Archive for January 27th, 2014

Palestinians dismiss Israeli al-Qaida plot claim

January 23, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian security officials on Thursday cast doubt on Israel’s claim that it broke up an al-Qaida plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, alleging Israel concocted the story to bolster its position in peace talks.

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency says it arrested three Palestinian men — two from Israeli-controlled east Jerusalem and one from the West Bank — over the plot. It said those arrested admitted to planning a suicide bombing at the embassy and other attacks. It said they received their instructions over the Internet through a handler in the Gaza Strip who had direct ties to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, said there is “no indication” that al-Qaida has a presence in the territory. “Al-Qaida cannot operate here,” Damiri said. “It needs broad logistical support and that cannot be here in this small area.”

He said Israel had arrested some naive “boys” and claimed they were al-Qaida to halt American pressure to show more flexibility in peace talks. Israel has demanded it retain a presence in parts of the Palestinian-claimed West Bank after any future peace deal due to security concerns.

One of the suspects was identified as Ala Ghannam, 21, from Aqaba, a village near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. His cousin, Arafat Ghannam, told The Associated Press that the 21 year old was arrested by the Israeli military two and half weeks ago in a night raid.

He said Palestinian intelligence forces had arrested him just a week before and had let him go. The Palestinians arrested him because of “Islamic views” he expressed on Facebook, the cousin said without elaborating. He said the family was not aware about his alleged interest in al-Qaida but said they were not shocked to hear about it.

Israeli security officials long have warned of the threat of what they call “global jihad,” a word they use for various militant groups in the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula inspired by al-Qaida’s ideology and tactics. But Wednesday marked the first time that Israel explicitly accused the group of being behind an attempted attack. Officials believe there are several hundred of these militants, known as Salafists, in Gaza.

The Salafi presence in the West Bank is far more limited. Palestinian security forces recently arrested about 20 young men who allegedly tried to set up a Salafist organization. Officials have described the men as disaffected youths who had no training in weapons or attacks.

Last November, Israeli forces killed three members of that group in a shootout in the city of Hebron. Israeli security officials say there is some cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank to keep the Salafis under watch.

In Gaza, the Salafis have emerged as rivals to the ruling Islamic militant Hamas group. A Hamas security official said al-Qaida does not exist in the crowded seaside strip. “Al-Qaida has never fired a single shot to liberate the land,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Adnan Abu Amer, a Gaza expert on Islamic movements, said there are groups in the area inspired by al-Qaida “but we haven’t found any direct links.” Aviv Oreg, a former head of the Israeli military unit that tracks al-Qaida, said that if the group was indeed behind the plot, it would create a “whole new ballgame” since it would show new capabilities inside Israel’s borders.

U.S. officials have said little about Israel’s claims, only that they could not corroborate the information and that no new security measures were immediately taken at the embassy.

Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Mohammed Ballas in Jenin, West Bank, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

Lebanon militant pledges allegiance to… (leader of ISIL)

January 25, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanon-based militant pledged allegiance to (ISIL) Saturday, calling on Sunni Muslim soldiers to quit a Lebanese army he claimed is controlled by Christians and Shiites.

Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari made the pledge to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in a recording posted online and broadcast on major television stations, including leading private channel LBC, which said it obtained it from online jihadi forums.

It comes after months of increasing violence in the country, where at least five suicide attacks in predominantly Shiite areas and against Lebanese troops have left scores dead and wounded. The Lebanese are sharply divided over the civil war in neighboring Syria, with many Sunnis backing rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad, who is supported by a large number of Shiites.

As word of the recording spread, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, one of the country’s most prominent Sunni politicians, warned in a statement that Lebanese, especially Sunnis should be suspicious of “calls that aim to throw Lebanon into a war that everyone rejects.”

Al-Ansari claimed in the recording that he was speaking from the predominantly Sunni northern city of Tripoli where Islamic groups have been fighting the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party since the Syrian crisis began, nearly three years ago.

“We pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qarashi al-Baghdadi and we will obey his orders,” Abu Sayyaf said, referring to the Islamic State leader. “Take us wherever you want, take us to difficulties and make us the point of your lance so that we crush your enemy.”

“I call upon Sunnis in the Army of the Cross to fear God and leave this tyrant,” he said, referring to the religiously mixed Lebanese army. “Don’t be a sword that Christians and Shiites carry to stab you.”

