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Egypt seizes assets of Morsi, 88 Muslim Brotherhood members

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 23:31
Egypt seizes assets of Morsi, 88 Muslim Brotherhood members
A court ordered the seizure of assets inherited by the family of Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected President
MEE and agencies Sun, 01/17/2021 - 23:31
Mohamed Morsi died in June 2019 while on trial, after six years in prison (AFP)

An Egyptian court on Sunday ordered the seizure of assets of former president Mohamed Morsi and 88 other members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, a judicial source said.

"The Court for Urgent Matters... ordered the seizure of the assets of 89 leaders and members of the Brotherhood, and their transfer to the treasury," the source told AFP, on condition of anonymity.

Morsi died in June 2019 while on trial, after six years in prison. The seizure applies to assets inherited by his family.

Why the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Egypt failed
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The move also targets the Brotherhood's supreme guide Mohamed Badie, his deputy Khairat al-Shater, and former legislator Mohamed Beltagy, all imprisoned.

The source did not specify the value of the assets.

The seizure is one of several initiated by a commission charged with implementing a 2018 law on the "organisation and management of the assets of terrorists and terrorist groups".

Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, was ousted by the army after a year in power, on the back of mass protests against his presidency in 2013.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a retired general who led the military at the time of Morsi's removal, has since overseen a crackdown on dissent.

Egypt has jailed thousands of members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood - blacklisted as a "terrorist" organisation in 2013 - and executed dozens, while others have fled the country.

Israel approves 780 settler homes ahead of Trump exit

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 21:07
Israel approves 780 settler homes ahead of Trump exit
The move is expected to rile the administration of incoming US president Joe Biden, who has vowed to oppose settlement expansion
MEE and agencies Sun, 01/17/2021 - 21:07
All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal by much of the international community (AFP)

Israel on Sunday advanced plans for 780 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, settlement watchdog Peace Now said, adding the move puts Israel "on a collision course" with the incoming US administration. 

Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had last week directed authorities to approve construction of the units in occupied Palestinian territories. 

That came less than two weeks before President Donald Trump's pro-settler administration was due to leave office. 

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal by much of the international community. 

But Trump's administration, breaking with decades of US policy, declared in 2019 that Washington no longer considered settlements as being in breach of international law. 

How Gulf states became business partners in Israel's occupation
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US President-elect Joe Biden, who will be sworn on Wednesday, has indicated that his administration will restore Washington's pre-Trump policy of opposing settlement expansion.

Peace Now, an Israeli civil society group that opposes the occupation, said that Israeli planning authorities had approved "plans to build 780 housing units in settlements, most of them deep in the West Bank."

"Not only will this settlement activity erode the possibility for a conflict-ending resolution with the Palestinians in the long-term, but in the short-term it needlessly sets Israel on a collision course with the incoming Biden administration," the group said. 

A spokesperson for the European Union said the move was "contrary to international law and further undermines the prospects of a viable two-state solution."

The EU statement called on Israel to "reverse these decisions on settlements and show leadership to rebuild trust and confidence between the parties, which is necessary for an eventual resumption of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations." 

Beyond the change in Washington, experts say Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for pushing settlement expansion. 

Electioneering is intensifying ahead of Israel's March 23 poll, in which Netanyahu is expected to face a fierce right-wing challenge from Gideon Saar, a defector from the premier's Likud party. 

Saar, a prominent pro-settler voice, split with Likud late last year to challenge Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving premier. 

"Prime Minister Netanyahu is once again putting his personal political interests over those of the country," Peace Now said. 

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War. 

Following years of settlement expansion, there are currently some 450,000 Jews living in the West Bank amid an estimated 2.8 million Palestinians.

Governments worldwide largely see settlements as an obstacle to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Qatar blockade ends: Egypt to resume flights to Doha, opening economic doors

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 15:12
Qatar blockade ends: Egypt to resume flights to Doha, opening economic doors
Resumption of flights brings economic opportunities for both countries amid the Covid-19 pandemic
MEE staff Sun, 01/17/2021 - 15:12
An Egypt Air Embraer 170 aircraft on the tarmac at Cairo International Airport, while another plane takes off, on 15 January 2021 (AFP)

Egyptian national carrier EgyptAir says it will start operating direct flights to Doha on Monday for the first time in three years. 

Egypt shut down its airspace to Qatari aircraft and suspended flights to Qatar in June 2017, when it joined Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in imposing a blockade on the Gulf state, after they accused Doha of interfering in their internal affairs by allegedly supporting opposition groups. 

Qatar blockade: What caused it and why is it coming to an end?
Read More »

Egypt reopened its airspace to Qatari planes on 12 January. The move came seven days after the four states and Qatar signed a document in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, that opens the door for the return of their normal diplomatic, political and trade ties. 

In operating flights to Qatar and reopening its airspace to Qatari aircraft on 18 January, Egypt joins in doing the same as the other three states. 

Airports prepare

EgyptAir has already started receiving reservations from Egyptians who want to travel to Qatar. 

The Egyptian carrier says it will operate two flights to Doha from Cairo International Airport on a daily basis. 

The company's chairman, Rushdi Zakaria, said four additional flights would be operated to Qatar from Borg al-Arab Airport near the northern coastal city of Alexandria every week. 

"We can increase the number of daily flights to three when demand grows in the coming period," Zakaria said on Egyptian TV. 

EgyptAir used to operate three flights daily to Doha before the blockade on Qatar. 

Meanwhile, Cairo International Airport authorities have finalised permissions for the arrival of employees of the Qatari embassy in Cairo.

Once they arrive, embassy employees will coordinate the arrival of Qatari delegations to Cairo, local newspapers quoted some airport sources as saying. 

The Qatari aviation office at Terminal 2 of Cairo International Airport was closed soon after June 2017, as was EgyptAir's office at Doha International Airport. 

Arrangements were made in the past few days for the reopening of these offices in Cairo and Doha in preparation for the return of the aviation movement between the two capitals to normal, the same sources said. 

Cairo Airport's call centre has already started receiving dozens of calls from Egyptians asking about flights to Doha, Egyptian media said. 

Economic opportunities

These developments open up vast economic opportunities for Egypt and Qatar, specialists say.

This is especially true with Qatar racing against time to complete the infrastructure projects necessary to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the world's most important football event, which will be organised in the Middle East for the first time.

Qatar blockade ends: How Gulf detente could impact global football 
Read More »

"This development will create demand for Egyptian workers in the Qatari market," Hamdi Emam, the head of the recruitment companies division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, told Middle East Eye. 

Around 300,000 Egyptians work in different sectors of the Qatari economy, including in the construction of World Cup facilities. 

Qatari authorities were keen to keep these workers, even after relations deteriorated between Cairo and Doha. 

The reopening of the Qatari market for Egyptian workers will most likely bring relief to Egyptian economic planners, as they struggle to find jobs for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who join the labour market every year. 

Around 7.3 percent of Egypt's workforce was unemployed in the third quarter of 2020, according to the Egyptian government.  

The reopening of the Qatari market to Egyptian labour is also important while jobs are becoming scarce in other Gulf countries in the light of their drive to substitute foreign workers with nationals, specialists said.

"This drive has caused hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers to lose their jobs and return home," Emam said. 

Desperate for help

This may be a factor behind the Egyptian national carrier offering discounts of up to 20 percent on its flights to Doha. The carrier is also offering discounts for younger members of travellers' families. 

Encouragement by the national carrier for Egyptians to travel to Qatar, with possibility for relations with the Gulf state to improve further in the coming period, comes as Egypt continues to suffer from the toll the Covid-19 pandemic has had on its economy. 

Cairo's Tahrir Square given facelift decade after Egyptian revolution
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Egypt has sustained around 200bn Egyptian pounds ($12.9 bn) in losses because of the pandemic, according to the country's finance minister. 

The tourism sector, which accounts for 11.2 percent of Egypt's GDP and 9.5 percent of total employment, has been strongly affected by the pandemic.

The sector has been at the centre of Egypt's closures, including a three-month suspension of international flights from March to July 2020. 

Egypt continues to receive international flights, hoping the tourism sector will compensate for some of the losses it made in the first half of 2020.

In 2015, 17,814 Qatari tourists visited Egypt, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism said.

"The operation of flights to and from Doha will hopefully encourage Qatari tourists to come to Egypt, even if gradually," Alaa al-Ghamri, a member of the board of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association, told MEE. "This is important for the Egyptian economy." 

Qatari investments in Egypt have already started coming back to life after they hit a snag in the wake of the diplomatic crisis between Cairo and Doha. 

On 5 January, Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi arrived in Cairo to open the St Regis hotel, a $1.3bn investment by Qatari construction giant Diar. 

Qatar invests $5bn in Egypt, including $3bn through Diar alone. 

Further raising prospects for increased Qatari business interest in Egypt, Egyptian authorities have introduced a series of reforms to investment laws to attract foreign money.

