Archive for February 11th, 2015

War crimes court opens probe into Palestinian territories

January 17, 2015

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court launched a preliminary probe Friday that could clear the way for a full-scale investigation into possible war crimes in Palestinian territories — plunging the court into the most politically charged conflict it has ever tackled.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement she will conduct the preliminary examination with “full independence and impartiality.” Potential cases Bensouda could take on include allegations of war crimes by Israel during last summer’s Gaza war where the Palestinians suffered heavy civilian casualties. Israel’s settlement construction on occupied Palestinian lands could also be examined.

The cases could also include alleged war crimes by Hamas, which controls Gaza, including the firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli residential areas from crowded neighborhoods. The prosecutor’s announcement comes after the Palestinian Authority acceded to The Hague-based court’s founding treaty and recognized its jurisdiction dating back to July, the eve of the last Gaza war. That move opened the door to an ICC investigation that could target possible crimes by both Israel, which is not a member of the court, and Palestinians.

A preliminary examination is not an investigation, but weighs information about possible crimes and jurisdiction issues to establish whether a full investigation is merited. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki welcomed the move and said the Palestinian Authority would cooperate.

“The Palestinian people called upon us to go to court and ask for an investigation and therefore we consider the announcement today as a historic event,” he said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the decision and its timing.

“It is scandalous that just a few days after terrorists slaughtered Jews in France, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opens a probe against the state of Israel because we protected our citizens against Hamas, a terror organization that is in a covenant with the Palestinian Authority, and whose war criminals fired thousands of rockets at civilians in Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Unfortunately it turns the International Criminal Court into part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized the probe as stemming “entirely from political and anti-Israel considerations” and said he would recommend not cooperating. Israel has accused Hamas, the Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction that rules Gaza, of using Palestinian civilians as human shields by launching rockets and carrying out other attacks from within crowded neighborhoods, while purposely attacking civilians in Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed documents to join the ICC a day after the U.N. Security Council rejected a resolution Dec. 30 that would have set a three-year deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state on lands occupied by Israel.

Joining the ICC is part of a broader Palestinian strategy to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the occupied territories and agreeing to Palestinian statehood. Abbas had been under heavy domestic pressure to take stronger action against Israel after the 50-day war between the Jewish state and militants in Gaza over the summer, tensions over holy sites in Jerusalem and the failure of the last round of U.S.-led peace talks.

Israel retaliated to the Palestinian move to join the ICC by freezing the transfer of more than $100 million a month in taxes it collects for the Palestinians. In Washington, the U.S. State Department said the court’s action as “counterproductive to the cause of peace.”

“It is a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighborhoods, is now being scrutinized by the ICC. The place to resolve the differences between the parties is through direct negotiations, not unilateral actions by either side,” Jeff Rathke, the director of the State Department’s office of press relations, said in the statement.

Bensouda cast the decision to open a preliminary probe as procedural following the Palestinians’ recognition of the court. It is unclear how long the preliminary examination might take. Bensouda said “there are no timelines” set in the court’s founding treaty.

The prosecutor is currently conducting eight preliminary examinations in Honduras, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Guinea and Nigeria. Some have been going on for years. Judges at the court must approve any request by the prosecution office for a full investigation.

Richard Dicker, head of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, said the preliminary probe, “is potentially a step toward reducing impunity in a conflict that has left thousands of victims without justice. As the prosecutor’s office determines whether a formal investigation is warranted, we expect that it will scrutinize alleged crimes impartially regardless of the perpetrators. Other countries should refrain from politicizing the examination, and let the prosecutor do her job.”

Established in 2002, the court has struggled to live up to high expectations that it would end impunity for high-ranking perpetrators of atrocities in conflicts around the globe. It has completed only three trials, ending in two convictions and an acquittal, all of rebel leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The court has no police force to secure crime scenes, gather evidence and arrest suspects and has repeatedly had trouble gaining custody of indicted suspects such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with genocide in the conflict-torn Darfur region of his country.

Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

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Hamas: US criticism of Meshaal’s visit to Turkey ‘shameless’

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Palestine’s Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, described on Friday the American criticism of the visit by its top leader Khalid Meshaal to Turkey as “shameless position.”

