Archive for July 29, 2014

June 18, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Two activist groups say an attack by Syrian helicopter gunships has targeted refugees near the Jordanian border, killing at least seven people.

Both groups say the helicopters attacked shortly after midnight on Tuesday near the village of Shajara. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 12 people were killed, including nine children and teenagers. The Local Coordination Committees put the death toll at seven and said there were four children among those killed.

The disparate casualty figures, common in the immediate aftermath of attacks, could not immediately be reconciled. Syrian troops and rebels have been battling each other for months in the southern province of Daraa, which borders Jordan.

The conflict in Syria, which erupted in March 2011, has killed more than 160,000 people so far, according to activists.

June 11, 2014

HOMS, Syria (AP) — Over the course of the 700-day blockade, her world shrunk to her living room and her kitchen. She survived by eating plants and reading books. She refused to look in the mirror, because seeing her withered state might break her spirit.

Zeinat Akhras, a 65-year-old pharmacist, still bears the effects of nearly two years trapped in her home, surrounded by rebel fighters during the government’s siege on the ancient quarters of the central Syrian city of Homs. She’s still a wispy 38 kilograms (83 pounds), even after gaining four kilograms (eight pounds) since the blockade ended in early May with the fall of the rebels in the city.

“Every day, we said it will end tomorrow,” Akhras said in a recent interview with The Associated Press in her home. “If we counted the number of days, we would have given up.” Homs’ Old City, a series of crowded neighborhoods, was under siege and bombardment in a campaign by government forces to starve out rebels. Homs had been one of the first to rise up against the rule of President Bashar Assad with protests in March 2011, turning the city into a battleground as government forces cracked down and opponents took up arms.

Government forces clamped the seal over the opposition-held districts in early 2012. Most of the tens of thousands of residents of the areas had already fled. With the siege dragging on, rebels began deserting as hunger spread, and morale collapsed in late 2013. Finally, the last few dozen fighters were evacuated in May to areas further north under a cease-fire, and government forces took full control of the city.

Akhras and her two brothers were among the few civilians who stayed until the end, in their multi-story family home in the al-Maljaa quarter, decorated like many of the area’s homes in an Arab medieval style of black-and-white geometric facades.

They stayed because they feared rebels would seize the building — the fate of other abandoned homes — or would loot the family pharmacy or clothing shop. In the beginning, the siege was tolerable because Akhras’ family had hoarded provisions for the sometimes long lockdowns during previous gunbattles. They were well stocked with rice, beans and cracked wheat and fuel.

As the blockade deepened, Akhras rarely left the building — perhaps six times during the 700 days, she estimated. “I used to come back sad from seeing the destruction. This area used to be full of life,” she said.

Life took on a routine. Her brothers Anas and Ayman went out to check on their businesses and kept an eye on the nearby Mar Elia church. She cooked, kept the building tidy. She rose at dawn and slept at sunset, since there was no electricity. Over the course of the two years, at least 12 shells slammed into their home, causing damage upstairs.

“It was bothersome, because we’d hear explosions day and night. You get used to it.” A priest asked the Akhras siblings, who are Christians, to hide valuable church property. So gradually, icons and boxes of centuries-old church records piled up in their home. Then, their pharmacy and clothes shop were looted in 2013, so the brothers brought home boxes of remaining medicines and clothes to store as well.

As the siege dragged on, rebel fighters showed up repeatedly demanding food and fuel, Akhras said. They usually came in groups, ordering Akhras to sit in the living room as they raided the kitchen and the upstairs apartments where food was kept. One young rebel snatched a jam jar that “barely had a spoonful left in it,” she recalled.

Toward the end, the fighters didn’t even bother to come with guns — they simply knocked on the door and demanded food. Finally, in mid-2013, armed rebels surrounded the building and came in, carrying away nearly the entire stock of food and fuel. The siblings were left with only cracked wheat, which ran out by January.

Still, she said her family was not harassed by the Sunni rebels for being Christian — it appeared to be because her house was the one with food. Tragedy came in December. One of her brothers, Anas, who was suffering from cancer, left in a U.N. organized evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the Old City. He died 19 days later.

For the last months, Akhras kept her mind on daily tasks. Without fuel, her surviving brother Ayman collected firewood. With their supplies down to only tea, oil and spices, Ayman also collected greens — dandelion, chicory and mallow, plants so unnoticed by a city-dweller that Akhras referred to them simply as “grass.” Even those became so scarce that Ayman dug for them in a church cemetery.

