Renewed support from Washington boosts hopes for a two-state solution

Renewed support from Washington boosts hopes for a two-state solution
At UN, Washington assures support for two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. (File: Reuters)
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Updated 27 January 2021

Renewed support from Washington boosts hopes for a two-state solution

Renewed support from Washington boosts hopes for a two-state solution
  • President Joe Biden also intends to restore US assistance programs for Palestinians that were halted by Donald Trump
  • UN envoy urges international community not to squander opportunities arising from recent regional developments

NEW YORK: The US under President Joe Biden supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state,” the UN Security Council heard on Tuesday.
“This vision, (though) under serious stress, remains the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state, while upholding the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for a state of their own and to live with dignity and security,” said Richard Mills, the acting US ambassador to the UN.
In an effort to advance the two-state vision, Mills said the Biden administration will restore “credible US engagement” with Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“President Biden has been clear that he intends to restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic relations that were closed by the last US administration,” said Mills.
His comments came as the Security Council convened at a ministerial level to discuss the stalling Middle East peace process. While Washington is expected to maintain staunch support for the Israelis, Mills said the new administration “will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, and incitement to violence.”
He also expressed hope that recent normalization-of-relations agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, “can proceed in a way that unlocks new possibilities to advance a two-state solution.” He urged more countries to follow suit.
In his first briefing to the council, Tor Wennesland, the UN’s new special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, hailed as a “crucial step toward unity” the announcement this month by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections beginning in May.
Wennesland also praised changes to election laws that raise the quotas for female representation, and called on Palestinian authorities “to take further steps to facilitate, strengthen and support women’s political participation, including as voters and candidates, throughout the election cycle.”
The envoy emphasized the importance of forthcoming talks in Cairo that will aim to resolve issues related to the voting, and told the virtual meeting that “the holding of elections in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, will (give) renewed legitimacy to national institutions, including a democratically elected parliament and government in Palestine.”
He urged the international community not to squander the incredible opportunities provided by recent developments in the region.
“I hope that the promise of the recent agreements made between Israel and Arab countries will lead to a situation where a more peaceful Middle East can be realized,” he said. “However, it requires leaders on all sides to re-engage meaningfully and return to the path of negotiations.”
In the meantime, Wennesland said, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the Palestinian people, with Gaza particularly badly affected as many people there have lost their livelihoods.
He reiterated the support of UN agencies for efforts to ensure Palestinians have access to vaccine supplies but called on Israel, which has launched a large-scale immunization campaign for its citizens, also to help address the priority vaccination needs of Palestinians in the occupied territories. “This is (in) line with Israel’s obligations under international law,” he added.
Wennesland also urged Israeli authorities to halt all settlement activity in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. He called on both sides to put an end to violence and to hold any perpetrators accountable for their actions.
“I reiterate that Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life,” he said.
“Furthermore, the indiscriminate launching of rockets toward Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately. There can be no justification for attacks against civilians.”
He also urged Israel to halt seizures and demolitions of Palestinian homes and agricultural land “in line with (Israel’s) obligations under international humanitarian law, and to allow Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem to develop their communities.”
Wennesland said he will engage with the Middle East Quartet — the UN, the US, the EU and Russia — to identify concrete steps that can be taken to return the peace process to “the path of meaningful negotiations.”
He also reiterated UN concerns over the financial situation facing the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and echoed an appeal by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for support.
“The Agency is not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees but is also critical for regional stability,” Wennesland said.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged the new US administration to rectify the mistakes of its predecessor. He said there is a window of opportunity to end the “dangerous stalemate” in the peace process but warned that it might not remain open for long.
Given that the continuing plight of the Palestinian people remains detrimental to the overall dynamics of the Middle East, he said that a resolution could open the door to prosperity and sustained security for the entire region.
Riyad Al-Maliki, the Palestinian foreign minister, called for an international peace conference that could serve as a new milestone in efforts to resolve the conflict, akin to the Madrid conference of three decades ago.
“The current situation leads to one state and a continued occupation,” Al-Maliki told the council.
“We are asking for nothing more than what the UN charter stipulates — and we will accept nothing short of that. We cannot accept a future made of walls, sieges, humiliation and suffering.”