Economists in Cairo say the size of the Egyptian market, with a population of 100 million, is another incentive.

"These opportunities will encourage Qatari investors to come here," Bassant Fahmi, a former member of the Committee on Economic Affairs in the Egyptian parliament, told MEE. "With its location and the size of its population, Egypt is a true investment magnet."

Cairo

Incoming Biden official calls for reversal of Houthi terror designation

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 11:37
Incoming Biden official calls for reversal of Houthi terror designation
National security advisor nominee Jake Sullivan says Trump administration's move 'will only inflict more suffering on Yemeni people'
MEE and agencies Sun, 01/17/2021 - 11:37
A woman carries a young infant suffering from severe malnutrition since birth in Yemen's northern Hajjah province on 6 December 2020 (AFP)

The outgoing Trump administration's decision to classify Yemen's Houthi rebels as terrorists will only cause more suffering for the people of that war-torn nation, Joe Biden's nominee for national security advisor said Saturday.

The rebels control much of Yemen and have faced a military offensive led by Saudi Arabia, with millions in Yemen depending on aid to survive.

Biden faces calls to reverse labelling of Yemen's Houthis as terrorists
Read More »

Designating the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, a terrorist group is expected to halt many transactions with Houthi authorities, including bank transfers, payments for medical personnel and for food and fuel, due to fears of US prosecution.

"Houthi commanders need to be held accountable, but designating the whole organisation will only inflict more suffering on Yemeni people and impede diplomacy critical to end the war," Biden's pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, tweeted.

The designation is set to come into force on 19 January, the eve of the inauguration of Biden, whose aides had hoped to mount a fresh push to end Yemen's six-year war.

It is also seen as complicating the incoming US leader's promised efforts to restart diplomacy with Iran, which has links to the Houthis.

The terrorist classification has drawn criticism from the United Nations, aid groups, the European Union and many others over fears it will exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

"What is the likely humanitarian impact? The answer is a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years," Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said Thursday.

Lowcock said exemptions to allow aid agencies to deliver supplies, as suggested by Washington, would not be sufficient to avoid a famine, adding "what would prevent it? A reversal of the decision."

The Trump administration's decision has had a mixed reception in Yemen, with some supporters of Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi accusing UN officials opposed to the terrorism designation of taking the side of the Houthis, while others have raised fears that the move would only make the situation worse for the country's already struggling population.

Scores killed in militia raid in Sudan's Darfur

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 10:41
Scores killed in militia raid in Sudan's Darfur
The attack on an IDP camp reportedly killed at least 48 people, weeks after UN voted to withdraw peacekeeping mission
Kaamil Ahmed Sun, 01/17/2021 - 10:41
Sudanese forces stationed in El-Geneina in 2016 (AFP/File photo)

At least 48 people have been killed in ongoing militia attacks around a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Darfur's El-Geneina city, sources reported.

The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said 97 people have also been injured since armed men began raiding the area of the Krinding camp on Saturday. The committee expressed fears that the number of casualties  will rise. 

A conflict reportedly between ethnic Masalit people in Krinding and herders grew into a larger conflict involving armed militias. Similar clashes in the area killed at least 72 people in December 2019. 

Urgent now the #El_Geniena is still bleeding again this morning 17/1/2021 the clashes renew
Kriding IDP Camp. pic.twitter.com/LPKs4RTeb3

— Kaka Fur (@KakaFurAndi) January 17, 2021

The activist coalition Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) called on the country's transitional government to step in, claiming militias have been allowed to operate freely, especially after the UN and African Union's peacekeeping mission, Unamid, began withdrawing this month after 13 years in the region.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said he had ordered a "high-profile" delegation, including security services, to be sent to West Darfur. 

Gold, weapons, fighters: Sudanese Janjaweed's international path to power
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Many of the militias operating in Darfur, known as the Janjaweed, are considered to have links to the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary (RSF), whose leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, or Hemeti, is now a leader in the transitional government. 

During the December 2019 fighting in Krinding, the armed herders were reportedly accompanied by some wearing RSF uniforms

The SPA has called for quick action to impose security, for the assailants to be prosecuted and for a campaign to disarm militias in Darfur amid the ongoing attacks. 

The association has also recently been protesting for the closure of RSF detention centres, after activist Bahaeldin Nouri died while in their custody in December after allegedly being tortured.

The Janjaweed and former president Omar al-Bashir have been accused of genocide against Darfuri ethnic groups during a conflict from 2003 onwards that killed 300,000 people, according to the UN. 

Though the levels of violence have decreased and a peace deal was agreed last year between the military and Darfuri rebel groups, raids and clashes between armed herders and farmers are still common.

Australian father and son released by Qatar after months jailed without charge

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 09:59
Australian father and son released by Qatar after months jailed without charge
Advocacy group says the two men, one a professor who had been on Doha's Covid-19 task force, were secretly detained and tortured
MEE and agencies Sun, 01/17/2021 - 09:59
Professor Lukman Thalib (right) received a teaching award at Qatar University in 2018. He is a public health expert and helped Qatar with its Covid-19 response (Supplied)

An Australian father and son have been released after being jailed for six months by Qatar without ever being publicly charged,  multiple sources said Sunday.

Arrested in July, Professor Lukman Thalib, 58, and his son Ismail Talib, 24, had been kept in solitary confinement and subjected to "cruel and inhumane treatment," according to UK-based advocacy group Cage.

"As a family we were overwhelmed with joy when we heard my father and brother were being released. We really couldn't believe it," Maryam Talib, Thalib's daughter, said in a statement released by Cage.

Maryam Talib said the family still had "many unanswered questions," including why Canberra provided "little" support during the ordeal.

"We have still not received any formal allegations or justification for what has happened," she said.

Cage has said the two men were subjected to "sleep deprivation, temperature exposure and being restrained in painful stress positions, all of which is in violation of international law against torture".

The group accused Australia of being aware the men had been secretly detained in July and said embassy officials visited them in detention but did not inform their family of their location nor of torture claims made by Professor Thalib. 

Thalib was listed on the directory of Qatar University's College of Health Sciences as a professor of public health specialising in biostatistics, and had been part of Qatar's scientific research task force for Covid-19

Australia's foreign ministry said in a statement that it had "provided consular assistance to two Australian men who had been detained in Qatar," but declined to comment further to AFP.

The Qatari government was also approached for comment by the news agency.

In October, the US Department of the Treasury designated another of Thalib's sons, Ahmed Luqman Talib, as a "facilitator" of al-Qaeda, along with that son's gemstone company, Talib and Sons PTY LTD.

No charges have publicly been brought against Ahmed Luqman Talib.

Cage said the released men planned to spend time recuperating in Turkey, where they are receiving medical treatment, before returning to Australia.

Yemen: UN condemnation of Houthi terror designation sparks campaign against envoy

Sat, 01/16/2021 - 16:24
Yemen: UN condemnation of Houthi terror designation sparks campaign against envoy
UN special envoy to Yemen accused by government supporters of taking sides, while others warn of humanitarian issues at stake
MEE correspondent Sat, 01/16/2021 - 16:24
Martin Griffiths, centre, the UN special envoy for Yemen, arrives at Sanaa international airport on 11 February 2019 (AFP)

The reaction of Martin Griffiths, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, to US plans to designate Yemen's Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organisation has created a campaign against Griffiths by pro-government figures.

Starving Yemenis fearful of Houthi terror designation's consequences
Read More »

Mark Lowcock, director-general of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), called for the decision by US President Donald Trump's government to be reversed, warning  that ensuing sanctions could lead to the cost of food increasing by as much as 400 percent in the already poverty-stricken country.

Griffiths and World Food Programme executive director David Beasley echoed Lowcock's call on 14 January, urging Washington to reverse the decision immediately.

Rights groups and aid agencies have also warned against the US plan to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group, insisting that the designation will accelerate Yemen's slide into a large-scale famine.

However, the denunciation of the US move has created anger among supporters of exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, as pro-government activists, journalists and politicians have zeroed in on Griffiths and accused him of serving the Houthi rebels, who have been fighting pro-government forces since 2014.

A social media campaign under the Arabic hashtag "Martin Griffiths supports terrorism" has spread widely in Arabic, while some cartoonists have drawn caricatures to express anger against the UN envoy.

But some have rejected the campaign against Griffiths, pointing out the alleged war crimes by Hadi's own allies, as others highlighted that humanitarian considerations ought to take precedence over political point-scoring.

Accusations of complicity

Saleh Nabil was one of those angered upon hearing that Griffiths opposed the designation Houthis as a terrorist organisation, citing allegations of crimes committed by Houthis in his governorate Taiz.

"There are daily attacks and crimes by the Houthis around the whole country nowadays, especially in Taiz, but Griffiths doesn't consider such attacks to be terrorism!" the Yemeni man told Middle East Eye. "I don't know what terrorism means for the UN. If the UN envoy doesn't consider killing civilians for six years to be terrorism, that means we can't reach a solution in Yemen at all."

