Archive for April, 2014

March 29, 2014 Saturday

GAZA CITY (Ma’an) — The Palestinian People’s Party said in a statement Saturday that it opposes Hamas’ attempts to change the penal code in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas movement that governs Gaza is attempting to impose a new penal code on the Strip, one that is inconsistent with basic the Palestinian law that has been applicable in the West Bank and Gaza since 1936, the PPP statement said.

Citing comments from the secretary of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza and the chief of the council’s legal committee, the PPP said that Hamas-affiliated lawyers were preparing to replace the 1936 penal code with a new one.

“Hamas and its parliamentarian bloc do not have the right to pass such a law in the name of the Palestinian parliament,” the PPP statement said, adding that changing the penal code in Gaza would further divide Fatah and Hamas.

A legal adviser from the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq said that the new penal code in Gaza would include regulations from Shariah law.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.


March 23, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters thronged the streets of downtown Gaza City on Sunday, a show of strength at a time when the Islamic militant group faces its deepest crisis since seizing power seven years ago.

Hamas is dealing with a severe financial shortfall, caused by heavy pressure from both Israel and Egypt. But leaders stressed that the group remains opposed to Mideast peace efforts and is ready for battle against Israel at any time.

“The resistance is stronger than you think, and our force has doubled and our arsenal has doubled,” Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, told the crowd. “What is hidden from you is bigger than you think.”

Hamas staged Sunday’s rally to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the death of its spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in an Israeli airstrike, and the assassinations of other top figures a decade ago. But a series of events in recent days, including Israel’s discovery of a tunnel stretching from Gaza into Israel, presumably to carry out militant attacks, and the killing of a top Hamas operative in the West Bank by Israeli forces, gave the rally an extra sense of defiance.

“From under the ground and above the ground, we say it loud: Occupiers go out. You do not have a place to stay on the land of Palestine,” Haniyeh said. Hamas, an armed group committed to the destruction of Israel, took control of Gaza in 2007 after overrunning the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, the Palestinians have been divided between two governments, the Hamas regime in Gaza and Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In contrast to Hamas, Abbas favors a negotiated peace agreement with Israel and has been engaged in U.S.-brokered negotiations for the past eight months.

Hamas has fallen onto hard times since its key ally, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, was ousted in a coup last July. Egypt’s new military government has cracked down on a system of smuggling tunnels along the border with Gaza, robbing Hamas of a lifeline that provided consumer goods, weapons and a key source of tax revenue. Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza since 2007, restricting imports and exports and controlling the territory’s coastline and airspace.

The dual Israel-Egyptian blockade has plunged Hamas into its worst economic crisis since taking power. The group has struggled to pay its thousands of workers and has begun to face some discontent, even among core supporters.

In another setback for the group, Israel on Friday said it had discovered a new sophisticated tunnel stretching from Gaza into Israel. It was the largest in a series of tunnels Israel has found recently that it says are meant to carry out deadly attacks or kidnappings. On Saturday, Israeli forces in the West Bank killed a top Hamas operative after a standoff in the town of Jenin.

The financial crunch forced Hamas to call off its annual anniversary celebration late last year. Sunday’s rally was also scaled back due to budget woes. Unlike past rallies, Hamas did not provide buses to bring in supporters, and it refrained from putting up large displays and decorations.

Even so, the rally was meant to send a message that Hamas remains firmly in control. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, including schoolchildren in military fatigues and women wearing veils. Waving Hamas flags into the air, the crowd turned downtown Gaza City into a sea of green. Hamas security forces carefully maintained order and diverted traffic from the area.

Hamas battled Israel during eight days of intense fighting in November 2012, firing some 1,500 rockets into Israel before Egypt brokered a truce. Since then, the group has largely refrained from direct confrontation with Israel, though smaller armed groups have continued to fire rockets.

Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for any attacks emanating from the territory. Top leaders of Islamic Jihad, a smaller group responsible for much of the rocket fire, sat in the front row of Sunday’s rally.

It was an unusually high profile role for the radical movement in a Hamas event, signaling that Hamas is at the least turning a blind eye to — if not actually supporting — the rocket attacks. Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official in Gaza, said Israel should not be fooled by the period of calm.

“We are not interested in an escalation with the occupation,” he told Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV station. “However, if they dare to launch aggression on Gaza, our response will be more painful than what we did in 2012.”

March 23, 2014

ABU GHOSH, Israel (AP) — The president of Russia’s republic of Chechnya has inaugurated a new, $10 million mosque in an Arab village in Israel.

