Archive for January, 2015

Netanyahu warns Hezbollah will pay ‘full price’



Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Lebanon’s Hezbollah it will pay the “full price” after missiles killed two Israeli soldiers Wednesday in an attack that raised fears of another all-out war.

A Spanish UN peacekeeper was killed as Israel and Hezbollah exchanged artillery fire — the most serious clashes between the bitter enemies in years — following the attack by the Shiite militant group.

“Those behind today’s attack will pay the full price,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying at a meeting with Israeli’s top security brass Wednesday evening.

The two soldiers were killed when Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at a military convoy in an Israeli-occupied border area, the army said.

Seven other soldiers were wounded, but none were reported to have suffered life-threatening injuries.

The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss ways to defuse tensions between the two sides, who fought a month-long war in 2006.

Israel responded to the Hezbollah shelling with “combined aerial and ground strikes” on southern Lebanon.

The United States stood by Israel after the exchange of fire and condemned Hezbollah’s shelling of an Israeli military convoy, which apparently came in retaliation for a recent Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members.

“We support Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense and continue to urge all parties to respect the blue line between Israel and Lebanon,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini appealed for an “immediate cessation of hostilities”.

Lebanese security sources said that Israeli forces had hit several villages along the border.

Clouds of smoke could be seen rising from Majidiya village, one of the hardest hit. There was no immediate information on casualties.

A 36-year-old Spanish corporal from the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon was killed in the exchange of fire, officials and Spain said.

“It is clear that this was because of the escalation of the violence and it came from the Israeli side,” Spanish Ambassador to the UN Roman Oyarzun told reporters.

– ‘Very harsh’ response –

Hezbollah said it had targeted an Israeli military convoy “transporting several Zionist soldiers and officers”.

“There were several casualties in the enemy’s ranks,” Hezbollah said.

Israel said mortar fire was also aimed across the border at several military facilities. There were no casualties.

Hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel should respond to the attack “in a very harsh and disproportionate manner, as China or the US would respond to similar incidents”.

Army spokesman Brigadier General Moti Almoz warned Israel was considering further action.

“This is not necessarily the last response,” he wrote on Twitter.

Hezbollah’s attack was hailed by the Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“We affirm Hezbollah’s right to respond to the Israeli occupation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, while Jihad’s Quds Brigade praised the attack as “heroic”.

Israeli security sources said at least one house had been hit in the divided village of Ghajar, which straddles the border between Israel and Lebanon.

“Three houses were hit by rockets,” said Hussein, 31, relaying what he had heard by telephone from relatives in the village of 2,000 inhabitants.

He said a number of villagers had been wounded but did not know how badly.

Other frantic family members argued with police to be allowed in to collect their children, who had been locked inside the village school for their own safety.

– Building tensions –

Tension in the area had been building, especially after an Israeli air strike on the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.

The day before the raid, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to retaliate against Israel for its repeated strikes on targets in Syria and boasted the Shiite militant movement was stronger than ever.

Israeli warplanes also struck Syrian army targets in the Golan Heights early on Wednesday, hours after rockets hit the Israeli-held sector.

During a Wednesday evening meeting with senior military and intelligence officials, Netanyahu sent a warning to the government of Lebanon and to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The government of Lebanon and the Assad regime share responsibility for the consequences of attacks originating in their territory against the state of Israel,” he said.

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said Wednesday’s attack was the “most severe” Israel had faced since 2006, when its war with Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Israel occupied parts of Lebanon for 22 years until 2000 and the two countries are still technically at war.

Wednesday’s missile attack was on Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area, a mountainous, narrow sliver of land occupied by Israel since 1967.

Source: Middle East Online.


Israeli center-left alliance looks to unseat Netanyahu

January 29, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his unwieldy coalition and called new elections last month, he appeared almost certain to be returned once more to office. But a new center-left alliance has surged past his Likud party in the polls, turning the March 17 contest into a toss-up.

After joining forces with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to create a joint grouping they call “The Zionist Camp,” Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog is looking, to increasingly many Israelis, like a viable alternative to Netanyahu. He promises to reverse the country’s slide toward international isolation and corrosive social inequality.

Much of the Israeli public has tired of Netanyahu’s lengthy rule, but many still see him as the most suitable person to fill the top job. Herzog and Livni have chipped away at this sense of Netanyahu inevitability by embracing some nationalist terminology, drafting high-profile parliamentary candidates and fomenting a snowballing sense that they might actually win.

