Israel installs new security cameras at Jerusalem holy site

July 23, 2017

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel installed new security cameras Sunday at the entrance to a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, as officials began indicating it was considering “alternatives” to the metal detectors at the contested shrine that set off a weekend of violence and raised tensions in the region.

Israel set up the new security measures last week after Arab gunmen opened fire from the shrine, killing two Israeli policemen. It said they were a necessary measure to prevent more attacks and were deployed routinely at holy sites around the world. But Muslims alleged Israel was trying to expand its control at the Muslim-administered site and have launched mass prayer protests.

Three Palestinians were killed in street clashes Friday in some of the worst street violence in years, and later a Palestinian stabbed to death three members of an Israeli family. Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who heads the Israeli defense body for Palestinian civilian affairs, said Israel was open to alternatives to lower the tensions.

“The only thing we want is to ensure no one can enter with weapons again and carry out another attack,” he said. “We’re willing to examine alternatives to the metal detectors as long as the solution of alternative ensures the prevention of the next attack.”

However, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, told the Voice of Palestine he demands a complete return to procedures that were in place before the initial attack at the shrine, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

In a statement Sunday, the Islamic institutions in Jerusalem, of which he is a part, said they “affirm the categorical rejection of the electronic gates and all the measures of occupation.” Disputes over the shrine, revered by Muslims and Jews, have set off major rounds of Israeli-Palestinian confrontations in the past.

On Friday, several thousand Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and in Jerusalem after noon prayers — the centerpiece of the Muslim religious week. Three Palestinians were killed and several dozen wounded.

Late on Friday evening, a 20-year-old Palestinian identified as Omar al-Abed jumped over the fence of the Halamish settlement and entered a home, surprising a family that was celebrating the birth of a new grandchild during their traditional Sabbath dinner. He stabbed to death Yosef Salomon, 70, and his adult children, 46-year-old Chaya and 35-year-old Elad. A neighbor, an off-duty soldier, heard the screams, rushed to the home and opened fire, wounding the attacker. TV footage showed the floor tiles drenched in blood, and officials called it a “slaughter.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the attack as “an act of terror, carried out by a beast who was incited with unfathomable hatred.” Al-Abed said in a pre-attack Facebook post that he expected to be killed in the attack and his father said he was motivated by the violence at the Jerusalem shrine.

The army said soldiers searched the house and measured it in preparation for demolition. Anticipating this, local residents said the family emptied its home of valuables Saturday. Later, clashes erupted as residents burned tires and hurled rocks at Israeli troops who had searched the home. The military says about 50 people attacked troops who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas. Low-level clashes took place throughout the day

Israel fortified its troops in the West Bank and placed forces on high alert after the attack. The Israeli military said it carried out a wave of overnight arrests of 29 people, including nine members of the Islamic Hamas militant group.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers praised the attack, but stopped short of taking responsibility for it.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

Nearly half a million displaced Syrians return home: UN

2017-06-30

GENEVA – Nearly half a million displaced Syrians have returned to their homes since the beginning of the year, mainly to find family members and check on property, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

The agency said it had seen “a notable trend of spontaneous returns to and within Syria in 2017.”

Since January, about 440,000 people who had been displaced within the war-ravaged country had returned to their homes, mainly in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus, Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the agency, known as the UNHCR, told reporters in Geneva.

In addition, around 31,000 refugees in neighboring countries had also returned, he said, bringing to 260,000 the number of refugees who have returned to the country since 2015.

But Mahecic said this is a mere “fraction” of the five million Syrian refugees hosted in the region.

He said the main factors prompting the displaced to return home were “seeking out family members, checking on property, and, in some cases, a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country.”

He said it was too early to say if the returns might be directly linked to a palpable drop in violence since Turkey agreed at talks in Astana in May with Russia and Iran, allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to establish four safe zones across Syria to ban flights and ensure aid drops.

But this week, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told the Security Council that since the May 4 deal, “violence is clearly down. Hundreds of Syrian lives continue to be spared every week, and many towns have returned to some degree of normalcy.”

Mahecic nonetheless cautioned that “while there is overall increased hope linked to the recent Astana and Geneva peace talks, UNHCR believes conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria.”

