Archive for January 4th, 2014

Syrian refugees in Lebanon face bitter winter

December 15, 2013

BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) — Shivering in the snow, Syrian Aisha Mohammad looked at the last-minute charity that saved her children from freezing during the smack of a particularly tough Lebanese winter: a wood-burning stove complete with twigs and garbage to ignite in hopes of warming her drafty tent in an icy eastern plain.

Still, her seven children quake from the cold in their donated, bright plastic rain boots, even as they build snowmen resembling their own skinny selves. Since fleeing Syrian government shelling in the northeast province of Raqqa nine months ago, their playground has been here, among the rows of crowded tents they call home.

“We would have frozen to death,” without the aid, said the tall, 40-year-old wife of a day laborer who also lives at the camp as she held her runny-nosed four-year-old daughter, Rawan. Like tens of thousands of impoverished refugees living in tents, shacks and unfinished buildings throughout Lebanon, the family faces a miserable winter as aid organizations scramble to meet their needs, constantly overwhelmed by ever-more people fleeing the Syrian conflict, now entering its third year.

Some one-third of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced, with 2.3 million now refugees, mostly in neighboring countries. “This is the biggest winterization effort that the U.N. and partners have ever done in the world,” said Roberta Russo of the U.N.’s refugee agency. “But still, the scale of the crisis and the number of people coming is so much,” she said.

Some 1.4 million Syrians live in Lebanon, including 842,500 officially registered with U.N., charities who are rushing to distribute aid to the most vulnerable — around half a million people. This past week, they handed out blankets, mattresses, kerosene heaters, winter clothes, plastic tarps and fuel coupons, hoping to stave off the worst of a battering storm called Alexa that hit Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey, Israel and even the deserts of Egypt with rare snow and rain.

Syrian refugees said the Lebanese army joined the efforts, handing out blankets and mattresses from the back of jeeps. Some kindly neighbors let refugees siphon off electricity and gave them used TV sets and heaters to help pass the time.

On Sunday, the U.N.’s World Food Program said it began airlifting aid into northeastern Syria, trying to reach displaced families with deliveries that had been delayed by the winter storm. The WFP said it hoped to send in enough food for 30,000 people for a month.

In Turkey, foreign ministry official Yunus Bayrak said workers had insulated tents and delivered winter clothing to refugees. But he said conditions in camps just across the border in Syria were likely to be worse.

Charity officials in Lebanon said they planned to distribute more aid, particularly to the 120,000 Syrian refugees living in 430 makeshift encampments scattered throughout the eastern Lebanese mountainous plain of the Bekaa.

Freezing air crept through holes in Mohammad’s burlap tent, outside which lay fuel for her Lebanese-donated stove: a tattered shoe, twigs, old clothes and plastic bags. “It’s for the fire,” she said, acknowledging that the toxic smoke was making her children sick. But she had little choice, particularly when she needed to put them to bed. “I don’t know if the children sleep from dizziness or hunger,” she said from under a purple headscarf.

Some refugees said municipal officials have seized part of their aid. There was no way of proving the claims, but few appeared to have kerosene, which aid organizations distributed to registered refugees this week in exchangeable coupons.

Nearby, Mariam al-Hamad, 52, burnt an old shoe in her newly donated portable heater as her husband, an amputee, sat nearby. “We ask for heating, that’s all,” she sighed. The cold has frozen the site’s water source, and the men said they were melting snow for drinking water.

Nearby, a boy ran with a plastic bag peeking from the top of his shoes — a cheap waterproofing tool. Other children appeared to have missed out on the winter clothes donations and wore only thin pants and layers of shirts.

In another encampment in the town of Arsal on the Lebanon-Syria border, hundreds gathered around a center run by the Danish Refugee Council, where workers distributed emergency fuel coupons as boys sledded gleefully down a nearby a hill on a plastic sheet.

Residents sat on mattresses in the snow to take advantage of a few hours of scarce sunshine. A group of boys crouched around a pot of cooked wheat, eating sloppily. “Look! I have a hole in my pants!” shouted Abdullah, 12, pointing to his torn clothing.

Some refugees appear to have slid through the cracks. Anwar Abdul-Qader, 40, said he had arrived in Arsal two weeks ago with his 11 children but still hadn’t received aid. But friends organized a tent by moving its former inhabitants into other dwellings. For food, Abdul-Qader’s children gathered at their better-off neighbor, Abdul-Rahman. He too complained of the cold and thin blankets, but said he had sold part of his fuel ration to buy yerba mate, a popular South American tea-like brew.

