Archive for November 24, 2013


By Fayez Nureldine – RIYADH

Hundreds of illegal migrants targeted in a Saudi nationwide crackdown turned themselves in on Sunday after security forces besieged a Riyadh neighborhood where riots had killed two people.

Men, women and children lined up carrying their belongings to board police buses transferring them to an assembly centre before their deportation, a week after a seven-month amnesty expired.

Police said they intervened on Saturday following riots in the poor Manfuhah neighborhood of the capital after foreigners attacked Saudis and other foreign expats with rocks and knives.

One Saudi and another person, whose nationality and identity remains unknown, were killed, said a police statement carried by the SPA state news agency.

Another 68 people — 28 Saudis and 40 foreigners — were injured and 561 were arrested.

The Manfuhah district of Riyadh is home to many illegal migrants, mostly from east Africa.

On Sunday, police laid siege to the district while units from the National Guard and Special Forces were sent in, a photojournalist said.

The Ethiopian government said on Saturday it was repatriating citizens who had failed to meet the deadline of a seven-month amnesty, citing reports that an Ethiopian had been killed by police.

“They were trying to get them in the camp before repatriation and in that process… an Ethiopian has been killed with a police bullet, but we are verifying it,” foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said in Addis Ababa.

Saudi police said on Saturday illegal migrants in Manfuhah have been given the chance to come forward and that accommodation has been made available while their repatriation is arranged.

On Monday, the authorities began rounding up thousands of illegal foreign workers following the expiry of a final amnesty for them to formalize their status.

Those considered being illegal range from overstaying visitors and pilgrims seeking jobs to shop assistants and day laborers working for someone other than their sponsor.

Having an official sponsor is a legal requirement in Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf states.

Nearly a million migrants — Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Indians, Nepalese, Pakistanis and Yemenis among them — took advantage of the amnesty to leave.

Another roughly four million were able to find employers to sponsor them, but in so doing virtually emptied the market of cheap freelance labor.

Expatriates account for a full nine million of the oil-rich kingdom’s population of 27 million.

The lure of work, even in low-paid jobs as domestics or construction workers, has made the country a magnet for migrants from Asia as well as from poorer Arab states.

Despite its huge oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has a jobless rate of more than 12.5 percent among its native population, a figure the government has long sought to cut.

Saudi economists have insisted that the departure of illegal workers will benefit the largest Arab economy in the long run, but Saudis have already began to feel the pinch of a surging cost of labor because of a shortage of day workers.

Saudis and expatriates say that casual workers who used to queue in public squares for odd jobs have virtually disappeared since police began strictly enforcing tough labor laws.

The labor ministry said on Saturday it will continue to accept applications from undocumented foreigners seeking to legalize their status, but that they will be fined for the elapsed period since the amnesty ended on November 3.

Source: Middle East Online.

Sun Nov 10, 2013

(Reuters) – Saudi Arabian police clashed with foreign workers in a poor district of Riyadh on Saturday, nearly a week into a visa crackdown in which thousands have been detained and one man killed by police.

Security forces in riot gear fired into the air and used truncheons to disperse large crowds as scores of men ran through the streets, some throwing stones and other objects at cars and police, according to Reuters witnesses.

Two people were killed of which one was a Saudi while the other one was unidentified, the Saudi police said in a statement late on Saturday after it detained 561 people involved in the disturbances in the Manfuhah neighborhood of southern Riyadh.

The police added that 68 people were injured.

Most of the foreign workers involved in the clashes appeared to be Africans.

In a previous statement, the police did not refer directly to Saturday’s clashes, or say how many had been injured or detained, but said that in light of “what has happened”, the authorities had designated a location for people to surrender voluntarily.

Authorities this year said they would no longer turn a blind eye to foreign workers breaking visa rules by working for companies that had not sponsored their entry into the world’s top oil exporter.

The intention is to end a black market for cheap imported workers, cut the foreign labor force, reduce the flow of remittances to other countries and make more private sector jobs available for Saudi citizens.

