Saudi diplomacy could reshape region, Israeli journalist tells WEF

Saudi diplomacy could reshape region, Israeli journalist tells WEF
People attend the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on Jan. 16, 2024. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 January 2024
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Saudi diplomacy could reshape region, Israeli journalist tells WEF

Saudi diplomacy could reshape region, Israeli journalist tells WEF
  • Barak Ravid: Potential Hezbollah-Israel war would make Gaza ‘look like a walk in the park’
  • Iranian scholar: ‘No Arab country will accept Iranian political or military dominance in the region’

LONDON: Strategic deals launched by powers including Saudi Arabia could reshape a region simmering with tensions, an Israeli journalist on a panel at the World Economic Forum said on Friday.
In the panel titled “Anticipating the Middle East in 2024,” experts and government officials discussed the turbulent regional situation, with the Gaza conflict, Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and potential Saudi normalization with Israel high on the agenda.
“If the US wants to manage the (Gaza) conflict … it needs to embrace a pathway to two states,” said Jane Harman, chair of the US Commission on the National Defense Strategy.
“I think that without doing that, there will never be conflict management. And if that happens, the outlier is Iran.”
Mahmood Sariolghalam, professor of international relations at the National University of Iran and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said: “No Arab country will accept Iranian political or military dominance in the region. And I think that also includes Shiite Iraq.”
He added: “I think Iran is wasting its national resources in promoting this kind of foreign policy. And my estimate would be that it’s going to take at least 10 years, from my observations of the country, for Iran to realize that the real ingredient of power isn’t the military.
“Rather, it’s capital markets, platform companies and development of national infrastructure, and integrating with the rest of the region economically.”
Barak Ravid, an Israeli journalist with US news website Axios, said Saudi-Iranian convergence on regional matters could open a path to peace.
“Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a lot of shared interests, especially, I think, Yemen,” he added. “Both countries wanted to sort of end it (bilateral tensions) or at least reach a long-term truce, as we’ve seen over the last year.
“And economically, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have a lot of interest to promote trade and things like that, and to try and at least cool down the tensions between the Saudi axis, if there is one, and what Iran calls the Axis of Resistance — and I think they managed to do it pretty well.
“I think the Saudis … don’t see the rapprochement with Iran as contradictory to their efforts to normalize relations with Israel. I think they both can live at the same time.”
Sariolghalam said Tehran is playing a balancing act through its network of militias — “sending messages” to its enemies but also preventing escalation in any of its strongholds.
“On Lebanon, I think it’s very clear that Iran isn’t interested in escalation, because this time around it isn’t going to be like 2006,” he added, referring to Israel’s last invasion of its northern neighbor.
“There’s a great chance that Hezbollah might be devastated through not only Israeli operations but also American involvement … And Lebanon is an extremely vulnerable country and society.”
Ravid agreed, saying Hezbollah, in its border operations in southern Lebanon that began in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, “realized that they don’t need to go on an all-out escalation against Israel in order to have a lot of impact.”
However, Hezbollah’s unwillingness to escalate strikes against Israel could change, Harman warned, saying the Lebanese government’s coalition structure makes managing the country’s security “very difficult.”
Ravid also warned that “it’s totally possible that the worst is still to come,” describing a potential Hezbollah-Israel war as making the Gaza conflict “look like a walk in the park.”
He said the US should be making “much more robust” efforts to contain the situation between the two sides, “because if the border between Lebanon and Israel doesn’t (calm) down within weeks, it can really blow up.”
Despite the region’s conflicts, economic progress presents a major opportunity this year, Sariolghalam said, predicting that Gulf Cooperation Council countries “will continue to thrive” throughout 2024.
“The region is going to have, in parallel, continuing conflict, and at the same time staggering economic progress,” he added.
Ravid warned that despite prospects for Saudi normalization with Israel, momentum in Tel Aviv is moving toward a one-state “reality” that will fail to serve as a long-term solution for Palestinians.
“We see the one-state reality in the West Bank right now,” he said. “When you have settlers and Palestinians, settlers have rights and Palestinians don’t — and this is where this thing is going.”


More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank
Updated 55 min 49 sec ago
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More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank
  • 27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty
  • “Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, the World Bank said

BEIRUT: More than a quarter of Syrians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said Saturday, 13 years into a devastating civil war that has battered the economy and impoverished millions.
The World Bank published two new reports on Syria, which found that “27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty.”
“Extreme poverty, while virtually non-existent before the conflict, affected more than one in four Syrians in 2022” and might have further deteriorated after a deadly earthquake last year, one of the reports said.
The quake killed about 6,000 people in the country.
According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty, while it previously estimated that around 2 million lived in extreme poverty after more than a decade of war.
The report cited neighbor Lebanon’s economic meltdown in late 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, as having eroded the welfare of Syrian households in recent years.
The civil war in Syria has also ravaged the economy, infrastructure and industry, while Western sanctions have added to the country’s woes.
“Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, already coping with “soaring prices, reduced access to essential services and rising unemployment,” the World Bank said.
The UN told AFP previously that its humanitarian response plan for Syria for 2024 requires more than $4 billion but that it is only six percent funded.
The international community is set to meet in Brussels Monday to try and muster funds for Syria at a yearly pledging conference.
A lack of opportunities and dwindling aid has pushed many Syrians to rely on money sent from relatives abroad to survive, with the World Bank estimating that “in 2022, the total value of remittances received by Syrian households reached about $1.05 billion.”
Syria’s estimated GDP stood at around $6.2 billion in 2023.
Syria’s “real GDP is projected to contract by 1.5 percent in 2024, extending the 1.2 percent decline in 2023,” the report said.
“Inflation is anticipated to remain high in 2024 due to the pass-through effects of currency depreciation, along with persistent shortages and potential further subsidy cuts (for) food and fuel,” it said.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.


Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’

Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’
Updated 49 min 25 sec ago
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Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’

Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’
  • “There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement,” said the official
  • The official did not elaborate on the agreement

JERUSALEM: An Israeli official said Saturday the government had an “intention” to renew “this week” talks aimed at reaching a hostage release deal in Gaza, after a meeting in Paris between US and Israeli officials.
“There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli official did not elaborate on the agreement, but Israeli media reported that Mossad chief David Barnea had agreed during meetings in Paris with mediators CIA Director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on a new framework for the stalled negotiations.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a ceasefire and reopen the Rafah border crossing, Washington said.
Talks aimed at reaching a hostage release and truce deal in the Gaza Strip ground to a halt this month after Israel launched a military operation in the territory’s far-southern city of Rafah.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,903 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces
Updated 25 May 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces
  • The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023
  • Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry

CAIRO: Yemen’s Houthis said they had postponed the release of around 100 prisoners belonging to government forces that had previously been announced to take place on Saturday.
A Houthi official said that the delay was because of “technical reasons,” adding the release would take place at another time.
The head of the Houthi Prisoner Affairs Committee, Abdul Qader Al-Murtada, said on Friday that the group would release more than 100 prisoners in what he called “a unilateral humanitarian initiative.”
The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023 in an exchange of 250 Houthis for 70 government forces.
Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry.
The Houthis are the de facto authorities in northern Yemen, while the internationally recognized government is represented by the Political Leadership Council, which took over power from Yemen’s president-in-exile.


Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order
Updated 25 May 2024
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Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order
  • Spanish government: Ruling by the International Court of Justice is legally binding
  • British government says ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

MADRID/LONDON: The Spanish government demanded on Saturday that Israel comply with an order by the top UN court to immediately stop its bombardment and ground assault on the Gazan city of Rafah.
It stressed that the ruling on Friday by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was legally binding.
“The precautionary measures set out by the ICJ, including that Israel should cease its military offensive in Rafah, are compulsory. Israel must comply with them,” Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares wrote on X.
“The same goes for a ceasefire, the release of the hostages and access for humanitarian aid (to Gaza),” he said.
“The suffering of the people of Gaza and the violence must end.”
The British government, meanwhile, has criticized the World Court order, saying the ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
“The reason there isn’t a pause in the fighting is because Hamas turned down a very generous hostage deal from Israel. The intervention of these courts — including the ICJ today — will strengthen the view of Hamas that they can hold on to hostages and stay in Gaza,” a UK foreign ministry spokesperson said late on Friday.
“And if that happens there won’t be either peace, or a two-state solution.”
In a case brought by South Africa alleging the Israeli assault on Gaza amounts to “genocide,” the ICJ ordered Israel on Friday to “immediately halt” the ground and air offensive in Rafah.
The operations began on May 7 despite international fears for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians trapped in the city.
The Hague-based ICJ, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ruled that Israel must keep open the key Rafah crossing with Egypt to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into Gaza.
And it urged the “unconditional” release of hostages taken by Hamas fighters during their October 7 attack in Israel.
Israel responded on Saturday by bombing Rafah and other parts of the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Spain is one of the European countries to have been most critical of Israel over the war in Gaza.
On Wednesday, Spain, Ireland and Norway said their governments would recognize a Palestinian state from next week.
Israel summoned their envoys to “reprimand” them for the decision and on Friday said it would ban Spain’s consulate in Jerusalem from helping Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
The war in Gaza began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Some 252 people were taken hostage, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,857 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor
Updated 25 May 2024
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Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor
  • It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike in central Syria killed two fighters from Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement on Saturday, a war monitor said.
“An Israeli drone fired two missiles at a Hezbollah car and truck near the town of Qusayr in Homs province, as they were on their way to Al-Dabaa military airport, killing at least two Hezbollah fighters and wounding others,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week.
On Monday, Israeli strikes in the Qusayr area, which is close to the Lebanese border, killed eight pro-Iranian fighters, said Observatory, a Britain-based monitor with a network of sources in Syria.
At least one Hezbollah fighter was among those killed, a source from Hezbollah told AFP at the time.
Another strike, on May 18, targeted “a Hezbollah commander and his companion,” the Observatory said. It did not report any casualties.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes in Syria but has repeatedly said it will not allow its arch-enemy Iran to expand its presence there.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in its northern neighbor, mainly targeting army positions and Iran-backed fighters including from Hezbollah.
The strikes have increased since Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip began on October 7, when the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group launched an unprecedented attack against Israel.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.