How Qassem Soleimani’s killing diminished Iran’s Middle East hegemony

How Qassem Soleimani’s killing diminished Iran’s Middle East hegemony
Qassem Soleimani was killed in a January US air strike. As head of the Qods Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) expeditionary arm, Soleimani and his unit built a reputation for brutality in foreign theaters from Aleppo to Sanaa. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

How Qassem Soleimani’s killing diminished Iran’s Middle East hegemony

How Qassem Soleimani’s killing diminished Iran’s Middle East hegemony
  • Tehran’s regional influence may have declined with the loss of Qassem Soleimani’s personality cult
  • New Quds Force chief Esmail Qaani’s low profile and lack of Middle East experience may be showing

LONDON: Six months ago, a US missile brought to an end the 23-year military career of the Middle East’s most dangerous man: Qassem Soleimani, the “shadow commander.”

As head of the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) expeditionary arm, Soleimani and his unit built a reputation for brutality in foreign theaters from Aleppo to Sanaa. The Quds’ network of proxies assassinated foreign politicians, laid siege to cities and fomented chaos across the Middle East.

In pursuit of the so-called Islamic Revolution, it seemed that Soleimani would stop at nothing.

But after six months without its infamous commander, evidence is mounting that the Quds Force’s power and corrosive influence may be in decline.

Prior to his death, Soleimani’s centrality to the military and foreign policy apparatus of the Islamic Republic could not be overstated, Dr Nima Mina, Professor of Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Arab News.

“Soleimani was the second most powerful man in Iran, you could say that about him,” he said. “But you definitely cannot say that about Esmail Qaani, his replacement.”

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei prioritised a smooth transition when he named then-deputy Qaani as the new head of the Quds Force the day after Soleimani’s death. However, this came at a cost.

On his inauguration, Qaani promised to continue working toward Soleimani’s central goal: to remove the US presence from the region. But Qaani, historically an Afghanistan specialist, does not speak Arabic, and did not play a prominent role in the 1979 revolution.

His low profile and lack of experience in the Middle East immediately raised serious questions over his ability to follow in the footsteps of Soleimani.

Six months since his promotion, Mina says, those doubts have played out: “Iran’s strategy in the region hasn’t changed, but they are in a much weaker position to achieve their strategic goals.

“Soleimani acted like a pop star, posing for pictures wherever he went. Qaani’s behaviour is more professional,” he said. “But he doesn’t have Soleimani’s ability to bring together people and to attract new recruits.”

Qaani, Mina adds, may be competent and experienced in managing Afghanistan and Pakistan, but “he’s not an expert in the critical areas west of Iran that the Quds Force is engaged: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Qaani doesn’t even speak Arabic.”

The results, particularly in Syria and Iraq, have been tangible.

In May, Mina told Arab News, one of the most senior officers of the Quds Force’s Syrian deployment — Brigadier Asghar Pashapour — was killed by Israel.

Israel has ramped up its air campaign against Iran in the country, but “the (Iranian) regime hides these deaths from their own people, who only find out about them when the funerals take place.”

More than ever, Mina adds, Israel is acting against Tehran with impunity.

The IRGC’s men on the ground in the war-torn country, deprived of their charismatic commander, are losing morale. By monitoring social media channels, Mina said, it has become clear that “among young members of the Basij (IRGC militia) in Syria, the mood is very low; they’re pessimistic.”

In Iraq, Tehran’s influence appears more stretched than ever. The Quds Force has faced a series of setbacks almost unimaginable under Soleimani.

Two attempts to install an Iran-friendly prime minister ended with failure, mass protests and Iranian consulates going up in flames.

Iran has now been forced to reckon with a US-friendly human rights activist prime minister — a man rumored to have provided the US with intelligence that led to the killing of Soleimani.

Worse yet, Iran’s control over the powerful Iraqi militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), shows signs of unravelling.

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READ MORE: The strike on Iran’s Soleimani

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Iraq’s UN envoy has affirmed that the new government’s priority is “restricting weapons to state hands” and consolidating Iraqi sovereignty.

