Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon

Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon
Volunteers clean rubble from the streets following the huge explosion in Beirut's port area, in the Lebanese capital, on August 4, 2020. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon

Beirut blast aid faces an obstacle course in Lebanon
  • Many Lebanese have little faith that aid delivered through official channels will reach the right recipients
  • Raising funds is easier than distributing them due to lack of trust in the country’s banking system

DUBAI: No sooner had the explosion of Aug. 4 devastated Beirut than the Lebanese diaspora came to their home country’s rescue.

The extent of the damage to homes and infrastructure was still not clear, but no one was under any illusion about the blast’s severity given that the shockwaves were felt more than 200 km away in Cyprus.

By the morning of Aug. 5, Impact Lebanon, a non-profit based in London, had collected close to £1.5 million ($2 million).

Since then the organization, which was founded by a group of UK-based Lebanese when anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon in October last year, has built up an impressive $8.23 million.

But as fundraising activities by diaspora communities continue worldwide, a concern that looms large over them is how Lebanese civil-society groups will be able to access the money.

One of the biggest challenges the Lebanese people face, as they pick up the pieces after last month’s explosion in Beirut, is the country’s troubled financial system. 

A complex set of regulations that govern transactions involving dollar bank accounts in Lebanese banks meant that Impact Lebanon was able to begin transferring the funds it had raised from Aug. 25 — three weeks after the blast.


The transfers were made in small instalments in order to reduce the risk of loss while navigating a corrupt banking system.

Under a scheme known as “fresh money,” individuals outside the country can transfer dollars into a “fresh money” account in Lebanese banks.

But access to such an account is granted only to those who can prove they are the recipients of dollar transfers from abroad. 

How long the scheme will last is open to question, though, which partly explains why Impact Lebanon volunteers decided against a lump-sum transfer of the funds it had collected.




Fundraising activities by diaspora communities continue worldwide, but concerns looms large over about how Lebanese civil-society groups will be able to access the money. (Supplied: Mariana Wehbe)

“Money will be sent in different instalments to the 15-20 different NGOs the fund is supporting inside the country,” said Maya Hodroj, co-founder and director of Impact Lebanon.

Since it is still to be registered as a charity in the UK, Impact Lebanon used crowdfunding platform JustGiving for fundraising and partnered with Lebanese International Financial Executive, a non-profit organization with branches in Lebanon, the UK, the US and Switzerland, to distribute the money among a mix of Lebanon-focused NGOs.

Currently, despite the web of restrictive banking regulations, aid is getting channeled through civil-society and international aid organizations, including many in-kind donations of food, personal protective equipment, sanitary items and other goods, particularly from Gulf Cooperation Council member states such as the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Disruptions, however, continue to affect humanitarian work, such as the huge fire that broke out on Sept. 10 at a warehouse in Beirut port where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stores food parcels.

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Recently, the Trump administration said it would not be sending aid to the Lebanese government for fear it might end up in the hands of the Shiite Lebanese party Hezbollah, which is a US-designated terror group. Aid from the US will thus have to be sent through alternative channels.

Immediately after the blast of Aug. 4, residents of Beirut had no choice but to take care of themselves. The sense of helplessness prompted the rapid formation of a number of organizations by young Lebanese.

Their goal, in the immediate term, was to help the wounded, homeless and traumatized and, in the long term, to rebuild Beirut. 

“In the absence of government support, the Lebanese people had to fend for themselves, fixing the country and the people mentally and physically,” said Nancy Gabriel, co-founder along with Mariana Wehbe of Beb w Shebbek, an organization dedicated to repairing or replacing blast-damaged doors and windows of 80,000 homes.




Beb w Shebbek is an organization dedicated to repairing or replacing blast-damaged doors and windows of 80,000 homes. (Supplied: Mariana Wehbe)

“Beb w Shebbek is exactly like other Lebanese organizations born after the explosion. We had to create this initiative to help others because the government is totally absent,” Gabriel added.