Aden's terrified residents fear more attacks after return of Yemeni government
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Nabil noted the attack on Aden airport in December 2020 shortly after a plane carrying a newly formed Yemeni government arrived from Saudi Arabia, which the government has accused Houthi fighters of committing, an allegation the group has rejected.

Griffiths has condemned the "ruthless attack" on the Aden airport, calling the scale of damage caused by the missile strike "extraordinary".

Nabil hypothesised that strategic thinking may be behind the UN's decision to oppose the terrorism designation.

"Griffiths isn't stupid enough to believe that attacks on civilians aren't terrorism, but he knows that the Yemeni government can't say no to the UN, while the Houthis may stop dealing with him if he said the truth," Nabil said.

The internationally recognised government (IRG) of Yemen has not officially commented on the UN reaction to the US designation plan, but Minister of Endowments Mohammed Shabibah accused Griffiths in a tweet of working in the interest of the Houthis.

Shabibah has not been the only one to imply Griffiths was complicit in some ways with the Houthis for nefarious purposes.

The Yemeni politician and Unesco representative Mohammed Jumeh meanwhile tweeted: "Griffiths failed in his role because of the Houthis' rejection of peace, failed on briefing the UN Security Council about that and refused designating the Houthis as a terrorist group.

"Nevertheless, he holds on to his position. It isn't for the sake of achieving his tasks but for other purposes."

The Hadi government has been pushing for Houthis to be designated as a terrorist group for years and it welcomed the US move.

Osama al-Qadhi is a pro-Hadi fighter who has been fighting the Houthis for years on different fronts in Yemen.

"We are fighting on the battlefields, but the Houthis have been targeting civilians in their homes and civil institutions, and that's definitely terrorism," he told MEE. "Today, [Griffiths] revealed his other face, and all Yemenis know that he supports the Houthi terrorists to kill more civilians."

Qadhi said he hoped the Hadi government would call for Griffiths' resignation.

"We shouldn't wait for a solution to come from the UN, and our government should start to look for the solution itself and it will find fighters to support its decisions on the ground. A solution won't come from abroad."

Accusations of double standards

But in the country where war has raged for around six years, not all agreed with the campaign against Griffiths.

Mujahed, a trader who requested not to have his surname used, told MEE that he was happy to hear that the UN was calling for the reversal of the designation, calling it a dangerous step by the US that would have devastating consequences on Yemenis.

"Regardless of the humanitarian impact of this step by Trump's administration, there is no solid evidence to consider Ansar Allah as a terrorist group," he said, using another term for the Houthi rebels.

Mujahed claimed US accusations that Houthis were behind the December airport attack was false, while pointing to attacks by the Saudi-led international military coalition that has backed Hadi since March 2015.

"The USA didn't mention attacks by the Saudi coalition on wedding halls, homes and other civil institutions," he noted, arguing that if Houthis were deemed terrorists, "the Saudi coalition should be also a terrorist group".

Mujahed moves between provinces because of his work, and said he has witnessed the suffering of Yemenis everywhere.

'I'm not with Ansar Allah nor with Hadi. I'm with the vulnerable people around Yemen'

- Ahmed, aid worker

"The Saudi air strikes killed and destroyed more than Ansar Allah, and if there are sanctions they should be on both sides," he said.

Ahmed, a humanitarian worker with an international organisation, spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorised to speak to the media. He said he understood the point of view of the UN on the matter.

"The UN is thinking about the humanitarian consequences of such a step, and that's why the UN and other organisations are calling for the US plan to be revoked," he said. "There is a campaign against Griffiths, but in fact he didn't do anything wrong. What he did is only a good step to save the lives of millions in Yemen."

Ahmed stated that the humanitarian consequences of such a terror designation could be "disastrous".

"I'm not with Ansar Allah nor with Hadi. I'm with the vulnerable people around Yemen, and I'm only thinking about them and their future, so I hope we can continue to support them," he said.

Taiz, Yemen

Iraqi protest leaders launch political bloc ahead of elections

Sat, 01/16/2021 - 11:30
Iraqi protest leaders launch political bloc ahead of elections
New party to push for demands made by protesters in 'October Revolution' upcoming in parliamentary elections
Kaamil Ahmed Sat, 01/16/2021 - 11:30
An Iraqi protester holds up a photo of Alaa al-Rikabi, who became a face of Iraq's protest movement (AFP)

A new party aimed at challenging Iraq's political class and representing the country's youth has been launched by the activists who fronted a mass protest movement in 2019. 

A prominent leader of the "October Revolution," Dr Alaa al-Rikabi, announced at a press conference on Friday that the new Imtidad Movement would "confront the corruption of the current regime" in parliamentary elections in June. 

Anti-government protests resume in Iraq one year after anniversary
Read More »

He said the name referred to the party being an "extension" of the protest movement, which began in October 2019 and encouraged mass protests around the country until the coronavirus pandemic limited their ability to mobilise. 

The Voice of Iraq publication reported that Rikabi announced the new party in nearby Samawah, instead of Nasriyah city, where he is based, because of fears about attacks from rival parties.

Tensions flared in Nasiriyah recently when security forces opened fire on protesters who had occupied a square in the city's centre, in which they had previously camped out until November, when they were removed and eight people were killed in clashes. 

Protesters reoccupied the square a week ago, demanding the release of peers arrested in recent weeks. A policeman was killed in resulting clashes. 

On the same day, a senior lawyer and activist in Nasiriyah was killed during a raid on his home

The youth-led protest movement focused on corruption, unemployment and on confronting the political elite, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. His replacement, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has been accused of failing to deliver on promises.

Kadhimi called for June's elections a year ahead of their scheduled date, in line with the protest movement's demands.  

The protests fizzled out last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a crackdown that left nearly 600 dead and 30,000 wounded.

However, kidnappings, targeted killings and arrests of protest leaders have continued, with many activists facing kidnapping and assassination by armed groups over their involvement in the anti-government protests.

Caliphate: How the New York Times' Islamic State scoop unravelled

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 22:21
Caliphate: How the New York Times' Islamic State scoop unravelled
Laila Al-Arian Fri, 01/15/2021 - 22:21
The Caliphate podcast has revealed again that the paper needs to confront unpleasant truths about how it handles stories at the nexus of Islam, the Middle East and terrorism

One of the most consequential US media scandals in recent years ultimately ended with a whimper. After a two-month internal investigation, the New York Times last month acknowledged that its blockbuster podcast, Caliphate, was based on a hoax

But what should have been an assessment of the deep-seated problems that led to this debacle left major issues unaddressed - perhaps because they required facing too many unpleasant truths about how the paper has handled stories at the nexus of Islam, the Middle East and terrorism. Perhaps also because too many names on the newspaper’s masthead were implicated in Caliphate’s implosion.

At the core of the Times’ response were excuses, rather than a recognition of the systemic biases and blind spots in its coverage of Islam and the Middle East that caused the fiasco

On 18 December, the Times admitted that key parts of Caliphate fell short of its "standards of accuracy” after it concluded that its key source, Shehroze Chaudhry, a 26-year-old Pakistani Canadian man, had fabricated his account of travelling to Syria and joining the Islamic State (IS).

The result of the internal investigation included a podcast episode, an editor’s note that now precedes Caliphate, a roundup by Times media reporters and an in-depth investigation into Chaudhry’s multiple deceptions. The lead reporter on the podcast, Rukmini Callimachi, whose star rose with her coverage of al-Qaeda and IS, was reassigned. 

Yet, at the core of the Times’ response were excuses, rather than a recognition of the systemic biases and blind spots in its coverage of Islam and the Middle East that caused the fiasco. While it admitted that the problems with the podcast reflected an “institutional failure”, the Times did not apologise for the damaging role the hugely popular audio series had in shaping policy in Canada. 

When the podcast painted a picture of a murderous terrorist roaming the country’s streets, the opposition in Canada was furious. The political fallout effectively ended the debate over the repatriation of former IS members and their families. The lack of reckoning by the Times with the potential harm its false reporting caused raises questions about whether the newspaper's primary concern was the damage to its reputation.

The Times concluded that there was not enough scrutiny of the reporting for the podcast because the newspaper was new to audio. But it’s clear the journalistic failings extended beyond the podcast. On the same day it made this statement, the Times appended editor’s notes to two of Callimachi’s articles from 2014 and 2019 after a review found significant problems.

Terrorism hoax

The downfall of Caliphate began in September, when Canadian authorities charged Chaudhry with perpetrating a terrorism hoax based on interviews he gave to journalists, including the Times. Chaudhry, who went by the name Abu Huzayfah, was the main subject of Caliphate. 

After a lengthy investigation, Canadian authorities could not verify key parts of Chaudhry’s story. A Times investigation after his arrest reached the same conclusion. Chaudhry likely never went to Syria, joined IS or killed anyone, authorities say. He was charged on the grounds that his interviews sparked “public safety concerns amongst Canadians”. He is set to appear in an Ontario court later this month.