In the Iran-Iraq war, Soleimani fought side by side with many of the men that would go on to become senior PMF leaders. The loss of these connections, coupled with a more assertive Iraqi government, threatens Iranian influence in their own backyard.

“In particular in Iraq,” Ali Alfoneh, Senior Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Arab News, “the simultaneous killings of Major General Suleimani and (Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah leader) Abu-Muhandis caused some trouble for the Quds Force.

“Qaani lacks Soleimani's deep personal relationship with PMF commanders to facilitate a smooth transition to a new leadership.

“Militia leaders had difficulties recognizing a peer as first among equals to succeed Abu-Muhandis as PMF chief.”

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Soleimani’s death, Alfoneh says, has resulted in greater, more visible rifts among factions within the PMF.

Units loyal to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Sistani have been increasingly open in their challenges to the leadership of the Iran-backed successor to Abu-Muhandis, Abu Fadak.

Without Soleimani’s cult of personality and ties to the leaders of various PMF militias, Alfoneh suggests there is potential for Iraqi proxies to stray even further from their Iranian patrons in the future.

“In the longer term, should the Islamic Republic find it difficult to continue its financing, arming and providing logistical support to the militias, we may see defections,” Alfoneh told Arab News.

Despite the last six months of setbacks, however, Dr. Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, cautioned that Iran “doesn’t walk away from its investments.”

“Iran’s influence through Soleimani had been based on the personal nature of relationships; this is where he was so important,” she told Arab News.

Iran is trying to adapt to these changes, changing its tactics in order to be more present and relevant. 

Dr. Sanam Vakil, Deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, UK

Now, Vakil says, they are attempting to mobilize a network of other senior figures — including Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nazrallah, Former Iranian Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani, as well as new Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani — to leverage influence in the post-Soleimani era.

This, Vakil explains, is part of a tactical shift taking place in how Iran manages its regional relationships without Soleimani.

“Soleimani could command and control,” she said.

“His personal connections provided an indisputable advantage. So over the past six months, the Islamic Republic’s relationships with its regional proxies have had to adjust and become more fluid.”

Vakil adds that Soleimani’s death forced some of these changes, but the coronavirus pandemic, the new Iraqi government and “changing dynamics on the ground in Lebanon and Syria” have also been instrumental.

“Iran is trying to adapt to these changes, changing its tactics in order to be more present and relevant,” Vakil said.

“We’re still waiting to see how this will play out.”

Soleimani’s death hurt Iran. It ushered in six months of foreign-policy failure, domestic strife during the coronavirus pandemic and a slow-motion economic collapse within Iran.

Without the “shadow commander,” the regime’s grip on its proxies and regional influence appear to be in retreat.

It would be premature, however, to count Tehran out completely.

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@CHamillStewart


Egypt affirms support for Libya

Egypt affirms support for Libya
Libyan Government of National Accord fighters stand guard at the reopening of a road between Misrata and Sirte. (AFP)
Updated 22 June 2021

Egypt affirms support for Libya

Egypt affirms support for Libya
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi stresses full support toward efforts to restore security and stability to Libya

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has affirmed that restoring Libya’s sovereignty begins with the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries, stressing Egypt’s full support for these efforts during all its actions at the bilateral, regional and international levels.
During his meeting with the Libyan foreign minister, Najla El Mangoush, in Cairo, President El-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s full support for the Presidential Council and the Libyan Government of National Unity during the transitional period with the aim of restoring security and stability to Libya, leading to holding national elections in December. He said that this is an essential step on the path to a political settlement of the Libyan crisis by activating the free will of the Libyan people.
He affirmed Egypt’s firm support for preserving the territorial integrity of Libya, safeguarding the capabilities of the Libyan people, and not interfering in Libya’s internal affairs.
The Libyan foreign minister expressed the Libyan government’s appreciation of the Egyptian role in the region and Egypt’s tireless efforts to support its brothers in Libya, which stem from the principles of preserving the unity of the Libyan territories and restoring stability and preserving the national institutions of the Libyan state.
These include the unification of the military establishment, the end of foreign interference, the exit of all mercenaries and foreign fighters, and the establishment of the principles of dialogue between the Libyan parties.
These include the unification of the military establishment, the end of foreign interference, the exit of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libya, the establishment of the principles of dialogue between the Libyan parties, support for national reconciliation in preparation for fair and transparent elections.
She commended Egypt’s support of efforts to settle the Libyan crisis, in light of the historical ties between the two countries.

