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.


Syria regime forces battle militants for key town, highway

Updated 52 min 35 sec ago

Syria regime forces battle militants for key town, highway

  • The town of Khan Sheikhun lies on a key highway coveted by the regime
  • Pro-regime forces have been advancing over the past few days in a bid to encircle Khan Sheikhun

BEIRUT: Syrian pro-regime forces fought pitched battles Sunday with insurgents as they inched closer to a extremist-run town in the northwestern province of Idlib, a war monitor said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “fierce clashes” between loyalist forces, militants and allied rebels were taking place one kilometer (0.6 miles) west of Khan Sheikhun.
The latest fighting broke out overnight Saturday to Sunday and has already killed 26 extremists and allied rebels and 11 members of the pro-regime forces, the war monitor said.
The town of Khan Sheikhun lies on a key highway coveted by the regime.
The road runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.
Pro-regime forces are deployed around three kilometers (1.8 miles) from the road and have been advancing over the past few days in a bid to encircle Khan Sheikhun from the north and the west and seize the highway.
On Sunday they retook the village of Tel Al-Nar and nearby farmland northwest of Khan Sheikhun “and were moving close to the highway,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
But their advance from the east was being slowed down due to “a ferocious resistance” from militants and allied rebels.
Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of the neighboring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.
A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s three million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.
Regime and Russian air strikes and shelling since late April have killed more than 860 civilians, according to the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
On Sunday air strikes by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia killed two people, including a child, in the south of Idlib, the Observatory said.
More than 1,370 insurgents and over 1,200 pro-regime forces have been killed since April, according to the monitor.
The violence has displaced more than 400,000 people, the United Nations says.
“Many of these people have been displaced up to five times,” the UN’s regional spokesman for the Syria crisis, David Swanson, told AFP on Saturday.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.