France proposes Hezbollah withdrawal, border talks for Israel-Lebanon truce

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from northern Israel towards Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP)
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from northern Israel towards Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 13 February 2024
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France proposes Hezbollah withdrawal, border talks for Israel-Lebanon truce

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from northern Israel towards Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP)
  • The plan proposes Lebanese armed groups and Israel would cease military operations against each other, including Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon
  • An Israeli official said such a proposal had been received and was being discussed by the government

BEIRUT/PARIS: France has delivered a written proposal to Beirut aimed at ending hostilities with Israel and settling the disputed Lebanon-Israel frontier, according to a document seen by Reuters that calls for fighters including Hezbollah’s elite unit to withdraw 10 km (6 miles) from the border.
The plan aims to end fighting between the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel at the border. The hostilities have run in parallel to the Gaza war and are fueling concern of a ruinous, all-out confrontation.
The document, the first written proposal brought to Beirut during weeks of Western mediation, was delivered to top Lebanese state officials including Prime Minister Najib Mikati by French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne last week, four senior Lebanese and three French officials said.
It declares the aim of preventing a conflict “that risks spiraling out of control” and enforcing “a potential ceasefire, when the conditions are right” and ultimately envisions negotiations on delineation of the contentious land border between Lebanon and Israel.
Hezbollah rejects formally negotiating a de-escalation until the war in Gaza ends, a position reiterated by a Hezbollah politician in response to questions for this story.
While some details of similar mediation efforts by US Middle East envoy Amos Hochstein have been circulating in recent weeks, the full details of the French written proposal delivered to Lebanon have not previously been reported.
The three-step plan envisages a 10-day process of de-escalation ending with the border negotiations.
One French diplomatic source said the proposal had been put to the governments of Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah.
France has historical ties with Lebanon. It has 20,000 citizens in the country and some 800 troops as part of a UN peacekeeping force.
“We made proposals. We are in contact with the Americans and it’s important that we bring together all initiatives and build peace,” Sejourne told a news conference on Monday.
The plan proposes Lebanese armed groups and Israel would cease military operations against each other, including Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon.
Several non-state groups, including Palestinian factions, have mounted attacks on Israel from south Lebanon during the latest hostilities, though Hezbollah is the dominant power in the area with a fighting force widely seen to outgun the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese armed groups would dismantle all premises and facilities close to the frontier, and withdraw combat forces — including Hezbollah’s elite Radwan fighters and military capabilities such as antitank systems — at least 10 km north of the frontier, the document proposes.
Any such withdrawal could still leave Hezbollah fighters much closer to the border than the 30 km (19 mile) withdrawal to Lebanon’s Litani River, stipulated in a UN resolution that ended a war with Israel in 2006.
The shorter withdrawal would help ensure rockets did not reach villages in northern Israel that have been targeted with anti-tank missiles and was a compromise seen as more palatable to Hezbollah than a retreat to the Litani, one Western diplomat with knowledge of the two-page proposal said.
Up to 15,000 Lebanese army troops would be deployed in the border region of south Lebanon, a Hezbollah political stronghold where the group’s fighters have long melted into society at times of calm.
Asked about the proposal, senior Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters that the group would not discuss “any matter related to the situation in the south before the halt of the aggression on Gaza.”
“The enemy is not in the position to impose conditions,” added Fadlallah, declining to comment on details of the proposal or whether Hezbollah had received it.
One of the Lebanese officials said the document brings together ideas discussed in contacts with Western envoys and had been passed on to Hezbollah. French officials told the Lebanese it was not a final paper, after Beirut raised objections to parts of it, the Lebanese official said.
An Israeli official said such a proposal had been received and was being discussed by the government.
Reuters reported last month that Hezbollah had rebuffed ideas suggested by Hochstein, who has been at the heart of the efforts, but that it had also kept the door ajar to diplomacy.
Asked for comment for this story, a State Department spokesperson said the United States “continues to explore all diplomatic options with our Israeli and Lebanese counterparts to restore calm and avoid escalation.” The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Lebanese official said several elements prompted concern in Beirut, including the demand armed groups dismantle premises and facilities close to the border, which the official said was vaguely worded and could be used to demand moves against Hezbollah-affiliated civilian institutions.

