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Israel's occupation of West Bank unlawful under international law, UN report finds

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 15:39
Israel's occupation of West Bank unlawful under international law, UN report finds
Occupation of West Bank is designed to ensure permanent Israeli control of the area set aside for future Palestinian state, according to the organisation
MEE staff Fri, 10/21/2022 - 16:39
Israeli security forces stand guard amid protests by Palestinians following a demonstration demanding the opening of roads around Nablus city, on 21 October 2022 (AFP)

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is unlawful under international law due to its permanence and the Israeli government’s de-facto annexation policies, according to a new report issued by the United Nations General Assembly.

“By ignoring international law in establishing or facilitating the establishment of settlements, and directly or indirectly transferring Israeli civilians into these settlements, successive Israel governments have set facts on the ground to ensure permanent Israeli control in the West Bank,” Navi Pillay, chair of the commission, said.

The report, released on Thursday by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, noted “[a] coercive environment intended to force Palestinians to leave their homes and alter the demographic composition of certain areas [in the occupied West Bank.]”

Israeli contradictions

The authors warned that Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank were in direct contradiction to Israel’s UN vote last week declaring that any unilateral annexation of a state’s territory by another state is a violation of international law.

“Unless universally applied, including to the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, this core principle of the United Nations Charter will become meaningless,” Pillay said.

Israel 'lied' about legal settlement over death of Palestinian-American, says family
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The report detailed Israeli efforts to drive Palestinians out of the West Bank. According to the authors, Israel has confiscated land for military purposes but then used it for settlement construction. In occupied East Jerusalem, restrictive planning and zoning regimes have obstructed adequate housing, infrastructure and livelihoods for Palestinians, in effect driving them out of the city, 

Tensions in the region are running high, with more than 100 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank over the last ten days, according to local media.

Over the past week, Israel has shut down the Nablus district, one of the largest in the West Bank, as the army cracks down on a resurgence of armed resistance in the area.

The report noted the "silent harm" and psychological trauma caused by the Israeli occupation. “These debilitating processes have severe short and long-term consequences and must be urgently addressed,” Miloon Kothari, a UN Human Rights Council commissioner, said.

Monday’s report follows one by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that said Israel’s actions against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank amounted to “persecution”.

Arabic press review: Anger binds Tunisia's protests

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 14:46
Arabic press review: Anger binds Tunisia's protests
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Hamas start talks, UAE summons Dutch envoy in solidarity with Jordan, and Algeria sentences a journalist to death in absentia
Mohammad Ayesh Fri, 10/21/2022 - 15:46
Protestors throw rocks at security forces in Ettadhamen, a working-class suburb west of the capital Tunis on 14 October 2022 (AFP)

Tunisia protests differ in causes but share the anger 

The causes behind Tunisia's ongoing protests vary but they are similar in their frustration with the country's political, economic, and social challenges, the Arabi21 news website said in a new report. 

The London-based publication assessed the different reasons that have driven the ongoing protest since last week.

Some demonstrations erupted over the death of a 24-year-old man earlier this month from injuries sustained in late August after he fell into a ditch while being chased by police. 

In the southern coastal town of Zarzis, thousands took to the streets demanding answers over the fate of migrants who drowned in a shipwreck last month. 

Other protests were organised against President Kais Saied, demanding political reform as public anger grows over fuel and food shortages. 

'When there is no trust in the state, anger, resentment and hatred build-up'

- Muhammad al-Juwaili, sociology professor 

Muhammad al-Juwaili, a professor of sociology, told Arabi21 the protests don't have the same incentives and each one is a “reaction to a specific event that once it ends, things return to normal".

However, al-Juwaili warned that the “accumulation of anger” could explode if a major event happens that unites protesters.

“When there is no trust in the state, anger, resentment, and hatred build up," he said. 

Sabreen Jelassi, also a sociology expert, said he forecasts more protests that will focus on price hikes and poor economic conditions. 

Those, Jelassi said, will be hard to quell. 

“The country will witness a new revolution similar to the 2010 revolution, as the country is on the road to eruption.”

Saudi Arabia and Hamas in contact 

The possibility of improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Hamas has increased after Saudi authorities released the former representative of the Palestinian movement, Mohammed al-Khudari, on 19 October 2022.

Khudari, 84, was released along with his son Hani al-Khudari, and deported to Jordan, after more than three years in detention.

Saudi Arabia arrested 68 Palestinians and Jordanians in 2019 as the kingdom's relations with Israel warmed. 

Saudi Arabia releases former Hamas representative from prison
Read More »

They were accused of having links to an unidentified "terrorist organisation" and were tried in 2020 in mass trials. In 2021 they were handed prison sentences ranging from six months to 22 years. 

The trials have been marred by claims of abuse. 

The Alkhaleejonline website quoted sources as saying that "there are unannounced talks to end the dispute" between Saudi Arabia and Hamas, whose ties began to falter in 2007 after infighting between Hamas and its rival, Fatah, which was criticised by Riyadh.

In a statement published on the official Hamas website, Hamas political bureau member Izzat al-Rashq, who said he had spoken to Khudari on the plane that was taking him to Amman, commended Saudi Arabia's decision to free Khudari, stating: "We hope this step will help open a new page and lead to the release of the remaining detainees.”  

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem also described Khudari's release as a step in the right direction.

"The Hamas movement welcomes this step and hopes that it will be followed by the step of releasing the remaining detainees of the movement's supporters in Saudi Arabia," said Qassem, in a statement to Alkhaleejonline.

"Hamas has no problem in developing and strengthening its relationship with any country in the region, and we hope that al-Khudari's release will be a step in this direction," Qassem added.

Qassem also revealed that "there is communication between the movement and the Saudi authorities at certain levels”.

UAE summons Dutch envoy in solidarity with Jordan

The United Arab Emirates' ministry of foreign affairs has summoned the Dutch ambassador over what it described as interference by his country's ambassador to Jordan in the kingdom's internal affairs, according to the state news agency WAM.

Jordan's ministry of foreign affairs claimed that the Dutch ambassador had “interfered” in the application for a license to establish a local radio station that is reportedly still under legal consideration, despite the applicant being neither Dutch nor Jordanian.

Jordan said that "the request is processed according to laws and regulations and with absolute transparency, and it is incomprehensible that an ambassador representing a friendly country interferes in a case governed by laws and regulations".

The UAE ministry of foreign affairs said it affirmed "the UAE's solidarity with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and expressed its strong protest against the irresponsible statements breaching diplomatic norms that were made by the Dutch ambassador on 19 October 2022, which are considered a blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”.

Algeria sentences journalist to death in absentia

A criminal court in Algiers has issued a death penalty in absentia against journalist Abdo Sammar, a director of the French investigative website Mediapart, according to the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper.

Algeria: More than 30 years after its creation, the RCD is fighting for its survival
Read More »

Sammar, who is currently a refugee in France, was sentenced regarding charges of espionage and the leaking of confidential information relating to the Algerian oil company Sonatrach. 

According to judicial files, Sammar was sentenced to the death penalty after it was proven that he had published, on his website, information classified as confidential related to the strategy for developing Algeria's hydrocarbon sector.

Owais Lamin, the former head of Sonatrach deals committee, who was charged with leaking the information to Sammar, received a 10-year jail sentence.

Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, Sonatrach's former CEO, who was also allegedly in contact with Sammar, is currently detained in Algeria after being deported from the United Arab Emirates last year after Algeria issued an international warrant for his arrest on corruption charges.

Commenting on the case via a video published on the internet, Sammar denied ever speaking to Lamin, but admitted obtaining information from sources in Sonatrach via email.

Sammar, who has been residing in France for the past three years after obtaining asylum there, has been prosecuted in Algeria over several cases related to leaking information and for communicating with foreign parties.

Anger binds Tunisia's protests: Arabic press review

'Mexico of the Middle East': Can Jordan become a nearshoring hub?

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 13:27
'Mexico of the Middle East': Can Jordan become a nearshoring hub?
Some are hopeful Jordan can exploit raising energy costs in Europe and US-China tensions to address its sky-high unemployment
Sean Mathews Fri, 10/21/2022 - 14:27
Workers at the electric panel assembly line of Petra Engineering Industries in al-Mwaqqar, Jordan, on 20 October 2022.
Workers at the electric panel assembly line of Petra Engineering Industries in al-Mwaqqar, Jordan, on 20 October 2022 (MEE/Sean Mathews)

A dusty 40-minute drive southeast of Amman brings you to a patch of desert where a sprawling complex of blue buildings sit. Inside, robots gyrate as they weld together steel frames and "fibre lasers" cut designs into sheet metal.

“We must be innovative. We are working in a digital economy,” Ismail, who is programming a computerised cable punching machine, told Middle East Eye. “It’s one of the most sophisticated in the world,” he nodded at the equipment, “and it is here in Jordan.”

The factory on the outskirts of Jordan’s capital belongs to Petra Engineering Industries, a manufacturer of customised heating and cooling, or HVAC systems.

Outside the production area, containers are filled with products ready to be sent to the port of Aqaba and shipped across the globe - 70 percent of Petra’s HVAC units are exported to the US. The company counts Nvidia, Tesla and Google among its clients.

“We have a niche,” Firas Abu Wishah, a company board member whose family owns Petra, told MEE on a recent tour of the factory in al-Mwaqqar, Jordan. “Our engineering is the secret sauce. Everything is customised. We are building the bespoke Brioni of HVAC units.”

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Petra is heralded as a Jordanian success story, one the kingdom hopes to replicate.

Petra Engineering Industries
Petra Engineering Industries exports 70 percent of its products to the US, 20 October 2022 (MEE/Sean Mathews)

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At 17.4 percent of GDP, manufacturing is one of Jordan’s largest sectors, employing about 217,000 people in a country of 10 million. Jordan hopes to double that number in the next ten years, as it looks to fix its ailing economy.

“Manufacturing is an unlikely story for Jordan. It’s a sector that needs to be better organised. But it can go a long way in addressing Jordan’s biggest challenge - unemployment,” Merissa Khurma, the Middle East programme director at the Wilson Center, told MEE.

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'No work'

The challenge for the small nation squeezed between Iraq, Syria, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia is staggering. Jordan was already grappling with neighbouring wars and the weight of more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees when the pandemic slammed its tourism-dependent economy.

Since 2019, total unemployment has ticked up from 19 percent to 23 percent. A relatively strong growth rate of 2.2 percent last year did little to dent that number, which stands at 50 percent for the Hashemite Kingdom’s youth. Meanwhile, prices are rising and young people are dejected.

Twenty-seven-year-old Nabil* and 25-year-old Mohammad* spoke to MEE outside a falafel shop near Amman’s downtown. “There is no work here in Jordan. The government just puts out plans. Nothing happens,” Nabil said.

Both men have mechanical engineering degrees and speak fluent English but cannot find jobs.

The abundance of engineers in Jordan, one of the highest per capita rates in the world, underscores many of the paradoxes at play in Jordan’s economy, and specifically its manufacturing industry.

'Our FTA with the US is an untapped goldmine'

- Firas Abu Wishah, Petra Engineering Industries

On paper, Jordan should be competitive. It is stable and positioned close to trade routes like the Suez Canal. Besides having an educated workforce, the kingdom has low labour costs relative to the West and more Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) than any other Arab country. Those include the EU, Canada and US. It is an ideal candidate for "nearshoring" - where businesses move operations to the closest country with a qualified workforce and lower costs.

