Tourist influx offers hope for hard-hit Bethlehem

 Christian tourists visit the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP file photo)
Christian tourists visit the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 10 April 2022

Tourist influx offers hope for hard-hit Bethlehem

 Christian tourists visit the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP file photo)
  • Tourism is returning to Bethlehem and the Holy Land under the slogan “Ready,” which highlights the sector’s efforts to comply with COVID-19 protocols

RAMALLAH: An influx of visitors to Bethlehem ahead of the Easter holiday has been welcomed by tourism chiefs desperate for a return to “business as usual” in the West Bank city, which was hit hard by global travel restrictions during the pandemic.
“Tourist groups are arriving in satisfactory numbers, and we hope that numbers will continue to increase during the year,” Elias Al-Arja, president of the Arab Hotels Association and manager of the Bethlehem Hotel, told Arab News.
Bethlehem relies on tourism for 90 percent of its economic income and has struggled financially since the sector came to a standstill following the global COVID-19 outbreak.
“We closed for two-and-a-half years because of the pandemic,” Al-Arja said.
In previous years, annual tourist numbers climbed to more than 2.5 million.
Al-Arja said that Bethlehem has been promoting itself since the Holy Land reopened to tourism and is now witnessing an influx of visitors, mainly in the form of religious tourism for the Easter season.

HIGHLIGHT

Bethlehem relies on tourism for 90 percent of its economic income and has struggled financially since the sector came to a standstill following the global COVID-19 outbreak.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had also affected visitor numbers, with the two countries and their neighbors normally providing up to 30 percent of religious tourists staying in Bethlehem hotels, Al-Arja said.
The city has 47 hotels, with 4,500 rooms and 9,000 beds, and bookings are running at 30 percent during the Easter season so far.
Hotel operators have refurbished and hired new staff in preparation for the expected rise in tourist numbers.
Al-Arja and other Bethlehem hotel owners are preparing to welcome about 3,500 Egyptian religious tourists between April 15-25, about 2,500 fewer than normally visit the city over the Easter period.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is promoting religious tourism in the city, and issuing tourist establishments with work permits that ensure their readiness to welcome foreign visitors and comply with coronavirus protocols.
Al-Arja said the ministry has also sponsored several tourist exhibitions, including the Palestine pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020.
Tourism is returning to Bethlehem and the Holy Land under the slogan “Ready,” which highlights the sector’s efforts to comply with COVID-19 protocols.
“We have worked to restore the world’s confidence in the Palestinian tourism sector so that it can resume activity and provide tourism services with the highest standards,” Jeries Qumsyieh, a ministry spokesman in Bethlehem, told Arab News.
Work permits and licenses are granted to tourist establishments only after employees complete training courses to ensure establishments meet health standards and comply with coronavirus safeguards.
Bethlehem is home to many important religious sites, including the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherds’ Field Chapel. The city also has more than 100 shops selling oriental antiques, 400 workshops, restaurants, hotels and shopping centers.
“The return of tourism will contribute to the economic recovery of Bethlehem, which is still suffering from the effects of the pandemic,” said Qumsiyeh.
“The tourism sector was the first to be affected by the outbreak and one of the last sectors to return to life,” he added.
Palestinian tourism promoters have expanded their programs by offering visits to Palestinian camps, as well as a tour of the northern entrance to Bethlehem, where drawings by the international artist Banksy can be seen.


Arab League meeting prioritizes food insecurity

Arab League meeting prioritizes food insecurity
Updated 13 min 34 sec ago

Arab League meeting prioritizes food insecurity

Arab League meeting prioritizes food insecurity
  • Subcommittee follows up on implementing strategic framework for UN Zero Hunger goal

CAIRO: The Arab League held the region’s eighth meeting of the Subcommittee for Hunger Eradication, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture on Monday, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Chaired by Sudan, it focused on implementing “UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger,” which aims to eliminate food insecurity and malnutrition in the region. 

Nada El Agizy, director of sustainable development and international cooperation at the Arab League, said that food security is a top priority for joint Arab action.

She emphasized the importance of collaborative efforts and called for the strengthening of existing partnerships, as well as the formation of new ones, to address the challenges. 

The “Strategic Framework for Zero Hunger in the Arab Region” was launched in February during the fourth Arab Week for Sustainable Development in Cairo.