Akhras’ duties now included chopping wood to fuel the subya, a traditional heater-oven. She learnt to soak, boil and spice the salvaged greens. She lost her appetite on the bitter, monotonous meals. She withered from about 127 pounds (58 kilos) when the blockade began to 75 pounds (34 kilos), shrinking as her space grew smaller.

Akhras said she didn’t want to upset herself by looking in the mirror. “I knew I had lost weight. It was like I was on a diet I never wanted.” Only after the siege was over did she finally see her transformation — she saw herself on TV, in footage of the army’s entry. “I was smaller than a child!” she exclaimed.

In free hours trapped in her home, Akhras devoured books — the Bible and stories of saints, mostly. Near her during a recent interview was an English-language version of the Kama Sutra. Her darkest days, she said, came after Anas died and when Ayman went to sleep in another building they own to keep away looters. She was left alone as rebels raided the building again, this time digging upstairs for more medicine and clothing.

“I missed my siblings — we are six girls and six boys. I missed my mother who died at the end of 2011,” she said. Akhras initially didn’t know on May 9 that the blockade had been lifted and government troops had entered the neighborhood. She has no radio and did not listen to the news. In a rare outing to the well across her alleyway, she saw a man who told her, “The army is here.”

Surprised, Akhras found a soldier and asked him for bread — still unaware of how skeletal she appeared. The soldier bought her two dozen pieces of pita bread. “I ate a whole piece of bread myself,” she said, her eyes shining. “It tasted like sweets.”

Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report in Homs, Syria.

Gaza City, Palestinian Territories (AFP)

July 28, 2014

Jalila Ayyad’s widower George still had a black eye and bloodstains on his shirt as he processed ahead of her coffin, hours after the air strike that destroyed their home.

Jalila, 60, was the first Christian casualty of a bloody Gaza war.

She is also survived by two sons, but one could not be at her funeral because he is in hospital with serious wounds suffered in Sunday afternoon’s Israeli strike.

The simple coffin — white with a black cross — was carried reverently down the marble stairs of the cemetery, and into the chapel of the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City.

“She died under the rubble,” said Jalila’s nephew, Fuad Ayyad.

“Both her legs were crushed after the house collapsed with her, her husband and son inside.”

An Orthodox priest in a black gown read passages from the Bible and swung an incense receptacle, as the coffin was set down beneath an ornate ceiling of gold leaf images of saints, their names written in Arabic and Greek.

An icon of the Virgin Mary was placed upon Jalila’s coffin, and some two dozen relatives sang “Hallelujah” as the afternoon call to prayer rose from the minaret of the adjacent mosque.

Her funeral was a somber and respectful affair, but momentarily took on a political dimension when one member of the parish picked up a microphone and railed against Israel’s bombardment of the small Palestinian coastal territory.

“This Palestinian Arab Christian woman died in shelling by the Israeli occupation,” the speaker shouted angrily.

“There are massacres here every day. This is what happens to the Palestinian people. Where’s the world, where’s the international community in all this?”

“The bombs hit and kill — they don’t discriminate between civilian or militant,” he said.

– Dwindling Christian community –

A relative, George Ayyad, agreed wholeheartedly. He dismissed the idea that Jalila’s death would force more of the already dwindling Christian population out of Gaza.

“If we leave, that’s exactly what the Israelis want. Anyway, where are we supposed to go? This is my homeland,” he said.

“We Christians have been in Gaza for more than 1,000 years, and we’re staying.”

Her nephew Fuad was not so sure.

“Things like this make me want to just get out of here,” he said.

Gaza’s Christians have dwindled in number to around 1,500, most of them Greek Orthodox, out of a predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 1.7 million in the densely packed enclave.

The Christian community in Gaza City, like its counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, has been shrinking because of both conflict and unemployment.

The ancient Mediterranean seafront city once had a thriving Christian community, especially under British-mandated Palestine that ended in 1948 with the creation of the Jewish state.

Jalila’s coffin was carried into the small church cemetery, which was itself hit by an Israeli shell earlier in the week, and lowered into the ground.

The community’s first casualty was born in Jerusalem and also had French nationality, the family said.