Jordan has tried to target manufacturing. The southern port city of Aqaba is home to a special economic zone with a five percent corporate tax rate, duty-free import on goods used in production, and tax exemptions on property and land. Yet Aqaba has long been overshadowed by free zones in neighbouring places like the UAE.

“The tax and regulatory regime in Aqaba is internationally competitive. It’s not the rules,” Sheldon Fink, a longtime Jordanian investor and previous CEO of the Aqaba Industrial Estate, told MEE. “Jordan has a structural problem.”

“The real question is does Jordan encourage the development of an entrepreneurial class? And the answer is ‘No’,” Fink said. “The Jordanian government sees attracting investment as its function and excludes the private sector. The government is not opposed to people making money, but the economy is run from the top down.”

FTAs

Jordan has historically been sustained by a vast patronage network between the government and tribes. Public payrolls and pensions comprised nearly 65 percent of the government’s budget in 2021. Jordanians have generally looked to the state for work.

But with the government now cash-strapped, that has begun to change. In the garment industry where South Asian ex-pat workers typically make up the workforce, today Jordanians - mostly women - comprise about 30 percent of employees.

Jordan’s garment industry has been one of the main beneficiaries of the kingdom’s 20-year-old FTA with the US. Last year, Garments accounted for 66 percent of exports to the US, more than any other sector, according to the Amman Chamber of Industry. 

But to critics, the garment industry is an example of how Jordan has failed to utilise its trade agreements and diversify its economy, specifically manufacturing.

'The infrastructure is quite meaningful to support sophisticated manufacturing [in Jordan]'

- Mazen Darwazah, Hikma executive vice chairman 

Salaries for garment workers start at about 250 Jordanian dinars ($353) a month for a 48-hour workweek. The value-add from Jordan’s garment industry is well below that of other regional states like Turkey and Tunisia.

“In principle, the FTAs are good for Jordan, but the government has not facilitated trade and manufacturing the way it should,” Yusuf Mansur, a former minister of state for economic affairs, and now development consultant, told MEE.

Raghad AlKhojha, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Jordan, says the kingdom’s FTA with the US has been underutilised in part by cultural barriers. “Jordanian companies have been intimidated by the US, while the US is a big market with limited knowledge of Jordan. When I say I'm from Jordan, Americans reply 'Georgia'."

Jordanian manufacturers had focused on nearby markets in Syria and Iraq and wars in those countries hit the industry hard.

Firas Abu Wishah
Firas Abu Wishah at his family's Petra Engineering Industries factory outside of Amman, on 20 October 2022 (MEE/Sean Mathews)

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Abu Wishah, from Petra Engineering, said one lesson his family learned early on was to think global. The company almost collapsed when Iraq, one of its biggest markets, invaded another, Kuwait, in the first Gulf War.

“Jordanian companies need to aggressively go after sophisticated markets. Our FTA with the US is an untapped goldmine,” he said.

UK-listed pharmaceutical giant Hikma is planning to expand manufacturing in Jordan with an eye towards increasing exports to the US and EU.

The Jordanian-founded company alone accounts for about five percent of Jordan’s total national exports and nearly 75 percent of its pharmaceutical exports.

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Mazen Darwazah, the executive vice chairman of Hikma, told MEE that Jordan has competitive advantages in both cost and skillset.

“For a dollar I pay in the US, my costs come down to 75 or 80 cents in Europe. If you're talking about Jordan, it’s at 55-60 cents,” Darwazah told MEE in an interview at Hikma’s new Mena headquarters in Amman.

Mazen says Jordan also has the human capital to support industry, which is important for the pharmaceutical industry where manufacturing is highly automated.

Along with their Lebanese neighbours, Jordanian tech workers and scientists have historically filled the ranks of white-collar professionals in the wealthier Gulf region.

“The infrastructure is quite meaningful to support sophisticated manufacturing here,” Darwazah said. “We have more back offices now in Jordan for tax consolidation, intellectual property and marketing, along with growing R&D.”

Branding

Darwazah and Abu Wishah say that Jordan has been wrongly associated with conflicts in neighbouring states for too long, deterring foreign investors who could look to Jordan as a nearshoring hub.

“Jordan has a branding issue,” said Nael Husami, CEO of the Amman Chamber of Industry. 

'In Europe... it would take three years to do what you can do in Jordan in 6 months'

- Nael Husami, Amman Chamber of Industry

But many businesspeople say that is far from the whole story. Those who spoke with MEE on condition of anonymity complained about daunting bureaucracy, corruption and an uncertain regulatory environment.

“It’s a global economy, all you need is one bad story to scare off investors. Why would someone come to Jordan when they can go to Saudi or the UAE,” said a Jordanian businessman who previously worked in the royal court and asked to remain anonymous.

Husami pushed back against that narrative. “If you want to build a new factory, compare Jordan to Europe,” he said. “In Europe, with the licensing requirements and red tape, it would take three years to do what you can do in Jordan in six months.”

Energy prices in Europe have also more than doubled since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, China’s zero Covid policy and tensions with the US have also sent a chill through its businesses environment.

With the rollout of its economic vision plan, Jordan’s government has been pitching itself to the likes of Nike and Rivian as a nearshoring hub. On a smaller scale, AlKhojha, from the chamber of commerce, has already seen interest at trade shows in the US, stemming from China tensions.

Petra Engineering Industries
Workers operate a computerized cable punching machine at Petra Engineering Industries, on 20 October 2022 (MEE/Sean Mathews)

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“Today, mom-and-pop shops in the US would rather deal with a Jordanian company than a Chinese company. Lower wages and the FTA component give Jordan a competitive edge.”

That is music to Abu Wishah’s ears. “I see my country with the potential to become the next near-shoring hub. I want Jordan to be the Mexico of the Middle East with quality, niche manufacturing.”

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But competition is running hot.

Flush with petrodollars, Jordan’s larger and richer neighbour Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead with plans to diversify its economy. With lower energy costs and cheaper financing, it aims to triple industrial output and increase the value of exports to about $149bn by 2030.

Fink, former CEO of the Aqaba Industrial Estate, told MEE that Jordan needs to position itself where it is competitive, such as in industries that are not energy or water intensive. Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world.

Despite the challenges, Abu Wishah is optimistic about Jordan's nearshoring potential as he prepares deliveries for New York, Massachusetts and California from his plant in al-Mwaqqar.

“It's easier for me as a Jordanian company to sell my product in the US than in the Middle East.”

Amman, Jordan

Syria: Assad supporters wary of Hamas reconciliation

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 13:10
Syria: Assad supporters wary of Hamas reconciliation
Deal between Damascus and the Palestinian group met with anger in pro-government circles, as the group departs from its previous support for the anti-Assad uprising
Danny Makki Fri, 10/21/2022 - 14:10
Hamas's chief representative in Lebanon Osama Hamdan (L), Hamas Arab relations chief Khalil al-Hayya (C), and PFLP-GC chief Talal Naji, arrive for a press conference in Damascus on 19 October 2022 (AFP)

A jubilant Khalil al-Hayyeh could not conceal his smile as he stood on the steps of the presidential palace in Damascus on Wednesday before announcing reconciliation with the Syrian government.

Al-Hayyeh, Hamas’ chief of Arab relations, was a central figure in the much anticipated, decade-long, rapprochment efforts between the Palestinian group and the government of President Bashar al-Assad. 

'For the Syrians, Hamas left them, even abandoned and betrayed them at their most sensitive and crucial time. It's easy to forgive... but they will never forget'

- Damascus-based Palestinian political figure

Hamas, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, was one of Syria's closest allies, with headquarters in the Syrian capital, and its leaders often found refuge in the country due to its shared position on the Palestinian struggle.

In 2012, however, Hamas left Syria after backing the street protests against the Assad government, the crackdown against which spiralled into the country's civil war. The group then moved its headquarters to Doha.

While many see the re-alignment of the two previous allies as a sign the region could be heading in a new direction, the reconciliation itself doesn’t come without suspicion and mistrust based on historical differences. 

This is especially true within loyalist pro-government sectors who view Hamas with disdain following the group’s decision to leave Syria and side with the opposition.  

Conspicuously, Hamas has departed from its initial policy that hailed the Arab revolts that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

When the Arab Spring came to Syria, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal - whose absence was reportedly a Syrian demand for the reconciliation efforts - declared a break of relations with the Assads and quickly left the country.

Syrian media were quick to attack Hamas’s decision to leave in January 2012, describing it as “shifting the gun from the shoulder of resistance (against Israel) to the shoulder of compromise”.

Deep mistrust 

Despite the political benefits of Assad’s realigning with Hamas - which include potentially improved relations with Hamas’s allies Qatar and Turkey - there is still considerable scepticism within loyalist circles in Syria towards the Palestinian group. 

While many feel that the Palestinian faction, which was previously vocal in support of the armed opposition in Syria, can genuinely mend ties with Damascus, initial reaction to the reconciliation has been muted, if not hostile, in pro-Assad circles.  

Hamas restores ties with Syria as leaders meet with Bashar al-Assad
Read More »

Hamas was accused of supporting anti-government militant groups in the Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus during the war. 

Syrian MP Nabil Saleh was critical of the deal. “Yes, we are bringing Hamas back to our struggle after the past years, they have bitten us, poisoned our bodies, and killed many of us, Syrians and Palestinians,” he wrote on Facebook.

One Damascus-based Palestinian political figure speaking on condition of anonymity told Middle East Eye that Hamas’ return is just the start, but that the Syrian side was still wary. 

“For the Syrians, Hamas left them, even abandoned and betrayed them at their most sensitive and crucial time [2012]. It's easy to forgive because it's politics, but they will never forget. It will take a long time to re-establish trust.”

Meanwhile, blogger Firas Khalifa wrote on Facebook that “Hamas are not welcome in Damascus.”

“Their return is serving strategies far from the interests of the Syrian people. This determination on political Islamisation reflects dangerous trends that will burn the region, first and foremost Iran; the signs began in the streets of Tehran.” 

Likewise, Assad supporter Fatimeh Sleiman lambasted the deal. “Thank you [Hamas] for killing our youth, blaming us, and blaspheming us," she wrote on Facebook. "The families of the fallen and their children say thank you from the heart. We don't dismiss them with politics, but understand that the blood of our youth is cheap.” 

An outcome of the Abraham Accords?

Al-Hayyeh on Wednesday was joined by top Hamas figure, Osama Hamdan, and several officials representing different Palestinian factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command’s [PFLP-GC] Talal Naji who were received by Assad.

According to al-Hayyeh, the Syrian president was “keen on Syria’s support to the Palestinian resistance”.

'There was a choice, and US and world leaders chose wrongly by pushing Palestinians away. The result is Hamas-Assad reconciliation'

- Alexander Langlois, analyst 

"This is a glorious and important day, in which we come back to our dear Syria to resume joint work," he told reporters. “God willing, we will turn the old page and look for the future.” 

He also condemned “Zionist or American aggression on Syria.” The Arab country has been a target of hundreds of Israeli air strikes in recent years, while US forces occupy territory in the northeast of the country. 

Maher al-Taher, the official in charge of international relations in the PFLP (a separate, rival Palestinian political group to PFLP-GC), announced that the front had received an invitation to participate.

“Syria has always been with the resistance and therefore receives the resistance factions,” al-Taher said. 

Analyst Alexander Langlois told MEE that part of the reason for Hamas’ decision is the region’s political situation regarding the Palestinian cause, especially following normalisation agreements between Israel and several Arab states.

