Arab region prepares for prompt COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Arab region prepares for prompt COVID-19 vaccine distribution
A handout image provided by Emirates News Agency on July 16, 2020 shows Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al-Hamed, chairman of Department of Health, undergoing a clinical trial for the third phase of the inactive vaccine for COVID-19 in Abu Dhabi. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 17 November 2020

Arab region prepares for prompt COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Arab region prepares for prompt COVID-19 vaccine distribution
  • Behind-the-scenes negotiations under way to buy a working vaccine as soon as it becomes available
  • Governments, manufacturers, NGOs and philanthropist groups expected to play important roles

DUBAI: As scientists and drug companies race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, extensive efforts are going on at many different levels to battle the pandemic.

What has mainly grabbed the headlines so far are efforts by pharmaceutical laboratories to come up with successful treatment options, vaccines in particular. Behind the scenes, complex negotiations are under way to buy a working vaccine as soon as it becomes available, according to experts.

Several countries, including some in the Middle East, are involved in talks with leading companies and research institutes engaged in various phases of trials.

The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, is engaged in preparatory talks with countries on ways of ensuring prompt and fair distribution once a vaccine becomes available.

Should ongoing efforts succeed over the next few months, experts say, they would be the quickest in the history of vaccines.

All phases of vaccine trials are on the “fast track,” according to Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the Infectious Hazard Management Unit at WHO’s regional office in Cairo.

(Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit at WHO’s Cairo office)

 

“There are three or four vaccines in Phase III trials, and we might be able to get one by the end of the year, or the beginning of next year,” he told Arab News. “That is really very fast compared to the normal procedure with vaccines, which normally take 18 months or longer.”

Where are we on a COVID-19 vaccine? Consultant Khawla Abu-Izza explains the progress made

Moderna (a US company), in collaboration with the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services: This is the most advanced vaccine candidate in the US. It uses the relatively new mRNA (a nucleic acid) technology, which has not been introduced in commercially available vaccines. As the manufacturing process is not difficult, it may be easier to scale up production compared to conventional methods.

BioNTEch (a German company) in collaboration with Pfizer: This vaccine candidate also uses mRNA technology similar to Moderna’s. The study was initiated in the US and aims to enroll 30,000 subjects globally. The company says results will be available for regulatory review and potential approval as early as October 2020. If this is true, there has likely been an agreement with the FDA on an interim point to evaluate data from a smaller number of subjects (e.g. the first 1,000 subjects) while the study is still ongoing. This could potentially provide the basis for early conditional approval. Full approval would be granted only after the study is completed and the full NDA is submitted and reviewed.

AstraZeneca in collaboration with Oxford University (UK): This vaccine candidate uses a different technology called viral vector. This technology has a precedent in at least one approved vaccine. Phase III study is enrolling subjects in India.

Sinovac: This is the company developing the most advanced vaccine in China. Phase III clinical trials are being conducted globally. Sinovac is probably ahead of Western companies because it started earlier. Sinovac uses a well-established “conventional” vaccine technology (inactivated virus) and can be implemented in existing manufacturing facilities. However, it may prove more challenging to manufacture at a very large scale because it requires an actual virus (the virus is produced and deactivated in a way that renders it non-infectious but still able to trigger the production of antibodies).

Research is being fast-tracked for many reasons. “The burden of COVID-19 on both the social and economic fields is significant. We have not seen such a thing before,” Abubakar said. “Secondly, there is a political commitment, and, third, so much funding. Governments are actually pouring resources into the vaccine development and that is what makes the difference.”

Based on a protocol agreed by the international community, WHO is playing a “major role” in coordinating efforts of different groups, starting from registering their initiatives to producing a vaccine, according to Abubakar. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to come up with a vaccine that does not follow international standards and guidelines.”

WHO is organizing periodical meetings on COVID-19 vaccine trials, drugs and diagnostic tools, and offers a database and platform for all involved companies and entities, he explained.

More than 170 companies are in the vaccine race, including nearly 135 in the pre-clinical trials phase, 30 in the first two phases, and six in the third phase. Companies from Taiwan and India have recently joined the fray.

FASTFACTS

Arab countries in vaccine deals

* Saudi Arabia has agreed to play a key role in the development of a Russian vaccine as part of a Phase III study expected to begin in August.

* Kuwait has reached an agreement with Gavi to provide the country with 800,000 doses.

