Syria rebels agree to surrender frontier with Israel

Syrian government forces' soldiers wave their national flags after taking back the city of Quneitra to the rebels, on July 19, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018
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Syria rebels agree to surrender frontier with Israel

  • If verified, the move would mark another major victory for President Bashar Assad
  • Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, cited the need to restore the situation along the Golan borders

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels agreed to surrender their last pockets of control in southwest Quneitra province to the government, state media reported Thursday, making way for Damascus to re-establish its authority along the Israeli frontier.
The deal, confirmed in its general outlines by a monitoring group and opposition activists in Quneitra, will put the Syrian government face-to-face with Israel along most of its frontier for the first time since 2011, when an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule swept through Syria.
A fleet of buses reached Quneitra on Thursday night to pick up fighters, activists and other residents who refuse to accept the terms of surrender, and evacuate them to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
An affiliate of the Daesh group continues to hold a sliver of the frontier. The group is not party to the agreement between the government and rebels.
Syria and Israel fought two wars over their shared border, in 1967 and 1973, with Israel occupying the Golan Heights in the Quneitra province in the former confrontation.
But Israel has refrained from taking sides in Syria’s seven-year-long civil war, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he does not object to the government’s return to southwest Syria — as long as Israel’s archenemies Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah stay clear of the frontier.
Delegations from the government and rebels met several times over the last two days to negotiate the terms of surrender, said opposition activist and photographer Moaz Al-Assaad.
Thousands of residents — including rebel fighters, media activists, medical workers and civilians — may be heading to north Syria instead of staying behind in Quneitra, according to Al-Assaad.
The UN and human rights organizations have condemned such evacuations as forced displacement. Few who have left are expecting to be able to return to their homes in the near-term.
Earlier on Thursday, a fleet of buses helped evacuate the last remaining residents from Shiite, pro-government villages in northern Syria that endured three years of rebel siege, to government territory in the nearby Aleppo province.
Some 7,000 people were evacuated from Foua and Kfraya, according to state media.
The transfers — which have become a fixture of the war’s later stages — are a conspicuous marker of the titanic shifts in Syria’s demographics.
Waves of violence against civilians and unforgiving terms of surrender have resulted in the reassortment of the Syrian population. The country’s majority Sunni population has been pushed out of the cities and, disproportionately, into camps and exile, while minorities have moved closer to the centers of government control.
The government was expected to release 1,500 militants and opposition activists from its jails in exchange for the Foua and Kfraya evacuations, according to Ahmed el-Shiekho, an official for the Syrian Civil Defense, a search-and-rescue group aligned with the opposition.
But it only released 200, el-Sheikho said, including many who were only picked up in the last few months for minor criminal offenses — prisoners with no connection to the ongoing political turmoil.
In southern Syria, rebels have been powerless to stop a month of government advances through southwest Syria’s Daraa and Quneitra provinces, facilitated by a relentless Russian aerial campaign against towns and villages held by the opposition.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the fighting, and the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF, appealed for access to reach some 55,000 children in need of humanitarian assistance in Quneitra.
Earlier this week, dozens of Syrians marched toward the frontier, pleading for help as government forces, backed by Russia, stepped up airstrikes on Quneitra. Israel has quietly treated thousands of displaced Syrians for wounds and illnesses over the years.
Many of those trapped by the Syrian government’s advances were hoping for relief from Israel, or some sort of a safe zone there, said Areej Ghabash, a local health worker in Quneitra.
“In truth, we have more faith in Israel than the (Syrian) government,” she said, adding she would leave Quneitra herself rather than surrender to the authorities.
Al-Assaad said a prisoner exchange involving an Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting alongside the rebels in Quneitra was still to be negotiated before evacuations could start.
President Assad, with unfaltering support from Russia and Iran, has all but crushed the revolt after seven years of destructive war that has taken the lives of more than 400,000 Syrians and displaced half the country’s population. Nearly 6 million Syrians — or roughly a quarter of the country’s pre-war population — are now refugees outside their own country.


UN chief proposes options to protect Palestinians, Israel says ‘no’

Updated 18 August 2018
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UN chief proposes options to protect Palestinians, Israel says ‘no’

  • Israel rejects report saying the protection should be against Palestinian leaders
  • The UN chief stressed that for each of the options, cooperation by Israel and the Palestinians would be necessary

UNITED NATIONS: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday presented four options aimed at boosting the protection of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories, from sending UN rights monitors and unarmed observers to deploying a military or police force under UN mandate.

But the report has been rejected by the Israelis.

Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon said in a statement late Friday that “the only protection the Palestinian people need is from their own leadership.”
“Instead of suggesting ways to protect the Palestinian people from Israel, the UN should instead hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for continually endangering its own people,” Danon said.
“The report’s suggestions will only enable the Palestinians’ continued rejectionism.”
The proposals were contained in a report requested by the General Assembly in response to a surge of violence in Gaza, where 171 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since late March.
The UN chief stressed that for each of the options, cooperation by Israel and the Palestinians would be necessary. It remained unlikely however that Israel would agree to the proposals.
In the 14-page report, Guterres proposed:
• Providing a “more robust UN presence on the ground” with rights monitors and political officers to report on the situation.
• Pouring in more UN humanitarian and development aid to “ensure the well-being of the population.”
• Creating a civilian observer mission that would be present in sensitive areas such as checkpoints and near Israeli settlements, with a mandate to report on protection issues.
• Deploying an armed military or police force, under a UN mandate, to provide physical protection to Palestinian civilians.
A UN mandate for a protection force would require a decision from the Security Council, where the United States could use its veto power to block a measure opposed by Israel.
A small European-staffed observer mission was deployed in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1994, but Israel has since rejected calls for an international presence in flashpoint areas.
In the report, Guterres said the United Nations was already undertaking many protection initiatives but that “these measures fall short” of the concerns raised in a General Assembly resolution adopted in June.
In that measure, the 193-nation assembly condemned Israel for Palestinian deaths in Gaza and tasked Guterres with the drafting of proposals for “an international protection mechanism” for the Palestinians.
Guterres argued that a political solution to the conflict was needed to address the safety of Palestinians but that “until such a solution is achieved, member-states may further explore all practical and feasible measures that will significantly improve the protection of the Palestinian civilian population.”
“Such measures would also improve the security of Israeli civilians.”
On Friday, Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians taking part in protests along the Gaza border and 270 other Palestinians were wounded.
Israel has defended its use of live ammunition in Gaza by invoking its right to self-defense. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper in July.
“The targeting of civilians, particularly children, is unacceptable,” Guterres said in the report, adding that “those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law must be held accountable.”
UN efforts to ensure the well-being of Palestinians must strengthened, he added, singling out the funding crisis at the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA as being “of particular concern.”
UNRWA is facing a major budget shortfall after President Donald Trump’s administration decided to withhold its contribution to the agency.
The report released to all UN member-states comes amid a vacuum in Middle East peace efforts as European and other big powers await a peace plan from the Trump administration that has been under discussion for months.
UN diplomats have recently begun questioning whether the US peace plan will ever materialize.
The United Nations has warned that a new war could explode in Gaza.
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, including its Hamas rulers, have fought three wars since 2008.