Archive for January 9, 2016


November 30, 2015

Turkey won’t apologize to Russia for shooting down a warplane operating over Syria, the Turkish prime minister said Monday, stressing that the military was doing its job defending the country’s airspace.

Ahmet Davutoglu also said Turkey hopes Moscow will reconsider economic sanctions announced against Turkish interests following last week’s incident. The Turkish resort town of Antalya is “like a second home” to many Russian holidaymakers, he said, but refused to yield on Turkish security.

“No Turkish prime minister or president will apologize … because of doing our duty,” Davutoglu told reporters after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. “Protection of Turkish airspace, Turkish borders is a national duty, and our army did their job to protect this airspace. But if the Russian side wants to talk, and wants to prevent any future unintentional events like this, we are ready to talk.”

Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian warplane on Nov. 24, sparking Cold War-style tensions between Russia and NATO, of which Turkey is a member. One of the Russian pilots was killed, while a second was rescued.

On Monday, the body of Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov, the Russian pilot, was flown back to Russia following a military ceremony in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Turkey’s military said. Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the international climate talks in Paris, on Monday said “we have every reason to believe” that the plane was shot down to protect what he described as Turkish profiteering from illegal imports of oil produced by Islamic State rebels in Syria.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said the United States has corroborated that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace, based on evidence from Turkey and from “our own sources.”

The Russian air force said Monday that its Su-34 fighter bombers in Syria were now armed with air-to-air missiles for defense. Air force spokesman Col. Igor Klimov said the missiles have a range of about 60 kilometers (35 miles), Russian news agencies reported.

Russia began airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30 that it says are focused on IS fighters. But some observers say Russia is targeting other rebel groups to bolster the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia insists that the plane that was shot down didn’t intrude on Turkish airspace.

Douglas Lute, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said he saw American data which “corroborates Turkey’s version of events. So the airplane was in Turkey, it was engaged in Turkey.” Putin on Saturday called for sanctions against Turkey including bans on some Turkish goods and extensions on work contracts for Turks working in Russia. The measures also call for ending chartered flights from Russia to Turkey and for Russian tourism companies to stop selling vacation packages that would include a stay in Turkey.

Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.

Dr Basheer M. Nafi

Sunday, 29 November 2015

I do not recall a single election in any democratic country during the past ten years that created so much media discourse and aroused so much debate around the world as the recent poll in Turkey did; the exception may be Barack Obama’s first bid to be president. The difference, of course, was that the 2008 US presidential election was a historic vote on whether or not the US was likely to have an American of African origins in the White House while racism was still rife across US society. In Turkey, it was not an issue of black nominee versus white, nor was there a new party or one with an odd political agenda. The election focused on whether the Justice and Development Party could win, given that it had thus far won in every single national or local election and in every referendum since 2002. So, the question was whether it could rise again after its minor slip in this year’s June election and could once again form a government on its own.

However, the debate over the November poll took a mostly different path. Instead of finding the result of the June election surprising – because despite the defeat incurred by the Justice and Development Party (JDP) it continued to possess the biggest parliamentary bloc – those who wanted it to be defeated again were taken aback by its success in the second election this year that brought it back to government on its own.

The problem with the rhetoric about Turkey, in which liberals and secularists, Arabs, Westerners and Turks, and nationalists and mystics are engaged, is that it has largely been a product of wishful thinking. It was not a realistic discourse that stood on solid ground with proper knowledge of the history and politics of the country and the mood and inclinations of its people. As such, it was not surprising at all for the Economist, the most influential weekly within Western political and financial circles, to use its lead article on the eve of the elections to call on the Turkish people not to vote for the JDP. Such a problematic approach is not confined to Turkey. Since the 3 July 2013 coup in Egypt, and what followed the decision by Ennahda Party to give up governance in Tunisia, many commentators and experts have rushed to adopt the “end of political Islam” discourse.

When the June election in Turkey revealed that the JDP could not maintain the level it achieved in 2011, it seemed as if that thesis had absolute proof.

How could certain political forces achieve in 2011 and 2012 around 50 per cent of the votes, as the JDP did, or slightly less in the case of Ennahda Party and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, and then reach the end of their political life in 2015? The question, of course, does not pertain to the lack of logic and sensibility in such assumptions but in allowing wishful thinking to overwhelm solid facts.

