I hope Democrats understand what is at stake and take a stand because working to advance peace, human rights, and justice is not sinister - it is righteous."

For her part, Congresswoman Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, praised McCollum for calling out AIPAC.

"I commend the courage and leadership of my colleague, Congresswoman Betty McCollum. She's right, hate speech incites violence and seeks to silence dissent," Tlaib told MEE in an email.

"In the fight for peace, equality, dignity and human rights, we must push back and call out any attempt to stop us on the path toward justice for Palestinians, Israelis, and people across the world."

AIPAC did not return MEE's request for comment. 

Washington

Ilhan Omar's US foreign policy overhaul: Inside the seven bills

Thu, 02/13/2020 - 21:06
Ilhan Omar's US foreign policy overhaul: Inside the seven bills
Omar's bills are 'a new progressive baseline' for US foreign policy, says former President Barack Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes
Sheren Khalel Thu, 02/13/2020 - 21:06
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar speaks to supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders at campaign event in Iowa last month (AFP/File photo)

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has introduced a package of seven bills that she says aims to overhaul US foreign policy and help fight human rights abuses around the globe. 

Introduced on Wednesday, Omar's package of legislation, dubbed the "Pathway to Peace", includes provisions to ensure Congress has oversight powers on US sanctions and declarations of emergency, guarantees that US security aid is only granted to countries protecting human rights and redirects $5bn from defense spending to create a global peace-building fund. 

It also enters the US into the list of countries participating in the International Criminal Court (ICC), lifts US visa bans on ICC officials, ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and creates a global agreement on migration. 

"Today, I am proud to introduce the Pathway to PEACE, a bold vision that prioritises multilateralism and diplomacy over militarism," Omar said in a tweet on Wednesday after introducing the legislation. 

Directors from the Cato Institute, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Victims of Torture and others have voiced their support for the package of bills. 

The plan is set to become "a new progressive baseline" for US foreign policy, said former President Barack Obama's foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes.

Middle East Eye took a closer look at each of the seven measures introduced by Omar, here's what we found: 

1. Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act

The Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act (SAHRAA) would block US security aid to any country in violation of international human rights law or international humanitarian law. 

"The bill establishes red lines based on internationally recognised gross violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law," the legislation's summary reads. 

It requires the White House to issue sanctions against any country committing acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, thoroughly defining each.

The bill would leave it up to the president to determine if such crimes are being committed, but would also establish an office called the "Commission on Atrocity Accountability and Human Rights" made up of lawmakers and appointees.

The commission would be tasked with gathering and reviewing facts related to human rights violations. It would then make policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress, with respect to placing or lifting SAHRAA sanctions.

If the president were to determine crimes listed in SAHRAA were being committed, the legislation would be triggered, immediately barring the US from providing aid or security assistance, intelligence, training, equipment or related services to the country in question. 

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It would ban arms sales and exchanges with US law enforcement on any level, including state and local police forces. 

The bill does not mention Israel by name, but references many tactics that rights groups have accused Israel of implementing, including excessive use of tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets, forcible displacements and apartheid. 

Israel is also the main country engaged in law enforcement exchanges with the US. 
 

2. Global Migration Agreement Act

The Global Migration Agreement Act (GMAA) instructs the State Department and the US ambassador to the United Nations "to take the lead" on creating a binding international agreement on global migration. 

The bill outlines global issues that relate to migration, particularly issues that affect vulnerable populations. 

Among other initiatives, it stipulates that the US should sign the existing UN Global Compact for Migration, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018.

The US was one of five countries to vote against the measure, issuing a statement at the time that said the compact was "an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of States'"

The bill also asks that the US restore refugee resettlement "to adequate levels", in reference to President Donald Trump's significant cuts to the US's refugee resettlement programme in recent years. 

The US would also lead in creating another global agreement on migration, using diplomacy to pressure other countries to adopt the US measure. 

According to the bill, the agreement would address the root causes of migration, provide global funding for crisis response programmes that involve at-risk migrants and establish a clear consensus on the due process rights of migrants. Those rights would not be dependent on people's motivations for migrating, the bill said. 