Part of the strategy is an agreement that they would split a four-year term, with Herzog stepping aside for Livni halfway through. Few in Israel expect this to happen — there is essentially no chance for any one party to win a full majority in parliament, and coalition partners would likely then demand their own turn at a “rotation.” Yet the two-versus-one narrative, polls suggest, has bred momentum.

“It’s either him, or us,” their campaign slogan reads. Polls consistently show the joint slate formed by Herzog’s Labor and Livni’s Hatnuah leading Netanyahu’s Likud by several seats. Netanyahu may still enjoy an edge when it comes to cobbling together a coalition, thanks to nationalist and religious allies. But with several centrist wild cards in the mix, as well as individuals with personal grudges against the incumbent, matters seem more wide-open than before.

Even the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, traditionally among Netanyahu’s most loyal partners, have said they would consider joining a government headed by Herzog. Herzog and Livni recently added respected economist Manuel Trajtenberg as their prospective finance minister and Amos Yadlin, a retired general who now heads a prestigious think-tank, to be their future defense minister.

With the added firepower, Herzog has been closing the gap with Netanyahu over who the public sees as most suitable to be prime minister, said pollster Mina Zemach. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said of his merger with Livni. “The main result of the move is that it created hope.”

A recent survey conducted by the Panels Politics Polling Institute found that only 38 percent of Israelis wanted Netanyahu as their next prime minister. The poll surveyed 508 people and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

But even without a solid majority, Netanyahu still enjoys a “plurality” among the Israeli public, and the complexities of Israeli politics will complicate any effort to unseat him, said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He said the Israeli political system is so fractured that the next government will likely not be the product of the vote itself but rather the political machinations that follow.

Herzog and Livni have gotten a boost by renaming their joint list “The Zionist Camp” in an attempt to reclaim a label that in recent years has been brandished by the right. The argument has been that Netanyahu’s Jewish settlement policies, in perpetuating Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians, are risking the country’s Jewish majority. Considering that Zionism aimed at establishing a Jewish state, they argue, the true Zionist would seek a pullout from the West Bank, as Herzog and Livni do.

The move risks alienating Israel’s Arab minority, but could draw critical votes from the Jewish center. “The right for many years has been trying to steal the Israeli identity, the Zionist identity,” Labor lawmaker Stav Shaffir told The Associated Press.

The opposition also blames Netanyahu for Israel’s high cost of living and its ever-growing gap between rich and poor, as well as for deteriorating relations with the U.S., Israel’s closest and most important ally.

Netanyahu, in turn, has branded the duo’s slate as “anti-Zionist” and insisted only he could stand up to international pressure and cope with Israel’s myriad of diplomatic and security challenges. Kalman Gayer, who advised former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, said the union between Herzog and Livni was mutually beneficial. Herzog gets leadership credentials from Livni’s past as a foreign minister; Livni, who previously headed the essentially defunct Kadima Party, gets the established political mechanism of the Labor Party, which led Israel for its first 29 years of existence.

“This combination gives each one of them something they didn’t have on their own,” he said. Herzog, 54, has been a leading lawmaker for a decade and served as a low-level Cabinet minister in a series of governments. But he has often been dismissed as a soft-spoken apparatchik. Becoming prime minister would mark a culmination of a family dynasty that has enjoyed royalty status in the founding Labor Party. His late father, Chaim Herzog, was president of Israel from 1983-93 and was its ambassador to the United Nations. His uncle was legendary Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

“What is happening now is that you don’t see Herzog and Livni as these hapless losers anymore,” said Bradley Burston, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz daily. “The assumption was ‘well, I don’t like Netanyahu, but he is the only possibility,’ and now you don’t hear that as much.”

Israel closes two Islamic charities

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Israel police and the security agency Shin Bet yesterday closed two Muslim charities in Israel under claims of funding Israeli Islamist movements and Hamas, AFP and the Anadolu Agency reported.

The Muslim Women for Al-Aqsa, in East Jerusalem, and Al-Fajr Foundation for Culture and Literature in the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel, were all shut down.

According to a statement issued by the Israeli police, the charities were suspected of financing “organizations which identify with Hamas” and encouraging activists to confront visitors to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon outlawed the charities last month claiming they posed a threat on Israeli national security. Shin Bet implemented Ya’alon’s order.

“The charities… are suspected of paying activists who go every day to the Temple Mount [Al-Aqsa Mosque],” a police statement said.

