Archive for July, 2018

Lebanese expats vote in parliamentary elections

April 29, 2018

SAO PAULO (AP) — Lebanese expatriates began voting Sunday in the first parliamentary elections held by the tiny Arab country in nine years The current legislature has extended its term several times, citing security threats linked to the war in neighboring Syria. Lebanon’s political system distributes power among the country’s different religious communities, and the main parties are led by political dynasties that fought one another during the 1975-1990 civil war.

Sunday’s vote in 33 countries comes two days after thousands of Lebanese voted in six Arab countries. The vote marks the first time that Lebanese are allowed to vote abroad. Millions of Lebanese live abroad, but Lebanon’s state-run news agency says the number of registered voters is 82,970. The voting inside Lebanon will be held next Sunday.

Australia has the largest number of registered voters, with about 12,000, followed by Canada with 11,438 and the United States with about 10,000. In Brazil, home to hundreds of thousands of citizens of Lebanese descent, many were casting their ballots in Latin America’s most populous nation.

“Today’s voting is very important because for the first time we will have a voice in Lebanese affairs,” said Leila Smidi a 30-year-old mother of four who has been living in Brazil for 11 years. She spoke shortly after casting her ballot at Lebanon’s consulate in Sao Paulo.

About 1,500 Lebanese expats in Brazil are expected to vote. Lebanese immigrants and their descendants today form a community estimated at about 7 million – larger than Lebanon’s population of about 4.5 million. Lebanese immigrants began arriving in Brazil in the late 19th century, fleeing the Turkish-Ottoman empire that ruled much of the Middle East.

Accomplished merchants, many settled in Sao Paulo — Brazil’s biggest city — and earned a living as traveling salesmen selling textiles and clothes and opening new markets. Eventually they opened their own textile and clothing shops and factories.

Today, many of their descendants are prominent in the arts, politics, business, communications and medicine. The best known Brazilian politicians of Arab descent are President Michel Temer, Paulo Maluf, who twice served as mayor of Sao Paulo and once as governor of Sao Paulo state, and former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad.

Sao Paulo is Brazil’s business capital, and one of its leading businessmen is Paulo Antonio Skaf, president of the powerful Sao Paulo State Federation of Industries and the son of Lebanese immigrants.

Among Brazil’s brightest literary stars is Milton Hatoum, the Lebanese-descended author of the acclaimed novel “The Tree of Seventh Heaven.” Also a descendent of Lebanese immigrants, film director and commentator Arnaldo Jabor offers his strong opinions on just about everything daily on the Globo radio and TV network.

This year’s vote is according to a new election law that is based on proportional representation, implemented for the first time since Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Voters will choose one list of allied candidates, as well as a preferred candidate from among them.

Lebanon’s 128-member parliament is equally divided between Muslims and Christians. The house’s term was supposed to expire in 2013, but lawmakers have approved several extensions since then. The main competition will be between two coalitions, one that is led by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the other by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western ally who holds Saudi citizenship and is a critic of Tehran.

Despite the rivalry between Hariri’s Future Movement and Hezbollah, both are part of the national unity government and will most likely be represented in the Cabinet formed after next week’s vote.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

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Does latest Gulf aid to Jordan come with strings?

Mohammad Ersan

June 17, 2018

Ambiguity surrounds the financial mechanisms adopted by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates at a June 11 summit in Mecca to help Jordan navigate through a crippling economic crisis. The kingdom’s debt has risen to record highs this year, totaling 96% of the gross domestic product, or $39 billion, while the unemployment rate rose to 18.5%.

The five-year, $2.5 billion package includes a deposit at the Central Bank of Jordan along with guarantees from the World Bank for Jordan to borrow funds and finance development projects. Jordanian authorities have not, however, made public the amount of the deposit, the terms of the guarantees or the share of the package allocated to development projects.

The offer of aid follows on the heels of protests that began May 30 opposing the government’s economic austerity policies and a draft income tax law. The demonstrators called for changes to the government’s economic approach and a halt to borrowing from international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The protests ended June 6, after Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki’s government resigned, and Mulki’s designated successor, Omar al-Razzaz, promised to withdraw the income tax legislation.

Given the timing of the Mecca summit, political analysts have been speculating why Saudi Arabia, which chose not to provide aid to Jordan in 2017, has decided to resume financial support to Amman at this particular time.