Phillip Smyth, a Washington-based researcher on Islamic groups in Lebanon and Syria, said the audio’s tone and message reflected a broader theme of Sunni extremists trying to anger their Shiite rivals.

“They wanted to make their mark,” Smyth said, suggesting the cleric was thinking: “Everybody hates the Islamic State, so we’ll go with the Islamic State. A lot of it comes down to messaging: I am going to pick the biggest and baddest and go with them — how do you like that.”

Also Saturday, an al-Qaida-inspired group in Lebanon warned Sunnis to stay away from areas dominated by Shiites, saying it intends to attack strongholds of the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah group that is fighting in Syria.

The Nusra Front in Lebanon made the threat Friday on Twitter and it was reposted a day later on websites used by militant groups. The Nusra Front in Lebanon takes its name from the powerful al-Qaida-linked group fighting in Syria against the Assad’s rule. The group has claimed responsibility for two small bombing attacks targeting Lebanese Shiites in January that killed six people.

Hours after the warning, three rockets struck a Hezbollah stronghold in the northeastern town of Hermel near the Syrian border without causing casualties, the state-run National News Agency and residents said.

Meanwhile, Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch, John Yazigi, said in Beirut that a dozen nuns kidnapped by opposition fighters in Syria late last year “are fine.” Speaking to reporters, Yazigi said there was contact between the nuns and his office “several days ago.”

“They were then in a house in Yabroud and they are well but that is not enough. We hope that they will be released soon,” Yazigi said. Yabroud is a Syrian rebel-held town near the border with Lebanon.

The seizure of the 12 Greek Orthodox nuns and at least three other women was the latest attack to spark panic among Syria’s Christians over the strength of al-Qaida-linked militants and other Islamic radicals in the nearly 3-year-old revolt against Assad’s government. A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing.

Yazigi said he has no information about the two bishops but hopes they are fine.

Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Beirut.

U.N.: Lebanon, Jordan need growth

January 25, 2014
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: The United Nations said Friday that Lebanon and Jordan need to achieve higher GDP growth in 2014 in order to cope with the influx of Syrian refugees.

“Both countries need substantially high growth to accommodate the refugees from Syria and the figures indicate continuing crisis situation of both countries rather than recovery,” the U.N. report on the Global Outlook and Regional Prospects said.

The report, which was released Friday at ESCWA headquarters in Beirut, projected the GDP rate of Lebanon to increase from 1.3 percent in 2013 to 2.4 percent, and in Jordan from 3.2 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent.

Lebanon and Jordan host the biggest number of Syrian refugees in the region and there is deep concern that the number could increase this year if the three-year conflict did not come to an end soon.

The report warned of grave consequences to the labor force in some of the countries hosting Syrian refugees.

“Economic repercussions of the Syrian crisis are increasingly observed in the labor markets in neighboring countries, including employment high skill requirements,” the U.N. said.

The U.N. report added that geopolitical tensions were projected to remain in sharp focus as a result of the situation in Syria, adding that economic uncertainty would continue to grip neighboring countries.

It also warned of the negative effects of the United States monetary situation on the regional countries.

“The looming monetary tightening in the United States will affect the borrowing costs in the region, particularly in GCC countries,” the report said.

The U.N. believes that the GCC economies will continue to prosper if oil prices remain high or stable.

“The present recovery in the GCC countries still depends on oil prices/revenues. In addition to their direct consequences in the oil sector, they influence economic sentiment and confidence of the nonoil sector. A plunge below $80 per barrel would dent growth and domestic demand,” the U.N. said.

The report also shed light on the spiraling inflation in the region.

The “inflation rate crept up across the region. This was due to the recovering domestic demand in the GCC countries and due to the supply constraints of various kinds in other countries.”

The report also expected a modest growth in the global economy in 2014. “The world economy reached only subdued growth of 2.1 percent in 2013. While most developed economies continued to grapple with the challenge of taking appropriate fiscal and monetary policy actions in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a number of emerging economies, which had already experienced a notable slowdown in the past two years, encountered new domestic and international headwinds during 2013,” it said.

It also noted that some signs of improvement have emerged recently.

