Archive for January, 2014

Syria allows aid into 2 contested areas

January 16, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government allowed supplies to enter two contested front-line areas near the capital, a relief official said Thursday. Activists said the death toll from two weeks of infighting in the north between rebel forces and an al-Qaida-linked group climbed to more than 1,000 people.

The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Khaled Iriqsousi, told The Associated Press that enough supplies to feed 10,000 people for a month entered the Damascus suburbs of al-Ghezlaniya and Jdaidet al-Shibani on Thursday. The areas are east and west of the capital of a region known as Ghouta.

The government’s decision to permit the supplies to enter appeared to be a goodwill gesture on its part as well as an attempt to present itself as a responsible partner ahead of a peace conference scheduled to open next week in Switzerland. It was not clear whether the move was part of arrangement agreed to by Damascus and the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, to allow humanitarian aid into some blocked-off areas.

That agreement was announced in Paris by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who together are working to ease the bloody strife that has engulfed Syria since an uprising there began nearly three years ago. A peace conference is scheduled to be held in Switzerland next week.

Earlier Thursday, United Nations Resident Coordinator Tareq al-Kurdi said U.N. organizations operating in Syria would start delivering urgent humanitarian aid to al-Ghezlaniya and Jdaidet al-Shibani. Iriqsousi said 30 trucks carrying 2,000 boxes of food entered the two areas without incident. He said each box is about 40 kilograms (88 pounds) and includes items like rice, lentils, baby formula, blankets and detergents.

“This is the first time we have reached this area. It is considered one of the entrances of Ghouta,” Iriqsousi said by telephone from Syria. “We hope that this will be the beginning for wider supply efforts.”

One of the areas hardest hit by food shortages in Syria is the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, where residents say 46 people have died since October of starvation, illnesses exacerbated by hunger or because they couldn’t obtain medical aid.

Iriqsousi said three recent attempts to enter the camp did not succeed. “We tried from all roads and the response was bullets,” he said, suggesting that profiteers might be responsible since they are benefiting from high food prices.

Also Thursday, an activist group said that two weeks of fighting between an al-Qaida-linked group and other rebel forces in Syria has killed more than 1,000 people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around Syria, said that the fighting in northern and eastern parts of the country killed 1,069 since the clashes began Jan. 3.

The fighting pitting the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other groups is the most serious among rebel forces since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. The Observatory said that the dead included 130 civilians — including 21 who were “executed” by “Islamic State” members.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that over the past two weeks her office has received reports of “a succession of mass executions of civilians and fighters who were no longer participating in hostilities in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa by hard-line armed opposition groups in Syria, in particular by the” Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

She warned that such executions violate international humanitarian law, and the numbers of such violations are thought to be alarmingly high. The Observatory reported heavy clashes between the “Islamic State” and other opposition groups in the northwestern town of Saraqeb where the Islamic group have been advancing for the past two days.

Mamdouh Jaloul, a Syrian activist from the northwestern province of Idlib who is currently in Turkey, said the town is witnessing “fierce street battles.” He said many of the town’s residents fled over the past two months as a result of intense government air raids, adding that the latest clash forced the few who stayed to flee to safer areas.

The Observatory said Islamic fighters advanced in the town from the northern and eastern sides and that there were casualties on both sides.

Advertisements

Hunger, death in besieged Damascus area

January 14, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Children, the elderly and others displaced by Syria’s civil war are starving to death in a besieged camp where women brave sniper fire to forage for food just minutes from the relative prosperity of Damascus.

The dire conditions at the Yarmouk camp are a striking example of the catastrophe unfolding in rebel-held areas blockaded by the Syrian government. U.S. and Russian diplomats said Monday the warring sides are considering opening humanitarian corridors to let in aid and build confidence ahead of an international peace conference on Syria.

Interviews with residents and U.N. officials, as well as photos and videos provided to The Associated Press, reveal an unfolding tragedy in the sprawling camp, where tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrians are trapped under an intensifying yearlong blockade.

Forty-six people have died since October of starvation, illnesses exacerbated by hunger or because they couldn’t obtain medical aid, residents said. “There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin,” said 27-year-old resident Umm Hassan, the mother of two toddlers.

“Children are crying from hunger. The hospital has no medicine. People are just dying,” she told the AP by telephone, adding that her 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son were rapidly losing weight from lack of food.

