Lebanese welcome 2023 as concerns grow over fate of crisis-hit country

A member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon speaks with French Armies Minister Sebastien Lecornu on Saturday during a tour of the ‘blue line’ area, a demarcation line drawn by the UN to mark Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, near the southern town of Naqoura. (AFP)
A member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon speaks with French Armies Minister Sebastien Lecornu on Saturday during a tour of the ‘blue line’ area, a demarcation line drawn by the UN to mark Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, near the southern town of Naqoura. (AFP)
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Updated 01 January 2023

Lebanese welcome 2023 as concerns grow over fate of crisis-hit country

Lebanese welcome 2023 as concerns grow over fate of crisis-hit country
  • Conflict in region ‘may lead us to further fragmentation,’ analyst says
  • ‘Those remaining in Lebanon are those who do not have the luxury of leaving,’ activist says
  • Playing games to buy more time is frightening, especially since Lebanon is surrounded by regional crises, while an armed group imposes its decisions on the country

BEIRUT: Millions of people across Lebanon gathered in markets, restaurants and nightlife venues on Saturday to welcome in the new year. But despite the good cheer and optimism, 2022 was a difficult time for most people in the country and the outlook for 2023 remains gloomy.

Arab News spoke to intellectuals, academics and activists to get their views on what lies in store for the year ahead.

Academic Bashir Esmat said he feared “the complete collapse of the Lebanese state in 2023, as the ruling political class has become powerless and with no alternative, while state institutions cannot be rebuilt with old stones, especially since the same balance of power still governs.”

He added: “Those who took over the reins of power in Lebanon for decades have neglected the country. They destroyed the middle class. Hezbollah is the political decision-maker and the governor of the central bank controls economic decisions. Those defending Lebanon have become worthless groups.

“What happened during the past year is enough to prove it. Lebanon is unable to survive in its current structure, and the conflict in the region may lead us to further fragmentation.”

Intellectual Youssef Bazzi said that since 2019, when the Lebanese crisis began, he had lost all desire to take part in public affairs.

“I am pessimistic about the possibility of bringing about change or reform, and I am starting to believe that Lebanon is an idea that is no longer viable,” he said.

Lawyer Ashraf Al-Moussawi said: “I am concerned about the collapse of the judicial authorities in Lebanon and the loss of confidence in justice. The new year will weaken, in my opinion, citizens’ confidence in the judiciary.”

Public affairs activist Walid Fakhreddine said Lebanon “is a country that produces crises, not solutions. We repeat our mistakes and never adopt a reform project.”

He added: “Hezbollah insists on showing that it has the power in this country and the attack on UNIFIL peacekeepers is evidence of that.

“There is no stability and no solutions at the regional level. Playing games to buy more time is frightening, especially since Lebanon is surrounded by regional crises, while an armed group imposes its decisions on the country.”

Fakhreddine said that the idea of Lebanon being the link between East and West no longer held true.

“We need to determine the economic feasibility and the type of services that we want to provide. We also need to reconsider our stances, even in terms of the conflict with Israel, which requires a different vision.”

Political activist Dr. Khaldoun Al-Sharif fears that if the state continues to fall apart it will be difficult to reunify it.

“The social situation is disintegrating and the people’s ability to withstand it is declining,” he said.

“Those remaining in Lebanon are those who do not have the luxury of leaving, and what keeps Lebanon alive is the flow of migrants’ money to their families.

“We need to launch a dialogue about Lebanon’s prospects. Do we have added value? We have to look for a role after the destruction of our banking, educational and health sectors.”

Wadad Halawani, who heads the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, said she was not feeling optimistic about the future.

“Every year, we repeat sentences like parrots and wish for prosperity, which we know in advance will not be achieved under the rule of the corrupt ruling class.

“They cut off the electricity, we start looking for private generators. We begin to go hungry, we receive $100 from abroad to keep us going for a while. We start running out of fuel, we queue at gas stations. We applaud them while insulting them.”

She added: “We need to get rid of the sectarian issues plaguing us and determine our problems so we can resolve them. I am not optimistic.

“We overcame the war without really dealing with its traumas. As long as there is no sense of citizenship, we will remain in this hole that we have been struggling to climb out of for 47 years now.”

Sheikh Zuhair Kubbi, director of the Zakat Fund at Dar Al-Fatwa, said he expected the crises to continue in the new year.

“About 70 percent of the middle class is now below the poverty line. Even the rich are struggling because they no longer have access to their savings and their businesses are no longer as profitable as they used to be.

“There are no positive signs because we always settle for the negative. Our concerns revolve around securing food, water and medicine.”

Maroun Helou, the head of the Syndicate of Public Works Contractors, said he was apprehensive about the presidential vacuum in the new year.

