Lebanon deputy looks to push Syria on refugee return

Lebanon deputy looks to push Syria on refugee return
Syrian refugee children walk behind a woman at a camp set up outside the northern Lebanese village of Miniara, in the area of Akkar near the border with Syria, on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 28 May 2024
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Lebanon deputy looks to push Syria on refugee return

Lebanon deputy looks to push Syria on refugee return
  • Lebanese deputy leader Saadeh Al-Shami will head the committee
  • Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that for the first time Lebanon has a “clear and specific action plan” on the Syrian refugee issue

BEIRUT: Lebanon has stepped up its push to have Syrian refugees returned to their homeland with the announcement of a Cabinet committee to negotiate directly with the Syrian government on the issue.
Lebanese deputy leader Saadeh Al-Shami will head the committee, which was set up during a Cabinet session on Tuesday with their aim of speeding up the repatriation process.
Speaking following a conference in Brussels on Monday on the future of Syria and the region, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that for the first time Lebanon has a “clear and specific action plan” on the Syrian refugee issue.
Mikati said that Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, who represented Lebanon at the Brussels forum, had called for safe areas to be found in Syria so the return process could get underway as soon as possible.
Arab ministers from countries hosting Syrian refugees, including Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, were urged to agree on a united plan to communicate with the Syrian government and “support early recovery in Syria.”
“During the conference, Lebanon emphasized the need for support and aid to encourage the Syrians to return to their country,” Mikati said.
In his speech, Bou Habib highlighted Lebanon’s continued cooperation, not confrontation, with international organizations affiliated with the UN.
International donors, led by the EU, pledged at the end of the conference to provide $5.4 billion to Syrians inside Syria and refugees in the region, in addition to more than $2.5 billion in soft loans to host countries.
Lebanon estimates there are at least 2 million Syrian refugees in the country, including those registered with UNHCR, workers, legal residents, and those who entered illegally.
Hostility toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon worsened after the abduction and murder of Pascal Suleiman, a local official in the Lebanese Forces Party.
Over the past two months, hate speech against Syrian refugees has escalated and work restrictions have been placed on them to hasten their return.
Lebanon is pushing ahead with plans to repatriate Syrians who entered the country illegally, and has organized voluntary return trips, but participation remains low, with only 225 people joining a convoy two weeks ago.
At the opening of the Brussels conference, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell rejected any discussion of refugees’ return to Syria.
“We consider that there is no safe, voluntary, and dignified return for refugees to Syria at present,” he said.
“Voluntary return must be voluntary; refugees should not be coerced. The situation in Syria today is more perilous than a year ago, humanitarian needs have never been greater, and efforts toward a political solution remain deadlocked.”
Meanwhile, Lebanese security forces are continuing to evict Syrian families living in illegal settlements across towns and villages in Mount Lebanon and the north as part of a crackdown.
On Tuesday, about 1,000 Syrians in Koubba in the Batroun region of northern Lebanon were evicted on orders from Ramzi Nohra, the North Lebanon governor.
Ahead of the Brussels conference, Amnesty International urged those attending to “ensure that any funds pledged to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not contribute to human rights violations, including forced deportation to Syria.”
The rights group quoted refugees in Lebanon saying they “live in fear, avoid leaving their homes, going to work, or sending their children to school.”
Dozens of municipalities have imposed curfews on Syrian refugees, and shuttered scores of small businesses and shops employing or run by Syrians nationwide.
Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security has suspended procedures for granting or renewing residency permits through lease contracts, Lebanese sponsorship, or financial guarantees. It has also cautioned people against employing, hosting, or providing accommodation to undocumented Syrian refugees.


Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel

Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel
Updated 24 June 2024
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Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel

Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel
  • Almost daily exchanges of fire along Lebanon’s frontier with Israel threaten to escalate conflict
  • Last large-scale conflict between Israel, Hezbollah in 2006 killed 1,200 in Lebanon and 140 in Israel

BEIRUT: Thousands of fighters from Iran-backed groups in the Middle East are ready to come to Lebanon to join with the militant Hezbollah group in its battle with Israel if the simmering conflict escalates into a full-blown war, officials with Iran-backed factions and analysts say.
Almost daily exchanges of fire have occurred along Lebanon’s frontier with northern Israel since fighters from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip staged a bloody assault on southern Israel in early October that set off a war in Gaza.
The situation to the north worsened this month after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah military commander in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah retaliated by firing hundreds of rockets and explosive drones into northern Israel.
Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon if there is no negotiated end to push Hezbollah away from the border.
Over the past decade, Iran-backed fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan fought together in Syria’s 13-year conflict, helping tip the balance in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Officials from Iran-backed groups say they could also join together again against Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Wednesday that militant leaders from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries have previously offered to send tens of thousands of fighters to help Hezbollah, but he said the group already has more than 100,000 fighters.
“We told them, thank you, but we are overwhelmed by the numbers we have,” Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah said the battle in its current form is using only a portion of Hezbollah’s manpower, an apparent reference to the specialized fighters who fire missiles and drones.
But that could change in the event of an all-out war. Nasrallah hinted at that possibility in a speech in 2017 in which he said fighters from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan “will be partners” of such a war.
Officials from Lebanese and Iraqi groups backed by Iran say Iran-backed fighters from around the region will join in if war erupts on the the Lebanon-Israel border. Thousands of such fighters are already deployed in Syria and could easily slip through the porous and unmarked border.
Some of the groups have already staged attacks on Israel and its allies since the Israel-Hamas war started Oct. 7. The groups from the so-called “axis of resistance” say they are using a “unity of arenas strategy” and they will only stop fighting when Israel ends its offensive in Gaza against their ally, Hamas.
“We will be (fighting) shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah” if an all-out war breaks out, one official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq told The Associated Press in Baghdad, insisting on speaking anonymously to discuss military matters. He refused to give further details.
The official, along with another from Iraq, said some advisers from Iraq are already in Lebanon.
An official with a Lebanese Iran-backed group, also insisting on anonymity, said fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Afghanistan’s Fatimiyoun, Pakistan Zeinabiyoun and the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen known as Houthis could come to Lebanon to take part in a war.

Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march during Al-Quds or Jerusalem Day in Baghdad, Iraq on June 8, 2019. (AP/File photo)

Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, agreed the current fighting is mostly based on high technology such as firing missiles and does not need a large number of fighters. But if a war broke out and lasted for a long period, Hezbollah might need support from outside Lebanon, he said.
“Hinting to this matter could be (a message) that these are cards that could be used,” he said.
Israel is also aware of the possible influx of foreign fighters.
Eran Etzion, former head of policy planning for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a panel discussion hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute on Thursday that he sees “a high probability” of a “multi-front war.”
He said there could be intervention by the Houthis and Iraqi militias and a “massive flow of jihadists from (places) including Afghanistan, Pakistan” into Lebanon and into Syrian areas bordering Israel.
Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, said in a televised statement this past week that since Hezbollah started its attacks on Israel on Oct. 8, it has fired more than 5,000 rockets, anti-tank missiles and drones toward Israel.
“Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation, one that could have devastating consequences for Lebanon and the entire region,” Hagari said. “Israel will continue fighting against Iran’s axis of evil on all fronts.”
Hezbollah officials have said they don’t want an all-out war with Israel but if it happens they are ready.

Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US strikes on Yemen outside Sanaa on Jan. 22, 2024. (AP/File photo)

“We have taken a decision that any expansion, no matter how limited it is, will be faced with an expansion that deters such a move and inflicts heavy Israeli losses,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Kassem, said in a speech this past week.
The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, and the commander of the UN peacekeeping force deployed along Lebanon’s southern border, Lt. Gen. Aroldo Lázaro, said in a joint statement that “the danger of miscalculation leading to a sudden and wider conflict is very real.”
The last large-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah occurred in the summer of 2006, when the two fought a 34-day war that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 140 in Israel.
Since the latest run of clashes began, more than 400 people have been killed in Lebanon, the vast majority of them fighters but including 70 civilians and non-combatants. On the Israeli side, 16 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed. Tens of thousands have been displaced on both sides of the border.
Qassir, the analyst, said that if foreign fighters did join in, it would help them that they fought together in Syria in the past.
“There is a common military language between the forces of axis of resistance and this is very important in fighting a joint battle,” he said.=


Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel

Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel
Updated 47 min 18 sec ago
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Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel

Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel
  • Some advisers from Iraq are already in Lebanon, two Iraqi militia officials say
  • Israeli official says they are aware that there could be intervention by the Houthis and Iraqi militias and other jihadis 

BEIRUT: Thousands of fighters from Iran-backed groups in the Middle East are ready to come to Lebanon to join with the militant Hezbollah group in its battle with Israel if the simmering conflict escalates into a full-blown war, officials with Iran-backed factions and analysts say.
Almost daily exchanges of fire have occurred along Lebanon’s frontier with northern Israel since fighters from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip staged a bloody assault on southern Israel in early October that set off a war in Gaza.
The situation to the north worsened this month after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah military commander in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah retaliated by firing hundreds of rockets and explosive drones into northern Israel.
Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon if there is no negotiated end to push Hezbollah away from the border.
Over the past decade, Iran-backed fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan fought together in Syria’s 13-year conflict, helping tip the balance in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Officials from Iran-backed groups say they could also join together again against Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Wednesday that militant leaders from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries have previously offered to send tens of thousands of fighters to help Hezbollah, but he said the group already has more than 100,000 fighters.
“We told them, thank you, but we are overwhelmed by the numbers we have,” Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah said the battle in its current form is using only a portion of Hezbollah’s manpower, an apparent reference to the specialized fighters who fire missiles and drones.
But that could change in the event of an all-out war. Nasrallah hinted at that possibility in a speech in 2017 in which he said fighters from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan “will be partners” of such a war.
Officials from Lebanese and Iraqi groups backed by Iran say Iran-backed fighters from around the region will join in if war erupts on the the Lebanon-Israel border. Thousands of such fighters are already deployed in Syria and could easily slip through the porous and unmarked border.
Some of the groups have already staged attacks on Israel and its allies since the Israel-Hamas war started Oct. 7. The groups from the so-called “axis of resistance” say they are using a “unity of arenas strategy” and they will only stop fighting when Israel ends its offensive in Gaza against their ally, Hamas.
“We will be (fighting) shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah” if an all-out war breaks out, one official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq told The Associated Press in Baghdad, insisting on speaking anonymously to discuss military matters. He refused to give further details.
The official, along with another from Iraq, said some advisers from Iraq are already in Lebanon.
An official with a Lebanese Iran-backed group, also insisting on anonymity, said fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Afghanistan’s Fatimiyoun, Pakistan Zeinabiyoun and the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen known as Houthis could come to Lebanon to take part in a war.

Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march during Al-Quds or Jerusalem Day in Baghdad, Iraq on June 8, 2019. (AP/File photo)

Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, agreed the current fighting is mostly based on high technology such as firing missiles and does not need a large number of fighters. But if a war broke out and lasted for a long period, Hezbollah might need support from outside Lebanon, he said.
“Hinting to this matter could be (a message) that these are cards that could be used,” he said.
Israel is also aware of the possible influx of foreign fighters.
Eran Etzion, former head of policy planning for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a panel discussion hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute on Thursday that he sees “a high probability” of a “multi-front war.”
He said there could be intervention by the Houthis and Iraqi militias and a “massive flow of jihadists from (places) including Afghanistan, Pakistan” into Lebanon and into Syrian areas bordering Israel.
Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, said in a televised statement this past week that since Hezbollah started its attacks on Israel on Oct. 8, it has fired more than 5,000 rockets, anti-tank missiles and drones toward Israel.
“Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation, one that could have devastating consequences for Lebanon and the entire region,” Hagari said. “Israel will continue fighting against Iran’s axis of evil on all fronts.”
Hezbollah officials have said they don’t want an all-out war with Israel but if it happens they are ready.

Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US strikes on Yemen outside Sanaa on Jan. 22, 2024. (AP/File photo)

“We have taken a decision that any expansion, no matter how limited it is, will be faced with an expansion that deters such a move and inflicts heavy Israeli losses,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Kassem, said in a speech this past week.
The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, and the commander of the UN peacekeeping force deployed along Lebanon’s southern border, Lt. Gen. Aroldo Lázaro, said in a joint statement that “the danger of miscalculation leading to a sudden and wider conflict is very real.”
The last large-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah occurred in the summer of 2006, when the two fought a 34-day war that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 140 in Israel.
Since the latest run of clashes began, more than 400 people have been killed in Lebanon, the vast majority of them fighters but including 70 civilians and non-combatants. On the Israeli side, 16 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed. Tens of thousands have been displaced on both sides of the border.
Qassir, the analyst, said that if foreign fighters did join in, it would help them that they fought together in Syria in the past.
“There is a common military language between the forces of axis of resistance and this is very important in fighting a joint battle,” he said.=


Lebanese minister denies Hezbollah weapons at Beirut airport

Ali Hamieh. (Twitter @alihamie_lb)
Ali Hamieh. (Twitter @alihamie_lb)
Updated 24 June 2024
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Lebanese minister denies Hezbollah weapons at Beirut airport

Ali Hamieh. (Twitter @alihamie_lb)
  • Israel has for years accused Hezbollah of keeping precision rockets and missiles in different installations throughout Lebanon, including on a site near Beirut airport

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s transport minister denied on Sunday that Hezbollah was storing weapons at Beirut airport, as fears grow of all-out war between the militant group and Israel.
Ali Hamieh called a press conference to deny the allegations of “absurd articles” in the media, and attacked the British daily The Telegraph.
The newspaper said the Shiite militant group is storing missiles and rockets at the airport, where “whistleblowers” had reported the arrival of “unusually big boxes.”
Backed by Iran, Hezbollah has been exchanging near-daily fire with Israeli forces in support of its ally, Hamas. The Palestinian movement has been at war with Israel since October 7 when Hamas militants from Gaza attacked southern Israel.
“I am holding this press conference to clarify that everything that has been written in The Telegraph is false and to say that there are no weapons entering or leaving Beirut airport,” Hamieh told journalists.
He spoke from Beirut International Airport, located in an area south of the capital where Hezbollah is influential.
Hamieh invited ambassadors and journalists to inspect the airport on Monday morning in a visit “open to all“
The Lebanese air transport union condemned in a statement “simply erroneous statements and lies aimed at endangering Beirut airport and its employees, all civilians, and those who frequent it.”
Israel has for years accused Hezbollah of keeping precision rockets and missiles in different installations throughout Lebanon, including on a site near Beirut airport.
Hezbollah denies this.
More than eight months of exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have left 480 people dead in Lebanon, mostly fighters, but also 93 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israeli authorities say at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed in the country’s north.
Cross-border exchanges and tension have escalated over the past two weeks after an Israeli air strike killed a senior Hezbollah commander.
 

 


An Israel offensive into Lebanon risks an Iranian military response, top US military leader says

An Israel offensive into Lebanon risks an Iranian military response, top US military leader says
Updated 24 June 2024
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An Israel offensive into Lebanon risks an Iranian military response, top US military leader says

An Israel offensive into Lebanon risks an Iranian military response, top US military leader says
  • US President Joe Biden’s senior adviser Amos Hochstein met with officials in Lebanon and Israel last week in an effort to deescalate tensions
  • Pentagon officials have said that Austin has also raised concerns about a broader conflict when he spoke to Gallant in a recent phone call