The charities said the Israeli police raided their offices and “confiscated computers, documents and bank records from two of the offices and arrested employees for questioning”.

In a statement they denied all accusations of money-laundering and financing “terror” activities or “violence” at Al-Aqsa Mosque and denied any links to “terrorist organizations”.

Adding that the Muslim Women for Al-Aqsa “organizes study for women inside the mosque and supervises their activities.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Thai workers subject to abuse on Israeli farms

21 January 2015 Wednesday

Thai farm workers in Israel are being subjected to dangerous working conditions that amount to human rights abuse, a leading rights group said Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch reported the Thai workers, who make up the bulk of Israel’s agricultural force, are paid less than the minimum wage, work excessively long hours in dangerous circumstances and are housed in squalid conditions.

“Thai workers in the agricultural sector in Israel are forced to work in dangerous conditions, using pesticides without appropriate equipment,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy director for Asia, told The Anadolu Agency.

“Thai authorities should put this issue at the top of the list when they speak to Israel and ask Israel to get to the bottom of these human rights abuses.”

A 48-page report – “A Raw Deal: Abuses of Thai Workers in Israel’s Agricultural Sector” – is based on interviews with 173 Thai workers in ten farming communities.

“All said that they were paid less than the legal minimum wage, forced to work far more hours than the legal limit, exposed to unsafe working conditions and had difficulties if they tried to change employers,” according to the report.

“In all but one of the 10 communities where Human Rights Watch investigated living conditions, Thai workers were housed in makeshift and inadequate accommodation,” the report added.

On one farm, workers were living in cardboard shelters inside farm sheds.

Contacted on Wednesday, an official at the Thai Foreign Ministry said he was unaware of the report.

Around 25,000 Thai workers toil on Israeli farms and the report underlined the unusually high death rate among Thais. According to government figures published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, 122 Thai farm workers died between 2008 and 2013.

Of these, 43 were attributed to “sudden nocturnal death syndrome,” a heart condition that affects young Asian men.

In the case of a 37-year-old man who died in his sleep in May 2013, co-workers said they slept in a cramped space in a farm shed and worked up to 17 hours a day, with no rest days. On another farm, a Thai worker said that he felt like “dead meat” at the end of a working day, which typically began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m.

The report recognized that Israeli laws have been improved and are protective of migrant workers’ rights.

Despite this, “Israel is doing far too little to uphold the workers’ rights and protect them from exploitation,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said.
Source: World Bulletin.

UN refugee head applauds Turkey for hosting Syrians

06 January 2015 Tuesday

Turkey plays an extremely important role in the protection of refugees, the UN’s top refugee official said Tuesday.

Addressing the “Seventh Annual Ambassadors Conference” in Turkish capital Ankara, Antonio Guterres said: “It is essential to recognize that Turkey has experienced one of the largest refugee influxes in the world of the past few decades.”

Turkey has adopted an open-door policy for civilians fleeing from war in its conflict-ridden neighbors, Syria and Iraq.

It has given refuge to at least 1.6 million Syrians since the beginning of the civil war in March 2011, according to UN figures. Ankara also spent more than $5 billion on refugees so far, according to the Turkish Finance Ministry.

“This is to a large extent the result of your generous open door policy in relation to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.

Saying that the international community has largely lost its capacity to prevent and to solve conflicts, Guterres said, “It is important to think what can be done.”

“Only with a structured, multipolar world and with strong multilateral institutions, I think it would be possible to mobilize the international community to address the challenges of our time,” he said.

Source: World Bulletin.


Lebanon imposes new limits on Syrians fleeing civil war

January 05, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon turned back Syrians trying to cross the border Monday under strict new visa regulations, saying it simply cannot handle any more people displaced by the ongoing civil war.

The policy, requiring Syrians to obtain visas that sharply limit the time they can stay in Lebanon, effectively narrows one of the few escape routes left from a conflict that has displaced a third of Syria’s pre-war population and shows no sign of ending.

Humanitarian groups dealing with Syrian refugees say authorities should not close the doors on people who are desperate to leave. Leading politician Walid Jumblatt said there should be difference in dealing with “refugees who are fleeing death and destruction in Syria after they lost their homes,” and those who come to Lebanon for political activities.