“Three weeks after the explosion, most people are still living with open windows and doors. Their homes are totally destroyed. They have nowhere else to go.”

After the end of the civil war in 1990, foreign aid emerged as a key pillar of Lebanon’s financial and economic stability.

Since the blast, donor countries have pledged close to $300 million in aid. Additionally, the UN is trying to raise more than $500 million for Lebanon.

But some of the slogans heard on the streets of Beirut since Aug. 4 oppose more international assistance to the country.

Many Lebanese not only have little faith in aid reaching the right recipients, they are convinced that the country’s political elites are the ultimate beneficiary of the economic model.

“Many Lebanese government officials and advisors are paid with the millions allocated by programs such as those managed by the UNDP (UN Development Programme),” said Gino Raidy, a Lebanese activist and blogger.


“There’s a lack of trust right now in some international aid organizations, including the UN. It’s not about just giving money, but finding long-term solutions that will put an end to the corruption, instead of inadvertently encouraging it like we’ve seen for decades.”

Activist Mouin Jaber told Arab News from Beirut: “We’re actually playing the role of the Lebanese government, which stayed silent and remained inactive during the first two weeks of the disaster.”

He drew attention to the eyebrows raised by the sight of Lebanese military officers handing out aid to citizens three weeks after the disaster.

“Right now, the Lebanese Army is distributing food boxes to people, with camera crews documenting the propaganda,” said Jaber.


“They’ve been extremely incompetent and inefficient in providing aid to their citizens. It’s a joke.”

Jaber and his friends got in touch with four youth organizations and NGOs formed during the October protests to deliver relief kits to people affected by the explosion.

These include Minteshreen, a youth-led group that has been distributing food boxes during the coronavirus pandemic; Baytna Baytak, an NGO providing alternative housing to patients suffering from COVID-19 who could not go back to their homes, and is now arranging accommodation for those who lost their homes in the blast; Muwaten Lebnene; and Embrace Lebanon, a mental-health clinic.

“We assembled a team of engineers to assess damage to homes, and provided people with temporary solutions until long-term plans for rebuilding can be finalized,” said Jaber. “This is all voluntary work. No one is being paid.”

Some volunteers have set up an informal base camp for better coordination of aid and relief operations being managed separately by dozens of local NGOs.

“Instead of sending relief to these big organizations, it would be better to send money to reconstruction companies that have bank accounts abroad so that they have full access to the money,” said Jaber.

“This would be better than sending to third-party intermediaries because you never know where the money will go when it arrives in Lebanon.”




Beb w Shebbek is an organization dedicated to repairing or replacing blast-damaged doors and windows of 80,000 homes. (Supplied: Mariana Wehbe)

That said, fears expressed by some Lebanese on social media about NGOs encountering difficulty in getting aid into the country and relief supplies being mishandled by the government may have been overblown.

Nabih Jabr, under-secretary-general at the Lebanese Red Cross, said his teams received relief items and distributed them to those in need. “The problem was that we received too many in-kind donations too soon,” he told Arab News from Beirut.

“Some of them didn’t cater to the immediate needs of the affected population, and we rapidly ran out of space in nearby warehouses, so we took some of these items for processing in our warehouses all over the country,” he said.

“It always happens with in-kind donations that some end up sold in stores. People receive in-kind aid but need the cash, so some sell it to be able to get what they really need, and this is exactly why in-kind aid isn’t always the best aid.”

Jabr said in-kind donations can harm the local economy. “Small local businesses are already in trouble, and soon they’ll be in even more trouble if people don’t start buying again,” he added.

Jabr said the next step for the Lebanese Red Cross is handing out direct cash assistance. “This will start very soon,” he added. “This is the best and most efficient way to help people as long as there’s still a functioning local economy.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines

UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines
Updated 21 April 2021

UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines

UAE mulls movement restrictions on residents without COVID-19 vaccines
  • The UAE reports 1,903 new coronavirus cases and three fatalities
  • Abu Dhabi earlier approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

DUBAI: The UAE is considering imposing movement restrictions on individuals who remain hesitant to have themselves vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Dr. Saif Al-Dhaheri, spokesman for the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority.