“It's obvious the Abraham Accords are pushing Palestinian resistance further into the hands of Iran and violence. There was a choice, and US and world leaders chose wrongly by pushing Palestinians away. The result is Hamas-Assad reconciliation.”

Tour de France: A new arena for Israeli normalisation? 
Read More »

A Gaza-based analyst has told MEE that Hamas had two options following the accords, "either to remain alone in light of Arab-Israeli normalisation and the return of relations between Turkey and Israel, or to return to the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah."

Middle East Eye has previously cited a Hamas source as saying that the decision to restore ties with Syria was approved by all but one member of the group's general political bureau.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza, including Hamas supporters, opposed the detente, denouncing it as "a moral sin" and "painful".

Hamas maintains close relations with Iran, the main ally of Syria, which provides it with money, weapons and other logistical support. Hamas also still maintains good relations with Hezbollah, Syria's main ally in Lebanon.

The role of Iran and Hezbollah was crucial in brokering the deal. A leading source in Hamas previously told a MEE correspondent in Gaza that Iran and Hezbollah had made strenuous efforts to restore relations between Hamas and Syria over the past years.

The Iranian government’s official newspaper celebrated the reconciliation this week with the front-page headline: “All the resistance groups came together.” 

Meanwhile, pro-Hezbollah outlet al-Mayadeen admitted that the Lebanese group had a significant role in the reconciliation. 

Damascus

Cop27: Greta Thunberg backs Egypt political prisoners ahead of climate summit

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 12:24
Cop27: Greta Thunberg backs Egypt political prisoners ahead of climate summit
UN annual conference on climate change is set to be hosted in Egypt next month amid tight restrictions on assembly and free speech
MEE staff Fri, 10/21/2022 - 13:24
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg attends a 'Fridays for Future' movement protest in Stockholm, Sweden, 13 October 2022 (AFP)

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg has joined nearly 200 organisations and individuals in calling on Egyptian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners in the country ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop27) next month.

Cop27 will be hosted in Egypt's resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh from 7 to 18 November amid tight restrictions on peaceful assembly and free speech.

'We stand in solidarity with prisoners of conscience in Egypt'

- Greta Thunberg

On Thursday, Thunberg tweeted a petition which bore the signature of hundreds of human rights groups and individuals who expressed dismay over Egypt hosting a UN summit, while thousands of Egyptian political prisoners remain locked in dire conditions.

"We stand in solidarity with prisoners of conscience in Egypt," she tweeted.

The petitioners said that they: "Emphasise that effective climate action is not possible without open civic space.

"As host of Cop27, Egypt risks compromising the success of the summit if it does not urgently address ongoing arbitrary restrictions on civil society.

"Prisoners are held in detention conditions that violate the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, and since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power hundreds have died in custody amid reports of denial of healthcare and other abuse," they added.

Human rights activists stressed that tackling climate change goes hand-in-hand with addressing social and economic inequality, corruption and impunity, and ecological destruction.

"We stress the importance of the right to freedom of expression and independent reporting to foster efforts to address the climate crisis," they added, calling on Egyptian authorities to release jailed human rights defenders and journalists and end the blocking of websites of independent media and civil society groups.

"We note that, under the current government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, thousands continue to be arbitrarily detained without a legal basis, following grossly unfair trials, or solely for peacefully exercising their human rights."

Greenwashing

Thunberg's call comes on the same day as the European Parliament demanded that respect for "criteria relating to human rights" be taken into account in the choice of host countries for future Cops.

"Egypt (...) is using the Cop27 to restore its image and hide its catastrophic record on human rights", said French environmentalist MEP Mounir Satouri, one of the elected officials behind an amendment to a bill concerning Cop27, which MEPs approved on Thursday.

COP27: Egypt creating climate of fear for environmentalists ahead of conference
Read More »

Satouri said that the issue of respecting human rights should be raised when the United Arab Emirates hosts Cop28 next year.

On Tuesday, Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abdel Fattah completed 200 days on hunger strike in an Egyptian jail, with no end in sight to his ordeal.

Abdel Fattah, an activist who called for peaceful assembly and free speech, was an icon of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and has spent eight out of the past 10 years in jail on various charges.

Human rights activists said that the Egyptian authorities must take meaningful steps to address the human rights crisis, including by lifting restrictions on access to civic space and ending their crackdown on peaceful dissent.

They noted that Egypt remains one of the world's top executioners, executing 107 in 2020 and 83 people in 2021 while sentencing at least 356 Egyptians to death in 2021.

Israel 'lied' about legal settlement over death of Palestinian-American, says family

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 12:18
Israel 'lied' about legal settlement over death of Palestinian-American, says family
Lawyers and relatives of 79-year-old Omar Asaad deny closing the case for monetary compensation, insisting fight for justice is not over
Leila Warah Fri, 10/21/2022 - 13:18
Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian-American Omar Abdalmajeed Asaad, 79, on 13 January 2022 in Jiljilya village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Reuters)
Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian-American Omar Abdalmajeed Asaad, 79, on 13 January 2022 in Jiljilya village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Reuters)

The Israeli military "flat out lied" about reaching a settlement agreement in the case of an elderly Palestinian-American who died following a violent arrest by Israeli troops, his family and the legal team told Middle East Eye.

Omar Abdalmajeed Asaad, 79, died in January in the occupied West Bank village of Jiljilya after he was dragged, handcuffed and gagged in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers and left unconscious at a construction site.

An autopsy conducted by Palestinian doctors following his death showed that he had died of a stress-induced heart attack. The family subsequently filed a lawsuit against the state in Israeli courts.

'The family is insistent that their father did not die in vain. Even if Israel wrote a check for forty million dollars tomorrow, the family's not settling'

- Stanley Cohen, family lawyer

On 9 October, the Israeli army said that it had settled with the family, agreeing to pay them a sum of 500,000 shekels, approximately $141,000. However, the family's US-based attorney, Stanley Cohen, vehemently denied that the family had accepted any settlement. 

According to Cohen, the state offered the family compensation on more than one occasion, including the 500,000 shekel amount, which was outright rejected months ago.

"The family is not interested in a monetary settlement which will end the investigation," Cohen told MEE, adding that their stance on the case is that the Israeli military "murdered" Asaad.

"They demand justice," Cohen said. "The family is insistent that their father did not die in vain. Even if Israel wrote a check for $40 million tomorrow, the family's not settling. It's not about money."

Omar's cousin, Abd al-Ilah Asaad, 60, also told MEE that the family had not accepted Israel's offer for a monetary settlement. When asked why he believed that the government released a statement claiming as such, he said: "Israel said we accepted their money to make our case weaker. They want to shut down discourse about his death in the international media."

Legal battles

While the family is pursuing legal action against the Israeli military and state locally, Cohen is representing the family in a simultaneous claim in the US.

Asaad was born in Jiljilya, north of Ramallah, but lived in the US for 40 years between Chicago and Milwaukee. He returned to the West Bank in 2009 to retire with his wife.

Cohen says a request has been submitted to the United States Department of Justice for support through a mutual legal assistance treaty, which would enable US law enforcement authorities and prosecutors to obtain evidence, information, and testimony from relevant Israeli agencies regarding Asaad's case.

In February, the Israeli military said its investigation found that Asaad's death resulted "from a moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers". 

Ripping up the evidence: How Israel maintains global impunity
Read More »

One senior officer was reprimanded and two others were removed from leadership roles. Israeli military police said it was carrying out another investigation but the soldiers are not likely to face criminal charges.

Alternatively, Cohen said another request has been filed for the FBI to be dispatched for a formal investigation into the 79-year-old's death. But Cohen says they have yet to receive any response from the US government on their petitions.

The family is not looking for one specific outcome in their legal journey for justice, Cohen said.

At the very least, he added, they would like the Israeli soldiers involved in the death of Omar to be prosecuted and held accountable. If damages are also awarded in conjunction with due process, he said, the family would be willing to accept it.

"We are insisting that punitive damages be imposed, which will send a loud and clear message to the Israeli military, Israeli government and Israeli courts and prosecutors that there is a very heavy price to pay that has absolutely nothing with compensatory damages," Cohen said.

US 'lack of regard'

After Asaad's death, several US lawmakers demanded that the US State Department launch an investigation.

The US government has asked Israel for a "thorough" probe but stopped short of launching its own, likewise in the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, another Palestinian-American shot dead by Israeli force in the West Bank. 

Asaad and Abu Akleh are among at least 175 Palestinians who died in attacks by the Israeli army and settlers this year.

According to the UN, 2022 is so far "the highest year for Palestinian fatalities in the West Bank, compared to the same period in the previous 16 years."

'Our family will keep fighting, and we hope the international community puts more pressure on Israel to stop attacking Palestinians and comply with international law'

- Abd al-Ilah Asaad, Omar's cousin 

In the case of Asaad, the US has shown a "lack of regard" for one of its citizens, according to Cohen.

"He is a 79-year-old US citizen who has spent a lifetime paying his taxes, being a good citizen with no problems in the United States and raising a family," Cohen said.

"There is a social contract, which says 'I cede certain power to you over my life. But in exchange, you are responsible for guaranteeing that my rights are protected.' For Omar Asaad, they completely ignored that."

The family's legal team are still in the early stages of their investigation, which may take several years. But Cohen said they will not rest until justice is served. 

Abd al-Ilah Asaad said that he hopes his cousin's case will be different and that the weight his US citizenship carries will play a role in the local Israeli court case.

"Although Israeli courts rarely give Palestinians justice or respect, we hope this case will be different," he said. 

"Our family will keep fighting, and we hope the international community puts more pressure on Israel to stop attacking Palestinians and comply with international law."

Jiljilya village, occupied Palestine

Jordan: Is the UN’s biometric registration for Syrian refugees a threat to their privacy?

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 11:49
Jordan: Is the UN’s biometric registration for Syrian refugees a threat to their privacy?
Governments and humanitarian organisations have a huge cache of biometric information on Syrian refugees, and little by way of their consent
Zoe H. Robbin Fri, 10/21/2022 - 12:49
A Syrian refugee arrives at a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Mafraq, northern Jordan, on 18 January 2021 (AFP)

Nearly nine years ago, Azzam placed his head before a compact, black box at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Amman, struggling to hold his eyes open as the machine blinked. He was exhausted. 

Months before arriving at the office, Azzam had joined a protest in Homs, Syria and was jailed for three torturous months before fleeing to Jordan. Azzam hoped the hi-tech machine, which captured his iris scan and registered him as a refugee, would be his portal to a better life. 

'I know that I’m wanted by the regime, but I registered with UNHCR to get food'

- Azzam, Syrian refugee in Jordan

“I know that I’m wanted by the regime, but I registered with UNHCR to get food,” said Azzam, sitting on the ground of his Amman apartment, his infant daughter napping between his arms. “They took my iris scan, but I didn’t get any clarification about how it would be used or protected.” 

Governments and humanitarian organisations began databasing huge amounts of biometric information on Syrian refugees as they fled the war. Often a precondition to entering a new country and receiving humanitarian aid, biometric data helped UNHCR make massive gains in registering refugees, cutting the waiting time from eight months to zero in Jordan

Covid-19 pushed humanitarian organisations to further increase their use of biometrics, which can be contactless. But even as biometrics expands, human rights researchers are concerned about the risks to refugees like Azzam. 

“Our concern comes from the fact that these kinds of activities are happening in countries that have no data protection laws in place, for the most part,” Belkis Wille, senior researcher with the Conflict and Crisis division at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye. “Humanitarian organisations don't feel that they're bound by any data protection principles beyond what their own policies have outlined.” 

