Middle East faces stark choice between diplomacy and escalation, Lebanon’s caretaker PM Najib Mikati tells Arab News

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, speaks to Arab News in Davos. (Supplied)
Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, speaks to Arab News in Davos. (Supplied)
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Updated 16 January 2024
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Middle East faces stark choice between diplomacy and escalation, Lebanon’s caretaker PM Najib Mikati tells Arab News

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, speaks to Arab News in Davos. (Supplied)
  • Gaza ceasefire would reduce hostilities on Lebanese border, allow progress on two-state solution, says Mikati
  • Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, caretaker PM denounces Israeli strikes on Lebanese soil

DAVOS: Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, said on Tuesday that Israel’s recent attacks on Lebanese soil, as well as the ongoing hostilities in Gaza, presented the region with two possible outcomes — win-win or lose-lose.

In an interview with Arab News at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mikati said the region faced a stark choice between a diplomatic resolution to the region’s many overlapping crises or a major escalation.

“We are faced with two solutions today: Either a win-win solution or a lose-lose one,” he said. “In the lose-lose scenario, a region-wide war would be declared, whereas the win-win scenario would involve the required diplomatic solution.”




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Mikati, who is heading Lebanon’s first delegation to the annual meeting since 2019, when the country’s financial crisis began, said his country favored a diplomatic solution that would avoid dragging the region into a costly war.

“Since the war erupted in Gaza, we have been calling for a ceasefire, as it would serve as the foundation for any potential solution,” he said.

“As soon as a ceasefire is reached in Gaza, we will explore a solution aimed at achieving sustainable and permanent stability in south Lebanon, in accordance with the UN Resolution 1701, which must be fully applied.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 ended the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. However, since the war in Gaza began on Oct. 7, Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters have traded fire along the shared border.

Our greatest fear is that those violations will lead to a war — a prolonged and devastating one for all involved.

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister

In November, Mikati proposed a three-step plan for peace in Gaza, starting with a five-day pause in hostilities.

During this pause, Hamas would release some of the hostages it seized during its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, while Israel would allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, where Palestinian civilians have endured months under siege.

Meanwhile, world leaders would begin working towards an international summit to implement a permanent two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, Israel has been reluctant to halt its military operation in Gaza. Instead, it appears to have broadened the scope of its mission to include precision airstrikes against Hamas and Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon.




A shell that appears to be white phosphorus from Israeli artillery explodes over a house in al-Bustan, a Lebanese border village with Israel, south Lebanon, on Oct. 15, 2023. (AP)

Saleh Al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau and founder of the group’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, was killed in a suspected Israeli strike alongside several of his henchmen at an apartment in a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in Beirut on Jan. 2.

Then, on Jan. 8, Wissam Al-Tawil, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Radwan Force, was also killed in a suspected Israeli drone strike on a vehicle in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Selm.

This was followed on Jan. 9 with the death of Ali Hussein Burji, commander of Hezbollah’s aerial forces in southern Lebanon, also in Khirbet Selm in another suspected Israeli airstrike.

The killings on Lebanese soil have only compounded the threat of escalation, with the exchange of missiles and drone attacks along the shared border continuing to intensify.




A Palestinian man carries a victim of an Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 7, 2023. (AFP)

Israeli shelling has burned 462 hectares of agricultural and forested land, according to the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, and sparked an exodus from southern villages close to the border with Israel.

Likewise, Israeli civilians living close to the border have been relocated, fearing an attack akin to the Hamas assault of Oct. 7.

An Amnesty International report confirmed that “the Israeli army fired artillery shells containing white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon, in military operations along Lebanon’s southern border” between Oct. 10 and 16.

Furthermore, videos verified by Human Rights Watch in October indicated that Israel had used white phosphorus in military operations in south Lebanon and Gaza on Oct. 10 and 11, respectively.




Hezbollah members take part in a military exercise during a media tour organized for the occasion of Resistance and Liberation Day, in Aaramta, Lebanon May 21, 2023. (REUTERS)

The monitor said on Oct. 12 that these attacks placed civilians “at risk of serious and long-term injuries.”

On Jan. 9, Lebanon filed a formal complaint to the UN Security Council accusing Israel of violating Resolution 1701, citing the use of prohibited weapons containing white phosphorus.

