BEIRUT: Hundreds of Syrian refugees have left Lebanon and returned to their home country in the voluntary program run by Lebanese security services.
The refugees, many of whom had been living in Arsal, packed belongings and furniture and crossed at Al-Zamrani into western Qalamoun. Others who had been living in the southern city of Nabatieh returned via the Masnaa crossing.
Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told Arab News that it was not “facilitating or promoting” the repatriation program.
“Nonetheless, thousands of refugees choose to exercise their right to return each year. UNHCR supports and calls for respect of refugees’ fundamental human right to freely and voluntarily return to their country of origin at a time of their choosing and in line with the international principles of the voluntary, dignified, and safe return and non-refoulement,” she said.
Lebanon’s General Security Office is running the program to return Syrians who it says have expressed their wish to return.
Estimates suggested 400 crossed into Syria on Wednesday, but the number could be as high as 700.
Hector Hajjar, Lebanon’s caretaker minister of social affairs, said: “We are not showing off the number of refugees. The political decision has been made. There are other groups and the operation will continue.”
Meanwhile, Lebanese officials were preparing to travel to Naqoura, the headquarters of the UN force UNIFIL, to sign a maritime border demarcation deal with Israel on Thursday.
Reports suggested that neither delegation will meet. Instead, they will sign copies of the agreement in separate rooms and hand them to the US mediator, Amos Hochstein.
The deal will include one appendix only, which is Lebanon’s message to the UN regarding the border demarcation. The appendix will bear President Michel Aoun’s signature.
Israel announced on the eve of the signing that it had granted the energy firm Energean permission to start work at the offshore Karish gas field, an issue at the center of the dispute.
The World Bank meanwhile called for international cooperation to help start energy exploration in the Lebanese areas set out under the deal. The statement came after senior officials from the bank’s Middle East department met Aoun and other Lebanese ministers on Wednesday.
Lebanon’s parliament meanwhile announced that there would be no session on Thursday to elect a new president, once again stalling the process to replace Aoun before he leaves his position in less than a week.
Abdallah Bou Habib, the caretaker foreign minister, was urged by a visiting delegation from the US Congress and the American Task Force for Lebanon to “speed up” the election, and accelerate stalled investigations into the huge port explosion that killed hundreds in Beirut two years ago.
UPDATE 1-Tunisian opposition leader Ghannouchi to begin hunger strike
Leader of the Islamist Ennahda party accused of plotting against state security along with other detained opposition figures
Updated 29 September 2023
TUNIS: Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, a fierce critic of President Kais Saied, will begin a hunger strike in prison, according to a statement from his Islamist Ennahda party released on Friday. Ghannouchi, 82, has been in prison since April. His lawyer said the charges stem from a funeral eulogy he gave last year for a member of his Ennahda party when he said the deceased “did not fear a ruler or tyrant, he only feared God.” A Tunisian judge sentenced Ghannouchi in absentia last May to a year in prison on charges of incitement, his lawyer Monia Bouali said. The leader of the Islamist Ennahda party is also accused of plotting against state security along with other detained opposition figures who accuse Saied of a coup for shutting down the elected parliament and moving to rule by decree. Saied, who enshrined his new powers in a constitution that he passed through a referendum with low turnout last year, has denied his actions were a coup and said they were needed to save Tunisia from years of chaos. He has called his critics criminals, traitors and terrorists and warned that any judge who freed them would be considered abetting them. Ghannouchi, a political prisoner and exile before the 2011 revolution that brought democracy, was parliament speaker from the 2019 election until Saied sent tanks to shut down the chamber in 2021. Police have detained more than 20 political figures this year, including Ghannouchi, accusing some of plotting against state security.
Palestinians condemn US congressional hearing as unfair and misleading
Only pro-Israeli figures were invited to the hearing, which discussed a law banning US aid to the Palestinian Authority because it “rewards Palestinians to murder Israeli citizens”
Palestinian minister Qaddura Fares said such hearings treat Israel and its supporters as the only sources of information about Palestinian issues
Updated 29 September 2023
WASHINGTON: Palestinian officials in Ramallah on Thursday described a US congressional hearing that accused the Palestinian Authority of supporting violence against Israelis in the occupied West Bank as “misleading and unfair.”
