BEIRUT: Lebanese health authorities on Saturday launched a COVID-19 vaccination “marathon” to speed up the country’s inoculation drive, with a day-long campaign offering the AstraZeneca shot at 30 different locations.
Long lines of people were seen in front of the vaccination centers and more than 7,800 were jabbed within seven hours.
Petra Khoury, who is the prime minister’s adviser for health affairs and heads the National Executive Vaccine Committee, called the turnout “joyful.”
Khoury said the committee would come up with new ideas in the coming weeks to reach people who did not know how to register on the vaccination platform and those who were generally fearful of the vaccine.
Around two dozen centers were offering jabs to people aged between 30 and 65 provided they were not suffering from any health issues or conditions that prevented them from receiving a shot.
The initiative also offered vaccinations to everyone who was registered on the vaccination platform but had yet to receive an appointment and those who were not registered on it, including those without identification papers.
Lebanon began vaccinating its population, including more than 1.5 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees, on Jan. 28 with the elderly and healthcare workers getting priority.
The country’s access to the AstraZeneca vaccine coincided with reports of deaths caused by strokes as a result of receiving this jab.
Many of those registered on the platform declined to take the vaccine while others, including the media and university professors, agreed to take it.
Nabil Rizkallah, a member of the National Executive Vaccine Committee, said that 64 percent of those who received the vaccine on Saturday were Lebanese and 36 percent were foreigners.
• According to Health Ministry statistics, the total number of those who received the Pfizer vaccine as of Saturday was 559,789, while the number of those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine was 106,659. • The private sector has provided the Sputnik vaccine to more than 64,000 workers, including the self-employed, while 6,532 people have received the Sinopharm jab.
Rizkallah said: “The reason for the slowdown in vaccination and waiting in front of the centers was caused by confusion between registered and unregistered people, which led to long waits. But we will deal with the matter in the next marathon.”
The Ministry of Health allocated 15,000 vaccinations for the day, and medical staff waited until 6 p.m. for those wishing to be vaccinated.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan got his jab live on air at a center in Baalbek to nudge people toward the AstraZeneca shot.
“Lebanese society is educated and does not accept rumors, and the Ministry of Health is the right reference for information,” he said, adding that 100,000 people had received the AstraZeneca jab.
He offered reassurances about the safety and efficiency of this vaccine and said he got it to encourage others and because he was “convinced” that it provided the desired immunity.
He also said the Pfizer-BioNTech, Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines were effective and safe and that the ministry adhered to World Health Organization standards in the introduction of any vaccine.
Hassan confirmed that the marathon would be repeated every week and called on people of all nationalities to receive this vaccine.
Akkar in the north witnessed the lowest turnout, while centers in Mount Lebanon witnessed the highest.
Dr. Abdul Rahman Bizri, who is the head of the national vaccination campaign at the ministry, expected more than 1 million Pfizer doses to arrive during June.
This arrival would raise the immunization rate during the summer to 30 percent so that Lebanon could gradually move to the stage of social immunity, he said.
According to ministry statistics, the total number of those who received the Pfizer vaccine as of Saturday was 559,789, while the number of those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine was 106,659.
The private sector has provided the Sputnik vaccine to more than 64,000 workers, including the self-employed, while 6,532 people have received the Sinopharm jab.
Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government
Updated 20 sec ago
WASHINGTON: Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday removed $1 billion in military funding for Israel from legislation to fund the US government after objections from House of Representatives liberals, setting the stage for a potential fight over the matter later this year. Some House Democrats objected to a provision in a stopgap spending bill to provide the additional funding so Israel can replenish its “Iron Dome” missile-defense system. The US company Raytheon produces many Iron Dome components. The House is debating legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 3 and raise the nation’s borrowing limit. The dispute forced the House Rules Committee to adjourn briefly before leaders of the Appropriations Committee pledged that funding for the Israeli system would be included in a defense spending bill later this year. That could set the stage for another dispute over military aid for Israel. Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman said House members had not been given enough time to consider the matter. “The problem is leadership (will) just throw something on our table, give us about five minutes to decide what we’re going to do and then tries to move forward with it,” Bowman told reporters. The United States has already provided more than $1.6 billion for Israel to develop and build the Iron Dome system, according to a US Congressional Research Service report last year. This reflects perennially strong support for aid to Israel among both Democrats and Republicans. Some liberal Democrats objected to that policy this year, citing Palestinian casualties as Israel struck back after Hamas rocket attacks in May. Israel said most of the 4,350 rockets fired from Gaza during the conflict were blown out of the sky by Iron Dome interceptors.