Most of what the scholars and sensible commentators who specialize in Turkish affairs wrote after the November election was accurate. In June, the Turkish people wanted to send a clear warning message to the ruling party after the JDP was afflicted with sloth and some of its leaders and ministers were smeared with corruption allegations; in fact, it seemed that the party was carelessly overconfident about winning another electoral majority. However, it looks as if the people only wanted to send a warning to the JDP but not prevent it from governing alone. During the five months that separated the two elections, Turkish voters witnessed the uselessness of the coalition government and sensed the danger likely to be posed by a future coalition. They still remember the experiences they had with coalition governments during the 1990s. The Turks could also see the damage inflicted upon the country’s economy and its role regionally and internationally by the anxiety and loss of political confidence.

Not only did the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) return, after a rather short-sighted reckoning, to terrorism, but Turkey’s US ally was also no longer much bothered about Ankara’s sensitivities over Syria, especially with regard to the provision of military aid to the PKK branch within its troubled neighbor.

In the early November election, therefore, the voters decided that the Justice and Development Party had heard and listened to the June electoral message and that it was necessary to maintain stability within the country and preserve its role and standing.

Such a reading of the situation, and all the attendant details, are accurate to a large extent. However, there is still something beyond all of this. What was clear during the November election was not only that the JDP achieved a major victory and that its share of the votes was restored to the level of fifty per cent of the electorate as in 2011, but also that the major losers were the two nationalist Turkish and Kurdish parties: the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party and the PKK-linked Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. Together, the two parties lost about five million votes compared to what they obtained in the June poll.

This loss is quite significant, first because it indicates that the unexpected popular support both parties received during the June election appears to have been purely a protest vote against the JDP, and second because the Turkish people soon realized the potential danger posed to the state and the country’s unity and stability by the extremist nationalist visions of both parties. This is not just a Turkish lesson. It should by now be understood that the people’s mood across the region is not inclined toward supporting the agendas of radical and nationalist forces; such agendas are deemed to be threatening and potentially divisive. The mood is, in fact, more inclined toward building bigger blocs that go beyond narrow nationalist or ethnic dreams.

The second lesson derived from the November election in Turkey is that none of the opposition parties is qualified to replace the JDP. By winning in 63 out of the 81 Turkish provinces, the party proved once again that it is the only party that represents all Turks and speaks for the plurality of Turkish ethnicities and cultures; it is the only political force that is capable of occupying the center, or the backbone, of the republic. This is a solid reality and has very much to do with the collapse of the political center of the Turkish Republic since the mid-1970s and throughout the 1990s, as well as with the cultural and socio-political changes that have taken place within Turkish society during the past half century. The recent elections are not the only pointer to this fact. It is difficult to comprehend the sweeping success made by the JDP in the 2002 election, only one year after its creation, without taking these changes into consideration.

In one way or another, this is also what precipitated in the conscience of the Turkish majority. In a society where one of the supplications made after each congregational prayer has, for many centuries, been “O God Save the Religion and the State”, the JDP emerged rapidly as the sole political force capable of safeguarding the Turkish center.

Ultimately, and no matter what, the major victory in the November election places a heavy burden on the shoulders of the next Justice and Development Party government; a burden that has to do with reform and the Kurdish problem as much as it has to do with regional and neighborhood crises. In the democratic system, though, there exists no political party that enjoys sanctity or permanent immunity. If the JDP manages to meet the challenges facing Turkey with competence and wisdom, it may well achieve another victory towards the end of 2019. Should it fail, the people will bring it down, even if a convincing alternative is not then available.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/europe/22538-turkeys-justice-and-development-party-deserved-its-win-even-if-many-are-unhappy.

November 27, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A tug-of-war over a Russian warplane downed by a Turkish fighter jet at the border with Syria escalated Thursday, with Moscow drafting a slew of economic sanctions against Turkey and the Turkish president defiantly declaring that his military will shoot down any new intruder.

The spat reflected a clash of ambitions of two strongman leaders, neither of whom appeared willing to back down and search for a compromise. Turkey shot down the Russian Su-24 military jet on Tuesday, insisting it had violated its airspace despite repeated warnings. The incident marked the first time in half a century that a NATO member shot down a Russian plane, raising the threat of a military confrontation between the alliance and Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the Turkish action as a “treacherous stab in the back,” and insisted that the plane was downed over Syrian territory in violation of international law. “Until that moment, we haven’t heard a clear apology from Turkey’s top political leadership, or an offer to compensate for the damage or a promise to punish the criminals,” he said at the Kremlin while receiving credentials from several ambassadors. “It gives an impression that the Turkish leadership is deliberately driving Russian-Turkish relations into a deadlock, and we regret that.”