Only supporters of Israel were invited to attend the hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia on Wednesday, which discussed the implementation of the Taylor Force Act, a 2018 law that bans the provision of US financial aid to the PA on the grounds that the authority “rewards Palestinians to murder Israeli citizens.”
Palestinian officials told the Arab News that the organizers of the hearing failed to invite them to present the views, and in doing so had revealed its “bias” in favor of Israel and the anti-Palestinian sentiments of some members of Congress.
The hearing was led by Joe Wilson, a Republican member of the House of Representatives who chairs the subcommittee. He accused the Palestinian government of operating a system of “pay to slay,” in which Palestinians are rewarded for killing Israelis, an allegation Palestinian officials vehemently denied in comments to Arab News.
Eliot Abrams, a pro-Israel former deputy assistant to the president and national security adviser, and several other members of the subcommittee also accused the PA of participating in a system that “honors and rewards terrorists.” Several representatives of right-wing, pro-Israel US organizations who spoke during the hearing made similar claims and called on US President Joe Biden to halt financial aid to Palestinians.
Palestinian officials said such allegations are “totally untrue” and “misleading.” Qaddura Fares, the Palestinian minister of detainees’ affairs, told Arab News that such US hearings treat Israel and its supporters in the US as the only sources of information about issues involving the Palestinians or their cause.
He described the hearing as “misleading and one-sided” given that Palestinians were not invited to present their side of the story or even consulted. The subcommittee should have asked Palestinian officials or their representatives to participate, he added, in the interests of balance and fairness.
Fares said the welfare-payment system to families of people killed or imprisoned by Israel, which lies at the heart of the “pay to slay” allegations, operates in accordance with Palestinian law, under which the government is obliged to provide financial support to any family that loses its breadwinner as a result of Israel’s actions as an occupying state.
Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, told Arab News that successive US administrations and Congress have often engaged in “covering up for the Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people” instead of supporting the peace and security of both sides.
“The issue of financial and moral support for the families of martyrs who were killed by the Israeli occupation forces, and those who were detained by it, cannot be neglected or bypassed by any Palestinian official,” he added
According to Abu Yousef, 260 Palestinians have died as a result of Israeli actions so far this year, and about 220 were killed last year.
Fares, whose ministry helps to support the families of Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, said there are about 5,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, including about 1,200 administrative detainees who are being held without charge or trial, and 170 children under the age of 18.
Israeli authorities imprison thousands of Palestinians each year, he added, for nonviolent actions such as raising a Palestinian flag, participating in anti-occupation protests, or political activism on college campuses.
He said only 10 percent of Palestinian prisoners, about 500 in total, are serving life sentences in Israeli jails, indicating that they were convicted of involvement in the killing of Israeli citizens. In accordance with Palestinian law, Fares said, the families of those people should not have to suffer, be held responsible for their relative’s crimes, or be deprived of social support services provided by the government.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, told Arab News the issue of Palestinian support for the families of martyrs and detainees will only end when the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land ends.
“It appears that some members of the US Congress only care about supporting the continuation of Israeli occupation, not an equitable peace between the two peoples,” he said.
“This issue is very sensitive for the Palestinian people because it touches the core of their existence and their struggles to free their country and end the Israeli occupation.”
Libya flood deaths expose climate chasm in conflict-hit states
Scientists: climate change made the heavy rainfall that led to Libya’s floods up to 50 times more likely and caused up to 50 percent more rain during that period of the year
Updated 29 September 2023
MISRATA, Libya/BEIRUT: Over a month ago, Asmahan Balauon, a member of Libya’s eastern-based parliament, requested that it should establish a climate change committee.
She was told a date would be set to discuss the issue — but her efforts were overtaken by the fatal floods that struck the city of Derna this month after heavy rains caused the collapse of two dilapidated dams, unleashing a torrent of destruction.