 


Biden: Strikes in Syria sent warning to Iran to ‘be careful’

Biden: Strikes in Syria sent warning to Iran to ‘be careful’
Updated 46 min 37 sec ago

Biden: Strikes in Syria sent warning to Iran to ‘be careful’

Biden: Strikes in Syria sent warning to Iran to ‘be careful’
  • Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel
  • Kirby said the facilities hit in the attack were near Boukamal, on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, along the Euphrates River

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said Friday that Iran should view his decision to authorize US airstrikes in Syria as a warning that it can expect consequences for its support of militia groups that threaten US interests or personnel.
“You can't act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when a reporter asked what message he had intended to send with the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said destroyed several buildings in eastern Syria but were not intended to eradicate the militia groups that used them to facilitate attacks inside Iraq.
Administration officials defended the Thursday night airstrikes as legal and appropriate, saying they took out facilities that housed valuable “capabilities” used by Iranian-backed militia groups to attack American and allied forces in Iraq.
John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said members of Congress were notified before the strikes as two Air Force F-15E aircraft launched seven missiles, destroying nine facilities and heavily damaging two others, rendering both “functionally destroyed.” He said the facilities, at “entry control points” on the border, had been used by militia groups the US deems responsible for recent attacks against US interests in Iraq.
In a political twist for the new Democratic administration, several leading Congress members in Biden's own party denounced the strikes, which were the first military actions he authorized. Democrats said the airstrikes were done without authorization from lawmakers, while Republicans were more supportive.
“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. And Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said lawmakers must hold the current administration to the same standards as any other. “Retaliatory strikes not necessary to prevent an imminent threat,” he said, must get congressional authorization.
But Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed the decision as “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.
"The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks on facilities and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” she said.
Among the recent attacks cited was a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.
At the Pentagon, Kirby said the operation was “a defensive strike” on a waystation used by militants to move weapons and materials for attacks into Iraq. But he noted that while it sent a message of deterrence and eroded their ability to strike from that compound, the militias have other sites and capabilities. He said the strikes resulted in “casualties” but declined to provide further details on how many were killed or injured and what was inside the buildings pending the completion of a broader assessment of damage inflicted.
An Iraqi militia official said Friday that the strikes killed one fighter and wounded several others.
Kirby said the facilities hit in the attack were near Boukamal, on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, along the Euphrates River.
“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” he said. He described the site as a “compound” that previously had been used by the Islamic State group when it held sway in the area.
The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. The official was not authorized to speak publicly of the attack and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Speaking to reporters Thursday evening shortly after the airstrikes were carried out, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “I’m confident in the target that we went after. We know what we hit.”
Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran. The Biden administration in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist.
The US has previously targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were being taken by trucks entering Syrian territories from Iraq. The group said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The report could not be independently verified.
In a statement, the group confirmed one of its fighters was killed and said it reserved the right to retaliate, without elaborating. Kataeb Hezbollah, like other Iranian-backed factions, maintains fighters in Syria to both fight against Daesh and assist Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces in that country's civil war.
Austin said he was confident the US had hit back at “the same Shia militants” that carried out the Feb.1 5 rocket attack in northern Iraq.
Kirby credited Iraqis with providing valuable intelligence that allowed the US to identify the groups responsible for attacks earlier this year. The US, he said, then determined the appropriate target for the retaliatory strike. He said the US also notified Russia shortly before the strike as part of the ongoing deconfliction process of military activities in Syria.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.
Syria condemned the US strike, calling it “a cowardly and systematic American aggression,” warning that the attack will lead to consequences.
US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against Daesh.


Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows
Updated 27 February 2021

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows
  • In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s revolution, thousands of Ennahda supporters marched in Tunis
  • The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety and disillusionment with democracy

TUNIS: Tunisia’s biggest political party assembled an immense crowd of supporters in the capital on Saturday in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and the prime minister.
In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, tens of thousands of Ennahda supporters marched through central Tunis chanting “The people want to protect institutions!” and “The people want national unity!.”
The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the UGTT, the powerful main labor union, as debt repayments loom.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in a standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
Banned before the revolution, it has been a member of most governing coalitions since then and, although its share of the vote has fallen in recent years, it still holds the most seats in parliament.
“Nationalists, Islamists, democrats and communists,” Ghannouchi told the crowd, “we were gathered together during the dictatorship ... and we must unite again.”
The most recent election, in 2019, delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
When the government collapsed after only five months in office, Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister.
But they soon fell out, and Mechichi turned for support to the two biggest parties — Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing Saied’s allies with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. The president has refused to swear four of them in, however.
Meanwhile, demonstrators protesting last month against inequality and police abuses focused most of their anger on Mechichi and Ennahda.
Ennahda billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy,” but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular opposition to Saied — raising the spectre of competing protest movements.
“This is a strong message that all the people want dialogue and national unity,” Fethi Ayadi, a senior Ennahda official, told Reuters.
To add to the tensions, demands by foreign lenders for spending cuts, which could lead to unpopular reductions in state programs, are opposed by the UGTT.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), including about $5 billion in foreign loans.
But Tunisia’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began, and market concerns about its ability to raise funds are reflected in sharp price rises for Tunisian credit default swaps — insurance against default on its debt. ($1 = 2.7 Tunisian dinars)


Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote
Updated 27 February 2021

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote
  • It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks
  • Interim PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map

TRIPOLI: The Libyan parliament will discuss holding a vote of confidence on a new unified government for the divided country on March 8, its powerful speaker Aguila Saleh said.
Oil-rich Libya has been mired in chaos since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in a popular uprising backed by a NATO air campaign a decade ago.
Its Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli, while eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar supports a parallel administration based in the east.
“Parliament will convene to discuss a vote of confidence on the government on Monday, March 8, at 11 am in Sirte if the 5+5 Joint Military Commission guarantees the security of the meeting,” Saleh said in a statement late Friday, referring to a city halfway between east and west.
The military commission is a forum bringing together five representatives from each side.
“If that proves impossible, the session will be held in the temporary seat of parliament in Tobruk at the same date and time,” he said, adding that the military committee would need to advise the parliament in advance.
It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks.
Interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map.
He said he had submitted to Saleh a “vision” for a cabinet line-up that would help steer Libya to elections in December, and that the names of proposed ministers would be disclosed in parliament during the confidence vote.
Parliament has 21 days to vote on the line-up, according to the road map.
Dbeibah was selected early this month in a UN-sponsored inter-Libyan dialogue, the latest internationally backed bid to salvage the country from a decade of conflict and fragmented political fiefdoms.
Saleh said Friday that Dbeibah should choose “competent people with integrity, from across the country, in order to achieve (national) consensus” for his government.
“Everyone should be represented so that (Libya) can emerge from the tunnel,” Saleh said.
If approved, a new cabinet would replace the Tripoli-based GNA, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the parallel administration in the east.
The premier will then face the giant task of unifying Libya’s proliferating institutions and leading the transition up to December 24 polls.


Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias
Updated 27 February 2021

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias
  • Seven of the interpreters have gone into hiding as they believe their identities have been exposed
  • Militia groups responsible for attacking bases targeted one of the interpreters and posted bullets through his door

LONDON: Eight Iraqi interpreters who worked with British forces fighting Daesh have said they fear for their lives after receiving threats from Iranian-backed militias.
Seven of the interpreters have gone into hiding as they believe their identities have been exposed to anti-coalition groups targeting bases used by US and UK troops, The Times reported.
The interpreters stopped translating for British forces at the Camp Taji military base in March 2020 after troops who were training Iraqi forces began to leave the country.
Two interpreters told the British newspaper that their full names, identification numbers and vehicle registrations were handed over to Iraqi Security Forces and the information was handed over to checkpoints in Baghdad. This meant that the data ended up being accessed by Iranian-backed militias.
Militia groups responsible for attacking bases where coalition troops were stationed targeted one of the interpreters and posted bullets through his door. They had told Iraqis working with coalition forces to work with them instead.
The interpreters have moved, except for one who could not afford to do so. Some have left their families amid concerns that they would be found and killed.
The UK’s Ministry of Defense said it was investigating the allegations. It is understood that the British military believes there were no data breaches and that standard security was followed.
Another interpreter said that Iranian-backed militias increased their targeting of coalition bases after the death of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
He said that tougher security requirements after the attacks meant that interpreters had to supply their full documentation, including vehicle details, to the coalition.
“They told us they would not pass this information to the Iraqi government, but it was then circulated for all the checkpoints throughout Baghdad. Many of these checkpoints are joint with the Popular Mobilization Forces — the legal name of these militias, of which many of them have loyalty to Iran,” he told The Times.
He is appealing to Britain to give him and his family sanctuary. “We are not a huge number, there are only eight of us with our families.”
The Ministry of Defense said: “While we do not employ interpreters in Iraq directly, we take any breach of personal security extremely seriously. We hold our contractors to the highest standards and are investigating.”


Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals

Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals
Updated 27 February 2021

Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals

Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals
  • The vaccine was approved for emergency use for vulnerable groups in the Kingdom starting Jan. 21
  • The vaccine was produced by AstraZeneca in cooperation with the University of Oxford

DUBAI: Bahrain has announced it is increasing the number of weeks between the first and second dose of the Covishield-AstraZeneca vaccine from four to eight weeks, state news agency BNA reported.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the longer dose durations between eight to 12 weeks are related to greater vaccine effectiveness, the Ministry of Health’s Undersecretary for Public Health Dr. Mariam Al-Hajeri said.
The vaccine was approved for emergency use for vulnerable groups in the Kingdom starting Jan. 21. The groups include the elderly and those with immune complications, she said.
The vaccine was produced by AstraZeneca in cooperation with the University of Oxford and is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India under the name ‘Covishield’.