Archive for June, 2014

Syrian parliament approves new election law

March 13, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s state TV says the parliament has unanimously approved a new election law allowing multiple candidates for president, opening doors to other potential candidates besides President Bashar Assad.

The vote comes nearly four months before Assad’s seven-year term as president officially expires. Syrian officials say the presidential elections will be held on time and Assad has suggested he would run again.

The bill adopted Thursday says only candidates who lived in Syria for 10 years prior to nomination can run. The TV didn’t say how many lawmakers voted for the bill. Syria has been ruled by the Baath party since it seized power in a 1963 coup.

Past presidential elections under Assad and his late father, Hafez Assad, were de-facto referendums with one of the Assads being the sole candidate.

Ottoman history flows back into Gaza

04 Jun 2014

Turkish government pays to restore centuries-old public fountain after learning of its link to the Ottoman Empire.

Gaza – To many Palestinians in Gaza City, it just looked like a hole in an abandoned wall, surrounded by splatters of concrete and spray paint.

In fact, this was all that remained of a public fountain dating back to the 16th century. This month, restoration work on the al-Rifa’yia fountain was completed, and cold, purified water once again runs from its taps.

The Turkish government offered to pay for the renovation after learning the fountain was linked to Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, said Mohammed Mourtaga, director of the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) in Gaza. After discussions with the Hamas-run tourism ministry, TIKA paid about $30,000 to restore the fountain, Mourtaga told Al Jazeera.

“This will be the second time that it is revamped and the third time water is coming out from it,” Deputy Tourism Minister Mohammed Khela told Al Jazeera.

As Gaza was a commerce hub and a route linking Asia and Africa during the Ottoman Empire, the al-Rifa’yia fountain was built around 1570 to provide people and traders with water. The water came from a nearby well, Khela said.

The fountain was repaired in 1900 during the era of al-Hamid II, but fell back into disuse during World War I. Although the Ottomans built three other fountains in Gaza, al-Rifa’yia is the only one that remains standing. It overlooks a vibrant street in the old district of Gaza City.

The renovated fountain now rests atop a short staircase, with three water taps. The structure has been restored to its original beige color, and the Arabic carvings are once again legible.

“We have restored it to its normal scenes,” worker Mohammed Nabhan told Al Jazeera. “This is going to be a great project that anybody passing by can stop to drink cold water.”

Contractor Emad al-Bayya said the rehabilitation process was difficult “because the place was abandoned and neglected for a very long time”. He told Al Jazeera that a French archaeologist was supposed to be in Gaza to oversee the restoration process, but he could not come due to restrictions on access and movement. These restrictions also limited the flow of construction materials, “but we managed to complete the project with the minimum amount of cement and other materials”.

TIKA, which has been funding the construction of a hospital and the digging of wells in Gaza, is also in discussions with the ruling Hamas movement to open a museum for Islamic manuscripts from the Ottoman era, Mourtaga said. Khela said Turkey also offered to pay for the renovation of a number of Turkish baths, mosques and other sites dating back to the Ottoman era.

“This is mainly to protect the Palestinian heritage and to emphasize the depth of Palestine’s connection to the Islamic culture that flourished during the Ottoman state,” Khela said. “This also strengthens the Palestinian-Turkish relations.”

Jawdat al-Khoudary, an antiques collector who owns a private museum in Gaza, criticized the Palestinian government for failing to prioritize archaeological sites in Gaza.

“This is a neglected sector for the governments,” he told Al Jazeera, citing tens of sites that need to be rehabilitated or preserved, including the minaret of the al-Omari great mosque in Gaza City, built in the seventh century.

Khela said his ministry often tries to protect the remnants of churches, temples and graves by providing guards, but the ministry lacks funds for expensive rehabilitation projects. The restoration of the al-Rifa’yia fountain was a bright spot, al-Khoudary added.