“Unfortunately, our attention to... laws and elections and these things was a hindrance,” said Balauon, who is based in the coastal city of Benghazi.
Storm Daniel moved far faster than the conflict-torn nation’s politicians, triggering flooding that overwhelmed infrastructure and swept away parts of Derna, destroying hundreds of buildings.
The UN has confirmed more than 4,000 deaths from the disaster, while over 8,500 people remain unaccounted for.
A further 40,000 were displaced across northeast Libya, including at least 30,000 residents inside Derna, the UN said.
Scientists working with World Weather Attribution, a research collaboration that examines the role of global warming in specific weather events, said climate change made the heavy rainfall that led to Libya’s floods up to 50 times more likely and caused up to 50 percent more rain during that period of the year.
They also blamed other factors including building in flood plains, the poor condition of infrastructure, and years of armed conflict.
Libya’s situation echoes that of other turbulent countries like Afghanistan and large parts of Africa’s Sahel region, which face growing climate-related threats while grappling with political instability and weak governance, making it harder to access funding for measures to protect people and assets.
Back in 2007, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace prize laureate, described this situation as “adaptation apartheid.”
“Leaving the world’s poor to sink or swim with their own meagre resources in the face of the threat posed by climate change is morally wrong,” he wrote in a UN report. “Unfortunately... this is precisely what is happening.”
That observation about the lack of finance for vulnerable people on the frontlines of a warming world — repeated many times since by a growing chorus of climate justice activists — appears to have changed little on the ground.
Ciaran Donnelly, a senior vice president for international programs at the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian agency, pointed to “an emerging kind of tiered system.”
He identified about 15 countries simultaneously suffering from climate volatility and conflict-driven political fragility, including Yemen and Somalia.
Much of the donor cash available for building resilience to more extreme weather and rising seas depends on having an effective government to receive the money — a requirement that risks excluding politically unstable states, he said.
“Countries... where you have this kind of weak public sector, just won’t be able to access (climate funding) and they’ll get further behind,” Donnelly said. “It really becomes a kind of self-reinforcing, vicious cycle.”
Climate change — while all but absent from the political narrative in Libya — has had a pronounced effect on the life of Walid Fathi, a 34-year-old government employee living in Al Bayda, a city west of Derna.
The floods swept away the back wall of his home and killed his neighbors, a family of seven.
What meagre savings he can muster from his salary will go toward fixing his house. He now lives in uncertainty and fear, afraid of the weather and what winter might bring.
“We do not know what to do,” he said. “We are afraid — we do not have anywhere to go.”
Neither the internationally recognized government in Tripoli nor the eastern authorities that have controlled Derna since the Libyan National Army (LNA) ousted jihadists from the city in 2019 had attempted to repair long-known weaknesses in the dams or tried to evacuate people before the forecast storm hit.
In addition, people living in different parts of the city were given different instructions by the authorities, said local families. Those living by the shore were told to evacuate, while others in the center were told to stay put, they noted.
The LNA under Khalifa Haftar is the dominant player in the eastern half of Libya, a nation that has been divided since a NATO-backed uprising toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Mohamed Manfour, commander of an airport near Al-Bayda in the east, blamed the flood disaster on the international community and on governments ruling the two halves of the country.
“There are mistakes in the infrastructure, mistakes in the construction and architecture, mistakes in the lack of maintenance of dams,” he said in a phone interview.
In the hours after the catastrophe, LNA chief Haftar said on local television that the flood-hit area was suffering “difficult and painful moments,” adding he had issued orders for necessary support to be provided.
Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow on the Middle East and North Africa with Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, said the focus of many who have managed to gain power in Libya “has been staying in power,” rather than working to protect the population from external threats like climate change.
“You are definitely not going to be able to do these things and access these (climate) funds if nobody is really thinking about them and it’s not part of the political discourse,” he added.
Earlier this month, the head of the World Meteorological Organization said casualties could have been avoided in Libya’s floods if the divided country had a functional weather service.
Over in the west, at the Meteorological Center in the capital Tripoli, the number of people with technical expertise in climate change “can be counted on your fingers,” spokesperson Mohieddine Bin Ramadan told Context.