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Arab League intervention in Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam not new: Aboul Gheit

Arab League intervention in Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam not new: Aboul Gheit
Secretary-General of Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit speaks during a news conference after the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 22 June 2021

Arab League intervention in Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam not new: Aboul Gheit

Arab League intervention in Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam not new: Aboul Gheit
  • Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that the Arab decision included a protest against any step that would illegally fill the dam, which represented a threat to the water security of Egypt and Sudan

CAIRO: Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said that the role of the league in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue is not new and that Ethiopia claims there is an Arab-African clash over the matter.
The secretary-general explained in television statements to the local Sada Al-Balad TV channel that the Doha meeting raised important points, the first of which was that the water security of Egypt and Sudan was part of Arab national security and the second was the request of the Security Council to hold a meeting about the issue.
Aboul Gheit said that the intervention of the Arab League in the issue of the Renaissance Dam was not new. It had previously formed a committee consisting of several countries, in addition to the league’s envoy at the UN, to follow up on the issue. He said that there was an urgent need for a member state of the Security Council to adopt the demand for holding a session on the issue, similar to Tunisia, explaining that the matter would come at the request of Egypt or Sudan.
He said that the Arab decision included a protest against any step that would illegally fill the dam, which represented a threat to the water security of Egypt and Sudan.
Aboul Gheit said that there was an Ethiopian attempt to claim that there was an Arab-African clash, explaining that this was not the case, especially since Egypt and Sudan were part of Africa, and two-thirds of Arabs lived in Africa.
He said that the Ethiopian claim mainly aimed to win the support of Africa on the issue of the Renaissance Dam at the expense of the two downstream countries, explaining that African Arabs, led by Egypt, always provided support to their continent. The secretary-general indicated that the cooperation between the Arab League and the African Union was clear as the league participated in the meetings of the African Union and vice versa, explaining that Ethiopia had the right to reject what it saw, but the Arab League also had the right to support the rights of its countries.
Aboul Gheit said that far from the Ethiopian reaction, which was characterized by a strong attack on the role of the Arab League, respect for the rules of international law remained a necessity that should be adhered to during the next stage.
“We are not in the jungle . . . The Nile River is governed by the rules of international law, and there is an absolute right for Egypt and Sudan to reject any unilateral measure that causes harm,” he said.
Aboul Gheit said that there was a legal obligation for the Ethiopian government to respect the rights of all riparian countries and not to cause any harm to downstream countries.
He said that Ethiopia must take into account all concerns that might affect the downstream countries, explaining that issues should be addressed through dialogue and consultation between the three countries.
The secretary-general added that the matter required an active role by the African Union and the EU, and that he believed the international community would not accept threats to stability in the Horn of Africa.
He stressed the need to push for negotiations to reach a binding agreement on the filling of the Renaissance Dam.
Aboul Gheit warned that continued Ethiopian intransigence would lead to a dangerous situation, especially as such a policy could lead to deaths. He said that the ministerial decision taken by the meeting in Doha was unanimous and that all countries had announced their support for the downstream nations.