How are biometrics used? 

UNHCR has been using biometrics since the early 2000s to track refugees from Burundi to Malaysia, though UNHCR in Jordan was the first operation to use iris-scanning to register refugees and distribute assistance. 

The refugee agency collects iris scans of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon using the British-Jordanian company IrisGuard's system. Looking at the IrisGuard machine, refugees can pay for groceries or withdraw cash at enabled ATM machines through the UN’s partnerships with Cairo Amman Bank, LibanPost and other private companies. 

'We started to use the iris scan because it’s more hygienic'

- Dima, charity worker in Jordan

The humanitarian sector had long used photographs to identify refugees, but biometrics, like fingerprints and iris scans, are faster and more accurate. 

UNHCR now owns one of the largest multinational biometric databases in the world, holding the data of millions of adults and children over five. It uses biometrics for identification, comparing an individual’s biometric profile against a database to prevent refugees from registering twice and doubling their receipt of aid. “Even if a refugee moved from Jordan to Egypt, we can know that this is the same person,” said Andrew Harper, UNHCR representative to Jordan.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, biometrics gained a greater foothold. In Jordan, Cairo Amman used mobile bank buses with iris recognition to help refugees withdraw humanitarian aid, while WFP used mobile iris-scanning devices in delivering food to refugees. Several NGOs also switched to using ATMs with iris scans to limit contact between refugees and staff. 

“We started to use the iris scan because it’s more hygienic,” said Dima, who works at a large international NGO in Jordan that began using eye scan-equipped technology to distribute cash to refugees. “Covid-19 is the main reason we switched,” she told MEE. Her organisation has no plans to switch back, even as the pandemic ends. 

Absence of informed consent

Since UNHCR began using biometrics, international consent and data protection norms have changed.

“Issues like the right to consent and the right to be forgotten, that feature in modern legislation like the GDPR or the California Law, are rather recent. These legacy systems were created with different assumptions,” former UNHCR official Karl Steinaker told MEE. “Privacy was never a core element of design.” 

Although UNHCR states that submitting biometric data isn’t mandatory, exceptions are rare, despite evidence that Syrian refugees aim to avoid submitting their biometric data in other contexts. 

An informal survey of 10 Syrian refugees living in Amman conducted for Middle East Eye found none recalled providing consent or learning how their iris scan would be used. This aligns with a previous study in Amman which found that most Syrian refugees were unsure about the purpose of their iris scans and who could access their data. 

Jordan Syria refugees 2017
Syrian refugees queue to register at the office for employment at the Zaatari refugee camp, north of the Jordanian capital Amman, 4 October 2017 (AFP)

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These findings are understandable given UNHCR lacked a publicly available data protection policy until 2015, years after many refugees had provided their data. 

Even today, UNHCR’s data protection procedures are rife with ambiguities. In one example, the refugee organisation released a handout for refugees which stated, “Biometric data is not shared with any third party.” However, the official data protection policy states that it may transfer personal data, including biometrics, with “national governments, international governmental or nongovernmental organisations, private sector entities or individuals”.

UNHCR Jordan responded to questions about these ambiguities in an email, stating, “Unfortunately, we are not in a position to answer these questions as they go beyond Jordan.” 

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

These obscurities are notable, as nefarious uses of biometrics are mounting. In Afghanistan, the US government, UN agencies and the World Bank helped build systems to hold biometrics on Afghans, often for humanitarian work. The Taliban, since its takeover of Afghanistan last summer, has gained access to biometric devices that were left behind by US forces, placing activists, LGBTQ+ Afghans, American allies and others at risk. 

UNHCR also collected biometrics on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who were fleeing genocide in Myanmar. Although previously undisclosed to refugees, the UNHCR was sharing this data with Bangladesh, even as the Bangladeshi government negotiated with Myanmar to repatriate the refugees.

Do host governments collect biometrics?

Governments hosting refugees have also aimed to gather biometric data. 

Turkey collected fingerprints and palm-vein prints on over a million Syrian refugees, among the first entrants in its National Biometric Fingerprint System. In 2016, Turkey passed its Personal Data Protection Law, which is based on the GDPR and prevents organisations like UNHCR from collecting biometric data on refugees in Turkey and processing it on overseas servers. 

'Jordanian authorities are collecting [biometrics] in UNHCR-run camps'

- Belkis Wille, HRW

In contrast to Turkey, the UNHCR has provided authorities in Lebanon and Jordan with equipment and training on biometrics. UNHCR and the governments of Lebanon and Jordan use the same manufacturer, IrisGuard, to collect the data. 

The UNHCR operates at the pleasure of the host governments, so maintaining a positive relationship is essential. 

“The Jordanian authorities are collecting it [biometrics] in UNHCR-run camps, in a structure that has been set up by UNHCR,” Wille told Middle East Eye. “There’s a question about the role of UNHCR essentially facilitating that data collection.”

In Lebanon, officials have been in a battle with UNHCR to gain access to its database, even despite UNHCR’s provision of biometrics equipment to its government. In 2014, then Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said the government “was working with UNHCR to establish a system that would turn the data over… Why wouldn’t they [UNHCR] give it to us? They are working on Lebanese territory.”

UNHCR staff denied that iris scans were being shared with Lebanon’s increasingly pro-Assad government. 

Refugees often provided their biometric data to get food and money.

While informed consent is a core component of most data protection regulations, fleeing refugees may be incapable of freely consenting when the provision of personal data is required for their next meal. UNHCR can then keep their data indefinitely, even after assistance stops. 

"I used to be afraid of getting taken back to the Assad regime’s prison,” said Azzam, holding his daughter’s hand in their Amman neighbourhood, where prices have soared. “Now, I get no assistance. All I think about is providing for my family.”

Amman
Is the UN’s biometric registration for Syrian refugees in Jordan a threat to their privacy?

More than 100 settler attacks on Palestinians documented in last 10 days: Report

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 10:19
More than 100 settler attacks on Palestinians documented in last 10 days: Report
Security source says attacks being perpetrated by a large number of settlers, including women and children
MEE staff Fri, 10/21/2022 - 11:19
Settlers fire at Palestinians while Israeli soldiers stand by in the town of Huwwara on 13 October 2022 (AFP)

There have been more than 100 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank over the last ten days, according to local media.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Friday that most of the attacks it had documented had taken place in the northern West Bank, especially in the town of Huwwara in Nablus governorate.

Last week, dozens of settlers attacked Palestinian property and vehicles in the Huwwara area. 

Witnesses told Middle East Eye that masked settlers threw rocks at Palestinian vehicles near the town, as well as setting vehicles and olive trees on fire.

Abdullah Odeh, who owns a local amusement park in Huwwara, said residents had almost been successful in repelling the settlers when a group of Israeli soldiers arrived.

"The settlers were retreating, but when they saw the soldiers, they came back in force and started to get closer, breaking everything in their path," said Odeh.

"The soldiers did not push them back. Instead, they started to attack us and shoot toward us."

Footage from Odeh's security cameras reviewed by MEE corroborates his story. 

"While the soldiers were pushing us back and attacking us, the settlers started to set fire to one of our vans that was parked higher up on the hill, while another group of them came and started to set fire to one of our lorries," he says.

Armed with stones, sticks, and guns, another group of settlers began throwing rocks at passing cars and smashing up shops along the town's main road.

'Horrific attack'

On Wednesday, two activists were injured by settlers armed with stones and clubs while helping Palestinians harvest olives in the village of Kisan, south of Bethlehem.

"About twenty settlers arrived and started attacking the harvest volunteers," Tali Katzir, an activist who was at the scene, told Haaretz.

Palestine: Brutal settler attacks on Huwwara find allies in Israeli soldiers
Read More »

Katzir said Hagar Gefen, a 70-year-old human rights activist, was among those injured.

"She suffers from broken ribs and bruises all over her body," said Katzir.

Knesset lawmakers Aida Touma-Sliman and Ofer Cassif, from Hadash-Ta'al, condemned the attack and called for those behind it to be held responsible.

"This horrific attack is a direct result of the criminal silence... [from Prime Minister Yair] Lapid, [Defence Minister Benny] Gantz, and [Public Security Minister Omer] Bar-Lev in the face of settler terrorism," said Touma-Sliman.  

Double standards

Haaretz said on Friday that while Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi had been quick to condemn attacks by settlers on Israeli soldiers, no such criticism had been made by the army over attacks against Palestinians.

An Israeli soldier from an illegal West Bank settlement near Nablus was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of participating in a settler attack on an Israeli unit earlier in the day. 

On Thursday morning, a group of settlers threw rocks at passing Palestinian vehicles in Huwwara, before attacking Israeli soldiers dispatched to the area with pepper gas.

A security source told the newspaper that contrary to claims by senior security officials that attacks on Palestinians were being carried out by an out-of-control handful of settlers, well known to the security establishment, they were in fact being perpetrated by a large number of settlers, including women and children.

The source added that the attacks by the settlers were an attempt to inflame the situation in the occupied territories to the benefit of party campaigns ahead of next month's election in Israel.

US-Saudi rift: Turkey calls on Washington to stop 'bullying' Riyadh over oil prices

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 10:00
US-Saudi rift: Turkey calls on Washington to stop 'bullying' Riyadh over oil prices
The Turkish foreign minister's statement came after Riyadh asked Ankara to support Saudi-led Opec's decision to cut oil production
Ragip Soylu Fri, 10/21/2022 - 11:00
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on 22 June 2022 (AFP)

Turkey on Friday called on the United States to stop bullying Saudi Arabia over oil prices following Opec's decision earlier this month to cut oil production, which has caused a rift between Riyadh and Washington.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the US may criticise Opec+ for cutting its production but "it was not right" to threaten Riyadh.

“The bullying against Saudi Arabia is inappropriate,” Cavusoglu said. “We are going through similar challenges in energy prices but we don’t threaten anyone."

'If you want oil prices to go down, then lift those sanctions [on Iran and Venezuela]. You cannot resolve this issue by only threatening a country'

- Mevlut Cavusoglu

Cavusoglu said embargoes imposed by the West on Iran and Venezuela have contributed to oil prices being high.

"The entire world needs Venezuela's oil and natural gas... On the other side, there's been embargoes on the Iranian oil," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. 

"Remove these sanctions... if you want oil prices to drop, remove the embargoes on the countries that will offer their products to the market," he added.

“You cannot resolve this issue by only threatening a country. You should allow oil producers back in production."

The White House last week announced that it would review US-Saudi ties following a decision by the Saudi Arabia-led Opec+, which comprises the leading oil and gas producers and includes Russia, to cut oil output by two million barrels a day.

Washington accused Saudi Arabia of aiding Russia by increasing its oil profits and boosting its foreign earnings as it continues to wage war in Ukraine. Riyadh and other Opec+ members have denied that the decision was politically motivated.

The Biden administration fears the production cut is a political blow to the Democratic Party ahead of a pivotal midterm election cycle in November, as Washington fears the production cuts will increase petrol prices across the country.

US-Saudi rift: The Gulf states are no longer doing Washington's bidding
Read More »

Cavusoglu's criticism is significant as it shows how regional rival Turkey and Saudi Arabia have gotten back on track as regional allies pursuing common agendas.

One person familiar with the Turkish-Saudi talks told Middle East Eye that Riyadh has asked Ankara to support it in the Opec+ production cut, after which Cavusoglu made the statement.

