Archive for November, 2014

Israel leader vows to pass nationality law

November 24, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister vowed Monday to pass a contentious nationality law that has threatened the stability of his fragile coalition government, but he left the door open for negotiations to soften it.

The bill formally would identify Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. But language favored by hard-liners has drawn racism accusations, been questioned by Israel’s attorney general and prompted the justice minister to warn that the coalition could fall apart.

Addressing his Likud Party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was determined to pass it. The bill is “expressing the fact that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and only theirs, alongside preserving the rights of every single citizen of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 defined the country as both Jewish and democratic. The new legislation seeks to enshrine these principles as a Basic Law, Israel’s de facto constitution. But elements of the proposal have raised concerns. Among the proposals are making Jewish law a source of legislative inspiration and delisting Arabic as an official language.

“That will endanger really the very sensitive relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority inside Israel,” said Ibrahim Sarsour, an Arab lawmaker. A parliamentary vote scheduled for Wednesday was postponed for a week to allow time for a compromise proposal.

The centrist members of Netanyahu’s coalition, Hatnuah and Yesh Atid, have vowed to oppose the measure in its current form. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of Hatnuah, warned that the bill’s passage could topple Netanyahu’s coalition and force early elections.

Debate over the nationality law comes amid soaring tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population of 8 million. Over the past month, Palestinian attacks have killed 11 Israelis. The latest attack took place Monday, as an Arab assailant stabbed a Jewish man outside the old city of Jerusalem, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Rosenfeld described the assault as a terror attack and said the victim was taken to a hospital.

Israeli Cabinet moves to define Israel as Jewish

November 23, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — In a move likely to further inflame tensions with Israel’s Arab citizens, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved a bill to legally define the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The decision, which set off a stormy debate that could bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brittle coalition government, followed weeks of deadly Arab-Jewish violence and was denounced by critics as damaging to the country’s democratic character and poorly timed at such a combustible moment.

It now heads toward a full parliamentary vote on Wednesday. Israel has always defined itself as the “Jewish state” — a term that was contained in the country’s declaration of independence in 1948. The new law seeks to codify that status as a “Basic Law,” Israel’s de facto constitution.

While many critics derided the measure as unnecessary, Netanyahu told his Cabinet the bill is a response to Israel’s Arab critics both inside and outside Israel who question the country’s right to exist.

Netanyahu has long demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland as a condition of any peace deal. Both the Palestinians and their Arab Israeli brethren say such acceptance would harm the rights of Israel’s more than 1.5 million Arab citizens.

The bill calls not only for recognizing Israel’s Jewish character but for institutionalizing Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and dropping Arabic as an official language. Netanyahu insisted that Israel would be both Jewish and democratic.

“There are those who would like the democratic to prevail over the Jewish and there are those who would like the Jewish to prevail over the democratic,” he said. “And in the principles of the law that I will submit today both of these values are equal and both must be considered to the same degree.”

Israel is in the midst of its worst sustained bout of violence in nearly a decade. Eleven Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks over the past month, including five people who were killed with guns and meat cleavers in a bloody assault on a Jerusalem synagogue last week.

Jewish nationalists in Netanyahu’s coalition had pushed hard for the bill. The two centrist parties in the Cabinet, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, provided the only opposition in the 14-6 vote. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, called it a “terrible” piece of legislation meant to appease hard-liners ahead of primaries in Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud Party.

Health Minister Yael German, another Yesh Atid member, said the party would support a law only if it emphasized Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature equally. “This bill does not preserve that value. It will be a mark of shame for the parliament to pass such a law,” she said.

A vote against the bill in parliament by the party could break up the coalition and even trigger new elections. Yesh Atid is the second-largest faction in parliament and could rob Netanyahu of his majority.

In a statement, Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, said he had serious doubts about the legality of the bill’s language because it impinges on Israel’s democratic character. The measure could still be delayed or watered down before it is put to a vote in parliament.