’UNCLEAR’ ELEMENTS
Tens of thousands of people have fled homes on both sides of the border since the fighting began on Oct. 8.
Israeli strikes have killed nearly 200 people in Lebanon, 170 of them Hezbollah fighters. Attacks from Lebanon have killed 10 soldiers and five civilians in Israel.
But the strikes have mostly been contained to areas near the border and both sides have said they want to avoid all-out war.

Numerous Western envoys have visited Beirut to discuss ways to de-escalate the fighting, mostly meeting with Lebanese state officials rather than Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
One of the Lebanese officials said a French technical delegation returned to Beirut two days after Sejourne’s visit to discuss details, following the Lebanese objections.
Another of the Lebanese officials said Beirut had not responded to the proposal, adding that it was neither signed nor dated and was therefore not deemed official enough to warrant a response.

THREE-STEP APPROACH
The proposal recalls a ceasefire which ended a war between Hezbollah and Israel in 1996, and also UN Security Council resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war.
It maps out three steps over 10 days.
The two sides would cease military operations in step one. Within three days, step two would see Lebanese armed groups withdrawing combat forces at least 10 km north of the frontier and Lebanon would initiate the deployment of soldiers in the south. Israel would cease overflights into Lebanese territory.
As the third step, within 10 days, Lebanon and Israel would resume negotiations on delimiting the land border “in a gradual way” and with the support of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.
They would also engage in negotiations on a roadmap to ensure the establishment of an area free of any non-state armed groups between the border and the Litani river.
Hezbollah has previously signalled it could support the state negotiating a deal with Israel to settle the status of disputed areas at the border to Lebanon’s benefit.
One of the issues to address is financing for the Lebanese army, severely weakened by a severe financial crisis in Lebanon.
The proposal calls for an international effort to support the deployment of the Lebanese army with “financing, equipment, training.” It also called for “the socio-economic development of southern Lebanon.”

 


Muslim school student loses UK court bid over prayer rituals ban

Muslim school student loses UK court bid over prayer rituals ban
Updated 2 sec ago
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Muslim school student loses UK court bid over prayer rituals ban

Muslim school student loses UK court bid over prayer rituals ban
LONDON: A Muslim pupil lost a UK court challenge Tuesday against a top London school’s ban on prayer rituals, in a case about freedom of religion in schools that captured national attention.
The student, who cannot be named, took legal action against Michaela Community School in northwest London, claiming the policy was discriminatory and “uniquely” affected her faith due to its ritualized nature.
She argued the school’s prohibition of on-site prayer unlawfully breached her right to religious freedom and was “the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society.”
The school — state-funded but independently run and renowned for its academic achievement record and strict rules — countered that the policy imposed last year was justified.
The High Court in London hearing the case was told the ban introduced last year stemmed from several dozen students beginning to pray in the school’s yard, using blazers to kneel on, the BBC reported.
It then imposed the new rules due to concerns about a “culture shift” toward “segregation between religious groups and intimidation within the group of Muslim pupils,” the court reportedly heard.
In a written ruling, judge Thomas Linden dismissed the pupil’s arguments, ruling that by enrolling at the school she had effectively accepted being subject to restrictions on manifesting her faith.
He concluded that the prayer ritual policy was “proportionate” and that its aims and ability to achieve them “outweighs” any “adverse effects” on the rights of Muslim pupils at the school.
Responding to the decision Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School, said “a school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves.”
“The court’s decision is therefore a victory for all schools,” she added on X (formerly Twitter).
“Schools should not be forced by one child and her mother to change its approach simply because they have decided they don’t like something at the school.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan also welcomed the ruling, saying “headteachers are best placed to make decisions in their school.”
“Michaela is an outstanding school and I hope this judgment gives all school leaders the confidence to make the right decisions for their pupils.”

At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods

At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods
Updated 25 min 49 sec ago
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At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods

At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods
  • Number of reported casualties has doubled since Sunday
  • Many were killed when their homes collapsed on them

Kabul: Extreme rainfall in Afghanistan and devastating flash floods have killed at least 66 people and damaged homes, infrastructure, and farmlands across most of the country’s provinces, authorities said on Tuesday.

The storms, which started over the weekend, are adding to the challenges facing Afghanistan, which is still recovering from decades of conflict and natural disasters, including unprecedented droughts in the past four years, as well as a series of deadly earthquakes.