Anadolu News Agency reported Hamas Spokesman in Gaza Sami Abu-Zuhri saying in a press release: “The United States is a real enemy of the Palestinian cause.”

Abu-Zhuri reiterated that Turkey would not be affected with such a “shamefully racist position.”

Meshaal visited Turkey at the end of the last week and attended the annual conference of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

On Thursday, US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Washington was concerned about relations between Hamas and Turkey.

“We have urged the Government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions and prevent violence,” Psaki said. She added that Washington’s position toward Hamas has not changed and classifies the Palestinian group as a “designated foreign terrorist organization that continues to engage in terrorist activity.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/16263-hamas-us-criticism-of-meshaals-visit-to-turkey-shameless.

Hezbollah sends message to Israel ‘conflict is over’

2015-01-29

By John Davison and Laurent Lozano

Jerusalem

Israel on Thursday buried two soldiers killed in a Hezbollah missile strike that triggered Israeli fire on southern Lebanon, raising tensions between the bitter enemies to their highest in years.

But the Israeli-Lebanese border was calm, as officials in the Jewish state played down the threat of a new war with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite militant group.

In a rare such declaration, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Hezbollah had passed on a message through the United Nations peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, saying it did not want a further escalation.

“We have received a message… that, from their point of view, the incident is over,” he told public radio.

Analysts say neither side seems keen for a repeat of the devastating Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 and that any response is likely to be limited.

The two soldiers were killed Wednesday when Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at a convoy in an Israeli-occupied area on the border with Lebanon.

Israeli forces responded to the attack — which came in retaliation for an Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members — with artillery, tank and air fire on several villages in southern Lebanon.

There were no reports of Lebanese casualties, but a 36-year-old Spanish peacekeeper with UNIFIL was killed in the exchange of fire.

– Mourners gather in Jerusalem –

In Israel, schools reopened on Thursday, as did Mount Hermon ski resort in the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights.

In the Lebanese border village of Majidiya, residents collected spent artillery shells from Wednesday’s strikes.

At the local UN base a blackened concrete tower could be seen with part of its wall blown out, and a Spanish flag flew at half-mast.

Hundreds of mourners gathered at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem for the burial of 25-year-old Captain Yochai Kalangel.

Sobbing relatives greeted mourners, many wearing the purple beret of Kalangel’s Givati (Highland) Brigade.

There was a similar turnout for the other soldier killed, 20-year-old Staff Sergeant Dor Chaim Nini, buried in the town of Shtulim in south-central Israel.

Questions have been raised in Israel about why they were travelling in unarmored vehicles in the volatile area.

Israel said it considered Wednesday’s attack the “most severe” since 2006, when war with Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the attack on Iran.

“This is the same Iran that is now trying to achieve an agreement, via the major powers, that would leave it with the ability to develop nuclear weapons,” he said.

Israel has threatened military action to stop arch-foe Iran obtaining atomic weapons. Tehran insists its program is only for civilian purposes.

Netanyahu held talks with top security brass late Wednesday, warning afterwards: “Those behind today’s attack will pay the full price.”

– Chances of war ‘very slim’ –

Still, analysts said Israel, fresh from a summer war with Hamas in Gaza and heading for a general election in March, was not eager for a full-scale conflict.

“Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, compared with the 10,000 of Hamas,” the Palestinian Islamist group which controls Gaza, said analyst Boaz Ganor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

“The human cost of such a war would be enormous, and no Israeli leader will be pro-active in this direction,” he said.

As for Hezbollah, it is deeply involved in Syria’s civil war, fighting with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against mostly Sunni rebels.

“Hezbollah is very busy in Syria; the last thing that it needs is a second front,” Yaakov Amidror, a former major general, said.

On the Lebanese side, Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said the government had “received assurances from major countries that Israel won’t escalate the military situation, and that yesterday’s response was enough… for the time being.”

Tension in the area had been building since an Israeli air strike on the Syrian-controlled sector of the Golan killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — who is to deliver an address on Friday — had earlier threatened retaliation for Israel’s repeated strikes inside Syria.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69940.

