Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity
President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee Hana Naser in Ramallah on January 15, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 16 January 2021

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity
  • First elections in 15 years “will usher in badly needed democracy”
  • The PA will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31

AMMAN: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement of the first parliamentary and presidential elections in 15 years has raised hopes of an end to longstanding divisions, but skeptics doubt it will bring about serious change.
According to decrees issued by the presidential office on Friday, the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31.
Hanna Naser, head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, told a packed press conference a day earlier that the decrees will usher in a badly needed democratic process.
Naser said the elections will be transparent and will deliver a functioning legislative council, adding: “After 15 years without a legislative body, it is important to have accountability through a council elected by the people.”
Jibril Rajoub, secretary of the Fatah movement and a key force behind the election deal, said on Palestine TV that the decrees are a major breakthrough and reflect a Palestinian commitment to democratic principles.
Rajoub said that the elections commission will be responsible for all aspects of the poll, and that a meeting of all Palestinian factions next week in Cairo will help resolve any remaining issues.
Hussein Sheikh, minister of civil affairs and member of the Fatah Central Committee, tweeted that the presidential decrees are “an important step to strengthen democracy and partnership in a unified political regime that ensures the end of the split and will create a unified vision for a cooperative effort aimed at ending the occupation and accomplishing freedom and liberty for our people.”
Hamas welcomed the decrees, which include a commitment by all participants that the PLO represents Palestinians, and is responsible for foreign affairs and negotiations.
The decrees stipulate elections for a 132-member legislative council that will include Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on a full proportional basis.
Presidential elections will follow in July and the Palestine National Council will hold elections wherever possible for candidates in different locations. All lists must have a woman as the third and fourth candidates on the list, with at least 26 percent of the next council to be female.
However, Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University and a former minister, told Arab News that while he strongly supports the elections, he is worried about the quality of the poll.
“I am concerned that the elections will reflect the wishes of the political elite since the lists will be national and will be made up by political leaders who might not give enough attention to local communities and their needs,” he said.
Khatib, who founded the Jerusalem Center for Communication Studies, said that polls show Fatah could win the coming elections if it can present a unified list.
Hani Masri, director of the Masarat think tank, said that holding elections before national reconciliation is complete is a “formula for trouble.”
“Issuing presidential decrees for elections before reconciliation is doing things in reverse order,” he said. “To have elections, the land mines must be removed. If we don’t address some of these problems, we are inviting trouble,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
One suggestion to overcome this issue has been that the two main parties, Fatah and Hamas, agree on a joint list and a single nominee for president.
Marwan Muasher, vice president of Carnegie Endowment for International Studies, told Arab News that national unity is a necessary first step.
“National elections serve to renew Palestinian legitimacy, which has been significantly affected,” he said.
Palestinians are also unsure if Israel will allow East Jerusalem residents to take part in the elections. Under the Oslo accords, Jerusalem residents can vote at local post offices.

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister
Updated 8 min 50 sec ago

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister
  • Lenderking was visiting Kuwait as part of an official tour of the region
  • He praised Kuwait’s contributions to restore security and safety to Yemen

LONDON: Kuwait’s Foreign Minster Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah met Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen on Monday, the Kuwait News Agency reported.
Lenderking, who is touring the region, praised Kuwait for its political and humanitarian contributions to the efforts to restore security and safety to Yemen. He also briefed the minister on the latest developments in the crisis.
Sheikh Ahmad reiterated Kuwait’s desire to do all that it can to help and support the people of Yemen, and to assist with efforts to reach a political solution that restores the nation’s security and stability. He added that his country also supports the role and work of the US and its envoy as part of the efforts to end the crisis.
Lenderking said Washington will continue to put pressure on the Houthi militia to halt attacks on civilian areas. He again condemned the repeated assaults by the Iran-backed group on targets in Saudi Arabia which, he said, “is a direct threat to Gulf and Arab national security.”

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops
Updated 02 March 2021

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops
  • Soldiers describe damage inflicted by bombardment following assassination of Qassem Soleimani
  • Washington had ‘retaliation plan’ in case of American casualties: Commander of US forces in Mideast

LONDON: Footage has emerged of an Iranian missile attack on a US airbase in Iraq last year that could have brought the two countries to the brink of war.

