Archive for January, 2014

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.

EU envoy: Israel will pay price for settlements

January 22, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — A senior European official on Wednesday painted an alarming picture for Israel if Mideast peace efforts fail, saying the country could face deepening economic isolation if it presses forward with construction of Jewish settlements.

The comments by EU Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen were the latest salvo in an increasingly contentious war of words between Israel and the European Union over settlement construction. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the EU of unfairly singling out Israel for settlement construction while ignoring Palestinian transgressions.

A small but growing number of European businesses and pension funds have begun to drop investments or limit trade with Israeli firms involved in the West Bank settlements. While Europe is interested in improving already close ties with Israel, Faaborg-Andersen said momentum for further sanctions could grow if peace efforts fail.

“We have made it clear to the parties that there will be a price to pay if these negotiations falter,” he said. “If Israel were to go down the road of continued settlement expansion … I’m afraid that what will transpire is a situation in which Israel will find itself increasingly isolated, not necessarily because of any decision taken at a governmental level but because of decisions taken by a myriad of private economic actors.” He said this could include companies, pension funds or consumers who shun settlement goods.

Faaborg-Andersen said such action has resulted from commercial considerations and a growing focus on “corporate social responsibility.” But he said European officials have also held debates on possible EU-wide actions, such as labeling or even banning settlement products exported to Europe. Some individual countries have already imposed labeling laws.

“I think it’s well known that these are some of the issues that we have been discussing and that we have been looking into, making certain preparations for,” he said. Though no decisions have been made, he said calls to take action are “gaining momentum every time there is a settlement announcement here.”

Gad Propper, an Israeli business leader who chairs the Israel-European Union Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the impact of boycott calls has been limited so far. But he stressed “the quicker Israel and the Palestinians reach a two-state solution the better” because “if the situation will not change then the threats will increase.”

Israeli settlement construction has emerged as a key stumbling block in peace efforts. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem and the West Bank, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state. With more than 550,000 Israelis living in those areas, the Palestinians say time is quickly running out on hopes to divide the land.

Under intense U.S. pressure, the Palestinians dropped a longstanding demand for a settlement freeze when peace talks resumed last July. But they say they received assurances that Israel would show restraint.

Netanyahu says he made no such guarantees, and his government has pushed forward plans for several thousand new settlement homes since the talks began. The international community, including the United States and European Union, considers the settlements to be illegal or illegitimate, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said Israeli construction raises questions about its commitment to peace.

The European Union has said that if talks fail because of settlement construction, it will hold Israel responsible. “They are illegal under international law. They make a two state-solution more difficult, and they undermine trust in a peace process,” Faaborg-Andersen said.

European countries have become increasingly outspoken in its criticism of the settlements. Last year, Israel was forced to guarantee that any money it receives under a technology-sharing pact with the EU will not be spent in the West Bank or east Jerusalem. And last week, several EU members summoned local Israeli ambassadors to protest settlement construction.

Israel responded by summoning locally based European ambassadors to voice its displeasure, and Netanyahu accused the EU of hypocrisy by singling out Israel while ignoring alleged Palestinian incitement against Israel.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Zeev Elkin, said Wednesday that he had met with Faaborg-Andersen and expressed his “disappointment” over what he called the EU’s one-sided approach toward Israel. “While they are condemning us with every construction announcement,” said Elkin, “there is no declared condemnation about the shooting attacks from Gaza or the escalation in the region.”

EU officials say they routinely condemn Palestinian attacks and incitement. They also have warned the Palestinians that European countries are suffering from “donor fatigue” after spending billions of dollars in aid with limited tangible results.

Ian Deitch contributed reporting.

Israel to start Arrow 3 production although key test still to come

Tel Aviv, Israel (UPI)
Jan 21, 2013

The Defense Ministry and Israel Aerospace Industries are so confident the Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile system will be able to destroy hostile missiles in space, they’re reported to be planning to start production even before flight testing has been completed.

And that includes the critical test of actually intercepting a target missile that will simulate an incoming Iranian Shehab 3b ballistic weapon, which Israel views as its main missile threat at the moment.

The Israeli business daily Globes reported Arrow 3, being developed by state-owned IAI and the U.S. Boeing Co., is scheduled to undergo that test sometime in the next few weeks.

Defense expert Yuval Azulai said the Ministry of Defense and IAI’s engineers “are so convinced that the missile will work that they’ve decided not to waste precious time and to begin production.