“The ruling class is part of Lebanon’s failure. As long as these parties rule, we can expect more disruption of all state institutions and failure to meet citizens’ needs.

“In the absence of a recovery plan and nonfunctioning banks, the contracting sector is in peril.”

Retired judge Shukri Sader said: “What could eliminate concerns relatively quickly is electing a president in order to revive state institutions.

“We need a president who adheres to Lebanon and its constitution to make up for the six years we lost in the previous term.”


Lebanon scraps controversial airport expansion: minister

Updated 13 sec ago

Lebanon scraps controversial airport expansion: minister

Lebanon scraps controversial airport expansion: minister
BEIRUT: Cash-strapped Lebanon has scrapped a deal for a second terminal at Beirut’s international airport, the transport minister said Thursday, after critics raised transparency concerns in the $122 million project.
Lebanon “will not proceed with the contract,” Public Works and Transportation Minister Ali Hamieh said on Twitter, adding that the decision came “following legal controversy.”
Some had questioned how a caretaker government with limited powers could announce such a major infrastructure project, in a country where entrenched political barons are accused of systemic corruption.
Civil society organizations and lawmakers noted the absence of a tender process and a lack of involvement of the Public Procurement Authority.
Jean Ellieh, head of the authority, said “the contract did not pass through” the regulatory body as required under a 2021 law.
Last week 10 civil society groups, including Transparency International Lebanon, warned of “serious abuses” in the procurement law’s application which “open the door to corruption and nepotism.”
The government, which has been operating in a caretaker capacity since legislative elections last May, announced the second terminal project last week, to be carried out by private company Lebanese Air Transport and Irish firm daa International.
Hamieh had said the private sector would fund project, which would have created “around 2,500 jobs,” with the firms to operate the terminal for 25 years.
Lebanon plunged into an economic crisis in 2019, that the World Bank has dubbed one of the planet’s worst in modern times.
The meltdown has pushed most of the population into poverty while the political elite, widely blamed for the country’s financial collapse, has failed to take action.
The International Monetary Fund last week warned the country was “at a very dangerous moment,” criticizing slow progress on reforms needed to unlock billions in emergency loans.
Along with a caretaker government, the country has also been without a president for almost five months amid political deadlock.

Syria says Israeli strikes near Damascus wound 2 soldiers

Syria says Israeli strikes near Damascus wound 2 soldiers
Updated 30 March 2023

Syria says Israeli strikes near Damascus wound 2 soldiers

Syria says Israeli strikes near Damascus wound 2 soldiers
  • Explosions heard in the Syrian capital early Thursday
  • Syria’s air defense intercepted several missiles, says defense ministry

DAMASCUS: Syrian state media said Israel staged airstrikes in the Damascus area early Thursday, wounding two soldiers and causing material damage.
Loud explosions were heard over the Syrian capital around 1:30 a.m., and the SANA state news agency said Syrian air defenses were “confronting hostile targets.” SANA, quoting an unidentified military official, said some missiles were shot down by the air defenses.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, including attacks on the Damascus and Aleppo airports, but it rarely acknowledges specific operations.
Israel says it targets bases of Iran-allied militant groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
An Israeli airstrike last week targeting the airport at the northern city of Aleppo put it out of commission for two days.
Along with airports, Israel has also targeted seaports in government-held areas in an apparent attempt to prevent Iranian arms shipments to militant groups backed by Tehran, including Hezbollah.

 


Iraq preserves traumatic memories of Daesh reign

Iraq preserves traumatic memories of Daesh reign
Updated 30 March 2023

Iraq preserves traumatic memories of Daesh reign

Iraq preserves traumatic memories of Daesh reign

MOSUL: The horrors they endured under the Daesh group may be in the past for the people of Iraq, but the traumatic memories remain.

Now a research project is recording their witness testimonies for posterity. Omar Mohammed, founder of the Mosul Eye project, rose to prominence during the Daesh reign by bravely sharing news via Twitter from inside the city under jihadist rule.

Years later, he wants to make sure nothing is forgotten.

“When I was in Mosul recording everything myself, I felt the need to include all the people, to record our history in their own voice,” he said.

Bereaved mother Umm Mohammed, 55, is among those who have shared their memories of terror, suffering and loss with the non-governmental group.

The extremists came for her family one night in 2015 and took away her son Ahmed, then a 27-year-old construction worker. His brother Mohammed, 10 years younger, then made a fateful choice: he decided to join the ranks of Daesh, with a daring plan to find and liberate Ahmed.

“I told him: ‘My son, don’t join them’,” recounted Umm Mohammed, her hair under a dark scarf.

“He said: ‘It’s none of your business. I’m going to get my brother. I’ll go into the prisons.’“

The elderly woman said, with sadness in her voice, that Mohammed left “and never came back.”

And neither did Ahmed.