On Jan. 8 last year, 11 missiles, each thought to have been carrying 1,000-pound warheads, hit Al-Asad airbase, which was home to some 2,000 US troops at the time.

The incident followed the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by a US drone in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

That strike was ordered after a spate of incidents targeting American personnel and facilities by Iran-backed forces in Iraq, culminating in an assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the Middle East, told American TV network CBS that more than 100 troops suffered severe brain injuries due to the attack. He said there was a “retaliation plan” in place in the event that any US personnel were killed.

Half the personnel and most of the aircraft were evacuated from the base before the attack, with McKenzie saying if that had not been done in time, “I think we might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and we might have lost 100 to 150 US personnel. We had a plan to retaliate if Americans had died.”

When the retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination came, McKenzie was stationed in Florida and monitored the attack remotely, joined by then-President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

McKenzie said: “I’ve never been on one (call) like this where real missiles (were) being fired at our forces and where I thought the risks were so high.”

An intelligence officer reportedly told senior figures that the “intention is to level this base and we may not survive.” The missiles left vast craters and destroyed entire buildings.

Maj. Alan Johnson prepared a farewell video message for his son, urging him to “be strong” and to look after his mother, believing he might not survive the night.

He described the impact that the missiles had on detonation as being “like a freight train,” telling CBS: “Words can’t even describe the amount of energy that is released by these missiles.”

He added that he and 40 other men at one point sought refuge in a bunker designed to house 10 people from much smaller ordinance blasts. “The fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air,” he said.

Sgt. Kimo Keltz, who was stationed inside a guard post to fend off any possible attack by ground troops during the missile barrage, said: “We got down and we protected our vital organs, our heads, and we waited. One of the closest (missiles) that had hit directly near us actually lifted my body about two inches off the ground.”

Despite no fatalities, hundreds of troops started reporting headaches and other side effects, including vomiting, in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Keltz described a two-week long concussion he suffered as being like “someone hitting me over the head with a hammer over and over and over.”

Johnson was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for courage during the attack, but sustained severe head trauma that still affects him today.

“Headaches every day, horrible tinnitus or ringing in the ears, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I still have nightmares,” he said.

Despite the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic since the exchange of hostilities, and a change of US leadership, tensions between Tehran and Washington remain high.

Last week, US President Joe Biden launched an attack on pro-Iran militants on the Syrian-Iraqi border following an attack on the largest American base in Iraq on Feb. 15 by Tehran-backed forces.

Lebanon faced with darkness if a government is not formed to purchase fuel for electricity plants

Lebanon faced with darkness if a government is not formed to purchase fuel for electricity plants
Updated 01 March 2021

Lebanon faced with darkness if a government is not formed to purchase fuel for electricity plants

Lebanon faced with darkness if a government is not formed to purchase fuel for electricity plants
  • Blackouts raise concern amid suggestions that shortages have political background, aimed at pressuring Saad Hariri

BEIRUT: Lebanon “will enter total darkness by the end of this month” if a government is not formed, a source in the Finance Ministry has told Arab News amid a growing electricity crisis.

Beirut has for a week been enduring a blackout. The city — which in recent years was exempt from the harsh rationing of electricity due to its role as the administrative, commercial, and hospital center for the whole country — used to experience no more than three hours a day of power outage.

However, in the last week, the blackouts have exceeded 12 hours a day. There is no clear explanation for these severe blackouts.

Several factors are being discussed, including not unloading shipments of fuel imported by sea.

Other suggestions are that there are administrative disputes over the financial transfers that the Ministry of Energy owes the fuel companies.

Elsewhere, some are arguing that the blackouts have a political background and the aim is to pressure Beirut and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, thus pushing him to step down, in light of his refusal to give the blocking third in the government to President Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The Ministry of Energy is part of the FPM’s share in governing.

Angry protesters have been taking to the streets in Beirut neighborhoods. They have been blocking roads and settling tires ablaze to protest.

Lebanon is under constant electricity-related pressure for structural reasons and now also because of the scarcity of fuel, as its imports are linked to the dollar.

On Monday, the dollar exchange rate on the black market ranged between 9,675 and 9,725 Lebanese pounds.

