Forest fires spread out of control in Lebanon for second day amid political crisis

Forest fires spread out of control in Lebanon for second day amid political crisis
A residential area burns during a forest fire near the town of Manavgat, east of the resort city of Antalya, Turkey, July 29, 2021. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 29 July 2021

Forest fires spread out of control in Lebanon for second day amid political crisis

Forest fires spread out of control in Lebanon for second day amid political crisis
  • At least 122 people have also been injured in the fires
  • President Erdogan announced that an arson investigation has already been initiated

BEIRUT: Wildfires raged for a second day across pine forests in the mountainous north of Lebanon on Thursday.

George Abu Mousa, the head of the Civil Defense Service and Operations Division, told Arab News the “fires returned on Thursday mainly because of the heavy winds. We had extinguished most of the fires on Wednesday but the wind was not in our favor.”

With President Michel Aoun preoccupied with monitoring the response to the fires, the crisis has overshadowed efforts to form a new government, according to his media office.

This is adding a further complication to the negotiations to finally appoint a new authority, almost a year after the previous government resigned following the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut’s port. Najib Mikati was appointed prime minister-designate on Monday following the resignation of his predecessor, Saad Hariri, after nine months of failed talks with Aoun over the composition of a new government. Comments from politicians in the past two days suggest that Mikati will not find the task any easier.

The main stumbling block remains the same: The distribution of government portfolios among the parties. The head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, raised the issue during a television interview on Wednesday night.

He insisted on the “blocking third,” which means control of a third of cabinet portfolios, giving the power to veto any proposal that requires a two-thirds majority. He said he “will not give his vote of confidence to the government if all portfolios are rotated except for the Ministry of Finance,” control of which Hezbollah and the Amal movement want to keep within the Shiite community.

Meanwhile efforts to extinguish the wildfires in the north of the country continue. Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khair, secretary-general of Lebanon’s High Relief Commission, said a request had been sent to Cypriot authorities for helicopters to help battle the blaze.

The fires, in Qobayat in Akkar governorate, have spread out of control in the past 24 hours, reaching the outskirts of the town of Hermel.

Amin Melhem, a young volunteer, died while helping to put out the flames in the town of Kafrtun. According to reports, he was 15 years old. Dozens of cases of suffocation were reported as the fires reached residential buildings.

Local mayors and residents of the affected areas complain that the state organizations fighting the fires lack logistical support because of the nation’s economic crisis. Fire departments and civil defense centers are suffering as a result of shortages of vital resources such as fuel, electrical power and even water.

Residents are working alongside professionals to help fight the fires. Church bells are being rung and WhatsApp messages sent urging people to try to contain the flames any way they can until fire trucks arrive. Still, the damage has been devastating.

“We lost a lot of the abundant forest wealth,” said Abu Mousa, the Civil Defense head. “Many trees caught fire, most of which are pines, oaks and olives, because of the dry weeds extending over large areas.”

He did not comment on whether or not the fire might have been started intentionally, as many residents believe.

“One fire erupted and expanded, not several fires,” he said. “We will now extinguish the flames and then wait for the investigation to find out the circumstances.”

Army helicopters joined the efforts to battle the blaze, with help from the Cypriot helicopters that had been requested.

The fires have spread across the border into Syria, where authorities put out the flames in the border towns of Shan and Ain Al-Dahab but their assistance did not extend beyond there, according to Michel Al-Murr, a first lieutenant in the Beirut Fire Brigade,.

“The rugged nature of the area makes it more difficult for the firefighters and civil defense forces to work,” he told Arab News. “Many valleys cannot be reached; we fear that volunteers and firefighters could get trapped by the fire there.

“The fire reached an army barracks in the Akkar region, as well as military checkpoints in the area.”

He added that an investigation will be needed to establish the cause of the fire.

The General Directorate of Civil Defense in the Ministry of Interior said that three civil defense workers were slightly injured on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Army Command announced on Twitter that the fires have been renewed in the Al-Ruwaymah and Al-Bustan areas, and spread to the vicinity of the houses in the forests of the Qaltabah-Qobayat area,

It added that the army units, with helicopter support, were working to extinguish the fires with help from civil defense teams and civilian volunteers.

“Four helicopters are working to put out the fires that broke out in Jabal Akrum in Akkar, and army units are participating in the extinguishing operations,” the Army Command said.

The flames ravaged the forests of Qobayat, Aandqet, Kafrtun, Akrum, Al-Ruwaymah, and mountain villages in the Beit Jaafar area, destroying tens of square kilometers of forests.