Since this summer, Turkey has been seeking a $20bn deposit from Saudi Arabia in a bid to bolster its foreign currency reserves. 

Multiple sources speaking to MEE said that Riyadh had been slow to grant the deposit.

In June, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Ankara, ending a four-year rift with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who escorted him to the airport as he departed.

The visit came after Turkey dropped a court case in which Saudi agents suspected of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi were being tried.

Ankara
US should not 'bully' Saudi Arabia over oil prices, Turkey says

Iran protests: Basij death toll highlights paramilitary group's role in crackdown

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 08:44
Iran protests: Basij death toll highlights paramilitary group's role in crackdown
Iran has deployed thousands of paramilitary Basij members across the country to suppress anti-government protests
MEE correspondent Fri, 10/21/2022 - 09:44
An Iranian student from the Islamic Basij volunteer militia burns a US flag in Tehran, during a protest on 16 July against President Biden's visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia (AFP)

Farrah* was returning from a protest in central Tehran in late September over the death of Mahsa Amini when four men on motorbikes pulled up and blocked her way.

The men were members of Iran's Basij paramilitary force, who have been central to the suppression of demonstrations against mandatory headscarves and the "morality police" since the 22-year old Kurdish woman's death in mid-September.

Elnaz told Middle East Eye that she was detained and transferred to Al-Javad mosque in Haft-e Tir square.

"They dragged me to the mosque basement where other girls were under arrest," she said. "Then a police officer came and took our phones and, one by one, checked out our text messages. I had already deleted all messages about the protests, and I told the officer that I had been arrested mistakenly."

Iranian Basij paramilitary forces take part in a rally marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) day near a Shahab-3 missile in a street in the capital Tehran, on April 29, 2022 (AFP)
Basij paramilitaries march alongside a Shahab-3 missile to mark Al-Quds Day in Tehran, 29 April (AFP)

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She was finally released when she convinced the police her arrest was based on false claims.

"When I was running out of the mosque's small door at the square, I saw more Basij members were about to enter with new arrestees," she added.

While Elnaz was able to escape, at least 215 protesters, including 27 children, have been killed since the beginning of anti-government protests on 16 September, many at the hands of Basij members.

But figures released by the government and state media also suggest that the unprecedented number of deaths and injuries suffered by Basij underscores the role of the paramilitary group's involvement in suppressing the protests.

On 15 October, IRNA, the country's official news agency, reported that 850 Basij members had so far been injured in the capital alone. The news agency quoted Brigadier General Hassan Hassanzadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, as saying 185 paramilitaries were injured in the capital on one night, without elaborating on the exact date or place of the incident.

Hassanzadeh added that three members of Basij were killed in confrontations with the demonstrators.

MEE has not been able to independently verify these figures.

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

Record-high death toll

The Basij has a base in all mosques across the country. The IRGC commands the paramilitary force, and most of its members are volunteers.

However, these members are not directly paid by the IRGC - the government provides full economic support to the members and assists them in occupying positions in governmental offices, the public sector and universities.

But the role apparently comes with risks - reports so far suggest that the nationwide death toll of Basij members has been higher than in any other uprising since 1979.

Tasnim news agency, affiliated with the IRGC, wrote that one Basij member and an IRGC major were killed in the small city of Beyrom on 14 October as they attempted to arrest citizens who wrote anti-government slogans on city walls.

Last week, Iran, the state-run daily newspaper, published a list of armed and paramilitary forces killed since the beginning of the latest wave of demonstrations in the country. It reported that 17 Basij members and seven armed officers were killed during the first four weeks of the protests.

Speaking to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity, an Iranian political scientist said the deployment of Basij to suppress protests has increased in recent years, as the establishment has lost social support.

"Since it was founded in 1979, Basij has always been an important force for the regime's repression machine, but now its presence has increased because this dictatorial system can't fully trust its own police officers," he said.

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

The analyst stressed the Iran-Iraq war was the only other time when paramilitaries suffered a higher death toll than the official forces.

"Now, the widespread deployment of paramilitaries has two benefits for the regime; first, they add ready-to-combat manpower to their repression machine; second, they can whitewash their crimes by putting the blame on the paramilitaries," he concluded.

Overlap with army

According to the Iran daily, Basij members were killed in demonstrations in all of the major Iranian cities, including Tehran, Mashhad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Orumiyeh and Karaj.

One surprising detail in its report was the death of an officer serving in Artesh, the country's official army. However, a retired Artesh officer confirmed to MEE that Artesh members had also registered with the Basij and participated in the operations to receive governmental support.

Iranian start-ups and businesses face disaster over internet shutdown
Read More »

"I was a volunteer member of Basij for a few years, even when I was an officer in the official army," he told MEE.

"We had to operate checkpoints, and I didn't like stopping ordinary people's cars and searching them. So later on, I stopped working with Basij. But many army officials are also members of the Basij."

Reports published by people close to the establishment also underlined Basij's role in the attacks on demonstrators.

On his Instagram page, Javad Mogouei, a documentary filmmaker with close ties to the office of Iran's supreme leader, explained the details of his brutal arrest by the paramilitaries.

"Someone hit me from behind. I fell to the ground. They kicked into my head and chest… they were 10 beating me… [then] they pushed me in a police van," wrote Mogouei, whose brother is a commander in Basij forces from the city of Karaj.

*Names have been changed for security reasons

Tehran
Basij death toll highlights Iranian paramilitary group's role in protest crackdown

World Cup 2022: Football-loving workers fear exploitation in Qatar gig economy

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 07:14
World Cup 2022: Football-loving workers fear exploitation in Qatar gig economy
Gulf state becomes hub for short term jobs ahead of tournament, as cash-strapped expatriates fear deportation once the final whistle is blown
AP Muhammed Afsal Fri, 10/21/2022 - 08:14
Crowds gather around the Ali Bin Ali Tower at Umm Ghuwailina district of Doha, Qatar, for job interviews on 27 August 2022 (MEE/Harshad Kuttipran)
Crowds gather around the Ali Bin Ali Tower at Umm Ghuwailina district of Doha, Qatar, for job interviews on 27 August 2022 (MEE/Harshad Kuttipran)

Thousands of unemployed expatriates in Qatar wake up every morning to their mobile screens, hoping to find a "Fifa job". 

Most of these jobs have a distant connection to world football's governing body. The candidates know what the category really entails: a role that won't last more than a few weeks.

For some young football-lovers, involvement in the World Cup, which kicks off on 20 November, is a case of bragging rights and a prestigious feather in their cap.

That’s why many of them heeded Fifa’s call in March for 20,000 volunteers at the tournament, with no previous experience required. 

But the reality for those applying to last-minute paid opportunities is that they’ll likely be far away from stadiums and footballers. They could instead find themselves in tough working conditions, struggling to rein in crowds on subways and roads.

With loans to pay and living costs to meet, the scramble for jobless workers to find short-term work ahead of next month’s tournament is on.

Boom in short-term jobs 

Qatar has become a hub of temporary jobs in recent months, with several multinational companies and state institutions advertising World Cup vacancies. 

In June, hospitality partner Accor said it needed 12,000 overseas workers for the 65,000 rooms in apartments and homes it is operating.

CEO Sebastien Bazin said hiring was underway in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America for housekeepers, front-desk staff, logistics and experts. 

'For a hundred vacancies... a crowd of 3,000 gathered from 6am and stood under the sun until noon' 

- HK, foreign worker 

"All that is going to be dismantled at the end of December," he said at the time.

Qatar also sought an unspecified number of workers from Nepal to fill vacancies in the service sector. 

Unemployed men in the Gulf state showed MEE hundreds of messages calling for short-term workers shared on Whatsapp groups, run by community organisations and activists. 

Most of these groups sprouted up at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic two years ago, when thousands were laid off. 

A young community leader told MEE that 17 job-related messaging groups and Facebook pages he was involved in were used by over 50,000 people last year. 

“A job is better than no job, but we shouldn't overlook the exploitation,” a journalist who covers the gig economy in Qatar said. 

HK, who only gave his initials, is one of those unemployed foreign nationals checking his phone constantly for new opportunities.

He borrowed QR7000 ($1,923) for flights, quarantine and documentation to return to Qatar in July last year, after going to India to attend his sister’s wedding. 

Upon his return, he worked as a clerk at the health ministry’s Hamad Medical Corporation, managing clinics in quarantine hotels. 

But when quarantining was ended by Qatar’s government in September, he and 2,000 colleagues lost their jobs. 

Qatar World Cup: Kenyan labour rights activist 'detained and deported'
Read More »

Now he’s facing hurdles in the pursuit of shorter-term roles associated with the World Cup. 

"I attended six interviews, all Fifa-related. Some recruiters keep us waiting for some time and then call to sign a contract," HK said. 

One of the roles required him to commit for two months, but promised only 12 working days at QR250 ($69) daily.

During a walk-in interview for another role, at Qatari conglomerate Ali Bin Ali, HK encountered chaotic scenes. 

“For a hundred vacancies in their sales team, a crowd of 3,000 gathered from 6am and stood under the sun until noon,” he recounted.

“Then the recruiters halted the interview fearing police intervention, and asked the candidates to leave the premises after submitting their CVs.”

Some newly recruited workers told MEE they were “generally happy”, except for the short length of the jobs. Most temporary jobs, they said, offered two or three times more than the Qatari minimum wage

Fears of being deported 

While reports suggest organisers face a personnel shortage ahead of the 1.2 million expected visitors for the tournament, no stakeholders in the temp-hiring business were willing to share just how many workers were needed. 

MEE's questions to Fifa, five recruiters, and six HR consultancies who regularly post temporary vacancies were unanswered. 

Qatar's population reached 2,985,000 in October, excluding nationals and residents abroad, with 370,000 additional people arriving in the last year. 

But the latest unemployment rate of 0.26 percent does not appear to reflect reality on the ground. 

Many workers have a "free visa", a legal grey area in which they are technically employed by companies but, in fact, jobless or freelancers. Some of these employees are fed and housed when there’s no work, but do not receive a salary. 

Then there are workers who have been let go by companies, but are allowed to retain a visa under those firms until they find a job. 

Is Qatar ready to host the World Cup?
Read More »

Foreign-born labourers in these insecure roles, many of whom are struggling to pay off debts accrued to get work in the Gulf state, worry they’ll be sent back to their home countries.

Last year, there were reports that foreign workers would be sent away and placed on five months' unpaid leave so they were not visible during the tournament. 

One candidate said that some recruiters demanded passports as a bond after interviews, an illegal practice in Qatar. 

"Companies fear recruits will jump when offered a higher salary. There's talk that the wage will increase in the immediate days before the World Cup," he said, adding that securing passports was an easy solution to prevent the jump. 

"Many submit their education certificates instead of passports just in case." 

Qatari officials and Fifa did not respond to MEE’s request for comment on whether they had heard about such abuses. 

Rothna Begum, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that her organisation found abuses against construction workers, but hadn't received any abuse cases from service workers hired on temporary contracts. 

"Of course, there's a difference if you work for an SC [Supreme Committee] related job where you have better worker welfare standards and programmes that can benefit you,” she told MEE, referring to the official World Cup organising committee.

“But if you are not with the SC, they don't apply. And most workers don't fall under the SC remit.”

