Palestinians, Israelis await Prince William's inaugural royal Mideast visit

Prince William is set to arrive in Israel and the Palestinian territories, for the first official visit of a member of the British royal family, ending the monarchy’s decades-long mostly hands-off approach to one of the world’s most sensitive spots. (AFP)
Updated 23 June 2018

Palestinians, Israelis await Prince William's inaugural royal Mideast visit

  • The prince kicks off his Middle East visit Sunday in Jordan where we will meet refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria
  • Kensington Palace said the visit was aimed "to meet as many people from as many walks of life as possible"

JERUSALEM: Prince William is set to arrive in Israel and the Palestinian territories this week for the first official visit of a member of the British royal family, ending the monarchy's decades-long mostly hands-off approach to one of the world's most sensitive regions.
Though the trip is being billed as non-political, and places a special emphasis on technology and joint Israeli-Arab projects, the Duke of Cambridge will also be meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and visiting landmark Jerusalem sites at the heart of the century-old conflict.
The prince kicks off his Middle East visit Sunday in Jordan where we will meet refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria and tour the famous archaeological site at Jerash, where his wife, the former Catherine Middleton, once visited when her family lived in Jordan.
On Monday he will arrive in Israel and stay in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, the elegant British-era edifice. From there he will visit coastal Tel Aviv, Israel's financial and cultural capital, and Ramallah in the West Bank, seat of the Palestinian autonomy government. On the docket are scheduled meetings with young entrepreneurs, visits to Israel's vibrant tech and media sectors and meetings with young Jewish and Arab football players.
Kensington Palace, William's official residence, said the visit was aimed "to meet as many people from as many walks of life as possible — and use the spotlight that his visit will bring to celebrate their hopes for the future."
But politics have already seeped into the agenda. The royal itinerary mentioned Jerusalem as being part of "the Occupied Palestinian Territories," angering Israeli politicians. Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin — who is running for mayor of the city in this year's elections — called the reference a "distortion" that cannot "change reality."
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move not internationally recognized. Israel considers the city, home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the emotional epicenter of the conflict, as an inseparable part of its capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as a future capital.
Britain has deep roots in the region, having governed Palestine from 1920 to 1948 under a League of Nations mandate. But it has since taken a back seat to the United States in matters of mediating war and peace efforts. The royal family has mostly steered clear of politics.
One way of doing so has been to avoid any official visits. William's father, Prince Charles, attended the 2016 funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres but in a private capacity. During that trip, the heir to the throne paid a low-key visit to the grave of his grandmother, Princess Alice. William will also visit her final resting place in Jerusalem's Church of St. Mary Magdalene above the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
The prince will also visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where his great-grandmother is recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations for her role in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.
Princess Alice, the mother of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, hid three members of the Cohen family in her palace in Athens during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II. Thanks to her, the Cohen family survived and today lives in France. The princess died in 1969 and in 1988 her remains were brought to Jerusalem. In a 1994 visit to Yad Vashem, Prince Philip planted a tree there in her honor.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Prince William will be arriving in Jerusalem at the request of Her Majesty's government. As such, he'll be meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Both sides seem to be looking forward to the first-ever royal visit.
Though William is not expected to comment on the long-standing conflict and stalled peace talks, his visit is being lauded by Palestinians as recognition of their occupied status.
In Israel, many are excitedly awaiting the pomp and pageantry that accompanies the visit of the second in line to the throne. At the King David Hotel — the site of a lethal bombing by Jewish nationalists in 1946 against the British administrative headquarters that left 91 dead during the lead-up to Israel's fight for independence — preparations are already underway. Prince Charles also stayed at the hotel and his signature is among those of many dignitaries adorning the walkway into the lobby of the hotel.
Sheldon Ritz, the hotel's director of operations, said he has yet to receive the prince's preferred menu but will encourage his staff to have him try the local cuisine of homemade hummus, tahini and falafel.
"I'm sure he'll love that and we're bringing in the best quality tea from England and we're going to offer scones and clotted cream and strawberry jam. So hopefully they'll have a bit of England here as well," he said.
Ritz said the staff was also instructed about the proper etiquette regarding the royal guest.
"You have to bow your head, you can't initiate any handshakes. The prince, if he wants to shake your hand, he'll initiate it and you say: 'Your royal highness,'" he explained. "Every time you meet him after that it's 'sir' ... I'll do the orientation of the suite and I'll try to be as diplomatic as possible. Not too much small talk."
 