“The vaccine is our best means to recover and return to a normal life … Delaying or refraining from taking the vaccine poses a threat to the safety of society and puts all groups, especially those most vulnerable to infection, at risk,” Dr. Al-Dhaheri said in reports from local media.

“Strict measures are being considered to restrict the movement of unvaccinated individuals and to implement preventive measures, such as restricting entry to some places and having access to some services, to ensure the health and safety of everyone,” he added, as he urged residents aged 16 and above to get vaccinated.

The UAE reported 1,903 new coronavirus cases and three fatalities related to the highly transmissible disease overnight, amid the government’s continued inoculation program for citizens and residents.

The country’s COVID-19 caseload now stands at 500,860 while total fatality count is at 1,559, a report from state news agency WAM said.

Health officials said that 113,621 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of jabs given provided to 9,788,826 for a distribution rate of 98.97 doses per 100 people.

Abu Dhabi earlier approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the second COVID-19 shot to be made available in the emirate after beginning a mass campaign using the Sinopharm vaccine that was trialed in the country.

Pfizer obtained emergency approval in the UAE in December and Dubai rolled out the vaccine during that month.


Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process

Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process
Updated 21 April 2021

Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process

Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process
  • Arab League, African Union, EU and UN call for accelerated efforts to improve security and fully implement ceasefire
  • UN chief Antonio Guterres says urgent and immediate action is needed or window of opportunity might be lost

The international Libya Quartet on Tuesday urged authorities in the country to step up their efforts to improve the security situation and build confidence, to help bring peace to the country and fully implement the ceasefire agreement.
The members of the Quartet — the League of Arab States, the African Union (AU), the EU and the UN — said they are ready to help with the 5+5 Joint Military Commission’s plans for a “robust, credible and effective” ceasefire monitoring mechanism.
On Friday the UN Security Council unanimously voted to send up to 60 international monitors to Libya to oversee the ceasefire, which was agreed in October between the two rival factions in the East and West of the country. Operational and logistical preparations for the mission are under way.
Speaking at the sixth meeting of the Libya Quartet, which was convened on Tuesday by the League of Arab States, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the monitoring team will initially be a “nimble” presence in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but expand over time.
He also made it clear that after years of violence and suffering there is a window of opportunity for peace “but urgent and immediate actions are needed to make use of this narrow window.”
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the Quartet members called for the “immediate and unconditional” withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from the country as a prerequisite for fully restoring Libyan sovereignty and preserving national unity.
They also condemned continual violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and the threat posed by armed groups and militias. They called for “the sustained implementation of measures to fully identify and dismantle these groups, and ensure the subsequent reintegration of those individuals meeting the requirements into national institutions as outlined in the ceasefire agreement … without delay.”
The meeting also included discussion of the possible deployment of AU, EU and Arab League observer missions, “at the request of Libya’s authorities, and if the requisite conditions on the ground permit,” to assist the National Elections Commission in its preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
The importance of the elections taking place in “a favorable political and security environment, so that they are held in an inclusive, transparent and credible manner and where all Libyans commit to respect their results and integrity” was emphasized.
Participants also encouraged Libya’s new Government of National Unity, and other relevant institutions, to uphold their commitment to appoint women to at least 30 percent of senior executive positions, and to promote a national, rights-based reconciliation across the country.


Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
Updated 21 April 2021

Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Aden, Yemen April 20, 2021. (Reuters)
  • The 12-day campaign was launched in the temporary capital Aden and 13 Yemeni governorates
  • The campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts

RIYADH: Yemen launched the first round of its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Tuesday in the temporary capital, Aden.
The campaign is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief).
Yemeni Minister of Public Health and Population Qasim Buhaibeh, Minister of Civil Service and Insurance Abdul Nasser Al-Wali, Governor of Aden Ahmed Hamed Lamlas, Yemen’s representative for UNICEF Philippe Duamelle, and director of the WHO office in Aden Noha Mahmoud all received the vaccine in a show of support, Saba News Agency reported.
Yemen received 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 31, part of a consignment from COVAX expected to total 1.9 million doses this year.
Buhaibeh said this was the first step toward reaching the ministry’s goal of administering 12 million vaccines by the end of the year, urging doctors, the elderly and those with chronic diseases to register to receive the jab.
Duamelle said frontline workers, the elderly and those with certain health problems would be prioritized.
“The launch of the campaign against the coronavirus is an important day in Yemen’s history,” he said, adding that the health minister and other ministers have taken the vaccination confirming its safety.
The 12-day campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts across 13 Yemeni governorates under the control of the internationally recognized government.
There has been a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections in Yemen since mid-February, further straining a health system battered by the conflict.
The government’s health ministry has previously said the COVAX vaccines will be free, and distributed across the country. COVAX is co-led by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance and the WHO to provide COVID vaccines to low-income countries.
Tuesday’s rollout covered only government-held parts of the country, said Ishraq Al-Seba’ei who is with the government’s emergency coronavirus committee. But she said 10,000 doses were being sent to Sanaa via the WHO.
Yemen’s emergency coronavirus committee registered 42 confirmed cases and six deaths on Tuesday. It has recorded 5,858 coronavirus infections and 1,132 deaths so far though the true figure is widely thought to be much higher as the war has restricted COVID-19 testing.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia, which controls the capital Sanaa and much of the north have provided no figures since a couple of cases last May.
Meanwhile, KSrelief said it has provided support for protection projects within Saudi Arabia’s grant for the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2020. 
The center cooperated with UNICEF to provide protection services by enabling children and their families to access psychosocial support and mental health services, totaling $4 million.
(With Reuters)


Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 21 April 2021

Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Natanz nuclear plant sabotage lays bare vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of own population
  • Analysts say Tehran’s tepid response is a sign of its desperation for sanctions relief above all else

LONDON: Analysts have said that the blast that struck Iran’s most critical nuclear facility on April 11 is another significant event in a decades-long shadow war between Tehran and its regional adversary Israel.

They say the sabotage has not only exposed Iran’s vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of its own population, but its tepid response has revealed its desperation for sanctions relief above all else.

Unnamed intelligence officials from Mossad told Israeli media and the New York Times last week that the mysterious Natanz explosion was their handiwork. And, according to Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, it is a continuation of the spate of blasts, blackouts, and fires that swept across the Islamic Republic last year — but with one major difference.

“What has changed from last year is how public it is. (Israel) is ready to take responsibility. From a shadow war it has moved to the forefront,” Mekelberg told Arab News.

“This confrontation has been taking place for two decades now, at least. Cyberattacks, assassinations of scientists, attacks on ships — this is something that is ongoing. What you have seen in the last year or so is that it is becoming open, from covert to overt.”

In the past year alone, Iran has been rocked by a relentless series of attacks, assassinations, and sabotages. The country’s top nuclear scientist was killed in a sophisticated attack.

Their entire nuclear archives were stolen and smuggled out of the country, and nuclear, military, and logistics sites across the country have suffered from a series of mysterious setbacks.

An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on April 17, 2021 shows the portrait of a man identified as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week's "sabotage" on the Natanz nuclear facility. (AFP/File Photo)

According to Mekelberg, these incidents have not only hindered Iran’s economy and nuclear program, but also exposed a fundamental weakness in the regime.

“They have a real issue inside their nuclear program,” he said. “The idea that their top scientist, they couldn’t protect him, and that someone managed to take your nuclear archives out of the country — that is not something you can simply put in your pocket.”

Iranian state television named 43-year-old Iranian national Reza Karimi as the prime suspect in the April sabotage — but said he had already fled the country in the hours before the blast occurred.

