Tunisia health minister sacked over virus

Tunisia health minister sacked over virus
A Tunisian woman receives a dose of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine at the Palais des Congres in the capital Tunis. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 20 July 2021

Tunisia health minister sacked over virus

Tunisia health minister sacked over virus
  • Ministry said earlier this month that Tunisia's health system had "collapsed"

TUNIS: Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on Tuesday sacked Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi, Mechichi’s office said, amid spiralling coronavirus cases in the North African country.
The ministry said earlier this month that Tunisia’s health system had “collapsed” under the weight of the pandemic, which has caused more than 17,000 deaths in a population of around 12 million inhabitants.
The prime minister sacked Mehdi amid an exchange of accusations over performance in the fight against a COVID surge and the slow pace of the vaccination campaign.
A government statement said the minister of social affairs will serve as an acting minister of health.
With Wires.


Human Rights Watch: Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza war

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 16 during massive Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave. (AFP)
A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 16 during massive Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave. (AFP)
Updated 7 min 4 sec ago

Human Rights Watch: Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza war

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 16 during massive Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave. (AFP)
  • Rights group issues conclusions after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians
  • Such attacks violate ‘the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians’

JERUSALEM: Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused the Israeli military of carrying attacks that “apparently amount to war crimes” during an 11-day war against the Hamas militant group in May.
The international human rights organization issued its conclusions after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians. It said “there were no evident military targets in the vicinity” of the attacks.
The report also accused Palestinian militants of apparent war crimes by launching over 4,000 unguided rockets and mortars at Israeli population centers. Such attacks, it said, violate “the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.”
The report, however, focused on Israeli actions during the fighting, and the group said it would issue a separate report on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in August.
“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associated crisis and conflict director at HRW. He said Israel’s “consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes,” coupled with Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli civilian areas, underscored the importance of an ongoing investigation into both sides by the International Criminal Court, or ICC.
There was no immediate reaction to the report by the Israeli military, which has repeatedly said its attacks were aimed at military targets in Gaza. It blames Hamas for civilian casualties by launching rocket attacks and other military operations inside residential areas.
The war erupted on May 10 after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, built on a contested site sacred to Jews and Muslims, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers in a nearby neighborhood. In all, Hamas fired over 4,000 rockets and mortars toward Israel, while Israel has said it struck over 1,000 targets linked to Gaza militants.
In all, some 254 people were killed in Gaza, including at least 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants, while Israel has claimed the number is much higher. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.
The HRW report looked into Israeli airstrikes. The most serious, on May 16, involved a series of strikes on Al-Wahda Street, a central thoroughfare in downtown Gaza City. The airstrikes destroyed three apartment buildings and killed a total of 44 civilians, HRW said, including 18 children and 14 women. Twenty-two of the dead were members of a single family, the Al-Kawlaks.
Israel has said the attacks were aimed at tunnels used by Hamas militants in the area and suggested the damage to the homes was unintentional.
In its investigation, HRW concluded that Israel had used US-made GBU-31 precision-guided bombs, and that Israel had not warned any of the residents to evacuate the area ahead of time. It also it found no evidence of military targets in the area.
“An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful,” it wrote.
The investigation also looked at a May 10 explosion that killed eight people, including six children, near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It said the two adults were civilians.
Israel has suggested the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. But based on an analysis of munition remnants and witness accounts, HRW said evidence indicated the weapon had been “a type of guided missile.”
“Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strike,” it said.
The third attack it investigated occurred on May 15, in which an Israeli airstrike destroyed a three-story building in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. The strike killed 10 people, including two women and eight children.
HRW investigators determined the building was hit by a US-made guided missile. It said Israel has said that senior Hamas officials were hiding in the building. But the group said no evidence of a military target at or near the site and called for an investigation into whether there was a legitimate military objective and “all feasible precautions” were taken to avoid civilian casualties.
The May conflict was the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group, which opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of Gaza in 2007. Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and UN officials have accused both sides of committing war crimes in all of the conflicts.
Early this year, HRW accused Israel of being guilty of international crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory polices toward Palestinians, both inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel rejected the accusations.
In Tuesday’s report, it called on the United States to condition security assistance to Israel on it taking “concrete and verifiable actions” to comply with international human rights law and to investigate past abuses.
It also called on the ICC to include the recent Gaza war in its ongoing investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militant groups. Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and says it is capable of investigating any potential wrongdoing by its army and that the ICC probe is unfair and politically motivated.


