Lebanese take to the streets to mark protest anniversary

Anti-government demonstrators take pictures of a metal sculpture spelling out the word "revolution" topped by flames during a protest as Lebanese mark one year since the start of nation-wide protests, near Beirut's port, Lebanon October 17, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Lebanese take to the streets to mark protest anniversary

  • The explosion at Beirut port served as a shocking reminder to many of the rot at the heart of their political system
  • On Saturday, hundreds of people brandishing placards and Lebanese flags gathered in Martyrs' Square in Beirut

BEIRUT: Thousands of Lebanese protesters marked the one-year anniversary of nationwide demonstrations on Saturday by marching from Martyrs’ Square in the heart of Beirut to the central bank and government offices where they renewed calls for an end to Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Activist groups from the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre, as well as Baalbeck, Bekaa and Tripoli in the north, joined the protest, which brought Martyrs’ Square back to life after weeks of inactivity. Wearing masks, the protesters waved Lebanese flags and demanded the overthrow of the “criminal” ruling class.

The march continued to Beirut port, where protesters lit a “torch of the Oct. 17 revolution” to commemorate victims of the explosion that devastated large areas of the capital on Aug. 4.

Almost 180 people were killed and more than 6,500 injured in the blast, which left Lebanon reeling after a year of financial scandals and political stalemate.

In that time, the country has plunged into bankruptcy, the Lebanese lira has collapsed and the dollar exchange rate has skyrocketed on the black market.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and more than 20 percent of companies and institutions have closed their doors. Meanwhile, the poverty rate has soared from 28 percent to 55 percent, with some indicators predicting it will reach 75 percent.

The central bank’s reserves have dropped from $30 billion to $17 billion and the gross domestic product from $55 billion to $31 billion. Inflation has reached 100 percent.

Amid mounting popular anger at the country’s political class, Saad Hariri’s government resigned, Hassan Diab’s government quit after the Beirut blast and Mustafa Adib stepped down after failing to form a government in line with a French rescue initiative led by President Emmanuel Macron.  

Hariri recently offered himself as a “natural candidate” to head the new government, but President Michel Aoun postponed parliamentary consultations after the Free Patriotic Movement objected to the appointment.

Amid these dramatic developments, protesters say they have no intention of backing down.

“Our positions have not changed,” activist Mahmoud Faqih told Arab News.

“The recent developments have made it even clearer that the ruling class has lost legitimacy and must be removed from power. We have proven that we are the alternative power to heal the wounds of the people.”

Faqih said the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the revolution’s momentum, which has also been affected by “many active protesters deciding to leave Lebanon.”

However, “during the past year, initiatives have taken place between revolutionary groups to increase coordination and establish an opposition front,” he said.

Another activist, Ziad Abdel Samad, said: “This year has shown that our rulers are criminals who commit crimes against their own people. The ruling class has lost all legitimacy in their people’s eyes.”

He said that “frustration and desperation” had forced many activists to leave the country.

“Nothing has changed. The ruling class is still fighting over the quota system, even in light of the French initiative.”

However, Abdel Samad said that the creation of opposing political blocs in the wake of the protests might lead to the “emergence of new alternative officials.”

“The revolution has created a new equation on the political scene. On its one-year anniversary, the revolution is still getting foreign support.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “One year ago today, the Lebanese people began taking to the streets demanding reforms, better governance and an end to the endemic corruption that has stifled Lebanon’s tremendous potential. Their message remains clear and undeniable — business as usual is unacceptable.”

The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, said that he “stood beside Lebanon and its people, and the necessary reforms that should be carried out by an effective government.”

Kubis said that “the massive wave of protests brought to the streets hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of Lebanese across all the Lebanese regions and across political and sectarian divides to express their profound disappointment in the ruling class and the sectarian political and administrative system that has promoted corruption and nepotism in the country.”


Market blast in north Syria kills at least 9, injures dozens

Updated 43 sec ago

Market blast in north Syria kills at least 9, injures dozens

BEIRUT: A rocket attack on a crowded market in a town held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters in northern Syria Friday killed at least nine people and wounded dozens, an opposition war monitor and a paramedic group reported.
The attack on the town of Al-Bab came days after a Turkish airstrike killed at least 11 Syrian troops and US-backed Kurdish fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, blamed Syrian government forces for the shelling, saying it was in retaliation for the Turkish airstrike.
The Observatory said the attack killed at least 10 and wounded more than 30.
The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, had a lower death toll, saying nine people, including children, were killed and 28 were wounded. The paramedic group said its members evacuated some of the wounded and the dead bodies.
Discrepancies in casualty figures immediately after attacks are not uncommon in Syria.
Turkey has launched three major cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 and controls some territories in the north.
Although the fighting has waned over the past few years, shelling and airstrikes are not uncommon in northern Syria that is home to the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011, has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
President Bashar Assad’s forces now control most parts of Syria with the help of their allies, Russia and Iran.

