Pence enters Israel-Palestine fray at critical moment

Palestinians protesters burn tires and throw stones toward Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Bethlehem during clashes on January 12, 2018. US Vice President Mike Pence will visit the Middle East this weekend against a backdrop of heightened tensions after Washington’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to cut funding to Palestinians. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)
Updated 18 January 2018

Pence enters Israel-Palestine fray at critical moment

NEW YORK: US Vice President Mike Pence will visit Middle Eastern allies this weekend against a backdrop of heightened tensions after Washington’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to cut funding to Palestinians.

Pence, an evangelical Christian from Indiana who has billed the trip as an opportunity to work with partners against terrorism and religious persecution, will travel to Egypt overnight on Friday at the start of a four-day trip that includes visits to Jordan and Israel.

In Israel, he will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, address the Knesset, and visit the Western Wall and the holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. He will not meet any Palestinian leaders on the Israel leg of the trip, on Monday and Tuesday.

The visit will be watched carefully for any signs of fallout over US President Donald Trump’s widely criticized Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pushing back on an international consensus that the city’s status should be decided in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

On Tuesday, Washington said it was withholding $65 million in funding to the UN Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA), which assists Palestinian refugees, again prompting outrage and fears that schools and health clinics will be forced to shutter.

“After the Jerusalem declaration and Palestinian funding, now isn’t necessarily a great time for Pence to visit the region, but ultimately there’s never a particularly good time,” Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute think tank, told Arab News.

“Pence will doubtless receive a warm welcome from Netanyahu, though the visit is likely to result in an increase in clashes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem.”

Pence postponed his original visit to Israel and Egypt in mid-December because of a Senate vote on a tax law.

Before Trump's announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had planned to meet Pence in Bethlehem, but cancelled the meeting in protest at the Jerusalem decision.

On Wednesday, Abbas blasted the US in a fiery and emotional speech in Cairo. He derided Trump’s “sinful” decision on the Holy City and again said Washington “can no longer be a mediator or sponsor” of peace talks.

Tensions will likely overshadow the rest of the trip, including a visit to Jordan on Sunday to meet King Abdullah II, a US ally who has criticized the Jerusalem decision and serves as guardian of Islam’s third-holiest site, located in East Jerusalem.

In Cairo on Saturday, Pence is expected to meet only President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a leading Trump ally. Prominent Muslim and Christian clerics in Egypt have declined the opportunity to meet the Republican in Egypt’s capital.

Pence frequently speaks against persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. His Egypt visit comes in the wake of last month’s Daesh-linked attack on a Coptic Orthodox church and a Christian-owned shop near Cairo in which at least 11 people died.

Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Pence may address the topic with El-Sisi, but warned he should not treat attacks on Christians as only a security challenge in the face of Daesh and other armed religious extremists.

“The current predicament of Egypt’s Christians cannot be separated from the larger human rights disaster that society as a whole is experiencing under Sisi’s rule,” Magdi, a Cairo-based scholar, told Arab News.

Egyptian sentenced to death for murder of Christian doctor

Updated 18 November 2018

Egyptian sentenced to death for murder of Christian doctor

CAIRO: An Egyptian man affiliated with Daesh was sentenced to death Saturday in the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in Cairo in Sept. 2017.
The assailant, identified as 40-year-old Hassan G., pretended to be a patient to gain access to the doctor, identified as Dr. Tharwat. Once admitted to the clinic’s examination room he began stabbing the elderly doctor. When the doctor’s assistant, Susan K., attempted to intervene, she was also stabbed.
During the trial, prosecutors said the defendant had embraced the extremist ideology of Daesh.
At the time of the incident, the Ministry of Interior reported that the defendant’s motivation was believed to be financial. He was unemployed and facing financial difficulties and intended to rob the doctor, it was believed.
Saturday’s verdict will be sent to the Grand Mufti, Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, for ratification. While the Grand Mufti’s opinions are not binding, he is customarily asked to review death sentences and his recommendation is often followed.
Also on Saturday, another Egyptian court sentenced one Egyptian to death and six others to 10 years in prison. The defendants had appealed a similar Dec. 2016 sentence over an attack on policemen and soldiers north of Cairo; most attacks on police, military and civilians in Egypt over the last few years have been claimed by the Daesh.
Daesh, which has gained a foothold in the remote areas of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, has vowed to target Egypt’s Christian minority in retaliation for their support of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
In early November, Daesh claimed credit for an attack on a bus carrying Christian pilgrims outside the Monastery of St. Samuel that left seven dead and wounded 19 – in nearly the same location that another attack killed 28 pilgrims in May 2017. In response, the Ministry of Interior announced two days later that 19 “militants” linked to the attack had been killed.
Elected in 2014, El-Sisi has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups since coming to power after Muslim Brotherhood ex-President Muhammad Mursi was removed from power in the summer of 2013. Mursi’s ouster came after mass protests calling for the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Daesh blames El-Sisi for the ensuing crackdown on Mursi’s followers.
The Coptic Orthodox leadership and many other Christians supported El-Sisi in the wake of Mursi’s ouster, hoping he could protect them against violent attacks by Islamists.
Groups affiliated with Daesh have claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Christians in the four years since El-Sisi’s election. In 2015, the group posted a video of the beheading of a dozen Christian Egyptians in Libya.
In December 2016, a suicide bomber killed 29 in an attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral compound in Cairo. Daesh took credit for killing nearly 80 Egyptian Christians and wounding over 150 in 2017 in two Palm Sunday bombings and attacks on buses carrying Christians. Last month, an Egyptian military court sentenced 17 to death for the fatal attacks.