“According to primary reports from the provinces, at least 66 people lost their lives, and 36 others are injured,” Janan Sayeq, spokesperson of the National Disaster Management Authority, told Arab News on Tuesday.

The number of reported casualties has doubled since Sunday, raising fears the actual toll could be higher. Many of the victims were killed when their homes collapsed on them.

Sayeq said that 1,235 houses were destroyed.

Flash floods were reported in 23 of the country’s 34 provinces, damaging crops ahead of the harvest season, and further affecting food security in the country as UN agencies estimate that more than half of its population has been in need of humanitarian assistance.

“The wheat crops will be ready for collection in a few weeks. But the rainfalls could destroy most of it,” said Gul Hussain, a farmer from the eastern Laghman province, which is one of the main agricultural regions.

The impact of drought, and now also floods, has been devastating for rural families struggling with access to water.

“The floods have had severe effects on the lives of people in the southeast, southwest and east of the country and have caused loss of life and damage to houses, as well as economic and agricultural effects as crops are destroyed and livestock are killed,” Najibullah Sadid, a hydromophologist, told Arab News.

The country’s mountainous topography and reduced vegetation left little to no space for people to escape flood events, as preparedness and prevention in the face of the changing climate are almost nonexistent.

Water management infrastructure — such as check dams, trenches, terraces, and reservoirs that could help reduce flooding — is insufficient.

“For instance, Afghanistan has 22 percent less water storage compared to Iran and 13 percent less compared to Pakistan, making the country more vulnerable to floods during rainfalls,” Sadid said.

“Considering the increasing climate change effects as well as frequency and intensity of rainfalls, steps taken during the past two decades and now are limited and are not sufficient to control the situation.”


Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 

Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 
Updated 16 April 2024
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Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 

Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 
  • Indonesia is the world’s 4th-largest coffee producer and Asia’s second-biggest
  • Egypt was second-biggest export destination for Indonesian coffee in 2023, behind the US

JAKARTA: Indonesia has become Egypt’s main source of coffee, authorities said on Tuesday, as annual exports reached nearly $93 million, or about 43 percent of the market. 

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer and Asia’s second-biggest. In 2023, the Southeast Asian nation exported around 276,000 metric tons of the commodity worth almost $916 million, according to the Central Statistics Agency. 

Egypt was the second-biggest export destination for Indonesian coffee, just behind the US, accounting for about 5.2 percent of the country’s total coffee exports. 

“Indonesian coffee has successfully dominated the Egyptian market. Total export value reached $92.96 million, making Indonesia the biggest coffee-exporting country to Egypt in 2023,” Indonesian Ambassador in Cairo Lutfi Rauf said in a statement. 

“This shows how Indonesian coffee products are loved by Egyptian consumers. The unique aroma and flavor are the main factors attracting consumers from Egypt.” 

Indonesian officials held an annual meeting with Egyptian coffee buyers in Damanhour over the weekend, as they seek to foster good trade relations. 

“We hope to continue and to improve trade relations. If there are any challenges, everything can be discussed well for the prosperity and welfare of the people of both countries,” Rauf said. 

Indonesian officials have been increasing trade engagement with Egypt as a gateway for exports to other African countries in recent years, while Indonesian coffee producers are seeking to further their exports to the Middle East amid rising interest from the region. 

Hariyanto, a coffee exporter from East Java province, said promotion efforts by the Indonesian Embassy in Cairo have helped boost the popularity of Indonesian coffee in Egypt. 

“Egypt is a great market, and now there is a high demand for Indonesian-origin coffee products,” Hariyanto, a coffee exporter from East Java province, told Arab News. 

“Egyptians found a match in Indonesian-origin coffee, as there is a good fit in terms of price and taste.”


UK MPs vote down plan to protect Afghan ‘heroes’ from deportation

UK MPs vote down plan to protect Afghan ‘heroes’ from deportation
Updated 16 April 2024
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UK MPs vote down plan to protect Afghan ‘heroes’ from deportation

UK MPs vote down plan to protect Afghan ‘heroes’ from deportation
  • 10B amendment seeks to exclude Afghan veterans from removal to Rwanda
  • Top military officials warn of ‘grave damage to our ability to recruit local allies in future military operations’

London: Conservative MPs in the UK have voted against a plan to prevent Afghan veterans who served alongside British soldiers from facing deportation to Rwanda.

