PM Diab questions fate of unexploded ammonium nitrate from Beirut port

PM Diab questions fate of unexploded ammonium nitrate from Beirut port
Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab is pictured during an interview in Beirut, Lebanon December 29, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 29 December 2020

PM Diab questions fate of unexploded ammonium nitrate from Beirut port

PM Diab questions fate of unexploded ammonium nitrate from Beirut port
  • Diab, in a new interview, addresses his awareness of the situation in the lead up to the explosion

BEIRUT: An FBI probe into the Aug. 4 explosion at the Beirut port found it was caused by 500 tons of ammonium nitrate, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Tuesday.

Diab, who quit following the blast that killed more than 200 people and inflicted billions of dollars in damage, earlier said that more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored at a port hangar for years.

Diab said he was surprised that “the security services, who were aware of the existence of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate in one of the hangars of the Beirut port, did not raise this issue during 20 sessions held by the Supreme Defense Council before the explosion took place on Aug. 4.”

He added: “From 2014 to the present day, none of the members of the Supreme Defense Council informed the Lebanese president, who is the head of the council, about the existence of this substance.”

Diab revealed in an interview after months of silence that “an opening was made in Hangar 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored.”

He said: “The amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded was estimated by the FBI report to be 500 tons. Does anyone know when and who made an opening in Hangar 12? And where did the 2,200 tons go? Who is the owner of the ship that shipped it? And how did it enter the port of Beirut seven years ago? Who allowed it in? And who has been silent about that for so long?”

He added: “Did any Lebanese know what ‘ammonium nitrate’ means before Aug. 4? The first official report I received about the substance stored in the port was on July 22. I was informed of it through three different pieces of information over a period of two hours on June 3. I first received information from the security services by chance, informing me that there was 2,000 kg of explosives in the port, so I immediately requested to arrange a visit to the port on June 4.

“During the security preparations for my visit, it became clear that there was different information from what I first received — I was informed that it weighed 2,500 tons and not 2,000 kg and that it was not TNT but nitrate, which we did not know anything about. When we searched on the Internet, we found out that it is chemical fertilizer. The third piece of information I received was that this substance has been in the port for seven years and is not new, so I asked to complete the investigation to visit the port and find out more.”

He continued: “I received the report on July 22, and suppose I visited the port on June 4 and inspected Hangar 12, I would have sent a letter to the security officials who already knew about the matter for seven years. And if I had a feeling that there was danger in the port, I would have spoken immediately to the president, and I was not to cover this crime.”

Diab said that the charges issued against him by the judicial investigator of the Beirut port blast, Judge Fadi Sawan, have hurt him deeply. He said: “I came from the beginning to fight corruption but was deemed corrupt in the end because I did not visit the port.”

Meanwhile, the caretaker prime minister hinted that the country could go into full closure after New Year’s Eve, fearing an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. He said that the number of cases to date is acceptable, adding that if there is an increase in infections arriving from abroad, flights will be suspended.

Diab announced his rejection of the removal of state subsidies for basic materials. However, he supported rationing “because the rich should not benefit from the subsidies that should only target the needy.”

He said: “I asked the governor of the Banque du Liban to provide the amount remaining at the bank for subsidies, and we heard from the media that we have $2 billion, which must suffice for at least six months until we find other solutions. I sent a suggestion to the parliament regarding the issuance of the financing card, and the decision must be shared by the caretaker government, Parliament, and the central bank.”

Diab pointed out that there is a complete system of corruption in Lebanon. “There is an interconnected political, financial, and economic system, and if the forensic audit uncovers the sources of corruption — as will happen in auditing the accounts of the Banque du Liban, then we can say that we are on the right judicial path, not by destroying public property, as happened on the street, which does not serve the revolution or the demands of the Lebanese people.”

Diab’s speech coincided with protests carried out by students of private universities on Bliss Street outside the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB). The students protested the university’s decision to adopt the Lebanese banks’ dollar exchange rate, which is 3,900 Lebanese pounds, while the official price is 1,515 pounds, meaning that the tuition fees will more than double.