International humanitarian law prohibits the use of white phosphorus in, or in close proximity to, populated civilian areas or infrastructure.

This incendiary substance burns at extremely high temperatures and often starts fires that spread and continue until the phosphorus is depleted.




Pedestrians walk past a closed-down shop with a rental sign in the wake of an economic crisis in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)

People exposed to white phosphorus can suffer respiratory damage, organ failure and other life-changing injuries. Burns caused by the substance are extremely difficult to treat and can be fatal when affecting just 10 percent of the body.

“We have filed a complaint with the UN on the type of weapons used and other violations committed by Israel,” Mikati told Arab News. “Our greatest fear is that those violations will lead to a war — a prolonged and devastating one for all involved.”

Lebanon has filed additional complaints against Israel at the UN Security Council, including over the suspected targeted killing of Hamas commander Al-Arouri.

If an all-out war breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, many in Lebanon fear it would be far more devastating than the 2006 conflict, which left at least 1,100 Lebanese dead and severely damaged civilian infrastructure, including Rafik Hariri International Airport.




US Ambassador Alternate Representative of the US for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations Robert A. Wood raises his hand during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Gaza, at UN headquarters in New York City on December 8, 2023. (AFP)

Since 2019, Lebanon has been grappling with a range of overlapping political and economic crises, which have pushed some 80 percent of the population into poverty. The country’s financial crisis has been deemed one of the world’s worst since the 1850s.

However, the Lebanese government has failed to implement critical reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund to address the root causes of the country’s economic problems.

Parliament has also repeatedly failed since Oct. 2022 to elect a new president, with its 12th unsuccessful attempt in June last year.

“More than 14 months have passed without the election of a president,” Mikati told Arab News, adding that he hoped “all political entities in Lebanon (would) demonstrate the necessary (level of) awareness to expedite the process.”

In the context of regional tensions, however, Mikati seemed doubtful about progress in the short term. “At the present time, electing the president of the Lebanese republic is a top priority, but there have been new developments,” he said.

“This is especially important during these challenging times in the region.”

 


Families forum release video of Israeli women troops being seized on Oct 7

Families forum release video of Israeli women troops being seized on Oct 7
Updated 23 May 2024
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Families forum release video of Israeli women troops being seized on Oct 7

Families forum release video of Israeli women troops being seized on Oct 7
  • The three-minute clip showed the women sitting on the ground, some with blood on their faces, with their hands tied
  • The footage was taken from a two-hour video filmed on a body camera by Hamas militants

JERUSALEM: An Israeli campaign group on Wednesday released footage of five Israeli female soldiers being captured by Palestinian militants from a military base during Hamas’s October 7 attack, after their families gave permission.

The three-minute clip showed the women sitting on the ground, some with blood on their faces, with their hands tied following their capture from the Nahal Oz base in southern Israel.

The footage was taken from a two-hour video filmed on a body camera by Hamas militants during the attack, the campaign group the Hostage and Missing Families Forum said in a statement.

“The footage reveals the violent, humiliating, and traumatising treatment the girls endured on the day of their abduction, their eyes filled with raw terror,” the forum said as it released the footage to the media for publication.

Towards the end of the clip, the women are seen being taken away by militants in a military jeep amid screams.

“It’s time to act, otherwise the blood of my sister and other hostages will be on the hands” of the Israeli authorities, Sasha Ariev, sister of one of the seized soldiers, told AFP.

“Everyone has now seen these young girls taken captive in their pyjamas... the only victory is to bring them back quickly and alive.”

After the base was stormed by Hamas militants on October 7, more than 50 Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack, 15 of whom were women.

Seven female soldiers were taken hostage and one has since been freed in an Israeli military operation, while the body of another was found and brought to Israel.

Hamas said the video footage was “manipulated” with a selection of images aimed at supporting “false allegations” to “tarnish the image of the resistance.”

Some of the soldiers were bleeding or sustained minor injuries, “but there was no physical aggression against any of them,” the Palestinian Islamist movement said in a statement.

Hamas’s unprecedented attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 124 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under intense pressure from the families of the hostages to negotiate the return of their loved ones from Gaza.