Most residential neighborhoods and the commercial and industrial sectors depend on private electricity generators powered by diesel, which is a public health risk.

Owners of generators in residential neighborhoods charge exorbitant fees in exchange for providing electricity to subscribers, and they are called the “generator mafia.”

They often do not adhere to the rates set by the Ministry of Energy, as they believe they provide a service to citizens that the government cannot provide, and therefore they exert corresponding pressure to maintain their profits.

The successive governments of Lebanon, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have deemed “electricity reform a vital issue for reducing the debt, which equates to about 150 percent of the GDP.”

Net transfers to the state-owned Electricité du Liban (EDL) per year are between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, most of which is spent on the purchase of fuel. This is equivalent to about a quarter of the 2020 budget deficit.

The resigned government cannot spend resources on electricity infrastructure as state revenues are required to service the public debt.

The World Bank and investors had pledged at the CEDRE conference to invest $11 billion in Lebanon’s infrastructure, including electricity, but these investments are conditional on implementing reforms, including increasing electricity prices.

The EDL announced three days ago that despite the arrival of the two carriers loaded with fuel oil to the Lebanese territorial waters and their docking off the coast, it was not possible to unload the fuel due to the failure to open the required letters of credit and the difficulty in completing banking procedures.

This led to a decline in the stock of fuel oil to its lowest level, which neared depletion, and it resulted in a drop in the supply of the electric current by about 400 megawatts of the total energy produced, which is about 1,400 megawatts.

Caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni signed the opening of credits in favor of the EDL to meet the requirement of the shipment of fuel oil.

These credits, however, are in Lebanese pounds.

A source in the Ministry of Finance told Arab News: “The problem is that the Banque du Liban refuses to convert these credits into dollars at the official rate of 1,505 Lebanese pounds because the central bank suffers from a shortage of dollars.”

The source pointed out that “the caretaker energy minister, Raymond Ghajar, was informed by a political authority that the solution is to form a government quickly.”

They added: “The matter entered the bazaar of political pressure to form a government that was required to have been formed since last October.”

MP Faisal Al-Sayegh expected “the street to explode soon.”

He said: “Buying fuel after this month will require issuing a law to give EDL an emergency treasury advance of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Moreover, the operation and maintenance of the two thermal power plants in Zouk and Zahrani collide with PrimeSouth’s claiming for its receivables, which amount to tens of millions of dollars.”

Al-Sayegh added: “The two Turkish steamboats that were hired by the Ministry of Energy to generate electricity are to withdraw from Lebanon because they did not receive their dues, which are about $160 million.”

Al-Sayegh said: “With the money that was paid for hiring the two ships, it was possible to establish two production plants, or at least buy two newer and better ships.”

The EDL expects a “gradual improvement in the power supply as soon as the two carriers’ cargo is discharged if banking procedures are completed and the supplier issues the approval to unload.”

But the source in the Finance Ministry said that unless a government is urgently formed, Lebanon “will enter total darkness by the end of this month.”

Archbishop who taught Pope to tweet says Iraq visit offers ‘consolation, hope’

Archbishop who taught Pope to tweet says Iraq visit offers ‘consolation, hope’
Updated 13 min 53 sec ago

Archbishop who taught Pope to tweet says Iraq visit offers ‘consolation, hope’

Archbishop who taught Pope to tweet says Iraq visit offers ‘consolation, hope’
  • He ‘intends to reach the hearts of all Iraqis,’ ex-head of Vatican’s social media tells Arab News

ROME: The visit of Pope Francis to Iraq this week will send a message of “consolation and hope” to those who have suffered so much in the country, according to the archbishop who revolutionized the Vatican’s communications.

Claudio Maria Celli, who was president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications from 2007 to 2016, worked closely with Pope Francis after helping convert Catholic leaders to social media to deliver their message to followers around the world.

As a result, the pope’s historic Iraq visit will be relayed through the various social media accounts, including @Pontifex, the account of Pope Francis.

“With this trip, the pope intends to reach the hearts of all Iraqis. He doesn’t want to talk just to the Christians who live in that country and who’ve suffered so much from war and persecution by Daesh,” said Celli. “He wants to bring his closeness … to the people, no matter what their faith.”