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry

Updated 27 min 55 sec ago

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry

  • Israeli military say soldiers came under fire during a raid in the town
  • Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories Presse: A Palestinian man was killed Friday by Israeli forces during a raid in the north of the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Salah Sawafta, 58, “died of critical wounds, sustained by live bullets from the occupation (Israeli military) in the head, in Tubas this morning,” a ministry statement said.
The Israeli military said soldiers came under fire during a raid in the town.
During an operation in “Tubas, several suspects hurled Molotov cocktails and opened fire at (Israeli) troops, who responded with fire,” the army said in a statement, adding “hits were identified.”
The mayor of Tubas, Hossam Daraghmeh, said Sawafta had been leaving dawn prayers when he was shot.
“He left the mosque and was heading to his house wearing a prayer robe. There was a vengeful soldier stationed in a building near the municipality who shot him in the head,” he said.
Daraghmeh said Sawafta had been unarmed when he was hit.
“This man did not have a stone or anything in his hand,” he said.
The Israeli military said five people were detained in overnight raids across the West Bank.
On Thursday, a 20-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli troops during clashes in the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967, when it seized the territory from Jordan.


Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense

Updated 30 min 12 sec ago

Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense

  • Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest in Africa’s largest country

Algiers: Wildfires, which killed at least 38 people and left a trail of destruction in eastern Algeria this week, are now under control, a civil defense official told AFP on Friday.
“All of the fires have been completely brought under control,” said fire brigade Col. Farouk Achour, of the civil defense department.
Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest in Africa’s largest country.
Deadly fires have become an annual scourge in Algeria, where climate change has turned large areas of forest into a tinderbox in the blistering summer months.
The justice ministry launched an inquiry after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of the fires were started deliberately, and authorities on Thursday announced four arrests of suspected arsonists.
Authorities have been accused of being ill-prepared, with few firefighting aircraft available despite record casualties in last year’s blazes and a cash windfall from gas exports with global energy prices soaring.

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A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange

Updated 18 August 2022

A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange

  • Timing coincides with efforts by both countries to build relationships in region, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Israel and Turkey have announced the upgrading of diplomatic relations and the return of their ambassadors and consuls general after years of strained ties between the two nations. 

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid greeted such a diplomatic breakthrough as an “important asset for regional stability and very important economic news for the citizens of Israel.

According to Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of the Mitvim Institute and co-founder of Diplomeds — The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy — the announcement on the upgrading of ties marks a diplomatic success.

"It is the culmination of a gradual process that has taken place over more than a year, during which Israel and Turkey have worked to rebuild trust, launch new dialogue channels, adopt a positive agenda, re-energize cooperation, confront security challenges, and find ways to contain differences," Goren told Arab News.

“Based on these positive developments, restoring relations at the ambassadorial level is now seen as a natural step, perhaps even a long overdue one,” he said. 

“It was important to seal this move before internal politics gets in the way, as elections in both countries are drawing near,” Goren added.

Goren said that the timing also “coincides with efforts by both Israel and Turkey to improve and deepen their various relationships in the region.”

Turkey and Israel, once regional allies, expelled their ambassadors in 2018 over the killing of dozens of Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests along the Gaza border.

Relations were completely frozen after the death of nine Turkish activists over an Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish Mavi Marmara ship in 2010. 

Since then, many attempts have been made to mend ties, especially in the energy sector, and in trade and tourism, which emerged as strategic avenues for cooperation. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Isaac Herzog have spoken on the phone several times and Herzog visited Ankara last March. 

As part of mutual trust-building efforts, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also visited Jerusalem in May, marking the first visit to Israel by a Turkish foreign minister in 15 years. His visit was reciprocated by Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, in June. 

The two countries also cooperated in counter-terrorism efforts following Iranian assassination plots against a Turkish-Israeli businessperson as well as Israeli tourists in Istanbul. Turkey took steps to curtail the movements of Hamas within the country. 

They also signed a civil aviation agreement last month. 

Dr. Gokhan Cinkara, an expert from Necmettin Erbakan University, thinks that shifts in regional geopolitics are the main determinants for Turkey’s new efforts for normalization. 

“The competition between status quo and revisionism in the region is over. Consequently, every country has alternatives and can be replaced, which is also the case for Turkey. Due to the economic crisis and geopolitical deadlock that the country is passing through, it was inevitable for Turkey to search for new options,” he told Arab News.  

“The appointment of diplomats will ensure that bilateral relations will continue to operate under an institutional routine.”  

The ambassador to Israel is expected to be appointed soon. Both countries are also set to hold a joint economic commission meeting in September. 

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said that Ankara would continue to support the Palestinian cause. 

“Despite the new chapter in relations, Israel and Turkey still have differences of opinion on key policy issues, including Israeli-Palestinian relations and the Eastern Mediterranean,” Goren said. 

“These differences will not go away, but Israel and Turkey are aware of the need to be sensitive in how they deal with them and to put in place bilateral mechanisms to regularly engage on these issues,” Goren said.

