Archive for the ‘ Levant News ’ Category

Israel holds municipal vote, Jerusalem chooses new mayor

October 30, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis are voting in municipal elections across the country. In the closest watched race Tuesday, four candidates are hoping to become the next mayor of Jerusalem — a city with great importance to billions of people around the world.

Ofer Berkovitch, a young secular activist, is running against Moshe Lion, a longtime political activist, Cabinet minister Zeev Elkin, who is supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and ultra-Orthodox candidate Yossi Daitch.

If no one captures 40 percent of the votes, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff. Jerusalem is a diverse city, with a Jewish population divided between secular residents, modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. In addition, about one-third of the population is Palestinian.

Few Palestinians vote, however, seeing participation as recognition of Israeli control over east Jerusalem.

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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.

Japan reporter freed from captivity in Syria returns home

October 25, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese journalist returned to Tokyo on Thursday after being freed from more than three years of captivity in Syria. Jumpei Yasuda was released on Tuesday and taken to neighboring Turkey.

Yasuda, wearing a black T-shirt, was escorted from his plane at Tokyo’s airport by Japanese officials and ushered into a black van. He left without talking to a large group of reporters who had waited for his arrival.

On an earlier flight from the southern Turkish town of Antakya to Istanbul, Yasuda said he was happy to be going home after living in “hell” for more than three years, but was worried about how he will catch up with a changed world.

“I’m so happy to be free,” he told Japan’s NHK television on a flight from Antakya in southern Turkey to Istanbul. “But I’m a bit worried about what will happen to me or what I should do from now on.”

Yasuda, 44, who was kidnapped in 2015 by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, said he felt as if he’d fallen behind the rest of the world and was uncertain how to catch up. He described his 40 months in captivity as “hell” both physically and mentally. He said he was kept in a tiny cell and tortured. There was a time when he was not allowed to bathe for eight months, he said.

“Day after day, I thought ‘Oh I can’t go home again,’ and the thought took over my head and gradually made it difficult for me to control myself,” he said. Yasuda was kidnapped by a group known at the time as Nusra Front. A war monitoring group said he was most recently held by a Syrian commander with the Turkistan Islamic Party, which mostly comprises Chinese jihadis in Syria.

Yasuda said he believes he was moved several times during his captivity but stayed in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where he sometimes heard distant firebombing. “I was living in endless fear that I may never get out of it or could even be killed,” Yasuda told another Japanese broadcaster, TBS. He said he gradually became pessimistic about his fate because his captors kept breaking their promises to release him.

His release Tuesday came suddenly when his captors drove him to the border with Turkey and dropped him off and handed him over to Turkish authorities, he said. Japanese officials say Qatar and Turkey helped in the efforts for Yasuda’s release, though their exact roles were not clear.

Yasuda, a respected journalist who began his career at a local newspaper, started reporting on the Middle East in the early 2000s and went to Afghanistan and Iraq. He was taken hostage in Iraq in 2004 with three other Japanese, but was freed after Islamic clerics negotiated his release.

He worked as a cook in Iraq for nearly a year as part of his research for a 2010 book about laborers in war zones. He also wrote articles about his 2004 captivity. But this time, his captors took away all his reporting equipment including his camera, depriving him of any tangible records.

“I was robbed of all my luggage, and that made me so angry,” Yasuda said. “I couldn’t do any of my work for 40 months.” His last work in Syria involved reporting on his friend Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist who was taken hostage and killed by the Islamic State group.

Syria has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists since the conflict there began in March 2011, with dozens killed or kidnapped. Several journalists are still missing in Syria and their fates are unknown.

Turkey will open Paraguay embassy after its policy shift on Jerusalem

Friday 7 September 2018

Turkey will open an embassy in the Paraguayan capital Asuncion, the South American country said on Thursday, a day after President Mario Abdo reversed the previous administration’s decision to move its diplomatic mission in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Turkey’s ambassador to Paraguay has been operating out of Buenos Aires. Turkey has a consulate in Asuncion and another in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.

By opening the embassy, Turkey is expressing support for Paraguay’s stance on Israel, Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Castiglioni told reporters.