Ramzan Kadyrov said on Sunday that it was an honor to visit “this good and holy land” during a stop in the village of Abu Ghosh. Isa Jabar, the village’s mayor, says Chechnya donated $6 million for the mosque. He says some villagers trace their ancestry to 16th century Chechnya and the Caucus region.

The mosque was built in the Ottoman Turkish style, the favored architectural style in Chechnya. It features four minarets, making it the only mosque of its kind in Israel. Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, enjoys good ties with its Jewish neighbors and is a popular culinary destination for Israelis.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Thousands of Palestinian citizens will attend a festival organized by the Hamas government in Gaza Sunday under the title “loyalty and steadfastness on the path of martyrs”.

Hamas is scheduled to hold a mass rally Sunday noon in commemoration of the assassination of the movement’s founder Ahmad Yassin, and its leaders Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi and Ibrahim Al-Makadima.

Leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian factions, including the Islamic Jihad, will attend the event.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend the rally.

Source: Middle East Monitor.




In a village scarred by one of the bloodiest massacres of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, residents turned out for Thursday’s presidential election to vote for “peace, that’s all”.

The military-backed government’s decision to cancel elections in 1991 that Islamists were poised to win sparked a decade of bloodshed, and the violence of the 1990s is never far from Algerians’ minds.

“Peace is worth more than any amount of wealth,” said Abdelkrim, a pensioner queuing to vote even before the polling station opened at 8 am (0700 GMT) in Rais, in Sidi Moussa district south of nearby Algiers.

“We are voting for peace, that’s all we want,” said Khadija, a widow in her 50s from the same village.

Her husband was killed in August 1997 along with nearly 100 others in Sidi Moussa in an overnight attack blamed on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which carried out civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages.

That night, men from the GIA entered Rais and indiscriminately killed men, women and children, shooting them dead or cutting their throats.

With only her kohl-rimmed eyes visible through her Muslim veil, Khadija is overcome with emotion talking about the tragedy.

But “everything has changed” in the village of 8,000 people, said Kheira, another veiled resident.

“We can now go out and come back to our homes without feeling this fear that ate away at us for years.

“Some of us still have nightmares. But we are learning to patch up our wounds,” she added, with a faint smile.

In the school serving as one of the village’s 12 polling stations, voting official Mohamed Kelouaz insisted the election was free and fair.

“Everything here is transparent, no fraud is possible,” he said, pointing at a board in the courtyard.

Fraud, the “incurable sickness” of Algeria’s elections according to the press, has been a recurrent theme of the election campaign.

“All the information is posted on this board: the number of voters in each station, the names of the station’s directors, the observers chosen by the candidates,” he said.

“I want everything to work.”

On Thursday morning, the representatives of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his main rival Ali Benflis were at Rais’s voting center, but not those of the other four candidates.

Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999 and is seeking a fourth term, is credited by many Algerians with helping to end the “black decade” of conflict, through his policy of national reconciliation.

“Even if I have my own personal preferences, I must never let them show as the director” of the centre, said Kelouaz.

– Haunting memories –

On Wednesday, the district commissioner visited the voting centers with the village’s mayor, with police posted nearby since Tuesday.

After a former Algerian wali, or governor, alleged fraud, Benflis, who also ran against Bouteflika in 2004 elections, used a religious argument to urge officials to put an end to the practice.

Benflis said in televised remarks on Wednesday that “fraud is ‘haram’,” punishable under Islam, prompting Bouteflika to accuse him of “terrorism via the television”.

But for 44-year-old Redouane, the fraud allegations had little bearing on his decision to vote.

“It’s just a way to avert misfortune,” he said.

“I am scared of instability, of reliving the horror of the 1990s. I don’t want to think about that night,” he added, referring to the massacre in Rais.

His sister Aisha, then 35, had taken her three children to spend the night with her brothers. She, along with three of her sisters-in-law, had their throats cut by the attackers.

“I was outside when the shooting started, I woke up my brothers and we fled without even considering that they might touch the women and children.

“The horror lasted from midnight until four in the morning,” he said, his voice trembling and eyes full of tears.

Source: Middle East Online.



JEDDAH – Gulf foreign ministers agreed a deal Thursday to end months of unprecedented tension between Qatar and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council over the Muslim Brotherhood.

At an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh, the ministers agreed that the policies of GCC member states should not undermine the “interests, security and stability” of each other, a statement said.