The center, which falls under the transportation ministry, lacks radars that can accurately measure rainfall across the country. Bin Ramadan said the public administration is corrupt — and bureaucracy often delays orders for months and years.
“If the government does not take care of the center, then we cannot keep up with climate change,” he said. “We are missing a lot of things; it is not easy.”
The transportation ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The same issue affects climate services and infrastructure in other places around the world.
Depending on how they are managed and funded, they can either expose people to the impacts of climate change — as in Libya — or help protect them if well-maintained and planned to stand up to future climate risks.
Most of the Earth’s dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s, said Caitlin Grady, an engineering professor at George Washington University in the United States, adding that many are now reaching the end of their lifespan, threatening disaster.
“We’re still going to have extreme rainfall events all over the world,” she said, adding “I would expect this to keep happening in multiple locations unless something changes in our fight” against climate change and for climate adaptation.
Eritrean diplomat asks: ‘Why is the Sudan conflict not an important issue’ for the UN?
Permanent Representative to UN Sophia Tesfamariam urges Africans to strengthen their institutions, find their own solutions in interview with Arab News
Candidly discusses challenges facing the continent, underscores need for reforms to make the UN a more effectual organization
Updated 29 September 2023
NEW YORK CITY: Even as the 78th session of the UN General Assembly came to an end on Tuesday, it was clear that the curtain was not about to come down on the conversations about the tensions between the Global North and the Global South, the UN’s role in an emerging multipolar world order, and the stubborn persistence of conflicts and inequalities worldwide.
In a candid interview on the sidelines of the event in New York, Sophia Tesfamariam, the permanent representative of Eritrea to the UN, shared with Arab News her insights on the current state of affairs in the world, with a particular emphasis on the situation in violence-torn Sudan and the dynamics of African diplomacy.
A seasoned diplomat, she pulled no punches in discussing the myriad challenges facing her region and the wider world, while underscoring the need for reforms to make the UN a more effectual institution, for the forging of true partnerships that respect African voices, and for African nations to take charge of their own destinies.
Tesfamariam also offered her perspective on the origins and consequences of the conflict in Sudan, Eritrea’s neighbor to the west, which continues to escalate and shows no sign of abating amid continual reports of atrocities and human rights violations, including sexual violence and the disposal of corpses in mass graves.
Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, occupies a strategically important area in the Horn of Africa.
The country’s representative to the UN, Sophia Tesfamariam, wants UN chief Antonio Guterres to be vocal about African issues.
The conflict in the country between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces has so far killed more than 4,000 people and wounded at least 12,000. It has displaced 5.3 million within Sudan and sent a human tide of refugees into neighboring countries, including Eritrea. In the western Darfur region, the scene of a genocidal campaign in the early 2000s, the conflict has morphed into ethnic violence, with the UN and rights groups reporting that the RSF and allied Arab militias are attacking African tribes and clans.
Tesfamariam described the shock that was felt in the region as Sudan descended into turmoil, saying it was something “that should have never happened” because it goes contrary to “the culture of the Sudanese people, their history, their background.”
She added: “For Sudanese people to have warring in the middle of their towns, the middle of the cities, this urban warfare is new. It’s not something that anybody can get used to.”
The crisis cannot be attributed solely to a battle of egos between the leaders of the two military forces, Tesfamariam said. Rather, she believes “this final act” is the result of the external interventions, historical and more recent, often driven by military and economic interests, that have hindered the ability of the Sudanese people to take charge of their own destiny and development since gaining independence.
Although the Sudanese people initiated the revolution that led to the overthrow of President Omar Bashir in April 2019, their aspirations were seemingly hijacked by various external interests, regional and international, which contributed to the ongoing clashes between factions within the country, according to Tesfamariam.
“And this, to me, looks like what triggered these two sides (the SAF and RSF) to finally see who gains an upper hand,” she said.
“If you’re going to peel back the pieces like an onion to see where the source of this conflict is, at the source of all this you will find intervention to be the culprit.”
