Prince William tours Roman ruins in Jordan, meets refugees

June 25, 2018

JERASH, Jordan (AP) — Britain’s Prince William on Monday toured Roman ruins in Jordan, chatted with Syrian refugee children and was greeted by ululating women at a community center for traditional arts and crafts.

At the ruins of Jerash, William stopped in front of an enlarged photo that showed his wife, the former Kate Middleton, as a child, along with her father and younger sister posing against the backdrop of the site. For almost three years in the 1980s, the Middletons lived in Jordan, where Michael Middleton worked for British Airways.

“Need to come back with the family for this shot,” William said as he stood in the same spot where the photo was taken. He pointed at his father-in-law in the photo, saying “Michael’s looking very smart in his flip-flops.”

The visit to Jerash came on the second day of a five-day tour that also takes William to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It’s a high-profile foreign trip for William, second in line to the throne, and comes at a time of widening rifts between Israelis and Palestinians.

Later Monday, he’ll be the first British royal to visit the Holy Land in an official capacity. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms large, despite the ceremonial nature of the trip. William, an avid soccer fan, arrived in Jordan on Sunday afternoon, as the England-Panama World Cup match was underway. Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein recorded it for him, and the two watched it later Sunday on a huge TV screen at Hussein’s residence. England thrashed Panama 6-1, advancing to the second round.

Before settling down to soccer, William spoke at a garden reception at the British Embassy, praising Britain’s historic ties with Jordan and the kingdom’s commitment to hosting Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Over decades, Jordan has taken in waves of refugees, most recently those fleeing civil war in Syria. Jordan hosts about 660,000 registered Syrian refugees, but says the actual number of displaced Syrians in the kingdom is twice as high.

Jordanian government officials on Monday were quoted as saying that Jordan could not absorb more refugees. The comments came as Syrian government forces advanced in southern Syria, near Jordan’s border, leading to more displacement.

During the Jerash tour, William met with dozens of children attending a U.N.-sponsored education program, known as Makani, that serves Syrian refugees as well as Jordanian children from overburdened host communities.

The children greeted the William and the Jordanian crown prince in the amphitheater of Jerash, where they showed off some of their art work, including paintings. One girl painted with her foot. The ruins of Jerash are one of Jordan’s main tourist attractions. William has said the Middletons have fond memories of their time in Jordan, and that Kate was sorry she couldn’t join him on the trip to the kingdom. Kate gave birth in April to the couple’s third child, Louis.

Later Monday, William stopped by a community center, Dar Niemeh, set in a garden in northern Jordan where he was greeted by ululating women in traditional embroidered dresses. The center fosters local arts and crafts, including baking and cooking in a mud oven.

He sipped tea while sitting cross-legged on the ground in a Bedouin-style tent.

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US leaving UN’s Human Rights Council, cites anti-Israel bias

June 20, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is leaving the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which Ambassador Nikki Haley called “an organization that is not worthy of its name.” It’s the latest withdrawal by the Trump administration from an international institution.

Haley said Tuesday the U.S. had given the human rights body “opportunity after opportunity” to make changes. She lambasted the council for “its chronic bias against Israel” and lamented the fact that its membership includes accused human rights abusers such as China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” Haley said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing alongside Haley at the State Department, said there was no doubt that the council once had a “noble vision.”

But today we need to be honest,” Pompeo said. “The Human Rights Council is a poor defender of human rights.” The announcement came just a day after the U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the Trump administration for separating migrant children from their parents. But Haley cited longstanding U.S. complaints that the 47-member council is biased against Israel. She had been threatening the pull-out since last year unless the council made changes advocated by the U.S.

“Regrettably, it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded,” Haley said. Still, she suggested the decision need not be permanent, adding that if the council did adopt reforms, “we would be happy to rejoin it.” She said the withdrawal notwithstanding, the U.S. would continue to defend human rights at the United Nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called the U.S. decision “courageous,” calling it “an unequivocal statement that enough is enough.” The move extends a broader Trump administration pattern of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president’s “America First” policy. Although numerous officials have said repeatedly that “America First does not mean America Alone,” the administration has retreated from multiple multilateral accords and consensuses since it took office.

Since January 2017, it has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, left the U.N. educational and cultural organization and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Other contentious moves have included slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum against key trading partners, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Opposition to the decision from human rights advocates was swift. A group of 12 organizations including Save the Children, Freedom House and the United Nations Association-USA said there were “legitimate concerns” about the council’s shortcomings but that none of them warranted a U.S. exit.

“This decision is counterproductive to American national security and foreign policy interests and will make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

Added Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch: “All Trump seems to care about is defending Israel.” On Twitter, al-Hussein, the U.N. human rights chief, said it was “Disappointing, if not really surprising, news. Given the state of #HumanRights in today’s world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back.”

And the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank close to the Trump administration, defended the move, calling the council “notably incurious about the human rights situations in some of the world’s most oppressive countries.” Brett Schaefer, a senior fellow, pointed out that Trump could have withdrawn immediately after taking office but instead gave the council 18 months to make changes.

