Frankly Speaking: Biden’s peace plan — too little, too late?

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Updated 09 June 2024

Frankly Speaking: Biden’s peace plan — too little, too late?

Frankly Speaking: Biden’s peace plan — too little, too late?
  • Hala Rharrit explains the precise reasons behind her recent resignation as the US State Department’ Arab language spokesperson
  • Underscores urgency of suspending arms sales to Israel, fears that US actions may radicalize a generation of Muslim and Arab youth

DUBAI: Hala Rharrit, who resigned as the US State Department’s Arabic-language spokesperson on April 24 over the government’s stance on Gaza, has commended President Joe Biden’s peace proposal, saying “this will hopefully alleviate some of the suffering; we’ll have to wait and see.” However, she expressed concern that he US is violating international law by continuing to sell weapons to Israel.

Appearing on Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” Rharrit said she was pleased to hear President Biden calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but cautioned that the peace plan neither addressed US arms sales to Israel, nor committed to creating a Palestinian state.

Biden outlined on May 31 a three-phase ceasefire proposal, beginning with Israeli troops pulling out of Gaza’s cities, releasing humanitarian aid, and freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas returning some of the hostages and captured Israeli soldiers.

Under the plan, the warring sides would then discuss a full hostage release and military withdrawal, followed by multilateral talks to rebuild Gaza without rearming Hamas. One week into the US pressure campaign, the world still is waiting for signs that the ceasefire appeal is working.

“First and foremost, the priority is to stop the fighting and stop the violence by any means necessary,” Rharrit told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen during an interview that explored the motives and timing for her resignation from the State Department among other topics.

“I think we can see that there’s been intense suffering and every day that this conflict continues, there are more lives that are lost in Gaza. And I was very pleased to see that the president from the podium was advocating for a ceasefire and saying it is now time for this war to end.

“Of course, it is horrific that it’s taking this long. And I’m also very concerned that we have not stopped our US weapons flow to Israel.

“It does not address the fact that we are still in violation of US and international law, for all intents and purposes, and that we continue to supply deadly ammunition, offensive weaponry to the state of Israel. And that also needs to stop.

“And obviously the issue of a two-state solution and the Palestinian right to self-determination needs to be included in that. But, for the immediate term, we need a ceasefire. We need the weapons to stop dropping and we need the Gazans to be able to breathe and to live.”

Appearing on Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” Rharrit said she was pleased to hear President Biden calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but warned it did not prevent US arms sales to Israel nor commit to creating a Palestinian state. (AN Photo)

Rharrit was neither the first nor the last administration official to quit over the issue. Nearly a month earlier, Annelle Sheline of the State Department’s human rights bureau announced her resignation, and State Department official Josh Paul resigned in October.

A senior official in the US Education Department, Tariq Habash, who is Palestinian-American, stepped down in January, and Lily Greenberg-Call became the latest to go in mid-May when she left her position at the Department of the Interior.

Rharrit said she resigned after failing to influence the administration’s position from within and because the government’s stance made it “impossible” to promote US interests abroad. “I did it, really, to follow my conscience, and I did it, really, in service of my country,” said Rharrit.

“I became a diplomat 18 years ago to help the US promote its interests throughout the world, specifically in the Arab world, and to strengthen ties throughout this particular region. And I felt like I could effectively do that for the last 18 years. This policy unfortunately made it impossible.

“I saw that there was mass killing in Gaza that my government unfortunately was enabling through the continuous flow of US weapons. I could go on and on about the atrocities that we all bear witness to these last few months.

“I did everything I could since Oct. 7 to try to dissuade the US position, to try to help the situation. But after a while, it became clear that the policy was not shifting. And so I decided to submit my resignation, also to speak out on behalf of the US, not as a diplomat, but as an American citizen, to try to help the situation from the outside.”