The latest Gaza conflict began on July 8 when Israel launched a military operation aimed at stamping out rocket fire from the Strip and also at destroying Hamas tunnels used to launch attacks inside the Jewish state.

The war has killed more than 1,030 Palestinians, most of them civilians including a large number of women and children, 43 Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside Israel.

“Today… another human being, an innocent one, has lost her life,” Archbishop Alexios said.

Source: Space War.



By Sara Hussein, Mai Yaghi


At least 97 Palestinians and 13 soldiers were killed Sunday as Israel ramped up a major military offensive in the bloodiest single day in Gaza in five years.

As regional leaders met in Doha for urgent talks on a ceasefire, the Gaza Palestinian death toll soared to 435, with a spokesman for the emergency services saying more than a third of the victims were women and children.

The Israeli army said 13 soldiers had been killed in a series of attacks inside Gaza on the third day of a major ground operation.

“Over the course of the day, 13 soldiers from the IDF’s Golani Brigade were killed in combat in the Gaza Strip,” an army statement said.

Their deaths raised to 18 the total number of soldiers killed since Israel’s ground operation began late on Thursday. It was the largest number of soldiers killed in combat since the 2006 Lebanon war.

Most of Sunday’s Palestinian victims were killed in a blistering hours-long Israeli assault on Shejaiya near Gaza City, which began before dawn and has so far claimed 62 Palestinian lives, with another 250 wounded.

With ambulances unable to reach the area, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for an urgent temporary ceasefire to allow paramedics to evacuate the dead and wounded, which was agreed on by the two sides.

Inside the ravaged neighborhood, there were hellish scenes of carnage and chaos as a convoy of ambulances moved in to make the most of the calm, a correspondent said.

Entire buildings were collapsed on themselves or strewn into the streets, while others were still ablaze, sending pillars of black smoke skywards.

There were also bodies, blackened and charred almost beyond recognition, some with whole limbs missing.

As the violence raged, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas arrived in Qatar to discuss a ceasefire with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon due there later Sunday at the start of a regional tour to push truce efforts.

So far, truce efforts have been rejected by Hamas.

Undaunted by the Israeli bombardment by land, sea and air, it has pressed on with its own assaults.

Following a night of terror in Shejaiya, thousands began fleeing for their lives at first light after heavy shelling left casualties lying in the streets, a correspondent reported.

Clouds of black smoke billowed into the sky as the shelling continued and Gaza’s eastern flank burned.

Among those fleeing was a group of gunmen with automatic weapons, some with their faces covered by scarves.

Women and children were among the dead, as were a Palestinian paramedic and a cameraman killed when the ambulance they were in was hit.

“He wasn’t a fighter, he was a fighter for humanity,” wailed one relative as the family buried him. “He was an ambulance worker, did he deserve to die?”

So far, UNRWA has opened 61 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily bombarded areas, with more than 81,000 people taking refuge in them, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the blame for civilian casualties squarely on Hamas, accusing it of “using innocent civilians as human shields”.

Speaking 24 hours after the ground operation began, Israel’s Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz warned there would be “moments of hardship”, alluding to the possibility of further Israeli casualties.

Although Israel said earlier Sunday it was expanding its ground operation to destroy the network of tunnels used by militants to stage cross-border attacks, Netanyahu also said troops could end their mission “fairly quickly”.

But he demanded international action to demilitarize the tiny coastal enclave, which is home to 1.7 million Palestinians and is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

“I think the international community has to… undertake a program to demilitarize Gaza and to change the situation because it’s unacceptable,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” talk show.

US Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Hamas for perpetuating the conflict, urging it to “be responsible and accept… a multilateral ceasefire without conditions”.

But Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of killing Palestinians “mercilessly” and lashed out at Washington for turning a blind eye to Gaza’s suffering.

“How can we ignore this? How can a country like the United States turn a blind eye to this?” he asked.

“As a member of the UN Security Council, it needs to act fairly.”

Meanwhile, at Gaza City’s Shifa hospital, casualties were being brought in by the minute during the morning, among them many children peppered with shrapnel wounds and screaming in agony.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Dr Said Hassan, who has worked at the hospital for eight years.

Source: Middle East Online.



DOHA – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas arrived in Qatar Sunday to discuss a ceasefire with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal for the war raging in Gaza, ahead of a visit by the UN chief.