New York Times says Caliphate podcast probably made up by 'con artist'
Read More »

Early on in Caliphate, Callimachi expressed frustration that after interviewing a number of IS fighters over the years, she had never found someone willing to admit to their crimes. In Abu Huzayfah, she thought she had finally found that person. 

It turns out that fear is an alluring and irresistible storyline. Caliphate had a narrative, with Callimachi and Abu Huzayfah playing starring roles. It was a narrative about gratuitous Muslim violence, to which Abu Huzayfah would finally give carnal details. 

In an interview after the retraction, Times executive editor Dean Baquet acknowledged: “We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes.” Callimachi and her audio producer, Andy Mills, pushed ahead with the podcast, despite knowing that Chaudhry made up key parts of his story. The allure of this narrative led the reporters to miss multiple red flags.

Faulty timeline

During their reporting, the team found that Chaudhry had lied about the timeline of when he travelled to Syria, but in response, they put together an alternate timeline that satisfied them. Despite discovering these deceptions before releasing Caliphate, they built an entire podcast around him anyway. 

They relied on the word of two unnamed American intelligence officials who told them that Chaudhry was on the US no-fly list and had joined IS, but this should not have been used as evidence without further corroboration, as intelligence officials are not infallible. 

In an interview about the Caliphate retraction, Baquet said the no-fly list was one of the reasons the Times was duped, explaining that it’s “not so easy to get on”, which is demonstrably untrue, with lawsuits alleging that babies and toddlers have been added to it.

Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi speaks in New York in August 2018 (AFP)
Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi speaks in New York in August 2018 (AFP)

In an interview with a Canadian outlet a month after Caliphate's release, Chaudhry denied that he had killed anyone. But Callimachi was convinced that she had caught Chaudhry in a special window of time before Canadian authorities were on to him.

Two and a half years later, shortly after Chaudhry’s arrest, Callimachi and the Times tried to claim that they had built “narrative tension” into the podcast, but that response fell flat, since the only doubt they sowed was about the timeline of when he went to Syria, not the substance of his account.

Additionally, Callimachi questioned whether Canadian authorities charged Chaudhry with perpetrating a hoax because they were unable to collect the necessary evidence to charge him. Such defensiveness is perhaps understandable from the lead reporter on a big story, but the Times’ period of introspection led to a response with multiple problems.

The 'ISIS Files'

There was a backlash against Callimachi and the Times in 2018 after she took more than 15,000 internal IS documents out of Iraq without permission from Iraqi authorities, which the newspaper later published as the “ISIS Files”. The documents were also featured throughout Caliphate. She and the Times were criticised for not redacting some of the documents to protect Iraqis’ names and personal information, including that of minors. 

Callimachi’s decision to take these documents out of the country raised legal questions about the ethics of removing important historical documents from a war-torn country. But the problems went beyond Caliphate and some of Callimachi’s colleagues have said that their attempts to warn their managers were futile.

The Caliphate podcast overemphasises religious ideology, while stripping the group's founding and rise from the geopolitical context of Iraq

A Syrian journalist who helped to report a story for Callimachi that was published in 2014 (one of the articles recently corrected) said his warnings about the credibility of a source she relied on were dismissed. “With Rukmini, it felt like the story was pre-reported in her head and she was looking for someone to tell her what she already believed, what she thought would be a great story,” Karam Shoumali told the Times.

As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reported, another colleague reportedly told editors at a meeting to discuss the Caliphate retraction: "You discouraged people from using the fire alarm, and when some of us did use the fire alarm anyhow, we found the alarm was not connected to anything."

For her part, Callimachi released a statement on the day of Caliphate’s retraction saying: "I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on ISIS and its crimes against humanity," and apologised for "what we missed and what we got wrong." 

I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on the ISIS beat. But as journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves. Please see my full statement below regarding our Caliphate podcast: pic.twitter.com/FBUFsrnbsa

— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) December 18, 2020

The Caliphate implosion and Callimachi’s track record draw attention to a double standard in journalistic rigour and professionalism when it comes to covering the Middle East and the terrorism beat.

After the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, Callimachi recklessly speculated, based on unverified claims in IS publications, about the possibility that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, had converted to Islam and carried out the shooting at the behest of IS. That she was allowed to baselessly speculate on social media demonstrates that professional standards often don’t apply when it comes to the terrorism beat.

Lazy stereotyping

In a revealing answer for a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) in which Mills and Callimachi participated after the release of the podcast, Mills was asked to name the biggest misconception concerning IS. He responded that in the West, it was “that belief and religion play no role”. 

Has the New York Times declared war on Iran?
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I’m not sure what “West” he was referring to. Has there not been extensive public discussion of the various “problems” with Islam, Muslims and the Muslim world since 9/11? One of the two great US parties has made massive political hay for years by repeating ad nauseum, publicly and provocatively, that “we” need to name the problem: “radical Islamic terrorism”.

Callimachi’s reporting on IS fed and fed off of this prurient fascination with “Islam and violence”. The Caliphate podcast overemphasises religious ideology, while stripping the group’s founding and rise from the geopolitical context of Iraq, a country that was destroyed by the 2003 US invasion and occupation, which destabilised the entire region. 

A leitmotif of Callimachi’s work is that IS and other jihadist groups are a legitimate - and perhaps revealing - manifestation of Islam. By Callimachi’s count, 40,000 Muslim foreigners joined IS, which in a religion of 1.8 billion is a statistically insignificant number. Yet, she devotes much of her reporting on the group to describing, explaining and at times acting as a borderline stenographer for what amounts to a murderous cult’s theological beliefs and justifications.

The lazy stereotyping allowed when reporting on “the region”, identified decades ago by Edward Said, rears its head in Callimachi’s analysis (as well as those of too many other major reporters). In an interview with NPR in 2015, she said that parents supporting their daughters who were raped was unusual in the Middle East, or “this part of the world”. What evidence is there of this? Maybe she could speak to the Iraqi families whose daughters were raped by American soldiers to see whether they support their daughters. 

Sensationalistic reporting about the Middle East “often confirms readers’ worst biases” (AA)
Sensationalistic reporting about the Middle East “often confirms readers’ worst biases” (AA)

Even if Callimachi wanted to, however, she would not be able to. Although much of her most high-profile work is based on Arabic-language documents, Callimachi does not speak or read Arabic. 

This dismissive attitude towards the region is typical: wringing hands over its cultural backwardness and placing its majority religion at the centre of discussions on violence, instead of asking what happens to people subjected to decades of sanctions, oppression, occupation and the destructive power of the US military. This trope in journalism is so ingrained that most people don’t even notice it.

A study in contrasts

In the editor’s note preceding the Caliphate podcast, there’s no mention of the word “retract”. Given how much Abu Huzayfah’s story figured into the podcast, it is a strange decision not to use this word when the tainted character is mentioned in all but one episode (the ninth chapter, which itself raises ethical questions, as when Callimachi asked a Yazidi girl to participate in a call with her alleged rapist to confirm his voice. Would this tactic be acceptable in the US on such a sensitive story involving minors?) 

We've been here before. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Times laundered unverified propaganda from Iraqi opposition members and US intelligence and placed it prominently on the front page

The lack of a clear retraction stands in stark contrast to other journalistic case studies, including the Atlantic’s recent retraction of a long read about wealthy Connecticut parents trying to ensure their kids’ admission into elite universities through niche sports. After the Atlantic discovered that the author, who had a history of plagiarism two decades earlier, had fabricated key details or made mistakes that needed correcting, the magazine retracted the piece and said it could not stand by it. 

In contrast, the Times called Callimachi a “powerful reporter”, though the damage her podcast caused is undeniably greater than any fallout from the Atlantic article. 

The most the Times seems willing to do is reassign Callimachi, even though she had already begun reporting on stories beyond the terror beat before the podcast’s implosion, including a high-profile deep dive into Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville during a police raid in March 2020. 

In the fallout over the Caliphate saga, the Times returned the Peabody Award it won for the podcast and withdrew its entry for the Pulitzer Prize from consideration (it had been given a “finalist” citation).

Will it happen again?

Reporting about Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East, especially sensationalistic stories, is believed because it often confirms readers’ worst biases and pre-existing beliefs. We have become so inured to framing that pathologises Arabs and Muslims that we don’t even notice it. But there’s also a fear to publicly critique a reporter from a hallowed institution, which explains why the Times not only gets away with such framing time and again, but seems to encourage it from its biggest stars.

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We’ve been here before. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Times laundered unverified propaganda from Iraqi opposition members and US intelligence and placed it prominently on the front page of the newspaper, helping to sway public opinion in favour of the war. 

In its tepid apology for such reporting in May 2004, the Times wrote: “But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged - or failed to emerge.” 