A UN study in June 2021 warned that hunger in the Arab region was on the rise and threatened the area’s efforts to achieve freedom from it by 2030.

 


Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear
Updated 7 sec ago

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear
  • Countries that had offered sanctuary are devising plans to return displaced households, either voluntarily or by force
  • Human rights monitors say returnees are often harassed, detained without charge, tortured, and even disappeared

DUBAI: When Amir left his war-ravaged hometown of Homs, western Syria, in 2013, he believed he was heading somewhere that would offer him and his family lasting security and sanctuary from his nation’s grinding civil war.

Packing what few belongings were left unscathed by the regime’s incessant barrel bombing, Amir boarded a bus bound for Lebanon with his sister, Alia, and her toddler, Omar, where the trio settled in a camp in Arsal, Baalbek.

“My brother is a proud man,” Alia told Arab News from her adopted home in Lebanon. “After our parents died under rubble, he took it upon himself to fend for us and to raise my son, Omar.”

In doing so, Amir and his family joined the ranks of millions of Syrians displaced by the civil war — the majority of whom have settled in neighboring Turkiye, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, while others have struck out for Europe and beyond.

What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement demanding greater civic freedoms quickly escalated into one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, with a death toll now numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Around 13 million people have been displaced by the war. (AFP)

Another 100,000 people have disappeared, likely abducted by security service agents to be tortured and killed in Bashar Assad’s prisons. To date, around 13 million people have been displaced by the war — 5.6 million of them fleeing abroad.

Now, many of those countries that had offered sanctuary have devised plans to return their Syrian guests, either voluntarily or by force, despite warnings from aid agencies and refugees themselves that Syria remains unsafe and blighted by poverty.

Syrian refugees are viewed by the Assad regime and its loyalists as traitors and dissidents. Human rights monitors have identified cases of returnees being harassed, detained without charge, tortured, and even disappeared.

Nevertheless, countries like Lebanon, Turkiye and Denmark, grappling with their own economic pressures and rising anti-immigrant sentiments, have been upping the ante on Syrians to return home, claiming the civil war is now over.

In 2021, Denmark adopted a “zero asylum-seekers” policy, resulting in many Syrians who had been based there since 2015 having their residency status revoked, while others were removed to deportation facilities.

Struggling to take care of its own native population, the caretaker government of crisis-wracked Lebanon announced its own repatriation plan in October this year, with the aim of sending back 15,000 refugees per month.

The situation in Turkiye is no different, according to reports. Stories have emerged on social media of refugees being forced to sign voluntary return forms.

According to reports from the France-based advocacy group Syrians for Truth and Justice, Syrians dropped off at the Bab Al-Salama border crossing by Turkish authorities are classified as “voluntary returnees,” despite this being a regime-controlled crossing.

Returnees — voluntarily or otherwise — often face harassment, extortion, forced recruitment, torture and arbitrary arrest upon arrival on the regime side, irrespective of their age or gender.

Mazen Hamada, a high-profile activist and torture survivor who has testified about the horrors of Syrian regime prisons, mystified the world when he decided to return to Damascus in 2020.

Hamada, who long spoke of his mental torment following his release and his loneliness in exile, returned to Syria from the Netherlands under an amnesty agreement supposedly guaranteeing his freedom.

However, upon arrival in Damascus in February 2020, Hamada was arrested and has not been seen or heard from since.

Last year, human rights monitor Amnesty International released a report, titled “You’re returning to your death,” which documented serious violations committed by regime intelligence officers against 66 returnees, 13 of whom were children.

Around 100,000 people have disappeared, likely abducted by security service agents to be tortured and killed in Bashar Assad’s prisons. (AFP)

Five returnees had died while in custody, while the fate of 17 remains unknown. Fourteen cases of sexual assault were also recorded — seven of which included rape — perpetrated against five women, a teenage boy, and a five-year-old girl.

Voices for Displaced Syrians, another advocacy group based in Istanbul, published a study in February this year, titled “Is Syria safe for return? Returnees’ perspective,” based on interviews with 300 returnees and internally displaced persons across four governorates.