 

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Protests spark after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling

Protests spark after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling
A shortage of fuel is the latest grievance for the Lebanese population, who are quickly sinking into new depths of poverty, amid an economic crisis. (AFP)
Updated 22 June 2021

Protests spark after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling

Protests spark after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling
  • On the black market, the price is between 70,000 to 100,000 Lebanese pounds

BEIRUT: Demonstrators blocked a highway connecting Lebanon and Syria on Monday with burned tires and metal bars, protesting a decision aimed at curbing smuggling into Syria.
Gasoline smugglers blocked the Masnaa crossing after security forces moved to prevent them from driving through the legitimate crossing.
Amid worsening living conditions in Lebanon, some are filling up their cars with goods and fuel and traveling into Syria through the Masnaa crossing to sell them on the other side at double the price.
“The process involves paying bribes to pass into Syrian territory, so when the Lebanese side decided to prevent smuggling, the smugglers protested,” said a security source.
Customs authorities in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa region announced they will strictly enforce permit requirements for vehicles going into Syria to limit fuel smuggling.
Protesters on the international highway demanded the process be applied to everyone crossing into Syria or be scrapped.
The Lebanese are still queuing for hours at gas stations to get subsidized gasoline, with a 20-liter canister of gasoline being sold for 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29).
On the black market, the price is between 70,000 to 100,000 Lebanese pounds.
The shocking costs have led to citizens waiting at gas stations getting into fights.
One person was wounded from a fistfight that turned into a shooting in front of a station in Tripoli on Monday.
The minister of energy in the caretaker government, Raymond Ghajar, said a few days ago: “The real price of a canister is about 200,000 Lebanese pounds, while the Lebanese now pay about 40,000 Lebanese pounds.”
His remarks came amid indications that the substance will no longer be subsidized “at a certain point.”
The former head of the Banking Control Commission of Lebanon, Dr. Samir Hammoud, said the Banque du Liban (BDL) was trying to buy time and provide sufficient capacity to face the harshest emergency conditions.
He believes that the Central Bank would continue to provide support and would not leave the country in chaos.
“The easiest thing to do would be to resort to lifting subsidies on gasoline, even if the price of a canister becomes 200,000 Lebanese pounds, but who will secure dollars to cover the cost of import?”
He said: “If the process of securing dollars is carried out from outside the Central Bank, we would be in a hellish cycle of chaos.
“Should the central bank manage the import process, the pressure on the dollar market would be relieved and gasoline will be secured for the Lebanese even if it is at 200,000 Lebanese pounds per canister.”
Hammoud, however, said that if dollars are secured from the market, it would be catastrophic since a canister would be sold at 400,000 Lebanese pounds, and the dollar exchange rate would surge to 30,000 or 40,000 Lebanese pounds for $1, and another dark tunnel would be awaiting the Lebanese.
The state is gradually lifting subsidies without making public statements about the process, for fear of the situation imploding. However, the process could be made public once the subsidy card is approved, but the bill is still stuck in parliament.
The presidency of the caretaker government issued a statement on Monday on the matter: “The resigned government has completed the subsidy card bill, as well as the World Bank loan program to help needy families, and has developed many formulas to rationalize support.”
The presidency added it is “is awaiting parliamentary approval on the subsidy card to determine the appropriate formula, and is working to mitigate the repercussions of BDL’s decision to stop financing the import of gasoline, diesel, medicine and fuel for electricity, which we did not agree to without the subsidy card.”
In a statement, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government hit out at “the political impotence that tries to hide behind smoke bombs and throws the weights of its impotence on the caretaker government, to push it to violate the constitution.”
Diab’s government is already under criticism for doing nothing to confront the deep crisis in light of the failure to form a new government.
The process of forming the new government stumbled upon further obstacles following the stance taken on Sunday by the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil.
Visitors to the Lebanese President Michel Aoun quoted him on Monday as saying that he “still has hope that the initiatives would reach a solution in the presence of sane people, provided that the constitution and the powers of the presidency of the republic are not violated.”
They noted that Aoun accused “former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of attempting to marginalize the presidency since 2005, as he allowed himself to organize the government’s agenda, hold sessions, and issue decisions, ignoring the presence of the president at the time.”
According to the visitors, Aoun also accused parliament of marginalizing the presidency of the republic because “it did not reconsider Siniora’s illegitimate decisions, and the presidency has become under the authority and tutelage of other leaders, with the resulting rampant corruption.”
Hammoud, meanwhile, refused to accuse the BDL and the banks of “gobbling up the money of the Syrian refugees.”
He added: “When dealing with refugee money, the BDL and the banking sector took different measures.
“Refugee money was paid at 6,240 Lebanese pounds for 1$; 60 percent more than the rate set at 3,900 Lebanese pounds for other depositors.
“Today, they receive their money at 12,000 Lebanese pounds for $1, according to the rate on Sayrafa, BDL’s official platform. This way, they stay fair to everyone and preserve the purchasing power of displaced Syrians.”


