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.”

 


Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit

Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit
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Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit

Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit
Among the singers were around 50 Ukrainian refugees, some wearing embroidered national dress and crowns of flowers
“It’s about freedom. I haven’t learned German but I feel a lot of power and freedom and joy,” Anna Haidash, a refugee from Odesa, said

LUCERNE: Dozens of Ukrainian refugees from choirs around Switzerland converged in the city of Lucerne on Saturday near a global summit to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a choral work they say embodies their hopes for peace and freedom.
The singers gathered in a public square in Lucerne close to the mountaintop resort of Buergenstock where dozens of world leaders were meeting to try to build support for Ukraine’s peace proposals.
Among the singers were around 50 Ukrainian refugees, some wearing embroidered national dress and crowns of flowers, from five different choirs from around Switzerland. The country has accepted over 65,000 Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
The rousing lyrics to “Ode to Joy” are by German poet Friedrich Schiller and laud the values of unity, hope and solidarity. “Ode to Joy” is also the anthem for the European Union to which Ukraine hopes to accede.
“It’s about freedom. I haven’t learned German but I feel a lot of power and freedom and joy,” Anna Haidash, a refugee from Odesa, told Reuters. “When you see all these people you feel you are not alone in this situation and in this song too.”
The choir, accompanied by a small orchestra, was surrounded by crowds of tourists next to Lucerne’s famous wooden Chapel Bridge and pro-Ukrainian protesters, some of whom joined in as they later sang the national anthem.
“They want to appeal to the world with Beethoven’s great music and reaffirm their wish of peace and freedom for their battered country on its way to Europe,” event organizer Daniela Majer said.
The melody has been used in the past as a protest anthem to celebrate resistance to oppression, for example during the Tiananmen Square protests in China and to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police

Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police
Updated 15 June 2024
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Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police

Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police
  • The man went missing after hiking alone on the southwest of the island during searing heat

ATHENS: A 74-year-old Dutch tourist who was missing for a week on the Greek island of Samos has been found dead, a police official said on Saturday.
The man went missing after hiking alone on the southwest of the island during searing heat, and his wife reported his disappearance on Sunday.
Samos is an island of 30,000 people in the eastern Aegean and is popular with tourists.
Last Sunday, British TV presenter Michael Mosley was found dead following a four-day search operation on the Greek island of Symi after taking a walk alone in high temperatures.


French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections

French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections
Updated 15 June 2024
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French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections

French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections
  • In Paris, those who fear that the elections will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II gathered at Place de la Republique before marching through eastern Paris
  • A large crowd turned out in spite of rainy and windy weather, holding placards reading “Liberty for all, Equality for all and Fraternity with all”

PARIS: Anti-racism groups joined French unions and a brand-new left-wing coalition in protests in Paris and across France on Saturday against the surging nationalist far right as frenzied campaigning is underway ahead of snap parliamentary elections.
The French Interior Ministry said 21,000 police and gendarmes would be deployed at the rallies with authorities expecting between 300,000 and 500,000 protesters nationwide.
In Paris, those who fear that the elections will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II gathered at Place de la Republique before marching through eastern Paris.
A large crowd turned out in spite of rainy and windy weather, holding placards reading “Liberty for all, Equality for all and Fraternity with all” — a reference to France’s national motto — as well as “Let’s break frontiers, documents for all, no to the immigration bill.”
Some chanted “Free Palestine, viva Palestina,” and wore keffiyeh scarves.
Among them was Nour Cekar, a 16 year-old high school student from the Paris region, who has French and Algerian parents and wears the hijab.
“To me, the extreme right is a danger because it supports an ideology based on the fear of the other, whereas we are all French citizens despite our differences,” she told The Associated Press.
Cekar said she will vote for the left-wing coalition because “it is the only political party that addresses racism and Islamophobia.”
“I fear the rise of the National Rally because I am afraid that they will ban the hijab in name of women’s liberty. I am a woman and I should be able to decide what I want to wear. I am a free woman,” she said, adding that she is insulted on social media and in the streets on a daily basis because of her headscarf.
In the French Riviera city of Nice, protesters marched down Jean Médecin Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, chanting against the National Rally, its leader Jordan Bardella as well as against President Emmanuel Macron.
Protest organizers said 3,000 took part, while the police put the number at 2,500.
Nice is traditionally a conservative stronghold, but has over the past decade turned firmly in favor of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and her far-right rival Eric Zemmour.
Crowds have been gathering daily ever since the anti-immigration National Rally made historic gains in the European Parliament elections on Sunday, crushing Macron’s pro-business moderates and prompting him to dissolve the National Assembly.
New elections for the lower house of parliament were set in two rounds, for June 30 and July 7. Macron remains president until 2027 and in charge of foreign policy and defense, but his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins and takes power of the government and domestic policy.
“We need a democratic and social upsurge — if not the extreme right will take power,” French unions said in a statement Friday. “Our Republic and our democracy are in danger.”
To prevent the National Rally party from winning the upcoming elections, left-wing parties finally agreed Friday to set aside differences over the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and form a coalition. They urged French citizens to defeat the far right.
French opinion polls suggest the National Rally — whose founder has been repeatedly convicted of racism and antisemitism — is expected to be ahead in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The party came out on top in the European elections, garnering more than 30 percent of the vote cast in France, almost twice as many votes as Macron’s party Renaissance.
Macron’s term is still on for three more years, and he would retain control over foreign affairs and defense regardless of the result of the French parliamentary elections.
But his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins, which could put its 28-year-old party leader Bardella on track to become the next prime minister, with authority over domestic and economic affairs.


Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat

Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat
Updated 15 June 2024
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Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat

Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat
  • 2,000-year-old terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Hand-carved steps are often called the Eighth Wonder of the World

Perched on the side of mountains in the Cordillera region, about 250 km north of Manila on Luzon island, enormous green steps rise to a height of 1,500 meters, funneling water from the mountaintop forests down to the rice terraces below.

Known in the Philippines as a “stairway to heaven,” the Ifugao rice terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a 2,000-year-old indigenous engineering feat that is increasingly under threat due to climate change.

The ancestors of the indigenous Ifugao people carved the terraces by hand to irrigate their rice crops, which even now are a staple in the province.

This masterpiece of ancient agricultural engineering entered the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 and is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” — and one of its most endangered. In May, one of the sites in Batad village collapsed after heavy rains, causing a landslide that damaged 12 terraces.

“At present, risks of damage to the rice terraces and to local culture are exacerbated due to increased temperatures, erratic rainfall, poverty, and demographic shifts, just to name a few examples,” Marlon Martin, a member of the Ifugao ethnic group and executive of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement, told Arab News.

“This makes loss and disruption of life in the terraces a strong possibility. As a result, you can see the landscape rapidly changing. These same vulnerabilities may cause the loss of traditions, indigenous knowledge, and intangible identity that connects the Ifugao to their ancestral lands and forebears.”

Aside from Batad, similar steep terraces can also be found in nearby Banaue, Mayoyao, Hapao and Kiangan. Covering about 10,360 sq. km, the extensive network would be at least 20,000 km in length — half the Earth’s circumference — if laid end to end.

Ancient engineers created the highland paddies by making walls with stones and mud. The terraces are designed to retain and also channel water to the steps below, immersing the paddies all year round.

The Ifugao see the terraces as integral to their identity and culture.

“People maintain the terraces because, primarily, it is of significant value to them as a people and as a culture. The terraces link them to their ancestors. It brings them together as a community, and this is how they keep traditional knowledge alive,” Martin said.

“People need to understand that these are not built monuments like Memphis and its Necropolis or the Great Wall, and that when you do restoration, you are already done. Year in and year out, Ifugao farmers need to restore, repair, and maintain the terraces.”

Yet the costs of maintaining the terraces are increasingly high, with erratic weather and effects of the changing climate making their cultivation economically unfeasible.

“Damages to paddy walls induced by drought and torrential rains associated with climate change make maintenance not worth the economic benefit. Were it not for the other values of the terraces, this alone would discourage people,” Martin said.

As part of the Preserving Legacies project, he has conducted a year-long study assessing the terraces’ climate vulnerability, and believes it is time for the government to step in to prevent the sites from being abandoned and losing UNESCO status.

“The government needs to subsidize rice terrace farmers,” he said. “Heritage, economics, socio-cultural solidarity, and a source of indigenous knowledge are key to the preservation of the terraces.”

For Raymond Macapagal, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines’ Center for International Studies and manager of the Batad Kadangyan Ethnic Lodges Project — a community-based tourism enterprise at the UNESCO site — a key strategy is to create opportunities for young people.

Over the past two decades, the younger generation’s migration to cities in search of other work has resulted in 30 percent of the terraces being abandoned. Developing tourism was one way to provide alternative sources of income.