An amendment to the controversial Rwanda bill was overturned by 312 votes to 253 on Monday, in a rejection of plans to exempt agents, allies and employees of the UK from being deported to the African country, The Independent reported.

The House of Lords’ amendment 10B is part of the larger bill, which seeks the deportation of illegal migrants to Rwanda.

Several amendments set in the House of Lords have sought to prevent Afghan veterans who fought alongside the British military in the decade-long war from being included in deportation orders.

The 10B amendment included people eligible to enter the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, which supports Afghans who helped the British campaign in their country and who are at risk under the Taliban government.

After the vote, the Rwanda bill will now return to the House of Lords for new scrutiny.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had told Conservative MPs to vote against all amendments to the bill, including 10B.

The move to exclude Afghan veterans from potential deportation to Rwanda has received support from the highest levels of Britain’s military establishment.

Thirteen senior military officials, two former chiefs of defense staff, a former defense secretary and a former UK ambassador to the US have supported the amendment.

The Sunday Telegraph carried a letter from top military officials ahead of Monday’s vote. They warned that a rejection of the amendment would cause “grave damage to our ability to recruit local allies in future military operations.”

The letter added: “It is essential that those who have made it to British shores are not unduly punished by being removed to Rwanda when the government’s scheme is up and running.”


India’s Lok Sabha election 2024: What you need to know

India’s Lok Sabha election 2024: What you need to know
Updated 16 April 2024
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India’s Lok Sabha election 2024: What you need to know

India’s Lok Sabha election 2024: What you need to know
  • India is holding the world’s biggest election starting this month, with nearly one billion people eligible to vote
  • Votes to be counted on June 4 after polling done on April 19, April 26, May 7, May 13, May 20, May 25, June 1

India is holding the world’s biggest election starting this month, with nearly 1 billion people eligible to vote and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the pole position.

WHAT IS IT?

Elections to the 543 contested seats in the lower house of parliament, called the Lok Sabha, for a term of five years. To rule, a party or a coalition needs a simple majority of 272 seats. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 303 seats the last time, followed by 52 for the main opposition Indian National Congress (INC).

In addition to the contested seats, India’s president can nominate up to two Anglo-Indians to the Lok Sabha.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, won 303 seats in 2019 general election. The second largest party, the Indian National Congress, INC, won 52 seats. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, DMK, emerged as the third largest party.

People walk past a model of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) displayed outside the office of the Election Commission of India, ahead of the country's upcoming general elections, in New Delhi on April 15, 2024. (AFP)

WHERE AND WHEN IS IT TAKING PLACE?

The elections will be conducted in seven phases partly to ensure sufficient security at polling booths across the vast country. Voters can make their choice by pressing a button on an electronic voting machine, first used in India in 1982 and more widely since the early 2000s.

Votes will be counted on June 4 after polling is done on April 19, April 26, May 7, May 13, May 20, May 25 and June 1.

The elections in the world’s largest democracy for 543 seats will be held in 7 phases.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The world’s most populous nation follows the first-past-the-post system, where voters cast a vote for a single candidate in a constituency and the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. The voting age is 18 years and contestants need to be at least 25 years old.

A total of 968 million voters are registered, out of which 497 million are men and 471 million are women. A higher percentage of women voters than men are likely to vote for the second time in a row.

WHO ARE THE MAIN CANDIDATES?

Modi headlines the race, followed by his de facto deputy Amit Shah and the main opposition face, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party. Gandhi’s mother Sonia, the matriarch of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is not contesting this time.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

Modi is chasing a record-equalling third straight term like India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi says another overwhelming victory for the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP, is crucial to meet his goal of lifting India to a developed economy by 2047 from middle-income levels. The world’s fifth-largest economy has grown fast in the past few years and Modi has “guaranteed” to take it to the third position if he wins the election.

The BJP draws its support mainly from Hindus, who form 80 percent of the country’s 1.42 billion people and for whom Modi earlier this year delivered on a key party promise of building a grand Hindu temple on a disputed site.

The opposition “INDIA” alliance, largely a center-left grouping of more than two dozen disparate parties, says a victory for it is essential to save the country’s democratic and secular setup, lift its marginalized communities, raise prices for farmers and create jobs for its young. Opinion polls, which have a mixed record in India, predict another thrashing of the Congress alliance at the hands of the BJP.