Abdo Abdo, the mayor of Qobayat, said: “About eight people were taken to hospital, and the Red Cross rescued more than 40 residents who were suffocating, and helped evacuate the area.”

The Civil Defense reported it has put out 52 forest fires in Beirut, Mount Lebanon, the North, the South, and the Bekaa Valley, during the past 24 hours.
 


COVID-19, Palestine and Iranian nukes feature in first day of UN General Assembly speeches

COVID-19, Palestine and Iranian nukes feature in first day of UN General Assembly speeches
Updated 22 September 2021

COVID-19, Palestine and Iranian nukes feature in first day of UN General Assembly speeches

COVID-19, Palestine and Iranian nukes feature in first day of UN General Assembly speeches
  • The leaders of the US, Egypt and Turkey raised the issue of Palestinian rights and statehood, and called for a just and comprehensive solution
  • Iran’s president took aim at Washington, saying it has ‘no credibility; Qatar’s emir hailed the resolution of the dispute with neighboring countries

NEW YORK: The COVID-19 pandemic dominated the first day of speeches by world leaders during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. But some also took the opportunity to raise the question of Palestinian statehood and express their fears about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

The leaders of the US, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Iran were among the premiers who addressed the UNGA on Tuesday. The speeches continued late into the evening, with many running over their allotted 15-minute slots.

US President Joe Biden declared that the US is back on the world stage and remains committed to multilateralism. As evidence of this he cited the nation’s return to the Paris Climate Agreement and its contribution to the international Covax vaccine-sharing initiative.

“Already, the United States has put more than $15 billion toward the global COVID response,” said Biden, who was making his first in-person speech to the UN as president. “We’ve shipped more than 160 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to other countries. This includes 130 million doses from our own supply,” with “no strings attached.”

Moving on to other issues, he called for the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, saying that this is the “best way” to safeguard 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.

“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.

“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.”

On the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Biden said: “We’re prepared to return to full compliance (with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) if Iran does the same.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi also addressed the issue of Palestinian statehood.

“There can be no stability in the Middle East without a just, lasting, and comprehensive solution for the Palestinian question, which remains the central cause of instability for the Arab region,” he said. “This must happen in accordance with international resolutions to establish a Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“Egypt also calls upon the international community to take the necessary measures to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people.”

Turning his attention to matters closer to home, El-Sisi said Egypt is “immensely proud” of its African identity but decried the lack of progress in negotiations over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam project. Located upriver on the Nile, Egyptian authorities say it threatens their country’s existence due to its reliance on Nile water.

In his prerecorded speech, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who assumed office this year, took aim at the US over its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Capitol riots in Washington on Jan. 6, saying that America has “no credibility.”

He also blamed American authorities for causing the COVID-19 crisis in Iran, accusing them of preventing the country from obtaining vaccine supplies. He failed to mention that in January, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned the import of Western-produced vaccines, falsely claiming they could not be trusted. The ban was subsequently reversed but left Iran facing relentless waves of COVID-19 infections.

Raisi also attempted to convince world leaders that his country does not seek to develop nuclear weapons. “Nukes have no place in our defense doctrine and deterrence policy,” he said.

He also made a plea for sanctions relief, saying: “The Islamic Republic considers useful the talks whose ultimate outcome is the lifting of all oppressive sanctions.”

The leaders of Qatar and Turkey called on the international community to cooperate in delivering vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable countries.

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani also urged the world to take action to fight what he called the “other pandemic:” COVID-19 misinformation.

He also celebrated his country’s return to the fold of Middle East diplomacy in January, after a dispute with a number of neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, was resolved through the AlUla declaration.

“We have repeatedly stressed the importance of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and our commitment to settling any differences through constructive dialogue,” he said. “The AlUla declaration came as an embodiment of the principle of settling differences through dialogue.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would soon start to provide vaccines produced there to the international community. He also echoed the comments by other leaders about the importance of working to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Heads of state will continue to address the General Assembly throughout the week. The speech by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.


Biden in UN call for independent Palestine

Biden in UN call for independent Palestine
Updated 22 September 2021

Biden in UN call for independent Palestine

Biden in UN call for independent Palestine
  • “We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,”

NEW YORK: A sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the best way to ensure Israel’s future, US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday. “We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,” Biden said on the opening day of the UN General Assembly.
“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.
“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.” Biden repeated his promise to return to the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, provided Tehran did the same. Talks on the issue are deadlocked over who takes the first step.
The world faced a “decisive decade,” Biden said, in which leaders must work together to combat a raging coronavirus pandemic, global climate change and cyber threats. He said the US would double its financial commitment on climate aid and spend $10 billion to fight hunger.
Earlier, Antonio Guterres, who begins a second five-year term as secretary-general on Jan. 1, warned of the dangers of the growing gap between China and the US, the world’s largest economies.
“I fear our world is creeping toward two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately two different military and geopolitical strategies,” Guterres said.
“This is a recipe for trouble. It would be far less predictable than the Cold War.”


Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll

Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll
Updated 22 September 2021

Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll

Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll
  • International community still views him as a crucial partner in peace process

JERUSALEM: A new poll has found that nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, reflecting widespread anger over the death of an activist in security forces’ custody and a crackdown on protests over the summer.

The survey released Tuesday found support for Abbas’ Hamas rivals remained high months after the 11-day Gaza war in May, when the Islamic militant group was widely seen by Palestinians as having scored a victory against a far more powerful Israel while the Western-backed Abbas was sidelined.

The latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 45 percent of Palestinians believe Hamas should lead and represent them, while only 19 percent said Abbas’ secular Fatah deserved that role, showing only a slight shift in favor of Fatah over the last three months.

“This is the worst polling we’ve ever seen for the president,” said Khalil Shikaki, the head of the center, who has been surveying Palestinian public opinion for more than two decades. “He has never been in as bad a position as today.”

Despite his plummeting popularity and refusal to hold elections, the international community still views the 85-year-old Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian cause and a crucial partner in the peace process with Israel, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.

His Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank under interim agreements signed with Israel at the height of the peace process in the 1990s. Hamas drove Abbas’ forces out of Gaza when it seized power there in 2007, a year after winning parliamentary elections.

Abbas’ latest woes began in April, when he called off the first Palestinian elections in 15 years as Fatah appeared to be headed for another embarrassing loss. Hamas’ popularity soared the following month amid protests in Jerusalem and the Gaza war, as many Palestinians accused the PA of doing nothing to aid their struggle against Israeli occupation.

The death of Nizar Banat, a harsh critic of the PA who died after being beaten by Palestinian security forces during a late-night arrest in June, ignited protests in the occupied West Bank calling on Abbas to resign.

His security forces launched a crackdown in response, beating and arresting several demonstrators.

The poll found that 78 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign and just 19 percent think he should remain in office.

It found that 63 percent of Palestinians think Banat was killed on the orders of PA political or security leaders, with only 22 percent believing it was a mistake. The PA recently announced that 14 security officials who took part in the arrest will stand trial. Sixty-nine percent of those polled felt that was an insufficient response.

Sixty-three percent of Palestinians support the demonstrations that broke out after Banat’s death, and 74 percent believe the PA’s arrest of demonstrators was a violation of liberties and civil rights, the poll found.

The PCPSR says it surveyed 1,270 Palestinians face-to-face in the West Bank and Gaza, with a margin of error of three percentage points.


Saied vows new electoral code, transition team

Saied vows new electoral code, transition team
Updated 22 September 2021

Saied vows new electoral code, transition team

Saied vows new electoral code, transition team
  • The North African nation was widely seen as a model for budding democracies but has failed to cure chronic unemployment

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president has announced plans to draft a new electoral code and appoint a transitional leadership — and to hang on to the exceptional powers that he seized in July.

President Kais Saied promised that the new initiatives would respect Tunisians’ hard-fought rights and freedoms and democratic constitution. While many Tunisians welcome his moves, human rights groups and some others are concerned about the future of the only country to emerge from the turbulent Arab Spring uprisings with a new democratic system.

Saied spoke to supporters in the impoverished town of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where many people are disillusioned with the country’s failure to solve economic and social problems since overthrowing its repressive leaders a decade ago.

He defended his July 25 decision to suspend parliament, fire the prime minister and seize executive powers, which he said was needed to save the country amid unrest over financial troubles and the government’s handling of Tunisia’s coronavirus crisis. He invoked a special constitutional article allowing such measures in the event of imminent danger to the nation, and said they would be in place for 30 days. But they have been extended until further notice.

“Danger still hangs over the country and I cannot leave it like a puppet in the hands of those who act in the shadows, and of corrupt people,” Saied said. He accused unidentified players of “conspiring to cause chaos and confusion” in Tunisia, and said, “There is no question of going back.”

He promised a new electoral code to hold lawmakers more accountable to constituents, and transitional arrangements to run the country before he names a new prime minister. He did not detail them.


Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government

Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government
Updated 21 September 2021

Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government

Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government
  • Some House Democrats objected to a provision in a stopgap spending bill to provide the additional funding so Israel can replenish its "Iron Dome"
  • That could set the stage for another dispute over military aid for Israel

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.