“The euro area has finally come out of a protracted recession, with gross domestic product for the region as a whole starting to grow again; the U.S. economy continues to recover; and a few large emerging economies, including China, seem to have at least stopped a further slowdown or will see accelerating growth. World gross product is forecast to grow at a pace of 3.0 and 3.3 percent in 2014 and 2015, respectively,” the report said.

The U.N. stressed that global unemployment remained the key challenge in 2014.

“The global employment situation remains dire, as long-lasting effects from the financial crisis continue to weigh on labor markets in many countries and regions. Among developed economies, the most challenging situation is found in the euro area, in which the unemployment rates have reached as high as 27 percent in Greece and Spain, with youth unemployment rates surging to more than 50 percent.

It added that although the unemployment rate had declined in the United States, it remained elevated.

In developing countries and economies in transition, the unemployment situation is mixed, with extremely high structural unemployment in North Africa and Western Asia, particularly among youth.

“High rates of informal employment as well as pronounced gender gaps in employment continue to characterize labor markets in numerous developing countries,” the report said.

Source: The Daily Star.

Jordan to enforce smoking ban despite public fury

— Jan. 25, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — In Jordan, a country where smoking is so popular that motorists can be seen puffing away on miniature water pipes in traffic, the kingdom’s government now wants to enforce a Western-style smoking ban in restaurants, cafes and other public places.

The ban, coming from a law passed in 2008 but not full enforced, also would see the government revoke the licenses of all 6,000 coffee shops that serve shisha by the end of this year.

But business owners and smokers are criticizing the push, saying it goes against the culture of a country where smoking is seen as an attractive sign of manhood and elderly Bedouins roll their own cigarettes in public.

“We are caught between a rock and a hard place whereby the government is trying to force a closure of our businesses,” said Mazen Alsaleh, who owns 14 coffee and hookah shops around the country. “I am not defending the hookah or smoking, but we must defend our investments.”

The pastime of smoking shisha — also known as nargile, hubbly bubbly, hookah or by other names across the Middle East — is engrained in Jordanian culture from the time of the Ottoman Empire. Mourners receive cigarettes at wakes, while delivery companies only supplying hookahs have sprouted across the country.

The World Health Organization estimated last year that nearly half of Jordan’s men smoke tobacco on a daily basis, while a third of young men do. Women smoke at a much lower rate.

While smoking is culturally embraced, it’s also aided by low-cost cigarettes. A pack of local cigarettes sells at $2, while foreign tobacco is slightly more expensive. Last year, local tobacco manufacturers reduced their prices by up to 15 percent to compete with cheap cigarettes smuggled in from neighboring Syria. Health Ministry statistics show that Jordanians spend the equivalent of $1 billion annually on tobacco.

Health Minister Ali Hyasat, who is spearheading the effort to enforce the smoking ban, said the measure was meant to “save lives, not businesses.”

“This is costing us lives, as our records show that many Jordanians die of cancer directly linked to smoking each year, and more than $1 billion annually on health care programs to treat smokers,” Hyasat told The Associated Press.

Enforcing the law started gradually in 2009, with shopping malls and Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport first enacting the ban, followed by fast food restaurants. The law also bans smoking in hospitals, schools, cinemas, libraries, museums, government buildings, public transportation and other places to be determined by the health minister.

The law also prohibits selling tobacco to those under the age of 18, but shop owners have rarely abided by the law. Violators are subject to imprisonment for up to one month or a fine of up to $35.

Across the Middle East, there are similar indoor smoking bans in place in Lebanon and some Arab Gulf countries. The United Arab Emirates, the home of Dubai, tightened its own smoking ban earlier this week. Israel has a smoking ban as well. But often, such rules simply get ignored.

The new push to enforce Jordan’s law in its entirety by December has many angry.

“Why is the government infringing on our privacy?” asked social worker Haneen Ramahi, 34. “Smoking is a matter of a personal choice. If I decide to kill myself, I’m free to do that.”

College senior Mohammad Zeghayer, 21, said he will not abide by the law.

“I will continue smoking in restaurants and coffee shops and police can arrest me, I don’t care,” Zeghayer said.

Firas Hawari, a specialist at Jordan’s main cancer center, said doctors have seen an increase in both the number of smokers and the diseases resulting from smoking in recent years. He said that smoking is responsible for 25 percent of cancer cases among males in Jordan, including lung, head, neck and bladder cancers, as well as the majority of chronic diseases and high blood pressure.