Netanyahu vowed in a statement on Wednesday to continue fighting Hamas to “ensure what we have seen tonight never happens again.”

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

The Israeli military says 287 soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the ground offensive on October 27.


Bomb kills five civilians from same family in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, two security sources say

Bomb kills five civilians from same family in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, two security sources say
Updated 24 min 56 sec ago
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Bomb kills five civilians from same family in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, two security sources say

Bomb kills five civilians from same family in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, two security sources say

A roadside bomb killed five civilians from the same family in Iraq’s Salahuddin province after detonating on a vehicle transporting them, two security sources said on Wednesday.

 


How armed groups are using fire to displace communities in Sudan’s troubled Darfur 

How armed groups are using fire to displace communities in Sudan’s troubled Darfur 
Updated 23 May 2024
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How armed groups are using fire to displace communities in Sudan’s troubled Darfur 

How armed groups are using fire to displace communities in Sudan’s troubled Darfur 
  • Satellite images show fires have ravaged settlements surrounding the westen city of Al-Fashir in recent weeks 
  • UN officials have accused combatants of setting fires to sow fear and ethnically cleanse tribal communities 

LONDON: Fires in western Sudan, reportedly set by militiamen, have torn through hundreds of settlements in recent months, forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes, while those who remain live in constant fear of attack.

A recent report by the Sudan Witness project of the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience found that a total of 201 villages and settlements in western Sudan had suffered fire damage since the start of the war.

April was the worst month on record, with 72 communities impacted by fires set deliberately or as a byproduct of the fighting that has raged between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces since April 2023.

The report, published on May 12, highlighted a surge in the number of fires to the north and west of the city of Al-Fashir in North Darfur State, which has seen escalating violence.

Analysts believe the fires are being set deliberately to displace the population of these areas.

“When we see reports of fighting or airstrikes coinciding with clusters of fires, it indicates that fire is being used indiscriminately as a weapon of war,” Anouk Theunissen, project director at Sudan Witness, stated in the report.

He warned that “the trend is worsening and continues to lead to the mass displacement of Sudanese people.”

Sudan Witness investigators pieced together open-source NASA satellite imagery and social media content to map the pattern of fires since the onset of the Sudanese conflict more than a year ago. They primarily focused on Kordofan and the troubled Darfur region.

Until the end of April 2024, at least 311 individual fires broke out in the two provinces. The assessment also revealed that 51 settlements of various sizes have suffered multiple fires since the war began.

Investigators have pieced together open-source satellite imagery, left, and social media content to map the pattern of fires in Kordofan and Darfur since the onset of the Sudanese conflict more than a year ago. (AFP file)

Expressing horror at the violence unfolding in Al-Fashir, UN human rights chief Volker Turk described the situation in the city as “hell on Earth” and renewed calls for the warring parties to end the hostilities.

Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at least 58 civilians had been reported killed and 213 others injured in Al-Fashir “since fighting dramatically escalated.”

INNUMBERS

• 201 Villages and settlements in western Sudan which have suffered fire damage since April last year.

• 311 Individual fires that had broken out until the end of April 2024 in Kordofan and Darfur.

During a press briefing in Geneva on May 17, she said “these figures are certainly an underestimate,” warning that the fighting between the two parties and their allied armed militias was taking “a deeply devastating toll on civilians.”

She said Turk had held phone conversations with both sides to urge them to cease hostilities, to ensure the protection of civilians, and to warn them that fighting in Al-Fashir “would have a catastrophic impact on civilians and deepen intercommunal conflict with disastrous humanitarian consequences.”

Al-Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, has been under siege by the RSF for several months, trapping an estimated 1.8 million residents and internally displaced people, according to UN figures.

This picture taken on June 16, 2023, shows bodies strewn outdoors near houses in the West Darfur state capital El Geneina. (AFP/File photo)

Anticipating the worst, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, warned in late April of a potentially imminent massacre in Al-Fashir. 

“As I’ve said before, history is repeating itself in Darfur in the worst possible way. And an attack on Al-Fashir would be a disaster on top of a disaster,” she said during the UN Security Council Stakeout on the Situation in Sudan.

“It would put 500,000 internally displaced persons at risk, people who traveled from across Darfur to seek refuge. And that’s on top of the 2 million Sudanese who call Al-Fashir home.”