The conflict, which began on April 15, came on top of an already dire humanitarian crisis that has been ravaging Sudan for decades. Things have become so desperate that about 25 million people need aid just to survive, but humanitarian agencies are hamstrung by lack of access, precarious conditions on the ground, and bureaucratic restrictions on their movement both into Sudan and then to the places where the needs are most acute.
Tesfamariam highlighted the historical relationship between her country and Sudan. There was a time, for example, when Sudan was a welcoming host of refugees from Eritrea, during the latter’s struggle for independence from Ethiopia, which lasted for decades and ended in 1991.
“We don’t do refugee camps,” she said. “These are Sudanese. This is their home. They can come any time. And if they need to take refuge in Eritrea today, the communities of Eritrea will welcome them as one of their own as they welcomed us when we were going to Sudan.
“So, the humanitarian situation for us is something of a historical necessity, almost, an opportunity to pay back the Sudanese people for what they did for us and are continuing to do for us all these years.”
As for the international community, Tesfamariam voiced disappointment about its failure to force the feuding factions to agree to a lasting truce, despite many attempts.
“24-hour ceasefire, 48-hour ceasefire — what do these mean?” she said. “How does it give you hope as a person living in a city to know that the guns are going to stop for 24 hours? And then what happens after 24 hours?
“So, these meaningless, endless ceasefire negotiations that go nowhere tell me the international community is not serious about bringing an end to the conflict in Sudan, and the warring parties are not serious in their commitments to their people.”
Tesfamariam reflected on what she described as “the total ineptitude and total failure” of the UN system, including the Security Council, where, in her view, double standards are now the order of the day.
“Where is the interest?” she asked. “There are people dying on the streets of Sudan. But you have spent many, many meetings, and even many General Assembly meetings, on Ukraine. Why is Sudan not an important issue for you?
“I think this total lack of interest says a lot about the UN and its structures, and the way it works and its failures and its inadequacies to resolve issues for which it has been created.
“(The total lack) of any credible action by the (Security) Council tells me that it may not be what we think it is — this governing body that can bring peace and security to all of us — and maybe they’re leaving us to our own devices. And that’s a dangerous way to go.
“What exactly is the UN here for? It makes me wonder. So this continuous call for reform of the Security Council, reform of the General Assembly and what it can do and what is viable to do, I think, will continue. And these will be the examples that we will raise in the future to say, ‘Where was the UN?’ And I am sure future generations will also be inquiring about that.”
Tesfamariam called on Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, to “pay attention” and be vocal about African issues.
“Right now, there is no voice for Africa,” she said. “Yes, it is good they tell you ‘African solutions for African problems.’ But when you come right down to it, if there’s no third party involved, nothing happens. Nothing moves.”
While there is indeed a growing sense that African issues should primarily be addressed by the African Union and sub-regional organizations, Tesfamariam said she has noticed a big discrepancy between theory and reality.
Despite the rhetoric of “African solutions for African problems,” she contended, the AU does not seem to be afforded the same weight or resources as its European counterparts, including the EU.
“Is the AU office here (at the UN) as fortified and given all the resources and attention and ability, and even the mandate, to interact with the UN the same way as the EU is?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s there. But can we just blame it on the EU or the UN and others for not taking an interest? What are Africans doing, also?”
She continued: “Why is it that when the AU meets every year, the first wave of people who come in, sit down to listen to your discussions are the Europeans and the Americans? Do you get the same respect and luxury to go and sit in the EU meetings in Europe to find out what they are discussing? No.
“So why do you continuously relegate yourself to these kind of positions for Africans? But when you cannot pay your own bills, when everybody else is funding every single project that you have all over the place, he who pays the piper picks the tune.
“How do you say no to the largesse that’s coming from EU, from the UN and other agencies that will dictate what should be done with your agency? Why does finance have to be the center of it all? I think if Africans come up with the solution, they will also find ways to finance the projects and initiatives they are trying to push.”
To start with, according to Tesfamariam, the AU needs to strengthen itself, grow more assertive and become a vocal advocate of African interests. Next, she underscored the need for Africans to take responsibility for their own issues, strengthen regional and continental institutions, and find their own solutions to problems.