A seven-month amnesty for foreigners to rectify their visa status without penalty or leave the country – which prompted an exodus of hundreds of thousands of foreigners – expired on Monday, prompting the start of the crackdown. Thousands have been arrested.

On Wednesday, an Ethiopian was killed in a raid after he tried to grab a policeman’s weapon, the Arab News English-language daily reported on Friday.

Many of those caught in raids on shops, marketplaces, businesses and low-income residential areas are likely to be deported.

Many expatriate workers say they were unable to take advantage of the amnesty because of bureaucratic difficulties or disputes with their original sponsors.

In some streets in Manfuhah, men in Saudi dress had also gathered in small groups, some of them carrying knives and iron bars, saying they were protecting their property. Other people watched from rooftops.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Source: Reuters.

November 12, 2013

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Families in a central neighborhood of the Syrian capital wept quietly Tuesday as they retrieved the bodies of four children and their bus driver killed in a mortar attack on their school in a predominantly Christian area a day earlier.

The strike was the latest rebel reprisal to hit Damascus as government troops press ahead with a crushing weekslong advance into opposition-held suburbs, often relying on indiscriminant artillery fire themselves. Such mortar attacks by rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad have been on the rise.

“Those children were angels,” said Marwan Qabalan, a family friend picking up the body of nine-year-old Vaniciya Mekho from the morgue. He said the girl’s parents couldn’t bear to see her, still dressed in a school uniform and covered with blood.

Often-random rebel mortar fire has hit shops, churches, homes and embassies in the capital this year, killing dozens of civilians. But Monday’s shelling of Risaleh school in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood shocked residents in particular because the casualties were children.

A fifth pupil died early Tuesday, raising the number of children killed to five. Four other children and two supervisors were also wounded in the strike, and another mortar attack the same day on nearby John of Damascus school wounded 11.

Also Tuesday, Kurds announced a transitional autonomous administration to run day-to-day affairs in regions they dominate in Syria’s northeast. Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said the announcement was made in the city of Qamishli.

Overstretched from fighting rebels across most of the country, Syrian troops withdrew from Kurdish areas last year, leaving a security void. Since then, Kurdish militiamen led by the PYD, seen by mainstream rebels and some other Kurdish groups as being pro-government, have been fighting to purge their areas from Islamic extremists and al-Qaida affiliated militants.

The Kurdish move could be a first step toward setting up an autonomous region similar to one they administer in northern Iraq. It was not immediately clear however if other groups supported the announcement by the PYD and a few other small groups.

In Damascus, the morgue visit was organized for journalists by Syrian officials who otherwise typically restrict reporters’ access to events. All victims were Christians. Associated Press TV footage showed somber pallbearers placing a small white coffin with a gold cross on the lid into the back of a hearse. Three men carried out another coffin, as woman dressed in black cried out: “What a waste, what a shame!” A hospital medic draped a white robe over six-year-old Majd Shahadeh before he was placed in a coffin.

“I am proud because I am the mother of a martyr and I am ready even to sacrifice my other two sons for Syria,” said the bus driver’s tearful mother, Samira Abu Sukkeh. UNICEF called the shelling “barbaric,” saying in a statement that “all those with influence in Syria have a moral obligation to respect the sanctity of children’s lives and ensure that schools remain a place of safe refuge.”

The attack triggered outrage among residents of the capital who have largely become accustomed to violence and mortar fire in recent months, with many parents to terrified to let their children return to school. Education official Rami Shahin said only 100 of some 750 pupils at John of Damascus attended classes Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Damascus, mortar shells continued to draw blood, with state media saying a strike near the office of a pro-Assad Palestinian group wounded 10. The shells can be easily lobbed into the city from footholds on its outskirts.

Despite the attacks, rebel fighters say infighting and waning weapon supplies have weakened them in recent weeks. The government has also besieged many of their enclaves and made inroads in the northern province of Aleppo as well.

