Lebanon PM warns Syrian refugees pose ‘danger to the nation’

Lebanon PM warns Syrian refugees pose ‘danger to the nation’
Over a thousand Syrian refugees each week fleeing to Lebanon from their country’s worsening economic and financial conditions “could create harsh imbalances” in the small Mediterranean nation, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati warned Thursday. (AP/File)
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Updated 07 September 2023
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Lebanon PM warns Syrian refugees pose ‘danger to the nation’

Lebanon PM warns Syrian refugees pose ‘danger to the nation’
  • 2,300 Syrians stopped from crossing border illegally in 10 days, army claims
  • The Lebanese leader said that army and police units are stepping up efforts to halt what he described as “unjustified displacement convoys”

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has voiced concerns about a “new wave” of Syrian refugees entering the country “via illegal paths.”
Mikati told a Cabinet meeting on Thursday that the scale of the influx poses “a serious threat to social cohesion and our nation’s independence.”
The Lebanese leader said that army and police units are stepping up efforts to halt what he described as “unjustified displacement convoys.”
Mikati’s warning follows a surge in people smuggling from Syria into Lebanon in recent weeks.
According to Lebanon’s army command, at least 2,300 people were stopped while attempting to illegally cross the border in just 10 days leading up to Sept. 6.
The Cabinet scheduled a session next week with Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun and security service chiefs to address the issue.
Lebanon has been hosting over 1.5 million Syrian refugees for 11 years, according to Lebanese government estimates.
Hostility toward the refugees has intensified in recent months as Lebanon’s economic crisis deepens.
Lebanese municipalities have imposed night curfews on Syrian refugees and workers, restricted their movements, and demanded they register the names of family members with local authorities.
They are also required to present identification papers, rental contracts if available, and residency records with General Security, or risk deportation.
International organizations have condemned the actions as “discriminatory and retaliatory practices targeting refugees.”
With people trafficking networks proliferating, many believe those stopped by the Lebanese army constitute only a fraction of the number crossing the border each day.
Jumaa, a 23-year-old Syrian man who declined to give his real name, told Arab News that he entered Lebanon illegally earlier this summer.
“People smuggling is not limited to young men. It also involves women, children and entire families,” he said.
Syrians are “almost dying from hunger after the insane rise in prices” in the country, Jumaa said.
He said that a kilogram of sugar now costs 17,000 Syrian pounds, almost a 10th of the average monthly salary.
Syrian workers in Lebanon, meanwhile, complain about reduced wages amid the collapse of the Lebanese currency.
In most cases, they earn no more than $120 per month, barely enough to cover daily expenses.
Jumaa said that organized crime networks in Lebanon and Syria oversee the smuggling operations.
Each smuggler in Syria has a designated area of operation and can travel through checkpoints for a fee.
“On reaching the border, the crossing is done on foot — no vehicles are involved, only walking through empty land.
“The smuggler outlines the path and describes the contact on the other side of the border.”
He said the Lebanese contact organizes the illegal arrivals based on their destinations, such as the Bekaa, Beirut or Tripoli.
“People then travel by van or car to their respective destinations.”
Jumaa said the cost of illegal entry varies, ranging from $50 for a basic border crossing to as much as $600 for those from distant areas within Syria, such as Idlib.
“Illegal entry into Lebanon has never stopped, but it has escalated in recent months due to the unprecedented economic collapse in Syria,” he said.
“People share unbelievable stories about the severe hunger afflicting the poor.”
He claimed that Lebanon’s security services are rarely seen at the border and crossings hold little risk.
“The real danger and bad luck lie in the possibility of being apprehended once inside Lebanon. In such circumstances, individuals are deported and risk being arrested by Syrian security services.
“Reasons for their arrest may include being wanted for military service, suspected affiliation with revolutionary groups, or leaving an area where a settlement had been reached with the regime, which required youth to remain within their designated region and prohibited relocation.”
Jumaa also referred to “intermediaries in Lebanon who can facilitate the acquisition of legal documents for Syrians through the relevant authorities in exchange for a fee.”
In 2017, a Syrian-Lebanese security meeting took place at the Jdeidat Yabous border point to combat human smuggling.
Army, customs, immigration, passport control and security forces were assigned to tackle the issue.
Joint patrols were set up between the Masnaa and Jdeidat Yabous areas. However, security concerns remained unresolved.
A Syrian refugee in Lebanon who has kept in contact with people inside Syria said: “Efforts to escape by boat from the Lebanese coast have diminished in favor of legal departure through Lebanon to Turkiye by air. From there, smuggling operations by sea to Greece are on the rise.”
He added: “One of my relatives arrived in Germany from Greece a week ago after completing a journey on foot through the forests.”


Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release

Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release
Updated 5 sec ago
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Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release

Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release
  • The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, who see in them an enduring symbol of the state’s failure to protect its citizens from Hamas’ assault

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Aid convoys carrying food reached northern Gaza this week, Israeli officials said Wednesday, the first major delivery in a month to the devastated, isolated area, where the UN has warned of worsening starvation among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians amid Israel’s offensive.
The increasing alarm over hunger across Gaza has fueled international calls for a ceasefire as the US, Egypt and Qatar work to secure a deal between Israel and Hamas for a pause in fighting and the release of some of the hostages seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack.
Mediators hope to reach an agreement before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts around March 10. But so far, Israel and Hamas have remained far apart in public on their demands.
Increasing the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach a deal, families of hostages on Wednesday launched a four-day march from southern Israel to Jerusalem to demand their loved ones be set free. Some of the around 100 hostages freed during a ceasefire in late November are joining the march, which is to end near Netanyahu’s official residence.
The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, who see in them an enduring symbol of the state’s failure to protect its citizens from Hamas’ assault. In its Oct. 7 attack, the Palestinian militant group abducted roughly 250 people, according to Israeli authorities, including men, women, children and older adults. After the November releases, some 130 hostages remain, and Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.
Israel’s assault on Gaza, which it says aims at destroying Hamas after its attack, has killed more than 29,900 Palestinians. UN officials warn of further mass casualties if it follows through on vows to attack the southernmost city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has taken refuge. They also say a Rafah offensive could collapse the aid operation that has already been crippled in the fighting.
Across Gaza, more than 576,000 people – a quarter of the population – are a step away from famine, the UN says. But northern Gaza in particular has been gutted by hunger. The north has largely been cut off and much of it has been leveled since Israeli ground troops invaded in late October. Several hundred thousand Palestinians are believed to remain there, and many have been reduced to eating animal fodder to survive. The UN says one in 6 children under 2 in the north suffer from acute malnutrition and wasting.
A convoy of 31 trucks carrying food entered northern Gaza on Wednesday, the Israeli military office that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs said. The office, known by the acronym COGAT, said nearly 20 other trucks entered the north on Monday and Tuesday. Associated Press footage showed people carrying sacks of flour from the distribution site.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the deliveries. The UN was not involved, said a spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office, Eri Keneko.
As of Sunday, the UN had been unable to deliver food to northern Gaza since Jan. 23, according to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees that has led the aid effort during the war. On Feb. 18, the World Food Program attempted a delivery to the north for the first time in three weeks, but much of the convoy’s cargo was taken en route by desperate Palestinians, and it was only able to distribute a small amount in the north. Two days later, the WFP announced it was pausing deliveries to the north because of the chaos.
Since launching its assault on Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Israel has barred entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies except for a trickle of aid entering the south from Egypt at the Rafah crossing and Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing. Despite international calls to allow in more aid, the number of supply trucks entering has dropped dramatically in recent weeks.
COGAT said Wednesday that Israel does not impose limits on the amount of aid entering. Israel has blamed UN agencies for the bottleneck, saying hundreds of trucks are waiting on the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom for aid workers to collect them.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Wednesday countered saying large trucks entering Gaza have to be unloaded and reloaded onto smaller Palestinian trucks, but there aren’t enough of them and there’s a lack of security to distribute aid in Gaza. Police in Gaza stopped protecting convoys after Israeli strikes on them near the crossing. There is also “insufficient coordination” from Israel on security and deconfliction, which puts the lives of UN staff and other humanitarian workers at risk.
“That’s why we’ve repeatedly asked for a humanitarian ceasefire,” he said. The UN has called for Israel to open crossings in the north to aid deliveries and guarantee safe corridors for convoys.
The director of Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza said the number of children who have died in recent days from severe malnutrition and dehydration had risen to four.
Dr. Hussam Abu Safiya said that operations at the hospital will shut off starting Wednesday due to fuel shortages. “Dialysis, intensive care, childcare, and surgeries will stop. Therefore, we will witness more deaths in the coming days,” he said.
But the pain from the lack of supplies extends across Gaza. Project Hope, a humanitarian group that runs a clinic in the central town of Deir Al-Balah, said 21 percent of the pregnant women and 11 percent of the children under 5 it has treated in the last three weeks are suffering from malnutrition.
The Gaza Health Ministry said the death toll from Israel’s offensive had risen to 29,954 people, with 70,325 wounded. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it says two-thirds of the dead were children and women.
In its attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Hamas and other Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians.


Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths

Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths
Updated 28 February 2024
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Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths

Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths
  • The latest fatalities were at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza city
  • The death toll from the famine among children rose to six martyrs as a result of dehydration and malnutrition

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: Two children have died “of dehydration and malnutrition” in war-torn Gaza, the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry said Wednesday, the latest reported deaths as the UN warned of “imminent” famine.
The latest fatalities were at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza city, the largest hospital in the besieged territory, said health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra.
“The death toll from the famine among children rose to six martyrs as a result of dehydration and malnutrition,” Qudra said.
The deaths could not be independently verified.
“We call on international institutions to take immediate action to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe in the northern Gaza Strip,” the spokesman added.
UN agencies have said the latest humanitarian convoy was allowed into the north more than a month ago.
The United Nations humanitarian coordination office on Wednesday said two children had died earlier of dehydration and malnutrition in northern Gaza’s Kamal Adwan hospital — deaths previously announced by Qudra.
A dire humanitarian emergency is unfolding in Gaza as Israel continues its relentless bid to eliminate Hamas in response to the Palestinian group’s October 7 attack.
The surprise attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Nearly five months into the war, the Israeli campaign has killed at least 29,954 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.
With aid still blocked from entering northern Gaza by Israeli forces, and only entering the rest of the territory in dribs and drabs, the World Food Programme said on Tuesday that “if nothing changes, a famine is imminent.”
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA, has reported a 50-percent drop in trucks entering Gaza so far this month compared to January.
The UN humanitarian office OCHA also cited projections indicating that “the entire population of the Gaza Strip faces crisis or worse levels of food insecurity.”
More than 500,000 people out of Gaza’s 2.4 million inhabitants are “facing catastrophic conditions characterised by lack of food, starvation and exhaustion of coping capacities,” it warned.


US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan

US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan
Updated 28 February 2024
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US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan

US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan
  • “It is not in Israel’s security interest to inflame tensions in the West Bank or in the broader region,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters
  • Israel has been assessing how to address worship in Jerusalem during Ramadan

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday urged Israel to allow Muslims to worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during Ramadan, after a far-right minister proposed barring Palestinians from the occupied West Bank from praying there.
“As it pertains to Al-Aqsa, we continue to urge Israel to facilitate access to Temple Mount for peaceful worshippers during Ramadan consistent with past practice,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters, using the Jewish term for the site, the holiest in Judaism.
“That’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just a matter of granting people religious freedom that they deserve and to which they have a right, but it’s also a matter that directly is important to Israel’s security,” he said.
“It is not in Israel’s security interest to inflame tensions in the West Bank or in the broader region.”
Israel has been assessing how to address worship in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that will start on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.
The month of fasting comes as Israel wages a relentless military campaign in the Gaza Strip in response to a major attack by Hamas inside Israel on October 7.
Hamas has called for a mass movement on Al-Aqsa for the start of Ramadan.
“We call on our people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the occupied interior (Israel) to travel to Al-Aqsa from the first day of the blessed month of Ramadan, in groups or alone, to pray there to break the siege on it,” Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised statement Wednesday.
Last week, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said that Palestinian residents of the West Bank “should not be allowed” entry to Jerusalem to pray during Ramadan.
“We cannot take risks,” he said, adding: “We cannot have women and children hostage in Gaza and allow celebrations for Hamas on the Temple Mount.”
Ben Gvir leads a hard-right party advocating Jewish control of the compound.
The United States has been pressing for a deal before Ramadan begins in which Israel would halt strikes in the Gaza Strip and hostages snatched on October 7 would be freed.
The Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed at least 29,954 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest figures by the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
It was launched in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.


Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy

Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy
Updated 28 February 2024
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Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy

Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy
  • Parliament vote could see a low turnout ­— a constant feature of past elections

DUBAI: Iran is holding parliamentary elections this Friday, yet the real question may not be who gets elected but how many people actually turn out to vote.

Widespread discontent over the cratering economy, years of mass protests rocking the country, and tensions with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program and Iran’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine have many people quietly saying they won’t vote in this election.

Officials have urged people to cast ballots but tellingly, no information has been released this year from the state-owned polling center ISPA about expected turnout — a constant feature of past elections. Of 21 Iranians interviewed recently by The Associated Press, only five said they would vote. Thirteen said they won’t and three said they were undecided.

