Frankly Speaking: Does Europe still care about Yemen?

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Updated 19 June 2023
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Frankly Speaking: Does Europe still care about Yemen?

Frankly Speaking: Does Europe still care about Yemen?
  • Peter Semneby says humanitarian aid and contact with Iran give Europe sway over the peace process
  • Swedish diplomat lauds Saudi-Iran deal, but says it is still too early to expect results in the Yemen context

RIYADH: Despite the war in Ukraine dominating the foreign-policy agenda, Europe has a lot of reasons to care about what is happening in Yemen beyond just the humanitarian ones, Peter Semneby, Sweden’s special envoy to Yemen, has said.

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News talk show that features interviews with leading policymakers, Semneby cited maritime trade, counterterrorism and energy security as factors behind Europe’s continued interest in the conflict.

“One of the most important reasons is the humanitarian imperative. We’re engaged in any country in the world where the population is suffering for whatever reason, be it war or be it for natural reasons,” he told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen.

“But there are also a lot of more hard-nosed interests for Sweden and the EU to engage on Yemen. Yemen is important for security, not only for its immediate neighbors but also for us.”

Elaborating on the point, Semneby said: “The Middle East is a neighboring region. We trade a lot with the Middle East. We get a lot of our energy supplies from the Middle East.




Peter Semneby, Sweden’s special envoy to Yemen. (Supplied)

“And if you look at the map, Yemen sits right on the most important maritime supply route there is.

“And this is something that has become even more important, and rather paradoxically, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one might assume that more faraway conflicts would be relegated to the backburner from our point of view. But that’s not the case. Energy security is more important than ever as a result of that conflict.”

Semneby continued: “Then I can add other security-related issues as well: counterterrorism, for example. Any country with weak institutions involved in civil war, where the political system threatens to erode as has been the case in Yemen, of course, would provide opportunities for terrorists if there isn’t the kind of support both in terms of security systems, but also in the longer term — in institution building — the EU can definitely provide in cooperation with its partner countries in the Gulf area.”

According to Semneby, the war in Ukraine and resulting sanctions on Russia, which resulted in soaring energy prices on the continent, actually made Europe’s energy interests in the Middle East an even more important consideration.

“The war in Ukraine has definitely made us think a lot harder about how we secure our trade routes, how we secure, in particular, energy supplies. And Yemen has a strategic location with immense importance for energy supplies,” he said.

“I’d also say that the humanitarian imperative is always there, and there has been a lot of additional attention to humanitarian issues in other conflicts as a result of the disruptions of the delivery of the supplies of wheat and grain that we’ve seen as a result of the Ukraine war.”

The continued provision of humanitarian assistance to Yemen — a nation gripped by near-famine conditions — is viewed by some as a form of leverage over the peace process.

Semneby said one impact of the Ukraine war has been a decline in the amount of aid available for Yemen.

He urged the Gulf states to channel their existing humanitarian contributions into UN funds to bolster the international response.

“What has changed — and which is unfortunate — is that there are less funds available for assistance of various kinds,” he said.

“There has been an enormous effort, as we know, for support in Ukraine from many countries. And we’ve seen, as we’ve asked, as the UN has asked, for funding for its humanitarian appeal in Yemen and in other countries, that it’s more difficult to get those funds.




In this photo taken on January 7, 2023, trucks cross Alwadiah port in the Saudi-Yemen border carrying dialysis supplies provided by #KSrelief to be distributed in several Yemeni governorates. (Twitter: @KSRelief-EN)

“This has to be done through a joint effort, and it’s of course not only Sweden, Europe, countries in the north that should provide funding to the UN efforts. We’re having a constant discussion with our partners in the Gulf area.

“And I’d expect that this would become an even more important topic for our joint strategizing about Yemen and all the conflicts that the Gulf countries should also contribute a larger share to the joint UN effort.

“What we see today is that they often prefer … making their contributions through their own bilateral channels, which deprives us, we believe, of some of the many opportunities that we have for taking care of synergies by working together.”

In an op-ed published in May, The Intercept’s Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim accused the US of deliberately slow-walking peace negotiations on Yemen, effectively pushing for a resumption of the war in an effort to improve the Yemeni government’s bargaining position against the Houthis.

