Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

Anti-government protesters hit a police officer as they try to remove barbed wire that blocks a road leading to the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (AP)
Updated 19 November 2019

Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

  • Protesters have sought to prevent members of parliament from attending the session

BEIRUT: Protesters prevented Lebanon's parliament from holding its first session in two months on Tuesday, escalating a wave of demonstrations against rulers blamed for steering the country towards economic collapse.

Banks reopened after a one-week closure, with police stationed at branches and banks applying restrictions on hard currency withdrawals and transfers abroad.

The protests erupted last month, fuelled by corruption among the sectarian politicians who have governed Lebanon for decades. Protesters want to see the entire ruling class gone from power.

Lebanon's economic troubles have increased since then. Despite the depth of the economic crisis, the worst since the 1975-90 civil war, politicians have been unable to form a new government since Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri quit on Oct. 29.

Near parliament on Tuesday, gunfire was heard as several dozen protesters forced two SUVs with official plates and tinted windows to turn back as they approached the building, Lebanese television showed.

The vehicles sped away after they were struck by demonstrators chanting "Out, out, out!"

Parliament postponed the session indefinitely.

"This is a new victory for the revolution and we are continuing until we achieve our goals," said protester Abdelrazek Hamoud.

The session's agenda had included reelecting members of parliamentary committees and discussion of an amnesty law that would lead to the release of hundreds of prisoners. Protesters were angry the MPs were not tackling their demands for reform.

Security forces had fanned out before dawn, shutting down roads around parliament with barbed wire. Police scuffled with protesters who tried to remove a barbed wire barricade.

Ahmad Mekdash, a civil engineer, said: "They should be meeting right now to form a new cabinet and not to pass laws, especially laws that aren't urgent."

The economic crisis, rooted in years of government waste and corruption, has now filtered into the financial system which faces dollar shortages and a weakening of the pegged pound. Banks had mostly been closed since the protests started.

Though the banking association on Sunday had agreed a weekly cap of $1,000 on cash withdrawals from U.S. dollar accounts, some depositors found they could only withdraw a lesser amount.

Six customers at Bank Audi were told they could only take out a maximum of $300. Several customers at BankMed were told the cap was $400.

A banking source said the $1,000 figure had been set as a ceiling and for some customers it was less depending on the amount in their account.

"I have an account with $8,000 dollars and they won't let me withdraw above 300. They told me you can take $1,000 out only if your account has above $100,000 in it," said Bank Audi customer Charif Baalbaki, 43, a copywriter.

Bank of Beirut customer Khalid Maarouf, 40, who works in textiles, said he didn't know how he was going to come up with dollar payments he needed to make this month.

"I need $20,000 before the end of the month to make payments to people and I can only get $1,000 each week," he said.

Caretaker finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil said Lebanon was in "a critical condition" requiring a new government. But in the last few days he said there had been "no real new effort" towards forming one.

Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, wants to return as prime minister of specialist ministers devoid of any other politicians, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies say the government should include politicians.

Capital Economics said in a research note: "Pressure is growing on Lebanon's dollar peg and, in the event of a devaluation, the pound could fall by as much as 50% against the dollar."

The central bank has vowed to maintain its currency peg of 1507.5 to the dollar, in place since 1997. The dollar buying price on a parallel market was 1820-1830 pounds on Tuesday according to five currency dealers, about 20% higher than the official rate. 

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British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

Updated 21 January 2020

British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

  • Palestinian envoy welcomes cross-party call ahead of visit by Prince Charles

LONDON: A group of British MPs has called for the UK to recognize the state of Palestine ahead of a visit by Prince Charles to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a letter to The Times, the MPs, along with figures from think tanks and pressure groups, said the move was long overdue and would help fulfill Britain’s “promise of equal rights for peoples in two states.” 

The call comes as the heir to the British throne travels on Thursday to Israel and the occupied West Bank. 

During the visit, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem. 

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

The letter said since 2014, no meaningful progress has been made in the peace process, and Israel’s actions are pushing a two-state solution beyond reach.

“Illegal Israeli settlements, described by the Foreign Office as undermining peace efforts, are expanding,” the letter said.

Among the signatories are Emily Thornberry, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, welcomed the move but said full recognition from the British government should have happened many years ago.

“Recognition doesn’t contradict peacemaking and negotiations,” Zomlot told Arab News, referring to the main argument used by the UK against taking such a step. 

“It reinforces the vision (of a Palestinian state) and a negotiated two-state solution. It should happen now because of the threat of annexation (of Palestinian territory) and the killing of the two-state solution.”

FASTFACT

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP who signed the letter, told Arab News that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toward Palestine “makes the achievement of a two-state solution more and more remote with every week that passes.”

He said: “The UK has historic and political obligations toward Israelis and Palestinians. There’s now no longer any good reason not to recognize the state of Palestine.”

A spokesman for Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who also signed the letter, told Arab News: “The fact that this has cross-party support shows the growing desire across Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the international community needs to finally stand up for the solution that it has had on the table for decades.

Doyle, an Arab News columnist, said the letter is an “indication that many people in British politics think we should be doing this, we should be standing up for the Palestinian right to self-determination, the legal rights, at a time when the state of Israel is doing everything to stop this, to take more land from the Palestinians.”

The letter was timed to coincide with a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday, who discussed the Middle East peace process.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, has been increasing calls for European countries to recognize the state of Palestine as the US has shifted to a more pro-Israel stance, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Europe could strengthen its role in the peace process if it recognized Palestine.

“European recognition of this state is not only a European responsibility but a concrete way to move towards a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Only nine out of the 28 EU countries have so far recognized Palestine as a state, compared to 138 out of the 193 UN member states.

In 2011, the UK’s then-Foreign Minister William Hague said the British government “reserves the right” to recognize Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, and when it can best serve the cause of peace.”

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of “nonmember observer state.”