RAMALLAH/GAZA: Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza on Thursday mostly dismissed a change in Israeli government, saying the nationalist leader due to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely pursue the same right-wing agenda.
Naftali Bennett, a former official in Israel’s main West Bank settler organization, would be Israel’s new leader under a patchwork coalition struck on Wednesday.
“There is no difference between one Israeli leader and another,” said Ahmed Rezik, 29, a government worker in Gaza.
“They are good or bad for their nation. And when it comes to us, they are all bad, and they all refuse to give the Palestinians their rights and their land.”
Bassem Al-Salhi, a representative for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said Bennett was no less extreme than Netanyahu, adding: “He will make sure to express how extreme he is in the government.”
Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the Gaza Strip, said it made no difference who governs Israel.
“Palestinians have seen dozens of Israeli governments throughout history, right, left, center, as they call it. But all of them have been hostile when it comes to the rights of our Palestinian people and they all had hostile policies of expansionism,” spokesman Hazem Qassem said.
In what would be a first in Israel, a governing coalition would include an Islamist party elected by members of Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority, who are Palestinian by culture and heritage and Israeli by citizenship.
Its leader, Mansour Abbas, said the coalition agreement would bring more than 53 billion shekels ($16 billion) to improve infrastructure and combat violent crime in Arab towns..
But he has been criticized in the West Bank and Gaza for siding with what they see as the enemy.
“He is a traitor. What will he do when they ask him to vote on launching a new war on Gaza?” said Badri Karam, 21, in Gaza.
“Will he accept it, being a part of the killing of Palestinians?”
A car bomb hit the entrance of the Ghwayran prison and a second blast went off in the vicinity before Daesh extremists attacked Kurdish security forces manning the facility
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces blamed the attack on ‘Daesh sleeper cells, who infiltrated from the surrounding neighborhoods and clashed with the internal Security Forces’
Updated 8 sec ago
BEIRUT: The Daesh group attacked a Kurdish-run jail in northeast Syria on Thursday, freeing fellow militants, a war monitor reported without specifying how many escaped.
A car bomb hit the entrance of the Ghwayran prison and a second blast went off in the vicinity before Daesh extremists attacked Kurdish security forces manning the facility, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“A number of prisoners managed to escape,” said the Observatory which relies on a network of sources inside Syria. It did not specify how they managed to break out.
Ghwayran is one of the largest facilities housing Daesh fighters in northeast Syria, Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed the rare attack in a statement but did not mention any prisoners fleeing.
“A new insurgence and attempted escape by Daesh terrorists detained in Ghwayran prison in Al-Hasaka in conjunction with an explosion of a car bomb,” it said.
It blamed the attack on “Daesh sleeper cells, who infiltrated from the surrounding neighborhoods and clashed with the internal Security Forces.”
The Observatory said the SDF has dispatched reinforcements to the prison and cordoned off the area.
Aircraft belonging to the US-led international coalition battling Daesh hovered over the facility and dropped flares in its vicinity, the monitor added.
The coalition was not immediately available for comment.
The Daesh group’s self-declared caliphate, established from 2014, once stretched across vast parts of Syria and Iraq and administered millions of inhabitants.
A long and deadly military fightback led by Syrian and Iraqi forces with backing from the United States and other powers eventually defeated the extremist proto-state in March 2019.
The remnants of Daesh mostly went back to their desert hideouts from which they continue to harass Syrian government and allied forces.
Aoun reiterates support for reforms as Hariri returns to Beirut
Lebanese president confirms parliamentary elections will go ahead on time
Disgruntled customer surrenders after ‘stealing’ $50,000 from bank in armed raid
Updated 34 min 16 sec ago
BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Thursday reiterated his determination to work in cooperation with parliament and the government as the country prepares to begin its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
Speaking during the traditional annual meeting with members of the diplomatic corps, the president also confirmed that the parliamentary elections would take place on time.
Aoun expressed his support for the criminal audit of the central bank and other departments, institutions and councils. He also highlighted his keenness to achieve reforms and approve a financial and economic recovery plan in the coming weeks in preparation for the discussions with the IMF.
His remarks came as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Beirut from the UAE after a long absence. It was reported Hariri plans to reorganize the Future Movement party and resolve the issue of its participation in the upcoming elections.
Hariri also visited Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, and the tomb of his late father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in Beirut.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced his unwillingness to run again for the parliamentary seat.
He said he wanted to “make way for a serious change, by making way for new blood, young and clean thought, aspiring for pure national goals, respecting the demands of the rebellious people and seeking change.”
Free Patriotic Movement leader, MP Gebran Bassil, confirmed that his party “will run in the upcoming parliamentary elections in all regions.”
He also commented on his electoral alliance with Hezbollah in an interview with the Anadolu Agency.