Abdul-Qader sighed. “One complains about not having enough blankets. What about those who have none?”

With additional reporting by Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Desmond Butler in Ankara.

Syrian refugees in Jordan in urgent need of humanitarian help

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Chief of moral guidance department in the Jordanian army Colonel Odeh Shdefat affirmed on Friday that Syrian refugees need extra assistance during the current bad weather.

Shdefat said that the Jordanian border forces are now helping refugees facilitate their entrance into Jordan. He said that the violent weather, where heavy snow and rain are falling, meant that the refugees are in urgent need of extra food, clothing and medical aid.

He also said that border forces offer as many primary needs as possible to the refugees along the border, which extends to about 378km. He said that all Jordanian forces are on alert to help Jordanians in need, too.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, more than 550,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Jordan. In addition, more than 600,000 Syrians migrated to Syria before the revolution.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Syria’s children are freezing to death and Gazans are drowning as Arab billionaires turn a blind eye

Abdel Bari Atwan
Saturday, 14 December 2013

In refugee camps across Jordan and Turkey Syrian children are freezing to death and their peers in the Gaza Strip are drowning while the Arab countries, most notably the wealthy ones, insist on turning a blind eye to their plight.

The Gaza Strip has been suffering without electricity for several months now and life has completely paralyzed because of the Arab-Israeli suffocating siege that has been imposed on nearly two million innocents while this year’s winter storms and floods have worsened the situation. The Hamas led government which rules the Strip do not have either the expertise, the necessary funds or the capabilities to deal with this crisis; they had to resort to old fishing boats to rescue homeless Gazans who climbed the rooftops of their flooded homes to cry for help.

There are nearly 150 member States in the Friends of the Syrian People Group, mostly from wealthy European and Arab countries, yet more than four million Syrian refugees are suffering inside and outside of Syria from hunger, disease, fear and lack of any reassuring solution in the near future.

Billions of Arabs’ dollars are invested in the “death industry” in Syria to finance the fighting factions who will topple Syria’s dictatorial regime and billions are spent to purchase the latest military equipment to arm them. But when the screaming children in the refugee camps freeze to death, the wealthy and their governments are nowhere to be seen.

The funds are allocated only for murder, not for life. Logically those who manage to deliver weapons to the fighters should not fail to deliver medical aid, food and blankets to the children of Aleppo, Homs, Rastan, Ruqqa, Idlib and all the other Syrian cities. Assuming this humanitarian mission is impossible for them to complete they could at least be able to deliver the necessary relief materials and heating equipment to the Syrians in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, where there are no military confrontations or explosives.

Yesterday The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces appealed to the world to “raise the level of emergency aid and food for Syrians in need, whether inside Syria or abroad, in order to protect the children and the elderly from dying in cold” whilst activists have broadcasted online images of a child’s corpse with his arms pulled up in the air – “probably frozen,” – yet we did not hear a response.

The Syrian people are slaughtered and murdered by all the fighting parties within Syria and they are insulted and humiliated by their Arab brothers in the Arab countries, which reaffirms that the destruction of this country and to humiliate its people has always been the prime goal.

In a statement on Friday Amnesty International criticized the EU failure to play a concrete role to host more Syrian refugees. It also criticized the measures they have taken on their borders to reduce the number of Syrian refugees who try to infiltrate their territories and described them as “shameful.” Amnesty International’s stance is “honorable” to criticize Western “infidel” countries but what about Arab “Muslim” countries mainly those who want to introduce democracy and human rights to Syria. We ask them, how many Syrian refugees did you host and how do your border guards treat Syrians fleeing death to escape their lives? These are States that accommodate millions of foreign workers from more than 180 non-Arab nationalities.

Gulf countries are donating billions of dollars in oil grants to Egypt to resolve the fuel crisis there which is an honorable humane act that we all acknowledge. Yet how come these States do not demand the Egyptian authorities, from a humanitarian point of view, the passage of some limited gas quantities to operate Gaza’s sole power station to illuminate the homes of the two million Muslim Arab “Sunnis” there?

The Gaza Strip has drowned in darkness and floods while Syria’s children and elders are freezing to death marking the most disgraceful stain in the history of this nation. Those who do not answer the calls of the deprived while they can, will never be able to free homelands or to respect the minimum human rights in their country or any other.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Ships to haul 500 tons of Syrian chemical agents

December 14, 2013

LIMASSOL, Cyprus (AP) — Danish and Norwegian ships can safely ferry up to 500 tons of Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country, a Danish chemical expert said Saturday.