Such policies must also not affect the “sovereignty” of a member state.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar last month, accusing it of meddling in their internal affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The three states said at the time that Doha had failed to comply with a commitment by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to non-interference, made during a summit in Riyadh last year with Kuwait’s emir and the Saudi monarch. During the tripartite meeting in Riyadh in November, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah sought to ease tensions between Saudi King Abdullah and Sheikh Tamim.

On Thursday, the foreign ministers met for more than two hours at a Riyadh air base and agreed on an “implementation mechanism” to the November agreement, the GCC statement said.

Tensions rose because Doha supported Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi while most Gulf countries hailed his overthrow by the army last July.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have long been hostile towards Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that its brand of grass-roots activism and political Islam could undermine their authority. Tensions that had been simmering for months peaked in early February when Abu Dhabi summoned Doha’s ambassador to protest against “insults” to the UAE by Egypt-born cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, a Qatari citizen.

The coverage of the influential Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel, seen by critics as biased in favor of the Brotherhood, has also increased tensions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors.

The other GCC member states are Kuwait and Oman.

Source: Middle East Online.



BEIRUT – Lebanon’s parliament is to convene on April 23 to elect a new president to succeed Michel Sleiman, whose term ends on May 25, the National News Agency reported Wednesday.

“Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri has called for a session on Wednesday April 23 to elect a new president of the republic,” the official news agency said.

Lebanon’s president, who must come from the country’s Maronite Christian community, is elected by a vote in the parliament.

Michel Moussa, a member of Berri’s parliamentary bloc, said he hoped there would be a quorum for the session.

“In period between now and the end of the president’s mandate we need to hold a session and there is near-total agreement that the best time in is the second half of April,” he said.

“I hope that the parliamentary blocs will keep their word and there will be a quorum,” he added.

Moussa is one of three MPs tasked by Berri with meeting the parliamentary blocs to secure agreement on a date for the presidential vote.

Berri is hoping to avoid a repeat of the situation in 2007, when MPs refused on multiple occasions to attend sessions he called for the presidential vote because of political differences.

Even with a date set for the session, there are no guarantees that a president will be chosen on April 23.

So far just one political figure, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, has announced his candidacy.

But he is not expected to run unopposed, and other candidates are likely to announce their own campaigns in coming days.

Source: Middle East Online.


April 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — For 22 years, Mary Mansourati has been waiting for her son, Dani, to come home. His shirts are ironed and hanging in his closet. His trousers, neatly folded, are stacked on the shelves next to his bed in the family’s Beirut apartment.

Dani was 30 when he was detained by Syrian intelligence and has not been heard from since. He is among an estimated 17,000 Lebanese still missing from Lebanon’s civil war or the years of Syrian domination that followed.

The war in Syria has added new urgency to the plight of their families. Hundreds of Lebanese were detained by the Syrians, and their relatives are convinced they are still alive. Now they fear they will be lost in Syria’s labyrinth of overcrowded jails and detention facilities or be killed in the ongoing mayhem.

The war in Syria has also added a new generation of names to the already long rolls of the missing. There are no exact figures, but human rights organizations say tens of thousands of Syrians have vanished in the three years since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

Elsewhere in the region, nearly 70,000 Iraqis are still missing from three wars over the past three decades, including sectarian bloodletting that was unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to government figures.

There’s never been any truth or reconciliation process that might uncover the fates of these missing. In both Lebanon and Iraq, few efforts have been made to examine what happened during the countries’ wars, mainly because many of those involved in killings and kidnappings have become politicians, some even serving in government.

The 82-year-old Mansourati believes her son is alive in a Syrian prison, despite having no concrete evidence or word that anyone has seen him. A fighter with an anti-Syrian Christian militia, he was arrested in 1992, two years after the civil war ended.

“We need our sons back,” she told The Associated Press in an interview at her home in east Beirut, where she cares for her gravely ill husband. Friday marked the ninth anniversary of a permanent protest tent Mansourati and other families of the missing have erected in downtown Beirut. Every day, relatives sit at the tent, sometimes spending the night. Photos of the missing and slogans calling on Assad to explain their fate line the sides of the tent.

“We are tired of going back and forth to the tent. We are getting old,” Mansourati said. Like many relatives of the missing, she believes Lebanese officials, some of whom led militias during the civil war and fought on behest of the Syrians, are complicit in covering up their loved ones’ fates.

Rights groups speak of a “conspiracy of silence,” with officials withholding information out of concern they could be implicated in wartime atrocities. The Taif Accord ended the war in 1990 by enshrining a sectarian-based political system that leaves all major decisions in the hands of a small group of people, many of whom gained political power by commanding a powerful militia during the conflict.