Challenged by Jensen on whether it was the US policy itself that she objected to or the talking points the administration made her deliver as Arabic-language spokesperson, Rharrit said her opposition was not “based on personal reasons.” Rather it was intended to serve US interest in the face of “growing anti-American sentiment” in the Middle East.

Elaborating on the issue, she said: “The talking points I was expected to deliver to this part of the world really failed to acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians. You cannot speak about one people without speaking about the suffering of another people. ... I had intense pushback and I actually refused to do interviews on Gaza.”

She added: “I was opposed to the policy based on my experience and my regional expertise in the Middle East and what I’ve done for my country in this part of the world.”

Rharrit also emphasized that she was actually a political affairs officer (“This is what I have done my entire career”), citing her previous postings as a political and human rights officer in Yemen and deputy political economic chief in Qatar.

“My latest position was as spokesperson and I was the one that was supposed to go out on Arab television and promote this policy. I did not become a diplomat to promote a war and I certainly didn’t become a diplomat to promote a plausible genocide.

“So, from the very beginning there were major concerns that I made very clear about our talking points that they were, indeed, dehumanizing to the Palestinians, that they did not acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, that they tried to gloss over the suffering of Palestinians.

“And why I made that point is that, as spokespeople, our job was not just to be communicators; our job was to be effective communicators. And what I was documenting on a daily basis, and reporting back to Washington, was that what we were saying was creating anti-American sentiment. Generating a backlash. And that, in itself, was not in the interests of the US.”

Israel launched its retaliatory assault in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, which saw some 1,200 people killed and 240 taken hostage. Over the course of the eight-month conflict, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza health officials.

Asked by Jensen why it took so long — and the deaths of so many civilians — before she “developed a conscience” and resigned, Rharrit said she had hoped to influence the administration’s stance from within by communicating the sentiments of the Arab street.

“I believed in my government. I continue to believe in my government despite all of it. And I felt it was my duty and my responsibility to stay on and make my voice heard,” she said.

“Part of what I did as spokesperson was generate daily reports back to Washington covering pan-Arab media — not just traditional media but (also) social media. And we all have been witnessing what has been happening on Arab social media, specifically everything that has been coming out of Gaza.

“I needed and I wanted Washington to see this and I sent those images that were going viral, of the toddlers being killed, of the children being burnt. I sent these images to Washington to wake up their conscience as well to show them that Americans were being blamed for this, not just the Israelis, and that is fundamentally not in the US interest.

“I felt it was my duty as an American diplomat to stay on and do it and say that. But, unfortunately, as you said, it became abundantly clear that there were no red lines and it was intensely disheartening, day after day, week after week, month after month, to see that we would continue to send more and more arms.

“And I would stress, that is in violation of US law in addition to international law. And that is why I eventually submitted my resignation after countless conversations internally, which basically made me feel like no matter what I would do, no matter what anybody else would do, the position wasn’t changing.”

A woman and child walk among debris, aftermath of Israeli strikes at the area, where Israeli hostages were rescued on Saturday, as Palestinian death toll rises to 274, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. (Reuters)

Although they did not resign in “any coordinated manner,” Rharrit said she was in regular contact with other former administration officials who quit over the issue and who hope to continue to change attitudes in Washington.

Rharrit concurred that the stance adopted by the Biden administration could radicalize a generation of Muslim and Arab youth, potentially creating a Hamas 2.0 capable of replicating attacks like the one that befell Israel on Oct. 7.

“This was my argument for months, every single day, that, again if you want to even ignore the plight of the Palestinians, even if you are choosing to not acknowledge their humanity, this is not in the interests of the Israeli people, because all this will do is generate an endless cycle of violence, and this cycle of revenge,” she said.

“And that does not serve Israeli interests and it certainly does not serve the US. It will continue to destabilize the Middle East for generations to come. All the countries in this region will have to deal with that.

“Violence is not the answer. Bombs are not the answer. A political solution which actually recognizes the dignity and the humanity of the Palestinians, establishes a state of self-determination for the Palestinians, that is the only solution to this, and the only thing that really can counter extremism. And we’ve seen that. And that’s what we need to get to, that type of political resolution.”