“The vast majority of them left Syria because of fear of war, and they are innocent,” Jumblatt said in comments published Monday in his party’s weekly Al-Anbaa. The violence in Syria between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and those opposed to his rule have caused more than 3 million people to flee the country, mainly to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Western countries have only accepted small numbers of refugees, and hundreds of people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on rickety smuggler ships. More than 200,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in 2011.

Lebanese officials say they can’t absorb any more, estimating there are about 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, about one-quarter of the total population. Some 1.1 million are registered with the U.N.’s refugee agency.

“We have enough. There’s no capacity anymore to host more displaced,” Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said at a televised news conference. The United States warned against creating more challenges for Syrian refugees and urged Lebanon to work with U.N. officials to ensure that those fleeing violence and persecution would still be able to enter the country.

“We will continue to strongly encourage the governments of the region to provide for a refuge for asylum seekers,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Lebanese security officials had no exact numbers on how many Syrians were turned back Monday at the border. The flow of Syrians through one popular crossing appeared to be lower than normal.

In recent months, several thousand Syrians had been crossing into Lebanon every day, the officials said. There are no plans to forcibly repatriate those Syrians already in Lebanon. The changes establish new categories of entry visas for Syrians — including tourism, business, education and medical care — and sharply limit the time they can stay in Lebanon.

For decades, Syrians were freely given six-month visas, and many simply crossed the porous border without any paperwork. When the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war, hundreds of thousands poured into Lebanon. The influx overwhelmed water and power supplies, pushed up rents and depressed the economy in rural areas, where Syrians compete with impoverished Lebanese for scarce jobs.

Tent cities have sprouted in the countryside, with many of the refugees confined to flimsy shelters that are being buffeted by winter rains and snow. Public opinion has sharply turned against the Syrians, and many see them as threats to the sovereignty of Lebanon, which has long been dominated by its larger neighbor.

Patricia Mouamar, communications manager at World Vision Lebanon, said the country “cannot close the door in the face of Syrian refugees.” “It is the right of every person to seek refuge in a country that protects him from violence,” she said.

Lebanon has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees since Israel’s creation in 1948, and their presence was a central factor in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. The conflict in Syria has already escalated tensions between Lebanon’s Shiites and Sunnis, and many fear the influx of the mainly Sunni refugees could again aggravate its delicate sectarian balance.

Lebanese border officials began informally restricting the entry of Syrians in October, causing a 50 percent drop in people seeking to register with the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. “We are looking at these new procedures with some interest, because those procedures don’t make mention of the agreement of the government to continue to allow the most vulnerable cases to come through,” said UNHCR’s regional spokesman Ron Redmond.

Even after last year’s informal limitations were introduced, he said the Lebanese government was still allowing in Syrians they deemed “urgent cases” — single women fleeing with their children, those needing urgent medical care, and children separated from their families.

“We didn’t see any reference to that in these new regulations,” Redmond said. “We want to get some kind of official documentation and description of how that’s going to work.” A Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press, said urgent humanitarian cases could still enter, and that Syrians could make use of a medical care category and a 48-hour visa that would allow them to apply for asylum at foreign embassies.

On Saturday, Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim urged Lebanon to coordinate its new measures with Damascus. Amid wide approval in Lebanon for the restrictions, a prominent newspaper editorial urged the country to act humanely.

“We know that the burden of the Syrian crisis, open to an abyss, is greater than what Lebanon can bear,” Talal Salman wrote in As-Safir. “But it is able, certainly, to carry some of its weight.” The refugees, he added, “left with their faces etched in worry, to the closest asylum they know.”

Libya bans Palestinians, Syrians and Sudanese from entry

06 January 2015 Tuesday

Libya’s official government has banned Palestinians, Syrians and Sudanese from entry because their countries are undermining the oil producing nation’s security, the interior minister said.

The government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni runs only a rump state in eastern Libya after a rival group seized Tripoli in the summer, setting ups its own parliament and a government not recognized by world powers.

Thinni’s government would therefore only be able to enforce the ban at the eastern airports of Tobruk and Labraq and the land crossing with Egypt. The country’s crossing to Tunisia and airports in Misrata and Tripoli-Mitiga are out of its control.

“We’ve decided to ban nationals from Sudan, Syria and Palestine after the intelligence services and police established that some Arab countries are involved in undermining Libya’s security and sovereignty,” Thinni’s interior minister, Omar al-Sanki, told Reuters late on Monday.

Thinni’s main military partner, former army general Khalifa Haftar, has repeatedly accused Sudanese, Palestinians and Syrians of having joined Ansar al-Sharia and other groups which are battling pro-government forces in the eastern city of Benghazi.