Bjoern Schmidt said sealed containers full of chemical compounds, which when mixed can create lethal Sarin and VX gases, will be loaded at opposite ends of the two cargo ships. The exact quantity of chemicals to be taken out of Syria is unknown, Schmidt said.

Cmdr. Henrik Holck Rasmussen, of Danish frigate HDMS Esbern Snare, said two cargo ships will go to Syria as many times as needed to pick up all chemical weapons. The Danish warship and Norwegian frigate HNOMS Helge Ingstad will act as escorts. Both are docked in Cyprus along with the Danish cargo ship Ark Futura. The second cargo ship, which Norwegian shipper Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA identified to the Associated Press as the MV Taiko, hasn’t arrived yet.

The joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons team in Syria aims to remove most chemical weapons from Syria by the end of the year for destruction at sea and destroy the entire program by mid-2014. The unprecedented disarmament in the midst of a civil war was launched following an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds of civilians.

The U.S. and Western allies accused the Syrian government of being responsible for that attack, while Damascus blames the rebels. Syria has agreed to dismantle its chemical arsenal to ward off possible U.S. military strikes.

Schmidt said according to plan by the OPCW which is in charge of the entire operation, the cargo ships will take the chemicals to the harbor of an as yet unidentified country where the most dangerous chemicals will be transferred onto American ship MV Cape Ray.

The ship is equipped with technology that can largely neutralize the chemicals. The process will take place at sea and the mostly inert chemicals will receive additional treatment at another facility.

Schmidt said the transfer can take place at sea, but that would mean additional risks given weather conditions and rough seas. “I think the safest thing is to go into a harbor,” Schmidt said. Croatia has said that it would consider providing one of its ports for the transfer of the chemicals as long as there’s no public opposition.

Danish Commodore Torben Mikkelsen, who is commanding the joint Danish-Norwegian operation, said it’s unlikely the cargo ships would take any chemical weapons aboard until a harbor is found where they can be transferred onto the American ship.

“If there’s no country willing to take the cargo or willing to participate with the transload, we’re not going to take the stuff aboard,” said Mikkelsen. “We need to know the transload or the disembarkation harbor. Then we’re ready to go.”

The containers will be inspected and sealed by OPCW officials and Syrian authorities at Latakia port. Each will be equipped with anti-handling and GPS tracking devices. Norwegian and Danish officials will scan the containers once they are aboard the cargo ships using a mobile container scanner, Mikkelsen said.

Mikkelsen said they’re still waiting for word on when the operation can begin and the ships can set sail for the trip to Latakia about 166 miles (267 kilometers) from Limassol port. Norwegian frigate commander Per Rostad said there are no plans to put any of the approximately 360 crew members aboard the two warships on the ground at Latakia port. A Finnish team of chemical experts is also aboard the ship to assist the operation.

Schmidt said it’s unclear what will happen with other, less dangerous chemicals that the cargo ships will be hauling. He said they’ll either be transferred to the American ship or a land-based facility for disposal.

Mikkelsen said crews aboard the Danish and Norwegian warships as well as the cargo ships are now undergoing training to deal with any safety issues that may arise, primarily from rough weather. Schmidt said the biggest safety risk is when the containers and other drums full of the chemicals will be opened aboard the American ship.

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

Palestinian ambassador in Prague killed in blast

January 01, 2014

PRAGUE (AP) — The Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic died Wednesday in an explosion that occurred when he opened an old safe that had been left untouched for more than 20 years, officials said.

Ambassador Jamal al-Jamal, 56, was at home with his family at the time of the explosion, according to Palestinian Embassy spokesman Nabil El-Fahel. Al-Jamal was seriously injured and rushed to a hospital where he died, according to police spokeswoman Andrea Zoulova.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said no foul play was suspected, noting that the safe had been left untouched for more than 20 years. It also appeared that the door of the safe had been booby-trapped, according to Zoulova. It was unclear how al-Jamal tried to open it or what type of safe it was.

The safe was recently moved from the old embassy building, but it had come from a building that used to house the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s offices in the 1980s, Malki said. “The ambassador decided to open it. After he opened it, apparently something happened inside (the safe) and went off,” Malki told The Associated Press.

It was not immediately clear how Malki knew the safe had been untouched for more than 20 years or why and when the safe would have been booby-trapped. During the 1980s — before the fall of the Soviet Union — the PLO had close ties with the Eastern bloc countries. In recent years, relations have been tense and the Czech government was seen as largely taking Israel’s side in the Mideast conflict, said Nabil Shaath, a foreign affairs veteran and leading official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.