Yet cigarettes are available at grocery stores, coffee shops and street kiosks. In smoke-filled coffee shops, minors are usually part of the clientele, sharing a water pipe. In some households, it is socially acceptable for minors to light the hookah for their parents.

Alsaleh, the hookah shop owner, said he was considering filing a lawsuit to try and stop the ban. Others say they’ll ignore it.

Meanwhile, some of the worst smoking offenders can be found lighting up under the dome of Jordan’s parliament — the same lawmakers who passed the bill in the first place.

Source: Associated Press.

Jordan’s Ghost Camp

Monday, 20 Jan, 2014
Written by: Emma Pearson and Katie Welsford

Though desperately needed and long-awaited, the newly built Syrian refugee camp stands empty

Despite poor and cramped conditions for Syrians living in Jordan’s two other camps, Azraq must stay closed due to a decrease in the number of refugees coming over the border, and because it is for ‘emergency use only,’ according to the Ministry of Planning

The vast and empty desert does not seem like the place to build a city. High winds sweep the barren land. Temperatures soar to more than 40 degrees Celsius in the summer and plummet below minus one in the winter months. There is no river, no hilltop and no coast. But then, there is not a huge amount of choice in Jordan, a country made up of around 90 percent desert. And it is a country that needs a new city.

After Zaatari in Mafraq and Mrejeb Al-Fhoud in Zarqa, Azraq refugee camp is the third to appear in Jordan in response to the ongoing Syrian crisis. But with this camp there is a difference. While Zaatari sprung up suddenly—it was planned, built and opened within 10 days—Azraq camp is benefitting from something the earlier sites were not afforded: time.

‘The most designed camp in the world’

With more than 120,000 Syrians squeezed within its barbed-wire fences in an area measuring just two square miles (5 square kilometers), Zaatari camp constitutes Jordan’s fourth-largest city. The speedy construction of the camp, however, has led to growing problems within. Housing in the camp is cramped and of poor quality, and there are growing concerns over how it will continue to fare during the cold winter, which forecasters predicted would be the worst in a century. Families fleeing from Syria are quickly housed wherever a space is found. As such, the camp has become overcrowded. Most of the refugees are living among strangers, far from their friends, and many camp dwellers are suffering from an acute sense of isolation. Added to this, services are positioned on just one side of the camp, which leaves residents having to travel lengthy distances to access them.

Families are, of course, adapting in the best way they can. Many have used their Syrian entrepreneurial spirit to establish new services, while others have made attempts to turn their tents into more hospitable living spaces. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), meanwhile, are working hard to implement changes to make life easier for the residents of the camp. However, lawlessness is rampant, and many Syrians have reported the unusually high levels of vandalism and theft. So bad are the conditions within Zaatari that onsite doctors treating the refugees have commented on the worrying levels of lifestyle-related psychological distress. Many of Zaatari’s residents have subsequently chosen to risk financial disaster by relocating out of the camp; some have gone so far as to pack up their belongings and return to Syria.

With the persisting conflict in Syria and the flow of Syrians across the border reaching a peak of 4,000 a day earlier this year, the UN, the Jordanian government and numerous aid groups agreed on the joint construction of a new camp at Azraq in the Kingdom’s eastern desert. Initially expected to host 3,000 refugees, the camp has since expanded to accommodate up to 130,000.

Careful planning has been involved: shelters—metal-framed huts with a sizeable amount of space allotted for each, rather than the tightly packed tents found in Zaatari—are lockable in a bid to prevent the level of crime that is experienced in Zaatari and provide a greater sense of ‘home’ for their residents. But there is a tricky balance to maintain. Planners need to be careful to ensure the camp does not feel permanent. This is not just for the benefit of Jordanians, who fear Syrian camps will develop into a permanent feature in their country, as the Palestinian camps did, but also for the Syrian residents of the camp. Hope is what keeps many refugees going, and hope exists as long as their situation feels temporary.

The physical layout of the camp has also been carefully considered. Those in charge of planning the new camp have attempted to create villages within the space, decentralizing services to each of them so that residents can develop a sense of affinity with their neighbors, thus diminishing the likelihood of inter-household violence. To encourage the feel of a village, refugees would also be assigned to specific villages according to their area of origin within Syria—to attempt to recreate the geography of a country within a refugee camp is a novel idea.

