Palestinians face financial crisis as US prepares Mideast plan

Palestinians face financial crisis as US prepares Mideast plan
Settlement buildings of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. (AFP)
Updated 01 May 2019

Palestinians face financial crisis as US prepares Mideast plan

Palestinians face financial crisis as US prepares Mideast plan
  • Unless the issue is resolved, the World Bank says, the Palestinians’ financing gap could exceed $1 billion in 2019

RAMALLAH: Israel and the US are putting the financial squeeze on the Palestinian Authority (PA), where opposition to a long-awaited US peace plan and anger over Israeli sanctions remain strong.

Analysts see steep cuts in US aid to the Palestinians over the past year as an attempt to draw them toward a blueprint that Washington promises will have economic benefits but which the PA predicts will fall short of endorsing Palestinian statehood.

And during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful re-election campaign, his right-wing government imposed sanctions that have pushed the Authority toward financial crisis.

In February, Israel announced it would cut by 5 percent the approximately $190 million in tax revenues it transfers to the Palestinian Authority each month from imports that reach the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The deducted sum represents the amount of money paid by the Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, to families of Palestinians convicted and jailed by Israel for security offenses, including lethal attacks on Israelis. Palestinians hail their jailed brethren as heroes in a struggle for an independent state and their families as deserving of support.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to accept the partial tax remittances from Israel, saying the PA is entitled to all the money under interim peace deals.

Unless the issue is resolved, the World Bank says, the Palestinians’ financing gap could exceed $1 billion in 2019, putting further strain on an economy grappling with a 52 percent unemployment rate.

Already facing international donor fatigue, the Palestinians were dealt a heavy blow by the Trump administration’s cut last year of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. In February, the US Agency for International Development announced it had ceased all assistance to the West Bank and Gaza.

While the US and Israel are applying financial pressure to the Palestinian Authority for different reasons, it is happening just as the PA is being leant on to accept the US peace plan.

Palestinian suspicions over the still-secret US proposals, due to be announced in June, and defiance of Israeli sanctions continue to run deep despite the arm-twisting.

Salary cuts

Khalid Al-Asili, the PA’s economy minister, told Reuters in an interview last week that it has been struggling to manage on just 36 percent of budgeted revenues.

The Authority slashed the salaries of government employees in February, March and April to weather the budget crisis, with some Palestinian public servants’ wages cut in half.

“Unless they find a solution ... it will be a disaster for the Palestinian economy,” Asili said.

With Trump’s “deal of the century” about to be unveiled, Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, questioned the wisdom of Washington’s financial pressure on the Palestinians.

Such a strategy, he said, stemmed from the “misguided belief that economic benefits could be sufficiently compelling for Palestinians to relinquish their political demands.”

One of the architects of the Trump plan, the president’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, declined to say in public remarks in Washington last week whether it called for a two-state solution, a goal of past efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Abbas and his officials have refused to deal at a political level with the Trump administration since the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and his move of the US embassy to the holy city last May.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has rejected out of hand “any political initiative that does not call for ending Israeli occupation and establishing an independent and sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

The Palestinians have long sought to set up a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Netanyahu further clouded the statehood issue when he said during the election race that he would annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank if he wins, a move that Palestinian leaders said would kill any prospects of peace.

Risks for both sides

While both sides await the US proposals, the financial sanctions on the Palestinian Authority could be a double-edged sword, posing risks to its stability and for Israel as well.

“Given that the PA’s main source of legitimacy is its capacity to employ a considerable proportion of the Palestinian workforce, internal discontent could challenge its ability to govern effectively,” Baconi said.

For Israel, weakening the Palestinian Authority could have an impact on Palestinian security forces that cooperate with the Israeli military in the West Bank.

“Israel takes it for granted that is has not experienced any major terrorist attack for years now,” said Avraham Sela, professor emeritus of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Coordination with the PA is invaluable for Israel’s security,” he said.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen, a member of Netanyahu’s security Cabinet, said on Monday that Israel has “no interest” in the Authority’s collapse.

But, he said on Israel’s Reshet TV, withholding tax revenues equivalent to the sums of “stipends and pensions being paid to terrorists” is justifiable.

‘Catastrophic cuts’

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Kadhim Harb, 50, who works in the Economy Ministry, said the salary reductions have forced him to delay loan payments.

“We are cutting back on everything. We only buy basic things,” Harb, said.

A police officer in Gaza, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmed, said his wages were slashed by 65 percent in March.

“Salary cuts? Please say: Catastrophic cuts. I haven’t been able to pay my son’s university tuition this semester,” said Ahmed, 39.

Donor countries and institutions have stepped in to try to plug the growing budget deficit.

At Abbas’s urging, the Arab League at a meeting in Cairo last week promised $100 million per month to the PA.