“Few interception tests are planned anyway, and if the tests that will be carried out indicate a gap between planned and actual performance, minor software updates should be able to correct them.”

Arrow 3 is expected to become operational in 2015, and planners at the Defense Ministry are already thinking about future upgrades of the system to give every Iranian missile an explosive reception,” Azulai said.

The two-stage Arrow 3 system successfully passed its second flight test over the eastern Mediterranean Sea Jan. 3 and reached its operational altitude outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Officials said the “kill vehicle” jettisoned its booster rocket and carried out “various maneuvers” in space for several minutes using thrust vectors.

During the 10-minutes test, it communicated well with the system’s advanced Green Pine radar developed by Elbit Systems subsidiary Elta Systems and the command-and-control center built by Tadiron, now part of Elbit’s Elisra division.

Arrow 3 is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in space before they’re over Israel and shoot them down at high altitudes to disintegrate nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.

Unlike the Arrow 2 variant currently in service, which is designed to intercept ballistic missiles at lower altitudes within Earth’s atmosphere with explosive warheads, Arrow 3 uses interceptors that ram their targets.

Arrow 3 will constitute the topmost tier of a multilevel missile defense shield known as Homa, Hebrew for Wall, that’s being put together with hefty U.S. funding over and above the annual $3.1 billion in U.S. military aid Israel received.

Arrow 2, operational for several years, will be its back-up, gunning for any ballistic missiles that slip through the Arrow 3 screen.

The next level down will be David’s Sling, designed to counter medium-range missiles and cruise missiles. It’s being developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israel’s biggest defense company after IAI, and the U.S. Raytheon Co.

Rafael’s Iron Dome system, designed to intercept unguided rockets and short-range missiles, forms the bottom level.

It’s been operational since early 2012 and by the military’s tally has racked up a kill rate of 84.6 percent against the rockets unleashed by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip it has engaged.

On Saturday, Rafael announced on its website that it plans to unveil yet another system, Iron Beam which uses a high-energy laser to destroy short-range rockets, artillery and mortar shells, at the Singapore Air Show to be held Feb. 11-16.

It’s designed to complement Iron Dome, and once operational would reduce the cost of intercepting rockets, such as those used by the Palestinians and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Each radar-guided Iron Dome interceptor costs nearly $100,000 but Iron Beam would cost significantly less.

The United States and Israel worked on a laser-based missile defense system known as Nautilus (1996-2005). It cost $300 million, but was shelved because of its perceived poor performance in cloudy weather and in countering salvos of missiles and rockets.

The tactical high energy laser project was conducted by the Northrop-Grumman Corp., the prime contractor, with a group of Israeli companies that included IAI, Rafael, Elbit and Tadiran.

In February 1996, Nautilus shot down a rocket in a test at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the first time a rocket had been destroyed in flight by a laser beam.

But the program was constantly held up in the U.S. Congress and in 2001 Israeli commanders deemed Nautilus irrelevant and too expensive.

Source: Space War.

Israeli company to unveil laser defense

Moscow (Voice of Russia)
Jan 21, 2014

A state-owned Israeli arms company says it will unveil a new laser-defense system next month that will be capable of shooting down short-range rockets and mortar fire.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. says the “Iron Beam” system will use a “directed high energy laser beam” to intercept incoming projectiles fired from short distances. The system is to be displayed at the Singapore Air Show next month and is expected to be operational next year.

Once deployed, Iron Beam would add another element of protection to Israel’s multilayered missile defense system.

Israel is developing a new generation of its “Arrow” system to intercept long-range ballistic missiles in space. It also is developing a system to intercept medium-range missiles and has deployed “Iron Dome,” which shoots down short-range rockets.

Source: Space War.

Kurds rally in Turkey for autonomy in Syria

January 18, 2014

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish news agency says about 3,000 Kurds have rallied to demand that Syrian Kurds’ right to self-rule be recognized at an upcoming peace conference.

Syrian Kurds have increased their hold in the north of civil war-wracked Syria and have declared their own civil administration in some areas. Dogan news agency said the rally was held in the city of Diyarbakir in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast region Saturday. Participants called for a peace conference, which opens in the Swiss city of Montreux next week, to recognize a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria.

A similar protest was held in Athens, Greece, on Saturday, where several hundred Kurds marched to the local offices of the European Parliament peacefully. Kurds straddle parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.