Archive for October 29th, 2018

Raqa remains in ruins one year since recapture from IS

Wednesday 17/10/2018

RAQA – All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverized cityscape of Syria’s Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the Islamic State group.

Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa — along with the roads and bridges leading to it — remains in ruins.

To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.

They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city’s outskirts.

“It’s hard — the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning,” says bearded Abu Yazan.

“We want the bridge to be repaired because it’s safer than water transport.”

The remains of Raqa’s well-known “Old Bridge” stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.

It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa’s bridges to cut off the jihadists’ escape routes.

The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.

But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr.

“The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges,” he says, to link vital areas in Raqa’s countryside.

Houses, belongings long gone

Rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 percent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

The national hospital, the city’s largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.

Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.

Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.

“I buried him myself with these two hands,” says Muidi, 48.

“I was not as affected when I lost the house, but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family,” he adds.

Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighborhood.

“The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them,” he says.

Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi’s hair and beard.

“How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all,” he says.

Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month.

But the city remains haunted by one of IS’s most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that still maims and kills residents to this day.

The RCC says it does not have enough money to clear out the rubble still clogging up Raqa’s streets, much less rehabilitate its water and electricity networks.

Khodr unfurls a map of the city in front of him at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighborhoods.

“The districts in the center of the city were more damaged — 90 percent destroyed — compared to a range of 40 to 60 percent destroyed in the surrounding areas,” he said.

“The destruction is massive and the support isn’t cutting it.”

‘No hope at all’

A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sits despondently on a curbside in the Al-Ferdaws neighborhood.

Fighting destroyed his home, so he now squats in another house but there has been no water there for three days.

“I come sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water. But no one comes,” the 70-year-old says, tearing up.

He points to a mound of rubble nearby.

“My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us — we’re literally begging for water.”

The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble, and rehabilitate schools in Raqa, but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.

“You can’t call this reconstruction — it’s all empty talk,” says Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.

He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.

Farwati says he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.

“If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction. But there’s no hope at all,” he says.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/raqa-remains-ruins-one-year-recapture.

At least 18 people die in flash flood in Jordan

Friday 26/10/2018

DEAD SEA – At least 18 people, mainly schoolchildren and teachers, were killed on Thursday in a flash flood near Jordan’s Dead Sea that happened while they were on an outing, rescuers and hospital workers said.

Thirty-four people were rescued in a major operation involving police helicopters and hundreds of army troops, police chief Brigadier General Farid al Sharaa told state television. Some of those rescued were in a serious condition.

Many of those killed were children under 14. A number of families picnicking in the popular destination were also among the dead and injured, rescuers said, without giving a breakdown of numbers.

Hundreds of families and relatives converged on Shounah hospital a few kilometers from the resort area. Relatives sobbed and searched for details about the missing children, a witness said.

King Abdullah cancelled a trip to Bahrain to follow the rescue operations, state media said.

Israel sent search-and-rescue helicopters to assist, an Israeli military statement said, adding the team dispatched at Amman’s request was operating on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

Civil defence spokesman Captain Iyad al Omar told Reuters the number of casualties was expected to rise. Rescue workers using flashlights were searching the cliffs near the shore of the Dead Sea where bodies had been found.

A witness said a bus with 37 schoolchildren and seven teachers had been on a trip to the resort area when the raging flood waters swept them into a valley.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/least-18-people-die-flash-flood-jordan%C2%A0.

What pushed Jordan to reclaim land from Israel?

Thursday 25/10/2018

AMMAN – A decision by Jordan’s King Abdullah II to reclaim territory leased to Israel for a quarter of a century was spurred by domestic pressures and the Arab nation’s struggling economy, experts said.

The move announced at the weekend risks sparking a crisis between the neighboring countries which signed an historic peace treaty in 1994, they warned.

King Abdullah said his country had notified Israel that it wants to take back two border areas: Baqura in the northern province of Irbid and Ghumar in the southern province of Aqaba.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would like to open negotiations with Jordan to keep the current arrangement in place.

The Hashemite kingdom said it was willing to engage in talks but insisted on its right to reclaim the land.

Israel occupied Jordanian territories including Ghumar in the Six-Day War of 1967 and seized Baqura when its forces infiltrated the kingdom in 1950.

During peace talks, Jordan agreed to lease the lands to Israel for a 25-year renewable period under annexes of the treaty that lay down a one-year notice period, with the kingdom retaining sovereignty.

King Abdullah’s announcement on Sunday came days before the end of this notice period.

“The king had two choices: either risking a crisis with Israel, or risking protests and a worsening of the internal situation,” said Oraib Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.

“Jordanians on the street are angry, especially over the economy, and they don’t need new crises or disappointments,” he said.

‘Nationalist card’

Jordan, largely dependent on foreign aid and devoid of natural resources, has been plagued by economic woes, with a jobless rate of 18.5 percent and around 20 percent of the population teetering on the brink of poverty as consumer prices rise.

The king’s announcement came after a series of demonstrations calling for the return of Baqura and Ghumar organised by lawmakers, political parties, trade unions and activists.

The move was greeted with joy by many Jordanians.

“The Jordanian people are happy with this courageous decision,” said teacher Mohammed Hassan.

Suad Yussef, a housewife, said it was an “historic moment”.

For Kirk H. Sowell, a Jordan-based analyst for Utica Risk Services, the decision was “the least that King Abdullah can do to play the nationalist card”.

“It is definitely directed at the domestic audience” in a country with “loads of internal socio-economic problems” but “few options in pushing back at Israel,” Sowell said.

Rantawi said that “going back on this decision is impossible” as it would be likely to destabilize the kingdom.

In June, a parliamentary delegation from the opposition Islamist bloc Al-Islah visited Baqura, where Jordanians need permission to enter.

The delegation was headed by Saleh al-Armuti, who said “the decision is that of the king, the people’s government and the parliament and we strongly support and defend it”.

“We will go further by demanding the cancellation of all agreements signed with the Zionist enemy,” he said.

‘Suicidal choice’

Opinion polls have repeatedly found that the peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

The Baqura zone amounts to six square kilometers (2.3 square miles) and Ghumar covers four square kilometers — land where Israeli farmers cultivate cereals, fruit and vegetables.

Rantawi does not rule out the possibility that Israel will “impede the implementation of the Jordanian decision”.

“Jordan could face a political, economic and legal battle with Israel,” he said.

“Netanyahu wants negotiations to extend the agreement, which would be a suicidal choice for Jordan.”

Relations between the two countries have been tense since the killing of two Jordanians by an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman in July last year.

But Sowell said he believes Israel does not have the legal means to challenge the Jordanian decision.

“Israel has means of pushing back on Jordan, by cutting off the water, or not lobbying for Jordan in (the US) Congress as they normally do, but whether they should is a different question,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/what-pushed-jordan-reclaim-land-israel.