“This is a symbolic rehabilitation of a simple site,” he said, “but it is great to see people interested in renovating it.”

Source: al-Jazeera.

Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/05/ottoman-history-flows-back-into-gaza-201451272838753893.html.

Gaza’s Hamas government says ready to step aside

May 27, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The government installed by the Islamic militant group Hamas after its takeover of the Gaza Strip seven years ago said it held its last meeting Tuesday and is ready to hand “full responsibility” to a Palestinian unity government.

Tuesday’s Cabinet statement was the latest sign that rival factions Hamas and Fatah are close to a deal on a unity government that is to end a crippling political rift and prepare for elections in 2015.

The longstanding conflict between the opponents peaked in 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas drove the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas out of Gaza, leaving his forces confined to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Since then, both sides have run separate governments in their respective territories on the opposite ends of Israel. Abbas seeks both the West Bank and Gaza as parts of a future Palestinian state, and the internal rift is a major impediment to any potential peace deal.

Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, but the rivals appear more flexible this time because both are struggling with crises. Hamas faces severe money problems and has been unable to cover the government payroll because of a tightening border blockade of Gaza by neighboring Egypt over the past year. Israel continues to enforce its border blockade of Gaza, in place since 2007.

Abbas, meanwhile, needs a new political strategy after the latest attempt to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel collapsed in April. Abbas is skeptical about reaching a deal with Israel’s hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In April, reconciliation efforts resumed. Negotiators said Tuesday they are close to agreement on the new Cabinet lineup. A formal announcement is expected as early as Thursday. Meanwhile, the Hamas Cabinet said it held its 343rd and final weekly meeting Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Ziad al-Zaza said the government “is ready to hand over its full responsibilities to the unity government,” the statement said.

Court acquits radical cleric of conspiracy

Jun 26, 2014

Reuters

AMMAN — The State Security Court on Thursday acquitted radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, who was extradited from Britain last year, of charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism.

But authorities will continue to detain the preacher because of separate charges related to a plot to attack tourists during New Year celebrations in Jordan in 2000.

“The court announces the acquittal of the defendant for lack of evidence,” said Ahmad Qatarneh, the judge presiding over the three-man tribunal.

Abu Qatada, sitting on a bench in an enclosed iron dock, smiled and looked relaxed during the half-hour court session. Dressed in brown prison fatigues, he was flanked by black-clad security officers.

Members of his family cried out of joy when the verdict was read and his wife and her relatives burst into tears.

“Thanks and praise to God!” they shouted.

Abu Qatada had previously been sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to life imprisonment for conspiracy to carry out Al Qaeda-style attacks against US and other targets inside Jordan.

Thursday’s session was a retrial in which the prosecution had argued Abu Qatada was a mentor to militant cells in Jordan while he was in Britain, providing spiritual and material support to a campaign of violence during the late 1990s.

But the court quashed the conspiracy charges and postponed another hearing on the New Year plot charges until September 7.

Abu Qatada’s defense lawyer Ghazi Thunaibat said he hoped the second trial would bring a similar sentence.

“My client has spent too long in prison unfairly and we hope the next verdict will finally end his plight and allow him to resume a normal life with his family,” he told Reuters.

Disputed confession

In December, Thunaibat called for his client’s release, saying his rights had been violated by the presence of the military judge in court and reliance on hearings of evidence extracted under torture from other defendants.

Despite the acquittal, the court upheld a confession which had convicted Abu Qatada in absentia in the earlier trial. The defense said the confession had been extracted under torture.

European and British courts used the confession to delay his deportation until he agreed to return to Jordan for a retrial.

“Human Rights Watch is troubled by the verdict that made it permissible to include allegations of a confession made under coercion that was held in doubt by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights,” said Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher who attended the session.

Abu Qatada’s return to Jordan was made possible by an extradition treaty adopted by Jordan and Britain that satisfied the concerns of British judges about the use of evidence obtained through torture.