It seems like the Times has once again failed to take away the right lessons from this debacle, which means it can - and likely will - happen again.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Update Date
Mon, 05/04/2020 - 21:28
Update Date Override
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Abbas announces first Palestinian elections in more than 15 years

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 21:32
Abbas announces first Palestinian elections in more than 15 years
Parliamentary elections will be held on 22 May, followed by presidential vote on 31 July, according to office of President Mahmoud Abbas
MEE and agencies Fri, 01/15/2021 - 21:32
Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas, 85, has been Palestinian president since 2005 (AFP)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the first parliamentary and presidential elections in 15 years will take place later this year in an effort to heal longstanding internal divisions.

According to a decree issued by Abbas's office on Friday, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, will hold legislative elections on 22 May and a presidential vote on 31 July.

"The president instructed the election committee and all state apparatuses to launch a democratic election process in all cities of the homeland," the decree said, referring to the occupied West Bank, Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem.

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The statement said Abbas expected polls "in all governorates of Palestine, including East Jerusalem", which was annexed by Israel following the 1967 war but is considered occupied territory.

The last parliamentary elections for Palestinians took place in 2006 and resulted in a surprise win for Hamas, widening a political rift that led to internecine violence between Hamas and the Fatah movement led by Abbas. When the fighting ended, Hamas remained in charge of the Gaza Strip, with Fatah largely routed from the coastal enclave, while Fatah was the dominant force in the West Bank, creating a political divide that has led to a lengthy delay in setting further elections.

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the Gaza Strip, an area the size of the US city of Detroit. Under blockade by Israel since the Hamas election victory, the Strip has been described as "the world's largest open-air prison".

Israel withdrew its troops in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of Gaza's land and sea borders, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

Hamas welcomed the announcement of fresh elections, saying in a statement that it was the result of months of work "to resolve all obstacles so that we can reach this day".

Forming a unified front

Israel bans all PA activity in East Jerusalem, and there was no indication it would allow a Palestinian vote within Jerusalem, which it considers its "undivided capital".

Palestinian factions have in recent months renewed reconciliation efforts in an attempt to form a united front against Israel since it reached agreements last year to normalise relations with four Arab countries.

Those accords dismayed Palestinians and left them increasingly isolated in a region that has seen allegiances shift away from a unified stance among Arab countries that normalisation would only come with concessions for Palestinians.

Elections could pose a major risk for Abbas's Fatah party, and also for Hamas, as both have faced protests in recent years over their inability to reconcile with one another, advance Palestinian aspirations for statehood or meet the basic needs of those in the territories they govern.

US imposes fresh sanctions on Iran in final days of Trump presidency

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 18:56
US imposes fresh sanctions on Iran in final days of Trump presidency
Sanctions on Iranian shipping and transport entities come just five days before President-elect Joe Biden is to be sworn in
MEE staff Fri, 01/15/2021 - 18:56
Shahid Rajaee port
Iranian safety inspector stands next to cargo ship while unloading shipping containers at Shahid Rajaee port in 2016 (AFP/File photo)

With just five days left in the White House, the Trump administration sanctioned several Iranian entities on Friday as part of the US's "maximum-pressure" campaign against the Islamic Republic.

The State Department said in a statement that it sanctioned seven companies and two people for shipping steel to or from Iran. Another set of sanctions levied on Friday targeted Iran's marine, aerospace and aviation industries. 

The department said the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) came after the company "knowingly transferred" grain-oriented electrical steel to at least one Iranian person who had been blacklisted by the United States. 

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Mohammad Reza Modarres Khiabani, the CEO of IRISL, was sanctioned alongside the firm. 

Jiangyin Mascot Special Steel, a China-based company, was also sanctioned for its part in providing grain-oriented electrical steel via IRISL, the State Department said. 

Electrical steel is necessary for power distribution transformers for all types of energy - including solar, nuclear, wind, coal, and natural gas. 

Accenture Building Materials, a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran's Mobarakeh Steel Company and Sapid Shipping, an IRISL affiliate, were also sanctioned for "knowingly" selling, supplying or transferring raw or semi-finished steel to or from a blacklisted person or entity. 

"We have warned industr[ies] that those who do business with IRISL, its subsidiaries, and other Iranian shipping entities, risk sanctions," the State Department said in the statement. 

Wave of sanctions

Last week the US blacklisted 12 Iranian steel and metals makers - including a subsidiary of IRISL. 

Iran's Marine Industries Organization (MIO), Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), and the Iran Aviation Industries Organization (IAIO) were also blacklisted on Friday.

The three agencies were sanctioned for engaging in activities that materially contribute to the supply of arms or related materials, including spare parts, the State Department said in a second statement on Friday. 

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"Each of these entities manufactures lethal military equipment for Iran's military, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a designated foreign terrorist organization that is also designated under our authority," the State Department said. 

"This military equipment, which includes attack boats, missiles, and combat drones, provides a means for the Iranian regime to [perpetuate] its global terror campaign."

US President Donald Trump, along with his administration, leaves office on 20 January, when President-elect Joe Biden is to be sworn in. 

In anticipation of the Biden administration's plans to re-enter a nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has shifted to imposing non-nuclear related sanctions in recent months, which may be harder to lift during negotiations. 

US sanctions on Iran have increased pressure on the cost of living for ordinary people, driving up the prices of everyday goods, including food and medicine.

The outgoing administration has also announced plans to formally designate the Houthi group in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organisation, claiming that it is backed by Iran. The Islamic Republic has denied it provides support to the Houthis.

'Bad news for Riyadh' as Menendez set to chair US Senate foreign relations

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 18:53
'Bad news for Riyadh' as Menendez set to chair US Senate foreign relations
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez has been outspoken critic of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and kingdom's war in Yemen
Ali Harb Fri, 01/15/2021 - 18:53
Bob Menendez (AFP)
Menendez has called for imposing sanctions on top Saudi officials over murder of Jamal Khashoggi (AFP/File photo)

Progressive Democrats hope the unconditional support that Saudi Arabia enjoyed from the White House over the past four years will come to an end when Joe Biden, who has vowed to "reassess" US relations with the kingdom, replaces President Donald Trump next week. 

More bad news appears to be looming for Riyadh from another part of the US government as well. 

With Democrats gaining control of the Senate, Bob Menendez - an opponent of arms sales to Gulf states and outspoken critic of the kingdom - will become the chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

"It's really bad news for Riyadh," said Marcus Montgomery, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC who tracks congressional affairs.

"If you're Saudi Arabia, and you're looking at a Democratic-controlled Senate, Menendez is arguably the last person you want as an enemy right now. And he clearly is. He's very adamant on taking back control of how arms sales are processed, and he has a particular ire against Saudi Arabia."

Menendez, a New Jersey senator, was one of the three co-sponsors of a resolution to block a $23bn arms sale to the United Arab Emirates last month. The bill narrowly failed to advance in the Senate. 

But with his new powers as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is set to have a bigger say in foreign policy matters and arms sales. 

"We are introducing these bipartisan resolutions out of a shared understanding that Congress must strongly assert its statutory authority over our nation's foreign arms sales," Menendes said last month when announcing the legislation to block the UAE deal. 

"As I tried to warn the Trump administration, circumventing deliberative processes for considering a massive infusion of weapons to a country in a volatile region with multiple ongoing conflicts is downright irresponsible."

Critical of arms sales

Democrats secured control of the Senate after winning two runoff races in Georgia last week. The new members are set to be sworn in later this month, promoting Menendez from ranking member to chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The leader of the committee can hold up or advance legislation, call for hearings and shape up the Senate's stances on diplomacy and war.

As the ranking member of the committee, Menendez has led efforts to impose more scrutiny on arms sales to the Gulf.

When the Trump administration issued an emergency declaration to bypass Congress in approving a weapons deal with Riyadh in 2019, it was because Menendez had single-handedly held up the sale. 

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The Democrat had halted the process by refusing to acknowledge the administration's notification of the sale until he received answers about his concerns about use of US-made weaponry in Yemen.

"I am not confident that these weapons sales will be utilized strategically as effective leverage to push back on Iran’s actions in Yemen, assist our partners in their own self-defense, or drive the parties toward a political settlement that saves lives and mitigates humanitarian suffering," he wrote in a letter to the secretaries of state and defence the previous year.

"Even worse, I am concerned that our policies are enabling [the] perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

Menendez then led the charge to prevent the sale after the emergency declaration. "It is our bombs that are dropping on those civilians. We cannot morally continue to support such sales," the senator said at the time, referring to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

A resolution to halt the deal passed in the House and the Senate but was eventually vetoed by Trump in July 2019.

Pushing back against Yemen war

Beyond arms sales, Menendez has engaged in legislative efforts to rebuke Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses.

In 2019, Menendez was the lead sponsor of the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which called for imposing sanctions on officials in the kingdom over the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The bill, which did not advance for a floor vote, called for blocking the assets and revoking the visas of any Saudi royal or official "responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing an act or acts contributing to or causing the death of Jamal Khashoggi".