The 80-year-old Celli spoke of “hope of reconstruction for a people who have the right to rebuild peace thanks to the collaboration and respect between the religious and national identities that are present in Iraq. The pope believes very much in dialogue between religions.”

Pope Francis “will certainly bring a message of solidarity to the Christians who live in that country. He wants to be close to them as a brother and as a father, so that they feel that the universal Church shares the hardship lived by a community that has suffered too much and for too long from violence and fundamentalism,” said Celli.

“He wants to help rebuild trust in a tomorrow that must be different from the past, a better tomorrow made of peace, prosperity, love and common good for all in a country that deserves to be able to look forward.” All this is part of a “great dimension of interreligious dialogue,” said Celli.

In 2012, Celli helped Pope Benedict join Twitter as he transformed the Vatican's communications to keep up with the social media era. He also established a YouTube channel for the pope.

He once stated that Catholic media “should not become instruments of a religious or cultural fundamentalism.”

Pope Francis’s memorable tweets

With 18.8 million followers the @Pontifex twitter account belonging to Pope Francis has become a powerful tool for him to communicate with both the Catholic faithful and the wider world.

Here are some occasions when his account has been used to send messages of reassurance, hope and concern to issues related to the Middl East.

Aug. 5, 2020

The pope issues condolences and a broader message to Lebanon and its politicians after the devastating blast in Beirut Port.



Nov. 20, 2020

The pope sent a joint tweet along with the Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb reaffirming their commitment to the Document on Human Fraternity signed a year earlier.



Feb. 3, 2019

Ahead of the first visit by a pope to the UAE, Pope Francis tweeted that he was visiting the Emirates “as a brother, in order to write a page of dialogue together.”



Feb. 12, 2021

The pope sent a powerful message to coincide withe the UN day against the use of child soldiers



Feb. 8, 2021

Pope Francis has long campaigned against human trafficking and slavery.



How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage
Updated 01 March 2021

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage
  • Deaths of 13 hostages held by the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Gara region came to light after Turkish airstrikes
  • President has used the incident to whip up nationalistic fervor and dial up pressure on opposition parties

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: In the immediate aftermath of a failed cross-border, hostage rescue attempt earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened further military action against Kurdish fighters abroad and ratcheted up the rhetoric against his secularist opponents at home.

Erdogan’s latest foray against the PKK, an armed group fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey, has quickly expanded into a fresh crackdown on the pro-Kurdish HDP political party as well as a war of words with Washington over its ado-hoc alliance with a Syrian Kurdish PKK affiliate in the fight against Daesh.

It all began on February 13, when Turkey launched a raid against the PKK in the Gara region of Iraqi Kurdistan. After clashes, 13 Turkish citizens, most of them police officers and soldiers in PKK captivity since 2015 and 2016, were found dead.

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on the cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. (AFP)

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on the cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. Even as many Turks cast doubt on the government’s version of the events, security agencies arrested more than 700 people, including members of the HDP accused by Erdogan of being “official terrorist accomplices.”

Using the same political logic, Erdogan also accused the US of supporting terrorism. “What kind of NATO alliance is this? … They (the Americans) still act with terrorists,” he said on February 22, referring to US alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group in the campaign against Daesh in northeast Syria. The leading political entity in northeast Syria is the Kurdish PYD, which was founded as the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Many analysts view the combination of the crackdown at home and the outburst against the US as a cynical attempt by Erdogan to divert attention away from the bloody outcome of the hostage-rescue operation.

The developments also come as the Turkish people continue to struggle financially, student frustrations spill over into violence, and the country's management of the coronavirus crisis is rated a lowly 74th out of 98 by the Lowy Institute's COVID Performance Index.

PKK affiliates many of them backed by Iran, are present in Sinjar and will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there. (AFP)

“Erdogan and the Turkish government do not view the hostage-rescue operation as a failure,” Emily Hawthorne, Stratfor Senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, told Arab News. “The whipping up of patriotic fervour and the crackdown on the HDP are a familiar tactic employed by Erdogan to drum up support of his nationalist base for anti-PKK operations.”

She said the mileage Erdogan could get out of the crisis was not unlimited. “If the PKK did in fact kill the hostages, it will help build support at home in Turkey for more anti-PKK operations abroad and might strengthen Ankara case for more leeway in its Iraqi operations," Hawthorne said. “But it won’t help much with negative Iraqi public opinion vis-a-vis the operations.”