The angry students blocked Bliss Street for some time while riot police took security measures to protect the university. The protesters chanted “down with capitalism” and “the AUB has become military barracks.”


7 dead in West Bank as Israel deals with 3 hot spots

7 dead in West Bank as Israel deals with 3 hot spots
Updated 43 min 7 sec ago

7 dead in West Bank as Israel deals with 3 hot spots

7 dead in West Bank as Israel deals with 3 hot spots
  • Security Council to meet on Sunday

JERUSALEM: The number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank has risen to seven.

The Israeli army said one was killed after attempting to stab a soldier. Palestinian health officials confirmed that death and said six other Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire in the occupied West Bank.

The Health Ministry said five were killed in stone-throwing clashes with Israeli forces in several locations, and a sixth was killed during an attempt to stab an Israeli soldier on Friday. A seventh was killed in Nablus.

Israel faced a widening conflict, as deadly violence escalated across the West Bank amid a massive aerial bombardment in Gaza and unprecedented unrest among Arabs and Jews inside the country.

A Palestinian security source said Friday’s fighting was the “most intense” since the second intifada, or uprising, that began in 2000.

Palestinian armed groups in the enclave have launched more than 1,800 rockets at Israel since Monday, killing nine people, with sirens wailing across the country throughout the week.

Violence on Fridays in the West Bank is a traditional facet of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Friday’s escalation appeared linked to the raging hostilities in Gaza and the internal unrest in Israel.

More than 150 were injured across the territory occupied by Israel since 1967, with Palestinians hit by Israeli bullets, tear gas and in some cases live fire, said the Red Crescent.

The UN said the Security Council would meet Sunday to address Gaza.

China accused the US of “ignoring the suffering” of Muslims, after Washington stopped the council from meeting Friday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was “deeply concerned about the violence in the streets of Israel,” and his department urged citizens to “reconsider” travel to the country.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said rocket fire by Hamas against Israel amounted to “terrorist attacks.”

Several international airlines — including British Airways, Lufthansa and Iberia — canceled flights amid the onslaught.

Israel said hundreds of the rockets fired toward its territory, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, had been intercepted.

Israel has hit roughly 750 sites it described as military targets such as Hamas bomb-making facilities and the homes of senior militant commanders. Three high-rise buildings were flattened.

Israel estimates that more than 30 leaders of Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad have been killed.

“I said we’d deliver heavy blows to Hamas and other terror groups, and we’re doing that,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“They’re paying and will continue to pay dearly for that. It’s not over yet.”

Within Israel, an unprecedented wave of mob violence has seen Arabs and Jews savagely beat each other and attack places of worship.

More than 750 people have been arrested this week, including more than 100 overnight, police said.

In Lod, where an Arab man was shot dead by a Jewish Israeli on Monday, the outside of a synagogue was burnt overnight, they added.

Officers had detained Jews “walking around looking for trouble” in Netanya and Beersheba, while Arabs in other towns attacked police and police stations with stones and petrol bombs.

In one of the most shocking episodes of the intercommunal violence, a far-right Jewish mob beat a man they considered an Arab in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, leaving him with serious injuries.

“Nothing justifies the lynching of Arabs by Jews, and nothing justifies the lynching of Jews by Arabs,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s civil aviation authority said it was directing incoming flights to Tel Aviv to circle offshore when rockets are being fired from Gaza, with pilots choosing whether to divert to Ramon airport in the south or wait until runways are checked for ordnance.


‘Death and darkness’: Gazans’ night of terror as Israel strikes

‘Death and darkness’: Gazans’ night of terror as Israel strikes
Updated 47 min 40 sec ago

‘Death and darkness’: Gazans’ night of terror as Israel strikes

‘Death and darkness’: Gazans’ night of terror as Israel strikes
  • The Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, especially the northern areas, began shortly after midnight and lasted more than 30 minutes

GAZA CITY: Muhammad Abu Fares’ family and relatives endured the most terrifying night of their lives on Thursday when Israeli artillery launched a devastating bombardment on towns in the northern Gaza Strip.

“I heard shells exploding and people screaming,” Abu Fares, 27, who lives in the Bedouin village, told Arab News.