Khashoggi, a journalist who wrote for the Washington Post and Middle East Eye, was killed by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in 2018. 

Saudi Arabia says the murder was a rogue operation that occured without the knowledge or approval of the kingdom's leaders.

'[Menendez] is very adamant on taking back control of how arms sales are processed, and he has a particular ire against Saudi Arabia'

- Marcus Montgomery, Arab Center Washington DC

Trump has shielded Saudi rulers by withholding the intelligence community's findings about the assassination, despite congressional requests for a report on who ordered the killing.

Late in 2018, several US media outlets reported that the CIA had concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had directed the murder.

"Despite foreign and international officials investigating this matter who have concluded that senior Saudi officials bear responsibility for Mr Khashoggi's murder, this administration has been conspicuously reticent to hold senior officials and senior members of the royal family accountable," Menendez said in 2019. 

"Now, despite a mountain of credible evidence, this administration seeks to avoid not only the spirit but the very letter of the law. This is wholly unacceptable for a nation built on the rule of law and committed to the protection of human rights."

A year earlier, Menendez backed congressional efforts to end US support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. "Just because you're our ally, you cannot kill with impunity and believe you can get away with it," he said at the time. 

A congressional resolution to halt American assistance to the coalition was approved by Congress, but Trump vetoed it.

Staunch Israel supporter 

While Menendez has been tough on the Saudis, he is one of the staunchest supporters of their de-facto Israeli allies. 

When he was up for re-election in 2018, Open Secrets, a website that tracks money in politics, ranked Menendez as the top recipient of donations from pro-Israel groups.

"One: The security of the United States is strong when Israel is strong," Menendez told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last year. 

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"Two: The Jewish people have a right to live in peace, security, and prosperity in the indisputable homeland of their ancestors. And three: Israel has a right to defend herself, and the United States will always ensure she has the capabilities necessary to protect her people and her borders."

Axios reported earlier this week that Israel plans on lobbying the Biden administration to "avoid confrontations" with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt over human rights concerns.

Would that push dampen Menendez's criticism of Saudi policies?

Montgomery said Israel and its US allies were unlikely to spoil their ties with the senator if he insisted on pursuing policies critical of the kingdom.

"I don't see there being a conflict that ruptures the relationship that the Israelis have crafted with Menendez," he told MEE. "That kind of leads me to think that if Menendez digs in his heels, they might be more likely to relent in order to maintain their good relationship with him."

Iran hawk

Unlike other outspoken Democratic critics of Saudi Arabia, Menendez holds hawkish views against the kingdom's Iranian foes. 

In 2015, Menendez opposed the Iran nuclear deal under the administration of President Barack Obama.

Trump withdrew Washington from the agreement in 2018.

The multilateral agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had seen the Islamic Republic scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.

"This deal grants Iran permanent sanctions relief in exchange for only temporary, temporary limitations on its nuclear program," the senator said in 2015. "We want a deal, but we want the right deal."

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Menendez has also appeared at events for the regime-change-seeking Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), which had been designated as a terror group by Washington as recently as 2012.

"Thank you for continuing to highlight the plight of Iranians under an oppressive, brutal regime," Menendez said in a written statement that was read out at an MEK rally in Washington in 2019. "I share your vision for a better future for Iran and all Iranians."

Still, the senator has been critical of Trump's maximum-pressure campaign of sanctions against Iran. He opposed nixing the nuclear deal in 2018.

"With this decision President Trump is risking US national security, recklessly upending foundational partnerships with key US allies in Europe and gambling with Israel’s security... Withdrawal from the JCPOA makes it more likely Iran will restart its nuclear weapons program in the future," he said at the time.

Biden has vowed to reinstate the agreement if Iran returns to full compliance with it. The president-elect also appointed diplomats who helped negotiate the deal to top positions in his administration.  

Montgomery said although Menendez appears to have softened his approach to diplomacy with Iran, he could "potentially be a problem" for Biden's efforts to revive the JCPOA.

"If you're the Biden administration, then Menendez is somebody you're going to have to lobby early and lobby often," he said. 

"But I think Menendez is a little more receptive to a deal that doesn't necessarily give anti-Iran hardliners everything they want this time around."

Washington

Egyptian group Hasm designated 'terrorist organisation' by US

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 16:27
Egyptian group Hasm designated 'terrorist organisation' by US
State Department says sanctions 'seek to deny [Hassm] and its leadership the resources to plan and carry out terrorist attacks'
MEE staff Fri, 01/15/2021 - 16:27
Cairo's counterterrorism operation against Hasm and other militants has also been criticised for rights abuses against the country's citizens.
Cairo's counterterrorism operation against Hasm and other militants has been criticised for rights abuses against country's citizens (AFP/File photo)

The United States has designated the Egyptian group Harakat Sawa'd Misr, also known as Hasm, a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) following a series of attacks against government officials and security personnel.

In a statement on Friday, the State Department said it was elevating Hasm's listing from a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) to FTO to "seek to deny [Hasm] and its leadership the resources to plan and carry out terrorist attacks".

Hasm has claimed responsibility for more than a dozen attacks on Egyptian security forces in recent years, including the killing of National Security Agency officer Ibrahim Azzazy.

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The group first announced its existence in July 2016 in an attack that killed two police officers. 

While it has not taken an official ideological position, the Egyptian government has accused Hasm of being an armed entity of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, which was outlawed by Egyptian authorities in 2013 following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, has denied any links with the group.

"The Brotherhood has no relation with any organisation or individuals who shed blood," the groups' spokesman Talaat Fahmi said in 2016.

In addition to designating Hassm as a FTO, which will both deny the group access to the US financial system and entry to the country, the State Department designated Yahya al-Sayyid Ibrahim Musa, who is based in Turkey, and Alaa Ali Ali Mohammed al-Samahi, as SDGTs.

Egypt's counterterrorism operations

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2013, Egypt has pursued a crackdown on dissent, with authorities accused of detaining more than 60,000 political prisoners.

Cairo's counterterrorism operation against Hasm and other armed groups has also been criticised by analysts and rights groups, with some individuals allegedly associated with the group being forcibly disappeared and later ending up dead.

In April 2017, 44-year-old schoolteacher Mohamed Abdelsatar was arrested by police and declared dead a month later in a reported counterterrorism operation against Hasm.

"These killings come amid a protracted counterterrorism campaign that has swept up thousands across Egypt in large-scale, and at times seemingly indiscriminate, security sweeps," the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy wrote in 2017.

The US gives Egypt $1.3bn in annual military aid, which rights groups say gives Sisi a green light to continue grave human rights abuses.

Thursday's announcement by the Trump administration is the latest in a series of terrorism designations in the final weeks of his presidency.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his intention to list the Houthi movement in Yemen as an FTO, and followed up on Monday by placing Cuba on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Washington

Iraq: Bird flu blamed for deaths of tens of thousands of chickens

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 16:04
Iraq: Bird flu blamed for deaths of tens of thousands of chickens
Local authorities said a buffer zone was being imposed on the infected region
Alex MacDonald Fri, 01/15/2021 - 16:04
Iraqi vets check chickens that entered Iraq from Turkey at a market in the southern port city of Basra (AFP)

An outbreak of bird flu was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of chickens in central Iraq, officials said on Friday.

A spokesperson for the governor of Salahuddin province told reporters that laboratory tests had confirmed that the mass death of poultry in a field in Samarra district was due to bird flu.

"The governor of Salahuddin calls on poultry owners and citizens in Samarra to take the highest degree of caution against bird flu, and affirms imposing a health buffer zone around poultry fields," said the spokesperson.

Local media outlets had previously broadcast footage showing the mass burials of chickens in the province.

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In a statement to the Nas News site, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture said "all measures will be taken to cordon off the infections and strive not to spread this virus".

"The ministry, through the teams and the quarries of the Veterinary Department, has previous experience in dealing with such cases," said Hamid al-Nayef.

This is not the first outbreak of bird flu in Iraq.

In May 2020, a number of cases of the H5H8 strain were discovered in northern Baghdad leading to the sealing off of a number of neighbourhood and the destruction of 60,000 birds. A case was also discovered in northern Ninevah province.

Various strains of bird flu have been responsible for hundreds of human deaths worldwide in recent decades.

Iraq's creaking healthcare system has been struggling to cope with the much deadlier Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed around 13,000 people in the country so far.

Trump shakes up US defence structure, moves Israel under Middle East command

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 15:58
Trump shakes up US defence structure, moves Israel under Middle East command
Israel has historically fallen under Pentagon's European command amid issues of trust between it and Arab nations under Middle East command
MEE staff Fri, 01/15/2021 - 15:58
Centcom commander General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr
Centcom commander General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr poses in front of portraits of Saudi Arabia's founding King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/File photo)

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has ordered the US military to move Israel from the purview of its European command to its Middle East command, the latest in a series of status-quo-breaking moves in the region. 