“A ceasefire has held for more than a year, and peace talks are advancing with real momentum, including prisoner exchanges and other positive expressions of diplomacy,” wrote Grim.

“Yet the US appears very much not to want the war to end; our proxies have been thumped on the battlefield and are in a poor negotiating position as a result. Reading between the lines, the US seems to be attempting to slow-walk and blow up the peace talks.”

Asked whether US President Joe Biden could end the war today, and whether he believes the US is doing enough to resolve the conflict, Semneby would not respond with a categorical “yes” or “no.”

He defended Washington’s efforts, while adding that Europe’s open channels with Iran could help foster talks in Yemen.




Frankly Speaking host Katie Jensen interviewing Peter Semneby, Sweden’s special envoy to Yemen. (Supplied)

“I think the US has done quite a lot in terms of getting attention to the conflict in Yemen and supporting the conflict resolution efforts,” said Semneby.

“You may remember that President Biden, in his very first speech on foreign policy that he held at the State Department just a couple of weeks after the inauguration in 2021, mentioned Yemen.

“I think it was the second country that he mentioned in that speech, and Yemen has been on the agenda constantly in discussions with both Saudi Arabia and other partner countries.

“Of course, it’s important that the Americans do this in cooperation with others. We’re working very closely with the Americans as well.

“The Americans don’t have direct communication channels with the Iranians. Others have. So I think it’s not correct to assume that the Americans by themselves would be able to do this if they did so.”

Semneby said Saudi Arabia’s restoration of formal diplomatic relations with Iran is welcome news, but the international community must wait and see what impact it will have on the situation in Yemen.

“The Saudis and the Houthis have engaged in quite extensive talks after the Saudi-Iranian agreement was announced, so it obviously opened up possibilities that weren’t there before,” he said.

“But I still think it’s still too early to say whether the two sides in those talks have adjusted their expectations sufficiently in order to actually reach a UN agreement.

“It seems that the Houthis are still … insisting on 100 percent of what they want to achieve, or maybe even increasing their demands, asking for 110 percent. That won’t do the trick, obviously — they’ll have to strike a compromise in the end.”

Iran has long been arming and funding the Houthi militia. Officially called Ansar Allah, the militia seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014, sparking a protracted civil war against the UN-recognized government.




In this photo taken on January 3, 2017, newly recruited Houthi fighters train to fight pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities. (AFP file)

The China-brokered agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran was a major breakthrough that lowered the chances of further conflict and raised the possibility of a lasting ceasefire in Yemen.

However, analysts believe that much depends on the Houthis’ openness to negotiation and the sides’ willingness to find a compromise solution.

“We still have a window of opportunity, and it has been pushed a little bit more open after the Saudi-Iranian agreement,” said Semneby.

“So I’m mildly hopeful that we can see a more permanent and a more formal monitored ceasefire being negotiated.

“I do think there’s hope. We’re in a better place than we were a year and a half ago, before the Saudi-Iranian agreement.”

One solution being mooted is the partitioning of Yemen into separate northern and southern states, as they had been from 1918 until 1990, when they unified as a single republic.

Some of Yemen’s neighbors are eager that it remain a single entity, while others appear to be gravitating toward partition.

Asked how likely a split might be, Semneby said it could be “messy” but it would be a matter for the Yemeni people to decide.




Fighters affiliated with Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council deploy in Yemen's southern city of Aden on June 29, 2022. (AFP file photo)

“I don’t want to make any predictions. What I’d like to say is that this is a question that will have to be decided by Yemenis themselves, and this can only be done as part of a comprehensive political process.

“It may very well be that that process will result in a partition, and then the world should respect it. I’d also add that I believe that most countries would prefer a unified Yemen.

“I think the partitions of countries are, although they’ve happened, are always difficult and messy matters. But ultimately this has to be for the Yemenis.

“But … it’s a secondary issue. The primary issue that all Yemenis need to focus on at this moment is to bring an end to the war and to sit together at one table, or in one room, to discuss all the very important and very difficult issues that Yemen is faced with.”

