Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm

Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm
Najib al-Ameel stands on a hill overlooking his hometown Rmaych along the Lebanese-Israeli border. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 25 January 2023

Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm

Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm
  • Israel, the United States and some in Lebanon accuse the NGO of being an arm of Hezbollah to hide its military activities
  • Green Without Borders denies any link to Hezbollah, which also says it is not connected to the environmental group

KFAR-TIBNIT: On the outskirts of this southern Lebanese village, workers in a pickup truck parked at a nature reserve named after a fallen fighter of the militant Hezbollah group. They took two large eucalyptus tree seedlings out of the truck and planted them.
The men are from Green Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that says it aims to protect Lebanon’s green areas and plant trees.
But Israel, the United States and some in Lebanon accuse the NGO of being an arm of Hezbollah to hide its military activities. They say the organization has been setting up outposts for the militant group along the border with Israel. Last month, residents in the southern Christian village of Rmaych near the border said they encountered armed men at an outpost of the organization that was blocking them from farmlands.
Green Without Borders denies any link to Hezbollah, which also says it is not connected to the environmental group.
“We are not an arm for anyone,” the head of Green Without Borders, Zouher Nahli, told The Associated Press. “We as an environmental association work for all the people and we are not politicized.” He spoke at the Bassam Tabaja Nature Reserve, named for a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in 2014, where the NGO has planted hundreds of trees.
He said the organization’s funding comes from the ministries of environment and agriculture as well as from wealthy Lebanese who care about the environment and municipalities, mainly in the eastern Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon. He said he is an Agriculture Ministry employee.
Since it began operations in 2009, the group has helped plant about 2 million trees, Nahli said.
Israel and Hezbollah are archenemies and have fought several wars over the past decades, the last of which ended in August 2006. The 34-day conflict killed 1,200 in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
The UN Security Council resolution that ended that war said the border area should be free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons,” other than those of the government and UN peacekeepers. After the war, thousands of Lebanese troops were deployed in the border zone and the UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which has been present there since 1978, was beefed up.
In a November report, UNIFIL said shipping containers and prefabricated buildings, some of them with visible Green Without Borders markings, had been set up at 16 sites along the border. In several instances, UNIFIL patrols were prevented from nearing the locations, it said.
The Israeli military says Green Without Borders outposts on the border are used by Hezbollah to gather intelligence information.
At a Security Council meeting in September, the US deputy UN ambassador, Richard Mills, said the proliferation of the group’s outposts along the border obstructs UNIFIL access and “is heightening tensions in the area, further demonstrating that this so-called environmental group is acting on Hezbollah’s behalf.”
At the meeting, the council unanimously approved a resolution strongly condemning harassment, intimidation, attacks and restrictions on UNIFIL.
Last month, an Irish UN peacekeeper was killed and several others were wounded when attackers opened fire on a UNIFIL convoy in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah denied any connection to the attack.
Nahli said he was not aware of any shipping containers or buildings being set up by his organization. “All we do along the border is protect forests and all the claims are illogical and baseless,” he said.
Residents in border Shiite villages that support Hezbollah praise the organization. “It is doing good for the environment and planting trees along the border. We are very happy with their work,” said Salah Rammal, a shop owner in the border village of Odaisseh.
Residents of the Christian village Rmaych, however, have complained for years about a position set up by Green Without Borders on farmland belonging to village families in a nearby valley. They say the organization did not plant any trees there and actually chopped down trees and cut a 1.5-kilometer (1-mile) dirt road on their land.
“It is a cover for Hezbollah to have positions. We have no problems with Hezbollah, but it should be outside our lands,” said Bassam Al-Hajj, a Rmaych schoolteacher.
In December, Al-Hajj and other residents went to the outpost and confronted the men there. Al-Hajj said some of the men at the site were masked and armed, and that the outpost included several rooms, a tent and a fence that blocked off village farmland.
The residents and the men argued, he said. One resident who was videoing the encounter was told by one of the men, “We will crush you if you don’t delete the photos that you took,” Al-Hajj said.
Days after the confrontation, a Hezbollah official and members of the organization visited the village and met residents at the mayor’s office, said Father Najib Al-Ameel, a priest from Rmaych who attended the talks.
The mayor and residents asked that the post be removed, he said. Al-Ameel said he told the Hezbollah official, “We will not accept anyone but the Lebanese army to protect us.” A few days later, Green Without Borders removed the post and now residents can freely access their land, he said.
Nahli said the media had blown the incident in Rmaych out of proportion and refused to discuss details. In the past, Hezbollah has blamed frictions at Rmaych on members of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, which is among Hezbollah’s harshest critics.
When asked if peacekeepers could visit the organization’s sites, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said, “We had the possibility, of course, to monitor the whole area of operations and also areas and places where Green Without Borders operated.”
He said there has not been “a breach of 1701,” the Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war.
Nahli argued that Green Without Border’s work is sorely needed. Over the past few decades, Lebanon has experienced one of the world’s worst deforestation rates, which he said has accelerated since the economy collapsed, starting in late 2019, as poor people cut trees to use the wood for heating. The forested area has dropped from 25 percent of the country’s territory to only around 3 percent now, he said.
“We are trying by all our means, in coordination with all concerned authorities, to prevent more deforestation,” he said.


Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN
Updated 7 sec ago

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN

Quake imperils cross-border aid to Syria: UN
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 30 min 1 sec ago

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.