Tuesday’s fighting centered around the suburb of Hejeira, one of a patchwork of sprawling neighborhoods and towns just south of Damascus that have been opposition strongholds for the past year. In recent weeks, government forces have taken control of four nearby strongholds, most recently the nearby town of Sabina.

Assad’s efforts there were bolstered by Shiite fighters from Iraq and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground. A spokeswoman for a Damascus-based Syrian rebel council corroborated the claim, speaking on condition of anonymity however for fear of reprisals.

An Aleppo-based anti-government activist said rebels were on high alert in the northern city on Tuesday, fearing government troops backed by various Assad allies would soon try to storm their eastern strongholds. The activist, who uses the pseudonym Abu Raed in order to avoid identification by the government, said rebel fighters had been ordered to present themselves for duty or be punished.

“They want to halt the army’s advance,” he said. “The regime is coming.” Western-backed rebel groups have not been sent weapons or ammunition for at least a month, Abu Raed added, saying the cutback was part of a regional tactic to force Syria’s opposition to agree to participate in an international peace conference to end to the three-year conflict.

The fractured opposition however has so far demurred from saying outright it would attend the proposed talks in Geneva— welcoming the conference but with preconditions unlikely to be met.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed reporting.

November 12, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group has approved a partial cabinet charged with administering rebel-held territories inside Syria.

The move by the Syrian National Coalition late Monday follows its announcement earlier in the day that it plans to attend proposed peace talks with the Syrian government, if certain conditions are met.

The coalition has struggled for months to cobble together an interim government, in part because of infighting among the various exile groups involved. In votes on Monday, the coalition approved most of the cabinet, but could not agree on some positions, according to those who took part in the voting.

The opposition government is tasked with organizing governance in rebel-held areas of Syria, although its ability to fulfill that goal appears limited. The coalition’s already slim support inside Syria received a severe blow in September when nearly a dozen of the most powerful rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition. The brigades said they do not recognize any government formed outside Syria.

That announcement highlighted the growing irrelevance of the coalition and its military arm headed by Gen. Salim Idris, who leads the Supreme Military Council supported by the West, amid increasing radicalization in Syria. The group is seen by many as being out of touch and a puppet of the West and Gulf Arab states.

On Monday, a coalition of Syria-based opposition groups said that the peace conference proposed by the United States and Russia to be held by the end of the year may be the last chance to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war.

The call came as Syrian government forces consolidated control over yet another northern town, part of a steadily advancing offensive that has reversed rebel gains in recent weeks. In Damascus, Syria’s state news agency said a mortar shell hit a school bus Monday in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood, killing four children and the bus driver. It said four children and two teachers were also wounded.

“This is the only available framework and might be the last chance to resolve the crisis in Syria,” the Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change said in a statement. Neither that coalition nor the SNC, however, has much influence over the disparate armed factions fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The Syria-based opposition ranges from officials close to the government, to intellectuals and parties that have opposed Assad’s Baath party for decades. The exiled group ranges from secular intellectuals to Islamic activists.

In its statement Monday, the SNC said it would only attend the talks Geneva talks if humanitarian aid is allowed to reach besieged areas and the government releases political prisoners. The group itself wants any future transitional government to exclude Assad and his close allies, a demand the Syrian government has rejected.

The proposed Geneva conference faces a series of obstacles: the most powerful and best-armed rebel groups aren’t party to the talks, and most fighting units are disorganized bands with little central command or leadership. Even if an agreement is reached in Geneva, it is unclear if it will be accepted on the ground.

As diplomats have been trying to convene peace talks, the fighting on the ground has raged on. Government forces took over the town of Tel Aran and other positions in the northern province of Aleppo, state media said, a day after they consolidated control of a key military base held by rebels since February. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which receives its information from a network of activists on the ground, also reported the government advances.

