Region reacts with outrage to Houthi hijacking of UAE ship off Yemen

A picture taken on March 20, 2021 shows the port of Yemen’s Red Sea coastal city of Hodeida, around 230 kilometers west of the capital Sanaa. (AFP)
A picture taken on March 20, 2021 shows the port of Yemen’s Red Sea coastal city of Hodeida, around 230 kilometers west of the capital Sanaa. (AFP)
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Updated 04 January 2022

Region reacts with outrage to Houthi hijacking of UAE ship off Yemen

Region reacts with outrage to Houthi hijacking of UAE ship off Yemen
  • The ship was seized shortly before midnight on Sunday in waters near the port city of Hodeidah, according to the Arab coalition
  • Militia’s actions condemned as a war crime that breaches international law and threatens freedom of navigation and regional security

LONDON: The reported hijacking of a UAE cargo ship off the coast of Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthi militia drew widespread condemnation across the region on Monday.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition said the ship was seized shortly before midnight on Sunday near the port city of Hodeidah. Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Turki Al-Maliki said the ship, the Rawabi, was on a naval mission from the Yemeni island of Socotra to the Saudi port of Jazan, carrying equipment that had been used for a Saudi field hospital on the island.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the hijacking, describing the attack as a criminal act that obstructs the freedom of maritime and commercial navigation, as guaranteed by international laws and treaties, and could disrupt humanitarian aid and other relief efforts to help the Yemeni people.
The Arab Interior Ministers Council said the hijacking constitutes a war crime and stressed the importance of standing firm against the actions of the Houthi militia “which presents, day after day, clear evidence of its aggressive behavior and its endeavors to destabilize regional security and stability.”
The Arab Parliament, the legislative body of the Arab League, said that the hijacking represents a flagrant violation of international laws and norms, and warned of the threat the actions of the Houthis pose to freedom of maritime navigation and global trade in the Bab Al-Mandab strait and the southern Red Sea.
It described the incident as a dangerous development that threatens the economy and international trade and added: “The targeting of vital facilities and global transport routes is a war crime, which requires an immediate and firm international stance.”
The Arab Parliament reiterated the importance of an absolute commitment to international resolutions and charters, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
Nayef Al-Hajraf, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also condemned the incident and called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities and take a firm stance toward the Houthis’ hostile practices.
He stressed that GCC member states would support the UAE in all the measures it will take against this brutal attack, and said the regional bloc “rejects any impediment to the movement of ships and tankers, which represents a criminal act and a war crime.”
Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalek said only strong and firm deterrents will halt the actions of the Houthis. The government “will remain committed to working with all our partners to combat this piracy and terrorism by all means,” he added.
Yemen’s Foreign Ministry said: “This violation requires the international community to stand up to its responsibilities toward these irresponsible terrorist behaviors by the Houthi militias.”
It also pledged support for all measures the Arab coalition forces take in responding to the hijacking in a way that protects the security and safety of international navigation and global energy security.
Authorities in Bahrain said the incident demonstrated the Houthis’ determination to destabilize regional security and stability. They called on the international community to condemn the dangerous terrorist act and put pressure on the militia to immediately release the ship and its crew.
Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan also strongly condemned the attack as a threat to maritime navigation and a flagrant violation of international law, and called for the ship to be released immediately so that it can resume its journey.


Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware

Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware
Updated 18 January 2022

Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware

Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware
  • Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they operate according to the law
  • NSO Group said it does not identify its clients