Of course, Washington’s stance on Gaza could soon change if Biden fails to secure a second term in November’s presidential election and his Republican rival Donald Trump returns to the White House.

Whatever the outcome, Rharrit expects Gaza will weigh heavily on the election.
“I think it will weigh intensely,” she said. “Because I think young Americans have been consuming all of this carnage on their phones and they’ve risen up. It’s awakened their consciousness not just in terms of Gaza, but in terms of so many injustices in this world.

“And they’re seeing through a lot that the government has sort of tried to promote and they’re demanding a change. They’re demanding social change. And it doesn’t matter what walks of life.

“And I want to stress this, that a lot of this movement, it’s not about an us vs. them narrative. Not at all. People that are supporting the Palestinians in Gaza come from all faiths, all backgrounds. And it’s for the sake of humanity and nothing else.”



What is behind the recent spike in attacks on Arab visitors and Syrian refugees in Turkiye?

What is behind the recent spike in attacks on Arab visitors and Syrian refugees in Turkiye?
Updated 24 min 56 sec ago

What is behind the recent spike in attacks on Arab visitors and Syrian refugees in Turkiye?

What is behind the recent spike in attacks on Arab visitors and Syrian refugees in Turkiye?
  • A Turkish man was arrested in Istanbul earlier this month after threatening a group of Saudi tourists with a knife
  • The incident occurred against the backdrop of a fresh wave of violence against Syrians living in Turkiye

LONDON: A spike in the number of violent assaults on Arabs in Turkiye in recent times has raised concern about the safety of foreigners in a country visited by tens of thousands of tourists from Middle East countries and which hosts millions of Syrian refugees.

Earlier this month, a Turkish man was arrested in Istanbul after threatening a group of Saudi tourists with a knife while seemingly hurling derogatory epithets at them, Al-Arabiya reported.

A video of the attack recently circulated on social media showing the man making a hand gesture associated with the Gray Wolves — an ultranationalist and pan-Turkic group established in the late 1960s as the youth wing of the Nationalist Movement Party.

The Gray Wolves have long been associated with violent acts, including attacks on leftists, Kurds and other minority groups. Despite their controversial reputation, they remain influential in Turkish society.

Turkiye is a popular destination for Saudi tourists, with 650,000 of them visiting from January through August last year, according to the Saudi Gazette newspaper. An outburst of hostility toward Arabs could dent Saudi visitor numbers.

This was of course not the first time that clips of attacks on Arab tourists in Turkiye went viral online. Incidents involving fistfights and xenophobic insults were uploaded to social media platforms last year by users from the Gulf states and Egypt.

Turkish man threatening to attack Saudis in a cafe in Turkiye. (Twitter photo/File)

The knife-brandishing incident occurred against the backdrop of a fresh wave of violence against Syrians in Turkiye, following the arrest of a 26-year-old Syrian man on charges of sexual assault against a minor in Kayseri, Central Anatolia.

Riots broke out overnight on June 30 across Kayseri after news spread on social media about a Syrian man who was allegedly caught abusing a 7-year-old female relative in a public restroom in the Melikgazi district, according to a Reuters report.

The rioters attacked and vandalized dozens of Syrian-owned businesses, homes, and vehicles, following which the violence spread to other parts of Turkiye, including Gaziantep, Bursa, and Hatay, where a Syrian grocery store was set on fire.


Turkish ultranationalist and pan-Turkic group.

Paramilitary wing of the Nationalist Movement Party.

Believes in the supremacy of the Turkish race and nation.

Rose to prominence in the late 1970s.

Outlawed for hate speech in France in 2020.

Ali Yerlikaya, the Turkish interior minister, said the assault was being investigated and condemned the rioters’ actions as “illegal” and contrary to the nation’s values.