There is even a danger that splitting Yemen in two could lead to further, regional fractures, with provinces such as Hadramout peeling off to form their own state.

“If you start separating one part of the country, there are always those who aren’t going to be happy with the people in charge of that part separating, so … there’s always the risk of a chain reaction,” said Semneby.

“Today we need to focus on the more urgent problems. And I think that those making decisions in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, they agree on this.

“Their prime concern is that Yemen will be stable, that it won’t be a source of insecurity anymore, that it will be sufficiently prosperous economically to support itself to a much larger extent than is the case now, that it will be able to export its natural resources and so on.

“So these are all the things to concentrate on. And I’m sure that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi agree on this most important and most urgent task in Yemen.”

 


Scores killed overnight in Gaza, Israeli negotiators in Paris

Scores killed overnight in Gaza, Israeli negotiators in Paris
Updated 24 February 2024
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Scores killed overnight in Gaza, Israeli negotiators in Paris

Scores killed overnight in Gaza, Israeli negotiators in Paris
  • 100 people reported killed early Saturday in overnight strikes across Gaza
  • Israeli air strike Friday destroyed home of well-known Palestinian comedian Mahmoud Zuaiter, killing at least 23 people

Gaza Strip: More than 100 people were reported killed early Saturday in overnight strikes across Gaza, as Israel’s spy chief was in Paris for talks seeking to “unblock” progress toward a truce and the return of hostages held by Palestinian militants.
The Paris negotiations come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally the United States and was rejected by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on Friday.
They also come as fears for civilians in the territory are deepening, with the UN warning of the growing risk of famine and its main aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, saying early Saturday that Gazans were “in extreme peril while the world watches on.”
AFP footage showed distraught Gazans queuing for food in the territory’s devastated north on Friday and staging a protest decrying their living conditions.
“Look, we are fighting each other over rice,” said Jabalia resident Ahmad Atef Safi. “Where are we supposed to go?“
“We have no water, no flour and we are very tired because of hunger. Our backs and eyes hurt because of fire and smoke,” fellow Jabalia resident Oum Wajdi Salha told AFP.
“We can’t stand on our feet because of hunger and lack of food.”
In a Friday night statement on social media platform X, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said: “Without adequate food and water supplies, as well as health and nutrition services, the elevated risk of famine in #Gaza is projected to increase.”
The war started after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,514 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s health ministry on Friday.
An Israeli air strike Friday destroyed the Gaza home of well-known Palestinian comedian Mahmoud Zuaiter, killing at least 23 people and injuring dozens more, the health ministry said.
The ministry announced early Saturday that at least 103 more people were killed in strikes overnight, with many others believed to be missing under rubble.
Netanyahu on Thursday night presented his war cabinet with a plan for the post-war Gaza Strip that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
The plan stipulates that, even after the war, the Israeli army would have “indefinite freedom” to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the proposals.
It also states that Israel will move ahead with a plan, already under way, to establish a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan drew criticism from the United States, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby saying Friday that Washington had been “consistently clear with our Israeli counterparts” about what was needed in post-war Gaza.
“The Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote... through a revitalized Palestinian Authority,” he said, adding the United States also did not “believe in a reduction of the size of Gaza.”
Asked about the plan during a visit to Argentina, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would “reserve judgment” until seeing all the details, but that Washington was against any “reoccupation” of Gaza after the war.
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed Netanyahu’s plan as unworkable.
“When it comes to the day after in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed,” Hamdan told reporters in Beirut.
Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation led by David Barnea, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, was in Paris on Saturday for a fresh push toward a deal to return the remaining hostages.
Barnea will be joined by his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, Israeli media reported.
The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.
Pressure has been mounting on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate a ceasefire and secure the hostages’ release after more than four months of war, with a group representing the captives’ families planning what it billed as a “huge rally” to coincide with the Paris talks on Saturday night to demand swifter action.
The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.
White House envoy Brett McGurk held talks this week with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after speaking to other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
A Hamas source said the new plan proposes a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages being held by Hamas.
Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
US National Security Council spokesman Kirby had told journalists earlier that so far the discussions were “going well,” while Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz spoke of “the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress.”