The dead include Isra al-Masri, an emaciated toddler who passed away on Saturday swaddled in a woolen sweater, her eyes sunken, her skin darkened, her swollen tongue wedged between her lips. The child was filmed minutes before her death, slowly blinking as she was held by an unidentified woman in a video sent to the AP by a 25-year-old resident, Sami Alhamzawi.

“Look at this child! Look at her!” the woman in the video shouts, thrusting the child before the camera. “What did she do to deserve this?” Other deaths suggest the extent of desperation among residents: Teenager Mazen al-Asali hung himself in late December after returning home without food to feed his starving mother. An elderly man was beaten to death by thieves who ransacked his home, looking for food and money.

Deaths have also been reported by opposition groups, activists and the United Nations. Similar casualty figures were reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents Syrian casualties through a network of activists on the ground. The U.N. confirmed 15 deaths, but spokesman Chris Gunness said it was impossible to know the real toll because of restricted access.

“There is profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread malnutrition and the absence of medical care,” Gunness said. “Children are suffering from diseases linked to severe malnutrition.” The camp and other blockaded areas pose a stark challenge for Syria’s government and the opposition, who agreed to consider opening humanitarian access in the run-up to a peace conference next week in Switzerland that would bring the sides together for the first time.

Speaking in the midst of a two-day series of meetings in Paris, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said they were also pressing for a cease-fire and prisoner exchange between the warring sides.

But hopes appear slim. The U.N. humanitarian chief said last month that an estimated 250,000 people in besieged communities in Syria were beyond the reach of aid. The government has kept outside aid sharply limited. Key humanitarian routes are increasingly cut off by the fighting, and kidnappings of aid workers are on the rise. Both Assad’s forces and rebels have used blockades to punish civilians.

Repeated efforts to bring food into Yarmouk have failed. Most recently, on Monday, six trucks loaded with U.N.-donated food to feed 10,000 people had to turn back after gunmen fired on the convoy, resident Alhamzawi said.

Some 160,000 Palestinians once lived in Yarmouk, a strategic prize for rebels and Assad forces for its close proximity to Damascus. They remained mostly neutral when the uprising began against Assad’s rule in March 2011.

But clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Assad Palestinian gunmen in December 2012, and most residents fled. The poorest, some 18,000 people, remained behind, according to U.N. estimates, along with tens of thousands of Syrians displaced from rebel-held areas that were seized back by the regime.

Pro-Assad Palestinian factions set up checkpoints around Yarmouk and progressively tightened a blockade of the area. By September, they banned residents from leaving, or food from entering. It also meant residents couldn’t reach U.N. aid that was distributed outside the camp. The U.N. stopped operating inside Yarmouk in December, because of the fighting.

As months have passed, Yarmouk’s poorest have run out of food, according to residents and the U.N. Families now dissolve spices in water and feed it to their children as soup. Some found animal feed, but residents suffered food poisoning after eating it.

A woman desperate to feed her children sneaked into a field surrounded by Syrian snipers to forage for mallow, a green herb. She was shot in the leg and hand, she said in a video uploaded by activists.

Lying on a bed, the woman’s bloodied hand shook as she wept, recounting how her children pleaded for food. She rushed into the field but heard gunfire and fell to the ground, bleeding and wounded. “For some mallow,” she wept. “To save us from death.”

The videos appear to be genuine and consistent with AP reporting on Yarmouk. Within the camp, misery lives amid fear and defiance. Civilians shrink into their homes at dusk, as armed gunmen roam the streets.

Earlier this week, thieves beat up an elderly resident, who later died in a hospital, Alhamzawi told the AP by telephone. They stole his money — and his food. “It’s chaos,” he said. Merchants bribe gunmen to sneak in food, but sell it at exorbitant prices. A kilo (2 pounds) of rice costs $50 — about half a month’s wage, residents said.

Despite the hardship, parents are still sending their famished children to school, where they are taught by hungry teachers, Umm Hassan said. “Officials said we should stop because the children are dizzy and falling down, but we refused,” she said.

In recent months, local truces have partly resolved blockades in other rebel-held areas, with gunmen agreeing to disarm in exchange for allowing in food for residents. The Yarmouk blockade appears to be the harshest yet, and the most intractable. Months of negotiations for rebels to disarm have failed, residents said.