To highlight its necessity, the bill cites a series of relevant figures regarding migrations, including a 2018 estimate by the World Bank that predicted Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.

3. Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act

The Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act (COSA) stipulates that a joint resolution of Congress would be required to approve any emergency sanctions issued by the US. 

Congress would have to approve the emergency sanctions within 60 days. 

It would also require congressional approval to renew existing sanctions.

COSA seeks to empower Congress to take back authority that, for the most part, already exists within US law, but has been slowly eroded by presidential overreach. 

"Successive presidents from both parties have used the authority granted by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act to declare national emergencies that do not meet the threshold" outlined in existing US law, the bill reads. 

"In order to restore Congress’ original intent in enacting such laws, it is necessary to reclaim Congress’ constitutional power over the use of sanctions," it says. 

Omar, in April of last year, accused Trump of declaring a "fake emergency" at the US-Mexico border, which allowed him to direct funding towards the construction of physical barriers and saw the deployment of thousands of US troops to the southern border. 

This is a fake emergency! Donald Trump is lying about the border in order to build his monument to racism. https://t.co/hVOVzLYDHw

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) April 3, 2019

4. YouthBuild International Act

The YouthBuild International Act would amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 in order to create a programme that would provide disadvantaged youth in struggling countries with education and employment opportunities. 

Modeled after the US's domestic YouthBuild programme, the legislation would authorise the president to use foreign aid to establish the global version of the initiative. 

The act would create programmes that provide education and employment skills to youth in developing countries so they might "achieve economic self-sufficiency in occupations in demand". 

Omar said the initiative would boost global stability, which would in turn encourage a peaceful future.

"The global youth population is expected to boom by more than 60 percent in coming decades," Omar said on her website. "These young people need jobs, education and opportunity so they can make their way in this world. Which is why we need real investment - an investment in people, if we are to secure real, lasting peace."

5. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

While the United States played a pivotal role in the drafting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), it is currently the only country in the world that has not ratified the measure. 

The US was one of three countries to refuse ratification until 2015, when South Sudan and Somalia both got on board with the 30-year-old measure. 

Omar's resolution would require the US to ratify the convention, which essentially aims to protect the basic human rights of children and to prevent child exploitation and abuse. 

According to the ACLU, ratifying the measure will require the US "to confront some hard truths" about the way it treats its underage citizens, requiring Washington to work on bringing US laws and practices in line, particularly within the criminal justice system. 

For example, the United States remains the only country in the world to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole - prohibited under the UN convention.

6. Resolution on the Rome Statute, and the International Criminal Court

If passed, this non-binding resolution would essentially communicate that the House of Representatives is in agreement with the idea of the US ratifying the Rome Statute and joining the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Although the US was a signatory to the Rome Statute which founded the ICC in 2002, it later refused to ratify the treaty.

Last year, the US went so far as to issue a visa ban for the ICC's chief prosecutor, who was investigating war crimes committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Afghan government forces and foreign forces, including US personnel.

At the time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that ICC officials investigating American forces "should not assume" that they would be granted entry to the US. 

US issues visa ban for ICC chief prosecutor following Afghanistan probe
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He also threatened to sanction the court "if the ICC does not change its course".  

Omar's measure would express the House's wishes to lift any visa bans levied against ICC personnel. 

"The United States has been a leader on international criminal justice since Nuremberg, and our hostility towards the ICC has always been at odds with our commitment to the rule of law, accountability, and to the principle that no one is above the law," Omar said of the resolution on her website. "We need to send a strong message in support of international criminal justice". 

7. Global Peacebuilding Act

According to her website, Omar's Global Peacebuilding Act would provide Congress with the authorisation for the transfer of $5bn from the Pentagon's "Overseas Contingency Operations" budget to the State Department. 

The money would create a multilateral Global Peacebuilding Fund that would act as an "alternative to military intimidation and coercion". 

"Peacebuilding is also low cost compared to military and security sector programs, and has demonstrated impact in many areas in which the Pentagon is not equipped to lead overseas," the act's summary reads. 

A full version with practical details of the act has yet to be released.

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