“If I protest about some shortcoming, many police and security agents will try to stop me,” said Amin, a 21-year-old university student who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. “But if I die from hunger on the corner of one of the main streets, they will show no reaction.”

Over 15,000 candidates are vying for a seat in the 290-member parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Terms run for four years and five seats are reserved for Iran’s religious minorities.

Under the law, the parliament has oversight over the executive branch, votes on treaties and handles other issues. In practice, absolute power in Iran rests with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Hard-liners have controlled the parliament for the past two decades — with chants of “Death to America” often heard from the floor.

Under parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard general who supported a violent crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999, the legislature pushed forward a bill in 2020 that greatly curtailed Tehran’s cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That followed then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 — an act that sparked years of tensions in the Middle East and saw Iran enrich enough uranium at record-breaking purity to have enough fuel for “several” nuclear weapons if it chose.

More recently, the parliament has focused on issues surrounding Iran’s mandatory headscarf, or hijab, for women after the 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, which sparked nationwide protests. The protests quickly escalated into calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers. A subsequent security crackdown killed over 500 people, with more than 22,000 detained.

Calls for an election boycott have spread in recent weeks, including from imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, a women’s right activist, who called them a “sham.”

“The Islamic Republic, with its ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions and the imprisonment and torture of men and women, deserves national sanctions and global disgrace,” Mohammadi said in a statement.

The boycott calls have put the government under renewed pressure — since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s theocracy has based its legitimacy in part on turnout in elections.

On Wednesday, Khamenei himself urged people to vote, describing it as a national duty. “There is no reasoning behind not voting,” he said. “It does not solve any problem of the country.”

He also said “those who express a lack of interest in the election and encourage others not to participate should think some more.”

“If the election is weak, all face harm,” he added.

Though ISPA, the polling agency, conducted election surveys in October, its results have not been made public. Figures from politicians and other media outlets suggest a turnout of around 30 percent.

In the 2021 presidential election that brought hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to power, the turnout was 49 percent — the lowest on record for a presidential vote. Millions of ballots were declared void, likely from those who felt obligated to vote but did not want to cast a ballot.

The 2019 parliament race saw a 42 percent turnout.

Separately, Iranians will also vote on Friday for members of the country’s 88-seat Assembly of Experts, an eight-year term on a panel that will appoint the country’s next supreme leader after Khamenei, 84.

Barred from that race is former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate under whose term Iran struck the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Some said Iran’s economic woes were the reason they are staying away from the polls. Inflation is reportedly at around 50 percent, with unemployment around 20 percent for young Iranians.

“I will not vote,” said Hashem Amani, a 55-year-old fruit merchant in southern Tehran. “In 2021, I voted for Raisi to become president in hope that similar people in the government can work together and make a better life for me. What I got in return was rocketing prices for everything.”


Syrian air defenses intercept Israeli strikes in vicinity of Damascus, state media says

Syrian air defenses intercept Israeli strikes in vicinity of Damascus, state media says
Updated 28 February 2024
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Syrian air defenses intercept Israeli strikes in vicinity of Damascus, state media says

Syrian air defenses intercept Israeli strikes in vicinity of Damascus, state media says
  • Syrian state media gave no further details about the attacks or the intended targets
  • Regional intelligence sources say Iran’s Quds Force and militias it backs have a strong presence in the Sayeda Zainab neighborhood

BEIRUT: Syrian air defenses intercepted Israeli strikes in the vicinity of the capital Damascus, state media said on Wednesday.
Syrian state media gave no further details about the attacks or the intended targets.
Pro-Iranian Lebanese television al Maydeen said a big explosion was heard in the heavily fortified Sayeda Zainab neighborhood of the Syrian capital where a major Shiite shrine is located. It gave no further details.
The Israeli military declined to comment.
Regional intelligence sources say Iran’s Quds Force and militias it backs, whose presence has spread in Syria in recent years, have a strong presence in the Sayeda Zainab neighborhood of southern Damascus where Iranian backed militias have a string of underground bases.
Iran has been a major backer of President Bashar Assad during Syria’s nearly 12-year-old conflict.
Its support for Damascus and the Lebanese group Hezbollah has drawn regular Israeli air strikes meant to curb Tehran’s extraterritorial military power.
Those strikes have ramped up during the Gaza war, with more than half a dozen Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers killed in suspected Israeli strikes on Syria since December.