Lebanon’s Bassil rejects US sanctions as unjust and politically motivated

Lebanon’s Bassil rejects US sanctions as unjust and politically motivated
Influential Lebanese Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who harbors presidential ambitions, heads the Free Patriotic Movement founded by his father-in-law President Michel Aoun. (AFP)
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Updated 08 November 2020

Lebanon’s Bassil rejects US sanctions as unjust and politically motivated

Lebanon’s Bassil rejects US sanctions as unjust and politically motivated
  • Lawmaker refused to sever ties with Iran-backed Hezbollah group
  • A senior US official has said Bassil’s support for Hezbollah was ‘every bit of the motivation’ for the sanctions

BEIRUT: Lebanon's former foreign minister Gebran Bassil told his supporters on Sunday that he would fight US sanctions against him.

Bassil, who leads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), has had his US assets frozen and is barred from entering the country.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in announcing the sanctions, described the lawmaker as being “notorious for corruption” and accused him of contributing to a system that “aided and abetted Hezbollah's destabilizing activities.”

Bassil told the Sunday rally that Hezbollah was a Lebanese party and not, as Pompeo said, a terrorist one.

“We will assign a law firm to nullify the US Treasury’s decision due to the lack of (its) legal basis and request moral and material compensation. My appointment then will be with the American judiciary. One of the conditions for the cancellation of sanctions is that they can be canceled if the interest of America requires it, knowing that the US sanctions and the Magnitsky Act contradict the most important principles of international law, which is the principle of national sovereignty, and it is not legally applicable outside US territory.”

He said that the Lebanese must endure “injustice” to remain free in their homeland and to protect Lebanon from fragmentation and fighting.

“We remain friends of the American people, no matter how wrong their administration has done us.” 

Talk of sanctions began in earnest in the summer of 2018 with the formation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's second government, Bassil said, giving an account of what the US wanted from him and why he had not given in to its demands. 

“What was required of me was to immediately sever the relationship with Hezbollah and three other points — not a word about corruption. My natural quick reaction was to reject this issue because it violates a basic principle of the FPM, which is its refusal to take instructions from any foreign country.”

Bassil said there were attempts to persuade him “to be a friend” and that he was offered the temptations of “stardom” in Lebanon and the US, as well as personal and political profits for him and the FPM. 

On Nov. 4 the US gave him a 24-hour deadline to change his mind and think about the offer in his interest and in the interests of Lebanon, and he was alerted of the consequences in case sanctions were imposed. 

“I did not do anything so the sanctions were issued based on corruption and human rights and they barely mentioned Hezbollah, although they only talked to me about Hezbollah.”

Bassil revealed that he informed the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, about what was happening. 

Nasrallah, according to the FPM leader, “expressed his understanding of any position we may take and expressed his readiness for any help that we request from him, and of course I did not ask for anything.”

Bassil said the sanctions were an attempt to force him “to work politically with a big country under the weight of the carrot and the stick,” and spoke of “a treason” being committed against him by a member of his movement in Al-Kharj.

He said the individual would be prosecuted for betraying the principles of the party, its rules and its leaders, and for “working to demolish its entity, credibility, strength and institutions, intentionally and systematically, and the punishment is expulsion (from the party).”

The imposition of sanctions has not prevented Bassil from voicing his opinion on the conditions for forming a new government in Lebanon. 

“Two ministerial portfolios may not be combined and portfolios and numbers should be distributed to sects and blocs. One mechanism should be adopted for naming ministers, of course, of specialists. However, nobody has a monopoly on naming specialists as if he alone knows them or owns them.”

He warned the formation of the government would be delayed if “clear and unified standards” were not adopted, and that the person responsible for the delay would be the one who set “discretionary standards” and covered them with contradictory promises with the sole objective of increasing his political stake.


Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 

Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 
Updated 23 sec ago

Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 

Syrian refugee dies after swallowing gasoline 
  • Queues outside gas stations persist, along with disputes that often descend into physical violence and even shooting
  • Some people provide “waiting” services, staying in the car instead of the vehicle owner to fill the tank up and earning up to LBP100,000 for doing so

BEIRUT: A Syrian refugee in Minieh, north Lebanon, died on Saturday after accidentally swallowing a large quantity of gasoline while siphoning it from his car in a black market fuel operation. He was taken to hospital but could not be saved.

Abdulrahman Darwish, the representative for the Relief Associations’ Federation in Danniye, said the man used to make deals on the black market.

Lebanon has been suffering from an acute fuel crisis during the past few months.