No happy anniversary for bride caught up in Beirut explosion

Israa Seblani. (Supplied)
Israa Seblani. (Supplied)
Updated 3 min 9 sec ago

No happy anniversary for bride caught up in Beirut explosion

Israa Seblani. (Supplied)
  • Israa Seblani still doesn’t have a photo of her wedding day at home

BEIRUT: It should have been the happiest of times, but Lebanese doctor Israa Seblani does not even have a photograph of her wedding on display as the memories are so painful.
She was standing radiant in a white gown and headdress in a square in Beirut last Aug. 4, the day she married businessman Ahmad Subeih, when the scene was shattered by a deafening roar as a powerful shockwave nearly blew her off her feet.
“I still don’t have a photo of my wedding day at home,” Seblani, 30, said, back in the same square as other couples celebrated their nuptials, just like they did.
“It was a disaster for the Lebanese people. I can’t see parents who lost their children, children who lost their parents, or the destruction that happened, and be happy. I won’t lie to myself.”
They plan to be at work on their first anniversary to keep themselves busy: She at the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, he at his clothing business.
“This is a day during which we can’t have any plans,” said Subeih, 34, “This is a day of sadness and sorrow, it’s a black day, a day of mourning for all Lebanon.”
Seblani returned to the US, where she had been working, in September, but coronavirus restrictions prevented Subeih from joining her. She went back to Lebanon so they could be together until they find a new base away from the economic crisis of their homeland. “We are looking for security, we don’t want money, we are not looking for a fancy life, we just want security,” Seblani said.


Turmoil in Tunisia brings Ennahda’s moment of truth one step closer

A Tunisian protester lifts a national flag at an anti-government rally as security forces block off the road in front of the Parliament in the capital Tunis on July 25, 2021. (AFP)
A Tunisian protester lifts a national flag at an anti-government rally as security forces block off the road in front of the Parliament in the capital Tunis on July 25, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 23 min 53 sec ago

Turmoil in Tunisia brings Ennahda’s moment of truth one step closer

A Tunisian protester lifts a national flag at an anti-government rally as security forces block off the road in front of the Parliament in the capital Tunis on July 25, 2021. (AFP)
  • Tunisians no longer see governance failure and Ennahda’s presence in government as mere coincidence
  • The Islamist party has become the face of mismanagement of COVID-19 outbreak and the economy

DUBAI: On the face of it, the political crisis unfolding in Tunisia could be viewed as fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, an unforeseeable event that does not look to have run its course.

But such an explanation barely scratches the surface of the problems confronting the country, problems that many Tunisians now regard as almost intractable. How did the situation reach this point in a nation that was hailed as the Arab Spring’s only success?

Judging by the images coming out of Tunisia, it seems clear that the people who blame the political class for the deteriorating economic, social and health conditions represent not some small pocket of opposition but a broad swath of public opinion. Equally, it is important to recognize that they have singled out a particular political party for criticism despite its leaders’ historic knack for dodging democratic accountability.

The offices of Islamist party Ennahda have become the common target of protesters’ ire in the towns of Sfax, Monastir, El-Kef, Sousse and Touzeur in recent days, as surging COVID-19 cases have overwhelmed the health system and aggravated economic problems.

Given Tunisia’s fractured polity and fractious politics, no rival of Ennahda could have manipulated public opinion on such a massive scale. The stark truth is that the biggest party in the Tunisian parliament is facing a trust crisis of its own making.

“Until a few years ago, Tunisia used to enjoy good public-health infrastructure,” Ammar Aziz, an associate editor at news channel Al Arabiya and a Tunisian citizen, told Arab News. “But everything has collapsed, especially during the last two years, owing to mismanagement and corruption, compounded by lack of equipment. This has prompted thousands of doctors to emigrate to Europe.”

Aziz said that Tunisian authorities initially had succeeded in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, registering zero infections in May 2020.

“However, Ennahda, which made a grand entry into power in 2019, had the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, who had been appointed prime minister by President Kais Saied in February 2020, dismissed in September,” he added.

“The new government that took over did not arrange for adequate vaccine purchases and, to make matters worse, opened the country’s borders without the needed restrictions. This caused the spread of COVID-19.”

A member of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda party flashes the victory sign following a plenary session at the parliament in the capital Tunis on July 30, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

By mid-July, Tunisia had the highest per-capita COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and was also recording one of the continent’s highest infection rates. The health ministry acknowledged that the situation was dire. “The current situation is catastrophic,” ministry spokeswoman Nissaf Ben Alya told a local radio station. “The number of cases has risen dramatically. Unfortunately, the health system has collapsed.”

Many Tunisians consider political instability as the biggest impediment to progress in the fight against the deadly coronavirus. Tunisia has had three health ministers since the start of the pandemic. In September, it got its third government in under a year — and the ninth since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings ended the 24-year rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians were not without friends in their hour of need. Saudi Arabia sent an aid package consisting of 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, 190 artificial respirators, 319 oxygen tanks, 150 medical beds and 50 vital signs monitoring devices with trolleys. The UAE donated 500,000 vaccine doses. France provided the same number of vaccines, along with medical equipment and supplies.