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in no mood to apologize, and warned that Ankara would act in the same way in the event of another intrusion. “Faced with the same violation today, Turkey would give the same response,” Erdogan said. “It’s the country that carried out the violation which should question itself and take measures to prevent it from happening again, not the country that was subjected to a violation.”

Erdogan said Turkey had not specifically targeted Russia when it shot down the plane, saying it was “an automatic response” in line with its rules of engagement. He spoke on a more conciliatory note in separate comments on France 24. Asked if Turkey would still have targeted the plane if it positively knew it was Russian, he said: “If we had determined it, the warnings would have been different.”

Speaking later in the Kremlin after the talks with French President Francois Hollande, Putin said he was sorry to hear that Erdogan sees no need to apologize. “For us, Turkey was not just a neighbor, but a friendly state, almost an ally,” he said. “It’s very sad to see all of it being destroyed so thoughtlessly and brutally.”

The Russian and Turkish leaders are often compared to each other. Both are populist, frequently crack down on critics and often revert to anti-Western rhetoric. They had enjoyed close relations until recently, despite differences over Syria, and regularly exchanged visits. In September, Erdogan traveled to Moscow where he and Putin attended the opening of a new mosque, and they also met separately at the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit hosted by Turkey.

On Thursday, Erdogan told France 24 television in an interview that he had tried talking to Putin but that the Russian leader did not respond. Turkey has released audio recordings of what it says are the Turkish military’s repeated warnings to the pilot of a Russian bomber before it was shot down at the border with Syria.

The recordings, made available to The Associated Press on Thursday, indicate the plane was warned several times that it was approaching Turkey’s airspace and asked to change course, but there is no indication of a Russian reply.

In the recordings, a voice is heard saying in broken English: “This is Turkish Air Force speaking on guard. You are approaching Turkish airspace. Change your heading south immediately.” The voice gets increasingly agitated as the warnings appear to go unnoticed.

The audio that was released only involved Turkish warnings, no replies by a Russian pilot. It was not clear if Turkey had received any replies from the Russian pilots but did not release them; if the Russian pilots never replied to the warnings; or if the Russians never even heard the warnings.

A Russian airman who survived the shoot-down and was later rescued by the Syrian and Russian commando, denied veering into Turkey’s airspace “even for a single second.” Turkey insists the plane was in its airspace for 17 seconds.

Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin also said he and his crewmate, who was killed by ground fire after bailing out, hadn’t heard any Turkish warnings. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the audio recording released by Ankara as a fake.

Erdogan accused Russia of using its declared goal to fight the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to target opposition groups including the Turkmen, in order to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He also challenged Russia to prove its accusation that Turkey is buying oil and gas from IS, calling the claims “shameful” and even pledging to step down if the claim is proven. “This is a great disrespect to Turkey and those who make the claims are slanderers,” he said. “If they prove it, Tayyip Erdogan would step down.”

Commenting on Erdogan’s statement, Putin said that at the G-20 summit in Antalya he showed fellow leaders the aerial pictures of convoys of oil trucks carrying the IS oil into Turkey. “Let’s assume that Turkey’s political leadership knows nothing about it, it’s theoretically possible, albeit hard to believe,” he said sarcastically. “There may be elements of corruption and insider deals. They should deal with it.”

Putin responded to the plane’s downing by ordering the deployment of powerful long-range air defense missiles to a Russian air base in Syria. On Thursday, Russian state television stations ran a report showing the S-400 missiles already deployed at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the border with Turkey.

The Russian navy missile cruiser Moskva also moved closer to the shore to help protect Russian warplanes with its long-range Fort air defense system. The Russian Defense Ministry has warned that the military was prepared to destroy any aerial target that may threaten its warplanes, and announced the severance of all military ties with Turkey.

Concerned by the move, Turkey’s High Military Council, which included top government and military leaders, called Thursday for keeping all diplomatic and military channels of communication open to avoid new “undesired” incidents on the Turkey-Syria border.

In addition to the military moves, the Kremlin also acted Thursday to inflict economic pain on Turkey. Since the plane was downed, Russia has already restricted tourism, left Turkish trucks stranded at the border and announced the confiscation of large quantities of Turkish food imports.