Ahmad Tibi, a leading Arab lawmaker, denounced the bill as an attack on Arab natives of the country and called on the world to offer them protection. Dov Khenin, leader of the mixed Jewish-Arab Hadash party, accused Netanyahu of “pouring fuel into the bonfire of hate.”

Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, have long complained of discrimination and second-class status. Last week, the mayor of the southern city of Ashkelon sparked an uproar by banning Arab construction laborers from working in Israeli preschools on security grounds. The mayor, Itamar Shimoni, reversed his decision on Sunday but said the children would be moved to other locations while construction proceeded.

Though citizens of Israel, the country’s Arabs often identify with Palestinians in the West Bank, and their loyalty to the state if often questioned by Jews. On Sunday, Israel’s Shin Bet security service said it arrested a 22-year-old Israeli Arab who had returned from Syria after trying to join the Islamic State extremist group. Israel believes that several dozen Arabs have left the country to join IS in Syria.

The deadly unrest in recent weeks has centered on Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the site, which Israel says are a necessary security measure, have heightened tensions.

The spate of attacks has left many people on both sides on edge. Early Sunday, a Palestinian family in the West Bank said its home had been torched in an attack blamed on Jewish settlers. The fire damaged one room, and Hebrew slogans were scrawled on the house.

In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army shot and killed a 32-year-old man who approached the border with Israel. Palestinians said the man had been hunting birds, a hobby common among Palestinians.

Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers OK fighters for Syria

October 22, 2014

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Lawmakers in Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region Wednesday authorized peshmerga forces to go to neighboring Syria and help fellow Kurds combat Islamic State militants in the key border town of Kobani, providing much-needed boots on the ground.

The unprecedented deployment will almost certainly depend on the support of Turkey, whose president criticized a U.S. airdrop of arms to Kurdish fighters after some of the weapons wound up in the hands of the extremists.

Turkey, which has riled Kurdish leaders and frustrated Washington by refusing to allow fighters or weapons into Kobani, said this week it would help Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross into Syria to help their brethren against the militants, who also are being attacked by a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes.

But it is not clear how many fighters will be allowed in or whether they will be allowed to carry enough weapons to make an impact. The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have become a major focal point in the war against the Islamic State group, with Kurdish populations in both countries coming under significant threat by the militants’ lightning advance.

Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the outgoing commander of NATO’s Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, said the Turks have agreed to open up “a land bridge of sorts” so that the peshmerga can get into Kobani to help with the fighting there.

“It seems to me that between the United States, Turkey and other countries, they are figuring out what is permissible to make sure that ISIL is not successful and that it is something that Turkey can live with,” he added, using an acronym for the group.

Anwar Muslim, a Kobani-based senior Kurdish official, praised the parliament’s decision, saying “all help is welcome.” He said there seemed to be a solidifying international push to help Kobani combat the militants.

“The next days will show the seriousness” of the Turks, he said. In August, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds took part in cross-border operations to help rescue tens of thousands of displaced people from the Yazidi minority group under threat by the IS militants in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains.

The fight in Kobani has also grabbed the world’s attention and raised sympathy for the outgunned Kurds. The overwhelming vote in the Kurdish parliament to send fighters to Kobani underscored growing cooperation between Kurds in these countries and marked a first mission for the peshmerga outside Iraq.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq’s long-serving foreign minister, told Al-Arabiya TV the decision was “part of an understanding” reached between Kurdish, Turkish and U.S. officials to provide military aid to Kobani.

“This is a big turning point in Kurdish history,” said Youssef Mohammed, the speaker of parliament. “Troops used to be sent to occupy Kurdish lands, but now we are sending soldiers to protect our Kurdish brothers abroad,” he said.

There were few details about the fighting force, however, and Kurdish officials said they would be worked out later. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the United States made a mistake in airdropping weapons to Kurdish fighters in Kobani earlier this week because some of the weapons ended up in IS hands.

