TEL AVIV: Aviran Yael fetched rapid antigen kits from a pharmacy in Tel Aviv’s busy center, placed them in the light blue bag strapped to the back of his motorbike and headed off to deliver them.
With that, Yael on Monday joined a growing army of couriers toting Wolt delivery boxes around Israel, a sight that has become ubiquitous in the three years since the Finnish company began operating here.
The payload in the blue boxes changed when the Israeli government last week authorized more at-home testing to take the burden off of testing centers.
Almost immediately, as the omicron coronavirus variant set infection records, rapid antigen tests became the platform’s most in-demand product — even more than food, its core delivery business, officials said.
By Monday, as Wolt opened a modern headquarters in a blue building in Tel Aviv, someone was ordering an antigen test every three seconds — a reflection of widespread public anxiety and confusion over the government’s constantly changing pandemic policies.
“There’s real panic for these tests,” said Yael.
Even in relatively wealthy, small Israel, the government and the governed are struggling with the stunning surge of omicron as it rips around the globe, raising anxiety in a place already known for tension. Since the variant emerged in South Africa in November, the government has closed and reopened the airport, changed testing policies, tightened and loosened quarantine requirements and confused people about whether and how to send their kids to school.
In the latest twist, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced late Monday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, making him the most senior Israeli official to contract COVID-19.
“I am confirmed with corona,” he wrote on Twitter. “I feel excellent because I am vaccinated. Get vaccinated, wear a mask and we will be through this together.”
With his government facing sagging public support, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned this week that between 2 million and 4 million people among Israel’s population of 9.4 million are expected to be infected by the variant.
On Monday, Israel reported 21,514 new cases, another all-time high. The number of serious cases crept up to 222, a figure that remains well below the highs experienced during previous waves of the coronavirus. Bennett has said preventing serious illness and hospitalizations is his main concern.
Testing has skyrocketed nationally, another sign of the concern about the variant’s spread.
Coronavirus testing reached a peak for the current wave, with more than 342,141 PCR and antigen tests conducted Sunday, according to Health Ministry figures.
That’s the second highest single-day figure behind a spike of more than 414,000 in late August, as Israel was rolling out its booster shots.
“It is hard to control a virus that spreads four times as fast as what we’ve known in the past,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s top public health official, said on Channel 13.
Tunisian president takes most powers in proposed constitution
Voters will be asked to approve the new constitution in a July 25 referendum for which there is no minimum level of participation
Updated 01 July 2022
TUNIS: Tunisia’s president published a planned new constitution on Thursday that he will put to a referendum next month, expanding his own powers and limiting the role of parliament in a vote most political parties have already rejected.
Kais Saied has ruled by decree since last summer, when he brushed aside the parliament and the democratic 2014 constitution in a step his foes called a coup, moving toward one-man rule and vowing to remake the political system.
His intervention last summer has thrust Tunisia into its biggest political crisis since the 2011 revolution that ousted former autocrat Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and introduced democracy.
Voters will be asked to approve the new constitution in a July 25 referendum for which there is no minimum level of participation.
With most of the political establishment opposed to his moves and urging their supporters to boycott the vote, analysts say the measure is likely to pass, but with only limited public involvement.
None of the major parties, including the Islamist Ennahda which is the biggest in parliament and has played a major role in successive coalition governments since the revolution, issued immediate comment on the draft constitution.
Meanwhile, many Tunisians are far more focused on a growing economic crisis and threats to public finances that have caused salary delays and the risk of shortages of key subsidised goods.
An online ‘consultation’ Saied held from January-March in preparation for drafting the constitution received scant attention from Tunisians, with very few taking part.
The draft constitution published in the official gazette late on Thursday would bring most political power under Saied, give him ultimate authority over the government and judiciary.
Previously, political power was more directly exercised by the parliament, which took the lead role in appointing the government and approving legislation.
Under the new constitution, the government would answer to the president and not to parliament, though the chamber could withdraw confidence from the government with a two-thirds majority.
Saied would be allowed to present draft laws, have sole responsibility for proposing treaties and drafting state budgets, appoint or sack government ministers and appoint judges, the gazette said.
He could serve two terms of five years each, but extend them if he felt there was an imminent danger to the state, and would have the right to dissolve parliament while no clause allows for the removal of a president.
The constitution would allow Saied to continue to rule by decree until the creation of a new parliament through an election expected in December.
It would also create a new ‘Council of Regions’ as a second chamber of parliament, but it gives few details on how it would be elected or what powers it would have.
Saied, a political independent, has promised a new electoral law. Though he has not yet published it, he has indicated that voters would only choose candidates as individuals, not as members of political parties.