“The safe was sitting neglected in one of the areas of the old embassy. It was in one of the corners. No one had touched it for 20 to 25 years,” Malki said. The embassy recently moved to a new complex.

“The ambassador wanted to know what is in the safe,” Malki said. “He opened it and asked his wife to bring a paper and a pen to write down the contents of the safe. She left him to bring (the) pen and paper. During that time, she heard the sound of an explosion.”

He said the ambassador had taken some of the contents out of the safe, but it wasn’t immediately clear what was inside. It was also unclear how soon the explosion occurred after he opened the safe. The ambassador and his wife were alone in the building at the time because it was a holiday, Malki said. His 52-year-old wife, who called embassy employees to seek help, was treated for shock at the hospital but released. She was not immediately named.

Zoulova said police were searching the apartment but declined further comment. Martin Cervicek, the country’s top police officer, told Czech public television that nothing was immediately found to suggest that the diplomat had been a victim of a crime.

Cervicek later said police found one more safe at the embassy complex and were checking it, but that no other explosives were found, Czech public radio and television said. Prague rescue service spokeswoman Jirina Ernestova said al-Jamal was placed in a medically induced coma when he first arrived at Prague Military Hospital. Dr. Daniel Langer, who works there, told public television that al-Jamal had suffered serious abdominal injuries, as well as injuries to his chest and head.

The embassy complex is in Prague’s Suchdol neighborhood. The new embassy had not been opened yet and the ambassador, who was appointed in October, spent only two nights in the new residence — also in the new complex.

The explosion occurred in the ambassador’s residence. Al-Jamal was born in 1957, in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp. His family is originally from Jaffa in what is now Israel. He joined Fatah in 1975. In 1979, he was appointed deputy ambassador in Bulgaria.

Starting in 1984, he served as a diplomat in Prague, eventually as acting ambassador. From 2005-2013, he served as consul general in Alexandria, Egypt. In October 2013, he was appointed ambassador in Prague.

Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

Crowds throng Bethlehem for Christmas

December 25, 2013

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations on Tuesday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own. “The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.

Excited tourists milled about the town’s Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Will Green of New York City, along with his wife, Debbie, and their 2-year-old daughter Daphne were among the crowds of people who greeted Twal’s motorcade as he entered town from nearby Jerusalem. Green said that being in Bethlehem for Christmas was a dream come true. “All the stories that we grew up with. It’s here. It’s part of our life. We heard them in the family, school and church. This is the birthplace,” he said.

Green slowly pushed a stroller and his wife held their daughter as they followed a crowd toward the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born. Palestinian dignitaries greeted Twal at the entrance of Bethlehem. His motorcade crawled through the town’s narrow streets as he stopped to shake hands and greet the throngs of visitors. It took him nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity compound.

Hundreds of people packed the compound for the service. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were among the dignitaries in attendance.

In his homily, Twal addressed Abbas, telling the president he prays for a “just and equitable solution” for the Palestinians. Twal, himself a Palestinian, also expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, particularly families with relatives imprisoned by Israel or those who have suffered as a result of the conflict with Israel.

“The world is living through a long night of wars, destruction, fear, hate, racism and, at the present time, cold and snow,” he said. Lamenting strife in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, he also urged worshipers “not to forget our own problems here: the prisoners and their families who hope for their release, the poor who have lost their land and their homes demolished, families waiting to be reunited, those out of work and all who suffer from the economic crisis.”

Yet Twal called on people not to despair. “We are invited to be optimistic and to renew our faith that this land, home of the three monotheistic religions, will one day become a haven of peace for all people,” he said.

“Oh Holy Child, God of goodness and mercy, look with kindness on the Holy Land and on our people who live in Palestine, in Israel, in Jordan and all the Middle East. Grant them the gift of reconciliation so that they may all be brothers — sons of one God,” he said.

The number of visitors to Bethlehem remained below the record levels of the late 1990s, when Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts were at their height. Following a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, the numbers plunged. But thanks to a period of relative calm, they have been steadily climbing in recent years — and got an extra push this year thanks to the resumption of peace talks.

“Our message is a message of justice and peace,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We Palestinians are seeking peace and we deserve to have peace and our children deserve to live in peace.”

Maayah said the number of visitors to Bethlehem was expected to jump by about 14 percent from last year. A spokesman said 10,000 foreign visitors had entered town by the early evening, slightly higher than last year. Israel’s Tourism Ministry, which coordinates the visits with the Palestinians, said the number could reach 25,000 during the holiday season.