Mekelberg and other experts believe the involvement of an Iranian national is indicative of the regime’s core vulnerability: Turncoats within its population, and even within the nuclear program itself.

INNUMBERS

Iranian oil

* $40 - Price per barrel of oil used in Iran’s budget calculations.

* 300,000 - Estimated oil exports in barrels per day (bpd) in 2020.

* 2.8m - Iranian oil exports in bpd in 2018.

“They have a real issue with security. I assume that the more things like this happen, the more paranoid they become about who they can trust, who is working with foreign agencies. Obviously, someone is,” Mekelberg said.

Olli Heinonen, a non-proliferation expert and distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, believes the sophistication of the Natanz attack means there is little doubt that local collaborators from within the regime enabled it.

“Those who have designed and executed these actions have insider information and highly likely local contributors,” Heinonen told Arab News.

This handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on January 8, 2020 shows an overview of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran. (AFP/Maxar/File Photo)

Like Mekelberg, Heinonen highlighted Iran’s apparent ineptitude in defending even its most critical nuclear facilities and pointed to the stark contrast between the country’s record and another global pariah state’s nuclear program.

“It is worth noting that we have not heard about similar incidents in North Korea,” he said. “It is evident that the (Iranian) security forces have not been able to protect the assets as the leadership had expected.

“This does not come as a surprise. Not all Iranians, including technical professionals, buy the reasonability of the enrichment efforts, the investments for which could be used better elsewhere, even within the nuclear program.”

Tehran has admitted that the attacks caused serious damage at the Natanz facility. Last week, Alireza Zakani, a regime hardliner who heads the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in an interview on state television.

A handout picture released by the official website of Iran's Revolutionary Guard on August 25, 2014, shows an alleged Israeli drone that was shot down above the Natanz uranium enrichment site. (AFP/File Photo)

“From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee said. “They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

Heinonen said the attacks have “certainly slowed production” of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is above the enrichment level needed for nuclear power, but far below the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium.

However, he cautioned that production could begin to ramp up again within three months of the attack, and Tehran’s promise to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent in response to the attack could act as a springboard toward rapid development of a nuclear bomb.

“In a short term (60 percent enrichment) does not contribute much to breakout time, but it demonstrates the fact that uranium enrichment is mainly designed to build a nuclear latency; to be in a position to relaunch in short interval a full nuclear weapon acquisition program, if such a decision is made,” he said.

The response to the attacks is part of a delicate balancing act by Tehran, according to Nader Di Michele, an Iran-focused analyst at political risk consultancy Prelia.

This handout powerpoint slide provided by U.S. Central Command damage shows an explosion (L) and a likely limpet mine can be seen on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“They do not want escalations but the government has to show a response in terms of its foreign policy. That could be aimed at international actors or even its domestic population,” he told Arab News.

Beyond increasing uranium enrichment, it was reported that unknown actors targeted an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the following days. However, Di Michele thinks the damage caused by that attack was, by design, minimal compared with the devastation caused by the Natanz attack.

“There always has to be a response to these attacks, but I think the Iranian delegation understands that there is a limit to what they can do if they want sanctions relief.”

Di Michele said if the ongoing negotiations in Vienna prompt a lifting of sanctions and release of various assets that, in turn, deliver a financial boost to the regime, “we can never be sure what proportion of that would go to support which activities.”

He added: “It can be assumed that a proportion of those assets released would go toward foreign policy activities. What those entail, I couldn’t speculate on.”

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Twitter: @CHamillStewart


Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data
Updated 21 April 2021

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data

Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started – data
  • Turkey registered its highest daily toll of 346 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday
  • Total cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613

ISTANBUL: Turkey recorded 346 deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Tuesday, registering the highest daily death toll since the beginning of the pandemic.
The data also showed the country recorded 61,028 new coronavirus cases in the same period.
The total number of cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613, according to the data.
Turkey currently ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases based on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.