The diplomatic flurry comes as Israeli forces pounded northern Gaza, killing nearly 90 Palestinians and sending thousands fleeing in the deadliest assault on the coastal enclave in five years.

Israel says its offensive that began on July 8, and which has killed more than 425 people, is aimed at destroying tunnels used by militants from Hamas and other groups to infiltrate Israeli lines, and stop rocket attacks.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due in Qatar to begin a regional tour to express “solidarity” with Israelis and Palestinians, his office said.

Ban plans to act “in coordination with regional and international actors, to end the violence and find a way forward”, a statement said.

In an “effort to encourage a durable ceasefire”, Ban will travel to Doha, Kuwait City, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, it added.

His timetable in Doha was not immediately clear, but Ban is to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah ah-Sisi in Cairo Monday to discuss proposals to arrange a truce in the deadly Gaza conflict.

Egypt’s foreign ministry said their talks would “focus on the deteriorating situation in Gaza and the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire”.

Cairo had proposed a halt to the fighting but Hamas rejected this, saying it had not been consulted, and Israel initially accept it.

Hamas has laid out a set of conditions, including the lifting of Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza, the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and the release of scores of prisoners Israel rearrested in recent weeks.

Hamas also wants its Turkish and Qatari allies to be involved in any truce negotiations.

After Hamas rejected the plan, Israel launched a ground offensive on Gaza on Thursday and has warned it will expand its operations even further.

In an effort to end the growing bloodshed, Abbas is to meet later Sunday with Hamas’ exiled leader Meshaal, a Palestinian source said.

The Qatari news agency QNA said Abbas would also meet the emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, whose country is hosting Meshaal.

The Hamas leader was on a brief visit to Kuwait for talks on Gaza with its ruler, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, diplomats and the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA said.

Kuwait backs the Egyptian initiative to end the bloody conflict, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

It also urged the “international community to put pressure on Israel so that it will stop its aggression” against the Palestinians.

Hamas, meanwhile, has said it has received an invitation to Cairo for ceasefire talks.

Relations between Egypt and Hamas have hit an all-time low since the military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year and outlawed his Muslim Brotherhood, a key Hamas ally.

Source: Middle East Online.



By Adel Zaanoun – GAZA CITY

Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza Saturday, taking the death toll from a 12-day bombardment to 333, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to join truce efforts.

His peace push came as Israel was poised to intensify a ground operation inside the besieged Palestinian territory it says is necessary to stop militants tunneling into Israel.

Despite the pounding, Palestinian commandos succeeded in infiltrating Israel, sparking a deadly skirmish with an army patrol, as Gaza’s bloodiest conflict since 2009 showed no let-up.

The United States urged its Israeli ally to do more to limit the high civilian death toll from the operation while supporting the Jewish state’s right to defend itself.

President Barack Obama said Washington was “deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”

He added that Washington was “hopeful” that Israel would operate “in a way that minimizes civilian casualties”.

But Israeli army chief Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the army was “expanding the ground phase of the operation.”

“There will be moments of hardship,” he warned in a briefing to the military, anticipating further Israeli casualties.

Troops killed a Palestinian militant who tunneled into southern Israel but others managed to withdraw back into Gaza, an army statement said.

“Several terrorists infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from the central Gaza Strip,” it said, adding that they fired a machine gun and anti-tank missile at an army patrol.

Troops “returned fire, killing a terrorist and forcing the rest back into Gaza.”

Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters had carried out the raid.

“The Qassam Brigades carried out an operation behind enemy lines,” it said in a statement. “Heavy fighting is ongoing with the forces of the occupation.”

In a separate incident, the army said, militants had strapped explosives on to a donkey in an attempt to attack troops.

“Yesterday (Friday) evening, there was at least one such attempt, in which a donkey suspiciously began to approach forces,” it said.

“The forces engaged the donkey and it exploded at a safe distance.”

There have been three Israeli deaths so far since the July 8 start of the Operation Protective Edge campaign to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza.

A Bedouin was killed Friday and four of his family wounded — including two young children — when a rocket hit their desert campsite near Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor, police said.

Another civilian died Tuesday when a mortar round exploded in Israel and a soldier was killed by friendly fire inside Gaza on Friday.

Israel has said the aim of the ground operation launched on Thursday night is to destroy Hamas’ network of tunnels which are used for cross-border attacks on southern Israel.

