US reaches out to Arab leaders on Israel, Gaza fighting

US reaches out to Arab leaders on Israel, Gaza fighting
Members of the Palestinian Civil Defense extinguish a fire in a paint warehouse that was hit by an Israeli artillery shell in southern Gaza on Tuesday. (AP)
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Updated 18 May 2021

US reaches out to Arab leaders on Israel, Gaza fighting

US reaches out to Arab leaders on Israel, Gaza fighting
  • Blinken defends US decision to block what would have been a unanimous UN Security Council statement on the fighting
  • Blinken said he had spoken to the foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his envoy reached out to Palestinian and regional Arab leaders on Tuesday as attacks between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers raged on, maintaining what the Biden administration is calling its quiet diplomacy while still declining to press for an immediate cease-fire.
Blinken, speaking during an unrelated trip focusing on Russia and Nordic countries, also defended the US decision to block what would have been a unanimous UN Security Council statement on the fighting and its civilian toll, and the overall US approach to the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting since 2014. President Joe Biden, speaking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, expressed general support for a cease fire but stopped short of joining dozens of Democratic lawmakers in demanding one.
“Our goal remains to bring the current cycle of violence to an end” and then return to a process in which a lasting peace can be forged, the US diplomat said.
Blinken said he had spoken to the foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain, two Arab countries that recently have moved to normalize relations with Israel, while US envoy Hady Amr in Israel spoke with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The ongoing US outreach — reflecting an administration that has emphasized working with allies, and has refrained from publicly criticizing ally Israel — came as new Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes continued for a ninth day. At least 213 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel have died. Efforts by Egypt and others to mediate a truce have stalled.
Biden’s carefully worded statement expressing general support for a cease-fire, in a White House readout Monday of his second known call to Netanyahu in three days as the attacks pounded on, came with the administration under pressure to respond more forcefully despite its reluctance to challenge Israel’s actions in its part of the fighting. The administration also has expressed its determination to wrench the main US foreign policy focus away from Middle East hotspots and Afghanistan.
Biden’s comments on a cease-fire were open-ended and similar to previous administration statements of support in principle for a cease-fire.
Biden also “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said in its readout.

Opinion

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An administration official said the decision to express support and not explicitly demand a cease-fire was intentional. While Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, the decision not to demand an immediate halt to hostilities reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.
Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers were meeting Tuesday to discuss how to use the 27-nation bloc’s political clout to help diplomatic efforts to end the fighting between the Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militants. The EU has been united in its calls for a cease-fire and the need for a political solution to end the latest conflict, but the nations are divided over how best to help.
Netanyahu told Israeli security officials late Monday that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens.”
Separately, the United States, Israel’s top ally, blocked for a third time Monday what would have been a unanimous statement by the 15-nation UN Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives. The final US rejection killed the Security Council statement, at least for now.
Blinken said the US was “not standing in the way of diplomacy” and that the UN statement would not have advanced the goal of ending the violence.
“If we thought and if we think that there is something, including at the United Nations that could advance the situation, we would be for it,” Blinken said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States was focusing instead on “quiet, intensive diplomacy.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday joined dozens of Democratic lawmakers — and one Republican and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders — in calling for the cease-fire by both sides. A prominent Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee chairman, pressed the US over the weekend to get more involved.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, took the Senate floor on Monday to assail lawmakers for including Israel in their demands for a cease-fire.
“To say that both sides, both sides need to de-escalate downplays the responsibility terrorists have for initiating the conflict in the first place and suggests Israelis are not entitled to defend themselves against ongoing rocket barrages,” McConnell said.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., led 19 Republican senators releasing a resolution supporting Israel’s side of the fighting. They plan to try to introduce the legislation next week.


Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting

Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting
Explosions light-up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the Palestinian enclave, early on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 16 June 2021

Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting

Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting
  • A Hamas spokesman, confirming the Israeli attacks, said Palestinians would continue to pursue their “brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites” in Jerusalem

GAZA: Israel mounted air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the first since the end of 11 days of cross-border fighting last month, in response to incendiary balloons launched from the Palestinian territory.
The flare-up, a first test for Israel’s new government, followed a march in East Jerusalem on Tuesday by Jewish nationalists that had drawn threats of action by Hamas, the ruling militant group in Gaza.
The Israeli military said its aircraft attacked Hamas armed compounds in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Younis and was “ready for all scenarios, including renewed fighting in the face of continued terrorist acts emanating from Gaza.”
The strikes, the military said, came in response to the launching of the balloons, which the Israeli fire brigade reported caused 20 blazes in open fields in communities near the Gaza border.
A Hamas spokesman, confirming the Israeli attacks, said Palestinians would continue to pursue their “brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites” in Jerusalem.
Hours earlier, thousands of flag-waving Israelis congregated around the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City before heading to Judaism’s holy Western Wall, drawing Palestinian anger and condemnation.
Israel, which occupied East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move that has not won international recognition, regards the entire city as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state that would include the West Bank and Gaza.
Prior to Tuesday’s march, Israel beefed up its deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in anticipation of possible rocket attacks from Gaza.
But as the marchers began to disperse after nightfall in Jerusalem, there was no sign of rocket fire from the enclave.
The procession was originally scheduled for May 10 as part of “Jerusalem Day” festivities that celebrate Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem.
At the last minute, that march was diverted away from the Damascus Gate and the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, but the move was not enough to dissuade Hamas from firing rockets toward Jerusalem, attacks that set off last month’s round of fighting.


Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula
Activists were enraged after video showing disposal of 20 tons of baby formula circulated on social media. (Supplied)
Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula
  • The infant milk formula shortage is just one part of a food security problem brought on by economic collapse and worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports for basic necessities

BEIRUT: Lebanon has been running short of infant baby formula for months as the country has been dealing with a severe economic crisis. A video showing the disposal of 20 tons of the baby milk substitute has been circulating on social media and has only added to the public’s frustrations.
The Discriminatory Public Prosecution has commissioned the information department from the Internal Security Forces (ISF) to investigate as infant baby formula — which is supposed to be subsidized — has been missing from shops and pharmacies for weeks.
“There is a kind of social solidarity and government policy to control prices in the time of crises in the world, however, when there is a shortage of infant formula in the Lebanese market, it is not permitted to see it destroyed in front of our very own eyes,” activist Mahmoud Fakih told Arab News.
“Why did the state not prosecute the traders who monopolized and hid this milk? It seems that people are the last thing on the mind of traders who insist on continuing to make profits in dollars.”
The infant milk formula shortage is just one part of a food security problem brought on by economic collapse and worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports for basic necessities. Staggering inflation has impeded imports and slashed purchasing power.
The video surfaced on social media after Hani Bohsali, president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products, and Drinks, said “subsidies have been lifted on infant formula for ages one to three years old.”
The Lebanese government is avoiding lifting subsidies on items, fearing the resentful reactions and leaving the matter into the hands of the Banque Du Liban (BDL), which settles for the cessation of payments to importers on the basis of a lack of funds in dollars.
In defense of the infant baby formula disposal, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) said: “It was requested to destroy these items in 2019 and 2020 in waste treatment facilities run by the CDR, in preparation for burying the waste in the sanitary landfill. This procedure is adopted for all the goods required to be damaged by their owners or by the competent official authorities.”

HIGHLIGHT

Internal Security Forces (ISF) were to investigate as baby formula has been missing from shops and pharmacies for weeks.