“Ennahda was seen as wanting to take advantage of President Saied’s success in obtaining aid from Saudi Arabia and France,” Aziz said. “The party tried and succeeded in getting the minister of health (Faouzi Mehdi) replaced, making him the scapegoat for the government’s mishandling of the situation. When these revelations came out, many Tunisians concluded that Ennahda was using the pandemic to reap political profit.”

The parlous state of affairs since April might also have stirred in many Tunisians bitter memories of a time when an Ennahda-led coalition government was slow to tackle one of the deadliest extremist mobilizations in the Arab world, following the 2011 uprisings.

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahdha party wave flags during a demonstration in support of the Tunisian government on February 27, 2021 in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia made the most of the post-2011 prisoner amnesties to grow its ranks. Ennahda, originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and an advocate of an overtly Islamic identity and society for Tunisia, appeared not to be up to the task of fighting militancy. The assassinations in 2013 of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two leaders of the leftist Popular Front electoral alliance, further polarized Tunisian public opinion.

By the time the government designated Ansar Al-Sharia as a terrorist organization in August 2013, many saw it as a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. Five years later, a group of lawyers and politicians accused Ennahda of being behind the killings of Belaid and Brahmi, and of forming a secret organization to infiltrate the security forces and judiciary, charges the party rejected.

The government’s reluctance to take off the kid gloves and smash militancy during this formative period of Tunisian democracy has haunted Ennahda ever since. As Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in a Wilson Center research paper: “Between 2013 and 2019, thousands joined jihadi movements abroad. … From Libya, Tunisians planned three large-scale attacks in 2015 and 2016 — at the Bardo Museum, a beach resort in Sousse, and the attempted takeover of Ben Gardane, a city along the Tunisian-Libyan border.”

As recently as 2018 the Washington Post reported that a study published by Mobdiun, an organization that works with youths in Kram West, a poor suburb of Tunis, found that nearly 40 percent of young men there said they knew someone who had joined a terrorist organization. A further 16 percent said they had been approached about adopting violent extremist ideology.

Tunisian President Kais Saied gesturing as he enters a vehicle in Tunis's central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, after he ousted the prime minister and ordered parliament closed for 30 days. (AFP/Tunisian Presidency)

Those not drawn to militancy look for other, perilous ways to fulfill their dreams and ambitions. Consequently, every month large numbers of young Tunisians risk their lives in search of a better life in Europe. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2020 alone 13,000 Tunisians made the sea crossing, many of them probably aware of the dangers they would face on the journey.

“If you compare the short periods in which Beji Caid Essebsi, for example, or the prime minister of Ben Ali ruled Tunisia after the departure of Ben Ali himself in 2011, and the periods in which Ennahda ruled, you will notice a big difference: terrorism appeared with Ennahda,” Aziz said.

“More recently, with Ennahda controlling parliament and also the government, everything has simply collapsed — from security to the economy. The same is true for the country’s transport system and public-health institutions. All Tunisians have noticed the deterioration and it is for this reason we saw the protests in different towns on July 25.”

In an attempt to disarm critics in the West and win over secularists at home, Ennahda announced with much fanfare in 2016 that it was moving away from its religious roots to focus more on politics. But this claimed exit from political Islam and entry into “Muslim democracy” has remained just that, a claim, critics say. As some scholars of political Islam have noted, Ennahda has yet to clarify exactly what the “Muslim democracy” to which it has committed itself actually means in practice.

Supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied chant slogans denouncing the country's main Islamist Ennahda (Ennahdha) party in front of the Parliament which was cordoned-off by the military in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021. (AFP)

Now, even as it faces growing public anger over a perfect storm of crises battering Tunisia, Ennahda knows it cannot afford to alienate its core constituency. Open admission of failure could result in loss of support from traditional Islamists.

It is also concerned that working with secular parties and making political compromises could open up ideological fissures and expose vulnerabilities. Over the years, Ennahda must have surely realized that the rhetoric of human rights and democratic politics cannot be a substitute for genuine reforms. But the jury is still out on its ability or willingness to undertake such an exercise.

“Ennahda has governed or taken part in governing Tunisia for an entire decade now. It has been the worst decade in Tunisia’s modern history, according to many people,” Aziz said, adding that the latest protests offer some indication of the current public sentiment.

“These Tunisians hold Ennahda responsible for all the country’s problems. They see the party as the main reason behind the ineffective governments, the widespread corruption, the lack of jobs, the unprecedented migration movements toward Italy and France and, at present, the country’s high COVID-19 death rates relative to other African and Arab countries.”