Both are presumed to be among the many killed under the group’s self-declared “caliphate” that cut across swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Umm Mohammed said she suspects the jihadists felt that Mohammed “was not one of them. They must have thought he was a spy.”

Speaking about those dark days years later for the Mosul Eye project has brought up a storm of emotions, but ultimately had a cathartic effect for Umm Mohammed.

Mosul Eye, with funding from the US Agency for International Development, has trained 10 students to conduct and film interviews, mostly in Mosul but testimonies have also been collected from people hailing from elsewhere in Iraq.

The youngest of the 70 witnesses are barely 10 years old. Others are in their 80s. The oldest is 104.

The footage will be kept at the group’s archives at Mosul University, and George Washington University in the US capital, for use by researchers and for future generations.

“We wanted to show the world how the people of Mosul overcame this experience,” said a spokesman for Mosul Eye, Mohannad Ammar.

Another witness is Muslim Hmeid, a 27-year-old law student whose Sunni Arab family endured five months of Daesh rule in Sinjar in 2014 before fleeing.

Seared in his mind especially is the “bloody first week, impossible to erase from memory.”

He relived with pain how Daesh targeted the local Yazidi minority, whose non-Muslim faith the extremists considered heretical.

Hmeid remembered watching helplessly as the jihadists came and loaded Yazidi girls and women into lorries.

“Once I saw two or three trucks full of women,” he said. “And a few men, but mostly young women, aged 17 to 30, maybe.”

Entire Yazidi villages were emptied and many fell victim to crimes since recognized as genocide by the United Nations and courts in several countries.

Women were forced into sexual slavery and the men were killed, while “those who could fled into the mountains,” Hmeid said.

“Witnessing such a catastrophe happen to your neighbors and not being able to help ... We were heartbroken,” said Hmeid. “Psychologically, we were devastated.”

With three of his brothers in the military and on the Daesh kill list, the family fled to Turkiye but later returned to Iraq.

“By talking about these topics, we reopen wounds,” said Hmeid. But, added the father of two, “the next generations must know exactly what happened.”


From streets of Cairo to the biggest Arab clubs: The rise of Ramadan football tournaments

From streets of Cairo to the biggest Arab clubs: The rise of Ramadan football tournaments
Updated 30 March 2023

From streets of Cairo to the biggest Arab clubs: The rise of Ramadan football tournaments

From streets of Cairo to the biggest Arab clubs: The rise of Ramadan football tournaments
  • From humble beginnings among groups of soccer-loving friends the contests have become more organized and professional, even attracting the attention of major sponsors
  • ‘These matches were initially played on the streets, on cold, hard asphalt, but around the year 2000, youth centers started to host them on well-equipped pitches,’ said one organizer

CAIRO: For more than 25 years, football tournaments have been among the most popular of the special events in Egypt associated with the holy month of Ramadan.

They began when groups of friends would gather together to organize matches so that they could indulge their passion for the game and show off their skills. But as the years have passed they have become more organized and professional, in some cases even attracting the attention of major sponsors.

The growth of these Ramadan soccer competitions can be traced back through the years to humble beginnings in the neighborhoods of Cairo before they expanded to other parts of the country and then elsewhere in the Arab world. Along the way, they moved from the streets to youth centers and, eventually, major sports clubs.

“The Ramadan football tournaments first started in the streets of the capital, where players had to be self-reliant,” Mohammed El-Sayed, a sports journalist with Egyptian newspaper Akhbar El-Youm, told Arab News.

“Youths from different regions would organize their own teams and rounds within each region. They took the streets as their stadium and there were no uniforms involved; the team unity alone was enough.

“In the past, Ramadan football tournaments were always played immediately before iftar. Young people took advantage of the quiet streets at that time to hold matches, while children and young adults gathered around to watch them as a form of entertainment.”

Hatem Hussein, also known as Mizo, is one of the best-known players who took part in Ramadan tournaments during the 1990s.

“I was playing in the streets (back then) and we were all very eager to play … the competition was strong,” he said. “We always adopted the knockout matches method: The team that eliminated all its competitors until the end of the tournament would be considered the winner.

“The prizes were symbolic and reflective of the entry fee that the teams paid at the beginning. Second and third place both took home a complete sports kit.”

The growth of these Ramadan soccer competitions can be traced back through the years to humble beginnings in the neighborhoods of Cairo before they expanded to other parts of the country. (Supplied)

Karim Al-Bibani, an organizer of Ramadan tournaments in the Abdeen area, near the center of Cairo, said: “These matches were initially played on the streets of Cairo, on the cold, hard asphalt, but around the year 2000, youth centers started to host them on well-equipped pitches.

“In part, this was a result of the large number of housing units that were being built, which left little or no space for playing football on the streets.