“The sustainability of security improvements in many return areas is uncertain, and there remain significant risks of protection thresholds for voluntary, safe and dignified returns not being met in parts of the country,” he said.

“Access to displaced population inside Syria remains a key challenge,” he added.

But “given the returns witnessed so far this year and in light of a progressively increased number of returns”, the agency had begun scaling up its operations inside Syria to better be able address the needs of the returnees, he said.

Syria’s war has killed more than 320,000 people and forced millions from their homes since it began in March 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83717.

Syrian family on cusp of resettlement resigned to travel ban

June 30, 2017

IRBID, Jordan (AP) — A month before Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, Mohammad Al-Haj Ali, a 28-year old Syrian with a second child on the way, was taking cultural sensitivity classes in Jordan to prepare to start a new life in Illinois.

The International Organization for Migration-run class ended in a graduation ceremony that Al-Haj Ali remembers well, standing next to his pregnant 25-year old wife, Samah Hamadi, and 2-year-old son, Khaled, surrounded by about 20 other families.

“Ten to 15 days and you’ll go — get yourselves ready,” they were told. Al-Haj Ali was interviewed five times in the Jordanian capital, Amman, about his family history— at times in sessions lasting more than 12 hours — over a two-year period. Sometimes months would go by with no news, but he thought the stress was worth it.

Assured their refugee life was coming to an end, he quit his job working with kids in Zaatari refugee camp, sold his furniture for 150 dinars ($212), bought five suitcases and packed them. His uncle in Rockford, Illinois, rented him an apartment and furnished it in anticipation.

Gradually good news for other families came — an Iraqi family gone, followed by a Syrian. His was one of the last still awaiting permission to go when news of the White House executive order banning travel from six Muslim nations sapped their hope.

Two months later, Samah gave birth to the couple’s second son, two months premature — a tragedy al-Haji Ali still blames on Trump. The family waited in the hospital for a month as the baby struggled to survive in an incubator with partially formed lungs and an umbilical hernia.

They named him Laith, after Al-Haj Ali’s brother, who was killed by the Syrian regime. The baby’s brother, Khaled, had been named after their grandfather, who died in a regime prison. The family says they’ve received no clarification of their status from the coordinating refugee agencies and feel stuck in limbo. Their five suitcases remain in storage.

As he waits in northern Jordan, mere miles from his hometown in war-ravaged Deraa in southern Syria, jobless in a mostly empty house, Al-Haj Ali is desperate to escape the region. He dreams of a better life, proper medical treatment for his infant son, and of pursuing a doctorate in economics. But not in America.

“Maybe there will be a new law: Refugees aren’t allowed to study in universities, refugees aren’t allowed in certain hospitals, not allowed to go into New York or some other state,” he said, sitting in the family’s sparse apartment.

“The future there is not secure.”

Former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass dies in Paris

2017-06-27

PARIS – Syria’s former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez, died in Paris on Tuesday, his son Firas said. He was 85.

Tlass, whose other son Manaf was among the most high-profile regime officials to defect during the early days of Syria’s uprising, died in a hospital on the outskirts of the French capital.

Tlass “died this morning at the Avicenne hospital and will be buried in Paris in the hope he can one day be buried in Damascus,” Firas Tlass said.

The former minister, who settled in France five years ago, had been admitted to hospital in mid-June after suffering a hip fracture, his son said.

He fell into a coma on Monday evening.

The former minister’s other son General Manaf Tlass defected from Assad’s regime in July 2012, several months into the uprising that was brutally crushed by security forces.

A childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, Manaf Tlass later said French secret agents had helped him escape the country.

The uprising later turned into a devastating multi-sided war that has killed more than 320,000 people.

But Mustafa Tlass long refrained from publicly criticizing the regime.

A leading member of Syria’s ruling Baath party, he was close to Hafez al-Assad, succeeding his friend as defense minister in 1972 following the coup that brought Assad to the presidency.

Assad went on to rule the country with an iron fist until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by his son Bashar, who was 34 at the time.

Tlass remained in his post until he finally quit in 2004.