British woman arrested for smuggling cash to Dubai

Tara Hanlon, from the north of England, was arrested on Oct. 3 while boarding a flight to Dubai and carrying £1.9 million of cash hidden in five suitcases. (National Crime Agency)
Tara Hanlon, from the north of England, was arrested on Oct. 3 while boarding a flight to Dubai and carrying £1.9 million of cash hidden in five suitcases. (National Crime Agency)
Updated 27 July 2021

British woman arrested for smuggling cash to Dubai

Tara Hanlon, from the north of England, was arrested on Oct. 3 while boarding a flight to Dubai and carrying £1.9 million of cash hidden in five suitcases. (National Crime Agency)
  • British border officials said the seizure was the biggest cash capture that the force had made in 2020

LONDON: A 30-year-old British woman has been jailed for almost three years over money laundering offences worth more than £5 million ($6.8 million).

Tara Hanlon, from the north of England, was arrested on Oct. 3 while boarding a flight to Dubai and carrying £1.9 million of cash hidden in five suitcases.

She pleaded guilty at a London court in June having previously admitted to three counts of removing criminal property relating to cash amounts.

When arrested, Hanlon had been travelling with a friend to Dubai for a holiday with pals and told arresting officers that she had many suitcases because she “wasn’t sure what to wear” while away.

British border officials said the seizure was the biggest cash capture that the force had made in 2020.

Hanlon had hidden the cash in vacuum-packed bags surrounded by coffee to keep sniffer dogs off the scent.

She told investigators it was her first trip, but when they searched her phone and checked with her airline, they found she had made three previous visits as a courier. These were in July and August 2020, and she was paid approximately £3,000 for each trip.

Hanlon had texted friends that her job gave her the “perfect life,” and said: “Few days in the sun and a few at home.” She also bragged about her job and added: “Three big ones … with this wage and the next my debts go bye.”

Hanlon’s lawyer argued in court that she was vulnerable at the time of the offences because the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic meant that she had lost access to work. He added that her crimes were committed shortly after the unexpected death of her mother in March.

Judge Karen Holt said: “Although you were vulnerable at the time, I don’t find that you have been exploited and find that you knew what you were doing.”

National Crime Agency (NCA) senior investigating officer, Ian Truby, said: “Tara Hanlon thought that she was going to be living a jet-set lifestyle, instead she is now serving a prison sentence.

“I hope her story is a cautionary one for others who would consider doing the same. Stopping the flow of illicit cash is a priority for the NCA and our partners.”


Egypt reiterates commitment to Gaza reconstruction

Egypt reiterates commitment to Gaza reconstruction
Updated 27 July 2021

Egypt reiterates commitment to Gaza reconstruction

Egypt reiterates commitment to Gaza reconstruction
  • Ambassador praises reconstruction efforts at function hosted by Cairo’s embassy in Palestine

CAIRO: Egyptian Ambassador to Palestine Tariq Tayel said Cairo is in constant dialogue with other nations over the reconstruction of Gaza and efforts to stabilize the truce between Hamas and Israel following the conflict in May.
Fighting broke out after Jewish settler groups tried to evict and confiscate the property of long-time Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem.
On May 10, armed Palestinian groups in Gaza started to launch rockets toward Israel. The Israel Defense Force retaliated, firing on Gaza with aircraft, drones and artillery.
Tayel said Cairo would continue its efforts for reconciliation at a function on Monday at the Egyptian Embassy in Ramallah, where he highlighted the work accomplished so far in removing the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza to pave the way for new projects.
He said the Palestinian cause will remain the central issue in the Middle East.
“Work has been done on two levels; the first is the launch of the tripartite cooperation formula between the people in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, with the aim of developing a common vision to deal with the challenges facing the issue and the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative,” he said.
“As for the second level, it is pushing toward reviving the peace process at the international level and working to conduct international contacts within the international determinants … to achieve peace,” Tayel added.
The Arab Peace Initiative was drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, with Arab nations offering Israel normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in 1967.
Emphasizing the strength of Egyptian-Palestinian relations, Tayel said they “most often go beyond what governments can achieve individually, or what traditional diplomatic work can accommodate, as it is a direct relationship between two fused peoples.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, referring to the ties between the two people’s since Egypt’s revolution on July 23, 1952, said: “The July Revolution is a turning point in the history of Egypt and the entire Arab region. This revolution raised the values of freedom, social justice and self-reliance.
“During the July Revolution, we found the Arab commitment to Palestine, and it strengthened the blood bond between the Egyptian people and its national forces, and between the Palestinian people and its revolutionary forces. Egypt has a firm position in support of Palestine, its people, its cause and its leadership,” Shtayyeh said.
“We are partners with Egypt in the political solution toward ending the occupation, establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for refugees. We are partners in saying and believing that the Palestinian legitimacy is represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization and its fighting forces,” he added.