He said in a post on X that local authorities had detained 67 of the protesters, stressing that it was “unacceptable for our people to harm the environment without considering public order, security and human rights.”

In a separate post, Yerlikaya said authorities were investigating several X accounts that had helped to stoke the violence, with 10 referred to the prosecutor’s office.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also condemned the violence, saying: “Nothing can be achieved by fueling xenophobia and hatred of refugees in society.”

A few days after the Kayseri incident, the personal data of some 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkiye was leaked online, sparking fears of an eruption of xenophobic violence.

The Turkish Interior Ministry confirmed that the personal details of Syrians under temporary protection were shared from the social media account “Uprising#Turkey,” which is run by a 14-year-old.

“The necessary action was taken against E.P. (the account admin) by the Istanbul Children’s Branch Directorate,” the ministry said in a statement.

UK-based Syrian activist Lana, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, told Arab News that her family in Gaziantep “went through hell for at least two weeks following the Kayseri incident.”

She said: “In the few days following the riots, they couldn’t even leave the house to buy bread. They were gripped by fear and paralyzed by the uncertainty created by the recent developments, including talk since June (regarding the) end of normalization of Turkish ties with President Bashar Assad.”

Marwah, a Syrian who lives in Bursa and works in human resources, thinks social media was responsible for blowing the situation out of proportion.

“While following the news, I felt like I’d be killed for my identity if I stepped outside my house, but this has not been the case,” she told Arab News.

Still, the news and footage of the riots have caused panic among Syrians. “Some have frantically sold their possessions or borrowed about $8,000 to flee Turkiye while others have contemplated returning to Syria,” said Marwah.

“Even my colleague who has Turkish citizenship was inquiring about relocating to Egypt despite not having witnessed any of the violence.”


3.6 million

Registered Syrian refugees in Turkiye. (UNHCR)

UN agencies and several human rights bodies, including Amnesty International, have concluded that Syria remains unsafe for refugee repatriation.

Marwah explained that although violence against Syrians has not been unusual in Turkiye since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 sent millions fleeing abroad, “Kayseri is a place where Syrians and Turks have coexisted peacefully, with 48 percent of workers being Syrian.

“Apparently it was not easy to incite strife between Syrians and Turks in Kayseri, so it had to be done through something related to common values, as the people of Kayseri are generally conservative,” said Marwah.

She said she heard from locals that “groups of thugs were brought to Kayseri in buses to stir up violence.

“Turks in Kayseri, which is an industrial city, typically retire early, so it is unlikely the locals were the ones who engaged in the violence against Syrians,” she said, stressing that “anyone living in Turkiye for years would know that those riots — and their social media coverage — could not have erupted spontaneously, without prior planning.”

Anti-Arab sentiments may have already put a damper on the Turkish tourism industry’s ambitions.

According to the news website Hurriyet Daily, the number of tourists visiting Turkiye from Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan dropped in 2023 respectively by 34 percent, 17 percent, 24.2 percent, 24.4 percent and 22.2 percent.

UK-based Syrian activist Lana said that “while heightened anti-Arab racism in recent years has caused a decline in Arab tourism to Turkiye, the biggest impact is felt by Syrian nationals, who for the last three years have been pursuing onward migration to Europe.”

She believes the hostility has been encouraged in part because Syrian refugees have been used as a “political pawn” in local elections and “are not included in any discussions related to their status and future.”

In this 2017 photo, Syrian refugees are allowed to return to Syria at the Oncupinar crossing gate near the town of Kilis, south central Turkey, to attend al-Adha festivities. (AFP/File)

Enass, a France-based Syrian journalist who also requested anonymity, believes “Turkiye, like other neighboring countries, has profited from hosting Syrian refugees.

“There was a clear agreement to increase EU support for Turkiye in exchange for curbing the influx of refugees to European countries in 2015,” she told Arab News, emphasizing that most of Syria’s neighbors “addressed the refugee crisis as an emergency rather than a permanent situation.”