First Kuwaiti flight carrying aid for earthquake victims takes off for Turkiye

First Kuwaiti flight carrying aid for earthquake victims takes off for Turkiye
Updated 07 February 2023

First Kuwaiti flight carrying aid for earthquake victims takes off for Turkiye

First Kuwaiti flight carrying aid for earthquake victims takes off for Turkiye
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is coordinating the aid effort, with the Kuwaiti army responsible for transporting aid workers, machinery and equipment

KUWAIT: The first flight from Kuwait carrying aid took off on Tuesday for Turkiye as part of the relief effort to help the victims of the massive earthquake that struck the country in the early hours of Monday, the Kuwait News Agency reported.
Thousands died in disaster and many more were injured or left homeless, with southern Turkiye and northern Syria the worst-affected areas. Rescue teams were racing against time on Tuesday to find and rescue victims trapped in the rubble of damaged buildings.
Kuwait’s relief effort is operating under the directives of Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is coordinating the aid, with the Kuwaiti army responsible for transporting aid workers, machinery and equipment. The Red Crescent and the Ministry of Health are also participating.
Lt. Gen. Khaled Al-Mekrad, the director general of the Kuwait Fire Force, and Tuba Nur Sonmez, the Turkish ambassador to Kuwait, watched the flight take off.


UK tells tourists to avoid Turkiye quake epicenter

UK tells tourists to avoid Turkiye quake epicenter
Updated 07 February 2023

UK tells tourists to avoid Turkiye quake epicenter

UK tells tourists to avoid Turkiye quake epicenter
  • No travel guidance issued against visiting rest of the country
  • Flights by British carriers continue as normal to Turkish airports outside affected area

LONDON: The UK Foreign Office has advised British travelers against visiting southeastern parts of Turkiye in the aftermath of the three earthquakes that hit the country on Monday.
It did not issue specific guidance not to travel to the country, but told people to check with their airlines if they already had flights booked to avoid being disrupted by cancelations.
The three airports closest to the epicenter — at Gazientep, Hatay and Ceyhan — are currently closed to commercial flights.
There are also no flights currently from the UK to Adana, which is 220 km west of Gazientep.
However, flights to popular tourist destinations such as Istanbul, Bodrum and Dalaman have not been canceled, and Adana can be reached via internal flights from western Turkish airports.
Turkish newspaper the Daily Sabah reported: “Currently, only planes carrying aid and rescue teams are allowed to land and take off from (Gazientep and Ceyhan).
“Hatay Airport, whose runway was damaged because of the earthquake, was closed for all flights.”
As of this time, no British operators have canceled flights to Turkiye outside of the region affected.
Hugh Fraser, founder of Corinthian Travel, told the Daily Mail: “Southeastern Turkiye and the area in the vicinity of Gaziantep has many spectacular attractions and is noted for its delicious regional cuisine, but has traditionally been the preserve of the second or third-time cultural visitors to Turkiye.
“The earthquake is a human tragedy but it is unlikely to have much impact on Turkiye’s major centers of tourism — Istanbul, Cappadocia, and the Aegean Coast — all of which are located hundreds of miles away to the west.”
So far, over 5,000 people are confirmed to have died in the disaster in Turkiye and neighboring Syria, with tens of thousands injured and homeless.
The World Health Organization has said the death toll could rise to as high as 20,000, with people left exposed to sub-zero temperatures.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “The UK is sending immediate support to Turkiye, including a team of 76 search and rescue specialists, equipment and rescue dogs.
“In Syria, the UK-funded White Helmets have mobilized their resources to respond. We stand ready to provide further support as needed.”


‘Everyone has been impacted’: UK charity describes ‘race against time’ to find survivors

‘Everyone has been impacted’: UK charity describes ‘race against time’ to find survivors
Updated 07 February 2023

‘Everyone has been impacted’: UK charity describes ‘race against time’ to find survivors

‘Everyone has been impacted’: UK charity describes ‘race against time’ to find survivors
  • Devastation “beyond words,” says Action For Humanity CEO

LONDON: Rescuers and aid organizations face a “race against time” to find survivors of Monday's deadly earthquake in Turkiye and Syria and bring assistance to those in most need, a British charity said on Tuesday.

Following the two 7.8 and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes that wrought devastation in both countries, Action For Humanity, the parent charity of the UK’s largest Syria-focused NGO Syria Relief, released a statement describing the devastation impacting the lives of everyone in the areas worst hit. 

Two members of their own staff, a medical professional and a monitoring evaluation and learning (MEAL) manager in Idlib, Syria, were killed with members of their family.

Dozens of other staff have lost family members and “everyone has been impacted,” the statement said.

“The devastation is beyond words, virtually every village in Northwest Syria, and every life has been impacted,” Othman Moqbel, CEO for Action For Humanity said. “Two of our own team, the Action For Humanity family, were killed — a medical professional and a member of our MEAL team in Syria — people motivated to do all they can to save the lives of Syrians, lost theirs to this tragedy,” he added.

He continued: “They were killed alongside family members. Also dozens of our team have lost parents, cousins, uncles, aunties, nephews and nieces. Their lives have been ripped apart.

“Across Syria, traumatised families have been spending spent 30 hours out in freezing cold as they are afraid to stay in buildings that are at risk of collapsing. They fear more earthquakes. The death toll rises by the minute.

“We are in a race against time to find survivors and provide warmth, food, shelter and medical aid.”

Moqbel also said it was vital that governments, but also members of the global public, help to support the emergency response.

“Syria is suffering from being underfunded and forgotten throughout nearly 12 years of war,” he said. 

“There was no hospital capacity already before this week, just suffering, there was not enough food before this week, just poverty, after neglecting Syrians for so long, we owe it to do all we can to help them. 

“We have mobilized staff to provide emergency aid and are working with our peers to provide a coordinated emergency response — which is so vital in times of large scale humanitarian need like this,” he added.

Action For Humanity has launched an emergency appeal, raising funds for items such as emergency holistic kits, support for the medical facilities, fuel and temporary collective shelter for those made homeless by the disaster.

It also deploying its mobile health clinics to support those impacted on site and health systems already under strain.