Clashes between Turkey and the PKK in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast markedly decreased in 2020, compared with the years when the Turkish-PKK conflict (which began in 1984) flared following the collapse of a ceasefire in July 2015. Fighting now takes place mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of late, Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. In January, Turkish officials met with the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership and discussed, among other things, removing the PKK from that region.

However, in addition to PKK affiliates, Iraqi Shiite militia groups, many of them backed by Iran, are present in Sinjar and will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there.

Under the circumstances, Hawthorne doubts that Erdogan can effectively invoke the deaths of those Turkish hostages to win some support from the Biden administration for another bloody offensive against the PKK.

“The Turkish government has tried and failed for years to appeal to the US government regarding its concerns about the PKK,” she said. “It is unlikely that the US will become softer towards Turkey because of one particularly difficult and deadly operation in a decades-long struggle.”

More generally, the Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. But if fresh incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, or even a new foray into Sinjar, happen, Hawthorne anticipates that the “further south the operations are, the more complicated the issue will be with the Iraqi government.”

Her views are echoed by Kurdish analyst Gunes Murat Tezcur, the Jalal Talabani Chair and Professor at the University of Central Florida, who believes the failed Gara operation is unlikely to “have any influence over the Biden administration’s current policy towards Turkey, which is characterized by a divergence of interests at multiple levels.”

These include US opposition to Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defense missiles and Turkey’s opposition to American cooperation with the SDF in Syria. Furthermore, Tezcur said it is an indisputable fact that the Gara raid was a failure since it led to the deaths of all the hostages.

“The contrast with a successful rescue operation, such as the one conducted by Israel at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976, is instructive in this regard,” he told Arab News, adding that one of the Gara raid’s negative outcomes is that Erdogan will not be able to “score any political points domestically.”

Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. (AFP)

Even so, the opposition cannot hold the President Erdogan accountable for the loss of Turkish lives in view of “the prevailing power asymmetry” in Turkey, arising from his government’s domination over the media and the weakened state of parliament.

Analysts also say Erdogan’s relentless hounding of the HDP is part of a strategy, in play since 2015, of demonizing and criminalizing its leadership by equating it with the outlawed PKK and denying it autonomy as a political party.

“That strategy, which has had its ebbs and downs, has been very consistent for the last several years,” Tezcur said. “It keeps the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), the junior partner of the ruling coalition, content, and aims to drive a wedge between the HDP and other Turkish opposition parties.”

He also noted that the HDP has become more dispensable for the government since the Turkish military and security forces have established stronger military leverage over the PKK in recent years, at least partially through technological developments such as the use of sophisticated and lethal armed drones.

“The government feels that it no longer needs the messenger/mediating role of the HDP given its relentless military operations that significantly limit the PKK’s room for maneuver,” Tezcur said.

While he foresees more Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan aimed at PKK bases throughout this year, he doubts that the Turkish military will open a new front by launching an unprecedented ground assault on Sinjar.

The Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. (AFP)

At least three factors have led Tezcur to this conclusion. First and foremost is the presence of Iraqi military and Shiite militia groups in the Yazidi homeland.

Then there is the “considerable international concern and sympathy” for the beleaguered Yazidis, who were subjected to a vicious campaign of genocide by Daesh in 2014.

Finally, the distance from the border would make logistical support for a ground operation considerably more difficult for the Turkish army.

Among those who view the arrests of HDP members as Erdogan’s way of shifting blame for the Gara raid failure is Mohammed Salih, a Kurdish affairs analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

The actions of Erdogan “reveal the impunity, at both the domestic and international levels, with which he can behave in an authoritarian way,” Salih told Arab News.

“The Turkish leader will certainly continue military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan because foreign operations are now a sure way for him to deflect attention from the many problems at home.”

As for the Biden administration, Salih said it “has already made clear, with its silence over the mass arrests, and the violations of Kurdish rights in Turkey in general, that the human and democratic rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey are practically of no value.”

Twitter: @pauliddon


Desert Storm: 30 years on
The end of the Gulf War on Feb. 28, 1991 saw the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait but paved the way for decades of conflict