Hamas chief arrives in Gaza for 1st-ever visit

Updated 08 December 2012
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Hamas chief arrives in Gaza for 1st-ever visit

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: The exiled Hamas chief broke into tears Friday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit, a landmark trip reflecting his militant group’s growing international acceptance and its defiance of Israel.
Khaled Mashaal, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads the Islamic group from Qatar, crossed the Egyptian border and once on Gazan soil, prostrated himself in a gesture of thanksgiving, recited a traditional Islamic prayer and kissed the ground.
He was greeted by a crowd of Hamas officials and representatives of Hamas’ rival Fatah party.
Mashaal, 56, was also welcomed by a group of Palestinian children of Gaza militants killed by Israel in recent years, wearing military-style uniforms. Thousands of Hamas supporters lined the streets as Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by, waving and flashing victory signs.
That the visit took place at all is a window on the changing climate of the Middle East and the balance of power among the factions and nations.
Hamas has received a boost from the rise of its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, following Arab Spring revolts — especially in Egypt. Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak barely tolerated Hamas, cooperating with Israel on a blockade of Gaza after Hamas overran it in 2007.
Israel, along with the US and European Union, lists Hamas as a terror organization because of its history of attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israelis. Controlling most entrances to Gaza, Israel prevented most prominent diplomats from entering the territory after the violent Hamas takeover.
Egypt’s new Brotherhood-dominated regime has welcomed Hamas leaders, negotiating a truce to end an eight-day flare-up between Hamas and Israel last month. Hamas trumpeted that as a victory, despite the new wave of death and destruction in the territory under its control in Israeli airstrikes, meant to stop daily Palestinian rocket attacks.
More significantly, in another precedent-setting series of events, the Egyptian prime minister and other foreign diplomats visited Gaza during the fighting, crossing in from Egypt, just as Mashaal did Friday.
“I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza,” Mashaal told reporters as he stood alongside senior Hamas member Mousa Abu Marzouk and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land.”
Mashaal appeared before the charred car of Hamas militant chief Ahmad Jabari, assassinated by Israel at the beginning of last month’s round of violence. The eight-day conflict was the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years. Militants launched hundreds of rockets on Israel and Israeli warplanes targeted an equal number of Hamas targets.
Mahmoud Zahar, senior Hamas member, said Mashaal’s first visit was in celebration of Hamas’ gains in the latest round of fighting.
“He should return after a victory,” Zahar said. “This return came after a victory.”
Mashaal’s visit, though widely cheered, is nevertheless sensitive because of Palestinian political infighting. Mashaal, considered more pragmatic than Hamas’ Gaza-based hard-line leaders, forged a reconciliation agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the West Bank. But the Gaza-based leadership, unsupportive of the agreement, has held up implementing it.
On Friday Mashaal asked aides to remove a red carpet laid out for him and refused an honor guard ceremony for his arrival. He appeared sensitive to the fact that Abbas still has not visited Gaza since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from his Fatah Party.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank expressed hope that Mashaal’s visit would help finalize the Palestinian political unity deal.
Israel, which is reluctantly coming to terms with the shifting Palestinian power balance, mostly kept silent on the visit. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among various Hamas leaders.
“Hamas is Hamas is Hamas,” said the spokesman, Yigal Palmor.
Fifteen years ago, Mashaal was nearly assassinated in Jordan by Israeli agents who squirted a deadly poison in his ear, narrowly escaping after the US forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as premier, to provide the antidote.
Now a bolstered Mashaal appears in Gaza undeterred by neighboring Israel. Mashaal referred to the assassination attempt by “the foolish Netanyahu,” saying, “God was stronger than him and his conspiracy.”
Thousands of masked Hamas militants deployed throughout Gaza to protect Mashaal’s convoy, with rocket propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weaponry in tow.
During Friday’s visit, which was timed for the 25th anniversary of Hamas’ founding, Mashaal also paid homage at the house of the group’s spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, who was paralyzed in a childhood accident and killed by a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter on March 22, 2004.
The assassination came at a time of heavy Israeli-Palestinian fighting that saw Hamas suicide bombers detonate their explosives inside buses, restaurants and other public places across Israel.
“The resistance was launched from this humble house, Yassin the giant of Jihad operated from here. We pledge to continue his path,” Mashaal told reporters at Yassin’s house, which has been turned into a museum of sorts. Yassin’s sons and grandchildren greeted Mashaal, who stopped for a few moments by Yassin’s broken wheelchair.


Civilians flee fighting in Syrian southwest

A Syrian family rides with belongings on a tractor-drawn trailer as they flee from fighting in the southern Syrian province of Daraa on June 21, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 22 June 2018
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Civilians flee fighting in Syrian southwest

  • Opposition fighters have vowed not surrender “an inch” of the territory to Assad, one of their commanders said earlier this week
  • Fighting in the southwest has been contained since last year by a “de-escalation” deal agreed by the US and Russia, Bashar Assad’s most powerful ally

MOSCOW, BEIRUT: Thousands of people have fled opposition-held areas of southwestern Syria being targeted by regime bombardment, a war monitor said on Thursday, as Damascus steps up attacks on an area near the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some 12,500 people had fled opposition-held areas of northeastern Daraa province in the past 48 hours.
The war has pivoted toward the southwest since the Syrian regime and its allies crushed the last remaining pockets of opposition-held territory near Damascus and the city of Homs.
Fighting in the southwest has been contained since last year by a “de-escalation” deal agreed by the US and Russia, Bashar Assad’s most powerful ally.
A major Syrian regime offensive in the area would risk an escalation of the seven-year-old war. The area is of strategic importance to Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Iranian influence in Syria.
Washington has warned it will take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to violations of the “de-escalation” deal.
Assad said earlier this month the regime, at Russia’s suggestion, was seeking to strike a deal in the southwest similar to agreements that have restored its control of other areas through withdrawals of opposition forces.
But he also said there had been no results yet and blamed “Israeli and American interference.” He said the territory would be recovered by force if necessary. Opposition fighters have vowed not surrender “an inch” of the territory to Assad, one of their commanders said earlier this week.

Russia ‘skeptical’ over UN report
Meanwhile, the Russian foreign minister on Thursday said he was “skeptical” about a UN report accusing the Syrian regime of committing crimes against humanity during the siege of Eastern Ghouta. The report published on Wednesday said forces loyal to the Syrian regime had deliberately starved civilians during the siege between February and April, among other crimes.
“We are in principle very skeptical toward the methods of this sort of work, whether it comes to war crimes or the use of chemical weapons,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. When
questioned by journalists, Lavrov confirmed he had not seen the
report.

He said it was “based on data obtained through social networks, video that was filmed by witnesses,” rather than being put together on the ground.
The five-year siege, on the outskirts of the capital, ended in April when Damascus regained control of the rebel enclave.
As pro-government forces dramatically escalated their campaign to recapture the besieged enclave, they used tactics that were “largely unlawful in nature,” the UN-commissioned report said.
The tactics, it said, “aimed at punishing the inhabitants of eastern Ghouta and forcing the population, collectively, to surrender or starve.”
Russia has been involved in Syria’s civil war since September 2015. Its military support of the regime changed the course of the war, allowing government troops to retake more than half the country from rebels and the Daesh group.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.