Paraguay and Guatemala relocated their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem after US President Donald Trump recognized the city as the country’s capital in December, in a move denounced by most of the international community.

In a phone call on Wednesday, US Vice President Mike Pence urged Abdo to stick to his predecessor’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, the White House said in a statement.

“The vice president strongly encouraged President Abdo Benitez to follow through with Paraguay’s previous commitment to move the embassy as a sign of the historic relationship the country has maintained with both Israel and the United States,” the statement said.

Hours after Paraguay’s new government announced it would move its embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, Israel responded by ordering the closure of its embassy in Paraguay.

The Palestinian Authority hailed Paraguay’s “honorable” decision on Wednesday, announcing that it will “immediately” open an embassy in the Paraguayan capital.

Most countries do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, arguing that peace talks should determine the city’s final status. Paraguay cited this as one reason to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv.

Castiglioni said he expected to meet his Turkish counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month.

Paraguay considers Israel’s decision to close its embassy hasty and disproportionate, and hopes Israeli authorities will reconsider, Castiglioni said.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-open-paraguay-embassy-after-policy-shift-jerusalem-1863572311.

Rights group criticizes US-led coalition for Raqqa deaths

October 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition’s failure to adequately acknowledge and investigate civilian deaths in the Syrian city of Raqqa is “a slap in the face for survivors” trying to rebuild their lives a year after the offensive to oust the Islamic State group, a prominent rights group said Friday.

At a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Amnesty International said 2,521 bodies from the battle for Raqqa have been recovered in the city, the majority killed by coalition airstrikes. It cited a small unit known as the Early Recovery Team working with U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces to recover bodies and bury them. They expect to recover at least 3,000 more bodies.

There are “more bodies underneath the ground than living souls,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior director of global research, who in 2017 with the coalition playing a supporting role recently returned from Syria.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said the fighting to liberate the citizens of Raqqa from the grip of the Islamic State group “was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life” using explosives and booby traps every step of the way. He added that the coalition is aware of the discrepancies of other reports and that the Coalition has based its figures on “supportable evidence and facts.”

Ryan said that liberating the citizens was the goal and “the other choice would be to let ISIS continue to murder, torture, rape and pillage the citizens of Raqqa, and that is unacceptable,” using a different acronym for IS. He added the Coalition could concede a high counts after we checking them against their existing records.

The battle for Raqqa, once a city of 200,000 people, played out over four months as the Kurdish-led Syrian forces fought street by street. The coalition unleashed wave after wave of airstrikes and shell fire until the city was cleared of militants in October 2017.

Amnesty has accused the coalition before of underreporting civilian deaths in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. On Monday, Neistat said most of the bodies recovered so far are believed to be civilians. The U.S.-led coalition said in July that 77 civilians died as a result of its airstrikes on Raqqa between June and October last year. The U.S. and its coalition partners launched their campaign against the Islamic State group in 2014, driving out the militants from their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa three years later.

Neistat also said the “clock is ticking” for Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria. A demilitarized zone negotiated between Turkey and Russia to protect civilians from a government offensive on the northwestern province should be ready by Oct. 15.

Turkish and Russian officials have said that Syrian rebels completed withdrawing their heavy weapons from the front lines in implementation of the deal that’s expected to demilitarize a stretch of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) along the front lines by Oct. 15.

Neistat said the zone is not adequate to protect all the civilians in Idlib province and expressed concern the agreement may not last. She said she fears massive civilian deaths, destruction, displacement, arrests and disappearances, citing previous government offensives in cities like Aleppo.

Neistat called on Russia to pressure the Syrian government to do more to protect the civilian population, highlighting Moscow’s influence on Damascus. “It may not be too late to stop it,” she said. Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that his military could soon launch a new operation across the border into northern Syria in zones held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan’s statement renews a threat to expand Turkey’s military operations into areas east of the Euphrates River held by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be terrorists and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“God willing, very soon … we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray,” he said. He spoke on Friday at a military ceremony honoring Turkish commandos. Turkey launched two incursions into Syria, in 2016 and 2018, into areas west of the Euphrates, pushing Islamic State militants as well as Syrian Kurdish fighters from its border.

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