* The UAE has reached an agreement with a Chinese firm to be part of a Phase III study on its vaccine.

* Oman is negotiating with Gavi to obtain 700,000 doses once a vaccine is announced and produced.

* Egypt has signed a deal with AstraZeneca to receive an unannounced number of doses.

The third phase usually takes longer and typically ranges between one to several years because of the high number of volunteers, usually in the tens of thousands, and the several tests involved. Volunteers are randomly assigned to take either the vaccine or a placebo — a “fake” vaccine that could be just saline or a sterile buffer in an injection.

Both groups of subjects are continuously tested for antibodies and checked for any side effects, according to Khawla Abu-Izza, owner of Bayview CMC Consulting in Berkeley, California.

Phase III trials will also determine the duration of the protection the vaccine will offer, the Arab-American consultant told Arab News.

“If the subjects who took the vaccine are more protected for the first couple of months, but at four or six months we don’t see a difference between those on the active and those on the placebo, that means the protection is only short-lived,” she said.

The companies at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development include Moderna (US), BioNTech (Germany) in collaboration with Pfizer (American/Multinational), AstraZeneca in collaboration with Oxford University (UK), and Sinova (China). The first three announced phase III trials in July, after the Chinese company.

“It is difficult to predict which one will make it to the finish line first, but it’s almost certain that companies have agreements with regulatory agencies on interim early analysis of partial data well before completion of the entire study,” Khawla said.




Jose Muniz prepares a COVID-19 vaccination at Research Centers of America on August 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (AFP)

This means major regulatory bodies, including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency, could allow a shortening of the review period to a few months or to grant “conditional approval” as soon as they see “clinical results” without waiting for the full new drug application (NDA) to be submitted.

Since the search for drugs to treat COVID-19 requires fewer studies and because of the smaller size of clinical studies and shorter treatment or observation periods, Khawla said, “We may see more drugs approved for the treatment of COVID-19 before we see a successful approved vaccine.”

Another “most likely” scenario, according to her, is that more than one vaccine will be approved back to back.

“Vaccine companies will have more than one manufacturing site. Typically, it’s two sites; one in North America and one in Europe, or one in a Western country and another in Asia (China, India or Korea),” she said. “Japan typically likes to have drugs and vaccines for the local market manufactured within the country. So, companies try to find Japanese manufacturing partners. The same is true for China, but in this case, China is developing its own vaccine and may not need any US- or EU-developed vaccines.”

Questions such as how much the companies can produce and who would be the first recipients will become important, as manufacturers cannot cover the needs of the world’s 7 billion people at once. Depending on the number of production lines, experts say the optimistic scenario is between 240 million and 400 million doses a year in the early stages.

“I could see 50 percent of the production reserved for the countries developing the vaccine,” Belal Zuiter, senior consultant at Cambridge Pharma Consultancy in London, told Arab News. Countries severely affected by COVID-19 and those containing vulnerable groups can be expected to receive priority, Zuiter said, adding that Arab countries would not necessarily be low on the priority list.

(Belal Zuiter, senior consultant at Cambridge Pharma Consultancy)

 

Many nations, including Arab countries with strong relations with potential producer states, have begun talks on obtaining the vaccine. “I know that most ministries of health have had talks with Moderna and AstraZeneca to book their quantities,” Zuiter said. “I think the Arab world will have enough doses within the first two or three months after a vaccine is produced.”

COVAX and Arab countries

Several Arab countries have joined scores of others officially expressing their interest in participating in the COVAX facility, described as an “insurance policy” to access COVID-19 vaccines. The mechanism is designed to guarantee rapid, fair, and equitable access to the world’s largest and most-diverse vaccine portfolio.

Once a vaccine has been approved by regulatory agencies and/or prequalified by WHO, the COVAX facility will then purchase these vaccines to try and initially provide doses for an average of 20 percent of each country’s population, focusing on healthcare workers and the most vulnerable groups, Gavi’s website says.

The goal is to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. According to the latest WHO estimates, more than 16.5 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and over 655,000 people have died from the virus. In the Eastern Mediterranean regional office of WHO, which includes the Arab countries and Iran and Afghanistan, latest figures show that there were 1,620,439 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 42,701 deaths, and 1,353,859 recovered cases in the countries for which it is responsible.

- Low-income participants in COVAX: Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
- Lower-middle-income participants in COVAX: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, West Bank and Gaza.
- Countries that have expressed in writing their interest in Gavi’s COVAX facility and agreed to be named publicly: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar.