Those pledges would add to an increase in funds from Gulf Arab states following the US cuts. Saudi Arabia in 2018 gave $222 million to the Authority, up from $92 million in 2017, the World Bank said. Kuwait contributed $53 million last year.

Still, the PA faced a significant financing gap in 2018 — some $400 million, or roughly 10 percent of its budget — forcing it to accrue arrears on loans from local banks and other private sector financiers.


Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP
Updated 51 min 45 sec ago

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP
  • The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship.

Another private security official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to create leverage over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.

Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned vessel had left the Arabian Gulf Thursday bound for Singapore. On Friday at 0230 GMT, the vessel stopped for at least nine hours east of a main Omani port before making a 360-degree turn and sailing toward Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repairs, he said.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.

According to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides support and maritime training, he owns dozens of car-carrying ships and employs thousands of engineers.

The US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was “aware and monitoring” the situation. The US Maritime Administration, an agency of the Transportation Department, issued a warning to commercial shippers early Saturday acknowledging the explosion and urging ships to “exercise caution when transiting” the Gulf of Oman.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”


Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine
Updated 27 February 2021

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine
  • Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished
SANAA/NEW YORK: Ahmadiya Juaidi’s eyes are wide as she drinks a nutrition shake from a large orange mug, her thin fingers grasping the handle. Her hair is pulled back and around her neck hangs a silver necklace with a heart and the letter A.
Three weeks ago the 13-year-old weighed just nine kilograms (20 pounds) when she was admitted to Al-Sabeen hospital in Yemen’s capital Sanaa with malnutrition that sickened her for at least the past four years. Now she weighs 15 kilograms.
“I am afraid when we go back to the countryside her condition will deteriorate again due to lack of nutritional food. We have no income,” her older brother, Muhammad Abdo Taher Shami, told Reuters.
They are among some 16 million Yemenis — more than half the population of the Arabian Peninsula country — that the United Nations says are going hungry. Of those, five million are on the brink of famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warns.
On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise some $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what Lowcock says would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.
Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished, according to UN data. For much of its food, the country relies on imports that have been badly disrupted over the years by all warring parties.
“Before the war Yemen was a poor country with a malnutrition problem, but it was one which had a functioning economy, a government that provided services to quite a lot of its people, a national infrastructure and an export base,” Lowcock told reporters. “The war has largely destroyed all of that.”
“In the modern world famines are basically about people having no income and then other people blocking efforts to help them. That’s basically what we’ve got in Yemen,” he added.

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus
Algerian anti-government protesters take part in a demonstration in the capital Algiers, on February 26, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 27 February 2021

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus
  • Demonstrators kept up weekly protests after Bouteflika’s resignation, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962

ALGIERS: Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Algeria’s capital on Friday as the Hirak pro-democracy movement gathers renewed momentum after a year-long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite a ban on gatherings over the pandemic, crowds gathered in several neighborhoods of Algiers in the early afternoon and marched toward the city center, AFP journalists said.
“It’s awesome. It’s like the big Friday Hirak protests,” one demonstrator said.
The Hirak protests were sparked in February 2019 over former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, and the long-time leader was forced from power in April that year.
Demonstrators kept up weekly protests after Bouteflika’s resignation, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
They only suspended marches last March due to coronavirus restrictions, but calls have recently circulated on social media for a return to the streets.

BACKGROUND

The Hirak protests were sparked in February 2019 over Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term, and the long-time leader was forced from power in April that year.

Protesters on Friday were met by security forces who used truncheons and fired tear gas when a crowd forced its way through a police barrier to reach the Grand Post Office, the main Algiers rallying point of the Hirak protests, footage posted on the Interligne news site showed.
The crowd chanted “Civil state, not military state” — a key rallying cry of the protests, which refers to the military establishment that holds sway over Algerian politics.
Police vans took up positions near main squares in the city center and roadblocks were set up on several major roads leading into the capital.
Rallies were also held in some provinces, including in northeastern Kabylie and northwestern Oran, where a prominent human rights activist, academic Kadour Chouicha, was arrested, according to prisoners’ rights group CNLD.
In Algiers, people among the crowd said there appeared to be at least as many people in the streets as last Monday, when thousands marched to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak protests.