Bassam Badarin, a political analyst and director of Al-Quds al-Arabi in Amman, told Al-Monitor that the resumption of Gulf aid to Jordan is linked to concerns over possible instability. “Saudi [Arabia has] concerns about Jordan’s peaceful protests spilling over into Gulf countries, as happened with the Tunisian revolution, which later turned into the Arab Spring in 2011,” Badarin said.

In 2012, during the Arab Spring, the Gulf Cooperation Council provided financial support to Jordan that included a $5 billion package over five years to bolster the economy’s performance. Additional funding was not forthcoming after the expiration of that package in 2017, a decision that unidentified Jordanian officials say was punishment for Jordan taking positions inconsistent with those of Saudi Arabia on regional matters. The Saudis did not issue an official statement on why it cut the flow of aid to the kingdom.

Amer al-Sabaileh, a strategic analyst and director of the Middle East Media and Policy Studies Institute, told Al-Monitor, “Saudi Arabia is dealing with Jordan differently than it deals with Egypt, which has received a larger amount of aid. This is because of the estrangement between Jordan and Saudi Arabia driven by several issues, namely the Jerusalem issue and the Hashemites’ guardianship over the city’s holy sites, Jordan’s failure to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and Amman’s position on the blockade against Qatar, as Jordan only downgraded its diplomatic representation in 2017 [by withdrawing its ambassador in Doha].”

Jerusalem is a top priority for Jordan’s ruling Hashemite family, as the kingdom has administered all Muslim and Christian religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City since the 1950s. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s growing ties with Washington and Riyadh’s muted reaction to the US Embassy being moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem have led many in Palestine and Jordan to view Riyadh as placing Palestine, and the issue of Jerusalem in particular, on the back burner.

Sabaileh added, “[The aid] comes against the backdrop of Jordanian popular protests in order to help Jordan through its economic crisis, as [the Gulf] considers the kingdom a friendly country and not an enemy. At the same time, it is obvious that Jordan is no ally of the Saudis, given the minimal efforts made in this regard and the underwhelming amount of the aid.”

During a Jan. 31 meeting with students of the Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II School for International Studies, King Abdullah II had said that the financial situation and economic pressure on Jordan persists because of its political positions, especially on Jerusalem, the idea being that a change in Amman’s stance could lead to offers to help ease the country’s economic problems.

Sabaileh ruled out the possibility of the Gulf aid being linked to Jordan ultimately accepting the so-called deal of the century for Israeli-Palestinian peace supposedly being finalized by Donald Trump’s administration. He reasoned, “Jordan is granting Palestinian refugees Jordanian nationality. Pressuring Jordan to either accept or reject [the deal] will not change a thing [in terms of aid].”

The more than 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan constitute the highest percentage, 40%, of those registered in the five areas of operation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, according to the kingdom’s Department of Palestinian Affairs. Jordan has reservations about Trump’s forthcoming peace plan based on fears that it might revoke the Palestinians’ right of return or pressure Amman into accepting a confederation with the West Bank excluding Jerusalem — that is, Jordan becoming an alternative country for Palestinians at the kingdom’s expense. Such a proposal would be met with great anger by indigenous Jordanians.

Labib Kamhawi, a political affairs expert and writer for the London-based Al-Rai Al-Youm, takes a different position on the resumption of Gulf assistance. “Some Arab countries felt bad about their financial blockade of Jordan in terms of causing instability there, and thus in the region as a whole, which could adversely affect future plans contained in the so-called deal of the century, which requires a high degree of stability in both Palestine and Jordan,” he told Al-Monitor. Kamhawi was referring to Jordan’s traditional backers — including Saudi Arabia, the United States and the UAE — reducing aid allowances to the kingdom in recent years, including US threats to cut aid to countries that voted in favor of the resolution condemning the Jerusalem move at the United Nations.

He said, “Stability is a prerequisite for the success of the so-called deal of the century, since so far it is only a set of ideas going back and forth between parties.”

Zaki Bani Irsheid, deputy general controller of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, also ruled out any link between Gulf aid and Jordan’s acceptance of a peace plan. He told Al-Monitor that the aid was, however, linked to the popular protests in the country. “All solutions, disputes, grants, aid and internal and external borrowing are mere temporary efforts to ease the pressure of the present crises without considering what the future might hold for Jordan,” Irsheid noted.

Khalid al-Zubaidi, a Jordanian writer and economist, told Al-Monitor that he does not believe the Gulf aid package will boost the economy, because it is rather “insignificant.” He called the distribution of aid between deposits and guarantees “vague.”

Zubaidi said, “The amount offered is modest compared to Jordan’s $11 billion budget, and the Gulf support was expected to be even greater, so the Mecca summit’s gesture was more one of moral support than financial.”