JERUSALEM: Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday called for a parliamentary inquiry into the police’s alleged use of sophisticated spyware on Israeli citizens, including protesters opposed to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following a newspaper report on the surveillance.
Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported that in 2020, police used the NSO spyware Pegasus to surveil leaders of protests against Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. It said police also hacked the phones of two sitting mayors suspected of corruption and numerous other Israeli citizens, all without a court order or a judge’s oversight.
The Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they operate according to the law, and the NSO Group said it does not identify its clients.
Sophisticated spyware made by the Israeli company has been linked to eavesdropping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians. The US has barred the group from American technology, saying its products have been used by repressive regimes.
The company says its products are intended to be used against criminals and terrorists, and that it does not control how its clients use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, has not said whether its own security forces use the spyware.
The report — which cited no current or formal officials from the government, police or NSO corroborating the paper’s claims — referred to eight alleged examples of the police’s secretive signal intelligence unit employing Pegasus to surveil Israeli citizens, including hacking phones of a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade. The report did not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked by the police.
“In all the cases mentioned in the article, and in other instances, use of Pegasus was made at the sole discretion of senior police officers,” the report said. “The significance is that with Pegasus, the police can effectively hack without asking a court, without a search or entry warrant, without oversight, to all cell phones.”
The report sparked an outcry across Israel’s political spectrum, briefly uniting everyone from Jewish ultra-nationalists to Arab opposition lawmakers in shared outrage.
Cabinet Minister Karine Elharrar told Israeli Army Radio that such surveillance “was something that a democratic country cannot allow.”
Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said that surveillance of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight is improper and that if the claims are correct, it should be investigated.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, whose department oversees the police, tweeted that he would verify that police received explicit authorization from a judge to use the spyware.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party called on the Knesset speaker to launch a parliamentary investigation. Merav Ben Ari, an Israeli lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s internal security committee, said the panel would hold a hearing into the report’s claims.
Israeli police issued a statement after the report’s publication, saying that “there’s no truth to the claims raised in the article” and that “all police operations in this field are in accordance with the law, in line with court orders and meticulous protocols.”
Amir Ohana, who was public security minister during the protests, said he had no knowledge of the reported surveillance.
The Black Flags protest movement, whose leaders were allegedly surveilled during weekly demonstrations in recent years calling on Netanyahu to resign, called on the police to release the names of the people whose phones were hacked. Spokesman Roee Neuman said the protest leaders only learned of the digital surveillance following the publication of the report.
Pegasus software surreptitiously grants full access to a person’s cellphone, including real-time communications.
Tuesday’s report was the latest blow for the company, which has faced growing scrutiny and criticism for its software’s use by repressive governments.
NSO’s software has repeatedly been blamed for cellphone surveillance of activists, dissidents and journalists. Last month, the Internet watchdog Citizen Lab said dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.
In November, Citizen Lab said it had identified Pegasus software on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists affiliated with groups that Israel has controversially claimed are involved in terrorism.
Citizen Lab has been identifying Pegasus victims since 2015, when abuses of the spyware against journalists and human rights activists were discovered. Dozens of cases have since been uncovered, including of a dozen US State Department employees in Uganda, British lawyers and a Polish senator who led the opposition’s 2019 parliamentary campaign.
The NSO Group said that it could neither confirm nor deny any specific clients, adding that “the company does not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”
“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” the company said.


US imposes sanctions on Hezbollah-linked businessmen in Lebanon

US imposes sanctions on Hezbollah-linked businessmen in Lebanon
Updated 46 min 14 sec ago

US imposes sanctions on Hezbollah-linked businessmen in Lebanon

US imposes sanctions on Hezbollah-linked businessmen in Lebanon
  • Tuesday's action requires all property owned by the three men and their business that is in the US to be blocked
  • Lebanon's cabinet will hold its first meeting in three months next week, local media reported

WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on three businessmen with ties to Hezbollah, saying their activity as financial facilitators for the Iran-backed group was exploiting Lebanon's economic resources at a time of crisis for that country.
The Treasury Department has added Adel Diab, Ali Mohamad Daoun, Jihad Salem Alame, and their company Dar Al Salam for Travel & Tourism, to its sanctions list, the department said in a statement.
“Through businessmen like those designated today, Hezbollah gains access to material and financial support through the legitimate commercial sector to fund its acts of terrorism and attempts to destabilize Lebanon's political institutions,” the US Treasury said in the statement.
Lebanon's economy has been in crisis since 2019 when it collapsed under a mountain of debt. Its currency plunged to a new low last week, and swathes of the nation have been driven into poverty.
Lebanon's cabinet will hold its first meeting in three months next week, local media reported on Monday, after Hezbollah and another group, Amal, ended their boycott of the cabinet at the weekend.
The two groups, which back several ministers, had been boycotting the cabinet in a dispute over the conduct of an investigation into a huge explosion at Beirut's port in 2020.
The US Treasury said Tuesday's action requires all property owned by the three men and their business that is in the United States to be blocked and reported to the department, and that all transactions related to the property by US citizens be prohibited. 


Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report

Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report
Updated 14 sec ago

Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report

Conflict, corruption turning Lebanon, Syria into narco-states: Report
  • Both countries exporting massive quantities of drug Captagon to prop up ailing economies
  • Expert: ‘All countries which are under Iranian occupation are technically narco-states’

LONDON: The large-scale export of Captagon from Syria and Lebanon is the legacy of a decade of conflict combined with widespread corruption, and reliance on the drug revenues is turning both countries into narco-states, according to a new report by Britain’s Channel 4.

In Lebanon, militias and gangs operating in Hezbollah-controlled areas such as the Bekaa Valley are producing up to 600,000 Captagon pills per week — worth around $3 million if sold in the Gulf.