With just days left in the White House, it was revealed that US Central Command (Centcom) - which oversees military issues in the Middle East - will now include Israel within its defence structure, a move pro-Israel groups have long advocated. 

The departure from decades-old military policy, confirmed by the Department of Defense on Friday, follows several Arab nations agreeing to establish diplomatic ties with Israel following US mediation and reported incentives. 

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"The easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors subsequent to the Abraham Accords has provided a strategic opportunity for the United States to align key partners against shared threats in the Middle East," a Pentagon spokesperson told Middle East Eye in an email.

"Israel is a leading strategic partner for the United States, and this will open up additional opportunities for cooperation with our US Central Command partners while maintaining strong cooperation between Israel and our European allies," the spokesperson continued. 

The US military's European command has historically been charged with overseeing relations with Israel due to animosity between Arab nations and the occupying power. The arrangement allowed American generals in the Middle East to interact with Arab states without having a close association with Israel. 

While most Arab countries have refused to establish diplomatic ties with Israel amid its military occupation over the Palestinian population, countries under Centcom's purview that have signed accords with Israel include Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan. 

All except Egypt and Jordan - two countries with which Israel shares a border - are new diplomatic efforts, however, and it is unclear what consequences could arise if the American bid to strengthen Arab ties with Israel were to falter. 

'Timing could be right'

Still, Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general and former head of Centcom, told the Wall Sreet Journal that the "timing could be right to do this".

"We could see more Arab countries recognise Israel, so it makes sense to bring them all in under one unified American command," General Zinni said. 

"It will make security cooperation better. It would not have made sense in the past because there was too much mistrust. There was a fear then that if Israel was in the Central Command there would be US intelligence-sharing with Israel on its Arab neighbors."

Part of the reason for such a structural change seems to be related to Washington's effort to unite the region against Iran, which is also viewed as one of Israel's greatest adversaries. 

The Trump administration has yet to officially announce the move, and the office of incoming President-elect Joe Biden has declined to comment. 

Israel's foreign ministry using social media to win Arab support online
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Retired Army Major General Mike Jones, who served as Centcom chief of staff in 2011 under then-commander James Mattis, told the Military Times that the move "makes sense", given that "many Israeli issues are tied to the other countries" under the command. 

Still, Jones said the idea of one US command dealing with both Israel and countries that officially view it as an enemy state - which continues to include the majority of the Middle Eastern powers - has long been an issue. 

"The argument against has always been 'it's hard to have credibility with two countries who are enemies'," said Jones. "If one knows you have close relationships with their enemies, it's hard to build personal trust and get really full disclosure conversations." 

In some cases, countries within one particular US command will form military coalitions that see soldiers from various countries in the region working together during a single operation, but Jones said it is unlikely that Israel would join such a coalition with the US and Arab states any time soon. 

"As for being part of a US-led coalition, with boots on the ground, that's a pretty big leap, even with the political progress that’s been made with some of their neighbors," said Jones.

"You never know of course… but I don't see a public deployment by the [Israeli army] in a coalition with Arab members, short of some really wild scenarios."

BBC chair donated to Quilliam because he was 'impressed' by Maajid Nawaz

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:31
BBC chair donated to Quilliam because he was 'impressed' by Maajid Nawaz
Richard Sharp told parliamentary committee he wanted to support controversial radio host's 'personal efforts to combat radicalism and extremism'
MEE staff Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:31
Sharp said he donated to Quilliam after he was left impressed by Maajid Nawaz after hearing him on LBC radio (AFP)

The incoming chair of the BBC has told a parliamentary committee that he donated thousands of pounds to the controversial Quilliam counter-extremism think tank because he was impressed by its founder, Maajid Naawaz.

Richard Sharp was quizzed by Kevin Brennan, a Labour member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, about the donations on Thursday, after Middle East Eye columnist Peter Oborne wrote that they raised questions about the former banker's suitability to lead the public broadcaster.

Richard Sharp's donations to Quilliam raise questions about his BBC chairmanship
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Sharp, whose appointment at the BBC was announced by the government last week, did not respond to Oborne's requests for comment about the donations.

But he told Brennan he had been impressed by the work of Nawaz, Quilliam's founder, who also hosts a regular show on the UK's LBC talk radio station.

"I heard Maajid Nawaz on LBC and I was impressed at his personal efforts to combat radicalism and extremism, and I felt that it was appropriate to support his efforts in trying to bring the community as a whole together," Sharp said. 

Asked whether he was aware of controversy surrounding the organisation in British Muslim communities, he said: "Well I was concerned on its merits to see what I can do to help fight radicalism and that was the purpose of my involvement."

Public records show that Sharp donated £25,000 to Quilliam in 2017 and a further £10,000 in 2019 via his Sharp Foundation charity.

Quilliam was founded in 2008 and describes itself as "the world's first anti-extremism organisation." It initially received funding from the British government and has worked with right-wing organisations that promote anti-Muslim views, according to the Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University project researching Islamophobia.

It has faced recent criticism over a report into so-called "grooming gangs", which said that Asian men made up 84 percent of convicted child sex exploitation offenders.

In late 2020, a Home Office report said there was no evidence to suggest that any ethnic group is over-represented among child sexual exploitation offenders. 

Quilliam was also criticised for its attempt seven years ago to rehabilitate Tommy Robinson, founder of the far-right and Islamophobic English Defence League, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. 

Robinson later distanced himself from Nawaz, but said he was paid thousands of pounds by Quilliam to leave the EDL.

Arabic press review: Egypt moguls hope Covid-19 donations will burnish their image

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:15
Arabic press review: Egypt moguls hope Covid-19 donations will burnish their image
Meanwhile, Kuwait allows in travellers with Israel-stamped passports, Lebanon TV ties Beirut explosion to Syrian firm, and Iraq uncovers nationality fraud
Mohammad Ayesh Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:15
The Great pyramids lit up with a laser projection the message 'Stay Home' on the Giza plateau outside the Egyptian capital of Cairo on 18 April 2020 (AFP)

Kuwait allows in Gulf visitors with Israeli visas

Well-informed security sources in Kuwait have told newspaper Al-Anbaa that state authorities have allowed citizens of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain who have visited Israel or whose passports include Israeli stamps to enter Kuwait - a change from usual regulations.

The source stated that an agreement has been reached between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states guaranteeing the circulation of these countries’ citizens in the Gulf region, while noting that Kuwait was not involved in the normalisation agreements of its neighbours with Israel.

"According to the Gulf agreement, every Gulf citizen has the right to enter Kuwait with the passport of his/her country of residence, even if the passport includes an entry and exit stamp" from Israel, al-Anbaa quoted the source as saying.

The source pointed out that many US and European citizens enter Kuwait with passports used previously to visit Israel.

Kuwaiti officials had previously stated that the holders of passports with Israeli stamps or visas were automatically banned from entering the country.

For Egyptian businessmen, Covid-19 is an opportunity to fix their reputation

A number of Egyptian businessmen have recently made donations to support efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic, moves which some have viewed as a strategy to improve their public image, according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The Egyptian Ministry of Health revealed a list of donors that included the names of eight businessmen who have donated funds to buy vaccines and fight the pandemic in recent months.

The list included well-known Egyptian businessman Hisham Talaat, who pledged to provide the coronavirus vaccine for about two million citizens who cannot afford it.

Talaat was convicted of murdering a Lebanese singer in Dubai in 2008, and was tried and imprisoned, until Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi recently issued a special pardon.

A businessman accused of collaborating with Israel took part in the charitable initiative, according to the newspaper, while another, Ramy Lakah, had fled Egypt before the 2011 uprising after embezzling funds from banks, returning to the country under a special agreement with authorities to return the stolen money.

Lakah reportedly donated 30 million Egyptian pounds ($1.9 million) to confront the pandemic.

Syrian businessmen tied to Beirut port ammonium nitrate

A television investigation aired by Lebanese news channel Al Jadeed has alleged that Syrian businessmen close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were tied to a large shipment of ammonium nitrate stored in the Beirut Port, which led to a deadly explosion on 4 August.

The investigation claimed a connection between Syrian engineering and construction company Hesco and British company Savoro. The latter purchased in 2013 large quantities of ammonium nitrate that were confiscated by Lebanese authorities, until the explosion that devastated entire neighbourhoods of the Lebanese capital.

The investigation revealed that some companies managed by Syrian businessmen, including Hesco, shared addresses with Savoro.

Al Jadeed added that the three Syrian businessmen it investigated were previously on the US sanctions list for supporting the Assad government, and that Hesco was dissolved three months after the Beirut explosion.

However, other Lebanese journalists have cast doubts on the conclusions drawn by Al Jadeed’s investigation.

While results of a full official investigation into the blast have yet to be unveiled, it is widely believed that corruption among Lebanese authorities and poor storage conditions in the Beirut port were the main conditions that led to the explosion happening.