Doha
Football-loving workers fear exploitation in Qatar gig economy

Palestinian teenager fatally shot by Israeli forces in Jenin

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 06:55
Palestinian teenager fatally shot by Israeli forces in Jenin
Salah al-Buraiki, 19, died after being shot in the neck, while three other Palestinians were also wounded
MEE staff Fri, 10/21/2022 - 07:55
More than 120 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this year, making 2022 the deadliest year since 2015 (File pic/AFP)

A Palestinian teenager was killed overnight by Israeli forces during an operation in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, the Palestinian health ministry said on Friday.

Salah al-Buraiki, 19, died after being shot in the neck, the ministry said in a statement, adding that three other Palestinians were also wounded.

Palestinian sources said that Israeli forces raided several buildings and deployed snipers on their rooftops, leading to confrontations with residents.

The Israeli army said that during the operation, "suspects hurled explosive devices and fired shots at the security forces, who responded with live fire. Hits were identified."

Speaking to Reuters at the hospital where Buraiki was taken, his father denied that his son had been involved in the confrontations.

"This boy was neither armed nor wanted [by the Israelis]. Why did you kill him?" he said.

Violation of international law

On Thursday, shops, offices and schools were closed across the West Bank as Palestinians went on strike to protest Israel's killing of a man suspected of killing an Israeli soldier earlier this month.

Udai Tamimi was killed late on Wednesday after he fired at Israelis on the edge of an illegal settlement.

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On Thursday, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy succumbed to his gunshot wounds, a month after he was shot by Israeli military forces, the Palestinian health ministry said.

Mohammed Fadi Nouri, from the Palestinian city of Beitunia, was shot in the abdomen at the northern entrance to the nearby city of Al-Bireh in September.

More than 120 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem this year, making 2022 the deadliest year since 2015.

On Thursday, a UN-appointed commission of inquiry concluded that Israel's "permanent occupation and de-facto annexation" violated international law.

Britain sanctions Iran for supplying drones to Russia

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 18:38
Britain sanctions Iran for supplying drones to Russia
Iran's top diplomat denies reports Tehran plans to send surface-to-surface missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine
MEE staff Thu, 10/20/2022 - 19:38
Ukrainian firefighters work on a destroyed building after a drone attack in Kyiv on October 17, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine (AFP)

The UK government on Thursday imposed sanctions on three Iranian generals and an arms firm over Russia's use of Iranian drones to bomb Ukraine, matching new EU sanctions.

The Treasury added Iranian drone-maker Shahed Aviation Industries and three top Iranian military officials to its sanctions list, citing the supply of drones to Russia "for use in their illegal invasion of Ukraine".

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said "Iran's support for Putin's brutal and illegal war against Ukraine is deplorable".

"Today we are sanctioning those who have supplied the drones used by Russia to target Ukrainian civilians.

"This is clear evidence of Iran's destabilising role in global security," he said, after the EU imposed sanctions on the same arms firm and individuals.

Iran prepares surface-to-surface missiles 

Iran's role in the Ukraine war has escalated, with near daily reports of Russia using Iranian-made drones to strike Ukraine, including civilian and energy infastructure.  Those strikes have accelerated as Moscow's military campaign flags, with Ukrainian forces recapturing swathes of territory. 

There are signs that the conflict in Ukraine has emerged as another obstacle to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, with the US State Department saying on Thursday that Iran's drone deliveries to Moscow were in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is officially known.

On Thursday, Iran's top diplomat denied media reports that Tehran planned to send missiles to Russia for use in the Ukraine war. 

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Citing US and allied security officials, the Washington Post reported Sunday that Tehran was also preparing shipments of surface-to-surface missiles. Military analysts and Western officials say Russia's use of Iranian drones is an indication of a depleted missile stockpile. 

"During a telephone conversation with [EU foreign policy chief] Josep Borrell, I told him that our politics... is that we are opposed to the war and its escalation in Ukraine," Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Twitter on Thursday.

"The allegation of sending Iranian missiles to Russia for use against Ukraine is without foundation."

"We have cooperation in defence matters with Russia, but it is certainly not our politics to send arms and drones against Ukraine," Amir-Abdollahian added.

What the election of Colombia's first leftist leader means for Palestine

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 18:04
What the election of Colombia's first leftist leader means for Palestine
Leftist ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro has been a vocal defender of Palestine, and his presidency may open the door to improved relations
Inigo Alexander Thu, 10/20/2022 - 19:04
Colombian President Gustavo Petro waves during the ceremony to officially reopen the land border with Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia, on 26 September 2022 (AFP)

Latin America is witnessing a changing of the political guard.

In Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftist former president, is leading in polls against right-wing incumbent populist Jair Bolsonaro, in the final round of elections scheduled for October 30. But already, several countries across the region have opted for political renewal, ushering in a wave of leftist governments in Honduras, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and - most recently - Colombia. 

In early August, Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla fighter, was sworn in as Colombia's first ever leftist leader, an historic event in a country that experienced a decades-long civil war which only formally ended in 2016.

Petro ran an ambitious campaign built around a promise of widespread structural change, political reform, and addressing inequalities and social justice.

Colombia's new president has also been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, despite this not forming a major part of his presidential agenda. 

'He is the president of a friendly country, but beyond that he can be a like-minded person in whom we can trust'

- Alexander Montero, political adviser, Palestinian diplomatic mission to Colombia

Before taking office, Petro had made a number of public statements in defence of Palestine and the plight of its people, which he once described as a "struggle of a people for freedom and independence". 

In May 2018, Petro denounced attacks on residents of Gaza by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return, tweeting: "I raise my voice against the murder of Palestinians. People are not to be massacred, they are to be respected as a culture, with the right to exist under the planet's skies. Jesus was Palestinian and asked that human beings love one another."

Years earlier, while serving as the mayor of the capital, Bogota, he posted a photo of the Palestinian flag on his Facebook page where he categorised the Palestinian cause as "historic".

"He's a person who's very close to the Palestinian issue," Alexander Montero, political adviser at the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Colombia, tells Middle East Eye. 

"He is the president of a friendly country, but beyond that he can be a like-minded person in whom we can trust and seek to carry the Palestinian message when necessary."

Shift

Petro's election could represent a shift in the Colombian approach and relationship with Palestine, given that previous governments had close ties with Israel, according to Colombian author and analyst Victor de Currea-Lugo, whose work focuses on the Middle East. 

"Petro's victory presupposes the possibility of an improved relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Bearing in mind that the previous governments have been particularly pro-Israeli," de Currea-Lugo told MEE. 

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He points out that Colombia only officially recognised Palestine as a sovereign state in 2018, one of the last countries in Latin America to do so. 

"It would be expected that, in terms of foreign policy, with the arrival of more democratic figures to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this would imply greater recognition and dialogue with the representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Colombia," de Currea-Lugo added.

For the Palestinian diaspora in Colombia - which is roughly 100,000-120,000 strong - the election of Petro is a welcome change, yet one that is met with reservation and guarded expectations. 

Lukewarm positions

Despite casting his vote for the new president, Colombo-Palestinian George Siman downplayed the significance Petro's presence could have for Palestine. "It doesn't mean anything really," he told MEE. 

"The Petro government, despite being seen as somewhat anti-imperialist or anti-colonialist, really has not had even moderately lukewarm positions [towards Palestine]. Once in power, it's been an absolute disappointment and incoherence from the government, and I'm sure Petro himself is aware." 

Regardless of Siman's scepticism, Montero hopes Petro's administration will be able to "search for peace and respect international law". 

"We see Colombia as a brotherly country and Colombian society as a sister society and it may be the moment to take the steps to formalise the friendship and those fraternal links we have long had.

"We can move forward and improve our diplomatic relations without any fear. All the opposite, it would transmit a great message of peace and respect for international law," Montero says.

Ties with Tel Aviv

The new president was also publicly critical of Israel before assuming office. In 2019, Petro compared the actions of the Israeli state towards Palestinians with the treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. 

He tweeted: "One thing is the State of Israel and the Jewish religion is another, just as the Colombian State is one thing and the Catholic religion another. Confusing state and religion is characteristic of an archaic mindset. The State of Israel discriminates against Palestinians like Nazis did against Jews." 

Nonetheless, Petro's public support of Palestine - as well as his comments about Israel - have yet to put much of a strain on Bogota's relationship with Tel Aviv. 

'It doesn’t mean anything really'

- Colombo-Palestinian George Siman

Following his successful presidential bid, the Israeli foreign ministry congratulated Petro, tweeting: "We congratulate the people of Colombia and President-elect Gustavo Petro on a successful democratic election and look forward to further strengthening the relations between Israel and Colombia and between our two peoples."

While still a presidential candidate, Petro also met with a group of Israeli and Jewish businessmen.

This amicability between the new Petro government and Israel was reflected early on in the new government's tenure. In mid-September, the president of the Colombian Senate, Roy Barreras, met with the Israeli ambassador to Colombia to discuss an "agenda of bilateral cooperation".

"Along with the Ambassador of Israel we propose an agenda of cooperation in favour of the agroindustry. Colombia has the land, [Israel] the technology and experience in rural associations. The Free Trade Agreement that [former president Ivan] Duque signed makes sense if we become a world agro-industrial power and dignify the peasantry," Barreras tweeted, along with a video of the encounter.

The meeting ruffled feathers among some members of Colombia's Palestinian community, who felt sidelined by the Petro government. 

"[Our cause] is not a priority," Siman said. 

Currea-Lugo says business and military intelligence links remain strong between Colombia and Israel. 

"Therefore, I don't think there is adequate sensitivity to what the Palestinian cause means and there is a fairly pragmatic handling of relations with Israel," de Currea-Lugo said.

Representatives of Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

'Israel's biggest ally' 

The proximity between Colombia and Israel is by no means a novel development, as Petro's predecessor - the right-wing Ivan Duque - held a close relationship with Tel Aviv during his tenure. 

While in office, Duque strengthened ties and signed a free trade agreement with Tel Aviv, describing Israel as a "sister nation" in an interview in 2021. 

Speaking to Red+ Noticias, Duque said Colombia was "Israel's biggest ally in Latin America," adding Colombia wanted "to strengthen that alliance".

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It remains to be seen exactly how Petro's relationship with Israel will develop during his presidency. Siman expects a minor shift in tone in contrast with Duque's warm friendship, yet nothing that would drastically change relations.

"Diplomatically - in the best of cases - there will be a little cooling off, because the diplomatic figures in Colombia have spoken in favour of Palestine and its reality in the past. Yet over the next four years, Zionism will survive," he said. 

Regardless of the Petro administration's initial proximity to Israel, Siman stills hopes the new president will work to defend their cause while in office

"I ask he continues to take as his own the most just cause of our times, the Palestinian cause. I ask for consistency between that and his international and local attitude towards the Palestinian people. May you never abandon it, because if he abandons Palestine, he is, in part, abandoning the Colombian people themselves," Siman says.

New report identifies several 'double-tap' air strikes by Syrian and allied forces

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 17:30
New report identifies several 'double-tap' air strikes by Syrian and allied forces
Report finds instances where the Syrian government first struck a target, then struck the nearby hospital, 'maximising damage to the wounded'
MEE staff Thu, 10/20/2022 - 18:30
Plumes of smoke rise following Russian air strikes on the village of al-Bara in Syria's Idlib province on 5 March 2020.
Plumes of smoke rise following Russian air strikes on the village of al-Bara in Syria's Idlib province, on 5 March 2020 (AFP)

A new investigative report published on Thursday has identified nearly a dozen instances where it says the Syrian government and allied forces engaged in "double-tap" air strikes to target hospitals and "intentionally harm persons and objects protected by international humanitarian law".