“The feud is obvious and major with the party when it comes to internal matters, and if these issues are resolved, the question of electoral alliances will be determined on their basis,” Bassil said.
But he showed for the first time his backing for Hezbollah’s position on the role of the judicial investigator in the 2020 Beirut port explosion case.
Judge Tarek Bitar’s work was “discretionary,” he said, and rejected claims that the matter had been “politicized.”
Hezbollah has led the campaign to remove Bitar, accusing him of bias after he pursued some of its political allies.
Hezbollah and Amal said this month they would end a boycott of Cabinet sessions, opening the way for ministers to meet after a three-month break.
In preparation for a Cabinet session on Monday, Finance Minister Youssef Khalil is expected to hand over the 2022 draft budget to the prime minister on Friday.
Meanwhile, the judiciary has begun an investigation after a Lebanese man was arrested for staging an armed robbery at a bank in his hometown of Jeb Jenin in the western Bekaa on Thursday.
Abdullah Al-Saii is reported to have held employees at gunpoint and thrown gasoline at them while threatening to burn the bank down unless he was given access to his savings that had been frozen.
A security source told Arab News that Al-Saii “emptied (cash) drawers at the Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries branch and forced employees to open the main safe.”
He managed to withdraw $50,000 and was on his way home to give it to his wife when he surrendered to the security services. He gave himself up in the belief he would later be released as “he had regained his right and was not stealing.”
The Lebanese judiciary issued an arrest warrant for Al-Saii’s wife, who said she would go on hunger strike until her husband was released.
The security source said: “If Al-Saii is not held accountable for his actions, others will do what he did, and then chaos and the law of the jungle will prevail.”
The incident has led to a division between those who sympathize with Al-Saii and activists who demand accountability for the banking policies that led to the collapse of the Lebanese pound.
Some people expressed support for Al-Saii on social media, saying that “what was taken by force can only be recovered by force.”
Others described his actions as “heroic.”
One person wrote that “the state has turned its citizens into criminals and terrorists with its plan to seize depositors’ money.”
But the judiciary, banking and security authorities condemned Al-Saii’s act.
The Executive Council of the Federation of Banks’ Employees Syndicates asked: “Are we in a state of law or on a farm run by the powerful, authoritarians and outlaws?”
The incident would have led to a massacre if the BBAC management had not responded to the depositor’s request, it added.
Authorities imposed restrictions on bank transactions in 2019 and set a ceiling on withdrawals and transfers to accounts abroad.
Over the past two years, angry depositors have carried out dozens of protests in front of the central bank and private lenders in a bid to recover their money. The protests have led to ATMs and banks being vandalized — a closed branch in Beirut was burnt down — and staff being threatened. But Al-Saii is the first to make such a direct threat.
About $3.8 billion was withdrawn from banks between October and November 2019 following the protest movement that swept the country. By the end of that year, banks had frozen all withdrawals.
Why Israel is waging a shadow war with Iran’s IRGC in Syria
Israel has launched airstrikes across Syria amid suspicions that Iran is using the country to move precision-guided missiles
Experts believe Israel is trying to minimize Hezbollah’s capacity to retaliate in case it has to attack Iran’s nuclear sites
Updated 13 min 38 sec ago
WASHINGTON D.C.: Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria have been growing in scale and frequency in recent months as Tehran seeks to cement its hold over Syrian seaports, airports and overland smuggling routes.
From the Israeli standpoint, Iran’s ability to deliver precision-guided missile technology to Syrian territory via these routes poses a serious strategic threat, allowing Iran and its Hezbollah proxies to attack from short range at short notice in the event of a regional war.
Israel does not always claim responsibility for its strikes on sensitive Syrian facilities controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, giving it a measure of plausible deniability to avoid open conflict or Syrian retaliation.
The country is nevertheless thought to be behind scores of recent strikes across Syrian regime territories, from the capital Damascus and the coastal province of Latakia in the northwest to Deir el-Zour in the east.
Latakia was struck twice in December amid suspicions the IRGC was using the port to move precision-guided weapons. The resulting fireball following one such strike revealed just how much dangerous material Iran was attempting to transfer to its regional terror network.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, issued a stark warning to Iran following the Latakia strikes, vowing that “game-changing” weapons were a red line and Israel would not allow their proliferation.
However, the strikes do not appear to have deterred Iran.
“Preventing Iranian entrenchment in Syria is probably impossible. The question is the rate and quantity of Iranian entrenchment and the quality of this entrenchment,” Tal Beeri, head of the research department at the Alma Research and Education Center in Israel, told Arab News.
“Israel does this without plunging the region into war by attacking only armaments and almost completely refraining from attacking commanders. The attacks are carried out in a targeted manner based on accurate intelligence and only against targets that clearly will not have collateral damage or, alternatively, only minor collateral damage.”
