US restores Palestinian aid with $235m package

US President Joe Biden’s administration plans to restore about $200 million in aid to Palestinians after being cut off by then-President Donald Trump, sources told Reuters. (Reuters)
US President Joe Biden’s administration plans to restore about $200 million in aid to Palestinians after being cut off by then-President Donald Trump, sources told Reuters. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 07 April 2021

US restores Palestinian aid with $235m package

US restores Palestinian aid with $235m package
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken reveals package that includes $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the UN relief agency
  • A further $75 million provided for economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration announced on Wednesday it would provide $235 million in US aid to the Palestinians, restarting funding for the United Nations agency supporting refugees and restoring other assistance cut off by then-President Donald Trump.
The package, including humanitarian, economic and development assistance, was detailed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as part of an effort to repair American ties with the Palestinians that all but collapsed during Trump’s tenure.
It marked Democratic President Joe Biden’s most significant move since taking office on Jan. 20 to make good on his promise to roll back some components of his Republican predecessor’s approach that Palestinians denounced as heavily biased in favor of Israel.
The plan calls for $150 million through the United Nations relief agency UNRWA, $75 million in US economic and development assistance and $10 million for peace-building programs, Blinken said in a statement.
Biden’s aides have also signaled that they want to re-establish the goal of a negotiated two-state solution as a priority in US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But they have moved cautiously so far, and any major steps are likely to wait for the dust to clear after Israel’s inconclusive March election, which will be followed by Palestinian elections scheduled in coming months.
The Trump administration blocked nearly all aid after it severed ties with the Palestinian Authority in 2018. The move was widely seen as an attempt to force the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on terms the Palestinian leadership branded as an effort to deny them a viable state.
The cuts came after Palestinian leaders decided to boycott the Trump administration’s peace efforts over its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, upending decades of American policy.
This included rescinding funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and relief services to around 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and across the Middle East.
“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart US economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people,” Blinken said.
Ahmed Abu Huly, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said he would be holding a Zoom meeting with US State Department official Richard Albright to express appreciation for the “very important support” and said he hoped it would continue.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said: “In respect to UNRWA, Israel’s position is that the organization in its present form perpetuates the conflict rather than helping to resolve it. Therefore, the renewal of assistance to UNRWA must be accompanied by substantial and vital changes to its nature, goals and organizational conduct.”
The United Nations welcomed the restart of UNRWA funding. “There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced to halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin ... as UNRWA donors,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told Reuters the new funding was “extremely welcome” but said it was also important to have the United States back as “strategic partners” politically.
Blinken said the United States was also “resuming vital security assistance programs” with the Palestinians but did not elaborate.
However, the administration is likely to hold back for now on resuming direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority while Biden’s aides consult with Congress on potential legal obstacles, according to one person familiar with the matter. The notice to Congress assured lawmakers that all assistance would be consistent with US law.
The money that will go to UNRWA does not immediately restore contributions to the $365 million level that the United States gave to the agency in 2017.
Most of the refugees assisted by UNRWA are descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
The growing refugee count was cited by the Trump administration in its 2018 defunding, with then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticizing UNRWA over what she called an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who developed close ties with Trump, has also called for the dismantling of UNRWA.
Soon after Biden took office, his administration began laying the groundwork for restored relations with the Palestinians as well as renewed aid. Biden’s aides are crafting a more detailed plan to reset ties, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters in mid-March.
The administration announced late last month it was giving $15 million to vulnerable Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.


Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists
Updated 35 sec ago

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists
  • Political foes says Ali Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution
ISTANBUL: When President Tayyip Erdogan opened a new court complex this month, Turkey’s senior cleric sealed the ceremony with a Muslim prayer, triggering protests from critics who said his actions contravened the secular constitution.
“Make this wonderful work beneficial and blessed for our nation, my God,” Ali Erbas said in his address, adding that many judges had “worked to bring the justice which (God) ordered.”
Erbas’s appearance at the Sept. 1 ceremony in Ankara, and the wave of opposition criticism over his comments, reflect his rising profile at the head of a state-run religious organization and the growing influence it has attained under Erdogan.
The president, whose ruling AK Party is rooted in political Islam, has overturned decades-old restrictions imposed on religion by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, placing Islam center-stage in political life.
Last year Erbas delivered the first sermon in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia after the Byzantine church-turned-museum was reconverted into a mosque. He did so while clutching a sword, saying this was traditional for preachers in mosques taken by conquest. The church was captured by Ottoman forces in 1453.
His state-run Diyanet organization, or Religious Affairs Directorate, has its own television channel which is recruiting 30 new staff. Its budget, which already matches that of an average ministry, will rise by a quarter next year to 16.1 billion lira ($1.86 billion), government data shows.
Erdogan further endorsed Erbas last week by extending his term at the Diyanet. He was with Erdogan again on Monday in New York, reciting a prayer at the opening of a skyscraper that will house Turkish diplomats based there.
Erdogan’s political foes says Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution, and shows the president is using religion to boost his waning ratings ahead of an election scheduled for 2023.
“It is completely unacceptable for the Religious Affairs Directorate to be used politically by the AKP,” said Bahadir Erdem, deputy chairman of the opposition Iyi Party.
“The reason for Ali Erbas repeatedly making statements that polarize the nation is very clearly the government using religious sensitivities of those whose votes it thinks it can win,” he said.
Apart from the Diyanet’s growing prominence, secularists also fret over a sharp increase in religious ‘Imam Hatip’ schools, a 10 percent rise in mosque numbers in the last decade, the lifting of a ban on Muslim headscarves in state institutions and the taming of Turkey’s powerful military, once a bastion of secularism, all during Erdogan’s rule.
Responding to the criticism over the Diyanet, the presidency shared a picture of Ataturk standing in prayer beside a Muslim cleric at a ceremony outside Turkey’s new parliament 100 years ago, suggesting that even the founder of the secular republic gave space to religion alongside politics.
The secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) accuse Erdogan of deliberately using Erbas to distract public attention from Turkey’s mounting economic woes.
“He has put the Religious Affairs Directorate chairman on the field like a pawn,” CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak said.
Turkey’s constitution says the Diyanet must act in line with the principles of secularism, without expressing political views.
Erbas, a former theology professor who took office in 2017, has not addressed the criticism directly but says his role is limited to religious guidance.
“In line with the duty set out in the constitution to ‘enlighten society regarding religion’, our directorate is working to convey to our people in the most correct way the principles of Islam,” he said in a speech last week.
That message does not reassure secularist critics.
Erbas’s frequent presence at Erdogan’s side reveals a “very significant elevation of the role of Sunni Islam in government in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The secularist firewall of the 20th century, established by Ataturk and guarded by his successors, that has separated religion and government, and religion and education, has completely collapsed,” he said.
Erbas has courted controversy in the past. Last year his suggestion that homosexuality causes illness triggered a clash between Erdogan’s AKP and Turkey’s lawyers’ associations over freedom of expression.
But he has won support from Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli.
“Turkey is a Muslim country,” he said. “The allergy against the Islamic religion of those wicked people who have broken off ties with our national and spiritual values is an incurable clinical case.”

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan
Updated 44 min 54 sec ago

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia condemned the failed coup attempt in Sudan, Al-Arabiya TV reported on Wednesday, citing the kingdom's foreign ministry.

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait also condemned the failed coup attempt in Sudan and renewed their support for the Sudanese people.

Egypt, in a statement issued by its foreign ministry, also affirmed support for the transitional Sudanese government and condemned any attempt to obstruct development efforts there.

Sudanese authorities reported a coup attempt on Tuesday by a group of soldiers but said the attempt failed and that the military remains in control. 

It said the plotters were loyal to ousted president Omar Al-Bashir.  


UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places

UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places
Updated 22 September 2021

UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places

UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places

DUBAI: The UAE government has removed the mandatory requirement to wear face masks in some public places, the country’s health ministry announced Wednesday. 

The decision means it is no longer obligatory to wear masks while exercising outdoors, sitting at the beach, or by the pool.

Individuals driving in a private car alone or with members of the same household will also not be required to wear them.

Masks will also not be required in indoor places such as hair salons when people are alone. 

The decision came after the number of daily Covid-19 cases decreased by 60 per cent in August this year as compared to the same period last year.


Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge
Updated 22 September 2021

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge
  • The total number of cases seen in Idlib province has more than doubled since the beginning of August
  • Extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible

BEIRUT: Coronavirus cases are surging to the worst levels of the pandemic in a rebel stronghold in Syria — a particularly devastating development in a region where scores of hospitals have been bombed and that doctors and nurses have fled in droves during a decade of war.
The total number of cases seen in Idlib province — an overcrowded enclave with a population of 4 million, many of them internally displaced — has more than doubled since the beginning of August to more than 61,000. In recent weeks, daily new infections have repeatedly shot past 1,500, and authorities reported 34 deaths on Sunday alone — figures that are still believed to be undercounts because many infected people don’t report to authorities.
The situation has become so dire in the northwestern province that rescue workers known as the White Helmets who became famous for digging through the rubble of bombings to find victims now mostly ferry coronavirus patients to the hospital or the dead to burials.
“What is happening is a medical catastrophe,” the Idlib Doctors Syndicate said this week as it issued a plea for support from international aid groups.
Idlib faces all the challenges that places the world over have during the pandemic: Its intensive care units are largely full, there are severe shortages of oxygen and tests, and the vaccination rollout has been slow.
But extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible. Half of its hospitals and health centers have been damaged by bombing, and the health system was close to collapse even before the pandemic. A large number of medical personnel have fled the country seeking safety and opportunities abroad. Tens of thousands of its residents live in crowded tent settlements, where social distancing and even regular hand-washing are all but impossible. And increasing violence in the region is now threatening to make matters worse.
Large parts of Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province remain in the hands of Syria’s armed opposition, dominated by radical groups including Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants who have struggled to respond to the outbreak, which intensified in August, apparently driven by the more contagious delta variant and gatherings for the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha.
Cases and deaths have also been increasing in recent weeks in government-held areas and those under the control of US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in the east, but the situation appears to be worse in Idlib, though it’s hard to measure the true toll anywhere.
In response, the political arm of the insurgent group that runs Idlib has closed some markets, forced restaurants to serve outdoor meals only, and delayed the opening of schools by a week.
But most residents are daily laborers who could not survive if they stopped working, making full lockdowns impossible.
“If they don’t work, they cannot eat,” said Idlib resident Ahmad Said, who added that most people cannot even afford to buy masks.
What’s more, a population that has suffered through so much already is often too weary to follow restrictions that have tested people even in easier circumstances.
“It is as if people have gotten used to death,” said Salwa Abdul-Rahman, an opposition activist who reports on events in Idlib. “Those who were not killed by regime and Russian airstrikes are being killed now by coronavirus.”
The vaccination campaign meanwhile, has been slow, though the arrival of some 350,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine earlier this month could help. According to the World Health Organization, only about 2.5 percent of Idlib’s population has received at least one shot.
The new virus outbreak also comes amid the most serious increase in violence in Idlib, 18 months after a truce reached between Turkey and Russia who support rival sides in Syria’s conflict brought relative calm. In recent weeks, airstrikes and artillery shelling by government forces have left scores of people dead or wounded.
At Al-Ziraa hospital, Dr. Muhammad Abdullah says there is no sign that the outbreak has reached its peak yet.
But for some Idlib residents, getting infected is the least of their worries.
“We have gone through more difficult situations than coronavirus,” said resident Ali Dalati, walking through a market without wearing a mask. “We are not afraid of coronavirus.”


Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy
Updated 22 September 2021

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

DUBAI: The Iran-backed Houthi militia are unwilling to make peace in Yemen and are actually undermining efforts for hostilities to cease in the conflict-ridden country, a senior Yemeni politician said.

“We’re ready to achieve peace, but the Houthi militia has not yet agreed to do so, it has continued to deliberately undermine peace efforts and proposals, going on fighting. These indicators show they have never been willing to make peace,” Parliament speaker, Sultan Al-Barakani said as he met US envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking to discuss peace initiatives for Yemen.

The Houthis are to blame for blocking peace efforts and initiative and escalating military actions targeting civilians and facilities including Mocha port, state news agency SABA quoted the parliament leader as saying.

Al-Barakani pointed to the recent public execution of nine people, who were accused of being involved in the killing of Houthi leader Saleh Al-Samad in 2018, as an example of the militia’s crimes against the Yemeni people.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni Network for Rights and Freedoms claimed it had documented 6,476  violations committed by the Houthis against women in more than five years, involving mostly deaths and injuries caused be artillery shelling, as well as mines and other explosive devices detonating.

The rights group also said there had been 770 cases of arrests and kidnapping, 195 cases of enforced disappearance and 70 cases of torture of women in Yemen during the period from Jan. 1, 2015 to June 1, 2021.

It also confirmed cases of torture and degrading treatment against 70 women who were detained in secret and public prisons of the Houthi militia.

This amounted to false charges against their honor, as well as trafficking in their honor – according to what was reported – in the testimonies of some of the released women, the group said, leading to some of them to commit suicide.