The report, published by the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, builds on a previous study on "double-tap" strikes in Syria.

"Double-tap" strikes have become increasingly common in modern warfare. The military tactic, which could violate international humanitarian law, is when armed drones or warplanes attack a site and then return to attack the same area again as people carry out rescue work.

Thursday's report highlights what it refers to as a variation of these strikes, in which the Syrian government and allied forces struck an initial location, then struck the hospital where the injured were brought, "maximizing damage to the wounded as well as medical personnel and facilities".

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"The cases examined in this report constitute an especially pernicious variation on such tactics, in which Syrian government and allied forces first struck a civilian target and subsequently attacked a nearby medical facility," the report said.

"By destroying the health infrastructure, the Syrian government has nullified the ability of these areas to provide care for injuries, chronic diseases (such as cancer), and communicable diseases."

Using a combination of Syrian government documents obtained by the group, satellite imagery, social media, and direct interviews, the report found 11 instances that matched the patterns of these types of consecutive air strikes. The report detailed five of these instances.

"This investigation is another example which shows the extent to which the Syrian government and its allies have pursued military strategies designed to maximize civilian harm," Zachary Cuyler, lead author of the investigation, said in a news release on Thursday.

"Our report identified a pattern in which pro-government forces would first launch a strike on a target and then attack the hospital to which casualties from the first strike were brought."

Pro-government forces in Syria, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and Israeli operations in Gaza have all come under fire for reportedly intentionally targeting civilians and first responders attending to the injured.

The report also said that the Russian military was likely involved with the "double-tap" strategy, given that media sources and independent war monitors identified several of the strikes stemming from Russian warplanes.

Russia has been among the top political, economic and military backers of the government in Damascus, and at the invitation of Syria, intervened militarily in the conflict in September 2015.

Moscow has maintained a military presence at its Hmeimim air base, near the city of Latakia, since it entered the civil war.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has put the total death toll from the Russian air strikes in Syria at more than 21,000, including 8,697 civilians, a quarter of whom were children.

Almost half a million people have been killed in the civil war, with millions more displaced and large parts of the country devastated.

Since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, which began in February, Russian air strikes in Syria have decreased, resulting in fewer deaths, according to the Observatory.

A total of 241 people have been killed by Russian strikes in Syria during the past year. Most of these were Islamic State (IS) fighters, but the figure also includes 28 civilians, said the UK-based advocacy group said.

Iran makes mixed overtures to Saudi Arabia amid new alignments

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 16:56
Iran makes mixed overtures to Saudi Arabia amid new alignments
As Iran is rocked by historic protest movements, Saudi Arabia has seen US ties sink to new lows
MEE staff Thu, 10/20/2022 - 17:56
Hossein Salami
The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, delivers a speech during a rally outside the former US embassy in the capital, Tehran, on November 4, 2021 (AFP)

Iran has called for Saudi Arabia to distance itself from Israel, while making diplomatic overtures to its arch-rival.

"You are relying on an Israel which is collapsing, and this will be the end of your era," Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, was quoted as saying, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency on Thursday.

His comments come a day after a top adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the two countries should reopen their embassies as part of a bid to revive ties.

"We are neighbours of Saudi Arabia and we must coexist. The embassies of the two countries should reopen in order to solve our problems in a better way," Ali Akbar Velayati said on Wednesday.

Riyadh and Tehran have held five meetings in the past year, with talks brokered by Iraq to defuse long-running tensions. Diplomats from the two countries most recently met in April.

Yemen talks

The main topic of discussion between the two rivals has been Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the internationally recognised government, and where Iran has supported the Houthi rebels with arms and training.

A senior US official told Middle East Eye previously that Saudi Arabia was "very keen" to see talks with Tehran address the kingdom's security concerns in Yemen.

Iran-aligned Houthis have struck Saudi energy facilities and cities with missiles and drones, while the Saudi-led coalition has also launched thousands of air strikes in Yemen, with many hitting civilian infrastructure. A United Nations-brokered truce in Yemen expired earlier this month without renewal, risking a new flare-up in fighting.

Regional unease

Iran's mixed overtures to Saudi Arabia come at an uneasy time in the region. The Islamic Republic has been gripped by a popular uprising that started after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September after she was detained for alleged violations of the country's dress code.

Despite a violent crackdown on protesters, the demonstrations have proven resilient, morphing into a general outpouring of frustration with Iran's government over its collapsing economy and repression. 

Meanwhile, under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has begun to chart a more independent path from its historic US ally. 

Ties between Saudi Arabia and the US have sunk to historic lows under the administration of President Joe Biden, with the oil-rich kingdom angered by what it sees as Washington's tepid commitment to its security concerns, as well as its criticism of human rights abuses and its efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Biden administration and many Democratic lawmakers have fumed over a decision by Opec+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, to slash its production target of oil by two million barrels a day in November, just ahead of the US midterm elections.

As prospects for a nuclear deal have faded in recent months, the US has made efforts to bolster security cooperation between Israel and its Gulf allies - but those efforts have stalled.

While Iran's comments suggest a closing of ranks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Riyadh has publicly rebuffed the Biden administration’s efforts to bring the two countries closer together, with Foreign Minister Prince Farhan bin Faisal saying his country had "no discussion about a defensive alliance with Israel".

Israeli arms companies have also clipped their ambitions to strike weapons deals with Saudi Arabia, as a result of the new tensions with Washington, according to recent media reports

Senator Bob Menendez, the Democrat who leads the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has threatened to block defence cooperation with Riyadh over the Opec+ decision.

The call to reestablish Tehran-Riyadh ties comes as other Gulf states appear to be hedging their bets with Iran. The United Arab Emirates reinstated its ambassador to Iran in September for the first time in six years, while Kuwait has also appointed a new ambassador to Iran.

US lawmaker reignites effort to curb presidential war powers

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 15:17
US lawmaker reignites effort to curb presidential war powers
Congresswoman Barbara Lee is pushing to pass a bill to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gave the White House the power to invade Iraq
Umar A Farooq Thu, 10/20/2022 - 16:17
US Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to have voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
US Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to have voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (AFP/File photo)

US Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker to have voted against the invasion of Afghanistan, is renewing a legislative push to pass a resolution that would limit the White House's ability to wage war.

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, Lee, along with anti-war groups and other lawmakers, is mobilising support to repeal the resolution that paved the way for the military intervention, the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

During a webinar on Wednesday evening hosted by anti-war advocacy groups, including Win Without War, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, Lee said that since 2001, more lawmakers have learned "not to give any president the authority to wage war, for whatever reason, in perpetuity".

"It's unfortunate that we've had to go 20, 21 years in this, this fight to repeal these authorisations that should have never happened," Lee said.

The AUMF is a resolution passed by Congress that gives the president permission to wage military action, without the need for Congress' approval, as laid out in the specific terms set in the measure.

There are currently multiple AUMFs active: a 1991 AUMF and a 2002 AUMF that were both for Iraq; and a 2001 AUMF that gives the president the ability to wage war against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

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The authorisations have been continually used by the past four administrations to launch military campaigns and strikes across the Middle East. The 2002 AUMF was used by the Donald Trump administration to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

The 2002 AUMF is close to being repealed, with the House in July voting in favour of revoking the authorisation and companion legislation in the Senate gaining bipartisan support.

"We're close. Now we're in the Senate with Senator [Tim] Kaine working and we've got to find 10 Republicans," Lee said.

The repeal also has support from the Biden administration, with the White House issuing a policy statement noting that it supports Lee's bill that would repeal the 2002 AUMF.

"There is strong bipartisan support for repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF in both the House and the Senate. There are 11 Republican cosponsors of a Senate bill to repeal the 2002 AUMF," Heather Brandon-Smith, a legislative director at FCNL, said during the webinar on Wednesday.

"So that's enough to overcome a filibuster, and what's more, the White House has even come out in support of this repeal."

A difficult path to end 2001 AUMF

In a separate and more difficult battle, the congresswoman is also working to repeal the wider-ranging 2001 AUMF, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

That effort has been met with a more divided Congress and there has been no sign of support from the Biden administration.

The open-ended nature of the 2001 AUMF has allowed multiple presidents to wage war against a number of groups, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, and Islamic State (IS).

It has been applied in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

"It's been used over and over and over again for military attacks, for assassination attempts, not connected anywhere near to 9/11," Lee said.

"We have to think about the losses of people in the region and how their lives were shattered as a result of this."

A 2021 report from Brown University's Costs of War Project found that the US-led global war on terror has led to the deaths of nearly one million people, and cost more than $8 trillion.

In January 2021, Lee introduced a bill to repeal the 2001 AUMF, and since then it has gained more than 90 co-sponsors. The resolution issues a sunset provision for the AUMF, forcing it to expire after a period of eight months.

The congresswoman says that is more than enough time for the White House to create a narrower, more restricted version that Congress could agree on.

"You can't tell me that if the President needs to go to war or use force, eight months is not enough time for Congress to debate and authorise a new authorisation," Lee said in an interview with the online magazine Responsible Statecraft.

"We passed the 2001 AUMF in three days, so you can't tell me that Congress can't come up with something if the President needs it."

Still, the measure does not have enough support to pass out of the House, let alone make it out of the Senate.

Washington

Egypt nears deal with Israel and PA to revive Gaza offshore gas production

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 15:09
Egypt nears deal with Israel and PA to revive Gaza offshore gas production
The Gaza Marine natural gas fields have been untapped for two decades mainly due to Israeli objections and obstacles
Adam Khalil Thu, 10/20/2022 - 16:09
Palestinians participate in a rally at the Gaza City sea port, in which they demand their right to receive gas from a maritime field off Israel and the the lift of the blockade, on 13 September 2022 (ABACA via Reuters)
Palestinians participate in a rally at the Gaza City seaport, in which they demand their right to receive gas from a maritime field off Israel and the lifting of the blockade, on 13 September 2022 (ABACA via Reuters)

An agreement between Israel, the Palestine Authority (PA) and Egypt to revive gas exploration at fields off the coast of Gaza may be close, Palestinian sources have said. 

The deal would see an Egyptian company facilitate natural gas production in the offshore fields using Israeli infrastructure, a Palestinian source familiar with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity told Middle East Eye.

The cash-strapped Ramallah-based PA, represented by the sovereign wealth vehicle Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), will reap 27.5 percent of profits from the field.

PIF’s partner, the Palestinian-owned Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), will get another 27.5 percent. The remaining 45 percent will go to the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS), which will operate the project. 

'The talks between the Palestinian coalition companies and the Egyptian company are progressing greatly to reach a final agreement soon'

- Palestinian source

“The talks between the Palestinian coalition companies and the Egyptian company are progressing greatly to reach a final agreement soon,” the source told MEE. 

The Gaza gas fields were first discovered in 1999 in Palestinian territorial waters.

The first discovery, located about 36km off the coast, was called Gaza Marine 1 and contains an estimated 33 billion cubic metres of natural gas. The second field, located on the sea border area between Gaza and Israel, was called Gaza Marine 2 and contains an additional three billion cubic meters.

The fields have long been seen as a major stepping stone towards Palestinian energy independence but they remained untapped mainly due to Israeli objections and obstacles. 

In November 1999, a 25-year contract for gas exploration and development of gas fields was signed between the British Gas Group (BG Group), the CCC and the PIF. 

BG Group withdrew from the project in 2016 and handed it over to Shell, which in 2018 also withdrew from the agreement due to various disputes. 

