Lebanon blast victim’s brother freed after outcry

Lebanon blast victim’s brother freed after outcry
This file photo take on July 13, 2021 shows Lebanese activist William Noun (C), whose brother was killed in the massive port explosion in Beirut in August 2020, during a demonstration outside the residence of the minister of interior in the Lebanese capital against the authorities' lack of action to achieve justice for the victims of the bombing. (AFP)
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Updated 14 January 2023

Lebanon blast victim’s brother freed after outcry

Lebanon blast victim’s brother freed after outcry
  • Protesting families join chorus of condemnation over ‘idiotic’ detention

BEIRUT: Families of victims of the Beirut port explosion blocked roads in Beirut and Jbeil on Saturday in protest at the arrest of their spokesman, William Noun, by Lebanon’s national security agency.

Pressure by protesters, politicians and activists led to his release after 24 hours in detention.

Noun was arrested after a televised statement last Thursday in which he expressed indignation at the obstruction of the investigation into the port explosion in 2020 that claimed the life of his brother Joe, a fireman.

The massive blast, triggered when a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse exploded, caused at least 218 deaths and up to $15 billion in property damage.

In his statement, Noun criticized an attempt to appoint a substitute judge for investigator Tarek Bitar, who was removed from the case a year ago, and threatened to “blow up the Justice Palace.”

His arrest was based on a judicial notice issued by Beirut Attorney General, Judge Zaher Hamadeh.

Noun’s house was also raided by state security personnel searching for explosive material.

A political observer told Arab News that Hamadeh has boasted of his ties with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.

Hamadeh was a judicial investigator in the case of Imam Moussa Al-Sadr’s disappearance and has been touted as a possible replacement for Bitar in the port explosion probe, the observer said.

Neither the President of the Higher Judicial Council Souheil Abboud nor the General Prosecutor Ghassan Ouweidat attended a council meeting on Saturday.

In a statement, those present defended Hamadeh’s decision to arrest Noun, and condemned what they described as “an attack on the judge’s work and dignity.”

Families of the victims gathered in front of the state security headquarters, vowing to remain until Noun was released.

MP Melhem Khalaf, former president of the Bar Association, joined the protesters, saying that Noun’s comments “were the result of grief and that he didn’t actually mean it.”

Noun’s mother, who visited her son while he was in detention, said: “William is doing fine and is strong.”

She added tearfully: “Is this how they treat the parents who lost their children? I buried my first son and now my second son is detained. Why? Are we the ones responsible for the explosion? Are we the criminals? If the judges had lost their children, how would they have dealt with the case?”  

Inhabitants of Jbeil, Noun’s birthplace, took to the streets on Friday to protest his detention.

Scuffles broke out between protesters and security forces personnel, who stepped in to open the roads.

Families of victims of the port explosion claimed Noun was “lured into a trap set by the corrupt and failing judiciary.”

His detention was an attempt to “scare and subjugate the martyrs’ families, in order to discourage them and undermine their determination to find out the truth,” they added.

Former prime minister Fouad Siniora described Noun’s detention as “an idiotic and shameful act.”

He called for the completion of investigation and the arrest of the “real criminals responsible for the port deaths.”

Elias Bou Saab, deputy speaker of parliament, described Noun’s detention “in this scandalous way as a questionable idiocy done for malicious purposes,” while former Labor minister Camille Abousleiman said the arrest was “a joke and an insolence.”

MP Bilal Abdallah said that “the state has turned into a police state in the case of the port explosion and the way the families of the victims are being treated.”

Samy Gemayel, head of the Kataeb party, said: “The fact that they are switching roles and turning the victims’ families into criminals means that we have reached the final chapters of the law of the jungle.”

The investigating judge in the Beirut port explosion case faced demands for his removal after he issued a series of subpoenas against politicians and security personnel.

Subpoenaed suspects, including deputies affiliated with the Amal Movement, refused to be questioned.

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement took to the street to protest Bitar’s decisions, which resulted in a bloody clash over a year ago that obstructed the investigation.

Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace

Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace
Updated 13 sec ago

Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace

Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace
KHARTOUM: Hundreds of millions of Muslims began the first daily fast of Ramadan on Thursday, as parts of the Middle East approached crucial junctures in high-stakes peace negotiations during the holy month, traditionally a time of reconciliation
In Sudan, parties are wrangling over how the country will usher in a civilian government following 17 months of military rule. In Yemen, diplomats are pushing for a lasting truce, following the recent rapprochement between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia which have been locked in a proxy war there for eight years.
During Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from food and water from dawn to dusk, before gathering with family and friends for indulgent nighttime meals. According to Islam, fasting draws the faithful closer to God and reminds them of the suffering of the poor.
In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, families prepare culinary delights weeks in advance to mark the break of the fast each evening, a meal known as iftar. For the feasts, Sudanese worshippers favor assida, a semolina-based flour dish, and a sugary fermented drink called, “sweet bitter” — both recipes that date back generations.
“Those who can’t afford don’t have to pay,” said Fatima Mohammed Hamid, who sells food items from her small home on Tuti island on the Nile River, just north of Khartoum.
In addition to fasting, charity giving is another of Islam’s five pillars. During Ramadan, mosques and charities regularly provide meals for the poor at long tables that sprawl out onto the street.
Sudan has been steeped in political chaos since a coup ousted a Western-brokered power-sharing government in October 2021. There are hopes for a transitional government before the four weeks of Ramadan end, as promised by the country’s ruling military and other political forces earlier this week. However, many prominent Sudanese factions reject the move.
Amid the uncertainty, most find common ground in complaining about the rising cost of living.
“Everything costs double what it did last year,” said Hamid.
At a meeting Egypt earlier this week, Israeli and Palestinian delegations pledged to lower tensions during the sensitive holiday season — Ramadan will coincide with the Jewish festival of Passover in April — but surging violence continues across the occupied West Bank. There are concerns about flare-ups with large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful expected to pour into Jerusalem’s Old City.
From the Gaza Strip to Sudan and Tunisia to Yemen, soaring prices are proving a further concern for observant Muslims. Arab countries are continuing to suffer from the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine, with many reliant on grain imports from eastern Europe.
At the once-bustling Bab Al-Fellah market in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, rising costs have left shoppers unable to splurge on Ramadan delicacies as they might have in past years.
“I have almost used up the 40 dinars (roughly $13) that my husband gave me and I bought only vegetables, a chicken and some spices,’’ said Fatima B., embarrassed to give her full name out of her financial desperation.
In Pakistan, shoppers reported similar hardships, with inflation surging to nearly 40 percent. Many said they would consider breaking the daytime fast if free food were to be handed out.
In war-torn Yemeni capital of Sanaa, prospects for Ramadan are bleaker still, with residents struggling to buy even basic supplies. The country’s ruinous civil war, now in its ninth year, has killed more than 150,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
“I am not able to provide daily food for the children,” said Saleh Al-Omrani, an unemployed resident from Sanaa. “We had Ramadan in the good old days, but today there is no longer Ramadan.”
Diplomats and leaders had expressed new hope for peace efforts in the days leading up to Ramadan, amid signs of warming relations between two of the region’s rival superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two are on opposing sides of the war in Yemen, and despite announcements of restoring ties, sporadic fighting continues across the country. Clashes in Yemen killed at least 16 people earlier this week.
In Afghanistan, people are observing their second Ramadan under Taliban rule. Since the Taliban seized power in the country in August 2021, foreign aid stopped almost overnight and the economy collapsed, driving millions into poverty and hunger.
In southern Turkiye and northwestern Syria, the destruction caused by last month’s earthquake, which killed over 52,000 people, poses perhaps the steepest challenge of all.
In the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras — near the quake’s epicenter — worshipers held the first Ramadan prayers inside a 1,000-person tent on the grounds of the city’s famed Abdulhamid Han Mosque. Turkiye’s fourth-largest mosque sustained slight damage in the temblor and has been closed to worshippers, Turkish media said.
Some 1,400 mosques have been destroyed or damaged by the quake, Turkish authorities say, leaving tens of thousands to pray in makeshift tents. More than 100 sound systems have been installed to recite the call to prayer.
In Syria’s northwestern Idlib province — the last rebel enclave — very few families still have the energy or resources to make the necessary preparations for Ramadan this year.
Abdul Qahar Zakou, a cafe owner from, said he will put up Ramadan decorations despite the prevailing misery and do his best to create a festive atmosphere.
“Despite all the odds, Ramadan will always have its own atmosphere, with a symbolism and spirituality that makes life easier,” said Zakou.
Fasting is required of all healthy adult Muslims, with exemptions for those who are sick, pregnant women and those breastfeeding.
Alongside eating and drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse are also prohibited during daylight hours in Ramadan.
Islam follows a lunar calendar, so Ramadan starts about a week and a half earlier each year. At the end of holy month, Muslims celebrate the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, when children often receive new clothes and gifts.

Lebanese cling to hope amid Ramadan austerity

Lebanese cling to hope amid Ramadan austerity
Updated 44 min 39 sec ago

Lebanese cling to hope amid Ramadan austerity

Lebanese cling to hope amid Ramadan austerity
  • The price of food, vegetables and meat skyrocketed a month before Ramadan
  • Unemployment rates are rising amid the rapid financial collapse

BEIRUT: The streets of Beirut have been modestly decorated for Ramadan, reflecting the austere measures adopted by Lebanon’s Islamic associations and authorities amid the country’s worsening economic crisis. 