In 2016, an agreement was reached between the European Commission and Ankara to control the flow of irregular migrant boats to Greece. Turkiye agreed to tighten border security at its shores in exchange for 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion).

“The government’s management of the refugee issue has been both political and economic, aimed at serving the national interest, while the public has often been misled about how their country benefited from hosting Syrian refugees,” said Enass.

She added that many Turkish politicians, particularly during election campaigns, “have employed an anti-refugee rhetoric” that “has contributed to inciting violence against vulnerable Syrian communities across the country.

“For years, competing political parties in Turkiye have spread misleading information about the support provided to Syrian refugees. This has led Turkish citizens to believe refugees were entitled to services and support, which in turn has contributed to economic inflation. This isn’t true,” Enass said.

“Opposition parties capitalized on this misinformation to stoke anger among the Turkish populace.”

Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkiye wholly or partly owned at least 10,000 businesses as of 2019, according to a study by the Economic Research Foundation of Turkiye. Those enterprises employ around 44,000 Syrians as well as thousands of Turkish nationals.

Enass said the changing political and economic landscape “is prompting the Turkish government to take new measures that encourage Syrians to ‘voluntarily’ return, but this is a form of unjustified deportation of individuals holding valid permits.”

She added: “The delay in addressing security incidents against Syrians in Turkiye undermines the interests of Syrians and contributes to the rise in hate speech.”

Erdogan has said he sees no reason not to restore diplomatic relations with Damascus, but the Syrian leadership has conditioned normalization on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory.

A rapprochement would see the opening of a crossing between government-held areas and those controlled by Turkish-backed opposition forces in Aleppo province.


PM: Egypt will halt power cuts on Sunday

PM: Egypt will halt power cuts on Sunday
Updated 17 July 2024

PM: Egypt will halt power cuts on Sunday

PM: Egypt will halt power cuts on Sunday

DUBAI: Egypt will halt load-shedding power cuts during the summer as of Sunday, after some natural gas shipments arrived, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said on Wednesday, in a bid to end a crisis that inconvenienced a population of 106 million.

The North African country has been grappling with power shortages as high cooling demand during summer drives up consumption. Egypt generates most of its electricity from burning natural gas.

Load-shedding refers to rotating power cuts in parts of the electricity grid to prevent failure of the entire system when demand exceeds capacity.

Egypt’s daily power consumption has exceeded 37 gigawatts, up 12 percent from last year, Madbouly said in a televised press conference.

It has received five cargoes containing 155,000 cubic meters of liquefied natural gas out of 21 cargoes that it contracted for, the Petroleum Ministry said on Monday.

Daesh ‘trying to reconstitute’ in Iraq, Syria, says US Central Command

Daesh ‘trying to reconstitute’ in Iraq, Syria, says US Central Command
Updated 17 July 2024

Daesh ‘trying to reconstitute’ in Iraq, Syria, says US Central Command

Daesh ‘trying to reconstitute’ in Iraq, Syria, says US Central Command
  • Attacks double compared to 2023

BAGHDAD: The US Central Command said on Wednesday that the Daesh group is trying “to reconstitute” as the number of attacks in Syria and Iraq is on track to double this year, compared to the year before.

Daesh claimed 153 attacks in the two countries in the first six months of 2024, CENTCOM said in a statement. 

According to a US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t allowed to speak publicly on the matter, the group was behind 121 attacks in Syria and Iraq in 2023.

“The increase in attacks indicates Daesh is attempting to reconstitute following several years of decreased capability,” CENTCOM said.

In northeastern Syria, Kurdish-led authorities issued a general amnesty on Wednesday that would include hundreds of Syrians who have been held by the main US-backed force over their roles within IS.

The US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are holding over 10,000 captured Daesh fighters in around two dozen detention facilities — including 2,000 foreigners whose home countries have refused to repatriate them. The SDF captured the last sliver of land in Syria from Daesh in March 2019.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria said a life sentence will be reduced to 15 years in jail, while those detainees serving life sentences who have incurable diseases will be set free, as will those who have reached the age of 75. 