Despite the Christmas cheer, Mideast politics loomed in the background. In order to enter Bethlehem, Twal’s motorcade had to cross through the hulking concrete separation barrier that Israel built during the uprising. Israel says the barrier is needed to keep attackers from entering nearby Jerusalem, but Palestinians say the structure has stifled the town and stolen their land.

Maayah said that the barrier, along with nearby Israeli settlements and Israeli control of archaeological sites in the West Bank, has made it difficult to develop the tourism sector. In addition, few Palestinians seem to think that the current round of peace talks will bear fruit. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry relaunched the talks last summer, but there have been no signs of progress.

Israel carried out a series of airstrikes and other attacks Tuesday in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the deadly shooting of an Israeli civilian who had been working along the border. The fighting, which left a 3-year-old Palestinian girl dead, was the heaviest in more than a year.

Christmas also serves as a reminder of the dwindling numbers of Christians who live in the Holy Land. Over the decades, tens of thousands of Christians have left, fleeing violence or in search of better opportunities overseas. Christians now make up a tiny percentage of the population.

Bethlehem is now only one-third Christian, with most residents Muslim. In an annual gesture, Israel permitted some 500 members of Gaza’s small Christian community to leave the Hamas-ruled territory and cross through Israel to attend the celebrations in Bethlehem.

But for one night at least, residents and visitors brushed aside their troubles to celebrate the holiday. Nick Parker, a student from Georgia Tech University, said he was enjoying the food and making friends with local residents and fellow travelers.

“It’s special to be here where Jesus was born,” he said. “It’s a special opportunity, once in a lifetime.”

Car bombing kills pro-Western Lebanese politician

December 27, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A powerful car bomb killed a prominent Lebanese politician critical of Syria and its ally Hezbollah, hitting his SUV Friday as it drove through a ritzy business district near Beirut’s waterfront, shredding trees and scattering glass and twisted scraps of metal across the pavement.

Allies of the slain politician, former finance minister Mohammed Chatah, indirectly blamed the Shiite Hezbollah group for the bombing, raising tensions between Lebanon’s two main political camps at a time when the country’s factions are already deeply at odds over the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The morning explosion echoed across Beirut and threw a pillar of black smoke above the city’s skyline. The force of the blast punched a nearly 2-meter (yard) wide crater in the street, set at least three cars on fire and shattered windows in office buildings and apartment towers up to a block away.

The 62-year-old Chatah, who was also a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States and a senior aide to ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was killed along with his driver and four others, the National News Agency reported. The Health Ministry said at least 70 people were wounded.

In a statement, the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attack and “reiterated their unequivocal condemnation of any attempt to destabilize Lebanon through political assassinations.”

The bombing deepened the sense of malaise in Lebanon, which is struggling to cope with the fallout from the civil war in Syria, including the influx of more than 1 million Syrians who have sought refuge from the violence in their homeland.

Lebanon also has had only a weak and ineffectual caretaker government since April, with the two main political blocs unable or unwilling to reach a compromise to form a new Cabinet. Hariri, a Sunni politician, heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, known as the March 14 alliance. Hezbollah, which enjoys the support of Syria and Iran and commands a militia stronger than the national military, leads those on the other side of Lebanon’s political divide.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Friday’s attack, but the bombing was reminiscent of a string of assassinations of around a dozen members of the anti-Syrian Hariri camp that shook Lebanon between 2004 and 2008.

The most dramatic of those was the massive suicide bombing in 2005 in downtown Beirut — some four blocks from the site of the explosion — that killed Hariri’s father, Rafik, also a former prime minister. Hariri’s allies accused Syria of being behind the killings, a claim Damascus denied.

The opening session in the Hariri assassination trial is due to be held in less than three weeks in The Hague, Netherlands, where the U.N.-backed tribunal investigating his killing is based. Five Hezbollah members have been indicted for their alleged involvement in the assassination. Hezbollah rejects the accusations, and has refused to hand the men over.

Saad Hariri said in a statement that “the ones who are running away from international justice and refusing to appear before the international tribunal” were behind Chatah’s assassination. Hariri said those responsible are “the same ones who are opening the doors of evil and chaos into Lebanon” and “brought regional fires to our country,” in a clear reference to Hezbollah’s armed intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Hezbollah strongly denounced Chatah’s assassination, saying it serves “the enemies of Lebanon.” The Shiite group’s overt role in Syria has inflamed Lebanon’s already simmering sectarian tensions. A wave of violence that has washed across the country this year has fueled predictions that Lebanon, which is still recovering from its own 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of slipping back into full-blown sectarian conflict.