“I went out quickly to see what was happening. The house next to ours was hit and some neighbors helped remove the bodies and the wounded.

“The scene was terrible with several bodies lying there and the injured crying out for help. I carried six bodies out to the street,” he said.

Israeli artillery targeted border areas in the northern Gaza Strip, including the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia as well as the Bedouin village, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes and seek shelter in UN schools.

Abu Fares went with his family to an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) school in Beit Lahia after accompanying three wounded people in an ambulance to hospital.

The UN aid organization said in a statement: “As of last night hundreds of people, many Palestine refugees, are seeking refuge and safe shelter in UNRWA schools, especially in the northern part of the strip and Gaza city.

“UNRWA has to quickly turn identified schools into properly managed shelters. In 2021, the situation is slightly different in that we now have to consider the COVID-19 pandemic and how to minimize the risk of people crowding in a confined space and spreading the virus.” 

The Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, especially the northern areas, began shortly after midnight and lasted more than 30 minutes, leaving residents terrified.

Lubna Younis, 37, told Arab News: “We endured a night during which we saw death more than once. We did not know what was happening or where the shelling was coming from. We thought this would be the end. The shelling had become indiscriminate and Israeli warplanes bombed homes everywhere.”

The Israeli strikes raised the death toll to 122, including 31 children and 20 women, while more than 900 others were wounded, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

On Friday, the streets were empty of people, and shops remained closed, except for some grocery stores.

Mamdouh Mutair, 42, sat at the entrance to his house with some of his neighbors after six houses nearby were destroyed by Israeli shelling late on Wednesday.

“My mind cannot understand what happened and is still happening. It is beyond comprehension and without logic. In a quarter of an hour, there was death, there was smoke and darkness everywhere,” Mutair told Arab News.

“Dozens of rockets fell suddenly at midnight, destroying all the houses in front of us. Broken glass was everywhere, the cars under the houses were destroyed, children were terrified, I embraced my children and my wife, and we began crying and kissing them as if it was the end of our lives,” he said.


Lebanese in war of words over Palestine action

Lebanese in war of words over Palestine action
Updated 57 min 13 sec ago

Lebanese in war of words over Palestine action

Lebanese in war of words over Palestine action
  • Former MP warns country ‘is neither a military base nor a missile platform for Palestinian, Iranian factions’
  • Power shortages add to woes as Turkish firm halts supply

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s response to the violence in Gaza and its relationship with Palestine is the subject of angry debate after rockets were fired from southern Lebanon toward Israeli settlements.

Former MP Nadim Gemayel warned that “Lebanon is neither a military base nor a missile platform for Palestinian factions or Iranian militias.”

He demanded that “the state and security services act quickly and strike with an iron fist, for Lebanon today cannot afford to repeat the experience of the 60s.”

Gemayel said the “number one cause today is the Lebanese cause only.”

MP Bilal Abdallah said that “Lebanon is facing an economic collapse and a vacuum in its political power, and the Palestine issue should not be put at the forefront.”

He told Arab News: “What is happening requires insight and calm.”

The remarks of both political figures came as Lebanese and Palestinian youths stormed a fence on the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel on Friday.

However, they were unable to cross the Israeli security barrier that stood in their way.

Groups of young men demonstrated near the border area facing the settlement of Al-Mutla, and attempted to cross a barbed-wire fence to gain access, but were met with tear-gas canisters fired by Israeli troops, forcing them to disperse and return to Lebanese territory.

The incident came after rockets were launched from southern Lebanon on Thursday toward Israeli settlements.

While Hezbollah denied any connection to the strikes, a statement hinted at the group’s potential involvement in the conflict if violence worsens.

The Lebanese army announced on Friday that “military units found three rockets in the vicinity of the Rashidieh refugee camp in the Tire region in southern Lebanon.”

At least four Grad missiles were fired from the vicinity of the Rashidieh camp, targeting the Israeli settlements of Shlomi and Nahariya. No party has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Maj. Gen. Subhi Abu Arab, commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces in Lebanon, told Arab News that he visited the Rashidieh camp on Friday morning for an inspection, and that “the situation was normal.”