The Observatory and an Aleppo activist said they believed the government’s gains were partly caused by rebel infighting. The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in particular, they said, was trying to drive weaker opposition groups from rebel-held areas.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization said it has now confirmed 13 cases of polio in Syria as part of the first outbreak of the highly communicable disease in the country in 14 years. The WHO also said genetic sequencing indicates the strain is closely linked to one that originated in Pakistan and was detected in environmental samples in Egypt last year.

The U.N. has launched a massive vaccination campaign across the Middle East to try to control the outbreak.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Berza Simsek contributed to this report. Hadid reported from Beirut.

November 09, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels launched a counteroffensive in the northern city of Aleppo, recapturing a base near its international airport hours after the army advanced into the area, activists said Saturday.

The fighting came as the main Western-backed opposition group began a two-day meeting in Istanbul to decide whether they will attend a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene in Geneva.

The Syrian National Coalition has demanded that President Bashar Assad step down in any transitional Syrian government as a condition for going to Geneva. Syrian officials say Assad will stay in his post at least until his terms ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters that the U.N.-Arab League’s top envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will hold a meeting in early December to decide on a new date and the attendees of the Geneva conference.

“We were saddened and depressed because of the failure of the latest meetings to decide on a date and participants for the conference,” Elaraby said, referring to a meeting in Geneva earlier this week that many had hoped would call for holding the talks later this month. The League had wanted the peace conference to lead to a cease-fire and secure means to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrians, Elaraby said.

Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh told reporters in Istanbul at the beginning of its meeting that the Syrian government could demonstrate some goodwill measures, such as lifting sieges on rebel-held areas. Government soldiers have prevented food, fuel and medical aid from reaching some opposition-controlled enclaves. Assad’s armed opponents have also similarly punished government-loyal areas in their midst.

But even with goodwill measures, many in the coalition will resist calls to attend unless Assad agrees to step down in a transitional government, a highly unlikely development. In Aleppo, al-Qaida-linked rebels and other Islamic fighters recaptured the Brigade 80 base that had protected the city’s airport, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center said. The government has not confirmed losing the base.

The government-held Aleppo International Airport, which has been closed due to fighting for almost a year, is one of the Syrian rebels’ major objectives. Brigade 80 first fell to rebels in February, but government troops seized parts of it early Friday during an offensive. The rebels launched a push to retake it later that day and fighting ranged overnight into Saturday, with 20 government soldiers killed as well as more than 40 rebels from different groups, including al-Qaida’s al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, according to the Observatory.

Hard-line Islamic groups have emerged as some of the most effective fighters in the Syrian rebel ranks. Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said a rocket fired by opposition fighters hit near a health center in Aleppo’s Ashrafieh neighborhood, killing six children and wounding six others.

Meanwhile, a woman working as a media activist was found slain with signs of abuse on her body on a farm in the Aleppo province, two Syrian activist groups said. The Observatory and the Local Coordinating Committees said the woman was seized about 40 days ago by gunmen near the Turkey-Syria border. The LCC identified her as Samira Kayali.

Associated Press writers Sarah el-Deeb in Cairo and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Tue Nov 19, 2013

Palestine has cast its first vote at the United Nations General Assembly, taking another step toward becoming a full member of the UN.

“This is an important step in our march for freedom and independence and full membership of the United Nations,” said Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour on Monday.

“I think that this is a very, very special moment in the history of the struggle of the Palestinian people at the United Nations,” Mansour said, adding, “It is another step for strengthening the pillars of… Palestine in the international arena.”

“It (the vote) is an important one because it reflects that the international community, particularly the General Assembly, is hungry and waiting for…Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations,” he said.

On November 29, 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status at the UN from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state” despite strong opposition from Israel and the US.

One hundred and thirty-eight voted in favor of the measure, nine against and 41 abstained.

The move followed a failed bid to join the international body as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the UN Security Council.

On October 31, 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization General Conference in Paris admitted Palestine as its 195th member state, with 107 votes in favor, 14 votes against, and 52 abstentions.