Yemenis hail UN blacklist of Houthis

Yemenis hail UN blacklist of Houthis
A Yemeni fighter backed by the Arab coalition fires his weapon during deadly clashes with Houthi forces on the Kassara frontline near Marib. (File/AP)
Updated 22 June 2021

Yemenis hail UN blacklist of Houthis

Yemenis hail UN blacklist of Houthis
  • Iran-backed militia rapped for ‘crimes against childhood’

ALEXANDRIA: Yemenis from all walks of life have hailed the UN blacklisting of Iran-backed Houthis for killing children in the war-torn country and renewed calls for tougher measures against the rebels, including designation as a terrorist organization.

Yemeni politicians, human rights activists and journalists who have long advocated shaming and naming the Houthis for abusing children praised the UN boycott and called on individual countries to follow suit.
“The grave violations committed by the Houthi militia against civilians in the past six years amount to war crimes against humanity, mainly against children,” Mohammed Ahmed Al-Omda, director of Yemen Human Rights and Freedoms Network, a Yemeni NGO that documents Houthi human rights abuses, told Arab News on Monday.
“This designation is the only weapon that can pressure the Houthis to stop crimes and violations against Yemeni children,” he said.
Fuad Al-Mansouri, head of Development Media, called for the Houthis to be designated a terrorist organization for threatening regional and international security.
“The Houthi militia is a terrorist group according to different definitions of terrorism. It targets civilian gatherings in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and threatens international shipping lines,” Al-Mansouri told Arab News.
On Friday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added the Houthis to a UN blacklist for killing and injuring children.
The Yemeni rebels have been included in the UN Secretary-General Report on Children and Armed Conflict for abusing and recruiting children since 2016.
Yemenis have launched a social media campaign to thank the UN for blacklisting the Houthis and also remind the international community about Houthi crimes against children.
Sharing graphic images of wounded or dead children, dozens of Yemeni activists, journalists, politicians and individuals said that the militia is responsible for killing and wounding thousands of Yemeni children and forcibly recruiting thousands more.
Abdul Basit Al-Baher, Yemeni army spokesperson in Taiz, said that the intensive rebel shelling of residential areas in the country kills young Yemenis at the same time as the militia “brainwash the minds of Yemeni children.”
“The Houthis physically are killing Yemeni children with weapons, but are also harming them mentally by raising an extremist generation on grudges and hatred,” the military official said in a twitter post.
Eyad Al-Sharabe, a Yemeni journalist and human rights activist, said that the Houthi abuse children under their control by brainwashing them. Children are then trained and sent to the battlefield. Meanwhile, children who live in government-controlled areas have their houses and schools targeted by missiles, mortars rounds and explosive-rigged drones.
“Children are not spared. They are pushed to the incinerators of death, and bombed in areas outside the Houthis’ control,” the activist said.
Sharing images of children gunned down by the Houthis, the Yemeni activists said that in August 2020, a militia sniper killed eight-year-old Ruwaida Saleh while she was collecting water in the city of Taiz, and fired at people who rushed to rescue her.
Other Yemeni activists posted images of Lian, the five-year-old who was burnt to death in a deadly Houthi strike in the central city of Marib on June 6.

This designation is the only weapon that can pressure the Houthis to stop crimes and violations against Yemeni children.