He said: “No rockets were fired from the camp or its surroundings, but rather from an area further away.

“We do not know who fired the rockets, and we leave the matter to the Lebanese army, as this area falls under its responsibility, and the army units are carrying out their tasks in search of the rocket launchers.

“I have not received any information until now about the matter from Lebanese Army intelligence.”

The Lebanese quandary over Palestine is a division that goes back to the demands of the Maronite Patriarchate for Lebanese neutrality.

Solidarity with Palestine dominated Friday sermons in mosques, and protests broke out around the country.

MP Bilal Abdallah told Arab News: “Emotionally, we are all in solidarity with the Palestinians and distressed by the killing that is taking place against the innocent. There is no arguing on this matter. But expanding the war zone is a matter that needs to be studied.”

Abdallah said: “If opening the Lebanon front is required, this has its own calculations and consequences.”

He added: “Let us look at the prospects of the ongoing clash, whether it is rectified with a cease-fire or if it escalates.”

The MP said that Lebanon “cannot afford any involvement in what is happening, so let it be a complete front and not only Lebanon, but rather open the Golan fronts all the way to Jordan.”

Abdallah added: “The existing communication in the region involves redrawing their map, and this presupposes the need to avoid rushing to judgment.”

However, another popular sentiment among the Lebanese public is that the issues facing their own country should be dealt with first, before foreign affairs are considered.

The Lebanese internal crisis was aggravated by the announcement of the Electricite du Liban (EDL) on Friday that electricity supply has begun to decline after Turkey’s Karpowership, which supplies the country through two floating stations, said it had “suspended supplies due to payment arrears, and after a legal threat to its stations.”

A spokesperson said that the company “regretted turning off the generators,” adding that it had “made every effort to avoid taking this decision.”

Lebanon receives 370 megawatts of electricity from the company, about a quarter of total supply.

The country may face critical electricity problems unless, according to the EDL statement, a speedy decision is made regarding a controversial treasury advance of 300 billion Lebanese pounds ($196 million) for the resumption of tenders for the buying of fuels, especially gas.

The EDL has also urged officials to secure hard currencies for production, transportation, and distribution, to ensure a minimum level of stability in Lebanon’s electricity supply.


Jordanians march to border in solidarity with Palestinians

Jordanians march to border in solidarity with Palestinians
Updated 55 min 26 sec ago

Jordanians march to border in solidarity with Palestinians

Jordanians march to border in solidarity with Palestinians
  • Protestors demand government open border to Palestinians, end diplomatic ties with Israel

AMMAN: Hundreds of Jordanians held an impromptu protest near the Jordanian border with the occupied Palestinian territories on Friday, calling on their government to take action over the escalating conflict in Israel.

The event, quickly organized on social media, was held near the village of Karameh in the Shouna governorate under the slogan “yalla (let’s go) to the borders.”
 
The protesters, waving Palestinian and Jordanian flags, gathered near the monument for the martyrs of the Battle of Karameh, and called on the Jordanian government to open the border. 

The monument is a poignant location, as the site of significant Jordanian-Palestinian military resistance against an Israel Defense Force (IDF) offensive in 1968, leading to the eventual Israeli withdrawal from the village on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

Mohammad Hmeidi, a doctor who attended the protest, told Arab News: “Our goal … is to pressure the government of Jordan to cut off its relations with (Israel), to cancel the Gaza deal and to kick out the (Israeli) ambassador as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.”

Protesters chanted slogans in support of Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, shouting “millions are willing to die and become martyrs.”

They also chanted in support of Mohammad Deif, leader of Hamas’s Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, which are currently engaged in rocket attacks and counter strikes with the IDF.
 
Jordanian security forces broke up the protests when demonstrators came too close to the border. A spokesman for the police said they had used reasonable force with some of the protesters, after they entered several private properties and caused damage.
 
Adnan Abu Odeh, a former adviser to Jordan’s King Hussein, told Arab News that the protests are important for their symbolic value. 

“It is Friday and Jordanian youths are unemployed. This event is important, especially in that it gives emotional support to Palestinians, but the real problem for Israel is within — the crime of apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians, which had been hidden since 1948, is now obvious for all to see,” he said, referring to a recent report by Human Rights Watch accusing Israel of enforcing an apartheid system across the country.