Haley has been the driving force behind withdrawing from the human rights body, unprecedented in the 12-year history of the council. No country has ever dropped out voluntarily. Libya was kicked out seven years ago.

The move could reinforce the perception that the Trump administration is seeking to advance Israel’s agenda on the world stage, just as it prepares to unveil its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan despite Palestinian outrage over the embassy relocation. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, is visiting the Middle East this week as the White House works to lay the groundwork for unveiling the plan.

Israel is the only country in the world whose rights record comes up for discussion at every council session, under “Item 7” on the agenda. Item 7 on “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories” has been part of the council’s regular business almost as long as it has existed.

The United States’ current term on the council ends next year. Although the U.S. could have remained a non-voting observer on the council, a U.S. official said it was a “complete withdrawal” and that the United States was resigning its seat “effective immediately.” The official wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and insisted on anonymity.

That means the council will be left without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. In recent months, the United States has participated in attempts to pinpoint rights violations in places like South Sudan, Congo and Cambodia.

The U.S. pullout was bound to have ripple effects for at least two countries at the council: China and Israel. The U.S., as at other U.N. organizations, is Israel’s biggest defender. At the rights council, the United States has recently been the most unabashed critic of rights abuses in China — whose growing economic and diplomatic clout has chastened some other would-be critics, rights advocates say.

There are 47 countries in the Human Rights Council, elected by the U.N.’s General Assembly with a specific number of seats allocated for each region of the globe. Members serve for three-year terms and can serve only two terms in a row.

The United States has opted to stay out of the Human Rights Council before: The George W. Bush administration opted against seeking membership when the council was created in 2006. The U.S. joined the body only in 2009 under President Barack Obama.

Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Israel opposition leader named head of Jewish Agency

June 24, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s opposition leader has been appointed chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a non-governmental organization responsible for bridging Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.

The organization issued a statement Sunday that its board of governors unanimously elected Isaac Herzog, a former Labor Party leader, as its new chairman. Herzog was selected over Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His appointment is seen as a defeat for Netanyahu, but Herzog vowed to work closely with his political rival.

Herzog, who starts Aug. 1, succeeds outgoing chairman, former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky. The Jewish Agency is a non-governmental umbrella organization that works closely with the Israeli government to encouraging Jewish immigration and developing ties with Diaspora communities. It had a $362 million budget in 2018.

Spain confiscates property of Bashar Al-Assad’s uncle

March 15, 2018

The French customs service, in cooperation with its Spanish counterpart, confiscated the property of the current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s uncle, which amounted to 600 million Euros. Quoting the French newspaper Le Figaro, the Russian news agency Tass reported that around 503 facilities worth 600 million Euros, owned by Rifaat Al-Assad and his relatives in the Spanish city of Marbella, were confiscated.

The agency pointed out that there is also talk about hotels, restaurants and luxury acquisitions.

In April 2017, the Spanish National Judicial Council opened an investigation into the case of money laundering by Rifaat Al-Assad. The Spanish authorities froze the bank accounts of 16 people and 76 institutions associated with the name of Al-Assad’s uncle. It also opened an investigation into his property in Marbella and Puerto Banus towns.

Syrian city at the heart of Spain

Rifaat al-Assad, 80, planned to build a huge housing complex to house Syrians belonging to his sect. He has chosen lands where Spanish spruce and cork trees flourish. These lands occupy one third of Benahavis municipality, located in Malaga province in the southern Andalusia region of Spain. According to the statements of the judge of the Spanish National Court, Rifaat owns some of the most expensive lands in the city that is located on the coasts of Costa del Sol and adjacent to the luxury town of Marbella, which has become a model of extreme luxury, and aspires to build a “Syrian city” with the utmost caution and secrecy.

A decision was made by the Spanish court to seize the properties of Al-Assad, including 16 properties in Marbella and Puerto Banus. In this regard, a Spanish judge revealed that Rifaat Al-Assad had committed himself to continuing the “legal struggle” in this case as he is accused of turning his “real estate machine,” which consists of 3,300 hectares worth 60 million Euros, into a private urban area. The areas controlled by Rifaat Al-Assad have already been registered as areas of public interest, according to the European classification. In addition, the Andalusian government has incorporated these properties within the areas of special protection.

The source of Rifaat Al-Assad’s funds

On the other hand, the Spanish judge confirmed that the main source of Rifaat Al-Assad’s wealth is the money looted from the coffers of the Syrian state provided by his brother Hafez Al-Assad before sending him into exile, and which is estimated at 300 million Euros.

In a similar vein, many people in the Spanish society and those who dealt with him in the business field reported that he was not proficient in negotiating in this area and had his own strategy of non-discipline. In this regard, one of the parties which had negotiated with him in business explained that “it is possible to agree on the first day about a certain price, and he comes the next day to ask you double the amount agreed upon.” These parties also revealed that he followed a relatively austere pattern of consumption in his daily life in Marbella.

