Instant folk hero: Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal

Instant folk hero: Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal
Sali Hafiz, in green shoes, held up a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week, taking by force some $13,000 in savings in her sister’s account frozen by capital controls. (AFP)
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Updated 21 September 2022

Instant folk hero: Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal

Instant folk hero: Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal
  • Sali Hafiz, who held up Beirut bank, decries ‘country of mafias’
  • She was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon: On the run from authorities after forcing a bank to release her family savings at gunpoint to treat her cancer-stricken sister, 28-year-old Lebanese interior designer Sali Hafiz insists she is not the criminal.
“We are in the country of mafias. If you are not a wolf, the wolves will eat you,” she said, standing on a dirt track somewhere in Lebanon’s rugged eastern Bekaa valley where she has since been in hiding.
Hafiz held up a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week, taking by force some $13,000 in savings in her sister’s account frozen by capital controls that were imposed overnight by commercial banks in 2019 but never made legal via legislation.
Dramatic footage of the incident, in which she cocks what later turned out to be a toy gun and stands atop a desk bossing around employees who hand her wads of cash, turned her into an instant folk hero in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are locked out of their savings.
A growing number are taking matters into their own hands, exasperated by a three-year financial implosion that authorities have left to fester — leading the World Bank to describe it as “orchestrated by the country’s elite.”
Hafiz was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week, prompting banks to shut their doors citing security concerns, and call for security support from the government.
George Hajj of the bank employees syndicate said the holdups were misguiding anger that should be directed at the Lebanese state, which was most to blame for the crisis, and noted some 6,000 bank employees had lost their jobs since it began.
Authorities have condemned the holdups and say they are preparing a security plan for banks.
But depositors argue that bank owners and shareholders have enriched themselves by getting high interest payments for lending the government depositors’ money and are prioritising the banks over people rather than enacting an IMF rescue plan.
The government says it is working hard to implement IMF reforms and aims to secure a $3 billion bailout this year.
The series of raids have been met with widespread support, including from crowds that gather outside the banks when they hear a holdup is taking place to cheer them on.
“Maybe they saw me as a hero because I was the first woman who does this in a patriarchal society where a woman’s voice is not supposed to be heard,” Hafiz said, adding she had not intended to harm anyone but was tired of government inaction.
“They are all in cahoots to steal from us and leave us to go hungry and die slowly,” she said.
When her sister began losing hope she would be able to afford costly treatment to help regain mobility and speech impaired by brain cancer, and the bank declined to provide the savings, Hafiz said she decided to act.
BLOM Bank said in a statement that the branch had been cooperative with her request for funds but asked for documentation as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions to the informal controls.
Hafiz then returned two days later with a toy gun she had seen her nephews playing with, and a small amount of fuel that she mixed with water and spilled on to an employee.
Before her raid, she watched popular Egyptian black comedy Irhab w Kabab — or “Terrorist and Kabab” — in which a man frustrated with government corruption holds up a state building and demands kebabs for the hostages due to the high price of meat.
She managed to get $13,000 of a total $20,000 — enough to cover travel expenses for her sister and about a month of treatment — and made sure to sign a receipt so that she would not be accused of theft.
To aid her escape, Hafiz posted on Facebook that she was already at the airport and on her way to Istanbul. She ran home and disguised herself in a robe and headscarf and placed a bundle of clothes on her belly to make herself appear pregnant.
A police officer who knocked on her door “must have been scared I would give birth in front of him. I went downstairs in front of them all, like 60 or 70 people... they were wishing me luck with the birth. It was... like the movies,” she said, after they failed to recognize her.
Two of Hafiz’s close friends with her at the bank hold up were detained after the incident over charges of threatening bank employees and holding them against their will, and ordered released on bail on Wednesday.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
Hafiz said she would hand herself in once judges end a crippling strike that has slowed legal procedures and left detainees languishing in jail.
Abdallah Al-Saii, an acquaintance of Hafiz who held up a bank in January to get some $50,000 of his own savings, said more hold-ups were coming.
“Things will have to get worse so that they can get better,” Saii said, taking drags from a cigarette at his convenience store in the Bekaa.
“When the state can’t do anything for you and can’t even provide a tiny bit of hope over what lies in store, then we’re living by the law of the jungle.”


