‘Our protests will become fiercer’ say families of Beirut blast victims

A general view shows the site of the deadly Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port, almost a year since the blast. The explosion killed more than 200 people. (Reuters)
A general view shows the site of the deadly Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port, almost a year since the blast. The explosion killed more than 200 people. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 August 2021

‘Our protests will become fiercer’ say families of Beirut blast victims

A general view shows the site of the deadly Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port, almost a year since the blast. The explosion killed more than 200 people. (Reuters)
  • Rights group Amnesty International accused the Lebanese authorities of spending “the past year shamelessly obstructing the victims’ quest for truth and justice in the aftermath of the catastrophic blast

BEIRUT: The people of Lebanon will on Wednesday mark the first anniversary of the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port, the country’s worst peacetime disaster.
The massive blast that destroyed a large section of the capital on Aug. 4, killed at least 214 people and injured more than 6,500. It was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port for several years without proper safety precautions.
The families of those who died will hold a commemorative religious service at the port, business owners have said they will cover the city with black ribbons on Wednesday, and activists are planning anti-government demonstrations.
Lebanese flags were raised over balconies and shops in the city on Monday ahead of the anniversary.
A year after the tragedy, the families of the victims remain determined to ensure justice is served and those responsible for the failures that resulted in the explosion are held to account.
“Our protests will soon become fiercer,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother, Tharwat, died.
He condemned “the heinous state that did not even bother to console us,” and added: “(They) removed Judge Fadi Sawan just because he came close to (their) sectarian and political idols. Today, this whole play is being repeated under a new title: ‘immunity’ (from prosecution).”
Sawan, who was appointed to investigate the explosion, was removed from the investigation in February after two former ministers he had accused of negligence filed a complaint. In addition, requests for immunity to be lifted from a number of top officials so that they can be questioned have not been granted.
Hoteit, who said he was speaking on behalf of the families of the victims, gave “the state 30 hours to lift immunity from the defendants, including former ministers, present lawmakers and security officials.”
He added: “The authorities are asking us to pacify the street movements on Aug. 4 — we are not the police of discipline. The people of Lebanon have the right to express their anger and rage by all available and legitimate means after you destroyed the country. Never expect us to be your mediators.”
A committee of the victims’ families announced on Monday that they reject any attempt to politicize their cause.
In a statement issued for the anniversary of the explosion, rights group Amnesty International accused the Lebanese authorities of spending “the past year shamelessly obstructing the victims’ quest for truth and justice in the aftermath of the catastrophic blast.”
Waleed Taha, 67, who was only a few hundred meters from the explosion, told Arab News: “If someone can help me on Wednesday, I will certainly take part in the mourning day with the families of the victims, the wounded and protesters.
“I feel like doing something crazy, maybe destroying something, but my mind is stopping me. Anger will not do me any good and will not heal the wounds I have been suffering from since the explosion, which broke my ribs, shoulder and knee and has left me sleepless ever since.”
Taha, who is an electrical engineer, worked in Jeddah for 10 years before returning home to Beirut in 2015 to be with his family. He loves fishing and had obtained a permit from Lebanon’s General Security that allowed him to fish at the port. He said that Aug. 4 was the first day he had gone there to fish after a COVID-19 lockdown was lifted. He was at dock 11, where the Orient Queen cruise ship was docked. At about 5 p.m., he called his wife and told her he could see a fire at dock 9, only 300 meters away. He thought the silo there contained only fireworks.
“I spoke to the other fishermen and we decided to stay because it was just fireworks,” he said.
However the sounds of explosions got louder and louder, he said.
“I was standing in front of the cruise ship and could not see what was happening,” he said. “At around 6 p.m. an explosion occurred and sent rocks flying to where I was standing. I rushed to my car. Filipino hostesses from the cruise ship’s staff were walking on the dock and one of them came to my car for protection.
“When the second, massive blast hit, the car was thrown intro the sea — but the waves, which were as high as a 10-story building, threw us back to where we were. I lost consciousness until my son came looking for me in the rubble.
“I heard his voice calling me and all I was able to do was raise my head and tell him ‘I am here.’ He called the Civil Defense, who rescued me and took me to the hospital. My son had to walk between tens of bodies and injured people who were bleeding.”
Taha said that three of his closest friends died on the dock “including two retired officers and a greengrocer fishing to provide for his family.”
He added: “On that day, more than 50 people were jogging on the port’s docks. Some of them died, some of them were injured and disabled. A friend of mine survived the blast because he had moved to dock 14 to find more fish. The Filipino girls that were near me disappeared, maybe drowned in the sea.”
Taha said he paid his own treatment and recovery expenses and that “no one cared for the injured and their fates.”
He added: “I am reliving the shock every single day; I probably need therapy, I do not know. But I lost my job as I cannot walk long distances and I am in pain.”
He is pessimistic about the chances of the truth about the explosion and those responsible being revealed, saying that the truth about the assassination of former US president John F. Kennedy would be known before who is to blame for the Beirut blast. He added that he feels hopeless about the prospects for justice in a country where the state does not care about its citizens.
“I used to pass in front of the silo that contained the ammonium nitrate every day,” Taha said. “It was an abandoned silo with a rusty door, where some people used to urinate.
“To enter the port, one had to pass through three security checkpoints where army intelligence, the general security and the army checked the identities of those going in and the permissions they had — but the explosion still happened.”


Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy
Updated 7 sec ago

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

DUBAI: The Iran-backed Houthi militia are unwilling to make peace in Yemen and are actually undermining efforts for hostilities to cease in the conflict-ridden country, a senior Yemeni politician said.

“We’re ready to achieve peace, but the Houthi militia has not yet agreed to do so, it has continued to deliberately undermine peace efforts and proposals, going on fighting. These indicators show they have never been willing to make peace,” Parliament speaker, Sultan Al-Barakani said as he met US envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking to discuss peace initiatives for Yemen.

The Houthis are to blame for blocking peace efforts and initiative and escalating military actions targeting civilians and facilities including Mocha port, state news agency SABA quoted the parliament leader as saying.

Al-Barakani pointed to the recent public execution of nine people, who were accused of being involved in the killing of Houthi leader Saleh Al-Samad in 2018, as an example of the militia’s crimes against the Yemeni people.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni Network for Rights and Freedoms claimed it had documented 6,476  violations committed by the Houthis against women in more than five years, involving mostly deaths and injuries caused be artillery shelling, as well as mines and other explosive devices detonating.

The rights group also said there had been 770 cases of arrests and kidnapping, 195 cases of enforced disappearance and 70 cases of torture of women in Yemen during the period from Jan. 1, 2015 to June 1, 2021.

It also confirmed cases of torture and degrading treatment against 70 women who were detained in secret and public prisons of the Houthi militia.

This amounted to false charges against their honor, as well as trafficking in their honor – according to what was reported – in the testimonies of some of the released women, the group said, leading to some of them to commit suicide.


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% of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll

Nearly 80% of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll
Updated 30 min 53 sec ago

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

Nearly 80% 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.