Meanwhile, although Islam will no longer be the state religion, Tunisia will be regarded as part of the wider Islamic nation and the state should work to achieve Islamic goals. The president must be Muslim.
However, Saied has maintained most parts of the 2014 constitution that enumerated rights and liberties, including freedom of speech, the right to organize in unions and the right to peaceful gatherings.
However, judges, police, army and customs officials would not have a right to go on strike. Judges have recently been on strike for weeks in protest at Saied’s moves to curtail judicial independence.
Many Libyans fear that a failure to set a path to elections and resolve an existing dispute about control of an interim government will thrust the country back toward territorial division or conflict
Updated 30 June 2022
GENEVA: Libya talks in Geneva ended on Thursday without making enough progress to move toward elections, the United Nations Libya adviser Stephanie Williams said in a statement.
The talks between the House of Representatives and High State Council legislative bodies were aimed at agreeing on a constitutional basis and interim arrangements for holding elections that were originally scheduled for December 2021.
Many Libyans fear that a failure to set a path to elections and resolve an existing dispute about control of an interim government will thrust the country back toward territorial division or conflict.
Since the planned December election was abandoned, Libya’s rival factions have moved to a standoff over control of the government with both sides backed by armed forces in western areas of the country.
Williams said that in the Geneva talks and earlier meetings in Cairo the two sides had resolved previous disputes on the makeup of a future legislature, the powers of a future president and government, and how to allocate state revenues.
“Disagreement persists on the eligibility requirements for the candidates in the first presidential elections,” Williams said, adding that she would make recommendations on alternative ways forward.
Disputes over the eligibility of several controversial candidates were the trigger for the collapse of December’s election.
Beirut airport booming despite some departments on strike
Ninety-three flights carrying expatriates arrived in Lebanon, while pilgrim number decreased amid high prices
Updated 30 June 2022
BEIRUT: Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport is perhaps the only active official facility in Lebanon these days.
Caretaker Minister of Public Works and Transport Ali Hamiyeh said Thursday: “Ninety-three flights arrived at Beirut airport on Wednesday, carrying 15,444 passengers coming to spend summer vacation here.
“The number of planes arriving in Beirut will increase in the coming days,” Hamiyeh expected.
Lebanon is counting on summertime travel to pump hard currency into the economic cycle amid accumulated political and economic crises and their impact on the living situation of the Lebanese people.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is also PM-designated, warned Thursday during the Parliamentary Finance and Budget Committee meeting: “Every delay in coming up with solutions to crises costs Lebanon $25 million a day.”
A source at the Middle East Airlines told Arab News: “As a result of the economic crisis, COVID-19 precautionary measures, and the decline in the financial capabilities of the Lebanese, only a few thousand pilgrims will be traveling to perform Hajj this year. Their numbers reached over 25,000 in previous years.”
On Wednesday, an MEA flight carrying the first batch of Lebanese pilgrims landed at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. MEA is the only authorized airline in Lebanon to transport pilgrims to and from Saudi Arabia.
The economic collapse and the national currency’s depreciation made the pilgrimage more difficult for those wishing to go to Makkah.
Former MP Mohammed Al-Hajjar complained about “the inability of the Lebanese to travel to perform Hajj because the vaccine against meningitis, which Saudi Arabia requires from pilgrims for their safety, is not available in the Ministry of Health for lack of funding, or in pharmacies.”
Abdelrahman Al-Taweel, who is in charge of the Foutowa campaign for Hajj and Umrah, said: “The number of pilgrims this year did not reach 2,700, which is the quota allocated to Lebanon. The main reason is the high cost of the trip, which amounts to $6,000 per pilgrim. Everything is more expensive nowadays, [including] airline tickets, the price of which has risen globally as a result of the high cost of fuel, as well as tents and other supplies, and other additional fees.”
Al-Taweel noted: “The unavailability of the meningitis vaccine, which the Ministry of Health is supposed to provide to people, prompted the pilgrims to buy it at their own expense. It costs $60, which is equivalent to 1,800,000 LBP, according to the black-market exchange rate.”
Lebanon is trying to convey the image that it is doing well — despite the crises plaguing it — to visitors, including the Arab foreign ministers whom officials encouraged Thursday to hold their consultative meeting in Beirut ahead of the Arab Summit.
However, public-sector employees went on strike and will only resume work once their demands — including increased salaries, transportation allowances and health and educational benefits — are met.
In the absence of solutions, it seems that the general strike will continue, paralyzing the entire country.