Military spokesman Lieutenant General Peter Lerner told journalists Saturday that during the past 24 hours the military had seized 13 tunnels into Israel.

The UN said Ban would leave for the region Saturday to help Israelis and Palestinians “end the violence and find a way forward,” under secretary general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to be ready for “a significant broadening of the ground activity.”

He said the ground operation was necessary to deal with the tunnels, but admitted there was “no guarantee of 100 percent success.”

In Gaza, after a relative lull Friday, violence picked up again in the evening, with intensifying tank shelling and air strikes killing more than a dozen people.

A six-year-old child and five members of a single family, including girls aged six and two, were those killed on Saturday, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA has opened 44 of its schools to shelter those fleeing homes in the most heavily bombarded areas.

It said on Saturday there were more 50,000 Gazans seeking sanctuary so far.

The World Food Program said it had already distributed emergency food rations and food vouchers to more than 20,000 displaced people.

It said it was gearing up for a huge increase in the coming days and hoping to reach 85,000 people with food distributions.

Gaza was also struggling with a 70 percent power outage after electricity lines from Israel were damaged, officials said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was also in Cairo to join peace efforts, called for an urgent truce.

“The absolute priority is a ceasefire, but it must guarantee a lasting truce,” he said, adding that it should take into account “Israel’s security” and Palestinian demands.

Hamas has rejected Egyptian proposals for a truce, demanding an easing of a harsh Gaza blockade imposed by Israel in 2006 and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Hamas drove out loyalists of Abbas two years later but to the dismay of Israel reconciled with the Palestinian president after US-brokered Middle East peace talks collapsed earlier this year.

Source: Middle East Online.


London (AFP)

July 28, 2014

Emirates will stop flying over Iraq due to concerns over jihadist missile attacks following the MH17 air disaster in Ukraine, the airline’s president Tim Clark told The Times on Monday.

Almost 300 people aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 died when it came down in eastern Ukraine nearly two weeks ago, with Washington and Europe claiming it was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Moscow militants.

“This is a political animal but… the fact of the matter is MH17 changed everything, and that was very nearly in European airspace,” Clark told The Times in an interview published on Monday.

“We cannot continue to say, ‘Well it’s a political thing’. We have to do something. We have to take the bull by the horns,” added the British president of the Dubai-based carrier.

Clark predicted other carriers would also decide to stop flying over Iraq, as the global airline industry reviews the risk of overflying combat zones.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a Boeing 777 aircraft, was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people aboard on July 17 when it was downed close to the village of Grabove, in the rebellion-wracked region of Donetsk in east Ukraine.

“The horrors that this created was a kick in the solar plexus for all of us,” Clark told the daily paper.

“Nevertheless having got through it we must take stock and deal with it.”

On Sunday meanwhile, the commercial director of Malaysia Airlines called for a complete overhaul of the way flight paths are deemed safe following the plane’s downing by a suspected missile.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Hugh Dunleavy said the disaster would have “an unprecedented impact on the aviation industry”, claiming that airlines can no longer depend on aviation authorities for reliable information about flying over conflict zones.

“For too long, airlines have been shouldering the responsibility for making decisions about what constitutes a safe flight path, over areas in political turmoil around the world,” he wrote.

“We are not intelligence agencies, but airlines, charged with carrying passengers in comfort between destinations.”

Source: Space Mart.


Aaron Magid

July 28, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan — The Jordanian government has increased pressure on the local press by blocking nine more news sites, including the popular 7iber, after it failed to obtain an appropriate license from the country’s Media Commission.

“Preventing local media [from reporting] while leaving the door open to other sources of media is totally lacking intelligence,” Jordanian Parliament member Rola Al-Hroob told Al-Monitor. “It is also harming our international reputation and is in violation of our international commitments.”

In 2012, the government amended the Press and Publication Law with Article 49, stating that a website publishing “news, articles and commentary related to the kingdom’s internal or external affairs must obtain a license from the Press and Publication Department.” By June 2013, the government blocked nearly 300 sites that failed to receive the appropriate license.

Basil Okoor, editor-in-chief of JO 24, one of the prominent news sites targeted by the Jordanian government, explained to Al-Monitor the risks of writing about sensitive topics such as the security services or government corruption. “It is very dangerous. It is like working in a minefield. If you go too far in one direction, it will explode in your face. You will be sent to jail and the military court.”