Originally from Rastan in central Syria, under rebel control since 2012, Tlass was one of the most senior Sunni Muslims in the Assad regime’s Alawite-dominated security apparatus.

“He had a minor role in military strategy, which was decided by Hafez al-Assad and the Alawite officers who controlled the army,” said Alain Chouet, a French former intelligence officer who spent many years in the Middle East.

In a rare 2005 interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, the former minister defended a 1980s crackdown against a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, despite admitting that at its height, 150 people a week were hanged in Damascus alone.

“We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons,” he said.

He wrote several books including his 1983 “The Matzah of Zion”, a bestseller in the Arab world, in which he claimed that Damascus Jews had killed two Christians in 1840 in order to use their blood in religious rituals.

The “blood libel” allegations were commonly used against European Jews in the Middle Ages.

Tlass was also known for his crush on Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida.

He famously claimed to have ordered pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon’s war to avoid targeting Italian troops — “because I do not want a single tear falling from the eyes of Gina Lollobrigida”.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83677.

Aleppo girl Bana Alabed named among Time’s most influential people on internet

June 27, 2017

An eight-year-old Syrian girl who drew global attention with her Twitter updates from the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo was named one of the most influential people on the internet by Time Magazine.

Other people on this year’s list included British author J.K. Rowling, pop singer Rihanna, celebrity Kim Kardashian, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Time makes its annual choice based on those with global influence on social media and in generating news headlines.

Helped by her mother Fatemah, who manages the @AlabedBana Twitter account, Bana Alabed uploaded pictures and videos of life amidst the Syrian war, gaining around 365,000 followers on the micro-blogging site since last September.

“I can’t go out because of the bombing please stop bombing us,” Bana wrote when she first joined Twitter on Sept. 24, 2016.

“Aleppo is very good city but we need peace. I want to live like a child but instead I am stressed now,” she wrote.

Last December, Bana, who was seven at the time, and her family were evacuated safely from the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo to Turkey, where they were greeted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at his palace.

Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011 when Bashar Assad’s regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests, which erupted as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Since then, more than 400,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million have been displaced, 6.3 million internally and 5.1 million externally, across the war-battered country, according to the U.N.

Turkey, hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees, which accounts for around 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region, has spent around $25 billion helping and sheltering refugees during that time.

Source: Daily Sabah.

Link: https://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2017/06/27/aleppo-girl-bana-alabed-named-among-times-most-influential-people-on-internet.

Suicide bomb attacks target refugee camps in Lebanon

2017-06-30

BEIRUT – Seven Lebanese soldiers were wounded on Friday as five militants blew themselves up and a sixth threw a grenade during raids on two refugee camps near the border with Syria, the army said.

The civil war, which has raged in Syria since March 2011, has triggered an exodus of more than 1.1 million refugees into neighboring Lebanon and has repeatedly spilt over.

Four of the suicide bombers struck in one camp near the border town of Arsal, wounding three soldiers, the army said.

Troops recovered four explosive devices during the raid on the Al-Nur camp.

One militant blew himself up in a second camp near the town — Al-Qariya — while another militant threw a grenade at troops wounding four of them.

The raids, which are aimed at “arresting terrorists and seizing weapons,” were still continuing in mid-morning, the army command said.

A military source said that troops made a number of arrests.

“The objective of the operation was to arrest a wanted man and it was this man who was the first to blow himself up,” the source said.

There have been multiple clashes along the border between the Lebanese army and jihadists of the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda.

In August 2014, the army clashed with jihadists of IS and Al-Qaeda’s then Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front in the Arsal region, with militants kidnapping 30 Lebanese soldiers and policemen as they withdrew back along the border.

After long and arduous negotiations, 16 of the kidnapped men were released in December 2015 in exchange for Islamist prisoners held in Lebanese jail.

The jihadists executed four of their hostages while a fifth died of wounds he suffered in the initial Arsal clashes, leaving nine members of Lebanon’s security forces still in their hands.

Since 2014, both the Lebanese army and Shiite militant group Hezbollah have carried out attacks on Syria-based jihadists in eastern Lebanon.

Hezbollah has intervened in the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, sending tens of thousands of fighters.