There has been no serious state-led documentation that would produce an official record with the numbers of dead, injured, missing and forcibly displaced. Lebanon went into “collective amnesia” after the war, the International Center for Transitional Justice said in a recent report documenting the country’s failure to examine and deal with its complex past.

A year after the Lebanese civil war ended, the government declared there were no detainees being held by rival militias. Four years later, in 1995, the government passed a law declaring any person missing for more than four years legally dead, advising families looking for their vanished loved ones to move on.

Most of the thousands missing likely are dead. They disappeared after being kidnapped by rival Lebanese militias during the war, which saw multiple sectarian massacres, and there’s little chance any Lebanese faction could keep someone secretly detained for nearly a quarter century. Still, even uncovering suspected locations of mass graves where the missing might be is considered too politically explosive.

When the families persisted in demanding the truth, the government said it couldn’t help because digging too deep into the past could inflame old hostilities and unleash another war. “The official discourse was, if peace is to prevail we need to forget the past and move on into the future,” said Lebanese lawyer Nizar Saghieh, who has represented hundreds of families seeking to discover the fate of their missing relatives.

But the families of those who disappeared after being detained by Syria are far less convinced by the government’s death declaration. Rights groups estimate they number between 300 and 600 Lebanese. Majida Hassan Bashasha’s brother, Ahmed, was picked up by Syrian troops at a checkpoint near Beirut in 1976, the year Syrian forces entered Lebanon to help quell the sectarian fighting. Ahmed was 18 when he vanished, and his sister says he was not a militant.

Like Mary Mansourati, 59-year-old Bashasha believes her brother is alive, languishing in a Syrian prison. She has been campaigning relentlessly to bring him home, attending annual rallies of the families of the disappeared in front of the local U.N. headquarters in Beirut. A few years ago, several former detainees came to the protest tent and recognized her brother from a picture she was holding. They said they shared a cell with him in a Damascus prison.

“I am his big sister and my heart tells me he is still alive,” Bashasha said, holding a black-and-white photo of a young man she said was Ahmed. Initially, when the conflict started in Syria she feared that her brother and other Lebanese detainees would be forgotten. But now, as she watches Assad’s agents fill Syria’s prisons with a new generation of government opponents, she holds out some hope that any Lebanese being held in Syria will be released.

“They don’t need them in prison anymore,” Bashasha said.

April 03, 2014

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Yahya was trapped in his hometown for two years by Syria’s civil war, moving from house to house to avoid shells and bullets. His father was killed by a sniper. His family then fled to another town that came under a fierce government offensive.

When the teenager finally made it out of the country with his mother and two sisters, he became the latest sad statistic of the sectarian conflict: the one-millionth refugee to register in Lebanon. The United Nations’ refugee agency, which invited reporters to witness Yahya’s registration and allowed them to interview the 19-year-old, described the 1 million figure as a “devastating milestone” for Lebanon.

There are many more Syrians inside Lebanon than those officially registered, with the Lebanese government itself estimating that at least a half-million are unregistered. The UNHCR says it is registering an average of more than one refugee a minute in Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million that is seeing its resources strained by the new arrivals.

“I feel sad because this means that 1 million fled here before me to suffer together,” Yahya said as he waited to register with the UNHCR in the northern city of Tripoli. “A million is a big number for Syria and a big number for Lebanon,” he added. Yahya asked to be identified only by his first name because he feared that Syrian authorities would retaliate against his relatives who are still there.

Yahya told a harrowing story of how his family became caught up in the violence between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking his ouster. Their house in the central city of Homs was on the front line of the conflict that began in March 2011, forcing them out.

They moved frequently for their safety, Yahya said, but his father was shot to death by a sniper in September of that year. They were finally evacuated from Homs earlier this year by the U.N., and traveled to Yabroud, a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border that soon came under government attack.

On March 8, the family crossed into Lebanon, first looking for shelter for a few days in the overcrowded border town of Arsal. They moved farther west to an informal settlement outside Tripoli. “We didn’t know where to go. We just wanted to get away from all the shelling and fighting,” Yahya said.

The conflict in Syria, which had a population of 23 million before the civil war, has killed more than 150,000 people. The U.N. estimates there are more than 2.5 million Syrians registered in neighboring countries — nearly 670,000 in Turkey, nearly 590,000 in Jordan and about 220,000 in Iraq. More than 47,700 are awaiting registration.