Okoor pointed to the extended jailing in September 2013 of two Jaffra news site journalists, Nidal al-Faraaneh and Amjad Mu’ala, who agreed early on to register with the government, as further intimidation against publishing articles critical of the regime. A judicial official said that Faraaneh and Mu’ala were “accused of posting a video that that offends Sheikh Jasim bin Hamad al-Thani. They were charged with carrying out acts that the government does not approve of and that would expose Jordan and its citizens to the risk of acts of aggression.” The video discusses an alleged sex scandal between a Qatari official and an Israeli woman.

One of the harshest parts of the new press regulation is that the publisher and editor-in-chief can be held liable for the content of the comments sections, even though readers — and not journalists — write them. This led Okoor to abolish comments on his site a year ago on political topics even though they were important forums for open debate.

While some websites have caved to governmental pressure and obtained licenses, others, including 7iber, have refused. 7iber reported that the demand for licensing is problematic, noting that the outlet already registered with the Ministry of Trade and Industry as a limited liability company. However, the Jordanian authorities recently discovered its new web address and blocked the site in June for a second time. With 7iber changing its site name again, this cat-and-mouse game persists. Protesting the need for licensing, 7iber’s editor-in-chief Lina Ejeilat writes, “How could it be that in the digital age of self-publishing, social media and citizen journalism, you have to get government permission to publish online?”

In addition to clamping down on the Jordanian press, the security services arrested 12 employees of the Iraqi Al-Abasiya TV station based in Amman on June 6, including station owner Haroun Mohammed. One staff member, who insisted that his name not be used due to the sensitive nature of this topic, told Al-Monitor during the night of the arrest, “Fifteen policemen came to our channel’s office, pointing guns to our heads. In the interrogation, the police kicked us while forcing us to stand on one foot.” The official noted that the police also arrested an Iraqi friend of one employee, even though he was not an Al-Abasiya staff member.

Especially disconcerting was that the journalists were charged with “terrorism” offenses and “using the Internet to carry out acts that would expose Jordanians to acts of aggression.” Under Jordan’s anti-terrorism laws, the suspects could face up to five years in prison if convicted. Al-Abasiya’s website was down at the time of this writing.

Defending the need for news sites to obtain a license, Minister of Media Affairs Mohammed Momani told Al-Monitor that similarly to print media, “Electronic newspapers must be regulated and organized since it is an industry.” Claiming to speak in the best interests of the news sites, Momani said, “There is a need to protect the journalism profession from intruders who practice blackmail.”

Yet, many activists both within Jordan and abroad reject Momani’s assessment. Director of the Middle-East desk at Reporters Without Borders Soazig Dollet told Al-Monitor, “If there should be a license, it should be given not by the government but rather by an independent and transparent body, which is not the case in Jordan.” She added, “The government will only accept websites that please their own agenda.”

Jordan’s 2014 overall press rankings dropped seven places to 141st worldwide, according to Reporters Without Borders, with the website blockings playing a significant role.

Dollet also noted the difficulty of licensing even for sites that attempt to comply with the regulations. Eight of the websites that were blocked a few weeks ago tried to register with the authorities, but were eventually rejected by the country’s Media Commission.

Also, the requirement for news sites to find an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the Jordanian Press Association for a minimum of four years is a cumbersome task. Okoor explained that many sites are forced to hire a symbolic editor-in-chief who fulfills these criteria, a burdensome cost for sites already in a precarious economic position. Until recently, the JPA, not an independent body, only accepted members from the print media. Therefore, it is difficult for websites to find staff.

“The traditional press in Jordan is considered to be tightly controlled by the government and there is a high level of self-censorship from the journalists and editor-in-chief,” said Dollet. This only increases the need for independent news sites in Jordan, especially covering sensitive topics that the mainstream press will not analyze.

At a meeting with the International Press Institute, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour exclaimed that Jordan had “come a long way” in improving press freedoms. Yet, for the owners of the blocked websites and jailed journalists, such a glowing government description of progress could not feel further from the truth.

Source: al-Monitor.


By Mona Yahiya in Tunis for Magharebia


Tunisia’s Islamist parties have rejected the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement about the establishment of a caliphate.

Ridha Belhadj, spokesman for the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, told Magharebia that “The caliphate state is not a chaotic structure. When the Prophet (PBUH) established the state in Medina, all people were waiting for him and sang the famous song ‘Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alaina.’ He neither entered by force nor imposed the status quo.”