“He went to gas stations every day, where he waited in the queue for hours to get 40 liters of gasoline to later withdraw this quantity from his car and sell it on the black market at a higher price to those who do not want to wait in queues,” he told Arab News. “The black market's activities have thrived during the crisis. The youth, Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees have found themselves unemployed amid the harsh economic crisis of Lebanon. They are looking to earn money at all costs to secure food, medicines and milk for their families, and have found a golden opportunity on the black market.”

A security source told Arab News that authorities had observed a decline in the north’s robbery rate in the past few weeks, where “thugs had focused on the black market” instead of theft because it was very profitable.

“Every day, tens of them gather outside gas stations forming gangs to get gasoline and later sell it on the black market. The unemployed youth has found an opportunity to earn money by resorting to illegal means,” the source said.

According to the price list issued by the Economy Ministry on Wednesday, fuel will be sold according to the dollar exchange rate, with $1 worth LBP14,000.

Queues outside gas stations persist, along with disputes that often descend into physical violence and even shooting.

Some people had expected a decline in black market activities after the availability of fuel in the market and the gasoline price being liberalized.

However, job opportunities have emerged amid this mess. Some people provide “waiting” services, staying in the car instead of the vehicle owner to fill the tank up and earning up to LBP100,000 for doing so.

Some reserve a place outside gas stations during the night and sell the spot in the morning for those waiting at the back.

Fadi Abu Shakra, a representative of the Fuel Distributors’ Union, said the queues seemed shorter on Monday as fuel had become available and imports were ongoing.

“The activities of the black market traders who have exhausted us are likely to drop down,” he told Arab News.

The economic crisis in Lebanon that peaked in 2019 after the depletion of its financial resources has led to a complete economic collapse, where hundreds of businesses shut down and thousands of employees were laid off.

The latest report from the Central Administration of Statistics said the unemployment rate in 2020 increased to 55 percent for those in informal employment and 45 percent for workers in the formal economy.

The unemployment rate among college students reached 35.7 percent, and the highest rates of unemployment were noted in Akkar, Central Bekaa and Aley.

The International Labor Organization noted the extent of “informal employment and vulnerability among the most deprived Lebanese citizens, as well as Syrian refugees in 2021.”

According to Labor Ministry estimates, unemployment in 2020 increased to about 36 percent and is estimated to reach 41.4 percent by the end of 2021.

Statistics from the National Social Security Fund from the start of 2020 until Feb. 2021 indicated that 40,000 people who were registered with the fund had exited the labor market.

Darwish said: “Syrian refugees in Lebanon were severely affected by the economic crisis. Some refugees are selling their food rations to buy medicine or visit a doctor.”


Israeli move to grab Palestinian land re-energized

Israeli move to grab Palestinian land re-energized
Updated 45 min ago

Israeli move to grab Palestinian land re-energized

Israeli move to grab Palestinian land re-energized
  • Former mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun told Arab News the move was aimed at separating Bethlehem governorate from Hebron governorate

AMMAN: A year before representatives of Israel and Palestine met at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, and signed a framework for peace, Israeli authorities had confiscated 48 square kilometers of Palestinian land south of Bethlehem and converted it into a nature reserve.

The Israeli army has, 28 years later, renewed the confiscation order in a politicized decision carried out to block attempts to provide building permits to Palestinians who own private land in some of those areas.

Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem, said a large part of those areas had been marked as Area C, meaning the Israelis had full control over who could build on them.

“Military order #51-21 of Nov. 18, 1992 has taken a large part of the areas east and south of Bethlehem, in the vicinity of the towns of Saer, Arab Al-Rashida and Shioukh,” he told Arab News.

Isaac said that Palestinians were not allowed to build on 29.7 square kilometers of the land despite them being listed as Area A, meaning local Palestinian municipalities had the right to make administrative decisions about them.

He said that 10.875 square kilometers of that land had been converted into nature reserves, blocking the rights of Palestinians in those areas.

Israeli authorities used the term nature reserve to block Palestinians from building on those areas so that, at an opportune time, they may be opened up for settlement expansion, he said.

Over the years the international community — especially the US — has been asking the Israelis to allow Palestinians to build in those areas.

Former mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun told Arab News the move was aimed at separating Bethlehem governorate from Hebron governorate.

The goal was to separate the populated Palestinian areas, as well as closing off areas to farming and grazing including blocking the ability of Palestinian farmers to reach their own land, while giving Jewish settlers the freedom to move around on Palestinian land, she added.

A Times of Israel report found that the Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing construction in Area C had issued just a handful of building permits.