Lebanon has the highest per-capita concentration of refugees recorded anywhere in the world in recent history, the UNHCR said. “For us, the one-millionth refugee is a devastating marker,” said Ninette Kelley, UNHCR representative in Lebanon. She said that in publicizing Thursday’s milestone, the U.N. agency wants “the world to see what it means to individuals, being torn apart by the Syrian conflict,” but also to “show what a tremendous burden the Lebanese people are bearing.”

The Lebanese government provides none of the facilities and land that Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have allocated for the refugees. Many Syrians in Lebanon live in appalling conditions, finding shelter in slums, tents and tin shacks strung with laundry lines and wedged between farms.

On a casual walk in Beirut, Syrians can be seen sheltering in underground parking garages, under bridges and in old construction sites with no running water, sanitation, electricity or protection from the weather. Nearly half of the refugees are children.

The World Bank estimates that the Syria crisis cost Lebanon $2.5 billion in lost economic activity in 2013 and threatens to push 170,000 Lebanese into poverty by the end of this year, the UNHCR said. Along with the social and economic strain, Syria’s sectarian war has also frequently spilled into Lebanon with deadly clashes between factions supporting opposing sides in the fighting.

Militants from Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, while many among Lebanon’s Sunni population support the rebels. The U.N. and its partner agencies have mounted an unprecedented appeal to raise funds for both refugees and Lebanese host communities. The U.N. has asked for $1.89 billion in 2014, but only $242 million has been received so far, Kelley said.

For Yahya and his family, there was no place to go but Lebanon. “We were looking around to go somewhere else in Syria, but no place is safe,” he said. While he is relieved his family made it out of Syria, the prospect of being dependent on U.N. food aid to survive is daunting for Yahya. After his father’s death, he became the sole provider for the family, and jobs are hard to find.

He and his relatives get $30 a month each, which is barely half the $250 rent he has to pay for a shack in an informal settlement in nearby Dinniyeh. “Every day in Lebanon it’s going from bad to worse,” Yahya said. “We can’t even hope that tomorrow will be better.”

March 17, 2014

NABI OTHMAN, Lebanon (AP) — The Lebanese army sent commandos to the tense border area with Syria on Monday, bracing for another spillover of the conflict next door as Syrian rebels continued to flee into Lebanon after the fall of their stronghold to President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Since Yabroud fell on Sunday, Lebanon has been on edge. Syrian rebels have been fleeing into the Lebanese Sunni-dominated town of Arsal, which is surrounded by Shiite villages that are guarded by Hezbollah militants.

Lebanese troops, including commandos in beige, desert-style army uniforms, were seen patrolling the rugged, hilly border area on foot on Monday, fingers on the trigger of their automatic rifles. On one patrol, near the northeastern village of Fakiha, Lebanese troops came across an abandoned vehicle and blew it up as a precaution, firing a rocket-propelled grenade that turned the SUV into a fireball and left a four-meter (yard) crater on the ground.

“We took the decision to blow is up immediately, without searching it,” an officer told The Associated Press at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. The fall of Yabroud — a frontier town and a strategic smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow Assad — was a major gain for Syrian government troops and their Hezbollah allies. It was also the Syrian opposition fighters’ last stronghold in the vital border area. Assad’s forces have now consolidated authority in Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus.

Yabroud fell into Syrian government hands after months of fighting in the mountainous Qalamoun region between Assad’s forces and Hezbollah fighters on one side and rebel groups, mostly Islamist militant groups, on the other.

The Hezbollah fighters have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed fighters appears to have tipped the balance into the government’s favor in Yabroud.

However, with opposition fighters fleeing into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, the conflict is likely further to spill into Syria’s smaller neighbor. The civil war already has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites.

In the past weeks, Sunni militants have carried out several suicide bombings and car bomb attacks in Shiite dominated towns and suburbs of Beirut that are Hezbollah strongholds, claiming they were revenge for the Iran-backed group’s role inside Syria.

On Monday, a militant Sunni group claimed responsibility for a car bombing the previous night in Nabi Othman, a predominantly Shiite town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that also has a significant Christian community.

The Nusra Front in Lebanon said in a statement posted on its Twitter account that the attack, in which two people were killed and 14 were wounded, was in revenge for Hezbollah’s support for Assad and “a quick response” for the fall of Yabroud into Syrian government hands.

The statement also said the Nabi Othman bombing was in retaliation for Yabroud and because of Hezbollah’s “bragging about it.” In footage broadcast live on state television in Damascus, Syrian army officers raised the national flag in Yabroud’s main town square on Monday and covered rebel flag with posters praising Assad’s troops.

Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.