While governments will be responsible for distributing the vaccine, manufacturers, NGOs and philanthropist groups will have important roles to play. “There are two big groups (working with WHO), Gavi and CEPI,” Abubakar told Arab News. “Our three organizations are working together not only to coordinate the production of an effective vaccine, but also to ensure equitable distribution.”

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is a public-private partnership established in 2000 to help vaccinate half of the world’s children. Among its members are developing and donor countries, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, is a partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil organizations launched at Davos in 2017 to develop vaccines and stop epidemics.

WHO, Gavi and CEPI established COVAX, a facilitation mechanism for countries, producers, manufacturers and users, according to Abubakar. While some countries can engage directly with the manufacturers, others cannot because of lack of cash. COVAX handles negotiations with manufacturers. He said discussions over prices have already started between potential producers and low- and middle-income countries.




A nurse shows a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech at the Sao Lucas Hospital, in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil on August 08, 2020. (AFP)

“The idea behind COVAX is just to make sure all countries, whether rich or middle-income or low-income, will be able to access at least enough supplies of the vaccine for priority groups,” he told Arab News.

WHO is helping governments to prepare the regulatory groundwork for the vaccine and to put in place policies and necessary systems for widespread distribution.

“Remember, this vaccine is not for everyone, priority will be given to high-risk groups,” Abubakar said.

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi


Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned
Israeli security forces clash with Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 08 May 2021

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned
  • The UN Security Council Resolution 2334 considers all settlements, including those in Jerusalem, illegal

JERUSALEM: Israel braced for more protests on Saturday after clashes at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound left more than 200 people injured.

The unrest followed Friday prayers when Israeli riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians as violence erupted outside Islam’s third holiest site.

At least three people were seriously injured when Israeli troops used rubber bullets to disperse worshippers at the UNESCO world heritage site.

Israeli forces stormed the mosque’s plaza and fired sound grenades inside the building, where throngs of worshippers, including women and children, were praying on the last Friday of Ramadan.

The clashes came amid soaring tensions over Israeli restrictions on access to parts of the old city during Ramadan and the threat of eviction hanging over four Palestinian families in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.

The Israeli violence drew worldwide condemnation.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the Kingdom “rejects Israel’s plans and measures to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem and impose Israeli sovereignty over them.”

The UAE “strongly condemned” the clashes and potential evictions, and a statement by Khalifa Al-Marar, the foreign affairs minister, urged Israeli authorities to reduce tensions.

The UAE stresses the need for Israeli authorities to assume their responsibilities in line with international law to provide protection to Palestinian citizens, a statement carried by state news agency WAM said.

Wasfi Kailani, executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the reconstruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque, told Arab News that there was no excuse for the Israeli action.

“What happened on Friday night is inexcusable. Violating the mosque’s sanctity during the last 10 holy days of Ramadan is illegal and a clear violation of the right to worship. Its status quo must be protected.”

Kailani, a member of the Jerusalem Waqf Council, said Israeli forces not only violated the peace of worshippers but also destroyed mosque property, including its clinic and gates.

Hijazi Risheq, head of the Jerusalem Merchants Committee, told Arab News that attacks by Israeli forces were meant to intimidate Palestinians following threats by Jewish extremists of a large-scale infiltration into Al-Aqsa on what they call Jerusalem Day.

“However, the people of Jerusalem have broken the barrier of fear and are no longer afraid of Israeli soldiers or Israeli prisons,” he said.

Risheq called on Arab and Islamic countries to help Palestinians defend the mosque.

The late-night clashes in the old city of Jerusalem followed days of tension in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where Israelis are trying to evict an entire Palestinian community and hand over their properties to ultra-extreme Jewish settlers.

The Waqf Council, Jordan, the US, EU, and European and Arab countries issued statements denouncing the violence in the city.

The US called on all parties to avoid actions that could damage final status talks between Israel and Palestinians, including settlements.

The UN Security Council Resolution 2334 considers all settlements, including those in Jerusalem, illegal.

Israeli police issued a statement saying officers were attacked with stones and firecrackers and had to restore order.

A police statement claimed that 17 officers were injured, with at least half requiring further attention.

Palestinian citizens of Israel traveled in at least six buses to show their support for worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, but were barred entry near the village of Abu Ghish.