In recent months, a series of explosions have struck districts dominated by Hezbollah, apparently in retaliation for the group’s decision to dispatch its fighters to Syria, while a deadly twin car bombing hit the northern city of Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold. There have also been repeated clashes between Sunnis — who largely back Syria’s rebels — and Shiites and Alawites who back Assad.

The last major assassination in Lebanon took place Oct. 19, 2012, when a car bomb killed Lebanon’s top intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan. Al-Hassan, a member of Hariri’s security circle, was a powerful opponent of Syria’s influence in Lebanon and many here blamed his killing on Syria.

Friday’s bombing punctured the early morning lull along a quiet street in a posh neighborhood in downtown Beirut that is home to five-star hotels, luxury high-rises and high-end boutiques. “We were having breakfast when the explosion went off, shattering the glass and shaking everyone,” said Iman Mohammed, a 36-year-old Egyptian visiting Beirut who was staying at the Ramada Hotel less than 100 meters (yards) from the blast site. “People started running, children were barefoot and some people fled their room in their pajamas.”

The army quickly cordoned off the area to prevent people from getting close to the scene, where the twisted wreckage of several cars was still smoldering. Hours later, forensic experts in white hazmat suits were still scouring the site while workers at the neighboring office blocs were sweeping glass into the street from windows several stories up.

Security officials said the car that blew up was rigged with up to 60 kilograms (130 pounds) of explosives, and parked along Chatah’s route. The blast struck the former minister’s SUV as he was driving to a meeting at Hariri’s downtown residence, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Prosecutor General Samir Hammoud said a preliminary investigation indicated the explosives were packed into a stolen Honda CRV and detonated by remote control. He said investigators will now focus on analyzing footage from security cameras in the area.

Chatah’s death marks a serious loss for the pro-Western camp in Lebanon. The 62-year-old was a prominent economist who once worked at the International Monetary Fund in the U.S. and later served as Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. He was one of the closest aides of Rafik Hariri. He later served as finance minister when Saad took over the premiership, and stayed on as his senior adviser after he lost the post in early 2011.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati denounced the assassination, “which targeted a political and moderate figure who believed in dialogue, the language of reason and logic and the right to different opinions.”

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry also condemned Friday’s bombing, calling it an “abhorrent terrorist attack” and describing Chatah as “a voice of reason, responsibility and moderation.” Hariri’s 2005 assassination sparked massive demonstrations that eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, following nearly three decades of military presence and domination of its smaller neighbor.

Chatah was a moderate Sunni politician who opposed Hezbollah and Assad. His last tweet, posted an hour before the explosion, read: “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs.”

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Israel frees Palestinian prisoners despite protest

December 31, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel released more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners convicted in deadly attacks against Israelis early Tuesday as part of a U.S.-brokered package to restart Mideast peace talks.

After departing on buses from Israeli jails overnight, the prisoners received hero’s welcomes upon their return to the West Bank and Gaza with officials and jubilant relatives lining up to greet them. At his headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waited to meet the men in the middle of the night. Speaking before thousands, he pledged to continue pressing for the release of long-serving and ill prisoners.

“We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released,” he said. In Israel, though, the release was accompanied by great anger and frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a public uproar from all directions over the move.

With Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements, the criticism came from some unlikely quarters. Dovish supporters of peace talks said the expected construction would destroy any goodwill created by the prisoner release, while hard-line allies criticized Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted in connection with killings, mostly of Israelis.

“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party on Monday. “We were not elected to make easy decisions.” Under a formula drawn up by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel agreed last summer to release a total of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their longstanding demand for Israel to halt construction of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 that they claim for their future state. The Palestinians say they have received vague assurances that Israel would show restraint while the talks continue until an April target date for an agreement.

The latest prisoner release is the third of four planned stages. The release was carried out by Israel overnight to avoid the larger spectacle of having to witness the celebrations over the killers’ freedom.

All 26 of the men have been convicted in deadly attacks, and have spent between 19 and 28 years in prison. They included 18 men from the West Bank, three Gazans, and in a concession by Israel, five men from east Jerusalem.

Israel considers east Jerusalem to be part of its capital and has previously balked at allowing the Palestinians to negotiate on behalf of prisoners living in what it considers to be Israeli territory. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized, and the vast majority of Arab residents in the area hold residency rights but are not Israeli citizens.

The coming releases generated excitement throughout Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as heroes and freedom fighters. Families decorated their homes and neighborhoods with posters of their loved ones who were returning home and planned large feasts.