Linked by a Spanish judge to the late Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Abu Qatada has been in and out of jail in Britain since 2001. He was extradited to Jordan in July last year.

Jordanian security officials and experts on Islamist radical groups say Abu Qatada’s ideological writings have influenced many youths involved with Al Qaeda.

“This is a man who the British courts have deemed a risk to national security. He is not coming back,” British Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman told reporters on Thursday.

“He will not be granted permission to enter the UK, end of story. He was deported on an indefinite deportation order.”

Abu Qatada has used some hearings to lend support to global Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri in a row with a splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which took control of swathes of land in Iraq this month and is in Syria.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/court-acquits-radical-cleric-of-conspiracy.

Refugees of 44 nationalities currently residing in Jordan should not be ignored — UNHCR

Jun 21, 2014

by Gaelle Sundelin

AMMAN — World Refugee Day is not a day to celebrate but a day to “pay tribute” to both refugees and the Jordanians hosting them and raise awareness, UNHCR staff said as they marked the occasion on Thursday in their Khalda headquarters in the capital.

The event, which gathered UN agencies and NGO representatives, alongside ambassadors and other officials, was an occasion to display artwork, music and poetry created and performed by refugees themselves.

“We know refugees as a big number but when you look at these hopes and dreams they have, it reminds you that there are individuals behind these numbers just like anyone else,” Hannah Rose Thomas, a UNHCR intern who developed the arts projects, told The Jordan Times at the ceremony.

Since April 2014, the artist said she had been working together with refugees to paint three colorful tents around the themes of hopes, dreams and memories, where they could express themselves freely and regain self-confidence.

From filling front pages of magazines and newspapers for the past two years to becoming colorful expressions of refugees’ identity, the infamous UNHCR tents were also an occasion for the guests to concretely grasp the limited living space many refugees live in.

“We wanted to convey the impact of war on families and the displacement, and fragmented lives being pieced back together again, so we used tents because they are a powerful symbol of displacement… and decided to turn them into pieces of beauty,” said Thomas, who studied art in London.

Within each tent, creative projects by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Relief and Development and Relief International were displayed, such as clothes and bags made out of unusable UNHCR tents or letters from refugee children calling on the world not to forget them.

“I love doing creative projects involving arts, dance, music… that enables [people] to convey messages to the world in an unusual way, and here we used the canvas of the tent as the medium for that,” said Frauke Riller, UNHCR external relations officer and focal point for World Refugee Day.

Noting that participating in the artistic experience has helped her combat some of her own prejudices, Riller pointed out that showing the artistic skills of refugees is a way to help people overcome their prejudice about refugees being mere aid recipients with little skills and education.

“The project reflects what the refugees have to say… especially the ‘hope’ tent shows their feelings, aspirations and questions, and we realize they are the same as any other [people] living anywhere in the world,” she said.

Despite sharing common dreams with the rest of the world, there is a deepening divide among refugees themselves in terms of attention paid and services granted to the different nationalities of displaced people in Jordan.

Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis are among the 44 nationalities of refugees in the Kingdom, according to UNHCR Representative to Jordan Andrew Harper.

These refugees suffer from a decrease or absence of budgets earmarked to support them, leaving them in severe impoverishment, Harper warned.

“It is very easy with the Syrian crisis being in the limelight to forget that there are [other nationalities]… they are in dire straits and increasingly so,” Riller said.

While the art was realized by Syrian refugees, the event also brought together Iraqi oud player Waseem Somari and guitarist Ali Khalid as well as Sudanese poet Amal Mohamed, thereby shedding light on these often overlooked communities.

Mohamed, who arrived in Jordan eight months ago, read a piece of hers entitled “Feelings of a refugee woman”, where she not only expressed the hardship she is facing as a refugee, but also conveyed her gratitude to her host country.

“Despite all that, we shall not lose hope as Jordan, our second home and loving cradle, has bestowed great generosity upon us,” Mohamed said in the poem.