There are 63 banks operating in Lebanon with more than 1,000 branches and 25,000 employees
Updated 12 min 19 sec ago
BEIRUT: The conduct of Lebanese banks amid the country’s worsening economic crisis has been defended by Salim Sfeir, head of the Association of Banks of Lebanon, who responded on Tuesday to criticism by MPs from the Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement blocs.
The condemnation of the country’s banks came during Monday’s vote of confidence.
In a response statement, Sfeir said: “Banks invested their surplus of liquidity in the Lebanese Central Bank. Banks demanded the adoption of a law that establishes capital controls while the multiple formulas offered by others aim to legislate cash withdrawals and international transfers.”
Lebanon was hit by an unprecedented economic crisis in 2019, leading to the collapse of its currency and an inability to pay its debts. The country’s political class was accused of looting the country’s local treasury, siphoning off middle-class wealth and exercising authority without responsibility.
In its statement, the ABL urged the Lebanese Parliament “to speed up the reforms required by the international community,” and called on the new government to “start serious work” to launch international aid packages and put the country back on the international map “by enhancing communication with Lebanon’s friends from Arab and foreign states.”
It said: “There is a pressing need to stop the collapse. Therefore, the government must immediately commit to its obligations in accordance with its ministerial statement that noted a prompt resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund to address the negative impacts of previous policies.”
It added that the government must begin talks with debtors, reform the banking sector and approve a budget — “all of which are clauses that the ABL has demanded since the start of the crisis.”
There are 63 banks operating in Lebanon with more than 1,000 branches and 25,000 employees.
According to Sfeir, the banking sector constituted “an engine of growth in the country through loans that outgrew the size of the economy.” He added: “The formal banking sector’s taxes are some of the major public treasury income items.”
A group of Lebanon’s bondholders — that include some of the largest investment funds in the world — also urged the new government “to start talks to restructure the country’s debts as early as possible to help deal with the crushing economic crisis in the country.”
Lebanon defaulted on its external debt in March 2020, leaving it unable to service a debt burden that was then worth more than 170 percent of its gross domestic product.
The group said it “hopes and expects the new government to promote a speedy, transparent and equitable debt restructuring process. Such a process will need the government to engage meaningfully with the IMF as well as Lebanon’s international creditors.”
At the end of the vote of confidence, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: “Discussions with the IMF have begun. The talks are not a picnic and the fund is not a charity. This issue is not an option but a mandatory passageway that must succeed in order to serve as the first foundation toward salvation and the right way for Lebanon’s revival.”
He urged Lebanon’s Parliament to act quickly to approve a capital control law as early as possible, and promised to carry out “a forensic audit of all institutions and ministries without any exceptions.”
Mikati was quick to note the importance of the banking sector in any economic recovery: “I wish there were any banks left in Lebanon to help them. Do you know the reality of the banking sector? There is no economic recovery without banks.”
However, the prime minister added: “More than $10 billion was spent in the past on subsidies for banks — money that could have been used to build power plants, treat waste and construct roads.”
Why Lebanon’s hopes are fading for an independent Beirut blast inquiry
Stalled inquiry into 2020 explosion in focus as UNGA 2021 session kicks off its high-level week
Analysts say probe will remain in limbo unless foreign powers put pressure on the government
Updated 26 min 13 sec ago
CHICAGO: There is a growing belief among Lebanese political analysts that the investigation into the Beirut blast of Aug. 4, 2020 will meet the same fate as the probe into the Feb. 14, 2005 explosion that killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and 21 others.
Two explosions at the government-owned Port of Beirut claimed the lives of 218 people, injured more than 6,500 and left 300,000 homeless. The explosions resulted from a fire in a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate and caused damage worth an estimated $3 billion.
Meanwhile, 12 years since it was officially establised, the Hariri investigation is in limbo. The sole individual indicted in absentia by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a low-level Hezbollah operative called Salim Ayyash, has not been brought to justice.