Its strongholds in Lebanon have been hit by several deadly attacks claimed by IS.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83713.

Lebanon’s grocery business booming thanks to refugees

2017-06-28

BEIRUT – In three years, Lebanese grocer Ali Khiami hired six staff, invested in property and funded his children’s university education. Business is booming — thanks to Syrian refugees using UN debit cards.

Displaced Syrian families in Lebanon are using electronic cards, topped up each month by the United Nations’ World Food Program with $27 (24 euros) per person, for their grocery shopping.

The WFP scheme has both helped refugees and delivered a windfall to cash-strapped Lebanese shop owners.

“This program changed my life. I bought an apartment in Beirut and I paid for my three children’s college degrees,” said Khiami.

Since registering with the WFP, he has seen his personal income skyrocket from $2,000 per month to $10,000, allowing him to pay off a long-standing debt.

“I used to sell goods worth about 50 million Lebanese pounds (around $33,000) per year. Today, my turnover reaches 300 million pounds,” said Khiami.

A small blue sticker in the window of his cosy store in southern Beirut identifies it as one of the 500 shops taking part in the WFP scheme.

Lebanon, a country of just four million people, hosts more than one million refugees who fled the conflict that has ravaged neighboring Syria since 2011.

The influx has put added strain on Lebanon’s already frail water, electricity, and school networks.

The World Bank says the Syrian crisis has pushed an estimated 200,000 Lebanese into poverty, adding to the nation’s one million poor.

– Changing perceptions –

With 700,000 Syrian refugees benefiting from the program, the debit cards are offsetting at least some of that economic pressure.

When they buy from Lebanese shops, the country’s “economy is also benefiting from WFP’s program, not just Syrian refugees,” WFP spokesman Edward Johnson told AFP.

The UN agency says Syrian refugees have spent $900 million at partner shops in Lebanon since the program was launched in 2012.

It selects stores based on their proximity to gatherings of Syrian refugees in camps or cities, as well as cleanliness, prices and availability of goods.

Umm Imad, a Syrian customer at Khiami’s store, said shopping with the card makes her feel much more “independent” than with the WFP’s previous food stamp program.

“Now I can buy what I need at home,” she said.

The scheme has also changed perceptions.

Instead of seeing refugees as a burden, shopkeepers like Khiami see them as potential customers to be won over.

He has begun stocking items favored by his Syrian customers, such as clarified butter, halwa — sweets made of sesame, almonds, and honey — and plenty of tea, “which Syrians love”.

“Syrian customers have bigger families, so they buy more than Lebanese customers,” he said.

– ‘We sell more’ –

Ali Sadek Hamzeh, 26, owns several WFP-partnered shops near Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where dozens of informal refugee camps have sprung up on farmland.

“In eight months, I rented three new locations to stock merchandise and opened up a new fruit and vegetable store,” Hamzeh told AFP.

He said Syrian refugees make up around 60 percent of his customers, but he has also attracted new Lebanese clients with his lower prices.

The debit card scheme is set to scale up after three large supermarket chains signed contracts with the WFP.

They include the United Company for Central Markets (UCCM). Its 36 stores across Lebanon are even offering a seven percent discount on purchases made using the cards.

“At the end of the day, we’re a business and we’re here to make a profit, but we also want to help out the WFP,” the company’s Sleiman Sleiman told AFP.

“We sell more, so we buy more from our suppliers. All this generates economic activity,” he said.

But for some shop owners, partnering with the WFP has had a downside.

Omar al-Sheikh manages a shop in Nuwayri, a district of western Beirut.

Since he registered his store with WFP in 2013, his monthly profits have nearly doubled from $5,000 to $8,000 — but at a price.

“My profits went up, but I’ve lost about 20 percent of my Lebanese customer base. Lebanese customers don’t like it when it’s busy, and maybe they have some racist views,” he said.

Sheikh, 45, said a Lebanese shopper was annoyed one evening last week when he found the store’s bread supply had run out.

“You’re just here for the Syrians, you only work for Syrians now!” the customer said.

But Sheikh said he would continue to serve his Syrian customers.

“These are human beings. Their country is at war and we should help them.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83687.