Archive for August 14th, 2014

‘Youth Troupe of Yarmuk’ rare ray of light in Syria’s refugee camp


By Rana Moussaoui


In the Yarmuk camp in southern Damascus, the notes escape a piano set in a scene of destruction and the children in Ayham al-Ahmed’s little group sing of hunger and suffering.

The music in the Syrian camp, under siege for a year and wracked by violence seems at odd with the brutality that is all around.

It is almost reminiscent of the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist in the World War II, immortalized in the film “The Pianist” directed by Roman Polanski.

“I loved that movie, which I saw in 2007, but I never thought that I would come to embody such a character,” Ahmed said, contacted by the Internet.

In photos posted on Facebook, the 26-year-old plays the piano in streets littered with debris, his face growing thinner with each passing month.

Once a thriving neighborhood home to 150,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians, Yarmuk has been reduced to a shell of its former self in the conflict that began in March 2011.

Caught in fighting between rebels and the regime, just 18,000 residents remain, suffering under a government siege that has caused the deaths of some 200 people in a year, including 128 of hunger.

“I weighed 70 kilos between the sieges, today I weigh 45,” says Ahmed.

Since the end of June, when a truce was reached between the regime and rebels, with approval from Palestinian factions in the camp, the siege has been loosened slightly.

But the privations in the camp were so serious that Ahmed, who loves to play Haydn and eastern jazz, evacuated his wife and two-year-old son, both suffering severe anaemia.

– Music ‘to emerge from despair’ –

Under the circumstances, Ahmed’s creation of the “Youth Troupe of Yarmuk” in 2013 was a rare ray of light.

“It was important to emerge from the despair we were living in,” he says.

When he plays, he says, he feels that “there is once again something good in this life”.

Ayham’s father, 62-year-old Ahmed al-Ahmed, is a blind violinist who played with the troupe until rheumatism exacerbated by malnutrition forced him to quit.

An admirer of Bach, as well as the greats of Arabic music, Ahmed is proud of his son, who composes music for songs written by amateur poets in the camp and refugees abroad.

“Music is a universal language, a passport to reach that other,” the elder Ahmed says.

“I want to put a smile on the faces of children,” says Ayhem al-Ahmed, who named his children’s choir “Buds of Yarmuk”.

One song about those in exile from the camp, called “Brother, we miss you in Yarmuk”, spread like wildfire on social networks.

It describes the story of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes or become refugees — some nine million citizens in all.

“You have been gone for a long time… you who are in Beirut, in Turkey, we miss you,” the children sing.

“When the children sing, I feel that there is hope again,” says Ahmed, who dreams of one day playing in a professional orchestra.

In the deserted streets of the camp, opinion about Ahmed’s project is sometimes divided.

“Some people say to me ‘People are dying and you’re making music,'” Ahmed says.

But others, like resident Abu Hamza, say the troupe expresses the camp’s suffering and helps lift spirits.

“When we hear them, we are able to forget our misfortune a little bit,” he said via the Internet.

– ‘Threatened to break my fingers’ –

In the middle of a raging civil war that began as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Ahmed remains non-partisan.

“Our message is living without bullets,” he says.

One song is dedicated to the “martyrs of hunger”, those who have starved to death under the tight siege on the camp.

“I drink distress in the morning, I wait for death in the evening,” the plaintive lyrics go.

Moving his piano from street to street with his friends to play, Ahmed incurred the wrath of extremists who had taken up positions in the camp, before withdrawing under the truce.

“For them it is haram (religiously prohibited). They threatened to break my fingers,” Ahmed says, “so I played early in the morning while they slept.”

Of late, Ahmed has composed songs about the situation in Gaza, but Yarmuk remains at the heart of his music, which often mixes classical music and jazz.

Separated from his family, Ahmed does not want to leave Yarmuk, and says Syrians write to him from abroad to encourage his music.

“They write ‘when you play it gives us hope that we’ll return’,” he says.