“It turns out that what was done was wrong,” he said, according to Turkey’s private Dogan news agency. The Turkish government is reluctant to aid the Syrian Kurdish forces — the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — because it views them as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

The Pentagon confirmed that IS militants were able to seize one of the 28 bundles of weapons and medical supplies intended for Kurdish fighters. Col. Steve Warren said it appears the wind caused the parachute to go off-course, and that the weapons in the bundle were not enough to give the enemy any type of advantage.

A video uploaded by a media group loyal to the IS group showed the weapons seized included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The caches were dropped early Monday to Kurds in embattled Kobani. Differences about how to defend Kobani have sparked tensions between Turkey and its NATO partners.

Turkey’s decision to give Kurds passage to fight in Syria marked a shift in position, even though Ankara in recent years has built friendly ties with the leadership of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.

Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat in Irbil said there is still a lot of uncertainty on the details of the deployment, including how many forces will be sent and when. “We’re sending the peshmerga, not to become YPG but to fight alongside the YPG,” Hekmat said. “We will send the peshmerga to do their job for as long as they’re needed and to come back after that.”

Hekmat said Iraqi forces will also provide weapons, but he did not say what kind. Turkey is under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — not only from the West but also from Kurds in Syria and Turkey who accuse Ankara of inaction while their people are slaughtered. Earlier this month across Turkey, widespread protests threatened to derail talks to end the PKK insurgency.

Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, which has rampaged across Iraq and Syria, have been attacking Kobani for a month. The U.S. and its allies are assisting the Kurds with airstrikes targeting IS infrastructure in and around the town.

Meanwhile, Kurdish officials and doctors said they believed Islamic State militants had released some kind of toxic gas in a district in eastern Kobani. Aysa Abdullah, a senior Kurdish official based in the town, said the attack took place late Tuesday, and that a number of people suffered symptoms that included dizziness and watery eyes. She and other officials said doctors lacked the equipment to determine what kinds of chemicals were used.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Kurdish officials have made similar allegations before. Also Wednesday, Syria’s information minister said the country’s air force destroyed two of three fighter jets seized and reportedly test-flown over Aleppo by the Islamic State group last week.

Omran al-Zoubi told Syrian TV late Tuesday that Syrian aircraft bombed the jets on the runway as they landed at Jarrah air base. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS militants flew three MiG fighter jets with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots who were now members of the militant group. The report could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials said they had no reports of the militants flying jets.

The group is known to have seized warplanes from at least one air base captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted photos of IS fighters with the warplanes, but it was unclear if they were operational.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Turkey, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Elena Becatoros in Suruc, Turkey, contributed reporting.

Merkel: Palestinian recognition not right path

November 21, 2014

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel has underlined Germany’s opposition to recognizing a Palestinian state after lawmakers elsewhere in Europe backed such a move.

Sweden’s new government officially recognized a Palestinian state on Oct. 30. This week, Spain’s Parliament approved a non-binding resolution recognizing a Palestinian state, following similar motions in Britain and Ireland.

Germany, Israel’s closest European ally, has made clear it won’t follow that lead. Merkel said Friday that Berlin supports a two-state solution and “we see how difficult that is, so we also believe that unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state won’t move us forward” toward that goal.

She said it’s better to focus squarely on getting Israeli-Palestinian talks going although “that appears very difficult in the current conditions.”

Thousands from Iraq minority flee to Syria

August 09, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of members of a religious minority group under attack by Islamic extremists have fled across the border from Iraq to seek refuge with the Kurds of northeastern Syria, said two Kurdish officials and an activist on Saturday.

Ekrem Hasso and Juan Mohammad told The Associated Press that the Yazidis fled after Kurdish fighters were able to open a safe passage into Syria following clashes with the Islamic State group. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also said thousands of people have fled from Iraq into Syria but had no exact number.