Source: PressTV.

November 13, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian teenager stabbed an Israeli soldier to death at a bus station in northern Israel on Wednesday, police said, in a rare nationalistic attack far from the usual West Bank flashpoints.

The soldier was stabbed multiple times in the neck and upper body and was evacuated to hospital in critical condition where he died of his wounds, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The attacker, a 16-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank town of Jenin who was working in Israel illegally, was apprehended and was being investigated, Rosenfeld said. The knife he used to stab the soldier was confiscated.

The stabbing took place on a Tel Aviv-bound bus as it made a stop in the northern Israeli town of Afula. The attack comes at a sensitive time as Israelis and Palestinians resumed peace talks in late July, after a nearly five-year break. The sides have set an April target date for reaching an agreement.

But an uptick in deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank recently is undermining the efforts to make progress in the faltering negotiations. Still, attacks inside Israel itself have been rare.

As part of the U.S.-brokered agreement to restart the peace talks, Israel recently released 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners who had been convicted of killing Israelis. Almagor, an Israeli group representing victims of the Palestinian attacks, said Wednesday’s stabbing shows Israel was wrong to go through with the prisoners’ release because it would encourage Palestinians to believe that despite attacks they will be released someday.

The attack also came a day after Israel flip-flopped over the announcement of plans for new West Bank settlement construction — a key stumbling point in the peace talks. Israel initially said it would explore the potential construction of thousands of new homes, but the decision was later reversed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said it had created “unnecessary confrontation” with the international community.

The issue of settlement construction has been at the heart of the standstill in peace efforts in recent years and the Palestinians say it remains a major obstacle in the newly restarted talks. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. They say Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

November 11, 2013

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Facebook campaign calling for a “rebellion” against Gaza’s Hamas rulers quickly fizzled Monday, suggesting the long-suffering residents of the isolated territory are either afraid to protest, blame outsiders for their troubles or have simply lost hope.

Hamas maintains a firm grip on Gaza even though the Islamic militant group seems increasingly vulnerable because of growing hardship in the territory of 1.7 million people. Hamas’ main foreign ally, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was toppled in a military coup in early July.

Egypt’s new government has since virtually sealed the country’s border with Gaza, destroying almost all the dozens of smuggling tunnels. The crackdown has led to price hikes, fuel shortages and longer daily power cuts in Gaza.

The Hamas government has lost tens of millions of dollars in tunnel revenues, or as much as half its monthly operating budget. It’s more than a month behind in paying its 42,000 civil servants. Gaza’s only power plant was recently forced to stop operating because it no longer could rely on cheap fuel smuggled from Egypt. Electricity throughout the strip is now on for six hours, then off for 12.

Gaza has endured Israeli and Egyptian border blockades to varying degrees since Hamas overran the territory in 2007 after defeating forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank.

“Gaza is now living under the harshest phase of the siege,” the Cabinet secretary of the Hamas government, Abdel Salam Siyam, said Monday. Under Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt allowed most consumer goods and fuel to enter Gaza through the tunnels, even as it enforced some restrictions. Mubarak, who was toppled in an uprising in 2011, did not want to be blamed for a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In contrast, Egypt’s military appears determined to keep the border sealed, arguing that Hamas is responsible for many of Egypt’s security problems, including the rise of militants in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza.

“All the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt should be closed because the tunnels are harmful to Egyptian national security and the Egyptian economy,” said Yasser Othman, the Egyptian envoy to the West Bank. “Egypt can’t remain silent on this matter.”

The Rafah passenger crossing between Gaza and Egypt has opened only sporadically, and thousands of Gazans trying to get to universities and jobs abroad have been unable to leave. Othman said Rafah would be opened only when security permits.

Just a year ago, Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared to be riding high. A brief, inconclusive round of fighting with Israel last November ended with a cease-fire deal in which Israel promised to consider a further easing of its border restrictions on Gaza. With the Brotherhood in power in Egypt, Hamas also hoped its days of international isolation would soon end.