US downs three Houthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles

US downs three Houthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles
Updated 24 February 2024
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US downs three Houthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles

US downs three Houthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles
  • Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have been targeting shipping for months and their attacks have persisted despite repeated American and British strikes

Washington: American forces shot down three attack drones near commercial ships in the Red Sea Friday and destroyed seven anti-ship cruise missiles positioned on land, the US military said.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have been targeting shipping for months and their attacks have persisted despite repeated American and British strikes aimed at degrading the rebels’ ability to threaten a vital global trade route.
Early on Friday, US forces “shot down three Houthi one-way attack (drones) near several commercial ships operating in the Red Sea. There was no damage to any ships,” the Central Command (CENTCOM) said on social media.
In a statement later in the day, CENTCOM said US forces destroyed “seven Iranian-backed Houthi mobile anti-ship cruise missiles that were prepared to launch toward the Red Sea.”
It said those strikes , carried out between 12:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Sanaa time, were made in self-defense.
“CENTCOM forces identified these missiles in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined that they presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and to the US Navy ships in the region,” it said in a statement.
The day prior, American forces struck four Houthi drones as well as two anti-ship cruise missiles, CENTCOM said, adding that the weapons “were prepared to launch from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the Red Sea.”
The Houthis began attacking Red Sea shipping in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.
US and UK forces responded with strikes against the Houthis, who have since declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.
Anger over Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza — which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 — has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.


US warns of environmental disaster from cargo ship hit by Houthi rebels

US warns of environmental disaster from cargo ship hit by Houthi rebels
Updated 24 February 2024
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US warns of environmental disaster from cargo ship hit by Houthi rebels

US warns of environmental disaster from cargo ship hit by Houthi rebels
  • The Belize-flagged Rubymar was damaged Sunday by a missile strike claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels
  • It was transporting 41,000 tons of fertilizer when it was attacked, says Roy Khoury, the CEO of Blue Fleet CEO

WASHINGTON: A cargo ship abandoned in the Gulf of Aden after an attack by Yemeni rebels is taking on water and has left a huge oil slick, in an environmental disaster that US Central Command said Friday could get worse.

Rubymar, a Belize-flagged, British-registered and Lebanese-operated cargo ship carrying combustible fertilizer, was damaged in a Sunday missile strike claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Its crew was evacuated to Djibouti after one missile hit the side of the ship, causing water to enter the engine room and its stern to sag, said its operator, the Blue Fleet Group.
A second missile hit the vessel’s deck without causing major damage, Blue Fleet CEO Roy Khoury told AFP.
CENTCOM said the ship is anchored but slowly taking on water and has left an 18 mile oil slick.
“The M/V Rubymar was transporting over 41,000 tons of fertilizer when it was attacked, which could spill into the Red Sea and worsen this environmental disaster,” it said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
The ship’s operator said Thursday the ship could be towed to Djibouti this week.
Khoury said the ship was still afloat and shared an image captured on Wednesday that showed its stern low in the water.
When asked about the possibility of it sinking, Khoury had said there was “no risk for now, but always a possibility.”
The attack on the Rubymar represents the most significant damage yet to be inflicted on a commercial ship since the Houthis started firing on vessels in November — a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.
The Houthi attacks have prompted some shipping companies to detour around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.
The UN Conference on Trade and Development warned late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal had fallen more than 40 percent in the previous two months.
 


UN rights chief deplores ‘entrenched impunity’ in Gaza war

UN rights chief deplores ‘entrenched impunity’ in Gaza war
Updated 24 February 2024
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UN rights chief deplores ‘entrenched impunity’ in Gaza war

UN rights chief deplores ‘entrenched impunity’ in Gaza war
  • UN agency for Palestinian refugees at ‘breaking point,’ deplores chief

GENEVA, NEW YORK: The UN human rights chief said on Friday that perpetrators of gross human rights violations in the conflict between Israel and Hamas must be held accountable.

