Yemen warring sides agree to exchange 1,081 prisoners

The deal came after a week-long fourth meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoners’ Exchange Agreement. (Courtesy: UN)
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Updated 25 October 2020

Yemen warring sides agree to exchange 1,081 prisoners

  • The Houthis will release 400 prisoners while the Yemeni government will free 681 Houthi fighters in the first exchange
  • If agreed, the second group of the prisoner swap will include President Hadi’s brother

DUBAI: Saudi-led coalition forces and Iran-backed Houthi militias reached an agreement on Sunday on the largest prisoner swap since the conflict in Yemen began in 2015.

The Houthis will release 400 coalition prisoners and the Yemeni government will free 681 Houthi fighters. 

The deal follows a week of talks in Switzerland and builds on the release plan that the two sides agreed in Amman in February.

There are four high-profile prisoners in the agreement, including Gen. Nasser Mansour Hadi, brother of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He will be in the yet-to-be-agreed second phase of the exchange of about 350 people.

The Yemeni president had been reluctant to agree to the prisoner swap until the second group that included his brother was agreed, a diplomatic source told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman had to personally persuade Hadi to agree to the 1,081 prisoners exchanged, the source said. 

Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said he wanted to build on the agreement to pave the way for a national cease-fire and a political solution to end  the war. “I was told that it’s very rare to have prisoner releases of this scale during the conflict, that they mostly happen after a conflict,” he said. “I urge the parties to move forward immediately with the release and to spare no effort in building upon this momentum to swiftly agree to release more detainees.”
“Our overall aim at the moment is to bring an agreement on what we call a joint declaration, which is a national cease-fire to end the war in Yemen.”

Griffiths and an official from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are in Switzerland leading a committee overseeing a prisoner swap deal first agreed at peace talks in Dec. 2018.

The next step would be measures to open up ports, airports, and roads, Griffiths said. “This achievement here I think will undoubtedly have a bounce effect for that, that it will encourage the parties to go the extra mile to resolve final differences.
“So what we will be looking to do as a result of the announcement here today is in the coming days ... to go and visit the parties to finalize the specifics of that agreement. And it’s important because it ends the war.”

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC Middle East regional director, said the agreement was "a positive step for hundreds of detainees and their families back home who have been separated for years and will be reunited soon."

"We call on all parties to continue with the same urgency towards agreeing on a concrete implementation plan, so this operation can move from signatures on paper to reality on the ground," he said.

The Sweden deal contained a prisoner swap which aimed for the release of some 15,000 detainees, split between both sides, but has been slowly and only partially implemented.

The Houthis last year freed 290 prisoners and Saudi Arabia released 128, while a locally mediated swap in Taiz governorate saw dozens freed. In January 2020, the ICRC facilitated the release of six Saudis held by the Houthis.

Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, Mohamed Askar, said he hoped that the latest prisoner exchanged agreement would lead to peace in Yemen and end to human rights violations after six years of war.

“We will continue efforts to alleviate the suffering of our people and…to achieve permanent and comprehensive peace for all Yemenis,” Askar said in a tweet shortly after the deal was announced.

Elisabeth Kendall, Yemen analyst and research fellow at University of Oxford, said that although the deal was a long way from the 16,000 prisoners that was reportedly agreed in Stockholm at the end of 2018, it is a move in the right direction.

“This step has to be viewed positively, given how polarized the warring sides now are and how intractable the conflict has become,” Kendall told Arab News.

However, she cautioned that this “trust-building measure” will only be effective if it is implemented, as previous failed agreements have led to mistrust between the warring sides.  

“A prisoner swap is nowhere even close to tackling the vast gap that needs to be closed between the warring sides before peace talks can get underway.”

(With Reuters)

Court orders authorities to reveal Israeli citizenship criteria to Palestinian Jerusalemites

Updated 26 November 2020

Court orders authorities to reveal Israeli citizenship criteria to Palestinian Jerusalemites

  • Without Israeli citizenship, residents of East Jerusalem could not obtain an Israeli passport, vote in national elections, or work in state government jobs
  • Vast majority of Jerusalem’s 330,000 stateless Palestinians have not applied

AMMAN: An Israeli court has forced state authorities to reveal the criteria that need to be met for Palestinian Jerusalem youth to become citizens of Israel.

The judicial order will mean that approximately 20,000 Palestinians aged between 18 and 21 living in East Jerusalem will now know the requirements when petitioning for Israeli citizenship, which is not automatically granted to them as residents of the city.

The vast majority of Jerusalem’s 330,000 stateless Palestinians have not applied, nor have the desire, to become Israelis. But the court decision should in future make the application process easier for those interested in carrying an Israeli passport and having the protection of the Israeli government regarding their legal status.

Jerusalem attorney, Mohammed Dahdal, who has practiced civil and human rights law for more than 30 years, noted that without Israeli citizenship, residents of East Jerusalem could not obtain an Israeli passport, vote in national elections, or work in state government jobs, among other things.

However, they did pay taxes to Israel and received social benefits such as national insurance, unemployment payments, and healthcare coverage.

Dahdal told Arab News that after 1988, when Jordan disengaged from the West Bank, which included East Jerusalem, Jerusalemites became stateless citizens. He said the ruling had come about after a Palestinian from Jerusalem had appealed to the court after revealing a loophole in the law.

He noted that the court decision, published by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, made four conditions to ensure receipt of an Israeli passport. “That the applicant has no other citizenship, that they were born in Israel (for Israel, East and West Jerusalem are both parts of Israel), that the applicant is between 18 and 21 years old, and has lived continuously in Israel during the five years preceding applying for citizenship.”

The lawyer added that the Israeli government had fought in court to have the criteria for citizenship kept under wraps.

Former Jordanian member of parliament, Audeh Kawwas, who was on Wednesday appointed as a member of the Jordanian Senate, told Arab News: “If the aim is to solve the statelessness issue of Jerusalemites, I am for it and I have spoken about it (as a committee member) in the World Council of Churches.

“However, if this is an attempt to disenfranchise Palestinians and to make the city more Israeli, then I am totally opposed.”

Hazem Kawasmi, a community activist in Jerusalem, told Arab News that many young Palestinian Jerusalemites were in a desperate situation, as no government or institution was taking care of them and their needs.

He said: “They are living under occupation with daily harassment from the police and Israeli intelligence and face all kinds of racism and enmity.

“Israeli citizenship helps them get high-skilled jobs and it is a prerequisite for many jobs. It helps them travel for tourism or work to Europe and the US without the cumbersome, complicated procedures of getting visas, that is if they get it at all.

“Finally, Israeli citizenship makes the youth feel safe not to lose their residency in Jerusalem and movement and work in Israel,” he added.

Khalil Assali, a member of the Jerusalem Waqf and an observer of Jerusalem affairs, told Arab News that he was doubtful that Israel would speed up the process for granting Israeli citizenship. “They have made this move to show their newly established Arab friends that they are acting democratically.”

Hijazi Risheq, head of the Jerusalem Merchants’ committee, told Arab News that the Israelis were looking for ways to turn the city into a Jewish one. By giving citizenship to youth between the ages of 18 and 21, Israel was aiming to deter them from carrying out hostile acts against Israel and keep them away from the Palestinian National Authority and its security forces, he said.

Jerusalem-based human rights activist, Rifaat Kassis, said: “The idea that Jerusalem is Arab has become an empty slogan. Meanwhile, Israeli racism has become the overriding power that forces Jerusalemites trying to have a dignified life with their families to live under difficult conditions.”