Cut off from the outside world, the people in Al-Fashir are now at imminent risk of famine. Yet the UN says it has received just 12 percent of the $2.7 billion it had requested from donors to head off mass starvation.

Internally displaced women wait in a queue to collect aid from a group at a camp in Gedaref on May 12, 2024. (AFP)

Since the outbreak of conflict in Sudan last year, at least 15,500 people have been killed, more than 33,000 injured, and some 6.8 million displaced inside the country, according to UN figures.

“Half of the population, 25 million people, need humanitarian aid,” Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told AFP news agency.

“Famine is closing in. Diseases are closing in. The fighting is closing in on civilians, especially in Darfur.”

Health infrastructure in Al-Fashir has also not been spared. On May 19, the RSF launched a barrage of artillery at the city’s Women’s, Maternity and Neonatal Hospital, injuring nine people and causing significant damage to the facility, according to the Sudan Tribune.

A recent report by the New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch accused the RSF and its allied militias of committing “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” in West Darfur.

The RSF has said its fighters are not involved in what it describes as ‘a tribal conflict’ in Darfur. (AFP file)

The report, published May 16, emphasized that the hostilities in El-Geneina alone from April to November last year left thousands dead and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands more.

The RSF has said it is not involved in what it describes as a “tribal conflict” in Darfur. 

Even the use of fire as a weapon of war is nothing new in Sudan. The Sudan Witness project published a map in October last year plotting multiple fire incidents in the country since the start of the conflict.

The map revealed that the highest concentration of fire incidents was in the southwest of the country, with 68 villages in the Masalit-majority Darfur region having been set ablaze by the RSF and its allied militias, according to media reports.

Masalit tribes were among the rebel groups that fought the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia — the forerunner of the RSF — during the war in Darfur that started in 2003, leading to reprisals and ethnic cleansing.

Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s minister for development and Africa, warned in December that the latest reported targeting and mass displacement of the Masalit community in Darfur “bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.”

Alice Nderitu, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, warned on Tuesday that Sudan is exhibiting all the signs that genocide could — and may already — be taking place.

Alice Nderitu, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide. (Supplied)

“The protection of civilians in Sudan cannot wait,” Nderitu told a meeting of the UN Security Council. “The risk of genocide exists in Sudan. It is real and it is growing, every single day.

“In Darfur and Al-Fashir, civilians are being attacked and killed because of the color of their skin, because of their ethnicity, because of who they are. They are also targeted with hate speech and with direct incitement to violence.”

Nderitu said the burning and destruction of villages and settlements around Al-Fashir is intended to cause displacement and fear, rather than accomplish any specific military objectives.

“It is imperative that all possible actions aimed at the protection of innocent civilian populations, in Al-Fashir as in the entire territory of Sudan, are expedited,” she said. “It is urgent to stop ethnically motivated violence.”
 

 


Arab League welcomes announcement by Spain, Ireland, Norway to recognize Palestine

Arab League welcomes announcement by Spain, Ireland, Norway to recognize Palestine
Updated 22 May 2024
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Arab League welcomes announcement by Spain, Ireland, Norway to recognize Palestine

Arab League welcomes announcement by Spain, Ireland, Norway to recognize Palestine
  • Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Arab League secretary-general, said that this “significant move underscores a genuine commitment to the two-state solution”
  • He urged countries yet to recognize Palestine to reassess their positions and align themselves with the course of history

CAIRO: The Arab League has welcomed the official recognition of the state of Palestine by Spain, Ireland, and Norway.
The prime ministers of the three countries said on Wednesday they were formally going to recognize Palestine as a state as of May 28.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Arab League secretary-general, said that this “significant move underscores a genuine commitment to the two-state solution and reflects the sincere desire of these nations to safeguard it from those seeking to undermine or eradicate it.”
Gamal Roshdy, Aboul Gheit’s spokesman, said that “this important development follows the recent recognitions by Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas. These additions bring the total number of countries recognizing the Palestinian state to approximately 147, aligning with the overwhelming global consensus.”
Roshdy said such recognition “is a fundamental aspect of the state's standing in international law.
This step “embodies a principled political, moral, and legal stance. It marks a significant milestone toward realizing the Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he quoted Abdul Gheit as saying.
Aboul Gheit said that “recognition conveys a clear message to Palestinians: the world stands resolute in defending their right to self-determination and the establishment of an independent state.”
He stressed that “amid the current hardships, a political pathway leading to the realization of the Palestinian state is inevitable.”
Aboul Gheit urged countries yet to recognize Palestine to reassess their positions and align themselves with the course of history.
He highlighted that recognizing Palestine signifies a genuine commitment to the two-state solution, diverging from violent approaches, and fostering peace and security across the region.