Their accounts outlined extreme human rights violations, physical and psychological abuses, and a lack of legal protections. Some 41 percent of respondents had returned to Syria voluntarily, while 42 percent said they had returned out of necessity, as a result of poor living conditions in their host country and a longing to reunify with family.

Concerning their treatment upon arrival, 17 percent reported they or a loved one had been arbitrarily arrested, 11 percent spoke of harassment and physical violence inflicted upon them or a family member, and 7 percent chose not to answer.

As for internally displaced persons, 46 percent reported they or a relative had been arrested, 30 percent recounted bodily harm, and 27 percent said they had faced persecution owing to their origins and hometowns. Many also reported difficulties reclaiming private property.

Concerning their treatment upon arrival, 17 percent reported they or a loved one had been arbitrarily arrested, 11 percent spoke of harassment and physical violence inflicted upon them or a family member. (AFP)

Despite the mounting body of evidence suggesting the regime is continuing to target civilians it considers dissidents, several countries are choosing to pursue normalization with Assad, lobbying for his rehabilitation into the Arab fold and reopening their embassies in Damascus.

For the relatives of returnees who have since gone missing, these developments smack of betrayal.

Amir, who eventually returned to Syria voluntarily, appears to have suffered the same fate as the activist Hamada. Tired of living in poverty in Lebanon, far from his extended family, he went back in Oct. 2021. He has not been heard from since.

“Life in Lebanon has become rather unbearable. Amir would return humiliated every time he left the house,” his sister Alia told Arab News.

Having initially lived in a UNHCR-provided tent in Arsal, Amir and his family finally managed to acquire a small one bedroom house near the camps. Alia said it was a constant struggle to scrimp together enough money to pay the rent.

Most refugees are unable to secure consistent employment due to their lack of official papers, which, under normal circumstances, would grant them residency and facilitate a stable income. Amir, like many working age men around him, resorted to hard manual labor.

Those who try to find work in the big cities risk being arrested at Lebanese checkpoints, imprisoned, and deported for staying in the country illegally.

Since Amir’s disappearance, Alia has been forced to make do on a single income cleaning houses.

What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement demanding greater civic freedoms quickly turned into a brutal crackdown by the Bashar Assad regime, and one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. (AFP)

“He couldn’t take it anymore, being spoken to like a little boy by some of his employers and the degrading comments he’d hear at times,” said Alia.

“It happens to me too, but I hold back my tongue. I cannot afford to stand up for myself. He thought he would take his chances and return to Syria in the hope of finding us a place, back to familiarity.”

She says she begged her brother not to leave, aware of the many refugees they knew personally who had been mistreated upon their return to Syria. Some had been held in prison until they made bail, while others had gone missing.

“But he didn’t listen,” said Alia. “It’s been over a year since he left and I haven’t heard from him.”
 


Gulf Air steward dies mid-air after suffering heart attack

Gulf Air steward dies mid-air after suffering heart attack
Updated 28 November 2022

Gulf Air steward dies mid-air after suffering heart attack

Gulf Air steward dies mid-air after suffering heart attack
  • Plane landed in Erbil and was immediately met by medical team
  • Al-Yazidi was pronounced dead on arrival in nearby hospital

LONDON: Air steward Yasser Saleh Al-Yazidi died mid-air after suffering a heart attack on a Gulf Air flight from Bahrain to Paris on Tuesday, Mail Online reported. 

The Airbus A321 was flying at 34,000 feet over Iraq when Al-Yazidi became ill, Erbil International Airport Director Ahmed Hoshyar told Iraqi media.

The pilots were forced to make an emergency landing in Erbil, Kurdistan, so that the crew member could receive medical treatment, Mail Online reported.

When the plane touched down, a medical team immediately transferred Al-Yazidi to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

The plane was grounded for nearly four hours in Erbil before continuing on its way to Paris.

In the wake of Al-Yazidi’s death, the Bahrain-owned airline issued a statement.

“The national carrier expresses its deepest condolences to the crew member’s family and loved ones and confirms that the flight resumed to Paris as scheduled,” it read.

“Gulf Air reassures that the safety of its passengers and crew comes at the top of its priorities and thanks the affected flight’s passengers for their patience and understanding.”

Flight attendants with Gulf Air go through an intensive eight-week program in which they are trained in first aid, safety and emergency procedures.