It said the amnesty will not include Daesh officials and members who fought against the SDF, nor those who carried out attacks with explosives that killed people. Legal expert Khaled Jabr said the amnesty will include some 600 Syrian citizens who are held on terrorism charges and links to Daesh, as long as their hands are not tainted with blood or they were detained while fighting SDF members. The announcement comes just after the 10-year mark since the militant group declared its caliphate in large parts of Iraq and Syria. 

At its peak, the group ruled an area half the size of the UK where it attempted to enforce its extreme interpretation of Islam, which included attacks on religious minority groups and harsh punishment of Muslims deemed to be apostates.

Tunisia urges EU to increase aid to tackle migration crisis

Tunisia urges EU to increase aid to tackle migration crisis
Updated 17 July 2024

Tunisia urges EU to increase aid to tackle migration crisis

Tunisia urges EU to increase aid to tackle migration crisis

TRIPOLI: Tunisia’s prime minister urged European countries on Wednesday to increase financial assistance to his country and others to help tackle the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Tunisia has faced protests by local residents and extra financial costs over migrants arriving from other countries in the hope of traveling on to Europe by sea, risking perilous journeys on what in many cases are dilapidated boats.

Thousands of migrants are now concentrated in southern Tunisian towns such as Amra and Jbeniana, many of them fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.

“More assistance must be provided to countries such as Tunisia. The aid provided is insufficient to address the problem,” Tunisian Prime Minister Ahmed Hachani told a migration conference in Tripoli.

He said Tunisia was a victim country and was exhausting its public finances on efforts to deal with the migration crisis, which is an additional burden for a government that was already facing other problems.

“There are towns that have absorbed migrants beyond their ability,” he said, referring to Amra and Jbeniana.

“There has been money spent for 10 or 50 years on this problem, and this problem has not been solved,” Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh told the conference. “This money must be spent there (in the countries of origin) and not in detention camps, whether in Libya or Europe.”

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told the conference that the situation could not be resolved without tackling the problem in the countries of origin.

Syrian official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse arrested by US officials

Syrian official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse arrested by US officials
Updated 17 July 2024

Syrian official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse arrested by US officials

Syrian official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse arrested by US officials
  • Samir Ousman Al-Sheikh, 72, was arrested last week at Los Angeles International Airport on immigration fraud charges
  • Al-Sheikh, who was in charge of Syria’s infamous Adra prison, ‘provided materially false information on his visa application’

LOS ANGELES: A former Syrian military official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse has been arrested in Los Angeles.
Samir Ousman Al-Sheikh, 72, was arrested last week at Los Angeles International Airport on immigration fraud charges, specifically that he denied on his US visa and citizenship applications that he had ever carried out any abuse in Syria, according to a criminal complaint filed on July 9.
Al-Sheikh, who was in charge of Syria’s infamous Adra prison, “provided materially false information on his visa application by falsely stating that he had not committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in extrajudicial killings, political killings, or other acts of violence,” the complaint states. Al-Sheikh has been a resident of Los Angeles since 2020.
Investigators were considering additional charges, according to court papers.
“This is the highest level Assad regime official arrested anywhere in the world, it is the highest regime official arrested in the United States for sure, if not the only one of his type,” Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, said Wednesday. “This is a really big deal, it’s unprecedented.”
Human rights groups and United Nations officials have accused the Syrian government of widespread abuses in its detention facilities, including torture and arbitrary detention of thousands of people, in many cases without informing their families about their fate. Many remain missing and are presumed to have died or been executed.
Other players in Syria’s civil war, now in its 14th year, have also been accused of abuse of detainees, including insurgent groups and the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which guard suspected and convicted Islamic State members imprisoned in northeastern Syria.
The war, which has left nearly half a million people dead and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, began as peaceful protests against the government of Bashar Assad in March 2011.