On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered a range of economic sanctions against Turkey within the next two days. They will include “restrictions and bans on Turkish economic structures operating in Russian territory, restrictions and bans on deliveries of products, including foodstuffs,” as well as on labor and services.

Russia was the biggest source of Turkish imports last year, worth $25 billion, which mostly accounted for Russian gas supplies. It also is the largest destination for Turkish exports, mostly textiles and food, and Turkish construction companies have won a sizable niche of the Russian market.

Erdogan lamented Russia’s intention to halt economic cooperation with Turkey, saying political leaders should talk first. “We are strategic partners,” he said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Nataliya Vasilyeva and James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated this morning that the Muslim world is going through a very difficult time, noting that “our brethren in Palestine are confronting the Israeli violations and attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and are fighting a noble and honorable battle.”

In his speech before the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (COMCEC), Erdogan highlighted the fact that the blockade imposed on Gaza continues and has turned Gaza into an open-air prison.

He also stressed the need to not let this situation continue, and mentioned the situation in Syria and the incident with the Russian fighter jet earlier this week.

The Turkish premier claimed that two unknown fighter jets penetrated Turkey’s air space before Turkish air controllers requested the jets to retreat. One jet left while the other remained, so the Turkish fighter jets shot it down.

He added that parts of the fighter jet fell on Turkish territory, resulting in the death and injury of Turkish citizens.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/22478-erdogan-palestinians-are-fighting-a-noble-and-honourable-battle.

December 22, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol Monday, killing six American troops in the deadliest attack on international forces since August. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were wounded.

The soldiers were targeted as they moved through a village near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility. A U.S. official confirmed that six American troops were killed and two wounded. An Afghan was also wounded. The official was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those affected in this tragic incident, especially during this holiday season,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Shoffner, head of public affairs at NATO’s Resolute Support base in the Afghan capital Kabul, said in a statement.

In New York, Police Commissioner William Bratton said Monday that a New York City police detective, Joseph Lemm, was one of the six American killed in the attack. Lemm was a 15-year-old veteran of the New York Police Department and worked in the Bronx Warrant Squad. Bratton says Lemm served in the U.S. National Guard and, while a member of the police force, he had been deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the nation’s thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and their loved ones, and that the U.S. will continue to work jointly with Afghans to promote peace and stability in their country.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in statement called the attack “a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan.” It was the deadliest attack on foreign troops in four months. On Aug. 22, three American contractors with the RS base were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. On Aug. 7 and 8, Kabul was the scene of three insurgent attacks within 24 hours that left at least 35 people dead. One of the attacks, on a U.S. special operations forces base outside Kabul, killed one U.S soldier and eight Afghan civilian contractors.

In the year since the international drawdown, the Taliban insurgency has intensified. Although the combat mission ended last year, around 9,800 U.S. troops and almost 4,000 NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. They have a mandate to “train, assist and advise” their Afghan counterparts, who are now effectively fighting a battle-hardened Taliban alone.

Monday’s attack came as Taliban fighters and government forces battled for control of a strategic district in the southern province of Helmand after it was overrun by insurgents, delivering a serious blow to the government’s thinly spread and exhausted forces.

Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, Helmand’s deputy governor, said insurgents took control of Sangin district late Sunday. Rasulyar had taken the unusual step of alerting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the dire security situation and requesting urgent reinforcements through an open letter posted on Facebook on Sunday, saying that he had not been able to make contact through other means.

“We had to take to social media to reach you as Helmand is falling into the hands of the enemy and it requires your immediate attention,” Rasulyar wrote in his Facebook post to Ghani. On Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Afghan Army commandoes and special forces had arrived in Sangin to push a counter-offensive. He told reporters the Afghan air force had conducted 160 combat and transport flights over Sangin in the past 48 hours.

Helmand is an important Taliban base as it produces most of the world’s opium, a crop that helps fund the insurgency. Sangin district has bounced in and out of Taliban control for some years, and fighting there has produced some of the highest casualty counts among Afghan and international forces in 14 years of war.

British forces saw intensive fighting there at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. Among the 450 British troops killed during the country’s combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 died in Sangin. In 2008, a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand, followed a year later by the first wave of President Barack Obama’s “surge” effort against the Taliban, comprising 11,000 Marines who conducted operations across the province.