Foreigners acquire Iraqi citizenship through fraud

An investigation by the Iraqi Integrity Commission has revealed that hundreds of foreigners acquired Iraqi nationality with falsified documents, according to Al-Araby al-Jadeed.

The commission did not reveal the nationality of the foreigners who were granted citizenship, but said that the investigation had unveiled 1,360 falsified transactions on the basis of which Iraqi citizenship was granted to foreigners in the Diyala governorate, which borders Iran.

One of the employees accused of forgery was arrested.

Iraqi legal expert Tarek Harb told Al-Araby that what happened in Diyala was a recurring issue, but that only some cases had been discovered, explaining that similar incidents took place in different regions of Iraq.

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

Iran tests 'bomber drones' and missiles in third military exercise this month

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:12
Iran tests 'bomber drones' and missiles in third military exercise this month
Operations come at a time of heightened tensions with the US in the final days of Donald Trump's presidency
MEE and agencies Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:12
Iranian drones are seen during a large-scale drone combat exercise in Semnan earlier this month (AFP)

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched a drone and missile drill in central Iran on Friday, its official website reported, in the country's third military exercise in less than two weeks.

The moves come at a time of heightened tensions with the United States in the final days of US President Donald Trump's administration.

Dubbed the Great Prophet 15, Friday's drill featured a "new generation" of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, according to the Sepahnews website.

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The exercise involved a drone attack on a missile defence system followed by "a barrage of Zolfaghar, Zelzal and Dezful-class ballistic missiles," the site said.

According to the Guards, the missiles were "equipped with detachable warheads and capable of being controlled outside the atmosphere".

"The bomber drones struck the hypothetical enemy missile shield from all directions, completely destroying the targets," a state TV broadcast said of Friday's drill.

"Also, an abundant number of a new generation of ballistic missiles were fired at selected targets, inflicting deadly blows to the hypothetical enemy bases."

Reverse engineering

Iran, which routinely boasts of technological advances in its armed forces, has one of the biggest missile programmes in the Middle East, regarding them as a deterrent and retaliatory force against US and other adversaries in the event of war.

Iran has been quietly building up an arsenal of locally-produced drones that it is exporting to its allies in the region and testing against enemies in Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia, accroding to a report in The Hill, a US news webite.

Several missiles are seen being being launched in a desert area in Iran on Friday (AFP)
Several missiles are seen being being launched in a desert area in Iran on Friday (AFP)

On 10 July 2019, Iranian drones were were used to attack a Kurdish dissident group in northern Iraq, after Iran accused the group of killing members of the Revolutionary Guard. 

Iranian media said that a new IRGC drone unit was used during the attack, which came three weeks after Iran downed a sophisticated US drone over the Gulf of Oman.

Although Iran has sought to build up a force of locally produced drones since the 1980s, it made major strides after it was effectively able to reverse-engineer copies of US drones, The Hill reported.

//--> //--> //-->

The Iranian Saegheh and Shahed 171 are essentially copies of the Sentinel RQ-170 Iran captured in 2011.

'Enemies of Islam'

A video released by state television on Friday showed several missiles being launched in a desert area with Guard commander Major General Hossein Salami and the force's aerospace chief Amirali Hajizadeh present.

"The message of this drill was our power and determined will to defend our sovereignty, our sacred system and our values against the enemies of Islam and Iran," Salami was quoted as saying.

Hajizadeh said the operation demonstrated the Guard's "new power" and capabilities.

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The drill follows an Iranian navy exercise held on Wednesday and Thursday in the Gulf of Oman, and an army drone drill on the fifth and sixth of January, AFP reported.

The exercises started two days after Iran marked the first anniversary of the assassination of its revered commander Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike in Iraq in January last year.

There have been periodic confrontations between Iran's military and US forces in the Gulf since 2018, when Trump abandoned Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reinstated harsh sanctions against Tehran.

The US said it plans to announce additional Iran sanctions on Friday related to conventional arms and to the metals industry, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The State and Treasury Departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the announcement.

US President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on 20 January, has said Washington will rejoin the nuclear deal "if Iran resumes strict compliance" with the agreement that imposed tight curbs on its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions.

'Dear Tayyip': Erdogan and Macron exchanged letters to repair ties

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:01
'Dear Tayyip': Erdogan and Macron exchanged letters to repair ties
Turkish president made the first move, with the two leaders seeking to meet in person soon
Ragip Soylu Fri, 01/15/2021 - 14:01
France's President Emmanuel Macron (L) meets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (AFP)

The presidents of Turkey and France have exchanged letters to address their personal and regional differences, helping to create a roadmap to improve relations, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu told a group of journalists on Friday.

Cavusoglu said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan first sent a letter to his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron to wish him a happy new year and convey his sadness over recent terror attacks.

Following the letter, the French government proposed four areas of collaboration: bilateral consultations, counterrorism, regional issues such as Syria and Libya, and a partnership on education, Cavusoglu added.

“Earlier this week we received Macron’s letter. Very positive. Macron started his letter with a Turkish salutation, handwritten, 'Dear Tayyip',” Cavusoglu said. “Macron expressed his willingness to meet the president to deepen relations and discuss European [affairs].”

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Erdogan, according to Cavusoglu, would like to meet Macron in person but first the two leaders are expected to talk soon via videoconference.

The move itself is a stark change for both sides, considering the personal attacks they levied on each other throughout the last year.

Erdogan just last month said that France needs to immediately get rid of Macron. He twice suggested the French president needed to undergo a mental health check because he was getting France involved in regional conflicts in which it had no interests.

And Macron over and over called for sanctions against Turkey’s actions in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkish ships last year conducted seismic research in disputed seawaters.

The dispute intensified in October with Erdogan’s call for a boycott of French products, following Macron’s apparent support for Charlie Hebdo magazine’s caricatures about the Prophet Muhammad.

Turkish officials would like to improve their ties with France due to the incoming Biden administration in the US, which is expected to have friendlier relations with Paris.

Erdogan has already made a series of overtures towards Israel, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and Greece to make room for manoeuvre, ahead of Biden's swearing in on Wednesday.

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

Ankara

Covid-19: Israeli man arrested for tricking ex into quarantine four times

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 13:48
Covid-19: Israeli man arrested for tricking ex into quarantine four times
Police said the suspect, a health ministry employee, sent messages on four separate occasions to his ex-girlfriend telling her she needed to isolate
MEE staff Fri, 01/15/2021 - 13:48
An Israeli woman wearing a protective mask due to the Covid-19 pandemic sits on a park bench by feeding pigeons in Jerusalem on 16 April 2020 (2020)

An Israeli man has been arrested on suspicion of tricking his ex-girlfriend into quarantining for Covid-19 despite it being medically unnecessary for her to do so.

Police said the 35-year-old, only identified as working for the health ministry and a resident of northern Israel, is suspected of various offences committed over several months, including misuse of power of office, fraud, violation of privacy and false imprisonment.

The case has again raised concerns about rising cases of domestic abuse in Israel during the country's pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Police said the suspect "sent on four separate occasions messages to his ex-girlfriend's phone about her immediate need to enter isolation due to exposure to a confirmed coronavirus patient, without her actually being exposed to such a person".

They said the evidence had been handed to the justice ministry ahead of a possible indictment for the suspect, who they described as "an external employee working at one of the health ministry's call centres."

Rise in domestic abuse

Israeli currently has over 180,000 citizens in isolation due to feared exposure to Covid-19, while almost two million having faced a two-week confinement since the beginning of the pandemic, which has so far claimed 3,800 lives in the country.

Campaigners have noted a huge rise in cases of domestic abuse since the beginning of the pandemic in March. Domestic violence hotlines have reported three- and four-fold increases in calls in contrast to the same time period last year, while emergency shelters for battered women are full.

Huge rise in violence against women in Israel met by poor response by government
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According to Ynet news, 20 women were murdered by their spouses or family members in 2020 as of November, up from 13 in 2019.

Israeli women's organisation Na'amat estimates that some 200,000 women face violence from their spouses or intimate partners in Israel, a crisis spanning the country and affecting all segments of society.

"We were seeing normative families reporting violence for the first time, as well as a worsening of the situation in families that have long been in the cycle of violence," Rivka Neuman, head of the women's advancement division at the Women's International Zionist Organisation (Wizo), which operates two shelters and a hotline in Israel, told Middle East Eye in November.

The government has been criticised for its slow response to the rise in domestic abuse.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further stoked the controversy in November when he told the Israeli Knesset that if society understood that animals should be protected from violence, it should understand the same about women.

"Women aren't animals that you can beat, and today we say you don't hit animals either," Netanyahu said.

"We understand that animals, too, have understanding and intelligence and cognition and feelings. We rightly have compassion for animals. Well, women are animals, children are animals - animals with rights..."

Netanyahu's remarks led to a flood of comments in the mainstream press, as well as on social media. MK Ofer Shelah from the Yesh Atid party quipped: "The prime minister is an animal too. He has intelligence and cognition and rights - such as the right to utter such nonsense."

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