UN agency’s decision to cut aid to Gaza Strip refugees raises concern

UN agency’s decision to cut aid to  Gaza Strip refugees raises concern
Young Palestinians take part in a protest against what they say are food aid cuts by the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip. (File/AFP)
Updated 27 February 2021

UN agency’s decision to cut aid to Gaza Strip refugees raises concern

UN agency’s decision to cut aid to  Gaza Strip refugees raises concern
  • “UNRWA, in its new vision for the distribution of foodstuffs, wants to produce a fairer and more transparent system for new groups that will be included in the base of beneficiaries of food aid”

GAZA CITY: Mohammed Rashwan is worried for his family of 10 after a decision from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to reduce aid to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip.
He was diagnosed with cancer about seven years ago and relies on the relief aid provided by the agency.
“A single basket of aid is not enough for us for a month, but it used to fill part of our needs, in addition to relief aid from local institutions,” he told Arab News.
He qualified as being a member of the poorest group of beneficiaries and so received double aid, known as the “Yellow Coupon.” 
But on Feb. 20 UNRWA said it was canceling this coupon, which helps 770,000 Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip. The strip is home to 2 million Palestinians.
Rashwan described the decision as “unjust” because it did not take different living conditions into consideration.
Under the new system, he will lose about half the aid he used to receive every three months, and there will instead be a unified food basket system for all beneficiaries.
Last Sunday he, along with other angry refugees, protested the coupon’s cancellation by closing UNRWA supply centers.
A meeting held last Monday by the Joint Committee for Refugees with the director of UNRWA’s operations in Gaza, Matthias Schmale, failed to dissuade the agency from its decision.

FASTFACT

Cancer victim Mohammed Rashwan describes the UN Relief and Works Agency’s decision as ‘unjust’ because it does not take different living conditions into consideration.

Committee member Bakr Abu Safiya said there was agreement between different refugee representative bodies about challenging the UNRWA decision, with the agency being given a Monday deadline to pledge a written letter rescinding its decision.
Abu Safiya added that it was too early to talk about options if UNRWA stuck to its guns, but stressed there would be “a program of action and we will not violate the rights of refugees, and the matter may reach the point of demanding the firing of Schmale.”
Schmale, who was appointed to the post in Oct. 2017, has not enjoyed a good relationship with refugee representatives in Gaza.
Abu Safiya described Schmale as “elusive” since taking office and said he had made decisions that were “harmful to refugees, such as reducing services, stopping employment, and fabricating a crisis of employees’ salaries.”
The meeting with Schmale was “stormy and did not produce a result,” he said.
“We will wait for an official position until Monday, after which the response will be considered.”
UNRWA was established in 1949 by a UN General Assembly resolution. It provides services in various sectors to about 5.6 million Palestinian refugees registered with it in its five fields of operations: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
UNRWA media adviser, Adnan Abu Hasna, said the agency would adhere to its decision and not back down.
“UNRWA, in its new vision for the distribution of foodstuffs, wants to produce a fairer and more transparent system for new groups that will be included in the base of beneficiaries of food aid.”
According to Abu Hasna, the new system would benefit tens of thousands more refugees, with an increase of 10 kilos of flour per person.
But Abu Safiya described the new system as a “crime against refugees” and accused the agency of manipulating the numbers of beneficiaries.


US launches strike against Iranian forces in Syria

Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office in January. (Reuters/File Photo)
Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office in January. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 27 February 2021

US launches strike against Iranian forces in Syria

Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office in January. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Airstrikes were retaliation for rocket attack against American forces in Erbil, Pentagon officials say

CHICAGO: A US airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to an Iranian-backed armed group, killing one fighter and wounding several others, according to the Associated Press. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said as many as 22 fighters were killed. 

Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20.

Pentagon officials said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack at the International Airport in Erbil on Feb. 15 that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran.

“I think the very limited nature of the strike means both that it is unlikely to cause an escalation, and it is unlikely to change Iranian behavior,” said Justin Logan, a Fellow at the Conservative Cato Institute. 

“Just as limited strikes from Iran-linked militias are unlikely to change US policy in Iraq. What is the point? There is a schoolyard logic to the strike — he hit me first — but the question ought to be about what effect it is expected to produce.”

US Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said the attacks were clearly intended to target Iranian regime proxy militia groups operating in Syria.

“The American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress,” Kaine said in a statement. 

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional, absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.”

Kaine, who has challenged presidential actions to expand military force without congressional authorization, introduced legislation to prohibit a war with Iran without bipartisan support from the Senate and the House, but the bill was vetoed by former President Donald Trump.

Former US ambassador to Morocco, Edward Gabriel, defended the strikes saying they were a necessary response given Iran’s violence against American targets.

“This attack, coming on the advent of US-Iranian talks, sends the important message that we, the United States, will not allow Iranian-sponsored attacks on US personnel and will respond to any such threat accordingly,” said Gabriel, who is a member of the Arab Americans for Biden coalition.

“It was measured and indicates that the Biden administration seems prepared for a negotiation with Iran that not only deals with curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions, but will also not tolerate Iranian proxy aggression in the region anymore.”

Ali Safavi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, said the Iran regime only understands a policy of firmness.

“So long as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxy groups and militias continue to operate in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, wreaking havoc in the Middle East, incidents such as the ones in Erbil, Ballad, and Baghdad will persist,” Safavi said.

“Tehran only understands the language of firmness; weakness only emboldens it.”