Services such as playgrounds, medical centers, and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, which NGOs such as Mercy Corps and World Vision have worked hard to develop, are also positioned locally within the ‘villages.’ Not only should this end the lengthy treks to access basic services that camp dwellers are used to in Zaatari, but it would encourage a sense of ownership, which would, it is hoped, prevent the levels of graffiti and vandalism seen in Zaatari.

It is no surprise then, that Azraq camp has been dubbed the ‘most designed camp in the world.’

Emergency use only

The Syrian refugee crisis has had such coverage in Jordan that one would expect new facilities to spring into action as soon as they were deemed ready. Azraq, however, is still yet to open. The initial deadline for completion of the camp, July 2013, has long passed, and the camp exists now only as a ghost city. Its shelters are bare, its services are unused and its gates are shut. No definite opening date currently exists. Though guards protect the entrances of the camp, nothing stirs inside.

Some have attributed this to economic concerns in a country that is becoming increasingly anxious about the financial burden of the extra population. Work on Azraq began when the influx of refugees had reached the unfathomable number of 4,000 a day, when extra housing for the fast growing numbers of displaced Syrians was viewed as an absolute necessity. Now there are far fewer daily refugee numbers—sadly not as a result of an improving situation, but owing to the intensification of fighting in southern Syria. The paths into Jordan near Zaatari are perilous. Many refugees travel on foot and hundreds have been killed by regime air strikes while attempting to set foot on Jordanian soil. Thousands are reported trapped in towns and villages near the border. Some succeed in reaching Jordan only by journeying east along the Iraqi border and entering through remote desert crossings.

Numbers are also declining at Zaatari due to inhabitants heading out into Jordan’s cities or back into their homeland. This decrease in refugee flow has sparked discussion on whether the huge cost of opening a new camp is worthwhile. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has indicated that the decision of when to take this extra step rests with the government, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Planning said in a recent interview that, at present, Azraq exists only in case of emergency.

The camp therefore is ready, but waiting for another surge of refugees from Syria; waiting for another disaster like this summer’s chemical attack in Ghouta. Until such a day arrives, Syrians will have to make do with Zaatari. Azraq, meanwhile, will stand as a stark reminder of the horrors of Syria’s conflict, of the expectations for yet more refugees to flow across the border this year, and of the humanitarian disaster which is simply not ending.

Source: The Majalla.

Israeli civil rights pioneer Shulamit Aloni dies

January 24, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Shulamit Aloni, an Israeli legislator who championed civil rights and was fiercely critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, died on Friday. She was 85.

Meretz, the party she helped found and led, announced her death in a statement on its website. The party did not reveal the cause of death. Aloni was born in Tel Aviv and fought in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation. First elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 1965, she served for 28 years and held a number of Cabinet posts.

An audacious speaker and one of few women to openly challenge the nation’s rabbis, Aloni fought for civil liberties, women’s rights and a separation of church and state. But her boisterous crusade for secular rights was perceived as offensive by some ultra-Orthodox.

She irritated religious Israelis by being photographed at an Arab restaurant with a breadbasket during Passover, when observant Jews don’t eat bread. She created the Citizens’ Rights Movement, or Ratz, in 1973, with the primary goal of ridding Israel of Orthodox rabbis’ monopoly over marriage and divorce.

But the party later took up peace issues and the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Aloni became a loud dissenting voice in the governments she served in, often criticizing new settlement construction in territories she believed should be reserved for a future Palestinians state.

She helped found Meretz in 1991, winning the party 12 seats in the 1992 elections and leading it into Israel’s governing coalition, which, with the ruling Labor party, made strides toward Mideast peace. She stepped down in 1996.

Israeli lawmakers from across the political spectrum praised Aloni. “Despite the deep disagreements we had over the years, I appreciated her contribution to the Israeli public and Aloni’s determination to stand firmly for the things she believed in,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

Israeli President Shimon Peres called Aloni “a warrior for peace and civil rights in Israel.” Aloni was recognized for her devotion to civil liberties in 2000, when she was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s highest distinction.

Her funeral is to be held on Sunday.