And any doubts about his frame of mind are dispelled by his Facebook status update, which says it all: “Feeling optimistic”.

Source: Middle East Online.


Gazans displaced by war to be housed in ‘mobile homes’



BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Thousands of Gazans displaced in Israel’s recent assault on the besieged enclave will be housed in mobile homes until a permanent solution can be found, a Palestinian official said Wednesday.

Mufid al-Hasaynah, minister for public works and housing, says the ministry is trying to arrange the entry of 3,500 mobile homes donated to Gaza by Turkey.

Over 17,000 homes were completely destroyed while 43,000 suffered damages in over a month of Israeli attacks.

Palestinian deputy prime minister Ziad Abu Amr arrived in Gaza Tuesday to meet with government officials and NGOs and prepare for reconstruction.

The United Nations’ Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry is scheduled to visit the Gaza Strip Wednesday where he will meet with Palestinian ministers, al-Hasaynah said.

According to the UN, about 110,000 Palestinians in Gaza are using UNRWA schools as shelter after their houses were destroyed.

Since Hamas took power in 2007, Israel has launched three major offensives on Gaza, including the 22-day Operation Cast Lead over New Year 2009, and the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, killing over 3,500 Palestinians.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.


Coalition of activists plans to send new aid flotilla to besieged Gaza


ISTANBUL – A coalition of activists said on Tuesday they would send a flotilla of ships to break Israel’s siege of Gaza by the end of 2014, fours years after a similar campaign ended in a deadly raid by Israeli commandos.

“We plan to send the flotilla during 2014,” the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, which includes activists from at least 10 countries, said in Istanbul.

The statement was made at a joint conference hosted by Turkish relief agency Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which sponsored the first flotilla of ships carrying aid to Gaza that was raided by Israeli commandos in 2010.

The group did not give a specific date or an estimate on how many vessels or people would participate.

The IHH, which many believe has close ties with the Turkish government, is one of the members of the coalition, which includes groups from Greece, Norway and Sweden.

“It is a reflection of the growing worldwide solidarity with the Palestinian people, from the US to Malaysia, from Scandinavia to South Africa,” the Freedom Flotilla Coalition said.

The boats would sail at the same time from different ports around the world, carrying humanitarian aid as well as Palestinian commercial products, it added.

“We will try to form this flotilla with the aim of showing that international community cannot sit and look away when attacks on civilians and crimes against humanity are committed,” said Canadian activist Ehab Lotayef.

He added that the coalition would not seek support from any government and there would not be any military escort.

Israel says it imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2007 to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.

“We will commit ourselves to non-violence, but as long as the blockade is there, we will sail again and again,” the group said.

In 2010, Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in a flotilla dispatched by the IHH.

Nine Turks died in the raid and one more died in hospital this year after four years in a coma.

The assault on the ship in international waters sparked widespread condemnation and provoked a major diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel.

The flotilla will again include Mavi Marmara, but the initiative is “by no means encouraged by the Turkish government,” the IHH deputy head Durmus Aydin said.

Source: Middle East Online.


Mammoth reconstruction task awaits battered Gaza


By Guillaume Lavallee

Gaza City

With thousands of homes reduced to rubble and its infrastructure in ruins, Gaza’s reconstruction will cost billions and require at least an easing of Israel’s blockade to allow in building materials.

Cement will be key among these materials, but its import will be controversial since it has been at the heart of an underground war between Israel and Hamas.

From Beit Lahiya in the north, to Rafah in the south, Israel’s latest offensive has left swathes of the Gaza Strip in ruins.

Families come during brief lulls in the fighting to sift through the debris of their homes for possessions, waiting to start rebuilding their lives.

In front of his apartment — reduced to a grey mass of dust, rubble and twisted iron — Jamal Abed drags on a cigarette as he thumbs his prayer beads.

“They destroyed everything here, there’s nothing we can do,” he says.