Lebanese analysts warn the Beirut blast inquiry will also remain in limbo indefinitely unless international organizations and foreign powers put pressure on the government to allow a fully transparent investigation by an independent judicial system.
“The Beirut blast probe is not necessarily a domestic investigation with domestic implications and ramifications. It is also a global public opinion drive that will continue to evolve and involve international actors,” Christophe Abi-Nassif, Lebanon program director at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News. “Back in 2005, all it took was for the Hariri camp, the Future Movement and his son Saad Hariri to be satisfied with the arrangement.”
By contrast, the Beirut port explosion affected many families who have the power to demand the matter be fully investigated, Abi-Nassif said. “The families of the victims are at the heart of this investigation.”
On the first anniversary of the blast, Amnesty International, the international rights advocacy group, accused the Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice” in the months since the blast, actively shielding officials from scrutiny and hampering the course of the investigation.
In February, Fadi Sawan, the first judge appointed to lead the investigation, was dismissed after he summoned political figures for questioning. So far, the authorities have rejected requests by his replacement, Tarek Bitar, to lift the immunity granted to officials and to allow him question senior members of the security forces.
Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs officials, military and security chiefs, and members of the judiciary warned successive governments about the danger posed by the stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least 10 occasions during the six years it was stored at the port, yet no action was taken.
MPs and officials are clinging to their right to immunity, effectively shielding suspects whose actions are blamed for causing the explosion, and denying thousands of victims the justice they demand.
Survivors of the blast and a raft of advocacy groups have revived their push for an “international, independent and impartial investigative mission” into the cause of the blast.
“An international investigation would not impede, but rather assist the domestic process,” they said in a joint statement delivered to the UN Human Rights Council on Sept. 15.
Although government interference in the investigation has been detrimental to its progress, Abi-Nassif believes that taking the matter entirely out of Lebanese hands would only harm its legitimacy.
* 300,000 - People left homeless.
* 70,000 - Jobs lost after the explosion.
* 163 - Schools destroyed.
* 6 - Hospitals destroyed.
* 0 - Number of people sentenced over blast.
“On the one hand, you want international involvement because you want a lot of pressure exerted. On the other hand, you do not want to go down this path where you are giving grounds for Lebanese politicians to say this is clearly a plot to incriminate us, regardless of whether they are incriminated or should be incriminated,” he said. “This will be the leeway they use to try to dismantle the integrity of the investigation.”
Prominent among those who are convinced that the blast investigation has been stymied by the Lebanese political elite and that foreign powers have a responsibility to get the probe back on track, is Ed Gabriel, president of the American Task Force on Lebanon.
“Not much has been done. There has been an attempt to investigate the port through transparent judicial means in Lebanon. It has been held up by the parliament. There seems to be no consensus in the government,” Gabriel said.
“The good news is that the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has taken the reins of power. The Mikati government seems very interested in a close working relationship with the West and is very tuned in with wanting to meet the immediate, short-term needs of the people.”
Like Abi-Nassif, Gabriel is of the opinion that Lebanon should ultimately lead the probe; however, he adds, international pressure in support of the probe’s independence will be critical to its success.
“Without the willpower of the Lebanese people and a government that responds to the needs of the people and the desires of the people, we won’t really get to the bottom of this,” he said.
“So, I think what is important is that the US speaks with a very strong voice, that it is a top priority that they investigate this explosion. If we are going to get anywhere with it, we need the cooperation of the Lebanese government. And they will only cooperate under the duress and pressure of the international community. Otherwise, I don’t think we will see justice in this case anytime soon.”
However, both Gabriel and Abi-Nassif are wary of international pressure being perceived as a deliberate effort to steer the probe toward Hezbollah, which is on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Many suspect the cache of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port warehouse was somehow connected to Hezbollah’s regional activities.
“Domestic law, the domestic judiciary system, at the end of the day, is the most direct, most effective and probably the easiest way that Lebanon has to leverage and effectively reach the truth. And I am not discounting the role that international organizations have to play in this,” Abi-Nassif said.
“The minute that starts happening you will have voices in Lebanon, be it Hezbollah or others, crying wolf and saying that this is effectively just a plot to implicate the group, which is what we saw in the case of the Hariri STL.”