The U.S. has launched airdrops to aid thousands of Yazidis who have been trapped on a mountaintop near the Syria border for days by the militants. The extremists have captured hundreds of Yazidi women, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians have fled in fear as the militants seized a string of northern Iraqi towns and villages in recent days.

The Yazidis are a Kurdish speaking minority practicing an ancient pre-Islamic religion with links to Zoroastrianism. Mohammed, a spokesman for the local administration in the Syrian city of Qamishli, said there are currently about 7,000 people in Norouz Camp, which has about 300 tents, as well as thousands others who have arrived in other parts of the region.

“We are doing all we can to bring them to Rojava,” Mohammed said giving the name used by Kurds to refer to a predominantly Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. “People are dying on the way.” He added that some women have lost their children on the way because of exhaustion and fear. Talking about Yazidis who were able to make it into Syria he said they are arriving “in miserable conditions. They are barefoot, tired and left everything behind.”

“If we don’t help those people they will be subjected to genocide,” said Mohammed referring to the people who are still in Iraq. Mohammed said more than 20,000 Yazidis are on their way to Syria through the safe route but they and Kurdish fighters are coming under attack by Islamic State group fighters. He said that so far nine Kurdish fighters have been killed since Friday between Iraq and Syria while protecting the fleeing Yazidis.

Hasso, an official at administration of the Syrian Kurdish region known as Jazeera, said Kurdish fighters with the People’s Protection Units were able to open the safe route Thursday night after intense clashes with the Islamic State that left dozens dead or wounded. He said the majority of Iraqis arriving are Yazidis in addition to a smaller numbers of Christians.

The units are dominated by members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish group, affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish movement PKK, which long fought for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

Members of the units have been fighting against jihadis in northern Syria since last year and have been able to force them out of predominantly Kurdish areas. The oil-rich northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh has its own Christians and Yazidis populations.

“Our (local) government is on alert and we call upon international relief agencies to come here and help us. We need tents, blankets and food,” said Hasso by telephone from the Norouz camp. He added that three other camps are also receiving Iraqis who are fleeing.

“The conditions are catastrophic here and our capabilities are very modest,” Hasso said adding that some Syrians have received Iraqis in their homes while others are donating food and clothes. The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical. The Islamic state views Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as infidels, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.

Maliki furious over Jordan-hosted Sunni opposition conference

Omar al-Jaffal

July 27, 2014

In his weekly speech delivered July 23, caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared as if he had lost a regional ally. On July 15, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan allowed 150 opposition Iraqi figures from various religious, tribal, armed and Baathist factions to convene a two-day conference in Amman. The participants called on the international community to “end its support for the current government” and “back the people’s revolution and its demands.” Jordan was thus been transformed into a host for figures who strongly oppose Maliki, among them the businessman Khamis al-Khanjar, who backed the 2013 demonstrations in Anbar.

Iraqi reactions to the conference were sharp. Some parliamentarians suggested that the government sever economic ties with Jordan and withdraw its preferential prices for oil exports. Others described the conference as an attempt to undermine the political process in Iraq, which prompted the Foreign Ministry to recall Baghdad’s ambassador from Jordan for consultation.

Despite a number of participants proclaiming the Jordanian government’s sponsorship of the conference, Amman categorically denied doing so. In this regard, Jordanian author and journalist Mohammad al-Fadeilat told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “Jordan was endeavoring to appease Iraqi anger about Amman’s hosting of a conference of revolutionary forces that called for the toppling of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.”

The conference was held amid a deteriorating political and security situation in Iraq, with tensions mounting between the Baghdad central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government and with Sunni factions rebelling against the government. This situation led to the fall of a number of Iraqi cities to militants of the Islamic State (IS) and allied armed tribal factions and former members of the constitutionally outlawed Baath Party.

The conference represented a new development on many levels for the factions opposing the Maliki government. None of the Sunni personalities or parties taking part in the Iraqi political process were in attendance, yet numerous Sunni lawmakers called afterward for considering some of the conference resolutions, which reflect the demands of the Iraqi Sunnis who have become a problem for the Maliki government, which they continually describe as “sectarian.”