An official of a pro-Assad Palestinian faction imposing the blockade said it wouldn’t be lifted until an estimated 3,000 rebels disarmed. “The regime forces won’t remove the siege on the camp as long as the militants are staying in it, and the militants won’t leave,” said the official, Husam Arafat.

In the meantime, Palestinians in the West Bank have been running a campaign to raise awareness of the siege. Protesters gathered outside the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, demanding he find a solution.

“History will curse us if you allow Yarmouk’s people to die of hunger,” one sign read.

Associated Press reporters Albert Aji in Damascus, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, and Lara Jakes and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

South African Ambassador to Palestine visits Gaza Strip

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The South African Ambassador to Palestine Professor M W Makalima has visited the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday where the two discussed issues of mutual interest.

The ambassador thanked the prime minister for his message of solidarity with the South African people following the death of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela. Professor Makalima said that his visit was to express South Africa’s solidarity with Gaza Strip against the challenges it endures; particularly the Israeli siege and stressed that his country would continue to follow Mandela’s supportive approach towards the Palestinian people. Maklima quoted the late South African leader who said “our freedom is not complete until Palestine and its people are free. South Africa is fully engaged towards achieving this.”

Meanwhile Mr Haniyeh briefed the South African diplomat about the political developments in the Palestinian arena, mainly Palestinian national reconciliation, the results of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the future of the Palestinian issue and explained to him the difficult conditions experienced by the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip due to the siege. Mr Haniyeh also thanked the South African government for its supportive positions of the Palestinian people.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/9240-south-african-ambassador-to-palestine-visits-gaza-strip.

Haniyeh hails Palestinian ‘persistence’ in face of Israeli occupation

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has attributed Gaza’s survival during the two massive Israeli wars of aggression and the strict Israeli siege to the “wise governing management, legendary persistence of the people and the creativity of the Palestinian residents in Gaza”.

During a public speech delivered before a military parade on Monday, Haniyeh asserted that: “Our power is not targeting any Palestinian or neighbor, despite our major differences.”

He continued: “We are not in a battle with anyone except the Israeli occupation. [The Palestinian parties] may have varying political views, but [Hamas] proposes only those projects that protect the Palestinian principles.”

Hailing the security services in Gaza, Haniyeh said: “This power was built by our accumulated efforts and the blood sacrificed throughout the years. All factions together contributed to it.”

In addition, he noted that: “This power was nurtured on resistance and sticking to the principles of the Palestinian people and their cause. We are sustained by the support of the deprived people, detainees and families of the martyrs.”

Meanwhile, Haniyeh also congratulated the Palestinians and Muslims on the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH, which occurred on Monday.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/9226-haniyeh-hails-palestinian-persistence-in-face-of-israeli-occupation.

Israel loses ‘last friend’ in Europe

Monday, 13 January 2014

Israel’s friendship with Germany has been damaged because of settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, Israeli newspaper Maariv said on Sunday. Describing Germany as Israel’s “last friend” in Europe, Maariv said that the government in Berlin is withdrawing its historical support from the country. From now on the relationship will be based solely on “interests”, it is claimed.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is in Israel to discuss the “eroded” relations between Tel Aviv and Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, is working on ways to put an end to apparently endless references to Germany’s responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust.

Berlin, claimed Maariv, has been looking forward to stopping its “absolute” support for Israel as public opinion against Israel and its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories grows across Europe. Israel’s ambassadors in Europe, it is said, have already discussed the claim that Israel has lost its last supporter in Europe. They said that Israeli is suffering from “complete seclusion now” and “Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer credible in Berlin.”

According to Maariv, one diplomat said: “Despite Germany’s candid announcement about supporting Israel, German politicians are persuaded that Germany will no longer maintain normal relations with Israel. This is because it makes a connection between peace negotiations and settlements.”

Foreign Minister Steinmeier arrived in Israel on Sunday ahead of a visit by Merkel at the end of this month. Media reports said that such visits are aimed at encouraging the peace negotiations.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/9201-israel-loses-qlast-friendq-in-europe.

Israel says its final farewell to Ariel Sharon

January 13, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said its last farewell to the late Ariel Sharon on Monday with a state ceremony outside the parliament building before his flag-draped coffin was taken on a cross-country procession to its final resting place at his family home in the country’s south.