Mohammed Ahmed Al-Omda

“Whoever talks about Houthi humanity is inhuman. What do the criminal Houthi want from childhood?” asked Walid Al-Rajhy, director of the Marib-based Saba Media Center, on Twitter.
Human rights groups have monitored Houthi abuses of children along with the deaths, maiming and forced recruitment of thousands of Yemeni children since early 2015.
Yemen Human Rights and Freedoms Network has documented 20,977 abuses by the Houthis against Yemeni children as the rebels’ repression and military operations displaced 43,000 more children from January, 2017 to March, 2021.
Violations include killing, abduction, forced displacement, and depriving children of education and medical treatment. During those four years, the militia killed 343 children, including 31 infants.
Houthi mortar fire killed 287 children and land mines killed 136 others, according to the organization.
The organization said that 1,716 children have been killed while fighting with the Houthis.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni conflict analyst, said that the blacklisting of the Houthis is welcomed by Yemenis who view the move as international recognition of rebel crimes.
“Child recruitment, mass indoctrination, and the laying of land mines that killed and maimed thousands, mostly children, are only a few ways that the Houthis systematically abuse children, destroying the future of generations to come,” the analyst said.


Donations pour in to rebuild Gaza bookshop

Donations pour in to rebuild Gaza bookshop
Updated 21 June 2021

Donations pour in to rebuild Gaza bookshop

Donations pour in to rebuild Gaza bookshop
  • Over $210,000 raised, tens of thousands of books donated via global campaign
  • Samir Mansour’s shop was destroyed in multiple Israeli airstrikes in May

LONDON: Cash and book donations have flooded in to help rebuild one of Gaza’s largest and oldest bookshops, a two-storey building completely leveled by Israeli attacks.

The Samir Mansour bookshop was hit by multiple airstrikes on May 18, during 11 days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants that claimed the lives of around 150 Palestinians.

Founded over two decades ago, the Palestinian-owned shop was a much-loved part of the community.

It contained tens of thousands of books, covering genres from fiction to philosophy and everything in between.

Now a global movement has emerged to rebuild the Gaza treasure, with UK-based online children’s bookseller Books2Door donating 1,000 books.

“Without any hesitation I knew we could help,” said Books2Door founder Abdul Thadha. “We were kindly informed by the fundraisers that Samir had a diverse, eclectic collection, so we hope we have done him proud.”

A fundraiser set up by human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith has raised over $210,000, and tens of thousands of books from all over the world have been donated to Mansour’s rebuilding effort.

“Dropping bombs on Samir Mansour’s bookshop is not the worst tragedy to have hit the people of Gaza — but this particular airstrike targeted access to books,” said Rukhsana.

“It was an attack on the knowledge and literacy of this community. Samir lost almost 100,000 books and served schoolchildren and adults alike,” she added. 

“I knew hospitals and roads would receive funding, but secondary cultural institutions such as libraries are often overlooked but equally critical to the community.”

They are hoping to rebuild the bookshop, replace all of Mansour’s 100,000 lost books and create a new project, the Gaza Cultural Center, which would be a new library next door, allowing readers to borrow books without paying.

Rukhsana said in Mansour’s shop, “people were allowed to stay, have tea and read his books for as long as they wanted free of charge without an obligation to purchase … He has decided to use all gently used and some new books to create a true library.”

Mansour told The Guardian that his “heart was burning” when he realized missiles had hit his bookshop.

“The Israeli airstrikes bombed half of the building and my bookshop was in the other half. I wished they would stop … My feet took me a few steps forward, towards the bookshop. The last missile came and destroyed the building,” he said.

“It was six in the morning. I didn’t know what to do. I started searching among the rubble for anything related to my library. But everything was under the rubble,” he added.

“I sat thinking about why my shop was bombed. I did not publish, write, or attack any country or person in my life. I did not spread hatred but spread culture, science and love. I did not find answers to my questions.” But he vowed to “rebuild all over again, no matter what it took from me.”