The family of Ahmed Shihadeh was busy preparing a welcoming celebration in the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank. Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.

His mother Haseba, 75, said she has “spent my life” visiting her son, but hasn’t been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk. “I’ve visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit,” she said.

In the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal al-Mukaber, the sound of kettle drums and ululating women filled the air as residents braced for the return of Jamal Abu Jamal, who has spent nearly 20 years in prison for a stabbing attack.

Women holding Abu Jamal’s picture sang and danced in circles and praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for securing his release. His mother Rayouf, 77, who is unable to speak after suffering two strokes, sat in a chair with tears in her eyes.

“Since she heard the news, she’s getting better,” said Abu Jamal’s sister Huda. “I can’t express how happy she is.” Israeli opponents of the prisoner release have staged days of protests against the releases. A group representing the families appealed to the Supreme Court to block the release. It was rejected late Monday, allowing the releases to continue.

In an apparent attempt to blunt domestic criticism of such releases, Netanyahu is expected to approve plans to build 1,400 new homes in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the coming days. The Palestinians say such construction undermines peace efforts, and have appealed to the U.S. to block the expected announcement. The U.S. and the European Union have harshly criticized settlement announcements during the current round of negotiations, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at one point questioning Israel’s commitment to peace. Kerry is expected back in the region this week in another effort to breathe life into the negotiations.

But Netanyahu indicated he would not back down. “In these negotiations we are faced with our essential interests, including guaranteeing the settlements in the land of Israel,” he said. Netanyahu’s decision to press forward with settlement construction at such a sensitive time has drawn criticism from all directions.

Amir Peretz, a Cabinet minister with the dovish “Movement” party, said the painful site of watching convicted killers walk free could have been avoided had Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement construction.

“I would have preferred to freeze settlement building rather than releasing (Palestinian) prisoners but at this point we must allow this stage to move forward, we must not do anything to prevent it,” he said.

Settler leader Dani Dayan, on the other hand, said the timing of a new settlement announcement looked bad. “The linkage between the release of convicted terrorists and the construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria puts an unnecessary stain on the construction,” he said.

The “original sin,” he added, was agreeing to release any prisoners in the first place. “Israel should have rejected the notion that it has to pay a price for negotiations,” he said. In another move that could upset peace efforts, a committee of Israeli Cabinet ministers approved a bill Sunday that would annex a section of the West Bank near the Jordanian border to Israel. Netanyahu has said Israel must maintain a presence in the area, known as the Jordan Valley, as a security measure. Even so, it appears unlikely the bill, supported by hard-line lawmakers unhappy with peace efforts, will receive parliamentary approval.

Speaking in Ramallah, Abbas rejected the move. “This is Palestinian land and we will not let them do it,” he said. Israeli commentators questioned Netanyahu’s judgment in pushing forward with more settlements.

“If Netanyahu has already undertaken to make this goodwill gesture, it would be best if he were to enjoy the international dividend that comes with it and not ruin things with a populist announcement about new construction,” wrote Shimon Shiffer, a columnist with the Yediot Ahronot daily. “Netanyahu is like a cow that gives a bucket-full of milk, only to kick the bucket over.”

Mohammed Daraghmeh and Dalia Nammari contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.

Push to recruit Arab Christians into Israeli army

December 27, 2013

NAZARETH, Israel (AP) — Dozens of Israeli soldiers respectfully rose from their seats as the Israeli national anthem began playing. The tinny recording of “Hatikva,” an ode to the Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel, wrapped up a ceremony, held in Hebrew, during which speakers thanked the troops and handed out awards.

It looked like a typical motivational gathering for soldiers of the Jewish state — except that nearly all those in uniform weren’t Jews and Hebrew wasn’t their first language. They were Christian Arabs, a minority that has historically viewed itself as part of the Palestinian people and considered service in the army as taboo.

The gathering — a pre-Christmas nod to Christian soldiers, who nibbled on cookies and chocolate Santas — was part of a new push by Israel’s government and a Greek Orthodox priest to persuade more Christians to enlist.

The campaign has set off an emotional debate about identity among Christians, a tiny minority within Israel’s predominantly Muslim Arab minority. So far the numbers of Christian Arabs enlisting is negligible, but with the community’s fate possibly at stake, tempers have flared and each side has accused the other of using scare tactics and incitement.

Father Gabriel Nadaf, the priest promoting enlistment, said Christians must serve in the army if they want to integrate into Israeli society and win access to jobs. “I believe in the shared fate of the Christian minority and the Jewish state,” he told the conference, held at a local hotel.