With a high-powered crowd of VIPs and international dignitaries on hand, Sharon was eulogized as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting Israel’s security. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair headed the long list of visitors.

In a heartfelt address, Biden talked about a decades-long friendship with Sharon, saying the death felt “like a death in the family.” When the two discussed Israel’s security, Biden said he understood how Sharon earned the nickname “The Bulldozer,” explaining how Sharon would pull out maps and repeatedly make the same points to drive them home.

“He was indomitable,” Biden said. “But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a north star that guided him. A north star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated. His north star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they resided,” Biden said.

Sharon died on Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85. One of Israel’s greatest and most divisive figures, Sharon rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister at the time of his stroke.

He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. But in a surprising about-face, he led a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all soldiers and settlers from the territory after a 38-year presence in a move he said was necessary to ensure Israel’s security.

His backers called him a war hero. His detractors, first and foremost the Palestinians, considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed. The speakers at Monday’s ceremony outside parliament largely glossed over the controversy, and instead focused on his leadership and personality.

“Arik was a man of the land,” President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and sometimes rival, said in his eulogy. “He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe. He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon’s Cabinet to protest the Gaza withdrawal, said that he and Sharon didn’t always agree with each other. Nonetheless, he called Sharon “one of the big warriors” for the nation of Israel.

“Arik was a man of actions, pragmatic, and his pragmatism was rooted in deep emotion, deep emotion for the country and deep emotion for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said. Nearly 10 years on, the withdrawal from Gaza remains hotly debated in Israeli society. Supporters say Israel is better off not being bogged down in the crowded territory, which is now home to 1.7 million Palestinians.

Critics say the pullout has only brought more violence. Two years after the withdrawal, Hamas militants seized control of Gaza and stepped up rocket fire on Israel. In a reminder of the precarious security situation, Palestinian militants on Monday fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel, where his body was being laid to rest, is within range of such projectiles, though but Monday’s missiles did not hit Israel. No injuries or damage were reported.

Biden praised Sharon’s determination in carrying out the Gaza pullout, which bitterly divided the nation. “The political courage it took, whether you agreed with him or not, when he told 10,000 Israelis to leave their homes in Gaza, in order from his perspective to strengthen Israel … I can’t think of a more difficult and controversial decision he made. But he believed it and he did it. The security of his people was always Arik’s unwavering mission.”

Blair, who is now an international envoy to the Middle East, said Sharon’s “strategic objective” never changed. “The same iron determination he took to the field of war he took to the chamber of diplomacy. Bold. Unorthodox. Unyielding,” he said.

Sharon’s coffin lay in state at the Knesset’s outdoor plaza where Israelis from all walks of life paid respects throughout Sunday. In addition to Biden and Blair, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, and foreign ministers of Australia and Germany were among those in attendance at Monday’s ceremony. Even Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, sent a low-level diplomat, its embassy said.

After the ceremony ended, the closed coffin, draped in a blue and white Israeli flag, was placed in a military vehicle and driven in a police-escorted convoy toward Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel. Crowds stood along the roadside and on bridges, snapping pictures and getting a final glimpse of the coffin as the procession of vehicles left Jerusalem and snaked down the highway outside the city’s picturesque hills.

The convoy made a brief stop at Latrun, the site of a bloody battle where Sharon was wounded during Israel’s war of independence in 1948, for a brief military ceremony before continuing south. His coffin was lowered into the ground in a military funeral at the family farm in southern Israel.

At Sharon’s graveside, his son Gilad remembered his father for overcoming the odds, whether it was battling a Palestinian uprising after becoming prime minister in 2001 or clinging to life in his final days even after his kidneys had stopped functioning.

“Again and again you turned the impossible to reality. That’s how legends are made. That’s how an ethos of a nation is created,” he said. Sharon’s life will be remembered for its three distinct stages: First, was his eventful and contentious time in uniform, including leading a deadly raid in the West Bank that killed 69 Arabs, as well as his heroics in the 1973 Mideast war.

Then came his years as a vociferous political operator who helped create Israel’s settlement movement and masterminded the divisive Lebanon invasion in 1982. He was branded as indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps outside Beirut when his troops allowed allied Lebanese militias into the camps. An uproar over the massacre cost him his job.

