Israeli minister frustrated with Lebanon over proposed sea border talks

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on June 19 he expected US-mediated talks to start within a month. (File/AFP)
Updated 05 July 2019
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Israeli minister frustrated with Lebanon over proposed sea border talks

  • Lebanon insisted any demarcation of its sea boundary with Israel be implemented only as part of a wider package including the land border — something Israel has previously ruled out
  • Israel and Lebanon have long disagreed on border demarcations in the eastern Mediterranean

TEL AVIV: Israel’s energy minister voiced frustration on Friday with what he called Lebanon’s failure to agree to US-mediated talks on setting their maritime border, suggesting Iran-backed Hezbollah was applying pressure on Beirut.
Senior US official David Satterfield has been shuttling between Lebanon and Israel in an effort to launch the talks between the countries, which have remained formally in a state of war since Israel was founded in 1948.
Israel and Lebanon have long disagreed on border demarcations in the eastern Mediterranean, an issue that gained prominence in the past decade when large deposits of natural gas were found there.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on June 19 he expected US-mediated talks to start within a month. On Wednesday, Lebanon insisted any demarcation of its sea boundary with Israel be implemented only as part of a wider package including the land border — something Israel has previously ruled out.
Steinitz sounded less upbeat on Friday.
“(The) Lebanese on the one hand really want to develop their natural resources, and the unresolved dispute with Israel is disruptive for them — for us too, but for them more,” Steinitz told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.
But Steinetz added Lebanon could also be facing “internal pressure, that they (are) under the sway of fear of Hezbollah,” referring to Lebanon’s most powerful armed force. Hezbollah is also part of the Lebanese coalition government.
Steinitz said Lebanon had yet to formally refuse the overture for mediation. He said that “in a week, 10 days we will know finally if we are on the way to talks or if this matter will be postponed by another one, two or three years.”
Officials at the US Embassy in Jerusalem were not immediately available for comment.


Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

Updated 22 July 2019
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Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

  • A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies

GABES: A putrid odour lingers outside a morgue in Tunisia’s coastal city of Gabes as dozens of bodies of would-be migrants to Europe pulled out of the sea await burial.
A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies and struggling to find them a final resting place.
More than 80 drowned migrants have been retrieved from Tunisian waters — most of them victims of a deadly July 1 shipwreck that left only three survivors.
Fished out of the sea between the port city of Zarzis and the tourist island of Djerba in the south, their bodies were brought to Gabes hospital — the only facility in the region capable of taking DNA samples.
Under pressure from civil society groups, Tunisian authorities have stepped up efforts to systematically collect the DNA of each unidentified drowned migrant, hospital director Hechmi Lakhrech told AFP.
The samples could well be the only hope of informing the victims’ families of their fate, he added.
In the basement morgue, staff use surgical masks or simple scarves to fend off the stench of bodies stacked one top of the other on the floor.
Since July 6, the numbers have “overwhelmed” the morgue’s 30-body capacity, said Lakhrech.
With just two forensic doctors and two assistants, not to mention a lack of equipment, the facility is struggling to keep them properly stored, he added.
After forensic tests, the bodies are kept at the morgue until a burial site is found, which in Tunisia is complicated, according to Gabes governor Mongi Thameur.
Many municipalities have refused to allow the drowned migrants to be buried in their cemeteries.
“Some fear the bodies carry cholera, and others refuse to bury people in Muslim cemeteries if their religion is unknown,” he told AFP.
It comes down to “a problem of mentality and also of humanity in some cases,” he said, adding that many people needed to be “sensitised.”
At the Bouchama cemetery, the only one in Gabes to have so far accepted migrant bodies, 16 graves dug off to the side lie empty.
“My parents are resting here, I don’t want non-Muslims to be buried by their side,” said one local resident.
In front of the hospital, the stifling midday heat beats down as 14 white bags are carefully loaded onto the back of a garbage truck.
Once loaded, it will make the two-hour journey to Zarzis, where an improvised cemetery flooded with the bodies of migrants for several years is now full, and a new one has just been opened.
Each grave is marked with a simple plaque bearing the victim’s DNA file number and burial date.
“On July 12, we collected 45 bodies in one day!” said Zarzis deputy mayor Faouzi Khenissi, calling it a “phenomenal problem.”
The city has taken in the bodies “because we have this culture, we can’t just leave the remains unburied,” he said.
Zarzis is a hotspot for illegal departures to Europe and Khenissi says some of the city’s own youth have also been victims of the wrecks.
Municipal workers and officials take shifts volunteering after work to conduct the burials.
After three hours of prep under the blazing sun, 14 bodies are buried alongside the 47 others already laid to rest at the new site, just outside a shelter for rescued migrants.
Mongi Slim of the country’s Red Crescent called for “international mobilization” to address the issue which “does not concern Tunisia alone.”
“The country is already struggling to take care of rescued migrants, but even more so for those who’ve died.”