She criticized the current financial dependency in Africa on external entities, arguing that it often leads to the dictation of terms by donors that might not align with Africa’s interests.
“Africans themselves have got to take responsibility,” said Tesfamariam. “We need to start looking at ourselves, to do some soul-searching and say, why are we not doing more to strengthen our own regional and continental institutions?
“These institutions can’t just be a talking shop anymore. In practical terms, what are we doing to respond to the needs of our people, of our region? How do we form partnerships — not ‘who-gives-and-who-receives’ kind of partnerships but real partnerships, where we share interests and then do things together for the benefit of global security?”
While conceding that efforts to make a dent in the “entrenched” international architecture is still “a work in progress,” Tesfamariam added: “We are not giving up now.”
She pledged to continue to work to amplify Africa’s voice in international forums, taking heart from the fact that “over the years we’ve been able to find more like-minded people.”
She added: “I am not here alone. If I felt alone before, I now have a mutual grievance society at the UN whose members feel exactly the way Eritrea feels — that same frustration with the UN and its ineptitude in some of the things, and with our failure to coalesce as a group to make a difference, to bring change to some of the issues that we have raised here.”
Israel’s top court weighs rules on removing prime minister
Premier Benjamin Netanyahu faces protests against the government’s judicial overhaul
Updated 28 September 2023
JERUSALEM: Israel’s top court heard appeals on Thursday against a law restricting how a prime minister can be removed from office, as current Premier Benjamin Netanyahu faces protests against the government’s judicial overhaul.
The hearing got underway as Israel is deeply divided over the judicial reforms, which have triggered one of the country’s biggest ever protest movements against the hard-right government.
Eleven of the Supreme Court’s 15 judges heard three appeals against the incapacity law that was passed in March as an amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, the country’s quasi-constitution.
Under the law, a prime minister can only be declared unfit for office by themself or a two-thirds majority of the Cabinet, and the decision must be supported by at least 80 of parliament’s 120 lawmakers.
Supreme Court Judge Yitzhak Amit argued it amounts to a “personal” amendment intended to protect Netanyahu from impeachment proceedings.
A lawyer representing the government, Yitzhak Bart, acknowledged the law was passed for “political reasons linked to the prime minister” but argued the move was to “fill a gap in the law.”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin declared the hearing “an attempt to overturn the elections, in a statement published by his office.
Netanyahu in May 2020 became Israel’s first sitting prime minister to stand trial over a series of graft allegations, which he denies.
In February, an anti-corruption group lodged a petition with the Supreme Court aimed at declaring Netanyahu unfit for office over his trial.
Ahead of the Supreme Court session, dozens of protesters rallied outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, where four people were arrested, according to the police.
Demonstrations have been held at least weekly since January and have consistently drawn tens of thousands to rally against the government, which took office in December and includes extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox ministers.
Netanyahu’s Cabinet argues the reforms are necessary to rebalance powers between elected officials and judges, while opponents say they pave the way for authoritarian rule.
Before its amendment, the incapacity law lacked detail on the justifiable reasons to remove a premier from office, or on the procedure required.
Petitions to the court demand the amended incapacity legislation either be scrapped or deferred until after the next election.
Any amendment to a Basic Law carries the same quasi-constitutional legal status and the Supreme Court has never struck down such a law in the past.
Israeli media nonetheless reported that the judges could postpone application of the amendment until the next election, as requested by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.
The question would then arise as to whether she could dismiss Netanyahu over the graft allegations.
An Israeli prime minister has been declared unfit for office only once, when Ariel Sharon was hospitalized in 2006 and replaced by his deputy Ehud Olmert.
The opposition subsequently sought to have Olmert removed, as he was prosecuted while in office, but the Supreme Court rejected their complaint.
Judges reached a similar conclusion in 2021 when they ruled Netanyahu could stay in power despite the corruption charges against him.
He was subsequently voted out of office, only to return to the premiership following November’s election.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court held a landmark hearing on a law which curtails judges’ ability to strike down government decisions.