Captagon, a brand name for the amphetamine-type stimulant fenethylline, is a cheap, readily produced drug previously used by Daesh fighters to battle without fear.

An anonymous producer of the drug told Channel 4: “Poverty and need forced me to trade in Captagon.”

Lebanon has been grappling with an economic collapse that has driven many of its people out of the country or into illicit activities.

The corruption of the Lebanese state, of which Iran-backed Hezbollah is a major constituent, eases the process for manufacturing and exporting drugs.

“Crime exists alongside corruption in this country. If there was no corruption, there would be no crime,” said the Captagon producer.

The Assad regime in Syria, which is dealing with its own currency crisis and economic collapse, is also becoming a narco-state, said Makram Rabah, a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut.

“At the moment both Lebanon and Syria, and all countries which are under Iranian occupation, are technically narco-states — and we’re being dealt with accordingly,” Rabah told Channel 4.

“This is, unfortunately, a reality which the Lebanese up until now haven’t yet admitted, and it’s something that will prevent us recovering from the ongoing economic collapse.”

For the Assad regime, the trade of drugs is now a lifeline for an economy ravaged by a decade of civil war and crippling international sanctions.

In 2020, legal exports from the country were worth just a fifth of the value of Captagon seized from Syrian drug traders.

According to a report by the Cyprus-based Center for Operational Analysis and Research, “Captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46 billion” in that year.

Some of those Syrian drug dealers are known to operate out of the port of Latakia, a stronghold of the regime and under the direct control of President Bashar Assad’s brother, who commands some of the country’s most elite and loyal fighting units.

Rabah said the export of Captagon is not only keeping the Syrian economy from total collapse, but is also being used to seek revenge on Gulf countries that opposed the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters and the war that ensued.

“This drug, particularly recently with the start of the Syrian civil war, has become a weapon, a tool that the Syrian regime, as well as the Iranian regime, uses against both Lebanon and the Gulf,” he added. Captagon “has become synonymous with Hezbollah and also the Assad regime,” he said.

The trade of the drug also presents a problem for Lebanon’s border officials, whose responsibility it is to prevent their export, which is pushed by other factions within the state, namely Hezbollah.

Col. Joseph Musalim of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces said: “The manufacture and smuggling of Captagon didn’t exist in Lebanon before the Syrian crisis. It came after the crisis, and showed traders and manufacturers that it’s a profitable trade.”

Gulf countries have responded to the deluge of Captagon coming out of Lebanon and Syria by tightening customs restrictions of goods often used by drug smugglers.

In April last year, Saudi Arabia announced the suspension of fruit and vegetable imports from Lebanon after the seizure of more than 5 million Captagon pills hidden in fruit.


Israel says sanctions relief for Iran could mean ‘terror on steroids’

Israel says sanctions relief for Iran could mean ‘terror on steroids’
Updated 18 January 2022

Israel says sanctions relief for Iran could mean ‘terror on steroids’

Israel says sanctions relief for Iran could mean ‘terror on steroids’
  • Warning against world powers easing sanctions against Tehran as they seek a new nuclear deal

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said funding for Iran could lead to “terror on steroids” on Tuesday, in an apparent warning against world powers easing sanctions against Tehran as they seek a new nuclear deal.
“The last thing you want to do ... is pour tens of billions of dollars into this apparatus. Because what will you get? Terror on steroids,” Bennett said in a video address to the World Economic Forum in Davos.


UN Palestinian refugee agency seeks $1.6 billion

UN Palestinian refugee agency seeks $1.6 billion
Updated 18 January 2022

UN Palestinian refugee agency seeks $1.6 billion

UN Palestinian refugee agency seeks $1.6 billion
  • UNRWA’s funding suffered a blow in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump cut support to the agency

JERUSALEM: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, announced a $1.6 billion funding appeal Tuesday to help counter “chronic” budget shortfalls.
It is the latest in a series of warnings from UNRWA on possible deep cuts if the international community fails to provide more support.
“Chronic agency budget shortfalls threaten the livelihoods and well-being of the Palestine refugees that UNRWA serves and pose a serious threat to the agency’s ability to maintain services,” agency head Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement.
UNRWA’s funding suffered a blow in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump cut support to the agency.
His administration branded UNRWA as “irredeemably flawed,” siding with Israeli criticisms of the agency founded in 1949, a year after Israel’s creation.
President Joe Biden’s administration has restored some support, but UNRWA has said it is still struggling.
In November, it warned it was facing an “existential threat” over budget gaps.
The agency has a staff of 28,000 and provides services such as education and health care to more than five million Palestinians registered in the Palestinian territories, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.