Although World Refugee Day was an occasion to recognize and salute Jordan’s generosity in welcoming refugees from various crisis areas, the worsening situation in neighboring Iraq does not bode well, and a new refugee influx could be expected, according to the UNHCR.

“Unfortunately, the situation in the region is becoming increasingly unstable… and, if anything, we need to be prepared to accept more people coming from Syria but also from Iraq,” Harper said in his welcoming address, calling upon the international community to increase support to Jordan.

According to UNHCR figures, there are almost 1.3 million refugees and asylum seekers from all nationalities in Jordan, a figure projected to increase by 100,000 by the end of 2014.

World Refugee Day, first celebrated in 2001, is observed around the world on June 20.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/refugees-of-44-nationalities-currently-residing–in-jordan-should-not-be-ignored—-unhcr.

PLO to seek membership of international bodies

28/04/2014

RAMALLAH (AFP) — The Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council on Sunday adopted a plan to pursue attempts to join 60 United Nations bodies and international agreements.

The council, under the auspices of president Mahmoud Abbas, “affirms the need for the Palestinian leadership to continue membership of UN agencies and international conventions”, the Palestine People’s Party secretary general Bassam al-Salhi said in a statement.

The council also said Israel was to blame for failed international and US efforts to find a negotiated settlement to the Middle East conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended faltering peace talks last week after the PLO and Hamas agreed to work together to form a unity government, in an historic move to end years of bitter political rivalry.

The struggling peace talks took a nose dive at the end of March when Israel reneged on a pledge to release two dozen Palestinian prisoners.

Last November the Palestinians cast a UN General Assembly vote for the first time and claimed the moment as a new step in their quest for full recognition by the global body.

Most of the 193 members of the General Assembly applauded Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour as he voted for a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The Palestinians became observer state members of the United Nations a year earlier with an overwhelming vote in favor.

The Palestinian mission cannot vote on UN resolutions but, under UN rules, it and other observers such as the Vatican can vote in elections for judges on international courts.

Israel maintains its position that the Palestinian Authority is not a state and the Palestinian Authority fails to meet the criteria for statehood.

Israel and the United States have lobbied strongly against UN recognition of the Palestinians, arguing that a separate state can only be achieved through direct bilateral negotiations to end the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the Palestinians have also joined UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, and voted there.

Israel and the United States withdrew funding from UNESCO because it allowed Palestinian membership and subsequently lost their voting rights on the body.

Early this month Abbas signed membership applications for 15 UN agencies and international treaties, beginning with the Fourth Geneva Convention, which defines humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone.

“This is not a move against America, or any other party — it is our right, and we agreed to suspend it for nine months,” he said at the time.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=693413.

Palestinian rivals to try again for unity deal

April 23, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed Wednesday to form a unity government and hold new elections — a potentially historic step toward mending the rift that has split their people between two sets of rulers for seven years.

Following the announcement of the deal, hundreds of people took to the streets in Gaza to celebrate. Crowds hoisted Palestinian flags and posters. “I hope it will be real this time,” said Asma Radwan, a 33-year-old schoolteacher who came with her two young sons. “I came to say ‘thank you’ to the leaders. But don’t disappoint us like the past. Seven years of division is enough.”

It remained unclear how the plan would succeed where past attempts have repeatedly failed. It also added new complications to U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Both the U.S. and Israel condemned the agreement.

In an initial response, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned meeting for Wednesday evening between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators. Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist group. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has killed hundreds of Israelis in bombings and shootings over the past two decades.

Abbas “needs to choose between peace with Israel and an agreement with Hamas, a murderous terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said. In a statement, Abbas said “there is no contradiction” between reconciliation and his efforts to reach a “just peace” with Israel. He said Wednesday’s deal would help Palestinian negotiators achieve a two-state solution.

Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas’ forces in 2007, leaving him with only parts of the West Bank. Both sides have become entrenched in their territories, setting up separate governments and their own security forces.

The division has been a major obstacle to Abbas’ goal of establishing an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as the capital. Israel captured all three areas in 1967. The split is also seen by many everyday Palestinians as a tragic mistake.

The two sides planned to form an interim government within five weeks. Presidential and parliamentary elections should be held no sooner than six months after the government is formed, said Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government.

Similar agreements have been reached in principle in the past. But they were never implemented due to deep differences and an unwillingness to cede power. Hamas, for instance, employs tens of thousands of civil servants and security forces in Gaza, and it is in no rush to relinquish control to a centralized government led by Abbas. The group has also seen its popularity plummet, making elections risky.

Abbas, meanwhile, could face international isolation and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid if he joins forces with Hamas. International donors withheld aid during a short-lived Palestinian unity government elected in 2006 and 2007, before the Hamas takeover, due to concerns that the money would be diverted to Hamas.

A key test will be whether the sides can agree soon on a caretaker government of apolitical technocrats. Squabbling over the government’s composition has derailed past reconciliation attempts. Still, changes in the region have given each side an incentive to try again, even if a full agreement seems unlikely.

Hamas has been weakened since a military coup in neighboring Egypt last July. The coup toppled the Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi, Hamas’ most important ally. Egypt’s new military government has cracked down hard on Hamas, closing a system of smuggling tunnels that provided Hamas with a key conduit for weapons and tax revenue. The Egyptian pressure and a longstanding Israeli blockade have plunged Hamas into the worst financial crisis of its rule, making it difficult to pay the salaries of its employees and sinking its public standing.

Abbas, on the other hand, has achieved little during nine months of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel. Those talks are set to expire next Tuesday, though the sides have been searching for a formula to extend the negotiations.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “disappointed and troubled” by the Palestinians’ announcement. “It is hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist,” Psaki said, referring to Hamas.

Palestinian analyst Nasim Zubaidi described Wednesday’s agreement as a “marriage of convenience.” He said both sides were “forced” into each other’s arms, with Abbas hurt by the failure of peace efforts and Hamas’ financial struggles.

Even so, he said, it was far from clear whether they would go through with the deal. “Both have signed, but they are using the tactic of ‘let’s wait and see.’ Abbas will wait and see how things will go in the peace talks, and Hamas will see how it goes with their problems in Gaza.”

Ultimately, it will be difficult to merge two rival ideologies and two rival security forces into one, Zubaidi said. Wednesday’s reconciliation deal is the latest attempt by Abbas to send a message to Israel that he has other alternatives. Abbas has also hinted in recent days that he might dismantle his self-rule government and saddle Israel with the huge financial burden of taking care of more than 4 million Palestinians in occupied lands.

These latest moves may be aimed at building leverage to pressure Israel to agree to favorable terms for continued negotiations. But they could also signal a new approach if the talks really do collapse.

Yet Abbas’ decision also risks triggering a tough Israeli response. Hardline Israeli leaders quickly condemned the unity deal, and several called for Netanyahu to halt the peace efforts. Israel’s Channel 10 TV said Netanyahu would meet with his Security Cabinet on Thursday to discuss a response. It also said that future meetings between peace negotiators were in doubt.

“The Palestinian Authority has become the biggest terror body in the world,” said Naftali Bennett, head of the hardline Jewish Home Party. “Israel needs to be clear,” he added. “No talks with murderers.”

Adding to the tensions, an Israeli airstrike hit the northern Gaza Strip, missing its target but wounding at least three bystanders, Palestinian officials said. Medical official Ashraf al-Kidreh says the airstrike targeted two men riding a motorcycle, but that the missile missed its target and wounded a 50-year-old man and two daughters.

The Israeli military confirmed the failed airstrike, saying “a hit was not identified.” Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets at southern Israel soon afterward, the Israeli military said. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.