Now, Hamas seems to have lost most of its allies. Its traditional ties with Iran, a long-time financial backer, have been strained because Hamas came out in support of rebels fighting the Iranian-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister in Gaza, acknowledged that government operations have suffered because of the cash crunch. Yet he insisted that Hamas can survive, arguing that the people of Gaza don’t blame their government.

“They understand very well that Hamas did not put the money in its pocket and prevent it from reaching the people,” Hamad said in an interview at his office. “I think people understand that external factors affect the situation here.”

Hamad offered no clear way out of the crisis. He said Hamas would continue to appeal to Egypt to ease the lockdown and to Abbas to renew talks with Hamas on a unity government. Such reconciliation talks have failed repeatedly over the years.

With Hamas seemingly vulnerable, a Facebook campaign called “Rebellion,” named after the Egyptian protesters that helped bring down Morsi, also urged Gazans to rise up, starting Monday. That coincided with the ninth anniversary of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah, Hamas’ main political rival.

The campaign had three separate Facebook pages, though it was not entirely clear who was behind the “rebellion.” Some of the organizers are based in Cairo. On one of the pages, Ahmed Assaf, a Fatah spokesman in the West Bank, wrote Monday: “Our masses in the Gaza Strip, go out into the street on 11/11 and voice your anger against Hamas and its armed militia.” He did not return requests by The Associated Press for comment.

Fatah official Faisal Abu Shahla in Gaza distanced himself from the campaign. “This is just the activity of young people,” he said. “They do it on their own. There are no orders and no instructions.” There were no signs Monday of Facebook-inspired protests in Gaza City.

Yet Hamas was clearly jittery. When several journalists, including one from Germany and one from the Netherlands, asked university students in a Gaza City square about the “rebellion,” black-clad Hamas police swooped in and ordered the journalists to accompany them to police headquarters, where they were detained for about half an hour.

Hamas also rejected a Fatah request to stage an Arafat anniversary rally, according to Abu Shahla. “Hamas uses extreme force and an iron fist in dealing with these issues,” he said. Several years ago, such a rally drew a crowd of tens of thousands, and deadly clashes erupted between demonstrators and Hamas security.

Hamad denied that Hamas was suppressing dissent, saying Fatah was allowed in principle to commemorate Arafat’s death, but that there was disagreement over the location. Fatah supporter Adnan Abu Jaziyeh, 63, a retired Arabic teacher, stayed at home Monday, sitting in his living room decorated with Arafat posters and yellow Fatah flags.

“I would like to go out (to mark the anniversary), but I am afraid,” he said. “There is no rebellion. Everyone is afraid.” Nafez Abu Abed, 53, who trades in cement, said life in Gaza has gotten tougher since the Egyptian crackdown. With the tunnel closure, his supplies dried up.

Even so, he said, “people will not rise up against Hamas because they understand that Hamas did not cause this.”

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Gaza City contributed to this report.

November 10, 2013

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Hamas government of the Gaza Strip has for the first time appointed a woman to represent it to the world.

The hiring of Isra Almodallal as a spokeswoman for the territory’s conservative Islamist rulers is part of a long-running push by the group, which has at times sought to curb women’s freedoms, to present a newer friendlier face both to its own citizens and internationally.

Almodallal, a 23-year-old who speaks fluent British-accented English, has assumed a post normally held by tough-talking men who voice Hamas’ bitter opposition to Israel. She will be responsible for the Gaza government’s communications with the international media.

“We are looking forward to having a different and unique language,” said Almodallal in an interview in her Gaza City office, on her first week in the job. “We will make the issues more human.” The change in policy began six months ago when a new head of the government media department, Ihab Ghussein, took over. He hired younger media people, started a new official government website, began rampant use of social media and started conducting seminars and workshops.