He knows he could spend months, even years, without somewhere to live because his home will have to be completely leveled before it can be rebuilt.

But for reconstruction to start there has to be a negotiated end to the fighting.

There also has to be cement, lots of it, and the Palestinian enclave is suffering a chronic shortage of this crucial construction material.

Israel first imposed a blockade on Gaza in summer 2006 after militants in the territory seized one of its soldiers in a cross-border tunnel attack.

It was significantly tightened a year later after the Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the enclave, with Israel imposing severe restrictions on the entry of cement, gravel and steel.

Israel said the restrictions were aimed at stopping Islamist militants from building bunkers and other fortifications.

– ‘100 years to rebuild’ –

James Rawley, the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator has warned that failure to lift the blockade could cause more conflict in Gaza in the future.

If the measures are not removed, “not only will we see very little in the way of reconstruction, but I am afraid that the conditions are in place for us to have another round of violence like we’re seeing now,” he said on Sunday.

In 2010, Israel eased restrictions on imports of food and construction materials after international outrage over a botched Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla trying to break the blockade left 10 Turkish activists dead.

Since Hamas took power in 2007, Israel has launched two major offensives on Gaza: the 22-day Operation Cast Lead over New Year 2009, and the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Both caused widespread devastation to the battered enclave.

Gazans have been largely able to circumvent the restrictions of the blockade by importing cement through cross-border smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

But after the Egyptian military overthrew Hamas’ Islamist ally, President Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013, the new regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cracked down on the tunnels, destroying over 1,600 of them and dealing a death blow to the smuggling industry.

Since then, Gaza’s reconstruction has been dependent on the materials Israel has allowed in, with supplies only permitted for international construction projects.

“It would take 100 years to rebuild Gaza with the current rate of construction material being allowed in,” said Sari Bashi, co-founder of Israeli NGO Gisha which campaigns for Palestinian freedom of movement and trade.

“In the years in which cement has been banned from entering Gaza, Israel did not manage to prevent tunnels from being dug,” she said.

“It is a policy that is overwhelmingly harming civilians in Gaza with little to no security benefit for Israel”.

– Cementing the truce? –

The UN estimates more than 11,800 homes have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, more than twice the number that was destroyed in Operation Cast Lead.

At the time, the international community pledged $4.5 billion (3.4 billion euros) to rebuild Gaza’s shattered infrastructure.

This time round, the Palestinians say they need up to $6 billion to fix hospitals, roads, schools, water facilities and factories hit by shelling and bombing.

Mahir al-Tabaa, head of Gaza’s chamber of industry and commerce, says that “more than 350 industrial buildings” have been destroyed in the fighting, including 50 key factories.

But the conflict which began on July 8 is not yet over.

The warring sides have both agreed to hold their fire for three days to allow Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet in Cairo for talks on a more durable end to the fighting.

The issue of cement is set to be one of the key challenges for the two sides as they struggle to reach an agreement.

Israeli officials have recognized the importance of rebuilding Gaza but they do not want to lift the blockade – the main demand of the Palestinians.

“There will be no agreement without the blockade being lifted, without cement entering Gaza,” said Daifallah al-Akhras, a senior Palestinian official.

“How do you expect us to rebuild without cement?”

Source: Middle East Online.


Jordan takes wait-and-see approach on Islamic State

Osama Al Sharif

August 11, 2014

For weeks now, Jordan’s punditry has been debating the same issue: Will the kingdom become the next target for the Islamic State (IS)? Government officials, newspaper columnists and members of the political establishment have responded to growing fears by citizens that the extreme Salafist jihadist organization may soon direct its attention toward Jordan, in light of recent territorial gains in Syria and Iraq and the latest incursion into the Lebanese border town of Arsal.

Adding to local concerns is the fact that Jordan’s own Salafist jihadist movement is now divided over its support of IS, and the declaration by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of an Islamic caliphate in territories under his control. Last month, a group of Jordanian Salafists were caught on video, in the eastern city of Zarqa, chanting slogans in support of IS and pledging allegiance to Baghdadi. The video went viral on social media networks.