MP Ghassan Hasbani, member of the Strong Republic bloc, warned after the Finance and Budget Committee meeting: “The government is yet to present a final financial…reform plan in order to interpret laws. The government must refer this plan to parliament as quickly as possible with a legislative roadmap and laws ready for implementation to speed up recovery and approve a budget that reflects the required reforms.”
It remains unknown whether the composition of the new government that Mikati handed over to President Michel Aoun on Wednesday morning will get the latter’s approval.
Less than 24 hours after the non-binding parliamentary consultations, Mikati drafted a government formation consisting of the current government, with some amendments, particularly to the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Economy.
Ukraine war refugees embody the global forced displacement crisis
UNHCR’s Global Trends report for 2021 revealed that the number of displaced persons worldwide has reached 100 million
Europe readily accepts 7 million refugees from Ukraine while turning away millions more from Middle East and Africa
Updated 01 July 2022
NEW YORK CITY: Last month, the UN observed World Refugee Day against the backdrop of a new grim milestone: The number of people who have been forced from their homes by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuses now sits at over 100 million.
This number is just one of many saddening figures from the UN refugee agency’s Global Trends report, published recently.
The report shows that five countries — Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar — account for more than two-thirds of displaced persons globally.
People forced to move inside their own countries — known as internally displaced people (IDPs) — constitute the majority of the forcibly displaced population. Syria and Yemen, as well as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Republic of the Congo and Colombia, continue to host the world’s largest IDP populations.
If current conflicts remain unresolved and the eruption of new ones is not prevented, the UN report warns that the 21st century will be defined by growing numbers of people forced to flee and the increasingly limited options available to them.
Population movements around the world have become so complex in nature that aid agencies are scrambling to find new ways to deal with the continuous, massive exodus. People are fleeing not only violence, but also economic inequality as the global wealth gap continues to widen.
Changes in weather patterns and resulting droughts, floods and natural disasters have displaced more still. The food security crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine has now threatened a new wave.
“The nature of these flows is so complicated by now that (aid) responses have also become complicated, difficult to organize and manage, and exposed to the manipulation of unscrupulous politicians who demonize both the flows and the responses, claiming that it’s impossible (to host refugees), and therefore the real response is, as we hear in many places, ‘Shut borders and push people back’,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, at a recent conference attended by Arab News.
The number of displaced people worldwide has risen annually for the past 10 years, approaching 90 million by the end of 2021 — more than double the figure in 2001. Most refugees came from Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan.
The number was also propelled by new waves of violence and conflict in countries such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Congo.
The war in Ukraine led to the fastest and one of the largest displacements since the Second World War. In just four months, nearly 7 million Ukrainians fled their country, surpassing the Syrian crisis, which over the course of 12 years has displaced over 6 million Syrians.
Grandi has hailed the “fairly extraordinary” humanitarian response to the conflict in Ukraine. However, the Italian humanitarian, who began his current role at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016, lamented the difference in international response between the two conflicts.
“If you get well-funded in Ukraine or in Poland or in the EU, that’s not the same for many other situations. We have Ethiopia at the end of 2020 and through 2021. We had the Afghanistan situation in the summer of last year,” Grandi said, adding that crises in Syria, South Sudan and Palestine have added to the swelling number of refugees.
“From Bangladesh to Colombia, we have a dozen operations where I am very worried about the underfunding,” he said. “It is important to hammer and hammer the message (home) that Ukraine cannot be the only humanitarian response.”
When in 2015, droves of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing battles in Aleppo showed up at Europe’s doors, Grandi said that European leaders told him: “It’s full. We can’t take anybody anymore.”
“A boat of 40 or so arrives in Sicily and (leaders) are bickering on the phone over who takes how many and for how long,” he said. “And now all of a sudden, how is it possible that in six weeks, 7 million people come in and they’re taken in? There have been problems but by and large, they have been taken in generously, effectively and with protection.”
“Now I am not naïve,” Grandi said, “I fully understand the context. I understand that it may not always be like this. But it certainly proves an important point: That responding to refugee influxes, to the arrival of desperate people at the shore or borders of rich countries, is not unmanageable. It is actually efficiently manageable, but there must be political will.”
Such political will toward 1.3 million Syrian asylum seekers who made it to Europe in 2015 was largely non-existent, and these refugees were often met with vitriol and hatred even from top government officials.
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, described asylum seekers as “poison” and “Muslim invaders.”
“There is no chance — we are going to send you back. This continent will not be your homeland, you have your own homeland. This is our homeland, we built it,” Orban said in 2015.