The head of Helmand’s provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control. “In every district either we are stepping back or we are handing territory over to Taliban, but still, until now, no serious action has been taken,” he said, referring to a perceived lack of support from the capital.

Districts across Helmand, including Nad Ali, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Gereshk and Garmser, have all been threatened by Taliban takeover in recent months. Insurgents are also believed to be dug in on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Taliban fighters, sometimes working with other insurgent groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have managed to overrun many districts across the country this year, and also staged a three-day takeover of the major northern city of Kunduz. They rarely hold territory for more than a few hours or days, but the impact on the morale of Afghan forces, and people, is substantial.

Atal said more than 2,000 security forces personnel had been killed fighting in Helmand in 2015. He said a major reason Afghan forces were “losing” was the large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts in the face of the Taliban onslaught.

Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since the announcement in late July that the founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, succeeded him, causing internal ructions and delaying the likelihood that a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, halted after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, will restart in the foreseeable future.

The expected winter lull in fighting has not yet taken place in the warmer southern provinces. U.S. and Afghan military leaders say they are expecting a hot winter, followed by a tough fight throughout 2016.

The Pentagon released a report last week warning that the security situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate as a “resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people.”

Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Humayoon Babur and Amir Shah in Kabul and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.

December 06, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has released a rare audio recording in which he denies claims by an Afghan official that he was wounded in a shootout during a meeting with other commanders in Pakistan last week.

In a 17-minute audio recording sent to media by the Taliban late Saturday, Mansoor dismissed what he called “baseless claims” that were “part of the agenda of the enemy.” The Taliban had earlier sent The Associated Press a two-minute version of the recording.

The voice resembled that in previous recordings issued by Mansoor, who succeeded longtime Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar after his death was announced last summer. Mansoor has since faced internal challenges to his leadership, including by a breakaway faction that has battled fighters loyal to him.

“I haven’t seen Kuchlak in years,” he said, referring to an area near the Pakistani city of Quetta where the dispute was said to have taken place. He ordered his fighters to pay no heed to “baseless rumors” and to continue waging jihad, or holy war, against the Afghan government.

The audio message was released two days after Sultan Faizy, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s First Vice President Abdul Rasheed Dostum, claimed that Mansoor was wounded in a firefight that broke out at a gathering of Taliban figures in Pakistan. He said the incident took place in the home of Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, a former Taliban official, and that six Taliban figures, including Sarhadi, were killed.

“I am safe and my colleagues are safe. I am among my colleagues,” Mansoor said, adding that he had not wanted to release the audio recording but was convinced to do so by his aides. The Afghan government’s announcement last summer that Mullah Omar had died nearly two years earlier in Pakistan derailed nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban that had been brokered by Islamabad.

In the recording, Mansoor insisted the Taliban would continue fighting until they established “Islamic government” in Afghanistan and would resist outside pressure to reach a political settlement. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law until the group was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mansoor established the timing of the recording by referring to a battle between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Wardak province on Friday which killed a number of civilians. He expressed condolences to those killed and wished a swift recovery for civilians who were wounded.

Monday, 28 December 2015

The Palestinian health ministry opened on Sunday an Indonesian funded hospital to serve residents of north Gaza.

The old hospital that served the area, Kamal Adwan hospital, has been closed down for renovations and maintenance.

The new hospital, built by the Republic of Indonesia, contains 110 beds, including 10 for intensive care cases.

“The Indonesian hospital is an important healthcare addition, with high-quality medical facilities to serve the residents of north Gaza,” the ministry’s spokesman Dr Ashraf Al-Qudra told Quds Press

He added that the hospital provides special medical care service in the fields of internal medicine, surgery and orthopaedics.

Al Qudra also pointed out that the new hospital has CT scan, the most advanced in Gaza yet, and four highly equipped operating theatres, in addition to an intensive care unit, qualified medical doctors and nurses.

He expressed optimism about the hospital’s ability to lead to a significant shift in medical services provided in Gaza.

The ministry will renovate the Kamal Adwan Hospital to improve the quality of its services. While it is being renovated, medical services for children will be temporarily offered in other hospitals in Gaza – namely al-Nasr, al-Durra, Bait Hanoun and Balsam hospitals.

The ministry spokesman called on all citizens who receive health care at the Kamal Adwan hospital to continue doing so at the new Indonesian hospital.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23073-new-indonesian-hospital-opened-to-serve-north-gaza-residents.