The company responsible for distributing food items in Lebanon said in a statement: “These expired products were withdrawn from the market three months before their expiry date in order to be disposed of and were in compliance with the protocols and expiry dates. Most of these products date back to 2018, 2019, and early 2020, and the process to obtain an agreement to destroy them required more than a year because of the total lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Bohsali pointed his finger at the BDL.
“The files of the infant formula for ages one to three years old, which is included in the subsidized items, have been withdrawn from BDL,” he said.
“The goods will be delivered to the markets at an unsubsidized rate. As for the price of milk for ages below one year old, it is subsidized, similarly to medicine, and traders cannot set its price.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun weighed in and called on the relevant agencies and departments to “strictly pursue monopolists and exploiters of the current circumstances who increase the prices and make illegal profits.”
According to his media office, Aoun added that “procedures were taken to address the fuel, medicine, medical supplies, and infant formula’s crisis.”
A joint report issued by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF in May warned that “canceling the only remaining form of social support funded by the Lebanese state will lead to a significant deterioration in the living standards of the poor and the middle class, if no comprehensive, sufficient and permanent social protection guarantees are implemented.”
In a previous statement, UNICEF warned: “the poorest families might face levels of deprivation we have not witnessed for many years.”
It is a critical time for the most vulnerable Lebanese citizens, said UNICEF Lebanon Representative Yukie Mokuo.
“If gaps are not quickly filled through strong long-term social assistance programs and at a time when most Lebanese face very difficult circumstances, those who are suffering from specific vulnerabilities will be simply left without support,” she said.
According to the video on social media, the infant baby formula disposal took place Tuesday morning. It provided even more ammunition for civil-society organizations, which held a protest march through the heart of Beirut on Tuesday afternoon.
The General Labor Union is scheduled to go on strike on Thursday to demand the formation of a new government. More labor unions continue to announce plans of joining the strike, including a syndicate of bank employees.
While waiting for a new government to rescue the country, there has been a renewed scene of cars queuing up near gas stations. Aggressive confrontations have occurred between drivers waiting in lines and desperate for gas.
Georges Fayyad, who heads the Association of Petroleum Importing Companies in Lebanon, expects the price of gasoline to increase if subsidies are completely lifted.
“Fuel-importing companies distributed millions of gasoline in the market on Monday and Tuesday, however, this is a temporary solution that will only last for 15 days,” Fayyad said.
“The decision to lift subsidies is not controlled by BDL, which clearly stated that it does not have any money. The decision should be made by the government.”


Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions

Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions
A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a picture of him with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at an election rally in Tehran. (AFP)
Updated 16 June 2021

Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions

Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions
  • Raisi’s only place is in the dock, not the presidency
  • Track record of Iran’s vote frontrunner — who has victory in sights on Friday — dismays activists

PARIS: Ebrahim Raisi, the favorite in Iran’s presidential election, has used his position at the heart of the judiciary for grave rights violations, including mass executions of political prisoners, activists say.

They say Raisi — who now has victory in his sights on Friday after even conservative rivals were disqualified in vetting — should face international justice rather than lead his country.
At 60, the mid-ranking cleric is still relatively young for a figure who has held a succession of key positions, starting almost immediately after the fall of the shah in the revolution of 1979.
At just 20, he was appointed prosecutor for the district of Karaj and then for Hamadan province, before in 1985 being promoted to deputy Tehran prosecutor.
It was in this role, campaigners allege, that Raisi played a key part in the executions of thousands of opposition prisoners — mostly suspected members of the proscribed People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) — when, activists say, he was part of a four-man “Death Committee” that sent convicts to their death without a shred of due process.
Raisi, seen as a possible successor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has denied personal involvement in the 1988 killings, but also praised the decision to go ahead with the executions.
He subsequently became chief Tehran prosecutor in 1989, and then in 2004, deputy judiciary chief, a position he held for 10 years. Since 2019, he has served as head of the judiciary.
“Raisi’s only place is in the dock, not the presidency,” said Shadi Sadr, executive director of London-based Justice for Iran, which campaigns against impunity for crimes in Iran. “The mere fact he is currently the head of judiciary and running for president demonstrates the level of impunity that the perpetrators of the heinous crimes enjoy in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” she said.
The 1988 killings, which took place from July to September that year allegedly on the direct orders of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remain a near taboo in modern Iran. Most rights groups and historians say between 4,000 and 5,000 were killed, but the political wing of the MEK, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), puts the figure at closer to 30,000.
Hossein Abedini, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the NCRI, described Raisi as a “stone hearted killer” with a “40-year track record of repression.”
Last year, seven special UN rapporteurs told the Iranian government that “the situation may amount to crimes against humanity” and urged an international probe if Tehran did not show full accountability.
Amnesty International came to a similar conclusion in a 2018 report, which identified Raisi as a member of the Tehran “death commission” that secretly sent thousands to their deaths in Evin Prison in Tehran and Gohardasht Prison in Karaj.
Former prisoners, now living in exile who said they had survived the massacres, testified they had personally seen Raisi working as a member of the commission.
The vast majority of the bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves and Iran continues to conceal the fate of the victims and the whereabouts of their remains, it charged.


Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader

Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader
Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, speaks in Kadugli, Sudan, on May 2. (GettyImages)
Updated 16 June 2021

Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader

Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader
  • Sudan’s transitional government has been engaging in peace talks with rebel groups over the past two years

JUBA, CAIRO: Sudanese authorities adjourned talks on Tuesday with the most powerful rebel leader from the country’s south, saying they had agreed on more than three quarters of a framework peace deal.
A deal with Abdelaziz Al-Hilu’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) would be a big step in efforts to resolve decades of internal conflict in Sudan following the overthrow of former leader Omar Bashir in 2019.
Some rebels from the south and from the troubled western region of Darfur signed what was meant to be a comprehensive peace agreement last year.
But Al-Hilu, who has control over significant forces and territory from his stronghold in South Kordofan, held out, as did the leader of the most active Darfur group, Abdel Wahed El-Nur.
Earlier this year, the SPLM-N and Sudan signed a declaration of principles to guarantee freedom of worship and separate religion from the state — a key demand for Al-Hilu.
That paved the way for peace talks that have been held over recent weeks in the capital of neighboring South Sudan, Juba.
Sudan’s ruling council, formed under a military-civilian power-sharing deal after Bashir’s ouster, cited the lead negotiator at the talks as saying all but four out of 19 points had been resolved.
A senior SPLM-N official said more than three quarters of a framework deal had been agreed on.
SPLM-N spokesperson Mohammad Kuku refused to give details on the points of disagreement, saying consultations would continue ahead of the next round of talks.
Tut Galuak, a security adviser to South Sudan’s president who led mediation efforts said Sudan and the SPLM-N agreed to end negotiations and conduct further consultations over their disputed points.
He said the two sides have reached “significant understandings of the disputed issues,” and that “only four out of 19 points” remain unsolved. He did not elaborate.
Galuak’s comments came in a statement released by Sudan’s ruling sovereign council.
Also in the statement, Gen. Shams Eddin Kabashi, a member of the sovereign council and the government’s chief negotiator, said the sides would return to the negotiating table “once conditions are more favorable.”
The rebel group’s chief negotiator, Ammar Amount, said they have agreed on between 75 percent to 80 percent of the deal and the remaining issues need further consultations with their leaders.
Neither side gave a time frame for a return to the talks.
SPLM-N operates in an area inhabited mainly by minority Christians and followers of indigenous beliefs, who had long complained of discrimination at the hands of Khartoum and Bashir’s regime.
Sudan’s transitional government has been engaging in peace talks with rebel groups over the past two years. It’s looking to stabilize the country and help its fragile path to democracy survive following the military’s overthrow of Bashir in April 2019. It reached a peace deal with another rebel alliance in October.


Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government

Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government
Updated 15 June 2021

Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government

Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated veteran Democratic Party official Thomas Nides to be US ambassador to Israel, filling the post two days after the formation of a new government eager to renew ties.
Nides, a former top banker at Morgan Stanley who has spent his adult life in Democratic politics, served in the US State Department when Barack Obama was president and defended funding for the Palestinians.
He would mark a sharp departure from the last US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a forceful advocate for hawkish Israeli policies who was tapped by former president Donald Trump after serving his company as a bankruptcy lawyer.
Nides grew up in a Jewish home in Duluth, Minnesota, where his father was temple president. He is not known as an ideological figure on the Middle East or other issues.
While serving as deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Nides fought attempts by Republicans in Congress to stop US funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees -- a step taken by Trump but reversed by Biden.
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, wrote in a 2011 book that Nides once called him to argue passionately - and profanely - against attempts in Congress to defund the UN cultural agency UNESCO after it admitted Palestine as a member state.
Nides, Oren wrote, said with colorful language that Israel would not want to defund UNESCO as it has played a role in education about the Holocaust.
Nides, whose nomination had been rumored for weeks, needs to be confirmed by the Senate, where the Democrats are narrowly in control.
His nomination was announced two days after the fall from power from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister who had toxic relations with Democrats after he rallied against Obama's Iran policy, rejected moves for a Palestinian state and aligned himself with Republicans.
Biden has quickly congratulated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is a staunch defender of Jewish settlement in the West Bank but governs in coalition with centrists and leftists.