In September, Thinni said Sudan had attempted to airlift weapons and ammunition to the new Tripoli rulers. Khartoum denied this, saying the weapons were meant for a joint border force under a bilateral agreement.

Source: World Bulletin.


Turkish NGOs provide winter aid to Syrians in Lebanon

04 January 2015 Sunday

Two Turkish NGOs have provided winter aid to a large number of displaced Syrians living in Lebanon’s eastern province of Beqaa, an area that is known for its harsh weather conditions in the winter.

A delegation from the two NGOs – Sadakatası Dernegi and the Association of Lebanese and Turkish Youth – has visited several villages in Beqaa to check on the conditions of displaced Syrians amid extremely low weather temperatures and strong storms.

The delegation distributed “winter aid” to dozens of displaced Syrian and Turkmen families in the village of Durres, including blankets, shoes, clothes and fuel to be used for heating purposes.

“This is the first phase of winter aid for our Syrian brothers who are displaced in Lebanon,” Sadakatası Dernegi head Kemal Ozdal told The Anadolu Agency.

“It is part of a major Turkish campaign to provide relief for Syrians, both the internally displaced and the refugees in neighboring countries,” Ozdal said.

“Our visit to Beqaa and distribution of aid on Syrian families is part of a campaign that included other Lebanese regions.”

Head of Association of Lebanese and Turkish Youth Zeina al-Emari, for her part, told AA that “children are the most needy when it comes to aid, since the biting cold can cause serious damage to their health.”

“Our goals are purely humanitarian, away from any political leaning here or there,” al-Emari said, urging other NGOs to “provide more aid in this critical time, as living conditions of the refugees in Beqaa are severe and tragic.”

The number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon has exceeded 1.2 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Source: World Bulletin.


Army of Islam seizes Damascus suburb from rivals – monitor

04 January 2015 Sunday

Rebel fighters seized a suburb east of Damascus on Sunday after driving out a smaller rival insurgent group in deadly clashes, a monitoring group said, the latest example of rebel infighting in Syria’s nearly four-year conflict.

Fighters from the Army of Islam clashed with members of the Army of the Nation group in Douma, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Both groups include Sunni Muslim fighters opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and the fighting is seen as more of a turf war than a conflict over ideology.

The Observatory, which gathers information from a network of sources in Syria, said several fighters were killed, without giving details. It added that the Army of Islam had detained many of its rival combatants.

The groups, part of a myriad of opposition factions in the war, have both fought the Syrian army as well as battling each other for control of Douma, a strategic suburb on one of the main roads linking the capital with Homs city further north.

The Army of Islam is powerful in the area and it clashed with armed residents in Douma in November after locals attacked the storehouses of an organisation close to the group, according to the Observatory.

Infighting has weakened groups battling pro-government forces. The majority of the rivalry has been in the north of the country and such confrontations in the south, were Damascus is situated, have been relatively rare.

Source: World Bulletin.


Lebanon first post-war PM dies age 80


TRIPOLI – Omar Karame, Lebanon’s first post-war prime minister and a staunch ally of the Syrian government, has died at the age of 80, his family announced on Thursday.

“With great sadness… the Karame family announces the death of the great Omar Abdel Hamid Karame,” they said in a statement.

Family sources said Karame had died of stomach cancer.

His health had been deteriorating for the past two years, and he was admitted to hospital a month ago, falling into a coma a few days before his death.

Karame came from a Lebanese Sunni political dynasty — his father was one of the architects of Lebanon’s independence in 1943 — and served as prime minister twice.

But both his terms ended with him resigning under public pressure.

His first term began in 1990, and was marked by the huge challenges of rebuilding the country after its 15-year civil war.

He stepped down in May 1992 after massive protests against rising living costs caused by the collapse of the Lebanese pound against the dollar.

He was succeeded by Rafik Hariri, a billionaire who orchestrated massive reconstruction projects throughout Lebanon.

Karame’s second term began in 2004, but he was forced to resign the following year after the assassination of Hariri.

Hariri’s death provoked a political firestorm in Lebanon, including accusations that Syria’s government was involved in the murder.

Karame was a longtime ally of the Syrian regime and was accused of subservience to President Bashar al-Assad.

He was educated in Cairo, and was married with four children, including son Faisal, a former minister.

Source: Middle East Online.