Dec. 12, 2015

GAZA CITY (Ma’an) — Thousands of supporters on Saturday joined a rally in the Gaza Strip commemorating the 48th anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Led by top PFLP figures, supporters marched from the Saraya junction in the center of Gaza City to the headquarters of the United Nations waving Palestinian national flags, PFLP flags, as well as photos of Palestinian martyrs .

Member of the PFLP’s politburo, Jamil Mizhir, spoke during the rally, slamming ongoing factional divisions between the Hamas and Fatah movements.

Mizhir said that the divisions are negatively impacting “the ongoing uprising of the Palestinian people,” due to both movements utilizing the recent unrest to their own factional interests.

Mizhir also slammed Palestinian leadership in the occupied west Bank for continuing to “impede the implementation of decisions by the PLO’s Central Council” regarding security coordination with Israel.

The Central Council in March called for an end to security coordination with Israel as long as it continued to violate signed agreements.

President Mahmoud Abbas in September said during an address to the UN General Assembly that the PA was no longer bound by the agreements due to Israel’s lack of commitment to the Oslo Accords, and said the council’s March decision was “specific and binding.”

Mizhir said that despite this, Palestinian security services “continue to harass and go after young Palestinian men” in coordination with Israel.

Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, Mizhir added, the “disastrous conditions continue and worsen in light of the electricity crisis, water problems, the closure of the Rafah crossing and the imposition of new taxes.”

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://maannews.com/Content.aspx?ID=769310.

December 21, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese man convicted of one of the most notorious attacks in Israel’s history and who spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison has been killed by an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital, the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group said Sunday.

Hezbollah officials have pledged to avenge the killing of Samir Kantar, sparking fears of escalation in an already volatile region. In a possible first response, three rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon late Sunday.

Kantar had said that he had been working, with the backing of Hezbollah, to set up “the Syrian resistance” to liberate the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed 14 years later.

Hezbollah said Kantar was killed along with eight others in an airstrike in Jaramana, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, on Saturday night. According to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, two Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace and fired four long-range missiles at the residential building in Jaramana. It aired footage of what it said was the building, which appeared to be destroyed. Kantar’s brother, Bassam, confirmed his “martyrdom” in a Facebook post on Sunday.

In Lebanon Kantar is known as “the dean of Lebanese prisoners,” a reference to his long jail sentence. In Israel, he gained notoriety for the kidnapping and grisly killing of a man named Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter, in the coastal town of Nahariya. Kantar was 16 at the time, and a member of the Palestinian militant group the Palestine Liberation Front.

He also killed a policeman during the attack, and is alleged to have beaten the four-year-old to death with a rifle butt. As the attack unfolded, the girl’s mother hid inside a crawl space inside their home and accidentally smothered their crying two-year-old daughter, fearing Kantar would find them.

Kantar was imprisoned in 1979 in Israel and sentenced to three life terms, but was released as part of a prisoner swap with Hezbollah in 2008. While many in Israel were outraged at his release, in Lebanon he received a hero’s welcome and the following year he was awarded Syria’s highest medal by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies. The two countries battled to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006 during which Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into Israel and Israel’s air force destroyed wide areas in Lebanon. Since then, Israeli military officials say Hezbollah has upgraded its capabilities and now possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in the country.

Many Israeli officials believe Hezbollah is currently in no position to open a new front with Israel, as it is bogged down aiding its close ally, President Assad, in the Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, Hezbollah legislator Ali Ammar vowed to avenge Kantar’s killing, saying the militant group will not allow his blood to go “betrayed.” Ammar said the group’s military arm would determine the timing and methods chosen “to punish the killers, specifically the Israeli enemy.”

In January, the Lebanese group accused Israel of carrying out an airstrike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which killed several Hezbollah members and a prominent Iranian general. Around ten days later, Hezbollah militants fired a salvo of missiles at an Israeli military convoy in a disputed border area, killing two soldiers and triggering deadly clashes that marked the most serious escalation since the 2006 war.

Gil Rabinovich, the former head of the Israeli military intelligence’s counterterrorism unit, said it was impossible to predict how Hezbollah would respond, in part because Israel has not claimed responsibility for Kantar’s killing. He noted however that Kantar was not a member of Hezbollah’s “inner circle,” reducing the probability that the group would open a new front against Israel.