“The tournaments have now moved to youth centers because of their good playgrounds, strong lighting and better capabilities. These centers organize the tournament and are responsible for it, financially.”

As the popularity of the seasonal competitions grew and spread, it was no surprise that established football clubs wanted to get in on the act.

“In the past 15 years, Ramadan tournaments began to move to major clubs, and a number of great players who had retired from their clubs began to play in these tournaments,” said sports journalist El-Sayed. In particular, an increase in the number of five-a-side pitches with artificial grass that were being built helped to fuel this trend, he added.

“The participation of the retired players is the reason Ramadan tournaments started to expand outside Egypt,” El-Sayed said.

As a result of these popular veteran stars taking part, in recent years Ramadan tournaments have increasingly become big business, attracting lucrative sponsorship deals, said journalist Mahmoud Essam

“For the big clubs, sponsorship will be at a higher level, including real estate and mobile phone companies, among others,” he said. “These sponsorships depend on having big names participating in these tournaments.”


Palestinian children bear the scars of Israeli raids

Palestinian children bear the scars of Israeli raids
Updated 3 min 1 sec ago

Palestinian children bear the scars of Israeli raids

Palestinian children bear the scars of Israeli raids
  • The Defense for Children International Palestine movement has documented the testimonies of youngsters in Jenin who have been traumatized by military action

RAMALLAH: The excessive force used by the Israeli forces against civilians during incursions into Palestinian territories has resulted in children living in constant fear and anxiety, a report has said.

The Defense for Children International Palestine movement has documented the testimonies of youngsters in Jenin who have been traumatized by military action.

The movement said in its report that, in addition to violating the right to life of 17 children since the beginning of the year, the practices of the Israeli forces had resulted in significant effects on other children.

This had manifested itself in their behavior, thinking, and academic performance. The violence they had witnessed had violated their rights guaranteed by international law and threatened their psychological and social security, it said.

Among the 17 children killed since the beginning of this year, six were from Jenin.

Children had been used as human shields. They were detained for long hours in their homes which were used as military barracks and sniper and observation points during the storming of the city and its camp. All of this greatly affected the children, the report said.

A 17-year-old said: “While my colleague Mahmoud Al-Saadi, 17, and I were heading to school in the morning, the Israeli army stormed the camp and started shooting from all directions. He was killed.

“We were planning together to graduate from school, go to university, and study together, but all of that was shattered.”

A 16-year-old said: “The occupation’s raids into the camp have become routine.

“The army enters at any time, so I can no longer leave the house. I am afraid of the army’s raids while I am outside the home.”

Khaled Quzmar, DCIP director, told Arab News that the Israeli army’s use of excessive force had left Palestinian children with no sense of security and no confidence in the future.

He said: “Children live in the situation of hopelessness. For example, a child was found in Dheisheh camp moving around with his will written on a piece of paper in his pocket, because he was afraid that he would be in the wrong place at the wrong time and might be killed.”

Quzmar said that the 17 children killed by the Israeli army did not pose any security threat to the soldiers. They were killed while carrying out daily tasks.

He added that when a child returns to his classroom and finds a bouquet in the place of a classmate killed by the Israeli army, it leaves a deep psychological mark on them.

He said that Palestinian children in the areas of repeated military action, such as Jenin camp and Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, needed psychological support sessions because life had become worthless for them.

The testimony of another 17-year-old read: “In every raid there are martyrs, shootings, destroyed homes and property. 

“Bullets penetrated the walls of our house. Danger pursues me while I am in bed. When I want to move inside the house, I must crawl on my stomach for fear of a sniper or stray bullets.

“Death is more merciful than this fear and anxiety. For more than a year, I have been unable to sleep normally. Sometimes I wake up to the sound of bullets and explosions, and other times I wake up due to nightmares. I no longer distinguish between dreams and reality.”

A 15-year-old said: “[The camp] has become full of pictures of martyrs, and there is a story and memories behind every martyr. From the window of the house, I saw young men wounded by the occupation’s bullets left to bleed until they died, and I also saw completely burned bodies of martyrs.

“The occupation forces killed our teacher, Jawad Bawakna. He was the teacher closest to us. He sent us energy and hope through his activities and constant movement, full of vitality.

“He had a great ability to support us psychologically in light of these conditions in the camp.

“We lost one of the most important sources of psychological support. The school has become a painful memory for our loved ones, and we are trying to stay away from it as much as possible.”

Israeli armed forces surrounded a house during one of their incursions into the Jenin camp. They took the man residing there away from his wife and two children, Tolin, 2, and Misk, 1.

The father later said: “The behavior of the two daughters changed radically after this incident, especially Tolin, who turned from an active into a secluded child, attached to her mother and distracted, afraid of any sound or movement, except for the frequent nightmares and bouts of crying.”