As most commercial flights do not carry specialized medical equipment, however, pilots are generally required to perform an emergency landing if any serious medical issues arise, Mail Online said.

 


Senate slams European Parliament decision criticizing Egypt’s human rights record

Senate slams European Parliament decision criticizing Egypt’s human rights record
Updated 28 November 2022

Senate slams European Parliament decision criticizing Egypt’s human rights record

Senate slams European Parliament decision criticizing Egypt’s human rights record
  • Senate Speaker Abdel Wahab Abdel Razek accused the European Parliament of continually adopting positions and policies based on ‘fragile assumptions and misconceptions’
  • Abdel Razek: ‘Unfortunately, these policies are outdated, reminiscent of a European colonial legacy, and reveal nothing but a hidden desire to spread the culture of a particular civilization’

CAIRO: The Egyptian Senate has branded a European Parliament resolution criticizing Egypt’s progress on improving its human rights record as being based on “fragile assumptions and misconceptions.”

Senate Speaker Abdel Wahab Abdel Razek told a House of Representatives plenary session that the decision was unacceptable and went against “international rules and norms.”

The European Parliament resolution highlighted what it described as a lack of improvement in Egypt’s human rights situation including on the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly or association, and media freedoms.

Calling for a review of the EU’s relations with Egypt in light of “very limited progress on its human rights record,” the European Parliament also demanded the “immediate and unconditional release of a number of political activists, journalists, lawyers, and social media influencers.”

In a speech, Abdel Razek said: “We all received with displeasure the decision issued by the European Parliament on Nov. 24 regarding the human rights situation in Egypt.”

He accused the European Parliament of continually adopting positions and policies based on, “fragile assumptions and misconceptions and an attempt to claim that it has the authority to evaluate and hold others accountable outside the borders of its members, in violation of international rules and norms.

“Unfortunately, these policies are outdated, reminiscent of a European colonial legacy, and reveal nothing but a hidden desire to spread the culture of a particular civilization. These are issues that no free country, particularly Egypt, will accept,” he added.

In a statement on Friday, the Egyptian Parliament said the resolution, “shows again that the European Parliament insists on adopting an arrogant approach toward Egypt, giving itself the right to use a host of sheer lies to deliver a judgement regarding some recent developments inside Egypt.”

Abdel Razek noted that Egypt had sought to strengthen efforts to improve the lives of its citizens.

He highlighted the Decent Life Initiative as one of the country’s most important projects bringing together the public and private sectors, and civil society, to help boost living standards for Egypt’s neediest groups.

He added that Egypt had launched a national dialogue to identify issues of concern to citizens and had also reactivated the Presidential Pardon Committee which had previously worked to grant amnesty to convicts and reintegrate them into society.

In addition, millions of refugees and asylum seekers had been welcomed to Egypt, Abdel Razek said, adding that efforts to promote and preserve all human rights within the framework of a national vision were ongoing.


Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales

Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales
Updated 28 November 2022

Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales

Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales
  • 709 detainees were freed from different prisons in the country
  • Prominent Iranian actor Hengameh Ghaziani had also been released on bail

TEHRAN: Iran has released more than 700 prisoners after the national team’s World Cup football victory over Wales, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website said Monday.
It announced that “709 detainees were freed from different prisons in the country” following the 2-0 victory on Friday.
Among those are “some arrested during the recent events,” Mizan Online said, making indirect reference to demonstrations which have shaken Iran for more than two months.
It gave no further detail.
The ongoing protests were triggered by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest by morality police for an alleged breach of Iran’s strict dress rules for women.
Other Iranian media separately reported that prominent Iranian actor Hengameh Ghaziani had been released on bail after her arrest for having supported the protests.
Two of the most prominent figures detained over the demonstrations — former international footballer Voria Ghafouri and dissident Hossein Ronaghi — were also let out on bail, reports said.
State news agency IRNA reported on Monday that former state television host Mahmoud Shahriari, 63, had been released after two months in prison for “encouraging riots.”
Iran on Friday scored twice deep into stoppage time to stun Wales and breathe new life into its World Cup campaign ahead of a politically charged showdown Tuesday against the United States.
Iran lost its first World Cup match to England, 6-2.
Iran’s judiciary says more than 2,000 people have been charged since the start of the protests.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk last week said around 14,000 people have been arrested.

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