Ghussein said he appointed Almodallal in an effort “to be more open to the West.” He said many women were among the dozens of applicants considered for the position. “Women are partners in our society,” Ghussein said.

Almodallal, a divorced mother of a four-year-old girl, does not have her roots in the Hamas movement. Unlike many other Hamas officials, her office does not bear a photo of Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. She keeps a book on American history there, alongside the Quran.

She was raised in Gaza and spent five years in Britain as a teenager, studying at Grange Technology College, a high school in Bradford in the U.K. Upon returning to Gaza, she studied journalism at the Islamic University, and worked as a TV reporter for a local station and an English-language satellite channel, which she said taught her how to present herself on camera.

Her appointment is the latest step by Hamas to manage its image. “Hamas, as any other government in the world, want others to listen and believe in them,” said Moean Hassan, a lecturer in media at Gaza’s Palestine University.

Since the group overran the territory in 2007, it has cautiously attempted to enforce its deeply conservative version of Islam and has at times placed some restrictions on women’s behavior. But it has refrained from passing sweeping Islamic legislation, apparently fearing a public backlash, despite criticisms form ultraconservatives who say it is not implementing Islamic law quickly enough.

Under Hamas, there has been mounting social pressure on women to cover up in the traditional Islamic dress of long robes and headscarves. The Hamas government has also banned them from riding on the backs of motorbikes and from smoking water pipes, but these rules have not always been enforced. Earlier this year, the Hamas government barred girls and women from participating in a U.N.-sponsored marathon, prompting a U.N. aid agency to cancel the race.

At the same time, women are permitted to work, drive and hold public office, with one female minister and six female deputy ministers serving in the Hamas government. Some 20 per cent of public servants working for Hamas are women.

Almodallal asserts that women in Gaza are finding their way into politics, medicine, education and media. “Every day, women’s footsteps can be seen advancing more in society,” she said. Almodallal takes a slightly different line than many Hamas spokesmen. She refers to “Israel” rather than the “Zionist entity.” And she does not consider herself a Hamas loyalist, saying she would be equally willing to work as spokeswoman for the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank.

But she does believe — in line with the Hamas position — that the Palestinians should control all of historic Palestine, or the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including what is now Israel.

She speaks primarily about Gaza government affairs: education and social programs or the Israeli blockade of the territory. She will not discuss Hamas suicide bombings and other attacks, which have killed hundreds of Israelis over the years. Not will she be handling the sensitive reconciliation attempts with the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank. Spokesmen for the Hamas movement, as opposed to the Gaza government, deal with those subjects.

“I am not Hamas. I am a Palestinian activist who loves her country,” Almodallal said. When asked her opinion on Hamas’ history of suicide bombings against Israelis, she did not answer directly but said Israel’s unfair media coverage had given Hamas a bad reputation.

“This is because of the Israeli media, which is a smart media. They change the truth and show the opposite picture of Palestine and the Palestinians,” she said. She takes up the job at a challenging time for the movement. Hamas lost a key ally with the downfall of its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in neighboring Egypt after a July 3 coup. The group remains a pariah to many nations in the West.

“I know it’s a big responsibility and it’s not easy to speak on behalf of a government in normal situations, whereas I am working in unique situations,” she says.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

BEIRUT: Two suicide bombers detonated explosions outside the Iranian Embassy in a mainly Shiite district of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, killing 23 people, including the Iranian cultural attaché, apparently in retaliation for the Lebanese group Hezbollah’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said the twin explosions killed 23 people and wounded 146.

Iranian Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi identified the dead diplomat as Sheik Ibrahim Ansari. Speaking to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV from inside the embassy compound, he said Ansari took his post in Lebanon a month ago and was overseeing all regional cultural activities. Al-Manar reported that the street targeted by the suicide bombers includes a building where some of the Iranian diplomats and their families live.

The bombings appeared to be another strike in an intensifying proxy battle over Syria’s civil war that is rattling its smaller neighbor Lebanon. An Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying more would follow unless the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah withdraws fighters that have helped Assad’s military score key victories over Syrian rebels.