“The entrenched impunity that OHCHR — the UN rights agency — has reported on for many years cannot persist,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a report on the situation in Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
He said that this impunity had contributed to violations that could amount to international crimes.
Turk urged all parties to the conflict to “put an end to impunity and conduct prompt, independent, impartial, thorough, effective and transparent investigations” into alleged crimes under international law. He also called on them to implement a ceasefire on human rights and humanitarian grounds, to ensure full respect for international law, and to ensure accountability for violations and abuses.

FASTFACT

‘The entrenched impunity that OHCHR — the UN rights agency — has reported on for many years cannot persist,’ High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a report on the situation in Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Last month, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians and do more to help civilians, although it stopped short of ordering a ceasefire as requested by South Africa, which brought the case.
In separate proceedings, South Africa on Tuesday urged the court to issue a non-binding legal opinion that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is illegal, arguing it would help efforts to reach a settlement.
Separately, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned it has reached a critical juncture as it struggles to cope with the war in Gaza.
“It is with profound regret that I must now inform you that UNRWA has reached a breaking point,” chief Philippe Lazzarini said, as donors freeze funding, Israel exerts pressure to dismantle the agency and humanitarian needs soar.
“The Agency’s ability to fulfill the mandate given through General Assembly Resolution 302 is now seriously threatened,” he said in a letter to the assembly.
That is the resolution under which the agency was founded in 1949, following the creation of Israel. UNRWA employs some 30,000 people working in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Several countries — including the US, Britain, Germany and Japan — have suspended funding to UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff participated in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
In an interview published over the weekend Lazzarini said $438 million has been frozen — the equivalent of more than half of expected funding for 2024. He said Israel was waging a concerted effort to destroy UNRWA.
The UN fired the employees accused by Israel and has begun an internal probe of UNRWA.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also tasked an independent panel with assessing whether UNRWA acts in a neutral fashion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lazzarini asserted that Israel has provided no evidence against the 12 former employees it accuses, but 16 countries have suspended funding anyway.
“I have cautioned donors and host countries that without new funding, UNRWA operations across the region will be severely compromised from March,” he said.
He added: “I fear we are on the edge of a monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security and human rights.”
The war started after Hamas’s unprecedented Oct. 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians.
Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages — 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s Health Ministry.

 


West Bank drone strike killed Palestinian fighter, claims Israel

West Bank drone strike killed Palestinian fighter, claims Israel
Updated 24 February 2024
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West Bank drone strike killed Palestinian fighter, claims Israel

West Bank drone strike killed Palestinian fighter, claims Israel
  • The drone strike in Jenin came hours after three Palestinian gunmen opened fire at cars on a congested West Bank highway near a Jewish settlement on Thursday, killing an Israeli man and wounding eight others

JERUSALEM: The Israeli Army said on Friday that a Palestinian fighter on his way to carry out a shooting attack was killed in a drone strike in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin a day earlier.
Yasser Hanun from the Islamic Jihad group had previously been detained for his involvement in the “terrorist organization’s military activities,” the army said in a statement.
The resident of Jenin refugee camp “was eliminated while en route to carry out another shooting attack,” the statement said, without elaborating.
Witnesses and residents said the strike also killed 17-year-old Saeed Jaradat.
A witness said weapons in the car exploded after the strike on Thursday.

BACKGROUND

Israeli troops and settlers have killed at least 400 Palestinians in the West Bank since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Ramallah.

Hanun was involved in several shooting attacks targeting Israeli settlements in the West Bank as well as shooting at soldiers and military posts, the army said.
Palestinian news agency Wafa said two people were killed and four wounded in the strike.
Video footage showed a car severely burned from the hit, its roof torn as if by a can opener.
“Two successive missiles” struck the car, Usayd Shelbi, who witnessed the strike, said.
“The situation was dangerous. The weapons in the car were exploding,” he said.
Crowds of mourners gathered for the funeral of the two men on Friday.
“This occupation bares its fangs clearly ... It rejects the existence of the Palestinian people,” Jamal Haweel, a leader in the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said.
The drone strike in Jenin came hours after three Palestinian gunmen opened fire at cars on a congested West Bank highway near a Jewish settlement on Thursday, killing an Israeli man and wounding eight others.
The gunmen were killed.
The West Bank has seen a surge in violence, to levels unseen in nearly two decades, since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza began on Oct. 7.