Jordan launches new airstrikes after vowing harsh war on IS

February 05, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Dozens of Jordanian fighter jets bombed Islamic State training centers and weapons storage sites Thursday, intensifying attacks after the militants burned to death a captured Jordanian pilot.

As part of the new campaign, Jordan is also attacking targets in Iraq, said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Up to now, Jordan had struck IS targets in Syria, but not Iraq, as part of a U.S.-led military coalition.

“We said we are going to take this all the way, we are going to go after them wherever they are and we’re doing that,” Judeh told Fox News. Asked if Jordan was now carrying out attacks in both countries, he said: “That’s right. Today more Syria than Iraq, but like I said it’s an ongoing effort.”

“They’re in Iraq and they are in Syria and therefore you have to target them wherever they are,” he added. The militant group controls about one-third of each Syria and Iraq, both neighbors of Jordan. In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military alliance that has been carrying out air strikes against the militants.

The Jordanian military said dozens of fighter jets were involved in Thursday’s strikes on training centers and weapons storage sites. State TV showed footage of the attacks, including fighter jets taking off from an air base and bombs setting of large balls of fire and smoke after impact. It showed Jordanian troops scribble messages in chalk on the missiles. “For you, the enemies of Islam,” read one message.

The military’s statement, read on state TV, was entitled, “This is the beginning and you will get to know the Jordanians” — an apparent warning to IS. It said the strikes will continue “until we eliminate them.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II was paying a condolence visit to the family of the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, in southern Jordan when the fighter jets roared overhead. The king pointed upward, toward the planes, as he sat next to the pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh.

Al-Kaseasbeh told the assembled mourners that the planes had returned from strikes over Raqqa, the de facto capital of the militants’ self-declared caliphate. His son had been captured near Raqqa when his F-16 fighter plane went down in December.

Earlier this week, Islamic State displayed the video of the killing of the pilot on outdoor screens in Raqqa, to chants of “God is Great” from some in the audience, according to another video posted by the militants.

Also Thursday, Jordan released an influential jihadi cleric, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdesi, who was detained in October after speaking out against Jordan’s participation in the anti-IS coalition, according to his lawyer, Moussa al-Abdallat.

Jordan’s Islamic militants are split between supporters of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaida in Syria. Last year, al-Maqdesi had criticized Islamic State militants for attacking fellow Muslims. However, after Jordan joined the military coalition, he called on his website for Muslim unity against a “crusader war,” a reference to coalition airstrikes.

Jordan says IS can be defeated; uproar over burn video

February 04, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan called Wednesday for a decisive battle against the Islamic State group, declaring “this evil can and should be defeated,” after the militants burned a Jordanian pilot to death in a cage and gleefully broadcast the horrific images on outdoor screens in their stronghold.

Waves of revulsion over the killing washed across the Middle East, a region long accustomed to violence. In mosques, streets and coffee shops, Muslims denounced the militants’ brutality and distanced themselves from their violent version of Islam.

Even a prominent preacher with close links to jihadi groups said Islamic State militants miscalculated if they hoped the images of the pilot’s agony would galvanize greater opposition to a U.S.-led military coalition that has been bombing targets of the group.

“After millions of Muslims were cursing every pilot (in the coalition), with this act, they (IS) have made the burned one into a symbol,” Abdullah al-Muhaysni, a Saudi sheik, wrote on his Twitter account.

The Islamic State group, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, has killed captives in the past, posting videos of beheadings and sparking widespread condemnation. However, the killing of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who crashed over Syria in December, also highlighted the vulnerability of Jordan, a key Western ally in the region, to threats from extremists.

Jordan was long considered an island of relative stability in a turbulent region, but in recent years had to absorb hundreds of thousands of war refugees, first from Iraq and then Syria, at a time of a sharp economic downturn.

Jordan receives hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid a year, but grinding social problems persist, including high unemployment among young men, a reservoir of potential IS recruits. Experts estimate Islamic State and other jihadi groups have thousands of supporters in the kingdom, with an upswing last year after the militants declared a caliphate in the areas they control.