Yet ultimately he transformed himself into a prime minister and statesman, capped by the dramatic Gaza withdrawal. Sharon appeared to be cruising toward re-election when he suffered the second, devastating stroke in January 2006.

Body of Israel’s Ariel Sharon lies in state

January 12, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of Israelis lined up outside Israel’s parliament building on Sunday to pay their last respects to Ariel Sharon, the hard-charging former prime minister and general who died over the weekend.

Sharon’s coffin was displayed in a plaza in front of the Knesset, where a stream of visitors passed by to snap photos and say farewell. A funeral service to be attended by dignitaries from around the world, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, is scheduled for Monday.

The 85-year-old Sharon, one of Israel’s most iconic and controversial figures, died Saturday, eight years after suffering a stroke that left him in a coma. “My heart is broken. Israel lost the King of David. There is no other word to describe this man, they don’t make people like this anymore,” said Uri Rottman, a mourner who said he once served in the military with Sharon.

“I feel committed to share the very last moment before they’re going to bury him,” said Eliav Aviram, another former army comrade. Sharon was a farmer-turned-soldier, a soldier-turned-politician, a politician-turned-statesman — a leader known for his exploits on the battlefield, masterminding Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, building Jewish settlements on war-won land and then, late in life, destroying some that he deemed no longer useful. To his supporters, he was a war hero. To his critics, he was a war criminal.

Israeli authorities closed off streets around the parliament in anticipation of huge crowds Sunday. Visitors were asked to park at lots in and around the city and were brought to the site by special buses.

President Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Sharon after the 2006 stroke, was among the visitors. Olmert crossed past a roped-off area to stand silently next to the flag-draped coffin.

A state memorial is planned Monday at the parliament building. In addition to Biden, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others were expected.

Afterward Sharon’s body will be taken by military convey for burial at his ranch in southern Israel. News of Sharon dominated Israeli newspapers and broadcast reports, and Israel’s three main TV stations all broadcast live from the memorial. Radio stations were filled with interviews with former officials and military men who shared stories of Sharon’s exploits.

Sharon’s career stretched across much of Israel’s 65-year existence, and his life was closely intertwined with the country’s history. Throughout his life, he was at the center of the most contentious episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting as a young soldier fighting in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.

In the 1950s, he led a commando unit that carried out reprisals for Arab attacks. In 1953, after the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon’s troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs, most or all of them civilians.

Residents in Qibya on Sunday remembered the village’s darkest hour. Qibya resident Hamed Ghethan was just 4 years old when the raid took place. He said he could remember older residents placing their hands over the children’s mouths so they wouldn’t make a sound.

“Sharon’s name reminds me of… martyrs from my village,” said Ghethan, 65, as he surveyed the ruins of buildings destroyed in the military action. As one of Israel’s most famous generals, he was known for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders.

Historians credit him with helping turn the tide of the 1973 Mideast war when Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on the solemn fasting day of Yom Kippur, causing heavy Israeli casualties.

Sharon became a minister in Menachem Begin’s government in the late 1970s, and voted against the historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. But when it fell to Sharon to remove Jewish settlements from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, he obediently ordered protesting settlers to be dragged away and their homes bulldozed to rubble.

As defense minister in 1982, Sharon launched the invasion of Lebanon, where he became complicit in one of bloodiest incidents of the Lebanese war, when Israeli-allied forces systematically slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in September 1982. An Israeli judicial inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings, and he was forced to step down as defense minister.

Yet over the years, he gradually rehabilitated himself by holding a number of Cabinet posts. As opposition leader in September 2000, Sharon demonstratively visited a contested Jewish-Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian protests that quickly lurched into an armed uprising that ultimately killed hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis.

Several months later, he was elected prime minister. While Sharon ordered a tough crackdown on the Palestinian uprising, he made a dramatic about-face in 2003 when he announced his plans for a unilateral withdrawal from occupied lands.

In 2005, he directed a unilateral pullout of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending a 38-year occupation. He later bolted from his hard-line Likud Party and established the centrist Kadima Party, with a platform promoting further territorial concessions and support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

It seemed he was on his way to an easy re-election when he suffered the stroke in January 2006.

Advertisements