ESPARGOS, Cape Verde: The top US military officer said Sunday that an Israeli military offensive into Lebanon will risk an Iranian response in defense of Hezbollah, triggering a broader war that could put US forces in the region in danger.
Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran “would be more inclined to support Hezbollah.” He added Tehran supports Hamas, but would give greater backing to Hezbollah “particularly if they felt that Hezbollah was being significantly threatened.”
Brown spoke to reporters as he traveled to Botswana for a meeting of African defense ministers.
Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon if there is no negotiated end to push Hezbollah away from the border. Just days ago, Israel’s military said it had “approved and validated” plans for an offensive in Lebanon, even as the US works to prevent the months of cross-border attacks from spiraling into a full-blown war.
US officials have tried to broker a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The issue is expected to come up this week as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits Washington for meetings with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior US officials.
US President Joe Biden’s senior adviser Amos Hochstein met with officials in Lebanon and Israel last week in an effort to deescalate tensions. Hochstein told reporters in Beirut on Tuesday that it was a “very serious situation” and that a diplomatic solution to prevent a larger war was urgent.
Brown also said the US won’t likely be able to help Israel defend itself against a broader Hezbollah war as well as it helped Israel fight off the Iranian barrage of missiles and drones in April. It is harder to fend off the shorter-range rockets that Hezbollah fires routinely across the border into Israel, he said.
Pentagon officials have said that Austin has also raised concerns about a broader conflict when he spoke to Gallant in a recent phone call.
“Given the amount of rocket fire we’ve seen going from both sides of the border, we’ve certainly been concerned about that situation, and both publicly and privately have been urging all parties to restore calm along that border, and again, to seek a diplomatic solution,” said Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary last week.
A war between the two heavily-armed foes could be devastating to both countries and incur mass civilian casualties. Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is believed to be far more extensive than Hamas’.
Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah have exchanged fire across Lebanon’s border with northern Israel since fighters from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip staged a bloody assault on southern Israel in early October that set off the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.
The situation escalated this month after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah military commander in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah retaliated by firing hundreds of rockets and explosive drones into northern Israel and Israel responded with a heavy assault on the militant group.
Israeli strikes have killed more than 400 people in Lebanon, including 70 civilians. On Israel’s side, 16 soldiers and 10 civilians have been killed.
An escalation in the conflict could also trigger wider involvement by other Iran-backed militant groups in the region, leading to all-out war.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech last Wednesday that militant leaders from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries have previously offered to send tens of thousands of fighters to help Hezbollah, but he said the group already has more than 100,000 fighters.

 


Heads of churches say Israeli government is demanding they pay property tax, upsetting status quo

Heads of churches say Israeli government is demanding they pay property tax, upsetting status quo
Updated 23 June 2024
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Heads of churches say Israeli government is demanding they pay property tax, upsetting status quo

Heads of churches say Israeli government is demanding they pay property tax, upsetting status quo

JERUSALEM: Leaders of major churches have accused Israeli authorities of launching a “coordinated attack” on the Christian presence in the Holy Land by initiating tax proceedings against them.
While Israeli officials have tried to dismiss the disagreement as a routine financial matter, the churches say the move upsets a centuries-old status quo and reflects mounting intolerance for the tiny Christian presence in the Holy Land.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, the heads of the major Christian denominations alleged that four municipalities across Israel had recently submitted warning letters to church officials cautioning them of legal action if they did not pay taxes.
“We believe these efforts represent a coordinated attack on the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” wrote the heads of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches. “In this time, when the whole world, and the Christian world in particular, are constantly following the events in Israel, we find ourselves, once again, dealing with an attempt by authorities to drive the Christian presence out of the Holy Land.”
Christians are a tiny minority, making up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories. There are 182,000 Christians in Israel, 50,000 in the West Bank and Jerusalem and 1,300 in Gaza, according to the US State Department. The vast majority are Palestinians.
The churches, who are major landowners in the Holy Land, say they do not pay property taxes under longstanding tradition. They say their funds go to services that benefit the state, like schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly.
The letter said the municipalities of Tel Aviv, Ramla, Nazareth and Jerusalem in recent months have all either issued warning letters or commenced legal action for alleged tax debts.
The Jerusalem municipality told The Associated Press that the church had not submitted the necessary requests for tax exemptions over the last few years. It said that “a dialogue is taking place with the churches to collect debts for the commercial properties they own.”
The other municipalities did not immediately comment. It was unclear if the municipalities acted in a coordinated effort or whether the tax moves are coincidental.
In 2018, Christians closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — to protest a move by Israeli officials to impose taxes on commercial properties in the holy city.
The Christian leaders argued that the sites — like pilgrim hostels and information centers — served important religious and cultural purposes, and that taxing them would infringe on Christian religious observance in the Holy Land. After the public backlash, Netanyahu quickly suspended the plan.