Russian bombers over Idlib: Large-scale operation on the horizon?

Updated 36 min 32 sec ago

Russian bombers over Idlib: Large-scale operation on the horizon?

  • According to local media, two Russian Su-24 bombers recently landed at the Khmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia governorate, without any official notice.

ANKARA: The Russian military’s redeployment of frontline bombers to Syria has sparked debate about whether a new Russian operation is imminent in the country’s volatile northwestern region.

However, the experts to whom Arab News spoke said they do not expect a large-scale military move from Russia — partly because of the potential health risks that any such operation would involve in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to local media, two Russian Su-24 bombers recently landed at the Khmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia governorate, without any official notice. Su-24s have mostly been used in Syria for attacks against rebel targets. An Su-24 was also shot down by the Turkish military in October 2015, triggering a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow that went on for months.

In 2017’s Astana agreement, Turkey pledged to rid Idlib province of all UN-designated terror organizations, including Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).

In Moscow on March 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached a fragile cease-fire agreement in northwestern Syria, where escalating violence looked set to push forces from their two countries into open conflict.

However, while Turkey’s major aim is to establish safe zones in northern Syria in which to settle the millions of Syrian refugees it currently hosts, Moscow’s primary expectation from Ankara is the removal of the HTS and related groups from Idlib. The HTS — designated as a terror group by Turkey in August 2018 — refused to comply with the Moscow cease-fire deal as it is currently in control of large territories in Idlib.

According to the Kremlin, HTS was behind the local protests that obliged Turkish and Russian troops to shorten the route of their joint patrol on the M4 highway. Therefore, from the Russian point of view, the HTS and other radical groups are seen as legitimate targets that remain outside any cease-fire deal.

However, the US does not currently share Moscow’s view of the HTS. On Feb. 5, Washington’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said, “The Russians claim that (the HTS) constantly launch attacks on the Russians. While HTS did not accept — or was not part of — the Sochi cease-fire agreement from 2018, we have seen only intermittent and not very strong or significant military actions on their part against the Russians. The Russians use this as an excuse.”

Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, said Iran-backed militias and the Syrian regime have been violating the cease-fire agreement for the past 27 days. Iran — one of the countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — is Syria’s main regional ally, with Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside Syrian regime forces.

“There are reports of a military build-up of Iranian militias in the countryside (near) Aleppo,” he told Arab News. “Officially, the cease-fire has not ended, but I do not think it will continue as Russian warplanes and regime air forces were flying in Idlib airspace on Thursday, although no bombing has been recorded yet.

Navvar Saban, a military expert from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, does not expect any all-out military operation to be mounted amid ongoing concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The current cease-fire is not strong; it just postpones any ground operation for the time being,” Saban told Arab News. “There have been sporadic violations in various parts of Idlib province over recent days. Small-scale clashes and shelling against HTS or similar groups still continue in the area where even the Russians don’t have full control over the regime.”

For Saban, the presence of Iran-backed militia working side-by-side with the Syrian army might discourage anyone from mounting a full-scale operation that could trigger a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 among troops.

On March 23, the second Russian-Turkish joint patrol of a section of the M4 was completed.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently reiterated that Russia will not be satisfied by purely cosmetic changes to the HTS.

“We hope that our Turkish partners will continue their efforts to separate moderate opposition from extremists and take measures to neutralize the latter. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the renaming of groups — changing their window dressing — does not change their essence as terrorists. There must be no illusions that we are talking about internationally acknowledged terrorists, regardless of whether they call themselves Al Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham,” Zakharova said.

Mehmet Emin Cengiz, a research assistant at the Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said, “Russia has been prioritizing a military solution for Idlib from the very beginning and it does not make a distinction between moderates and radicals. Thus, the province will face new aggression from the Syrian regime and its main backer, even if the HTS rebrands or dissolves.”

But Cengiz, too, does not expect any full-scale operation in the near future, mainly due to the ongoing health crisis in a region that lacks the medical facilities to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.