The incident came in the wake of another demonstration in support of IS on June 21 in the troubled southern town of Ma’an, a hotbed for the Salafist movement. Police did nothing to disperse participants who waved the familiar black and white IS flags.

Responding to such acts of support, the spiritual leader of the Salafist jihadist movement, Issam al-Barqawi, also known as Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, launched a vehement attack against IS, accusing it of killing Muslims and criticizing its declaration of an Islamist caliphate. Maqdisi was released from jail on June 16, a few days before he made his statements, raising questions about a possible deal between him and the authorities. He later denied that he had come under pressure to attack IS.

His criticisms were attacked by a group of Salafist jihadists who reiterated their loyalty to Baghdadi and IS. In a statement on July 22, they said they represent the majority of the followers of the movement in Jordan, including Abu Mohammad al-Tahawi, one of their leaders.

In contrast to Maqdisi’s position, Mohammad al-Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf, told Al-Monitor that he supports any jihadist movement, including IS. He said efforts are being made to end the rift between IS and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Abu Sayyaf denied reports that IS is already present in Jordan, adding that Jordan’s Salafist jihadists now number over 8,000 with many of them joining “jihad” in Syria. “As to clerics speaking on behalf of moderate Salafists, all they are concerned with is to defend the regime and its security arm,” he said.

But political analyst and former Minister Taher al-Adwan wrote on a local website on Aug. 10 that the IS threat is real, and that the incursion in Arsal and Iraqi Kurdistan proves that the movement is unpredictable. He wrote: “We should always remember that the Islamic State is present to our east [in Iraq’s Anbar province] and is growing in Syria’s east and south.” He rejected statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu that Israel would come to the aid of Jordan if it came under IS threat.

Another political commentator, Uraib al-Rintawi, agrees with Adwan. He told Al-Monitor that IS has “ideological supporters” in Jordan, and that the movement is now close to the kingdom’s northern borders with Syria, where more than 80% of Jordanians live. But he added that Jordan is different from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon because it has a professional army, a homogenous population and strong state institutions. He called for regional efforts to confront the movement’s rising danger.

Mohammad Abu Rumman, who is an expert on Salafist jihadist movements in the region, told Al-Monitor that Jordan can do little to confront the Islamic State’s growing influence. “It is completely incapable of dealing with the ideological onslaught of the movement, especially as most Salafist jihadists in Jordan support the ideas of the Islamic State.” He estimated the number of Jordanians fighting with IS at 3,000, but he said that in spite of the movement’s recent gains, it is doubtful that it will succeed in building a real state anywhere in the region.

For his part, Minister of Political Affairs Khaled al-Kalaldeh told Al-Monitor that IS is a security and not a political challenge for the government. He added that what happened in Zarqa and Ma’an does not constitute a change in the organizational level of local Salafist jihadist movements, and that the government is watching closely any new developments. “Historically, Jordan has been fighting all sorts of extremism and will work with other nations to confront extremism,” he said.

On the other hand, local observers have criticized the silence of the Muslim Brotherhood movement over IS. Coming under pressure, the Brotherhood’s leadership took several weeks to issue a statement denouncing IS “atrocities” and accusing it of “distorting the image of Islam.”

Still, a growing number of Jordanians believe the government should take direct and decisive action against Salafist jihadists in the country. Abu Rumman said the release of Maqdisi may point to a government decision to “divide” the movement for now, but it is unlikely that such a strategy will work in the long run. Adwan agreed and said the government should focus on strengthening the domestic front against possible IS incursion.

Public pressure is mounting on the government to take action against local Salafist jihadists to undercut any presence or foothold for IS. But the authorities are hesitant to wage open war against the jihadists at this stage, opting for a wait-and-see approach for now.

Source: al-Monitor.