Egypt is now working with Israel and the Palestinians to finalise a deal that could unlock the untapped fuel, amid global gas shortages caused by the Russian war in Ukraine and western sanctions on Moscow. 

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

'Strategic scheme'

On Tuesday, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation said a trilateral agreement had been reached between Israel, the PA and Egypt but mentioned no further details.

A day earlier, the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said at the start of the weekly ministerial session in Ramallah that the government would form a team that includes several ministers to follow up on the matter.

He said the PIF chairman Mohammed Mustafa and his team were negotiating with Egypt to conclude an agreement on gas, in a manner that serves Palestinian national rights and benefits. 

A senior Palestinian official told MEE that the PA’s ministries would facilitate the mission of the PIF in the issuance of the necessary permissions.

Why hasn't Gaza Marine produced gas?
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“The gas extraction project is an important strategic scheme for us,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  

The official said he hoped gas will be extracted by 2025 through Israeli infrastructure that can be used for gas transportation, noting that the Palestinians will need about 15 years to prepare their own infrastructure.

However, Palestinian economic expert Samir Hulileh said there would be no extension of the gas pipeline to the Israeli city of Ashdod, but rather the lines would be extended to the Egyptian city of Al-Arish.

The Egyptian company would then process the gas and sell it, along with Egyptian gas, to Europe. 

Hulileh said that the annual income for the PA from the gas field once the operation is underway will be between $700-$800m, equivalent to $7-8bn within 10 years.

“The prime minister and the government are very interested in it because it will generate sums of money that will help the government’s treasury,” the official PA source said. 

Israel and Hamas 

In 2021, the PA signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt to develop the Gaza gas field and the necessary infrastructure. 

However, Cairo still needed to get a green light from Israel to get the project up and running. 

The Palestinian official who spoke to MEE said that current Israeli approval is preliminary. The final approval cannot be obtained before the formation of the next Israeli government, which will have the final decision.

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

An Egyptian source confirmed to AFP earlier this week that his country was "making contacts with all parties, including Israel, to develop and benefit from the Gaza gas field," stressing, this would "support the Palestinian economy."

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip has seen growing calls in the past month by Palestinian factions, led mainly by Hamas, to revive explorations.

Billboards and banners were put up across the Gaza Strip with the caption "Our Gas is Our Right", as Lebanon signed a maritime deal with Israel that could unlock its own gas riches in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Palestinians join in a rally at the Gaza City sea port on 14 September 2022 to demand their right to receive gas from maritime fields in the eastern Mediterranean (AFP)
Palestinians join in a rally at the Gaza City sea port on 14 September 2022 to demand their right to receive gas from maritime fields in the eastern Mediterranean (AFP)

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

Since 2016, the Gaza Strip has been suffering from a severe shortage of electricity as a result of the Israeli bombing of the only station at the time. There has also been a lack of funds to finance the petrol needed to operate the station amid the 15-year-long Israeli-led blockade. 

The offshore fields can help Gaza’s power station switch from oil to gas, which would increase its operational capacity and reduce costs that are currently being paid by Qatar.

'Our people's right to benefit from its natural resources and gas is guaranteed in all international laws and resolutions'

- Hazem Qassem, Hamas

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told MEE, "We are following up on all developments related to the gas issue and the agreements." He added, "Our people's right to benefit from its natural resources and gas is guaranteed in all international laws and resolutions."

Economist Hamed Jad hoped a deal can be finalised by the end of the year, but said it was subject to Israeli cooperation. 

"The Palestinian attempts, since the discovery of gas fields off the shores of Gaza, have continued ever since but every time there are new obstacles. Now in light of the global energy crisis, the issue has come up again,” Jad told MEE.

He added that a final agreement should include an understanding with Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza, to avoid further challenges in the operation of the field. 

But Jad remained positive, saying that Egypt “knows how to deal with Hamas and how to deal with Israel.”

Gaza, occupied Palestine

France repatriates 54 women and children from Syrian camps

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 14:21
France repatriates 54 women and children from Syrian camps
A European court condemned France in September for not bringing home nationals from mortally dangerous camps
MEE staff Thu, 10/20/2022 - 15:21
Al Roj camp in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, where relatives of people suspected of belonging to Islamic State are held, 28 March 2021 (AFP)

France has repatriated 54 nationals from camps in northeast Syria where families of suspected Islamic State group fighters (IS) are held, just weeks after a European court condemned it for leaving nationals in dire and dangerous conditions there.

Fourteen women and 40 children who had for years lived in tents controlled by Kurdish forces landed near Paris in the early hours of Thursday morning.

This is France’s third repatriation operation in three months. On 5 July, 16 mothers and 35 children were repatriated, and a woman and her two children were brought back in early October.

"The minors have been handed over to child support services responsible for child support and will be subject to medical and social monitoring,” read a press release from the foreign affairs ministry. “The adults have been handed over to the relevant judicial authorities.”

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Among the children flown home were seven who were either orphans or separated from their parents, the National Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor's Office (PNAT) said in a statement. The women are between 19 and 42 years old.

Three of the women subject to an arrest warrant were directly presented on Thursday to an anti-terrorism judge to be charged, and 12 others were taken into custody. Among the latter is a 19-year-old taken to Syria when she was a minor, according to the PNAT.

They are among the French women who went - either voluntarily or under duress - to territories controlled by IS in Iraq and Syria and were then captured during the fall of the group in 2019. Many of the children were born in IS-controlled territory or in the camps themselves.

The European Court of Human Rights called on France to re-examine its decision to refuse to repatriate two French women held in Syrian detention camps in a landmark case in September. The case was brought by the parents of the women, who had travelled with their partners to parts of Syria and Iraq then controlled by IS. 

The court ruled that the French government would be “expected to promptly re-examine” the request in order to safeguard the women against the “arbitrariness” of the refusal. The ruling did not outright call on the two to be repatriated, however.

The French nationals are among roughly 60,000 women and children who live in two sprawling Kurdish-run camps, al-Roj and al-Hol, in the semi-autonomous Hasakah region of Syria.

‘It’s not over’

The Collective of United Families, a group that brings together families of French people with relatives in the camps, described Thursday’s repatriation as "excellent news” in a press release, saying it seemed to “seal the renunciation of France’s ‘case by case’ policy, which consisted of arbitrarily repatriating specific children". This policy led to the repatriation of 35 French children between 2019-21, the statement added.

"But it's not over: those who remain are waiting," it said. "France has started significant repatriations: it must now go all the way."

Of the many western countries with nationals in the camp, France has the highest number. Hundreds remain in conditions condemned by numerous NGOs and international organisations, all of whom have been pushing countries to repatriate nationals for years.

French government spokesman Olivier Veran told LCI television on Thursday that there were "still a few dozen other children to repatriate… There will be some collective repatriation movements,” he said. “This is happening gradually.”

"I want all these children to come back as soon as possible, four years is very long… a whole childhood," Marie Dose, a lawyer for many of the families, told AFP. "Surely France can’t leave more than 150 children and more than 60 mothers in camps in northeastern Syria for a fifth winter."

France repatriates 54 women and children from Syrian camps

Turkey accidentally reveals secretly developed short-range ballistic missile

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 13:42
Turkey accidentally reveals secretly developed short-range ballistic missile
Attempts to suppress the news backfire as officials continue the search for the leak source
Ragip Soylu Thu, 10/20/2022 - 14:42
Image released by the Turkey Ministry of Defense on 2 July 2022 shows successful testing for the first time of a coastal defense complex equipped with a new surface-to-surface guided missile ATMACA from the Turkish company Roketsan (EYEPRESS via Reuters)
Testing for the first time of a coastal defence complex equipped with a new surface-to-surface guided missile ATMACA from the Turkish company Roketsan 2 July 2022 (Turkish Ministry of Defence via Reuters)

Turkish officials who have for years worked covertly developing a short-range missile system woke up on Tuesday morning to one of their secrets being aired on national TV.

A video of a new missile called Tayfun, or Typhoon, during a test launch from the Black Sea town of Rize, was leaked and widely reported on Turkish and international media. 

The new system was developed by Roketsan, a state-owned weapons manufacturer, and the test showed that it was capable of hitting targets at a distance of more than 500km in 456 seconds.

Turkiye successfully test fired its new locally made short range ballistic missile named the TAYFUN (Typhoon), hitting its target from a distance of 561 kilometers in a duration of 456 seconds.

An impressive new addition to Turkiye's weapons portfolio. pic.twitter.com/zb37qDPgvv

— Yusuf Erim (@YusufErim34) October 18, 2022

While people on Turkish social media were busy celebrating the existence of the missile, and asking questions on whether the Tayfun range could be enough to target Turkey’s neighbour Greece, Turkish officials were in a panic mode looking for the source of the leak.

Many in Turkey and the region believe Ankara planned to announce the Tayfun missile soon and the footage was part of the PR effort. Multiple people speaking to Middle East Eye said that the footage was leaked accidentally. 

'In any case, if you look at it from the bright side, it has been a good advertisement for Tayfun'

- Turkish official 

The leaker or leakers have still not been identified, one official said.

Speculation about their identity is rampant. Some people think it was a low-level PR company officer, a rookie that made an honest mistake. 

Others suspect more sophisticated schemes since the quality of the footage was high.

“In any case, if you look at it from the bright side, it has been a good advertisement for Tayfun, '' one official told MEE. “We can sell it someday.” 

Turkey’s missile capabilities

Since the footage was published, officials have been trying to understand how a secret test film ended up with the second-largest news agency in the country, the private Demirören News Agency (DHA).

DHA published the video along with details of the missile’s capabilities.

After the initial shock, officials informally asked media operators and TV channels to censor some of the details, such as the specific details on the missile’s range. 

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DHA complied and removed the initial story, replacing it with another one that omitted details about the missile and preserved only the footage. 

Many other TV channels stopped airing the story. 

Even though there is no international treaty that bans ballistic missile development programmes, Turkey has been cautious about revealing information about its weapons manufacturing capabilities.  

Two other missiles were previously developed in the country, the Yildirim (Thunderbolt) and Bora (Storm), which have a 150km and 280km range respectively.

Out of an abundance of caution, Ankara does not reveal tests of rockets that have a 300km range or more, according to multiple sources. 

Greek media 

Turkish officials' attempt to suppress the story didn’t work, since the information was already out on social media, and many international observers were discussing it online.

#Turkey also successfully tested a short-range tactical ballistic missile. Tayfun (Tornado) ballistic missile manufactured by Turkish company #Roketsan hit a target 561 km away in today's test.
Turkey has already developed the Yıldırım missile with a range of more than 150 km. pic.twitter.com/Hlvj6VvaGD

— International Defence Analysis (@Defence_IDA) October 18, 2022

The news also eventually made it to Greek media, which extensively reported on the development.

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Speaking to Greek broadcaster ERT, retired General Frangoulis Fragos said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the Turkish defence sector to design a missile that can travel 2,500km.

“It would give Turkey the ability to control the wider region and play the role of a regional power,” he said. 

A retired Greek air force official, Konstantinos Iatridis, told the Greek newspaper Ta Nea that Tayfun needed to go through many tests to become operational.

“According to the experts involved in the construction of such weapons systems, it takes at least seven to eight years to become operationally ready,” he added. 

Turkish media then circumvented the informal ban on reporting the story by quoting their Greek colleagues, with some, like the TV channel A Haber, ridiculing them for expressing fear against the Tayfun system.

On Thursday, the Turkish public news channel TRT World also began covering the test fire.

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

Ankara

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