In general, a businessman who was surprised by the size of the properties of Rifaat Al-Assad, which includes at least 503 facilities located in Marbella and Puerto Banos, stated that “Rifaat Al-Assad and the businessmen Adnan Khashogg are incomparable, as Rifaat has no friends and I always see him having dinner alone in Puerto Banus, accompanied only by his bodyguard and his driver. The same source added that “the authorities must deal with all the hotel apartments he possesses as individual property.”

In addition to the “amazing real estate machine,” Rifaat Al-Assad owns the Panapola Hotel in Puerto Banus, a 4-Star hotel consisting of 101 apartments and 247 parking spaces. Besides, Al-Assad owns a residential building under the name of Gerry de Albion, in the same sports port in Marbella where he lives.

Moreover, Rifaat Al-Assad owns the parking spaces in Marbella Harbor. Recently, he has sold some of the land for construction in the Milla de Oro area of Marbella, near the Marbella Club Hotel. According to sources familiar with the deal, the sale was made at a price much lower than the prices offered in the market in this area. In addition, Rifaat Al-Assad managed to administer the Beach Club Bar at the Penapola Hotel, the Hollywood Café and other hotel companies based in Puerto Banus, but some of them are now closed due to losses.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180315-spain-confiscates-property-of-bashar-al-assads-uncle/.

Bolivia UN envoy says to Israel: ‘You kill children and women’

May 17, 2018

The Bolivian representative to the United Nations Security Council, Sacha Llorenti, said to Israel “you kill children and women” after reading out the names of the 61 Palestinian victims who were killed by the Israeli soldiers in Gaza earlier this week.

The representative said during an emergency meeting on Tuesday that Gaza has turned into a large prison adding that transferring the US Embassy to Jerusalem has inflamed emotions.

“As a member of the Security Council and in the presence of my dear brother, the ambassador to Palestine; I wish to ask for his forgiveness, and say how sorry I am to the 6 million Palestinian refugees who have lost their homes and today live in camps” he added.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180517-bolivia-un-envoy-says-to-israel-you-kill-children-and-women/.

Greece says Syrian property law will impede refugees’ return

May 04, 2018

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Greece’s foreign minister has voiced concerns about at a new Syrian real estate law that would force refugees to return home if they want to keep their property in Syria. Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias says the law does not secure the properties of millions of Syrians who are now displaced outside the country. He says it will make their eventual return to Syria much more difficult.

The decree, made public last month, gives property owners in some parts of Syria one month to provide ownership deeds or face confiscation of their property. Thousands of Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Greece.

Kotzias spoke during a southern Balkans ministerial meeting Friday in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Israel defense chief plans 2,500 new West Bank settler homes

May 24, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister said Thursday he will seek approval next week to fast-track construction of 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes in 2018, an announcement likely to further ratchet up tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Avigdor Lieberman’s office said in a statement that he aimed to fulfill a commitment to expand construction in the West Bank settlements, including some remote outposts and the Jewish settler enclave in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Besides the 2,500, Lieberman said he will advance another 1,400 units that are in preliminary planning stages. “In the coming months, we will bring for approval thousands more housing units,” Lieberman said, according to the statement.

The announcement came two days after Palestinians urged the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, to open an investigation into Israeli policies in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, including settlement construction, accusing Israel of systematic crimes, including apartheid in the occupied territories. The request includes the recent round of bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli fire killed over 100 Palestinians during mass protests along the Gaza border.

Violence between the sides continued Thursday. The Israeli military said an Israeli soldier was “severely injured” when a “heavy object” was thrown at his head during an operation in the West Bank. Israel has called the Palestinian move at the ICC “legally invalid.” Israel is not a member of the court and argues the court does not have jurisdiction.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and has since built dozens of settlements there. Over 600,000 Israelis now live in east Jerusalem and West Bank settlements, areas Palestinians seek for their future state.

Much of the international community views the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel says the fate of settlements must be resolved through negotiations. The referral to the ICC would seem to further diminish prospects of success for an expected U.S. peace plan. U.S. officials have said President Donald Trump is to unveil the plan in the coming months.

The last round of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down four years ago without any visible process, and mistrust between the two sides is running high. Israeli watchdog group Peace Now reported earlier this year that settlement construction has surged under the Trump administration, which has taken a softer stance than his predecessors. Trump has asked Israel to show restraint, but has avoided strong condemnations of Israeli settlement construction. His Mideast peace team is dominated by people with ties to the settlement movement.

Peace Now responded to Lieberman’s announcement, calling it a “scandal” and saying on Twitter that the “messianic right-wing government has distorted priorities, and this morning is proud to approve thousands of new housing units over the Green Line, and gives an incentive to continued creeping annexation.”

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi condemned Lieberman’s announcement as “Israeli colonialism, expansionism and lawlessness” and called on the ICC to launch an investigation. “We appeal to the entire international community to undertake serious and concrete measures to bring about a full cessation of all settlement activities and to hold Israel accountable with punitive measures and sanctions before it is too late,” Ashrawi said in a statement.

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