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/06/jordan-saudi-arabia-aid-deal-of-the-century.html.

Jordan, Israel, Palestinians in rare Japan-hosted meeting

April 30, 2018

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The Japanese foreign minister has presided over a rare meeting of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials to push ahead with an agro-industrial park intended to enhance cross-border trade and cooperation.

Taro Kono, the Japanese minister, acknowledged late Sunday that it “has not been easy for the four parties to get together under current circumstances.” Israel and Jordan only recently patched up relations after a months-long diplomatic crisis. Officials from Israel and the Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank meet only intermittently because of ongoing deadlock in peace efforts.

Sunday’s meeting focused on the Japan-backed Jericho Agro-Industrial Park in the West Bank, near an Israeli-controlled border with Jordan. Twelve companies operate at the park, launched more than a decade ago. Kono says he hopes more will join, including Japanese firms.

Former Jordan PM calls to dissolve PA, Abbas’ resignation

April 13, 2018

The former Prime Minister of Jordan, Taher Al-Masri, has called for the Palestinian Authority to be dissolved and for its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to resign.

Al-Masri explained during a seminar held yesterday at the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies in Al-Bireh, central West Bank, that dissolving the Palestinian Authority or Abbas’ resignation are the most feasible option for the Palestinians.

He warned of the increasing dangers facing Jerusalem by the Israeli Judaisation plans and called to strengthen the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their unity “especially in light of the decline of the Arab position regarding the Palestinian cause”.

He also called to make every effort to end Palestinian division and achieve reconciliation.

The Jordanian official praised the Marches of Return in Gaza and called for their expansion to include other parts of Palestine.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180413-former-jordan-pm-calls-to-dissolve-pa-abbas-resignation/.

Israel launches widest Gaza daytime assault since 2014 war

July 14, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military carried out its largest daytime airstrike campaign in Gaza since the 2014 war Saturday as Hamas militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel, threatening to spark a wider conflagration after weeks of tensions along the volatile border.

No casualties or major damage was reported on either side, and Israel said it was focused on hitting military targets and was warning Gaza civilians to keep their distance from certain sites. But it still marked a significant flare-up after a long period of a generally low-level, simmering conflict.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the latest Israeli sortie, the third of the day, struck some 40 Hamas targets including tunnels, logistical centers and a Hamas battalion headquarters. He said the escalation was the result of the sustained Hamas rocket attacks, its fomenting of violence along the border and its campaign of launching incendiary kites and balloons that have devastated Israeli farmlands and nature reserves.

“Our message to Hamas is that we can and will enhance the intensity of our effort if needed,” he said. “What Hamas is doing is pushing them ever closer to the edge of the abyss … Hamas will have to understand that there is a price to be paid.”

Israel has been warning Hamas in recent weeks that while it has no interest in engaging in the kind of conflict that led to the sides fighting three wars over the past decade, it would not tolerate Gaza militants’ continued efforts to breach the border and its campaign to devastate Israeli border communities with incendiary attacks.

On Friday, thousands of Palestinians gathered near the Gaza border for their near-weekly protest. A 15-year-old Palestinian who tried to climb over the fence into Israel was shot dead. Later the military said an Israeli officer was moderately wounded by a grenade thrown at him.

Gaza’s health ministry said Saturday that a 20-year-old struck by gunfire Friday during the protests in the southern Gaza Strip had also died of his wounds. The Islamic militant group Hamas that rules Gaza has led border protests aimed in part at drawing attention to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. The demonstrations have been fueled in large part by pervasive despair caused by the blockade, which has caused widespread economic hardship.

Over 130, mostly unarmed, Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since protests began on March 30. Israel says it is defending its sovereign border and accuses Hamas of using the protests as cover for attempts to breach the border fence and attack civilians and soldiers. Most recently, it has been struggling to cope with the widespread fires caused by the incendiary kites and balloons floating over the border.

In a statement, the military said Hamas’ activities “violate Israeli sovereignty, endanger Israeli civilians and sabotage Israel’s humanitarian efforts that aim to help Gazan civilians.” Sirens wailed overnight and throughout the day Saturday in southern Israel as waves of rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza amid the airstrikes. Israel said at least six of the projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defense system.

In a relatively rare admission, Hamas said it fired the rockets to deter Israel from further action. Most of the recent rockets from Gaza have been fired by smaller factions but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said it was an “immediate response” that was meant to “deliver the message.”