According to Beeri, Israel primarily targets deliveries of components destined for air-defense systems, cruise missiles, long-range missiles, drones and electronic combat systems.
“It is estimated that about 70 percent of the time, the air, sea and land arms-smuggling routes are closed due to Israeli activity,” he said.
“However, although arms smuggling has decreased compared with 2020, we do not know what has managed to evade Israeli intelligence and reached Syria and Lebanon.”
Constant pressure on the IRGC and its smuggling routes is seen by Israeli officials as the best means of preventing, or at least slowing, an Iranian military build-up on its doorstep.
“In light of this, we have been witnessing an increasing volume of airstrikes on Syrian soil that has been taking place for a long time now. This is the only way the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy can succeed,” said Beeri.
“It is not just in Israel’s interest. It is in the interest of all relevant players in the Middle East that are threatened by Iran and the international community’s interests, especially the US, Russia and Europe.”
Beeri warned that ballistic missiles on Syrian and Lebanese soil could be easily directed toward Europe.
“Nowadays, the Saudis understand this well in light of the fighting in Yemen and the physical threat posed to them from a direct geographic front under Iranian auspices,” he said.
Indeed, in his most recent speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke at length of his group’s intentions to target Saudi Arabia and broader Arab interests not aligned with Iran’s regional hegemonic aims.
Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, said that Israeli strikes on targets in Syria are already having an impact.
“Israel has achieved impressive results in its campaign in Syria to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching Iran’s proxies and partners,” Brodsky told Arab News.
“According to recent Israeli estimates, Iran has been unable to make such transfers through the region — via, air, land and sea — around 70 percent of the time. Israel aims to increase the cost for Bashar Assad in allowing such illicit Iranian activity to take place on Syrian soil.”
However, Brodsky suspects it is only a matter of time before Iran finds alternative routes and methods to move its weaponry.
“As it relates to Iran’s calculus, I don’t see Tehran letting up on its designs to use Lebanon and Syria as a launchpad for attacks against Israel in the future. But such Israeli strikes will cause the Iranians to improvise their smuggling routes,” he said.
“According to public reports citing Syrian sources, Iran has ramped up arms transfers by sea in an attempt to avoid Israeli strikes in eastern Syria. That explains the uptick in Israeli strikes targeting Latakia port, with two alone in December.”
Israel’s fast-paced approach to containing Iranian activity coincides with international negotiations in the Austrian capital Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.
Donald Trump, the former US president, withdrew from the accord in 2018, arguing that the agreement reached by the administration of Barack Obama did not go far enough in reducing Iran’s ballistic missile program or its policy of arming and funding militia proxies throughout the Middle East.
Israeli defense officials worry that history might repeat itself if US President Joe Biden’s team signs a new nuclear deal that fails to address the issues cited by Trump. These widening strategic differences between the US and Israel could lead to more unilateral Israeli action.
Brodsky believes Israeli strikes against IRGC targets in Syria may also be intended to show Iran that Israel means business, no matter what the US decides in Vienna.
“While the timing of these strikes is driven by the operational needs of the moment, they have a secondary upside for Israel as it seeks to demonstrate to Tehran that it is prepared to hold it accountable militarily, all while the nuclear talks are happening in Vienna,” he said.
Farhad Rezaei, a senior research fellow at the Philos Project, also believes Israel is sending an unambiguous message to Tehran, showing that it is prepared for any scenario, especially if it concludes that Iran’s nuclear program can be halted only by military means.
“My understanding is that Israel is trying to minimize a Hezbollah missile attack in case it has to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, so Israel is bombing the convoys that bring precision-guided missiles to Lebanon via Syria, as well as the workshops in Syria and storage facilities where precision-guided missiles and rockets are built and stored,” Rezaei told Arab News.
“Israeli papers are talking about a multi-domain operation to prepare for a strike, such as training pilots, obtaining aerial-refueling craft, and trying to limit the potential damage from a Hezbollah barrage once the operation is launched.”
For the time being, according to most experts, neither Israel nor Iran appears interested in starting an open conflict. But with ever more advanced Iranian missile technology finding its way into Hezbollah hands and an isolated Syrian regime growing increasingly reliant on Iran, the stakes are getting higher.
If a fresh nuclear deal is signed in Vienna without additional restrictions on IRGC activity and Iranian missile proliferation, then the chances of a military escalation will rise dramatically.
Sudan military chief announces ministerial appointments
Updated 54 min 11 sec ago
CAIRO: Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan appointed 15 ministers in the government, a statement from the Sovereign Council said on Thursday.
Burhan’s appointments include Ali Sadek Ali for the foreign ministry and Mohammed Abdallah Mahmoud for the energy portfolio.
Earlier today, the council agreed with a US delegation on forming a national independent government of technocrats and launching a comprehensive national dialogue to resolve the current political crisis.