Uneasy truce may not last long in embattled Libyan capital

Flights have resumed at Tripoli airport after a one-week hiatus. (AFP)
Updated 09 September 2018
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Uneasy truce may not last long in embattled Libyan capital

  • Haftar has long contemplated extending his influence in the west of Libya by linking up with local groups there

TRIPOLI/TUNIS: Residents of Tripoli emerging from their homes to take advantage of a cease-fire between armed groups noticed one thing straight away. The militias had not withdrawn their heavy weapons from strategic locations in the Libyan capital.
A truce brokered by the UN on Tuesday after a week of violence between local fighters has largely been observed.
The clashes, which left dozens dead, pitted four big armed groups in Tripoli against rivals from other towns. The fighters had joined forces in 2011 to topple Muammar Qaddafi but since then they have refused to disarm, using their guns to compete for access to public funds.
But even as the cease-fire began, residents and diplomats braced themselves for more violence.
The factions withdrew their pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and dismantled checkpoints. But they kept their heavy weapons at key positions such as Matiga airport, government ministries and some of the city’s main streets.
“It’s good that there is no fighting now but the two sides are still in their positions,” said a frightened resident who gave his name only as Mohamed. “I am afraid clashes will erupt any time.”
The armed groups have vowed to resume hostilities if talks to be hosted by UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame do not result in a lasting settlement.
“We are committed to the cease-fire as long it has not been breached by the other side,” said Ahmad Ben Salim, spokesman for the Special Deterrence Force, one of the biggest Tripoli units.
“Our force is still in its position ... and we are waiting for what will emerge with the cease-fire.”
The force’s main opponent, known as the 7th Brigade, also confirmed to Reuters it would stay in its positions.

Blunt speech
In a blunt speech at the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Salame said groups that violate the cease-fire must be held to account and the time for impunity was over. Salame has been trying for a year to pave the way for national elections. But he gave no details of what he planned to do if the truce was broken.
“It was encouraging that he overtly states that impunity must end,” said Tarek Megerisi, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“However, as always the implementation details are absent,” Megerisi said. “How will the monitoring and punitive measures he mentions work in practice?“
A Western diplomat added: “Salame needs to do something bold now but it’s not clear what he could do. If nothing happens it will be a break for the militias to recharge their batteries.”
With no national army or foreign peacekeepers in place, the only short-term fix would be to allow some of the groups from outside Tripoli to pay their fighters from public funds. Turning young men with guns into civil servants has been the main policy goal since 2011, but it has not succeeded.
As the armed groups became greedier, and emptying state coffers to pay them off left little money to fix dilapidated hospitals and other infrastructure, frustrated youths were driven to join the militias.
Militias have meanwhile been looking for new sources of funds. Diplomats said fighters providing security for ministries are forcing officials to provide letters of credit intended for imports. These are used to obtain foreign currency which can be changed on the black market at a favorable rate.

Army training
After the fall of Qaddafi, Western powers tried to train a Libyan army. But that plan ended in 2014 when the country split into rival administrations in west and east.
The powers have since switched tactics, allowing the UN-backed administration in Tripoli to legitimate “super militias,” giving them state funds and titles for the sake of stability.
Salame is now expected to negotiate a broader power sharing agreement under which more fighters will be brought in with the aim of securing Tripoli.
However, diplomats fear that General Khalifa Haftar, who has conquered much of the east with his Libyan National Army faction and is said to be planning to run for president, may intervene in Tripoli.
“The liberation of Tripoli in accordance with a military plan is an inevitable choice,” Haftar said on Thursday. “The crisis in Tripoli must end as soon as possible and we cannot be silent in the current situation.”
Haftar has long contemplated extending his influence in the west of Libya by linking up with local groups there.
Since the outbreak of fighting in Tripoli, pro-Haftar TV channels have supported the 7th Brigade, which comes from Tarhouna, south of Tripoli.
But the Tarhouna forces cooperate with an Islamist commander, Salah Badi, an opponent of the general. Haftar, meanwhile, has built a reputation for fighting people he calls “terrorists.”
Such fragile alliances show how difficult it will be for Salame, the sixth UNLibya envoy since 2011, to build on the cease-fire.
Those who have met him recently say he has been frustrated by lack of progress since unveiling a peace plan a year ago that would entail a new constitution and a national government.
If Salame succeeds it will be a “coup” for him, a diplomat said, but if not, his standing in Libya will be damaged.


Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

Updated 19 February 2019
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Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

  • The gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to be widening
  • American rabbinical students plant olive trees in a Palestinian village

AT-TUWANI, West Bank: Young American rabbinical students are doing more than visiting holy sites, learning Hebrew and poring over religious texts during their year abroad in Israel.
In a stark departure from past programs focused on strengthening ties with Israel and Judaism, the new crop of rabbinical students is reaching out to the Palestinians. The change reflects a divide between Israeli and American Jews that appears to be widening.
On a recent winter morning, Tyler Dratch, a 26-year-old rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, was among some two dozen Jewish students planting olive trees in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the southern West Bank. The only Jews that locals typically see are either Israeli soldiers or ultranationalist settlers.
“Before coming here and doing this, I couldn’t speak intelligently about Israel,” Dratch said. “We’re saying that we can take the same religion settlers use to commit violence in order to commit justice, to make peace.”
Dratch, not wanting to be mistaken for a settler, covered his Jewish skullcap with a baseball cap. He followed the group down a rocky slope to see marks that villagers say settlers left last month: “Death to Arabs” and “Revenge” spray-painted in Hebrew on boulders and several uprooted olive trees, their stems severed from clumps of dirt.
This year’s student program also includes a tour of the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, a visit to an Israeli military court that prosecutes Palestinians and a meeting with an activist from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.
The program is run by “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” a US-based network of rabbis and cantors.
Most of T’ruah’s membership, and all students in the Israel program, are affiliated with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements — liberal streams of Judaism that represent the majority of American Jews. These movements are marginalized in Israel, where rabbis from the stricter Orthodox stream dominate religious life.
The T’ruah program, now in its seventh year, is meant to supplement students’ standard curricular fare: Hebrew courses, religious text study, field trips and introductions to Jewish Israeli society. Though the program is optional, T’ruah says some 70 percent of the visiting American rabbinical students from the liberal branches of Judaism choose to participate.
The year-long program is split into one semester, focused on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and another, on alleged human rights abuses inside Israel.
T’ruah claims its West Bank encounters aren’t one-off acts of community service, but experiences meant to be carried home and disseminated to future congregations.
“We want to propel them to action, so they invite their future rabbinates to work toward ending the occupation,” said Rabbi Ian Chesir-Teran, T’ruah’s rabbinic educator in Israel.
The group began its trip in the most Jewish of ways, a discussion about the weekly Torah portion that turned into a spirited debate about the Ten Commandments.
“The Torah says don’t covet your neighbor’s fields, and we’re going to a Palestinian village whose private land has been confiscated for the sake of covetous Jews building settlements,” Chesir-Teran said.
As their bus trundled through the terraced hills south of Hebron, students listened to a local activist’s condensed history of the combustible West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
As part of interim peace deals in the 1990s, the West Bank was carved up into autonomous and semi-autonomous Palestinian areas, along with a section called Area C that remains under exclusive Israeli control.
The destinations of the day — the Palestinian villages of At-Tuwani and Ar-Rakkes — sit in Area C, also home to around 450,000 Israeli settlers. Palestinians seek all of the West Bank as the heartland of a hoped-for independent state.
The group was guided by villagers to their olive trees — an age-old Palestinian symbol and a more recent casualty of the struggle for land with Israeli settlers.
Israeli security officials reported a dramatic spike last year in settler violence against Palestinians.
Yishai Fleisher, a settler spokesman, blamed the attacks on the “atmosphere of tension” in the West Bank. “We’re against vigilantism, unequivocally,” he said.
As Israeli soldiers watched from the hilltop, Palestinians and Jews dug their fingers into the crumbling soil, setting down roots where holes torn out of the field hinted at recent vandalism.
Dratch said he came of age in Pennsylvania during the violent years of the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. “My religious education was steeped in fear of Palestinians,” he said.
But in college, Dratch’s ideas about Israel changed. Dratch says he still supports Israel, while opposing its policies in the West Bank. “I realized I could be Zionist without turning my back on my neighbor, on Palestinians,” he said.
With hundreds of young American rabbis sharing such sentiments, some in Israel find the trend alarming.
“I worry about a passion for social justice becoming co-opted by far-left politics among future American Jewish leaders,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research center in Jerusalem.
“Future rabbis are marginalizing themselves from the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews,” he added.
As Israel heads toward elections in April, opinion polls point to another victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious, nationalist allies.
In the US, meanwhile, surveys show American Jews, particularly the younger generation, holding far more dovish views toward Palestinians and religious pluralism. Netanyahu’s close friendship with President Donald Trump has further alienated many American Jews, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Two weeks after visiting At-Tuwani, the group received disheartening news: half of the 50 trees they’d planted had been uprooted, apparently by settlers. The students scrambled to make plans to replant.
Dratch said that while his time in Israel has provided him with plenty of reasons to despair, he still harbors hope for change.
“We’ll be sharing these stories to give people a full picture of what it means to care about this place,” he said.