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said: “In an attempt to spread joy during the month of Ramadan, the cost of decoration and electricity for lights was covered by donors who provided solar power panels for the electricity polls due to the difficulties we are facing.”

The price of food, vegetables and meat skyrocketed a month before Ramadan as the country’s currency plunged against the dollar, forcing families to look for alternatives and less expensive goods. 

Unemployment rates are rising amid the rapid financial collapse, while the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia estimates that up to 82 percent of the population is facing poverty.

Fattoush salad, a staple iftar item during Ramadan, now costs around 225,000 Lebanese pounds ($14.99) compared with 4,250 Lebanese pounds two years ago. 

Rami Ghalayini, owner of a Beirut juice shop, said that a bottle of juice remains essential during Ramadan meals after a long day of fasting. However, a one-liter bottle of fresh orange juice now costs more than 100,000 Lebanese pounds, three times the price last year.

Despite the rapidly rising cost of essential items, employees continue to receive salaries based on the old exchange rate of 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. 

Jad, who works at a cooperative, said: “My wife and I do not know if we will be able to provide a daily dish. The prices of food items are increasing by the minute. They are being priced based on an exchange rate higher than that of the black market, while our salaries remain the same and their value decreases.

“I have to think of other essentials that need to be paid, such as the electricity generator bill, water, and medication if one of my children needs it.”

Fatima, a housewife, said that she used to welcome Ramadan by decorating the house, and buying luxury dates, walnuts, almonds and raisins.

“But this year, I find myself unable to buy these non-essential snacks. I even need some help, as my husband’s and son’s salaries are no longer enough to pay for the food. These are some of the hardest days we have had to endure, but, God willing, we will be able to fast and provide iftar meals as best as we can.”

Nada Bakkar is carefully using her husband’s meager salary to buy goods and supplies for Ramadan. 

Bakkar said that she spent more than 5 million Lebanese pounds buying basics, such as rice, oil, herbs and sugar.

“I have not bought meat, chicken and dairy products yet, and their prices have surged to record levels,” she added.

“The merchants are messing with the prices with nobody there to monitor them. I am very worried that I might not be able to provide enough food to feed my family and prepare a main dish every day.”

People are trying to remain optimistic. Nada Katoua believes that “Ramadan comes with blessings. I know people’s incomes have decreased and many families are no longer able to secure their daily bread. However, we should always welcome the month of goodness with hope.”

Last year, the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs launched the “Aman” program to support the poorest 150,000 Lebanese families. However, the scheme, which relied on a $246 million World Bank loan, has yet to be fully implemented. 

The ministry is waiting to receive a $300 million World Bank loan to “support the groups facing unprecedented levels of poverty,” according to Farid Belhaj, World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa.

The Sidon Merchants Association set up decorations in the city’s commercial markets, which are popular with people from various regions during Ramadan.

Ali Al-Sharif, the association’s head, said: “We want to give people a glimmer of hope, as the month of Ramadan arrives amid a worsening economic crisis, the repercussions of which are directly affecting everyone. 

“Basic government services are continuing to deteriorate and people’s businesses are at a halt. Expats are the only ones providing this country with some sort of lifeline, thanks to the money they are transferring to their families to ensure their survival.”

Thousands of Israelis block streets in protest of judicial overhaul

Thousands of Israelis block streets in protest of judicial overhaul
Updated 23 March 2023

Thousands of Israelis block streets in protest of judicial overhaul

Thousands of Israelis block streets in protest of judicial overhaul
  • Thousands of people carrying flags and signs marched on a Tel Aviv thoroughfare stopping traffic
  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan has stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad

TEL AVIV/JERUSALEM: Israelis took to the streets en masse on Thursday in protest against the government’s overhaul of the court system, blocking roadways across the country and intensifying a months-long campaign decrying the move.
Thousands of people waving flags and blaring horns marched on a Tel Aviv thoroughfare stopping traffic in the middle of the workday. Police sprayed a water cannon and carried some away as they tried to clear the highway.
A small group burned tires in the street outside a seaport, briefly blocking trucks. Police forced demonstrators from the road in front of a conference center in central Israel.
Police detained dozens of protesters for public disturbance across the country.
The protests have escalated since the start of the year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government introduced new legislation that would limit the authority of the Supreme Court.
The plan has stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad. Military reservists have joined the protests and senior officials in the Finance Ministry warned this week of an economic backlash.
In Jerusalem, crowds gathered along the walls of the Old City from which they hung a huge replica of the country’s declaration of independence.
“What we are doing here is we are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our lives as a Jewish people together in the state that we have been building for 75 years,” said Avidan Friedman, who was wearing a Jewish prayer shawl over his head.
“We are fighting because we feel like what’s going on now is tearing us apart and we are calling on the government to stop.”
Netanyahu in the meantime pushed ahead with the legislation, which includes bills to give the government decisive sway in electing judges and to limit the court’s power to strike down laws. On Thursday a law was ratified limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed.
Netanyahu — on trial for corruption charges he denies — says the judicial overhaul is needed to restore balance between the branches of government. Critics say it will weaken Israel’s democracy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government of the day.