After they disembarked and began to walk the remaining 20 km distance to the site, local residents came to pick them up in private cars.

 


US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive

US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive
United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia. (AP file phot)
Updated 08 May 2021

US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive

US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive
  • The Yemeni government said it was willing to engage in direct talks with the Houthis on ending the war

AL-MUKALLA: The US has criticized the Iran-backed Houthis for refusing to meet UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths in the Omani capital and spurning calls to stop their deadly offensive against Yemen’s central city of Marib.

“The Houthis passed up a major opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to peace and to make progress on this proposal by refusing to meet with UN special envoy Griffiths in Muscat,” the US State Department said in a statement, adding that the Houthis contradicted their commitments to comply with the available “fair deal” to end the worsening humanitarian crisis by escalating their offensive on Marib.

The US government said that the internationally recognized government of Yemen had expressed willingness to find an agreement to end the war.

Last week, officials said that Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdul-Salam refused to meet the UN envoy to discuss his ideas for ending the war, and he also demanded a halt to Arab coalition airstrikes, unregulated flights in and out of Sanaa airport and an end to restrictions on Hodeidah seaport before agreeing to put into place a nationwide truce.

The Yemeni government said it was willing to engage in direct talks with the Houthis on ending the war.

Abdullah Al-Alimi, the Yemeni president’s chief of staff, told a gathering of foreign reporters at an online press conference on Friday that the Yemeni government did not take part in the stalled round of negotiations in Muscat since Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his government have already agreed to the terms of the UN-brokered Joint Declaration.

Regarding the Houthi offensive on the city of Marib, Al-Alimi said the battle is a matter of death and life for millions of Yemenis to prevent the country from becoming another model of Iran’s theocracy.

The Yemeni official told reporters that roughly 2,400 loyalists have been killed and 5,000 more wounded in the fighting in Marib since earlier this year and the Houthis have fired 93 missiles and 360 shells at government-controlled areas during the past five months.

In Marib, heavy fighting broke out on Friday night when government troops repelled two consecutive attacks by the Houthis in Al-Mashjah and Serwah near Marib city, a local army official told Arab News on Saturday.

The clashes ended on Saturday morning after the Houthis retreated after suffering heavy casualties and losing many military vehicles.

In the northern province of Jouf, Yemen’s army announced on Friday that it had liberated areas in Al-Alem after heavy clashes with the Houthis.

In the western province of Hodeidah, a mother and her two children were killed and five others were wounded when their vehicle hit an IED planted by the Houthis on the main road between Durihimi and Bayt Al-Faqih, local media said on Saturday.

 


Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March

Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March
Updated 08 May 2021

Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March

Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March
  • Last week Erdogan announced "full lockdown" until May 17 to curb a surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths
  • In recent weeks, Turkey has ranked fourth globally in terms of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections topping 60,000

ANKARA: Turkey’s daily COVID-19 cases fell below 20,000 for the first time since March 17 on Saturday, with 18,052 infections over the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed.
Last week, President Tayyip Erdogan announced what he called a “full lockdown” until May 17 to curb a surge in infections and deaths after the country eased restrictions in early March.
The data showed another 281 deaths from the coronavirus on Saturday, raising the total toll to 42,746. Total cases exceeded 5 million, although there has been a fall in infections since the lockdown.
In recent weeks, Turkey has ranked fourth globally in terms of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections topping 60,000.
However, Erdogan said earlier on Saturday that he hoped a “new normalization” period would begin after May 17, adding that reopening schools would be included in steps to be announced after the lockdown.
“There is a serious fall in death numbers now. This shows the measures we took are paying off,” Erdogan said.
Despite the recent fall in infections, Turkey on Friday was placed on the UK government’s travel red list, a move that threw the status of the Champions League final on May 29 and the Formula One Turkish Grand Prix on June 11-13 — both to be held in Istanbul — into doubt.
The pandemic has also hurt Turkey’s tourism revenues, which plunged by two-thirds to $12 billion last year.


Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border

Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border
Updated 08 May 2021

Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border

Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border
  • Four Lebanese smugglers stashed subsidized fuel in secret tanks hidden inside pick-up trucks
  • Police are working vigilantly to curtail smuggling to Syria but many smugglers are covered up by politicians or influential figures, Arab News told

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces have foiled a bid to smuggle 8,000 liters of fuel into Syria.   
The Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrested a four-member gang of Lebanese smugglers, who had stashed the subsidized fuel in two secret tanks that were hidden inside pick-up trucks.
ISF said an informant had tipped off intelligence and information teams about the smugglers’ intent to conceal the fuel and smuggle it through one of the Akkar-Hermel routes to Syria.
An ISF squad stopped and impounded three vehicles in a sting operation at Bayno-Al Oyoun highway, leading to Hermel, on Thursday.
The three impounded cars were the pick-up trucks and a white Mercedes, which was used to monitor the route.
“Unfortunately, while law enforcement bodies are working vigilantly to curtail smuggling of subsidized products by smugglers to Syria, many of those are covered up by politicians or influential figures,” an unnamed senior lieutenant said. “Smuggling subsidized goods (mainly petrol and diesel) has prospered recently, especially with smugglers purchasing fuel products here for around LBP40,000 ($26.53) per tank and selling them in Syria for three or four times that price.”
Fuel prices have soared in recent months due to shortages, which Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar blamed on smugglers exporting subsidized supplies to Syria.
If drivers are lucky enough to find petrol stations that are open they are forced to queue for hours. Stations have caps on the amounts of fuel permitted per person, with nobody allowed a full tank. Many stations remain closed.
Ghajar told the media recently that the need for petrol in Syria had encouraged Lebanese smugglers to illegally export subsidized materials for massive profits.
Media reports have said a 20-liter tank of subsidized Lebanese petrol costs nearly $4 dollars per liter according to the market rate, while smugglers were exporting smuggled fuel to Syria where people were willing to pay up to $25 rather than queue for hours.
The Lebanese Army said on Saturday that it had seized four cars, including a black hearse, that were being smuggled to Syria.
The black hearse had been stolen a week previously from the funeral services association in the Sad El Bouchrieh area.
“The stolen vehicles were being prepared to be smuggled to Syria,” said the army. 
Two Lebanese suspects were apprehended in Al-Hermel, 10 kilometers away from the Syrian border, for stealing the cars and arranging them to be smuggled.


Egypt, Arab League condemn Israel’s role in Al-Aqsa Mosque clashes

Stun grenades burst in the air amid clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Stun grenades burst in the air amid clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Updated 08 May 2021

Egypt, Arab League condemn Israel’s role in Al-Aqsa Mosque clashes

Stun grenades burst in the air amid clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (AFP)
  • More than 160 Palestinians and at least six Israeli police officers were injured in a series of confrontations at the mosque

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and the Arab League have condemned Israeli forces’ involvement in violent clashes outside Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

More than 160 Palestinians and at least six Israeli police officers were injured in a series of confrontations at the mosque late on Friday.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that it condemned Israeli forces’ “storming of the mosque and assault on worshippers there.”

A ministry statement called on Israeli authorities to “shoulder their responsibility in accordance with international law in providing the required protection for the Palestinian civilians and their right to perform their religious rituals.”

The ministry also highlighted the need to “halt any activities that violate the sanctity of the mosque, the holy month of Ramadan, and the Islamic and Christian Arab identity of Jerusalem city.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez reiterated Egypt’s rejection of any illegal activities that seek to undermine the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly the construction or expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory, as well as confiscation of lands and displacement of Palestinians. 

This “represents a violation of international law, undermines the chances of achieving the two-state solution, and represents a threat to the pillars of security and stability in the region,” said Hafez.

He denounced Israeli attempts to evict Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah district in east Jerusalem, saying that this “represents a violation of international humanitarian law and a continuation of the policy of forced displacement.”

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit also condemned the violence at the mosque, and the targeting of unarmed Palestinians with sound and gas bombs as well as rubber bullets. 

Warning of the consequences of escalation, Aboul Gheit said that the assault “provokes the feelings of Muslims around the world and reflects the intended Israeli policy of escalation.”

The violence follows recent “provocations and irresponsible actions against the Palestinian people,” he said.

Aboul Gheit called for immediate international action to halt the assaults, warning of an irreversible escalation in the occupied territories. 

An official source in the Arab League Secretariat quoted Aboul Gheit as saying that the timing of the Israeli assault reveals “a premeditated intention to provoke the Palestinians.”

It “also demonstrates recklessness with the feelings of Muslims and their right to perform their rituals in Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan,” he said.

The Arab League chief held the Israeli government accountable for what he described as “dangerous, irresponsible escalation.”