Plans for just 26 housing units were advanced in subcommittee meetings, with only six of those units — located in a single building — receiving actual building permits.

“Apparently, the security Cabinet’s decision that Netanyahu made sure to publicize as if Israel actually intended to approve any development for the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories has turned out to be one big bluff, and even the few permits that were approved have not been issued,” Hagit Ofran, from the Peace Now settlement watchdog, told the newspaper.

Isaac said that, since 1967, Israel had used a variety of military orders to curtail Palestinian growth.

“They passed tens of laws that allow them to take away Palestinian land or prevent Palestinians from using it, while seeming to be doing all this under the pretext of democratic regulations.”

He said that, in addition to confiscating state land or land of absentee Palestinians, the favorite way of stunting Palestinian growth had been the conversion of large areas of Palestinian land into nature reserves.

“Using military order 363 of 1969, the Israeli civil administration can declare any land in the occupied West Bank a nature reserve where it is extremely difficult to get a building license.”

In Jan. 2020 then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who is now prime minister, approved the declaration of seven reserves in an area of 112.5 square kilometers, in addition to the existing 12 nature reserves aimed at stopping any Palestinian building development in the Jordan Valley area.


Turkey, EU come together to enroll Syrian refugee students

Turkey, EU come together to enroll Syrian refugee students
Updated 25 September 2021

Turkey, EU come together to enroll Syrian refugee students

Turkey, EU come together to enroll Syrian refugee students
  • Ankara’s efforts to integrate nearly 700,000 refugee children into the education system hailed as a ‘huge and unique success story’
  • Brussels has provided financial assistance while the influx of Syrian students has improved Turkey’s social cohesion and integration policies

ANKARA: Saleh is a 13-year-old Syrian refugee boy who has lived in the capital city Ankara for the past six years. 

“My favorite course is mathematics. When I first came to Turkey, I did not know Turkish and I could not communicate with anybody. My family had the cash transfer assistance from the EU and I began going to the school where I learned Turkish and began playing with my peers,” he told Arab News.

Saleh spends his evenings reading books in Turkish so he can develop his language skills and prepare for the high school that he is planning to attend in Turkey. He is currently reading “Les Miserables” by French writer Victor Hugo. Saleh is also dreaming of becoming an artificial intelligence engineer. 

“Sometimes, I am subjected to peer bullying and social exclusion by people who do not know me at all,” Saleh said. “But my teacher warns such people and reminds them of the importance of cohesion. I also play chess at school, which helps me a lot in my social skills.”

He attends team activities and social projects that are organized by the UNICEF-supported Al-Farah Child and Family Support Center in Ankara. It is funded by the EU to provide services to refugee children and their families and help them meet their basic needs, including legal and social counseling along with psycho-social support.

Turkey’s efforts to integrate nearly 700,000 Syrian refugee children into the education system have also been hailed by Brussels. The head of the EU delegation to Turkey, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, said it was a “huge and unique success story” during his speech on Sept. 21 at a school opening ceremony in the southeastern Gaziantep province.

So far, the EU has provided financial assistance to nearly 400 schools across the country to support the training and employment of teachers as well as meet the operational costs. 

Brussels earmarked nearly 3 billion euros ($3.34 billion) to Turkey under the Facility for Refugees program and about one-third of those funds are mainly allocated to the educational projects that promote the integration of Syrian kids into the Turkish education system. The funds also go toward the construction and equipping of some 100 schools in provinces with a high concentration of Syrian refugees as well as cash transfers to families whose children regularly attend school. 

Of the nearly 4 million Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey, 1.2 million are of school age. 

Experts underline the enrolment of Syrian refugee children as of key importance for the success of Turkey’s social cohesion and integration policies. 

Schools provide war-affected children with the opportunity of socialization with the wider community, give a sense of belonging, and enhance Turkish language competency to overcome language barriers. 

Basak Yavcan, a researcher on migration issues at the University of Liege and from TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Anakara, said refugees’ access to education has multiple benefits to both the refugee community and the hosting community. 

“First, school enrollment is a great beginning for an effective economic, social, and political integration,” she told Arab News. “It provides a career pathway, keeps kids off the streets, and promotes inter-group contact.”

According to Yavcan, education plays a crucial role in creating a middle class of migrants which is an engine for social integration. It increases the quality of intergroup conflict and creates role models for the immigrant community. 

“By teaching the common history, values, rights, and the meaning of citizenship in a country, education also promotes political integration,” she said. “Finally, by equipping individuals with the skills needed in the labor market, education makes economic integration easy.”