“If Israel and Turkey can somehow support each other on the road to conflict resolution with third countries (e.g., Turkey with Egypt, Israel with the Palestinians) — that will be a major benefit of the new chapter in ties.”

As bilateral relations have been moving on a positive trajectory since Israeli President Herzog’s visit to Ankara, Selin Nasi, London representative of the Ankara Policy Center and a respected researcher on Turkish Israeli relations, pointed to the timing of the envoy exchange. 

“The Israeli side has been taking the process a bit slowly in order to understand whether Ankara was sincere in its efforts to mend fences,” she told Arab News. 

Ankara’s “calm and measured response in the face of tensions in Jerusalem and in Gaza in the last couple of months and its full cooperation with Israeli intelligence against Iranian plots which targeted Israeli citizens in Turkey have seemingly reassured Israel’s concerns,” she said.

Nasi thinks that the ambassadorial exchange shows Turkey and Israel’s willingness to give the normalization process a formal framework, as well as their readiness to move to the next phase. 

“Considering the upcoming elections in Israel in November, normalization of diplomatic ties is likely to provide a shield against the interference of domestic politics,” she said. 

Although Turkey and Israel have managed to turn a new page in bilateral relations, Nasi thinks that it is equally important to see what they are going to write in this new chapter.  

“Both countries have a lot to gain from developing cooperation at a time when the US is shifting its focus and energy to the Pacific region and Iran is about to become a nuclear power,” she said.

“On the other hand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put energy security front and center once again. It revived hopes that the pipeline project that would carry Israeli natural gas via Turkey could be eventually realized,” she said. “While the unsettled Cyprus question remains the elephant in the room, it all comes down to the sides’ mending political trust. We may therefore see some openings in the future.”

Goren thinks that a relaunching of the Israel-Turkey strategic dialogue and the resumption of regular high-level contacts will also assist the countries lessen mutual misperceptions — related, for example, to Israel’s ties with the Kurds and Turkey’s ties with Iran — and avoid gaps in expectations.  

“Israel and Turkey should make sure that this time — unlike what happened in the previous decade — their upgrade of ties will be sustainable and long-term,” Goren said. 

The exchange of ambassadors has been also welcomed by the US.

“Today’s announcement that Israel and Turkey are fully restoring their diplomatic relations. This move will bring increased security, stability, and prosperity to their peoples as well as the region,” tweeted Jake Sullivan, national security adviser at White House. 

Nasi also said that Turkey’s relations with Israel “have always been a factor of its relations with the West and with the US in particular. In the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Ankara has been threading a fine path with Russia.”

Nasi said “normalization of ties with Israel may aim to send a message to the US Congress, whose favorable view and support on the modernization of F16s is very much sought for.”


Russian ship carrying ‘plundered’ Ukraine grain reaches Syria: embassy

Updated 18 August 2022

Russian ship carrying ‘plundered’ Ukraine grain reaches Syria: embassy

  • "According to our information, SV KONSTANTIN has docked in Syria," the embassy said
  • It said the ship was carrying "grains that were plundered and illegally transported by the Russian occupation authorities"

BEIRUT: A Russian cargo ship allegedly carrying stolen Ukrainian grain has reached Syria, Kyiv’s embassy in Beirut said Thursday, the latest in a series of contested shipments arriving in the war-torn country.
“According to our information, SV KONSTANTIN has docked in Syria,” the embassy said in a statement to AFP.
It said the ship was carrying “grains that were plundered and illegally transported by the Russian occupation authorities,” adding that the vessel was initially destined for the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russian forces of ransacking its grain warehouses since they invaded the country in late February.
The embassy’s statement came as another cargo ship carrying the first shipment of grain allowed to leave Ukraine under a UN-backed deal reportedly unloaded its cargo at the Syrian port of Tartus, which is managed by a Russian firm.
The Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Razoni was expected to arrive in Lebanon, but the shipment’s five-month delay prompted the Lebanese buyer to cancel the deal once the ship was already at sea, Ukrainian officials had said.
According to Samir Madani, co-founder of oil shipping monitoring website TankerTrackers.com, the vessel docked in Tartus earlier this week.
Satellite imagery appeared to show that the ship — which was carrying 26,000 tons of corn — was unloading its cargo, Madani tweeted on Thursday.
Earlier this month, a Syrian-flagged ship was briefly seized by Lebanese authorities following similar claims by the Ukrainian embassy that it was laden with stolen cargo.
Lebanon later released the Laodicea vessel after investigations failed to prove it carried stolen goods, drawing criticism from Kyiv’s embassy.
The Laodicea started unloading its cargo at Tartus on August 8, according to Syrian state media.
Syria is a staunch ally of Russia, which intervened in the country’s civil war in 2015 to support President Bashar Assad’s government.
Moscow has lent Damascus very limited amounts of financial aid, but it has supplied Syria with wheat as a form of assistance.
The Syrian government relies on Moscow for the bulk of its wheat imports.