Also in 2015, Marine Le Pen, the far-right French politician, compared the influx of refugees to the barbarian invasion of Rome, British Pre Minister David Cameron referred to the fleeing refugees as a “swarm,” and then-Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński accused migrants of carrying diseases.
This attitude toward refugees and migrants was not abandoned in 2015. In 2020, Matteo Salvini, former Italian deputy prime minister, claimed that African migrants were bringing diseases such as tuberculosis and scabies to Italy. However, during a Facebook livestream in March this year, Salvini pledged to transport Ukrainian refugees to Italy.
Grandi said: “Of course if you hammer into public opinion that people coming in will steal your jobs, threaten your security and destroy your values, public opinion will not turn positively toward the (incoming migrants).”
The fact that European leaders have not used such rhetoric against Ukrainians has positively predisposed public opinion toward those who came in looking for refuge, said Grandi.
“That’s the attitude: Be constructive. Convey the message that politicians have conveyed about Ukrainians: That these are people in need.
“People flee because they are afraid. It’s not just Ukrainians. The Syrians have fled bombs. People in Tigray have fled bombs, people in the Sahel flee either bombs or vicious attacks. Fleeing from insecurity is the same whether you are a Ukrainian or a Nicaraguan. And I think it is important to continue to convey that message.”
The UNHCR report has dispelled common perceptions that the refugee crises only affect rich nations, or what is commonly known as the global north. In fact, more than 80 percent of refugees worldwide have fled to poor and middle-income countries.
“Nobody has heard of the 150,000 Nicaraguans hosted by Costa Rica,” said Grandi. “And yet, it’s a big problem for Costa Rica.”
Many Western nations see refugee crises as a problem they are not obligated to solve, even as many of the solutions are now contingent upon agreement between the West and Russia, whose diplomatic engagement, as a result of the war in Ukraine, has all but come to a grinding halt.
“The scars on international cooperation of those fractures between the West and Russia, between the major powers in the Security Council, is such that it will take a long time to heal. And yet if that is not healed, I don’t know how we will deal with these global crises,” said Grandi.
The preamble of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who “no longer enjoys the protection and assistance” of their own country, and are therefore the responsibility of the international community as a whole.
“The interesting thing,” said Grandi, “is that donors understand very well that there cannot be inequity in the response.”
Perhaps no other recent example illustrates this abdication of responsibility on the part of the West as much as Britain’s “Rwanda Plan,” a scheme that seeks to fly everyone who crosses the English Channel without authorization to Rwanda for processing.
According to the plan, the UK will pay into a Rwandan government “economic transformation and integration fund” and will fund each immigrant for their relocation and temporary accommodation.
“We are not supporting this deal,” said Grandi. “This is all wrong (and) in such contrast with the generosity displayed to the Ukrainians.
“It is the foundation of the right to asylum that people that are on a country’s territory (receive protection), especially if that country is signatory to the convention and has the institutions to deal with (asylum seekers). To export that responsibility to another country runs counter to any notion of international responsibility-sharing.”
He added: “The UK says we’re doing this to save people from dangerous journeys. Let me doubt that a little bit. Saving people from a dangerous journey is great. But is that the real motivation for this deal to happen? I don’t think so. But I think if really the UK and other countries wanted these dangerous journeys to stop, then there are other ways to do it.”
Grandi said the scheme is a “new ball game that is being superimposed on Rwanda,” a country that, despite having taken in tens of thousands of Congolese and Burundian refugees, does not have the structures to conduct refugee status determination — structures that are well in place in England.
“I made this clear to Priti Patel: This deal makes our work very difficult,” said Grandi, referring to the British home secretary. “The precedent this is setting is catastrophic.”
Asked whether the global food security crisis now underway was likely to push more people to leave their homes, Grandi said he “could not imagine how” it could be otherwise.
He concluded that although he is calling on the world to help with the consequences of conflict, “the problem has to be solved at the root and the war has to be stopped. Negotiations have to resume.”
The announcement comes within the framework of Qatar’s firm commitment to support Lebanon
Updated 30 June 2022
BEIRUT: Qatar announced on Thursday it was providing $60 million in support to the Lebanese Army in implementation of the GCC state’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani’s directives.
As reported by Qatar News Agency, the announcement came as Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani was visiting Lebanon to attend the Arab Foreign Ministers Consultative Meeting.
The announcement comes within the framework of Qatar’s firm commitment to support Lebanon, stand by the brotherly Lebanese people, and its firm belief in the importance and necessity of joint Arab action, QNA reported.
Qatar announced last July that it would support the Lebanese army with 70 tons of foodstuff every month for a year.