While access to education was initially a challenging area for Syrian refugees in Turkey, enrollment rates were low. 

Yavcan said enrollment rates started to improve after the easing of registration policies, introducing regular degree equivalency exams, and conditional cash transfers in return for enrolled kids in a household. Local outreach programs to convince Syrian parents, training in the educational system for multicultural classroom environments, catch-up programs for Syrian students, and free transportation facilities also helped.

Last year, more than 600,000 Syrian children benefitted from the EU’s cash transfer program with the condition of continued enrollment. 

The COVID-19 pandemic affected school enrolment last year while experts also underline some remaining challenges that derive from the cultural and economic dynamics of Syrian families living in Turkey. 

“With high child labor rates and low inclusion of Syrians in the labor market, sending kids to school has a considerable cost — and opportunity cost in the case of child labor — to Syrian families,” Yavcan said. “Cultural challenges exist mainly for secondary education where girls need to attend school in co-ed classes, an area of resistance for some Syrian families. 

“So more efforts are needed to improve the economic well-being of families, and to provide career pathways and opportunities for transition to jobs for Syrian pupils.”


Egyptian, Syrian FMs meet on UNGA sidelines

Egyptian, Syrian FMs meet on UNGA sidelines
Updated 25 September 2021

Egyptian, Syrian FMs meet on UNGA sidelines

Egyptian, Syrian FMs meet on UNGA sidelines
  • Mekdad stressed the importance of relations between the two countries
  • They discussed bilateral relations, regional issues of common interest, and ways to end the Syrian conflict 

CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss bilateral relations, regional issues of common interest, and ways to end the Syrian conflict. 

Mekdad stressed the importance of relations between the two countries — especially in light of the historical ties that unite them — and of mobilizing efforts to resolve the conflict while respecting Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.

Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri said: “This meeting reflects Egypt’s keenness on Syria, its security, stability and territorial integrity — a position that (Egyptian) President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi emphasized more than once as he demanded a halt to any interference in Syrian internal affairs.”

Bakri added: “The meeting also confirms that relations between the two countries are moving forward.”

Mekdad also met with his Jordanian and Somali counterparts, Ayman Safadi and Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, respectively.


Kuwait PM urges Iran to build trust in region

Kuwait PM urges Iran to build trust in region
Updated 25 September 2021

Kuwait PM urges Iran to build trust in region

Kuwait PM urges Iran to build trust in region
  • Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah said such steps will contribute to reducing tension in the region and building ties between the Gulf nations

WASHINGTON: The prime minister of Kuwait has called on Iran to take serious steps to build trust and start a serious dialogue in the Gulf region based on respect for the sovereignty of neighboring nations and non-interference.

He said nations in the region must seek to protect maritime commerce and the free movement of goods and ships in the Arabian Gulf.

Speaking during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah said such steps will contribute to reducing tension in the region and building ties between the Gulf nations based on cooperation and mutual respect.

“Such measures will reflect the desire of the people of the region to live in a safe, secure and prosperous condition,” he said.

Alluding to the current tussle between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program, Al-Sabah said that the weakness of the anti-nuclear proliferation regime represented a “existential threat to the region.”

In 2015, during the presidency of Barack Obama, Iran signed a nuclear agreement deal with the US, European countries, Russia and China.

The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), placed restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018 President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, claiming that the deal was not strict enough to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran is currently engaged with the US in talks over its nuclear program.

Al-Sabah called for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the region and called on Iran to make the region a nuclear-free zone.

On the issue of Yemen, which affects all nations of the Gulf region, including Kuwait, he praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, reiterating Kuwait’s call on all parties to negotiate an end to the civil war.

He said a resolution of the conflict should be based on the Gulf initiative, a reconciliation conference between Yemeni groups and the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

He condemned the Houthi group for targeting Saudi territories with drone and missile attacks.

“We condemned all the attacks committed against the territories of Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Yemen has been in a state of conflict since 2014, when the Houthi group took control of most of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa.

In 2015 a Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened to restore the legitimate government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Al-Sabah stressed Kuwait's support for the Palestinian people and said his country stands behind the Palestinians in seeking the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

He said his country rejected Israeli policies of building illegal settlements, confiscating land and besieging Gaza.

He also expressed his support for efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in Syria and Libya and to bring security and stability to both countries.

Referring to Kuwait’s success in vaccinating 72 percent of citizens and residents, Al-Sabah said COVID-19 must have been confronted by all nations of the world through cooperation to make different kinds of vaccines and making them available to all countries of the world.