The United States and Israel are particularly concerned about any signs of turmoil. Israel views Jordan as an important land buffer and the two countries share intelligence. In Washington, congressional support built Wednesday for increased U.S. military assistance to the kingdom. Currently, the United States is providing Jordan with $1 billion annually in economic and military assistance.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jordan’s King Abdullah II — who met with lawmakers and President Barack Obama on Tuesday — must be given “all of the military equipment” he needs to combat the group. He said Abdullah did not ask for ground troops.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration would consider any aid package put forward by Congress, but that the White House would be looking for a specific request from Jordan’s government.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected his panel to swiftly approve legislation. He repeated his criticism that the Obama administration has “no strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State group, and said he hoped the video of al-Kaseasbeh’s death will galvanize not only U.S. leadership but “the Arab world.”

Abdullah rushed home after his Washington meetings, cutting short his U.S. trip, to rally domestic support for an even tougher line against the militants. In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military coalition that began bombing Islamic State group targets in Syria and Iraq.

The decision was not popular in Jordan, with the bombing campaign widely seen as serving Western, not Jordanian interests. During weeks of uncertainty about the fate of the airman, some of his relatives and supporters chanted against Jordan’s role in the coalition.

On Wednesday, Hammam Saeed, the leader of Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, visited relatives of the pilot in the southern tribal town of Karak, and called on Jordan to pull out of the anti-IS coalition, saying that “we have no relations with this war.”

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani on Wednesday urged the international community to work together and deliver a decisive blow to Islamic State militants. Jordan believes that “this evil can and should be defeated,” he said.

In an initial response, Jordan executed two Iraqi al-Qaida prisoners, Sajida al-Rishawi and Zaid al-Karbouly, before sunrise Wednesday. Over the past week, Jordan had offered to trade al-Rishawi, a failed female suicide bomber, for the pilot, but insisted on proof of life it never received. Al-Momani said Wednesday that Jordan now believes the pilot was killed in early January.

Dozens more suspected Islamic State sympathizers are in detention in Jordan, most rounded up during a crackdown in recent months. Public outrage over the pilot’s death and calls for revenge against IS could help Abdullah broaden support for the coalition, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm in Austin, Texas.

“Sentiments (about the airstrikes) are going to start changing across the Middle East after people see the video, especially the Jordanian people,” he said. Stewart said a similar shift occurred a decade ago in Iraq after Sunni Muslim tribes turned away from a local branch of al-Qaida, a precursor of the Islamic State group, over its brutality.

Marwan Shehadeh, a Jordanian expert on jihadi groups, said he expects the opposite outcome. “Public opinion rejected the IS behavior, but at the same time, more voices are questioning the participation of Jordan in the international coalition,” he said. “The killing (of the pilot) will drive more people to question that.”

The Islamic State militants appeared to be goading Jordan. In the northern Syrian city of Raqaa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, the militants showed graphic footage of al-Kaseasbeh’s slaying on outdoor screens, with some chanting “God is great!” according to militant video posted online Wednesday that conformed to Associated Press reporting of the event.

In the 20-minute video of the killing, the pilot displayed signs of having been beaten, including a black eye. Toward the end of the clip, he stood in the outdoor cage in an orange jumpsuit and a masked militant lit a line of fuel leading to him. The AP could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

A senior Iraqi Kurdish official, meanwhile, echoed Jordan’s appeal for a decisive campaign against the militants. Fouad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, said U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are helpful, but “to finish ISIS … you need to finish it on the ground,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the militant group.

“And on the ground, we are most of the time alone. So we need partners,” he said. “It means advisers. It means special forces. It means a collective fight against ISIS. It means equipment, it means munitions.”

Though Islamic State fighters have been forced to retreat from Kobani, a strategic town on Syria’s border with Turkey, the battlefield picture suggests they are far from beaten in northern Iraq, where harsh winter weather and thick mud underfoot hampers military moves.

The Kurdish peshmerga fighters have struggled for months to inch ahead, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Hamza Hendawi in Cairo, Zeina Karam and Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to the report.

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