The blast investigation delay is just one of a multitude of problems that bedevil Lebanon, the other ones being political gridlock, economic meltdown, plummeting currency, soaring unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic and fuel and electricity shortages.
Lebanon has been experiencing a socio-economic implosion since 2019. In the autumn of that year, nationwide protests erupted over rampant corruption among the political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war through a sectarian power-sharing system.
Public anger grew when an economic meltdown caused the nation’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value and the banks held depositors’ money hostage. Thousands of young people have fled abroad. Those who remain struggle to get by, often turning for help to a flourishing black market.
‘Should he drift off the course, we will remove him from his position,’ says head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit
Judge Tarek Bitar continues to question and subpoena former ministers and current MPs about the deadly Aug. 4, 2020 explosion
Updated 21 September 2021
BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut Port blast, received a threat from the militant Hezbollah group, according to Lebanese news reports.
Arab News learned that the head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit, Wafiq Safa, visited Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat and the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Judge Suhail Abboud, on Monday.
The motives behind the visits were unknown but Safa reportedly said, “Bitar’s performance has raised the ire (of Hezbollah) and we will keep a close eye on his work until the end, and should he drift off the course, we will remove him from his position.”
In response to the threat, Bitar said: “It is fine, I do not care how they will remove me,” according to Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation reporter Edmond Sassine.
Bitar, who issued several arrest warrants over the past few weeks pertaining to his investigation, set up sessions to question former ministers and current MPs Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeaiter, and Nohad Al-Machnouk about their knowledge of the deadly Beirut Port explosion.
Bitar summoned Khalil for interrogation on Sept. 30 and Zeaiter and Machnouk and Oct. 1. The judge took advantage of the expiration of the extraordinary parliament mandate after the Najib Mikati government was granted the vote of confidence in a session held on Monday, and the automatic lifting of parliamentary immunities, pending the launch of the regular mandate in mid-October.
The Beirut Port explosion on Aug. 4, 2020, killed more than 200 and left 6,500 injured when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate detonated along with quantities of seized explosives. The deadly blast destroyed the Beirut waterfront and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Bitar charged the former ministers with “a felony of probable intent to murder” in addition to “a misdemeanor of negligence” because they were aware of the presence of ammonium nitrate and “did not take measures to avoid the explosion.”
Parliament had previously refused Bitar’s request to question the current MPs and Prime Minister Hassan Diab, arguing that it was not within his jurisdiction and the case is the subject of prosecution before the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.
In August, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah questioned Bitar, who had summoned political and security officials for interrogation.
“Where is the evidence?” Nasrallah asked. “Based on what is he accusing them of? Why has the judiciary not published the results of the technical investigation?”
Nasrallah further accused Bitar of “playing a political game,” saying that either he sticks to a clear, technical investigation, or the judiciary has to find another judge.
Biden renews offer to ‘return to full’ nuclear deal ‘if Iran does the same’
US president uses first UNGA speech to say a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the “best way” to ensure Israel’s future
Updated 21 September 2021
NEW YORK: President Joe Biden told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that the United States would return to the Iranian nuclear deal in “full” if Tehran does the same.
He said the US was “working” with China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany to “engage Iran diplomatically and to seek a return to” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which America left in 2018.
“We’re prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same,” he added.
Earlier, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said negotiations between Iran and world powers should resume in the coming weeks.
During his first speech to the General Assembly, Biden said a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the “best way” to ensure Israel’s future.
“We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,” Biden said.
“The commitment of the United States to Israel’s security is without question and our support for an independent Jewish state is unequivocal,” he said.
“But I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state,” he said.
“We’re a long way from that goal at this moment but we should never allow ourselves to give up on the possibility of progress.”
More broadly, Biden said the US is not seeking a new Cold War with China as he vowed to pivot from post-9/11 conflicts and take a global leadership role on crises from climate to COVID-19.
He promised to work to advance democracy and alliances, despite friction with Europe over France’s loss of a mega-contract.
The Biden administration has identified a rising and authoritarian China as the paramount challenge of the 21st century, but he made clear he was not trying to sow divisions.
“We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” Biden said.