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.”

 


Israel sent messages to Tehran to avoid Iranian response to embassy attack — agency

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Israel sent messages to Tehran to avoid Iranian response to embassy attack — agency

Israel sent messages to Tehran to avoid Iranian response to embassy attack — agency
TEHRAN: Israel sent messages to Tehran via Egypt that it would “compromise” in Gaza to avert an Iranian response to an attack on Iran’s embassy in Syria, the Tasnim news agency reported.
The Iranian news agency’s report cited the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force.
Iran launched explosive drones and fired missiles at Israel in April in its first direct attack on Israeli territory, a retaliatory strike for what it said was an Israeli strike on its Damascus consulate, in which seven officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed.
“Israel sent messages through Egypt’s foreign minister that it will compromise in the war in Gaza to avoid Iran’s retaliation,” Amirali Hajjizadeh said.

Ship attacked by Yemen’s Houthi rebels was full of grain bound for Iran, the group’s main benefactor

Ship attacked by Yemen’s Houthi rebels was full of grain bound for Iran, the group’s main benefactor
Updated 10 min 18 sec ago
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Ship attacked by Yemen’s Houthi rebels was full of grain bound for Iran, the group’s main benefactor

Ship attacked by Yemen’s Houthi rebels was full of grain bound for Iran, the group’s main benefactor
  • The attack Tuesday on the Laax comes as the Houthis continue their attacks on shipping throughout the Red Sea corridor

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A Greek-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier that came under attack by Yemen’s Houthi militia earlier this week had a cargo of grain bound for Iran, the group’s main benefactor, authorities said Thursday.
The attack on the Laax comes as the Houthis continue their attacks on shipping throughout the Red Sea corridor, part of a campaign they say aims at pressuring Israel and the West over the war in Gaza. However, as shipping through that artery has dropped during the months of attacks, the militia have struck vessels associated with Iran, as well as Tehran’s economic lifelines of China and Russia.
Initially after the attack, the Laax had listed its destination as Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. On Thursday, however, its listed destination instead appeared to be Bandar Khomeini, Iran.
A statement released by French naval forces based in the UAE that patrol the Middle East also identified the vessel’s grain shipment as being bound for Iran. It said that a team from Djibouti had inspected the damage caused by the attack, which it said involved both drones and missiles, and found no remaining dangerous explosives onboard the ship.
Images released by the French navy showed damage both at the waterline of the vessel, as well as on its deck.
Tuesday’s attack saw five missiles hit the Laax during the hourslong assault, the private security firm LSS-SAPU told The Associated Press. LSS-SAPU, which earlier helped evacuate mariners from the Houthi-attacked Rubymar that later sunk, said there had been no prior warning by radio from the Houthis.
LSS-SAPU had three armed security guards onboard the Laax at the time of the attack. Among the ship’s crew were 13 Filipinos and one Ukrainian, the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers said in a statement.
The Houthis in recent months have stepped up attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, demanding that Israel end the war in Gaza, which has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians there. The war began after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostage.
The Houthis have launched more than 50 attacks on shipping, killed three sailors, seized one vessel and sunk another since November, according to the US Maritime Administration.
On Wednesday, another US MQ-9 Reaper drone apparently crashed in Yemen, with the Houthis claiming they fired a surface-to-air missile at it. The US Air Force didn’t report any aircraft missing, leading to suspicion that the drone may have been piloted by the CIA. As many as three may have been lost this month alone.


Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support

Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support
Updated 30 May 2024
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Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support

Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support
  • Universities in the US were rocked by pro-Palestinian demonstrations in April, triggering campus clashes with police and the arrest of dozens of people

TEHRAN: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised university students in the United States for their protests over the rising death toll in the war in Gaza.
“You have now formed a branch of the Resistance Front,” said Khamenei, referring to Tehran-aligned armed groups across the Middle East arrayed against arch-foe Israel which is also known as the Axis of Resistance.
“As the page of history is turning, you are standing on the right side of it,” he said in a letter published on his official website on Thursday.
Universities in the United States were rocked by pro-Palestinian demonstrations in April, triggering campus clashes with police and the arrest of dozens of people.
The demonstrations began at Columbia University in New York and later spread across the country as well as to Europe and elsewhere.
Tehran has reiterated support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas since the outbreak of the war in the Gaza Strip.
The assault resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry
Regional tensions have since soared, drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel last month.


Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip

Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip
Updated 30 May 2024
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Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip

Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip
  • The Israeli military launched its incursion into Rafah in early May despite international objections over the fate of Palestinian civilians sheltering there