US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad

US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad
Updated 08 February 2023

US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad

US says helping quake-hit Syria but not Assad
  • The United States has refused normalization of relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad or any direct reconstruction aid, seeking accountability for abuses during the brutal nearly 12-year civil war

WASHINGTON: The United States said Tuesday it was working with partners to provide earthquake relief in Syria but would stand firm against working with the Damascus government.
The United States also said it expected to send further assistance to Turkiye after sending two rescue teams to the NATO ally, which suffered heavily as well in Sunday’s earthquake.
“In Syria itself we have US-funded humanitarian partners that are coordinating lifesaving assistance,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters as he met his Austrian counterpart.
“We’re committed to providing that assistance to help people in Syria recover from this disaster, just as we have been their leading humanitarian donor since the start of the war in Syria itself,” Blinken said.
“I want to emphasize here that these funds, of course, go to the Syrian people — not to the regime. That won’t change.”
The United States has refused normalization of relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad or any direct reconstruction aid, seeking accountability for abuses during the brutal nearly 12-year civil war.
Assad has wrested back most of the country and over the past year has been restoring relations with other Arab nations as well as Turkiye.
Stephen Allen, who is leading the response on the ground for the US Agency for International Development, said that most of the damage was in areas not under Assad’s control and that USAID had local partners there.
USAID is reorienting assistance that was already in place to help war-hit Syrians, instead focusing on rescue efforts and other immediate needs including providing shelter and food, Allen said.
“We’ve got the full gamut of humanitarian response going in northwest Syria right now,” Allen told reporters.
He declined to name the non-governmental groups working with the United States, citing operational security.
The United States has announced that it was sending two rescue teams to NATO ally Turkiye. Allen said the teams would arrive Wednesday morning and head to the city of Adiyaman, where search efforts have so far been limited.
The teams, coming on two C-130 transport aircraft, are bringing 158 personnel, 12 dogs and 170,000 pounds (77,100 kilograms) of specialized equipment, he said.
“What we’re focused on right now in Turkiye is getting those teams out and saving lives, to put it bluntly,” Allen said from Ankara.
“If they need further assistance when it comes to populations who may be without housing or need immediate assistance, we are certainly ready to provide that,” he said.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed more than 7,100 people in the two countries, according to officials and medics.

 


Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again

Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again
Updated 08 February 2023

Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again

Israeli court delays demolition of West Bank village again
  • Right-wing Israeli group Regavim had taken the government to court in order to force officials to raze the village
  • Opponents to the demolition believe levelling Khan Al-Ahmar would pave the way for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the area

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a new delay to the controversial demolition of a Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank.
The Khan Al-Ahmar community, which lies on a strategic highway east of Jerusalem, was slated for demolition in 2018 after a ruling that it was built without Israeli permits.
Right-wing Israeli group Regavim had taken the government to court in order to force officials to raze the village, whose 200 residents have drawn international support.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, which took office in December, had requested more time to decide on Khan Al-Ahmar’s fate, telling the court it needed an extension before presenting a plan to demolish the village.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court granted a delay until May 1 but expressed regret that the government was “satisfied with the current situation... postponing its response every few months.”
Prior administrations have delayed their decision on Khan Al-Ahmar eight times.
Opponents to the demolition believe levelling Khan Al-Ahmar would pave the way for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the area, effectively forming a barrier between annexed east Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
Israel has been under international pressure to block the demolition, with European diplomats most recently visiting the community on January 30.
Khan Al-Ahmar is located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control and where it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain construction permits.
The West Bank has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.


Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town
Updated 07 February 2023

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town
  • The newborn girl’s umbilical cord was still connected to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who was dead
  • Baby was the only member of her family to survive from the building collapse Monday in the town of Jinderis

JINDERIS, Syria: Residents digging through a collapsed building in a northwest Syrian town discovered a crying infant whose mother appears to have given birth to her while buried underneath the rubble from this week’s devastating earthquake, relatives and a doctor said Tuesday.
The newborn girl’s umbilical cord was still connected to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who was dead, they said. The baby was the only member of her family to survive from the building collapse Monday in the small town of Jinderis, next to the Turkish border, Ramadan Sleiman, a relative, told The Associated Press.
Monday’s pre-dawn 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by multiple aftershocks, caused widespread destruction across southern Turkiye and northern Syria. Thousands have been killed, with the toll mounting as more bodies are discovered. But dramatic rescues have also occurred. Elsewhere in Jinderis, a young girl was found alive, buried in concrete under the wreckage of her home.
The newborn baby was rescued Monday afternoon, more than 10 hours after the quake struck. After rescuers dug her out, a female neighbor cut the cord, and she and others rushed with the baby to a children’s hospital in the nearby town of Afrin, where she has been kept on an incubator, said the doctor treating the baby, Dr. Hani Maarouf.
Video of the rescue circulating on social media shows the moments after the baby was removed from the rubble, as a man lifts her up, her umbilical cord still dangling, and rushes away as another man throws him a blanket to wrap her in.
The baby’s body temperature had fallen to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and she had bruises, including a large one on her back, but she is in stable condition, he said.
Abu Hadiya must have been conscious during the birth and must have died soon after, Maarouf said. He estimated the baby was born several hours before being found, given the amount her temperature had dropped. If the girl had been born just before the quake, she wouldn’t have survived so many hours in the cold, he said.
“Had the girl been left for an hour more, she would have died,” he said.
When the earthquake hit before dawn on Monday, Abu Hadiya, her husband and four children apparently tried to rush out of their apartment building, but the structure collapsed on them. Their bodies were found near the building’s entrance, said Sleiman, who arrived at the scene just after the newborn was discovered.
“She was found in front of her mother’s legs,” he said. “After the dust and rocks were removed the girl was found alive.”
Maarouf said the baby weighed 3.175 kilograms (7 pounds), an average weight for a newborn, and so was carried nearly to term. “Our only concern is the bruise on her back, and we have to see whether there is any problem with her spinal cord,” he said, saying she has been moving her legs and arms normally.
Jinderis, located in the rebel-held enclave of northwest Syria, was hard hit in the quake, with dozens of buildings that collapsed.
Abu Hadiya and her family were among the millions of Syrians who fled to the rebel-held territory from other parts of the country. They were originally from the village of Khsham in eastern Deir Ezzor province, but left in 2014 after the Daesh group captured their village, said a relative who identified himself as Saleh Al-Badran.
In 2018, the family moved to Jinderis after the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, an umbrella for several insurgent groups, captured the town from US-backed Kurdish led fighters, Sleiman said.
On Tuesday, Abu Hadiya and the girl’s father Abdullah Turki Mleihan, along with their four other children were laid to rest in a cemetery on the outskirts of Jinderis.
Back inside the town, rescue operations were still ongoing in their building hoping to find survivors.
The town saw another dramatic rescue Monday evening, when a toddler was pulled alive from the wreckage of a collapsed building. Video from the White Helmets, the emergency service in the region, shows a rescuer digging through crushed concrete amid twisted metal until the little girl, named Nour, appeared. The girl, still half buried, looks up dazedly as they tell her, “Dad is here, don’t be scared. … Talk to your dad, talk.”
A rescuer cradled her head in his hands and tenderly wiped dust from around her eyes before she was pulled out.
The quake has wreaked new devastation in the opposition-held zone, centered on the Syrian province of Idlib, which was already been battered by years of war and strained by the influx of displaced people from the country’s civil war, which began in 2011.
Monday’s earthquake killed hundreds across the area, and the toll was continually mounting with hundreds believed still lost under the rubble. The quake completely or partially toppled more than 730 buildings and damaged thousands more in the territory, according to the White Helmets, as the area’s civil defense is known.
The White Helmets have years of experience in digging victims out from buildings crushed by bombardment from Russian warplanes or Syrian government forces. An earthquake is a new disaster for them.
“They are both catastrophes — a catastrophe that has been ongoing for 12 years and the criminal has not been held accountable, and this one is a natural catastrophe,” said the deputy head of the White Helmets, Munir Mustafa.
Asked if there was a difference between rescue work in the quake and during the war, he said, “We cannot compare death with death … What we are witnessing today is death on top of death.”


Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN
Updated 07 February 2023

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN
  • "The cross-border operation has itself been impacted," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, told reporters
  • A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, said the Bab al-Hawa crossing itself is "actually intact"

GENEVA: The sole border crossing used to shuttle life-saving aid from Turkiye into conflict-ravaged Syria has seen its operations disrupted by the deadly earthquake that struck the two countries, the UN said Tuesday.
The 7.8-magnitude quake and its aftershocks struck Turkiye and Syria on Monday and killed more than 5,400 people.
“The cross-border operation has itself been impacted,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, told reporters in Geneva.
A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, said the Bab Al-Hawa crossing itself is “actually intact.”
“However, the road that is leading to the crossing has been damaged, and that’s temporarily disrupted our ability to fully use it,” Dujarric said.
Disaster agencies said several thousand buildings were flattened across an area plagued by war, insurgency, refugee crises and a recent cholera outbreak.
Concerns have been running particularly high for how aid might reach all those in need in Syria, devastated by more than a decade of civil war.
Humanitarian aid in rebel-held areas usually arrives through Turkiye via a cross-border mechanism created in 2014 by a UN Security Council resolution.
But it is contested by Damascus and its ally Moscow, who see it as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Under pressure from Russia and China, the number of crossing points has been reduced over time from four to one.
And now areas surrounding that one border crossing have suffered significant infrastructure damage, while the aid workers on the ground have been hit by the catastrophe.
“Every effort is being done to overcome these logistical hurdles, which are created by the earthquake,” Laerke said.
“There is a window of about seven days” when survivors are generally found, Laerke said, adding that it was critical to get teams to those in immediate need as soon as possible.
“It is imperative that everybody sees it as a humanitarian crisis where lives are at stake,” he said.
“Please don’t politicize this. Let’s get the aid out to the people who so desperately need it.”
He said the UN was intent on using “any and all means to get to people, and that includes the cross-border operation and the cross-line operation from inside Syria.”
But Laerke said access by road was a challenge and pointed out that the quake had impacted the UN’s “own staff, our own contracting partners, our truck drivers that we work with, our national staff.”
“They’re looking for their families in the rubble... That has had an impact on that operation in the immediate,” he acknowledged.
At the same time, he said, partners that deliver aid in northwestern Syria said they were “operational and they are asking for supplies, and they are also asking for funding.”
For now though, the specific Syria cross-border humanitarian fund is empty, he warned.


Iran unveils underground base for fighter jets

Iran unveils underground base for fighter jets
Updated 07 February 2023

Iran unveils underground base for fighter jets

Iran unveils underground base for fighter jets
  • Base can accommodate ‘all types of fighter jets and bombers, in addition to drones’

TEHRAN: Iran’s army on Tuesday unveiled its first underground base for fighter jets designed to withstand possible strikes by US bunker-busting bombs, state media reported.

The base — named Oghab 44 (“Eagle” in Persian) — can accommodate “all types of fighter jets and bombers, in addition to drones,” the official news agency IRNA said, releasing images and videos from inside the base.

The exact location of the base was not revealed, but state media said it was “at the depth of hundreds of meters under the mountains,” and capable of withstanding “bombs by strategic US bombers.”

In May last year, Iran’s army revealed an air force base for drones under the Zagros mountain range in the west of the country.

The latest unveiling comes the day before Iran marks Air Force Day, part of the buildup to the 44th anniversary on Saturday of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

State media on Tuesday showed Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri and the army’s commander-in-chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi at the new base.

Oghab 44 is “one of numerous tactical underground air bases for the army’s air force built in different areas of the country in recent years,” IRNA reported.

It can prepare fighter jets to “counter possible offensives” such as those practiced by the US and Israel in their recent military drill, according to state media.

Iran has mostly Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets that date back to the Soviet era, as well as some Chinese aircraft, including the F-7.

Some American F-4 and F-5 fighter jets dating back to before the revolution are also part of its fleet.