The midmorning blasts hit the upscale neighborhood of Janah, a Hezbollah stronghold, leaving bodies and pools of blood on the glass-strewn street amid burning cars. More than 140 people were wounded, officials said.

A Lebanese security official said the first suicide attacker was on a motorcycle that carried two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of explosives. He blew himself up at the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-story facility, the official said.

Less than two minutes later, a second suicide attacker driving a car rigged with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives struck about 10 meters (yards) away, the official said. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The bombing was one of the deadliest in a string of attacks that have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in recent months in a campaign of retaliation by Sunni radicals over its backing of Assad in Syria’s bloody conflict, now in its third year.

In recent weeks, Hezbollah fighters have backed Assad’s troops in a series of victories over rebels, taking back a string of rebel-held towns in Syria. Shiite Iran is the main Mideast backer of Assad’s government, believed to be providing it with key financing and weapons.

Senior Hezbollah official Mahmoud Komati told reporters at the scene that the attacks were a direct result of the “successive defeats suffered by (extremists) in Syria.”

He described the blasts as a “message of blood and death” to Iran and Hezbollah for standing by Syria, vowing they would not alter their position.

Lebanon’s sectarian divisions have been inflamed by the war next door. Lebanese Sunnis largely back the rebellion and Shiites largely support Assad — and the tensions have repeated flared into clashes and bloodshed in Lebanon.

Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed Israel for the attacks. Hezbollah and Syrian officials indirectly blamed Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab kingdom that along with fellow Gulf nation Qatar has been a major backer of Syria’s rebels.

“Each of the terrorist attacks that strike in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq reek of petrodollars,” a Syrian government statement said, in a clear reference to oil-rich Gulf Arab countries.

A Lebanese Al-Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks, saying they would continue until Hezbollah withdraws its forces from Syria.

The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified, but it was posted on a militant website and on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a spokesman of the Azzam Brigades.

The group is active in southern Lebanon and has issued claims in the past for rocket attacks into northern Israel. It has also claimed a July 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and a 2005 rocket attack that narrowly missed a US amphibious assault ship docked at Jordan’s Aqaba Red Sea resort.

In 2011, the Obama administration added a senior member of the group, Saudi citizen Saleh Al-Qarawi, to the list of global terrorists subject to US sanctions.

At the scene of the blasts, blood was puddled on the ground, and debris and tree limbs torn off by the blasts were scattered over the streets. AP video showed firefighters extinguishing flames from burning vehicles, blood-spattered streets and bodies covered with sheets on the ground. A charred motorcycle stood outside the embassy gate.

A woman in a black robe and headscarf, unable to stand, clutched a man, pleading with security forces for help.

“Nader,” she wailed, crying out a man’s name. “Nader is missing.” Another man ran from the area, carrying a South Asian migrant worker limp in his arms.

“People aren’t sacred anymore. We aren’t safe,” said a mechanic whose store windows were shattered by the blasts. He declined to be identified because he did not want to be seen as involved in sectarian tensions that have split the Lebanese over Syria’s conflict.

“People fight outside (Lebanon), but send their messages through Lebanon. With bombs. It’s their SMS service,” he added.

The explosions occurred hours before Lebanon and Iran were supposed to play a World Cup qualifier football match. Lebanon’s state-run news agency NNA said the match will be held later Tuesday but without spectators.

“We tell those who carried out the attack, you will not be able to break us,” Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Mikdad told Al-Mayadeen TV. “We got the message and we know who sent it and we know how to retaliate.”

Hezbollah’s Al-Rasoul Al-Azam hospital called on people to donate blood, saying they need all blood types.

Previous large-scale attacks targeting Hezbollah strongholds include an Aug. 15 car bombing in the southern Beirut suburbs that killed 27 people and wounded more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the same area on July 9, wounding more than 50 people.


Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

Source: Arab News.