Palestinian football pays high price for Gaza war

Gaza City, Palestine (AFP)

Aug 12, 2014

Palestinian footballer Ahed Zaqqut was a local legend. Hanging up his boots after a stellar career as a midfielder, he went on to coach in Gaza until an Israeli missile slammed into his home.

The 49-year-old was killed outright, robbing Gaza of one of its best-known players and most well-respected coaches.

“I heard an enormous explosion. I rushed out of the bathroom and saw a cloud of dust,” his wife Mayada told AFP of the day when a missile hit their Gaza City home on July 30.

“Then I knew that the rocket had fallen on us. I saw Ahed, his head and chest were soaked in blood. I couldn’t stop crying. The neighbors came and took him to hospital but he was already dead.”

Although Zaqqut never played internationally, he was a local Palestinian celebrity and just one of a number of sportsmen killed as a result of Israel’s bloody five-week confrontation with the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza.

The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) says it has not yet assessed the total cost from the war.

But several members of the footballing community have been killed along with countless fans in a territory where people are passionate followers of “the beautiful game”.

Football is hugely popular across the Palestinian territories, where it has been played since the 1920s during the time of the British mandate.

The best footballers go onto become stars in the Arab world, playing for teams in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example, but local stars are much loved heroes in Gaza and the West Bank.

– Playing Platini –

Zaqqut himself hung up his boots in the 1990s after several career highlights which included a friendly against a French side headed by former French international Michel Platini, now president of UEFA, his wife said.

“In 1993, he played a friendly in Jericho between a Palestinian team and a French team captained by Michel Platini,” she said.

He went on to set up the first football training ground in Gaza with his team winning the local championship in 2000.

But the intensive fighting in Gaza has laid waste to most of the pitches used by local teams to train.

The war has also made its deadly effects felt in the West Bank.

Aspiring teenaged footballers Mohammed Qatari and Udai Jaber were hoping to begin playing for a Ramallah-based club this year.

But the bright footballing careers ahead of them was cut short when they were killed last week during separate protests against the Gaza war.

They were both 19 and were shot dead last week in clashes with Israeli troops.

Mohammed was a bright hope for Palestinian football. He was even selected to meet FIFA president Joseph Blatter three months ago when he came to visit the West Bank.

He was just about to sign with Ramallah side Shabab al-Amari, having played for the club’s youth team, a team official said.

Getting a professional league contract nets a young player a salary of $1,000 a month and can rise to as much as $2,000 for the best players at the West Bank’s 12 professional clubs.

“The war Israel is waging against the Palestinian people spares no one. The sports family in the West Bank as well as in the Gaza Strip are among those living through a real humanitarian catastrophe,” said Abdelmajid Hijjeh, the association’s secretary general.

As well as the deaths, the PFA says dozens of players have been wounded, sidelining them for the season – which has already been postponed indefinitely due to the fighting – and that numerous sports facilities have been damaged.

– From triumph to tragedy –

The war comes at a particularly devastating time for Palestinian football.

In May, celebrations erupted across the Palestinian territories after their national team qualified for their maiden Asian Cup appearance with a 1-0 win over Philippines in the Maldives.

The win booked them a place in Asian Cup tournament which will be held in Australia in January.

It was a historic achievement for a team ranked 85 by FIFA and which has been hobbled by long-standing Israeli travel restrictions, as well as arrests and killings.

But just weeks after its crowning achievement, Palestinian football has fallen to a new low.

The war broke out on July 8 and paused Monday at the start of a three-day ceasefire to allow negotiators in Cairo to thrash out a permanent truce deal.

It has already delayed the start of the league championship which was due to begin August 20.

No fixtures will be played until the warring sides agree on a permanent end to the Gaza conflict, which has so far claimed 1,940 Palestinian lives and 67 on the Israeli side.

“Israel’s war against Gaza has disrupted all sports fixtures. We’re waiting for a ceasefire before we can go ahead and pick new teams,” said Hijjeh.

Source: Space War.