His spokesman warned that unlike Israel, the rest of the Middle East is a dangerous place for Christians. “They are burning churches, they are slaughtering them (Christians), they are raping the girls,” said the aide, Shadi Khalloul, referring to the targeting of Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere by Islamic militants.

Arab Christians opposed to army service — the large majority in the community, according to its spokesmen — say the real goal is to divide and weaken Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs, made up of Muslims, Christians and Druze, who follow a secretive offshoot of Islam.

“It’s an old Zionist scheme,” said Basel Ghattas, a Christian Arab member of parliament. “Christians are an inseparable part of the Arab community, and they will not let this pass.” Israeli Arabs, who make up just over one-fifth of Israel’s 8 million people, are part of the patchwork of Palestinian identities created by conflict and displacement.

They are the descendants of those who stayed put during the war over Israel’s 1948 creation, at a time when hundreds of thousands of fellow Palestinians fled or were driven out. Roughly half of the world’s more than 10 million Palestinians now live in the diaspora, while the rest live in Israel and in the territories Israel captured in the 1967 war — the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, sought by Palestinians for a state.

Of Israel’s Arabs, about 128,000, or less than 10 percent, are Christians. Army service is mandatory for Jews, though not all are called up. Druze leaders signed up their community for army service in the 1950s, and Druze men have been conscripted ever since, while Muslims and Christians are not required to serve.

Currently, close to 1,500 non-Druze Arabs serve in the military, 70 percent of them Bedouins, a separate and impoverished community where the military is often the employer of last resort. But also among those serving are 208 Arab Muslims and 137 Arab Christians, said army Maj. Shadi Rahal. The numbers of Christians volunteering for the army has remained relatively steady, ticking up only slightly from about 40 year in the past to around 50-55 annually now, Rahal said.

One of the volunteers is Capt. Arin Shaabi, a 28-year-old Christian from Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ boyhood and the center of Arab Christian life in Israel. She enlisted in 2010, after completing her law studies. Since 2011, she’s been a prosecutor in a West Bank military court, in the thick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shaabi identifies as a Christian and an Israeli, and has a tattoo of a cross inked into her left hand. She said she helps defend the Holy Land and isn’t troubled by prosecuting Palestinians on security charges often linked to Palestinian nationalism.

“I stand by what I do, 100 percent,” said Shaabi. “I don’t have dilemmas.” She’s paid a personal price, including harassment in Nazareth, a city of 80,000 people, 70 percent of them Muslims. An assailant once threw a rock at her car. When leaving her father’s house for her military base, she’d wear civilian clothes over her uniform to avoid being targeted. She says fear of a community backlash is keeping down the number of recruits.

A few months after signing up, she joined her mother Dina in Upper Nazareth, a predominantly Jewish city of 50,000 built on a hill overlooking Nazareth. Dina, one of several thousand Arabs in Upper Nazareth, said she is proud of her daughter’s army service, but that it has hurt the family’s standing the community.

In the fall, Father Nadaf and several Christian army veterans set up the Forum for the Recruitment of Christians, with the aim of doubling the number of recruits over six months, said Khalloul, a lieutenant in the paratrooper reserves. The Forum received backing from Im Tirtzu, a neo-Zionist group.

Earlier this month, Khalloul told a parliament committee looking into the possible conscription of Christians that Israel should not view them as part of the Arab minority. “We are hostages” of that community, he said.

Such talk has riled up Arab community leaders. Pro-recruitment Arabs accuse community leaders of inciting their brethren against them, “What began with a blood-soaked rag that was placed at the entrance of my house continues with a YouTube clip that portrays me as a Zionist agent, a traitor,” Nadaf told Sunday’s conference at a hotel in Upper Nazareth.

Nadaf and the local communist movement have traded accusations, with each side saying the other started a brawl in which the priest’s 17-year-old son and a member of the rival camp were injured. Police are still investigating.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message of support to Nadaf and his supporters, promising to “bring to justice anyone who tries to prevent you from enlisting.” Azmi Hakim, who heads the Greek Orthodox council in Nazareth and opposes enlistment, denied that the anti-recruiting side uses inflammatory language. He said Israeli police have tried to intimidate him by summoning him for questioning three times.

Hakim said a majority of Christians oppose army service, but that he is worried the recruitment campaign will have staying power because it has government backing. Hakim dismissed the hopeful talk of integration, arguing that the Druze continue to suffer official discrimination just like other Israeli Arabs. “As Muslims, as Christians, as Druze, we are as a people suffering from the government,” he said.

Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem contributed to this report.