“However, those in ISIS didn’t speak with anyone; rather, the so-called caliph imposed himself on the people,” Belhadj continued.

“I think that some people are trying to confuse and disfigure the image of Islam; the caliphate state which was announced in Iraq has no structure, and there is no security to provide to the people. In addition, there is no clear program.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman added: “I myself feel ashamed to describe it as the caliphate state. Moreover, top scholars have rejected it.”

Other Tunisian Islamist parties have also condemned the caliphate announcement by al-Baghdadi.

During a July 4th sermon, Ennahda chief Rachid Ghannouchi blasted the unilateral caliphate declaration: “The announcement of Islamic caliphate is a reckless, irresponsible act and its foundations are contrary to those of the state of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in Medina where it was based on the Sahifa, which guaranteed rights and duties for Muslims and non-Muslims. This is similar to what is now called the state of citizenship, religious and doctrinal pluralism.”

In his turn, Habib Ellouze, a MP who split with Ennahda, told Jawhara FM on July 5th that the caliphate claim was “against Islam”.

“ISIS is a tragedy that has afflicted the Islamic nation,” Ellouze added. “The group just installed itself and imposed allegiance on the people, and this is a tragedy and terrorism in the nation. Therefore, I call for fighting extremism with the correct understanding of Islam rather than with force.”

Meanwhile, the International Union of Muslim Scholars said in a statement that the caliphate announcement by ISIS was invalid under Sharia. It urged all Muslim factions to respect the Islamic concepts that people revere.

The union warned against linking the concept of an Islamic caliphate to a group known to be radical.

“The spilt of the ISIS from the group and its announcement of an Islamic caliphate, its installation of a caliph for Muslims and its demand to swear allegiance to, is not based on any religious or factual criteria and its harms are greater than its benefits,” the scholars’ union said.

Sami Brahem, a researcher of Islamic civilization, explained the positions of Tunisia’s Islamist parties: “There is an ideological difference in religious marji’ya, which is salafist, wahhabi for ISIS, and Ash’ari, Maleki for Tunisia.”

“Politically, there are several suspicions in what ISIS is doing, especially the desire to divide Iraq,” he said. “The harms of that are greater than its benefits for Islamist parties in Tunisia,” Brahem added.

Source: Magharebia.


By Siham Ali in Rabat for Magharebia


Morocco just launched a new body to deal with problems affecting the education sector.

The Higher Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research new body aims to address long-standing problems.

The council’s 92 members were installed by King Mohammed VI on Wednesday (July 16th) in Casablanca. The next day, it held its first session in Rabat.

Following consultations with various stakeholders and ministerial departments, the new group will prepare a roadmap to reform the education system.

According to the council’s secretary-general, Abdellatif El Moudni, the body intends to create Moroccan schools that are open to their surroundings and capable of assuming their responsibilities, and to evaluate the education system with a view to reform.

In addition, regional meetings are planned to obtain feedback on the situation on the ground and to kick-start a debate with the various players in education about the mechanisms for change and the highest-priority areas for reform.

“It’s time to take action to rescue Moroccan education, which is suffering from a number of ills leading to under-achievement by learners,” sociologist Samira Kassimi said.

She cites “overcrowded classrooms, the weak links between secondary and higher education and a drop in the level of language learning”.

“In short, Moroccan state schools are failing, driving parents to take refuge in private schools. As for higher education, we need to look at adapting it to suit the needs of the world of employment, targeting new fields of study and teaching methods,” she explained.

Many parents are hoping for a miracle solution to bring state education up to their expectations.

Rahma Chami, 42, a civil servant and mother of two, said that parents paid the price for the failure of state education.

“In spite of my limited financial resources, I’m forced to pay out four thousand dirhams a month to cover my children’s school fees. That’s two-thirds of my salary. But I simply don’t have a choice because state schools have failed to improve at all for years now,” she said.

She and others are counting on the Higher Council for National Education to overhaul the system.

Salim Chatibi, a bank clerk, doubts the new body will be able to offer a real answer.

“They’ve been setting up new bodies and committees for years now, yet without managing to make any improvement to the education situation,” he said.

“They need to move on from talking and get down to doing things to meet the targets they’ve set, with quality as a priority,” he added.

Source: Magharebia.