The conference could be viewed as the embodiment of the 13 demands raised by demonstrators in four Sunni provinces in 2013. Maliki’s government never took the demands seriously or made an effort to address them, leading to matters further deteriorating on the ground. The struggle came to a head in the Hawija incident in April, when 54 demonstrators were killed.

It appears that an understanding cannot be reached between any Maliki-led government and opposition members who assert that they were “forced to defend themselves with weapons.” The closing statement of the conference considered the removal of “Maliki as a prelude to any future political process to save Iraq.”

Meanwhile, on July 23, Maliki expressed his regret that “we are seeing on television screens a conference of blood mongers who embrace sectarianism and terrorism, meeting in a brotherly neighborly country, with which we have strong friendly ties.” He also said that he hoped that “Jordan’s position vis-à-vis the conference would reflect the friendship and relationship that exists between the two countries.”

In addition, Fadeilat, who attended the conference in his capacity as a journalist, stated, “The Kingdom of Jordan is concerned about losing the oil privileges offered by its easterly neighbor. But it is finding itself in a difficult situation as it tries to appease Maliki without repudiating the conference, which received official Jordanian support in a clear show of political bias against the Maliki administration, and the danger of the latter falling under the control of the Shiite crescent [Iranian influence], decried by the Jordanian monarch.” Fadeilat also concluded, “Prior to defining its future relationship with Baghdad, Jordan awaits the results of the Iraqi political process in light of the events on the ground.”

Source: al-Monitor.


Amnesty report: Turkey strained by Syrian refugees

November 20, 2014

ISTANBUL (AP) — With Turkey’s government-run refugee camps operating at full capacity, more than 1 million Syrian refugees who have flocked to Turkey to escape fighting at home are struggling to survive on their own, according to an Amnesty International report released Thursday.

Turkey, which hosts half of the 3.2 million refugees who have fled Syria, is shouldering the heaviest burden of what the report calls the world’s worst refugee crisis in a generation. “In three days in September 2014, Turkey received some 130,000 refugees from Syria — more than the entire European Union had in the past three years,” the report said.

It also detailed cases where Turkish border guards have abused — even killed — refugees trying to enter the country. An estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees have entered Turkey since the Syrian war began in March 2011. About 220,000 are living in 22 government-run camps that offer food and essential services, the report said. The remaining 1.38 million — more than 85 percent — are living outside the camps, mostly in communities along the Turkey-Syrian border. An estimated 330,000 live in Istanbul, the Turkish commercial capital.

So far, Turkey has spent about $4 billion on Syrian refugees and granted free health care to all Syrian refugees in the country. The report said while Turkey has an open-border policy for Syrian refugees, there are just two fully open crossings along its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border. Even at those crossings, the report said, people without passports are being denied entrance unless they have urgent needs. Other refugees trek into Turkey through often dangerous crossing points.

According to Amnesty, at least 17 people were shot and killed by border guards at unofficial crossing points between December 2013 and August. The report cited 10 other incidents in which 31 people were allegedly beaten by Turkish border guards. The organization has shared the information with Turkish authorities.

“Turkey is clearly struggling to meet even the most basic needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The result is that many of those who have made it across the border have been abandoned to a life of destitution,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey.

The report urged Turkey to “radically revise its border practices, ending the necessity for refugees to use dangerous irregular crossings.” Jordan is hosting 619,000 Syrian refugees and as of Oct. 14, Lebanon had registered 1.13 million, although the number in the country is believed to be far higher. Last month, Lebanon announced that it won’t accept any more Syrian refugees except in special cases. Refugees already make up nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population of 5 million, stretching the tiny Mediterranean nation’s already fragile infrastructure.

Of the United Nation’s funding appeal for $3.74 billion to aid Syrians, only 51 percent has been received, the report said.