Israel said more than 30 rockets and mortars were fired early in the day with fresh barrages resuming each time it attacked. As a precaution, the military shut down a nearby beach. The military said its jets targeted two Hamas tunnels as well as other military compounds, including those involved in the production of the kites and balloons. Tit said the Hamas battalion headquarters in northern Gaza was completely destroyed.

Erdogan Vows to Extend Offensive to East Syria, North Iraq

March 19, 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, buoyed by his army’s capture of a Kurdish stronghold in northwest Syria, threatened to extend the offensive against separatist Kurdish militants to eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

Turkey’s military will shift their campaign to several towns under the control of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, including Manbij, Kobani, Tal Abyad, Rasulayn and Qamishli, “until this terror corridor is fully eliminated,” Erdogan said Monday. Turkey’s threat to attack Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, has put Ankara at loggerheads with Washington, and talks between the NATO allies have so far yielded no agreement. The U.S. also has a diplomatic presence in Kobani.

Erdogan on Sunday claimed victory in the cross-border operation he launched in January to expel the YPG from Afrin, a town along the Turkish border. While the loss of Afrin delivered a major blow to the YPG’s hopes to establish a contiguous autonomous region, Turkey has resolved to clear the separatist fighters from other areas near its frontier.

Turkish authorities see the YPG as an extension of PKK militants who have used bases in northern Iraq as a springboard for attacks on Turkish targets in a decades-long war for autonomy.

Erdogan Threat

Turkey has served notice to the Iraqi government in Baghdad that its forces would attack the major PKK camp on Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border unless Iraq takes action.

“If you are going to handle this, you do it,” Erdogan said in remarks directed at Iraq. “If you can’t handle it, then we may suddenly enter Sinjar one night and clear out the PKKs there.”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that Turkish and Iraqi armies would carry out a joint offensive against the PKK bases in northern Iraq, probably after Iraqi elections set for May 12.

Turkey has had hundreds of troops deployed at the Bashiqa training based near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul since the end of 2014. It has also had a tank battalion stationed near the Iraqi frontier town of Bamerni for about two decades, and has frequently sent planes and troops across the border to target the PKK.

The U.S., meanwhile, expressed deep concern over reports that many residents had fled Kurdish-majority Afrin under threat of attack from the Turkish army and allied rebel forces.

“This adds to the already concerning humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands, who now require immediate shelter and other assistance to meet basic needs,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in an emailed statement on Monday.

“We have repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin.”

Source: Bloomberg.

Link: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-19/erdogan-vows-to-extend-offensive-to-east-syria-northern-iraq.

Iran has no intention to leave Syria, top official says

July 13, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Iran has no intention of leaving Syria regardless of U.S. and Israeli pressure, a senior envoy to Iran’s leader said Friday, reaffirming a tough stance on the issue expected to top the agenda of the upcoming U.S.-Russian summit.

The statement from Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, came in the wake of his meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A day earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Putin that Israel wants Iran to leave Syria.

The high-level talks precede Monday’s summit in Helsinki between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, who are set to discuss the Iranian presence in Syria. Both the U.S. and Israel want Iran to pull out of Syria, while Russia has warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country.

A possible deal could see Syrian troops replacing Iranian forces and its proxy Hezbollah militia in the areas near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Velayati reaffirmed Iran’s firm intention to maintain its presence in Syria, but skirted a question about a possible pullback from the border, saying only that Tehran won’t bow to U.S. and Israeli coercion.

“We coordinate the Iranian presence in Syria with Russia and Syria,” Velayati said during a meeting at Moscow’s Valdai Club discussion platform. “We will be present there the way we consider necessary. Sometimes we will play our role in Syria open-handed, sometimes we will do it with our hands hidden.”

While Velayati maintained a combative tone, his careful response reflected the intense diplomatic maneuvering ahead of the Helsinki summit. He expressed skepticism about the outcome of the meeting, repeating tough criticism of the U.S. and saying he didn’t expect Trump to make any positive contribution to stabilizing the Middle East.

Velayati argued that Iran along with Russia helped stem fighting in Syria and prevented the country from falling to the Islamic State group and other militants, scoffing at the U.S. demands to leave. “We have come there without the Americans’ permission and we won’t heed their demands to leave,” he said.

Velayati also strongly warned Russia against listening to the U.S. arguments about the Iranian presence in Syria. “I told the Russian officials: Now the Americans are telling you that the Iranians must leave Syria and tomorrow they will ask you what you are doing in Syria,” he said. “They are trying to split our alliance.”

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