Washington stepping up defense cooperation with GCC states: US official

Washington stepping up defense cooperation with GCC states: US official
Updated 22 May 2024
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Washington stepping up defense cooperation with GCC states: US official

Washington stepping up defense cooperation with GCC states: US official
  • ‘The threats from Iran and its proxies are pervasive,’ Dan Dhapiro tells briefing attended by Arab News
  • ‘The US has an interest in deepening the partnerships we’ve forged with our Gulf partners’

LONDON: The US is stepping up defense cooperation with Gulf Cooperation Council countries in a bid to address one of the region’s “most challenging periods in recent years,” Dan Shapiro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, told a press briefing attended by Arab News on Wednesday.
Gulf military representatives on Wednesday met senior US officials at the GCC headquarters in Riyadh as part of the partnership’s maritime and missile defense working groups.
It comes a month after Iran launched a massive drone and ballistic missile strike at Israel, and amid simmering regional tensions over the Gaza war.
Conversations between GCC and US officials are “more important than ever,” said Shapiro. “The US-GCC defense working groups are rooted in a strong US partnership with the GCC and our collective commitment to cooperating on regional security issues,” he added.
“For over a decade, we’ve worked together to address pressing threats and crises. The US has an interest in deepening the partnerships we’ve forged with our Gulf partners.”
Shapiro, who previously served as US ambassador to Israel and Abraham Accords envoy, warned that “the threats from Iran and its proxies are pervasive” in the region.
He said Yemen’s Houthi militia is carrying out “utterly illegitimate acts of terrorism” in its Red Sea campaign against civilian shipping.
The working group meetings saw US and Gulf officials explore ways to “bolster information sharing, counter proliferation, and increase the effectiveness of combined interdictions of illegal maritime shipments to the Houthis,” he added.
The April 13 Iranian attack on Israel, which Shapiro said was a “watershed moment in the Middle East,” also loomed large in the meetings.
“In the wake of Iran’s unprecedented attack and our successful defeat of this attack, the US and our Gulf partners agreed that taking steps to deepen the integration of our air and missile defenses across the Middle East is more important than ever,” he added.
“On April 13, we showcased what we’re collectively capable of when we work together on defeating regional security threats.
“It was a proof of concept of integrated air and missile defense, showing that our work to build this architecture isn’t theoretical.
“It has real-world, real-time impact. It saves lives and it keeps conflicts from escalating. And it showed we’re stronger when we act together.
“Ironically, Iran’s attack on April 13 was ultimately successful in sparking deeper cooperation on integrated air and missile defense.”
Shapiro said Washington’s Gulf partners, by increasing integrated air and missile defense in the near term, hope to lay the foundations for a GCC-wide air defense system.
US officials at the working group meetings also proposed joint military training “to ensure that our forces share a common operational language,” he added.
At the press briefing, a senior US defense official said on condition of anonymity that Washington’s Gulf partners are “laser focused” on understanding the nature of the Iranian threat, adding: “Having that conversation with the GCC in May 2024 is completely different from any conversation you could’ve had with any partner in the region before April 13, 2024.”
The Iranian strike produced a “galvanizing effect” across the Gulf, encouraging states to boost their commitment to building shared defense systems, the official said.
On the flare-up in the Red Sea, Washington does not view its campaign against the Houthis as a “purely military challenge,” instead accepting that “military solutions are necessary but not sufficient,” the official added.
“It’s a whole-of-government challenge from the US perspective. And it’s an international challenge from the world perspective.”
The working group meetings in Riyadh also saw discussions on “some of the non-military ways” to target the militia, including “delegitimization, sanctions and condemnation, and designation as a global terrorist organization,” the official said.