“He’s important, but not so important to endanger them in a situation where they might be in direct conflict with Israel,” Rabinovich said. Israel has previously said it would engage in the Syria conflict for two reasons only: to stop the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to disrupt preparations for attacks on Israel. The country is believed to have intercepted and destroyed a number of arms shipments headed toward the militant group and Israeli warplanes have struck targets inside Syria several times during the country’s nearly five-year conflict, although it has rarely confirmed its involvement.

Retired Israeli Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, former National Security Adviser and a Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies said that Kantar was seen as “a pivot in the efforts of Hezbollah to prepare the Golan Heights for another front against Israel.”

Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said he was not sorry about Kantar’s death but could not comment on the accusations that Israel was behind the killing. It is not unusual for Israel to decline to comment on such operations.

Kantar’s killing would mark the first Israeli assassination of a senior figure inside Syria since Russia launched its military operations in Syria on Sept. 30 in support of President Bashar Assad. Israel and Russia have set up a communications channel to make sure their air forces do not clash with each other, though it was not known whether the alleged Israeli strike on Kantar had been announced to the Russians ahead of time. The Russian Defense Ministry declined comment.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under briefing guidelines, said Hezbollah has a limited presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and its efforts there have been focused primarily on aiding Assad’s forces against the advances of various rebel groups. He noted, however, that several attacks along the Israeli-Syrian frontier in the Golan in recent years were believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah or its allies.

On Sunday evening, Lebanese security officials speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said militants fired three rockets into northern Israel. No one claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.

Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

December 17, 2015

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians who won the Nobel Peace Prize joined townspeople in the country’s beleaguered heartland to mark five years since a desperate street vendor set himself on fire, unwittingly setting in motion upheaval across the Arab world.

Tunisia is the only country to have emerged with a budding democracy. But it’s grappling with the threat of violent Islamic extremism, now ravaging the region from neighboring Libya to Syria, after uprisings inspired by Tunisia’s revolt that led to lawlessness or civil war.

Members of the Tunisian quartet of non-governmental groups that won this year’s Nobel took part in a series of events Thursday in Sidi Bouzid, the epicenter of Tunisia’s revolution, where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire on Dec. 17, 2010.

It was a personal gesture of protest by Bouazizi, 27. But his cry of despair captured the plight of the poor and jobless and echoed throughout the North African country, triggering protests that left 300 dead and thousands injured.

Within a month, the country’s autocratic ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fled to Saudi Arabia after nearly a quarter-century as president — and soon protests erupted in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Morocco.

A statue of a wooden cart like that used by Bouazizi to sell fruits stands on the main road. A huge banner and posters hail Bouazizi, now a national hero. But its residents are still struggling. “Since Dec. 17th, the only thing is that we can speak freely,” said Jamel Saghrouni, a schoolmate of Bouazizi’s who has a degree in French literature, but is jobless.

“But there is corruption. There is no work, no progress,” Saghrouni said. “We can only speak, but we can’t do anything.” Tunisian leaders worked tirelessly to establish a new structure to birth democracy in a land that has known no such thing since it gained independence from France in 1956.

It has been a rocky path, and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel for preventing its collapse. It stepped into a political crisis in 2013, pushing rival leaders toward a caretaker government to organize elections. Parties returned to the table to complete a new constitution.

“We are bringing a message of hope to the population of Sidi Bouzid and other regions pushed aside,” Abdessattar Ben Moussa, head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights told The Associated Press. “Because five years after the revolution there has been no solution to the economic and social problems they suffer.”

The main labor union, the bar association and the employers’ association are the other member organizations of the Quartet. Unlike in neighboring Libya or Egypt, where long-time leaders fell, Tunisia has worked to put in place the structural requirements for democracy, and tried to seed the mindset crucial to ensure it flourishes. But, as in those countries, it has contended throughout with rising Islamic extremism.

Deadly attacks this year by extremists on tourists at the Bardo National Museum and a luxury hotel in the resort town of Sousse struck at the heart of the tourism industry, a mainstay of the Tunisian economy. Most recently, a suicide bomber hit a bus carrying presidential guard members down the main avenue in the capital.

“We praise God that Tunisia hasn’t fallen into chaos like other countries,” said Ali Bouazizi, a political activist and distant cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi. “Our revolution was peaceful from the start and until today. Thanks to dialogue and consensus we’ve overcome crises,” he added, “which is why we’re considered an exception.”

Ben Bouazza reported from Tunis.