“They will have a deeper understanding of the challenges and solutions in the complex task of safeguarding the terraces. They will also be more motivated to protect the landscape that provides their livelihood,” Macapagal said.

The rice terraces, featured on the Philippines’ 20-peso banknotes, are also a part and witness to the region’s long human history and remnants of millennia-old indigenous heritage.

“The significance of the Ifugao rice terraces to the Ifugao people, I believe, can be rooted in how it represents indigenous cultural heritage that has resisted centuries of colonization,” Macapagal said.

“It demonstrates the harmonious interaction of humans, gods, and nature in order to come up with an outstanding cultural landscape that is admired throughout the world.”


Princess of Wales appears at first public event since cancer diagnosis

Princess of Wales appears at first public event since cancer diagnosis
Updated 15 June 2024
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Princess of Wales appears at first public event since cancer diagnosis

Princess of Wales appears at first public event since cancer diagnosis
  • Kate arrives at Buckingham Palace with William and their children 
  • She is making good progress with cancer treatment, Kate says

LONDON: Catherine, Princess of Wales, on Saturday made a tentative return to public life for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer, attending a military parade in central London to mark Britain’s King Charles III’s official birthday.
Kate, as she is widely known, rode in a carriage alongside her three children at the outset of the annual celebration before disembarking to watch proceedings from a viewing point.
It comes nearly three months after the future queen revealed she was receiving chemotherapy treatment. The 42-year-old princess had not been seen at a public engagement since a Christmas Day service last year.
In a Friday evening statement Kate said she was “making good progress” with her treatment, which is set to last for several more months, but was “not out of the woods yet.”
“I’m looking forward to attending the King’s Birthday Parade this weekend with my family and hope to join a few public engagements over the summer,” the princess said.
Kate’s announcement that she had cancer came just weeks after it was disclosed that her father-in-law, King Charles III, had also been diagnosed with the condition.
Neither has revealed what type of cancer they have.
British head of state Charles, 75, was given the green light to resume public duties in April, after doctors said they were “very encouraged” by his progress.
His first engagement was meeting staff and patients at a London cancer treatment center.
Earlier this month, he attended commemoration events in northern France for the 80th anniversary of D-Day.
However, unlike previous years when he inspected troops on horseback at Trooping the Color, Charles participated this year from a carriage, in full military regalia alongside Queen Camilla.
His elder son and heir William, 41, rode on horseback, also in military uniform.
Kate, wearing a white dress and hat, had been seen arriving by car at Buckingham Palace with William and their children ahead of the parade, which formally began at 11:00 am (1000 GMT).
Spectators on The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace to witness the yearly ceremonial event welcomed Kate’s tentative return to public appearances.
“I was so pleased to hear the news last night,” Angela Perry, a teacher in her 50s from Reading in central England, told AFP.
“She’s our future queen. She’s so important,” she added, calling Kate’s reemergence “reassuring.”
Royal officials will be keen to manage expectations about Kate’s gradual return to the public eye, and have maintained that her appearances will depend on her treatment and recovery.
Kate explained in her statement that she had “good days and bad days” and was “taking each day as it comes.”
After traveling with Prince George, aged 10, Princess Charlotte, nine, and six-year-old Prince Louis in a state carriage to watch the parade from a building, the family were set to return to Buckingham Palace for a balcony appearance.
Trooping the Color marks the British sovereign’s official birthday and is a minutely choreographed military tradition dating back more than two centuries.
It starts at Buckingham Palace and moves down The Mall to Horse Guards Parade, where Charles will receive a royal salute before inspecting soldiers.
Charles was actually born in November but the second birthday tradition dates back to King George II in 1748, who wanted to have a celebration in better weather as his own birthday was in October.
The ceremony has its origins in the preparations for war, where all regimental flags — or colors — were shown to the soldiers so that they would recognize them in the confusion of battle.
This year’s event will include three of five military horses that bolted through the streets of central London in April after being spooked by the noise of building construction.
London’s Metropolitan Police said it would mount a “significant” security operation and had been liaising with anti-monarchy group Republic, which kicked off protests at the event.
The force said it had banned “amplified sound” in and around the parade route on public safety grounds and to avoid disruption to the mounted regiments taking part.
Republic’s activists, who huddled on a section of The Mall alongside royalists, held aloft placards bearing slogans including “not my king” and “down with the crown.”