UK may have killed up to 32 civilians in Syria campaign against Daesh: charity

UK may have killed up to 32 civilians in Syria campaign against Daesh: charity
Updated 23 March 2023

UK may have killed up to 32 civilians in Syria campaign against Daesh: charity

UK may have killed up to 32 civilians in Syria campaign against Daesh: charity
  • Figure undermines Ministry of Defence claim that RAF strikes caused single civilian casualty: BBC

LONDON: Airstrikes launched by the UK’s military in Syria may have killed up to 32 civilians, research by a charity has reportedly revealed.

According to the BBC, the Action on Armed Violence organization, which investigates conflicts around the world, said its research had shown that at least nine attacks by the Royal Air Force led to civilian casualties between March 2016 and 2018.

It undermines a claim by the UK Ministry of Defence that its activities only led to a single civilian death during Britain’s seven-year aerial campaign against Daesh.

A ministry spokesperson said that military personnel examine evidence and mission data from every operation, and that there was “no evidence” of civilian casualties in the airstrikes investigated by AOAV.

A statement by the ministry said it had “identified nothing to indicate that such civilian casualties were caused in Syria.

“The RAF always minimizes the risk of civilian casualties through our rigorous targeting processes … but no evidence has been identified in these instances.”

The charity’s research claims that “at least 26 civilians are likely to have been killed” in RAF airstrikes during the two-year period, while “up to 32 civilians may have actually been killed.”

AOAV used “self-reported” civilian deaths to reach its figure, where military personnel under the US-led coalition against Daesh reported the high likelihood of civilian casualties following an operation.

The charity found that the reports were “credible” in eight of the nine RAF airstrikes.

It cross-checked the reports with the Ministry of Defence’s own internal mission data as well as information from US Central Command and other charities.

The single civilian death that the UK Ministry of Defence has admitted came in May 2018, when a motorcyclist was killed by a Reaper drone targeting Daesh fighters.

But another report surrounding possible civilian deaths, which the ministry has denied, centered on an RAF jet operation in May 2017, when Tornado aircraft attacked seven Daesh targets in Iraq’s Mosul.

The incident led to a “self-reported” claim by coalition personnel, with The New York Times newspaper finding that three civilians were nearby one of the strike targets, according to US mission data.

The data said: “The explosion from striking the mortar site was large enough to conclude that any person in the blast radius was seriously injured or killed in the strike.”

The US has said that 1,437 civilians may have been killed in the aerial campaign against Daesh between August 2014 and May 2023.

Israeli forces kill one Palestinian in West Bank raid on first day of Ramadan

Israeli forces kill one Palestinian in West Bank raid on first day of Ramadan
Updated 23 March 2023

Israeli forces kill one Palestinian in West Bank raid on first day of Ramadan

Israeli forces kill one Palestinian in West Bank raid on first day of Ramadan
  • The Palestinian health ministry said 25-year-old Amir Abu Khadijeh was shot in the head in the city of Tulkarem

RAMALLAH: Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man during a raid in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian officials said, amid attempts to curb surging violence from spiralling further.
A statement from Israeli border police said its undercover unit was involved in a raid early on Thursday to arrest a Palestinian man suspected of involvement in several shooting attacks. The forces surrounded the house he was in and fired at the man after he aimed a weapon at them, the border police said.
The Palestinian health ministry said 25-year-old Amir Abu Khadijeh was shot in the head in the city of Tulkarem.
A new group formed to confront Israel’s occupation under the name of the “Tulkarem Brigade” said Abu Khadijeh was one of its founders and described the killing as an “assassination.”
Thursday marked the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the Palestinian territories.
In previous years, Ramadan has occasionally seen clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians, particularly around Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, revered as the Temple Mount by Jews. Ramadan coincides this year with Judaism’s Passover and Christian Easter.
On Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials made commitments to de-escalate violence at a meeting attended by US, Egyptian and Jordanian delegations in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The Israeli-occupied West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations in recent months, with near-daily Israeli military raids and escalating violence by Jewish settlers, amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.
Over the past year, Israeli forces have killed more than 250 Palestinians in the West Bank, including fighters and civilians. More than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks in the same period.
The Palestinians aim to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.