Abu Odeh said he was unsure whether this would tempt Jordan to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, however.

“Jordan had exhausted all its efforts at the UN. It has provided the defense team fighting the eviction of Palestinian families from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, with all the documents in its possession,” he said.

“It all depends on whether the Israelis will continue their onslaught, or accept the offers for a ceasefire.”


US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities

US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities
Updated 14 May 2021

US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities

US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities
  • Non-Muslim religious groups face challenges in operating houses of worship, holding board elections, and exemptions from mandatory religion courses in schools
  • Report adds to concerns raised when Erdogan reconverted the historic Chora Church and famed Hagia Sophia into mosques last summer

ANKARA: A new report released Wednesday follows a trend from the US State Department in criticizing Turkey for restricting the rights of non-Muslim religious groups in the country.

The latest report focused on the challenges non-Muslim religious groups have faced in operating houses of worship, holding board elections for their foundations, and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion courses in schools, which are in violation of the European Court of Human Rights’ 2013 ruling.

The US also expressed concerns when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reconverted the historic Chora Church, one of Istanbul’s most celebrated Byzantine buildings, and the famed Hagia Sophia into mosques last summer.

In 2020, religious minorities had difficulties in obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools while the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed, the report noted.

“The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so,” the report said.

According to the report, the US criticized the difficulties that Protestant communities faced in training indigenous Turkish clergy in their congregations as “they relied on foreign volunteers to serve them in leadership capacities.”

However, “they could not operate training facilities in-country,” the report added.

Another annual report for 2021 released last month by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom found that an independent government panel urged Ankara to address longstanding religious freedom issues. It said the religious freedom conditions in Turkey were on a “troubling trajectory.”

The commission, which criticized the vandalism of places of worship in Turkey, also recommended that the US State Department include Turkey on the special watch list for religious freedom violations, and criticized the Turkish government for being “divisive and hostile” against its own religious minorities.

The trial of an Assyrian priest, Sefer Bilecen, who was sentenced to two years in jail on terrorism charges, was also described by the commission as a politically motivated move.

Anna Maria Beylunioglu-Atli, a lecturer at MEF University in Istanbul, said the problems that Turkey’s religious minorities have been facing are directly linked with the authoritarianism trend in the country.

“What the religious minorities experienced over the past year is the inevitable continuation of the general trend of hate speech and discrimination in line with the rising Islamic rhetoric within the society,” she told Arab News.

She added: “Since the foundation of the republic, there was a similar trend in Turkey to restrict the religious freedoms of minorities. But, the recent Islamist rhetoric in the overall politics consolidated it further.”

Such international reports do not have a transformational effect on Turkish domestic politics anymore, Beylunioglu-Atli said.

“What Turkey needs is an indigenous transformation by providing its religious minorities with citizenship rights,” she said. “Otherwise, such reports do not push the rulers to change the living conditions of the minorities in the country.”

US President Joe Biden and his administration have put the fight against all forms of religious discrimination at the center of their agenda. It also reflects the effort of the US State Department in highlighting the status of religious freedom in several countries around the world, including Turkey.

Dr. Mine Yildirim, head of the Freedom of Belief Initiative and Eurasia Civil Society Program at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said measures taken by the authorities in relation to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had an impact on the religion or belief communities in interesting ways.

“Our observations and interviews indicated that in 2020 some communities felt that when the public authorities took measures related to curfews and lock-downs, the functioning and use of mosques were taken into account whereas the days of worship of other places of worship were not considered,” she told Arab News.

Yildirim said that there have been fewer attacks or vandalism against churches in 2020, mainly due to the fact that churches have been closed, and as such Christians were less visible.

“Some Alevi and Christian religious leaders have observed that the pandemic has also exasperated the inequalities in the context of public funding for religious services which is solely provided for such services provided through the Presidency of Religious Affairs,” she said.

“As they were not being able to come together in their places of worship some communities received fewer donations whereas their costs for rent and utilities and salary of religious leaders continued.”