RAFAH: Rafah residents reported intense artillery shelling and gunfire Thursday in Gaza’s far-southern city after Israel said it had seized a strategic corridor on the Palestinian territory’s border with Egypt.
The Israeli military launched its incursion into Rafah in early May despite international objections over the fate of Palestinian civilians sheltering there.
A strike over the weekend that started a fire and killed dozens in a displacement camp drew a wave of fresh condemnation, including a social media campaign with the slogan “All eyes on Rafah” that has been shared by tens of millions of users.
Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari announced Israel had taken “operational control” of the narrow border area, where he said troops had “discovered around 20 tunnels.”
Egypt, a longtime mediator in the conflict which has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of the Israeli operation, has rejected claims of smuggling tunnels running beneath the buffer zone.
“Israel is using these allegations to justify continuing the operation on the Palestinian city of Rafah and prolonging the war for political purposes,” a high-level Egyptian source was quoted as saying by state-linked Al-Qahera News.
Egyptian officials have said a potential Israeli takeover of Philadelphi could violate the two countries’ landmark 1979 peace deal, though there has been no official comment from Cairo since the military’s announcement.
On a visit in Beijing, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called for increased humanitarian assistance to besieged Gaza, and reiterated his country’s longstanding opposition to “any attempt at forcing Palestinians to forcibly flee their land.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, meanwhile, called on Thursday for a “broad-based, authoritative and effective international peace conference” to address the war, as he hosted Arab leaders including El-Sisi.
On the ground in the Gaza Strip, witnesses reported fighting in central and western Rafah.
Witnesses also said Israeli forces had demolished several buildings in the city’s eastern areas where the Israeli incursion began on May 7, initially focusing on the vital Rafah border crossing, a key entry point for humanitarian aid.


An AFP correspondent reported artillery and gunfire in Gaza City’s southern neighborhood of Zeitun, in the territory’s north, where witnesses saw thick plumes of smoke rising over Jabalia refugee camp and Beit Lahia.
A steady stream of civilians have fled Rafah, transporting their belongings on their shoulders, in cars or on donkey-drawn carts.
Before the Rafah offensive began, the United Nations said up to 1.4 million people were sheltering there. Since then, one million have fled the area, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent reported late Wednesday that two of its paramedics “were killed as a result of the Israeli occupation’s direct bombing” of an ambulance near Rafah.
The weekend Israeli strike and ensuing fire which tore through the camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, killed 45 people, according to Gaza officials and has prompted two days of discussions at the UN Security Council.
Israel has said it targeted a Hamas compound and killed two senior members.
In the wake of the strike, Algeria presented a draft UN resolution that “demands an immediate ceasefire respected by all parties” and the release of all hostages, but it was not clear when it would be put to a vote.
In a phone call with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday, France’s Emmanuel Macron said Paris was “determined to work with Algeria” to ensure the council “makes a strong statement on Rafah.”
He also called on Abbas to “implement necessary reforms,” offering the “prospect of recognition of the state of Palestine.”
Decisions by Spain, Norway and Ireland to formally recognize the State of Palestine this week have sparked a debate over the issue, and Macron said it should take place at a “useful moment.”
Israel’s has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza since October 7, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said the war could go on until the year’s end.
“We may have another seven months of fighting to consolidate our success and achieve what we have defined as the destruction of Hamas’s power and military capabilities,” Hanegbi said.
The United States has been among the countries urging Israel to refrain from a full-scale Rafah offensive because of the risk to civilians.
However, the White House said Tuesday that so far it had not seen Israel cross President Joe Biden’s “red lines.”
The New York Times and CNN, citing weapons experts and analysis of video from the scene of the weekend Rafah strike, reported that the bomb believed to have started the fatal fire was a US-made GBU-39 guided munition.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Israel to quickly devise a post-war strategy for Gaza, stressing: “In the absence of a plan for the day after, there won’t be a day after.”


Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash

Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash
Updated 30 May 2024
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Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash

Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash
  • The election comes as Iran grapples with the aftermath of the May 19 crash
  • The five-day period will see those between the ages of 40 to 75 with at least a master’s degree register as potential candidates

TEHRAN: Iran opened a five-day registration period Thursday for hopefuls wanting to run in the June 28 presidential election to replace the late Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash earlier this month with seven others.
The election comes as Iran grapples with the aftermath of the May 19 crash, as well as heightened tensions between Tehran and the United States, and protests including those over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini that have swept the country.
While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85, maintains final say over all matters of state, presidents in the past have bent the Islamic Republic of Iran toward greater interaction or increased hostility with the West.
The five-day period will see those between the ages of 40 to 75 with at least a master’s degree register as potential candidates. All candidates ultimately must be approved by Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council, a panel of clerics and jurists ultimately overseen by Khamenei. That panel has never accepted a woman, for instance, nor anyone calling for radical change within the country’s governance.
Raisi, a protege of Khamenei, won Iran’s 2021 presidential election after the Guardian Council disqualified all of the candidates with the best chance to potentially challenge him. That vote saw the lowest turnout in Iran’s history for a presidential election. That likely was a sign of voters’ discontent with both a hard-line cleric sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in mass executions in 1988, and Iran’s Shiite theocracy over four decades after its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Who will run — and potentially be accepted — remains in question. The country’s acting president, Mohammad Mokhber, a previously behind-the-scenes bureaucrat, could be a front-runner, because he’s already been seen meeting with Khamenei. Also discussed as possible aspirants are former hard-line President Mohammad Ahmadinejad and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami — but whether they’d be allowed to run is another question.
The five-day registration period will close on Tuesday. The Guardian Council is expected to issue its final list of candidates within 10 days afterwards. That will allow for a shortened two-week campaign before the vote in late June.
The new president will take office while the country now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections. Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a drone and missile attack on Israel amid the war in Gaza. Tehran also has continued arming proxy groups in the Middle East, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
Meanwhile, Iran’s economy has faced years of hardship over its collapsing rial currency. Widespread protests have swept the country, most recently over Amini’s death following her arrest over allegedly not wearing her mandatory headscarf to the liking of authorities, A UN panel says the Iranian government is responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.
Raisi is just the second Iranian president to die in office. In 1981, a bomb blast killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai in the chaotic days after the Islamic Revolution.