Syria’s regime auctions off land of the displaced

Displaced Syrian men check the destruction at a poultry farm in Idlib. (AFP/File)
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Updated 31 December 2020

Syria’s regime auctions off land of the displaced

BEIRUT: Many Syrians forced from their homes by their country’s brutal, decade-old war are now shocked to discover that their family farms have been taken over by regime loyalists and cronies.
Rights groups and legal experts say local authorities in parts of northwest Syria recaptured by regime forces have staged auctions to effectively “confiscate” fertile land and punish opponents.
One refugee, 30-year-old Salman, said he always knew it would be difficult to return to the family plot in Idlib province he abandoned during an offensive a year ago by the Syrian regime forces.
But whatever hopes he still had to return one day were all but crushed when he learned the rights to cultivate the land had been sold off to a complete stranger.
“What right does someone have to come and take it?” the refugee, who asked to use a pseudonym, told AFP by phone from Greece where he illegally moved a few months ago.
Salman said he used to plant lentils, barley and black cumin on the 37 acres of land he owns with his brothers, earning up to $12,000 each harvest.
He discovered through a post on social media that the rights to the land were being auctioned off.
“We were shocked,” he told AFP. “This land was left to us by our ancestors and we want to pass it down to our children.”
Several other Syrians displaced from southern Idlib and adjacent Hama and Aleppo provinces told AFP that they too have had their plots expropriated.
Some learned about it through social media advertisements run by the regime-affiliated Farmers’ Union in Idlib or through acquaintances still living nearby.
In October, the Farmers’ Union said that it was auctioning off the right to use and cultivate plots owned by Syrians “who don’t reside in government-controlled areas.” Victims found they were being blamed for their misfortune.
The union said the original deed-holders were “indebted” to Syria’s Agricultural Cooperative Bank (ACB), which offers loans to farmers — including those who are now finding it impossible to settle dues from outside government-controlled territory.
The land owners who spoke to AFP all denied having outstanding payments.
“It’s just an excuse,” Salman said.
Other auctions are being organized by regime-linked local security committees, without any mention of outstanding debts, said opposition watchdog group The Day After and war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Assad’s Russian-backed forces have over the past three years pushed deeper into Syria’s last major opposition bastion in the northwest.
Their latest offensive in early 2020 forced nearly a million people out of their homes, according to the UN. Only 235,000 have returned since a cease-fire took hold in March.
Grappling with a deep economic crisis compounded by Western sanctions, Damascus is looking to make use of fertile land to boost agricultural production.
Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have condemned the land expropriations in former rebel strongholds.
“The land auctions exploit displacement for economic benefit,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty’s Syria researcher.
Authorities, she said, are “seizing lands illegally and in violation of international law.”
In November, an Aleppo security committee said it was taking bids for plots in reconquered villages, according to documents obtained by The Day After activist group and the Observatory.
Amir, a displaced 38-year-old from Aleppo, said he was informed less than two months ago by his former neighbor that authorities were taking offers for his 20 acres of land there.
Amir asked the neighbor to bid on his behalf, but he declined.
“Someone who has relatives with intelligence services in the area” won the bid, said Amir, a father of five who now makes less than $2 a day picking olives in Idlib.
According to judge Anwar Mejni, a member of a UN committee tasked with overseeing the drafting of a new Syria constitution, the land auctions are “a kind of punishment.”
“The auctions may not transfer ownership of the land, but they violate the rights” of original owners to access and cultivate them.
Another issue, said Mejni, is that “there is no legal framework” governing the auctions.
Even if the ACB indeed organized them to settle debts, he said, this “should be done under the supervision of the judiciary.”
Another farmer, Abu Adel, abandoned his village in Hama back in 2012 as battles raged nearby but continued to visit his plot until regime forces seized his area last year.
The 54-year-old hired people to tend to it while he is away, but in July an “affiliate” of a local security committee won rights to use it in an auction.
They “are all part of the same clique,” Abu Adel said. “It’s a facade.”

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Israeli troops kill another unarmed Palestinian

Updated 19 August 2022

Israeli troops kill another unarmed Palestinian

  • Anger in West Bank after man, 58, is shot on his way home from morning prayers

RAMALLAH, West Bank: There was growing outrage in the occupied West Bank on Friday after Israeli troops killed another unarmed Palestinian man.

Saleh Sawafta, 58, was returning from dawn prayers at a mosque near his home in Tubas when he was shot in the head. Doctors fought to save his life, but Sawafta died from “critical wounds.”

The victim, who had been preparing for his daughter’s wedding next week — was not involved in previous clashes with Israeli forces and was not a target for arrest.

His death brought the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since the beginning of the year to 135.

Hundreds of people attended Sawafta’s funeral on Friday afternoon as anger spread in the city.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Tubas Governor Maj. Gen. Younis Al-Assi accused the Israeli army of using “excessive and unjustified force” against Palestinian citizens, and of shooting to kill.

He told Arab News that the Israeli army’s policy of killing, wounding and arresting Palestinian citizens was the main contributor to the “industry of terrorism,” and influenced young people to seek revenge for the deaths and assaults.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that the armed forces of the Israeli occupation would continue their “terrorism” unless the international community stopped displaying double standards over international law.

“As long as they can act with impunity, the crime continues in the absence of punishment. Children, women and the elderly are victims of the terror of the occupation in every city, village and camp,” the prime minister said.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Sawafta’s killing was “part of a series of daily crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian citizens,” and said the army was acting on instructions from Israeli politicians.


US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

Updated 19 August 2022

US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

  • Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel
  • The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group

WASHINGTON: Washington said Thursday it was “concerned” by the Israeli government’s forced closure of several Palestinian NGOs operating in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli military announced earlier in the day that it had conducted overnight raids of seven organizations in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters are located.
Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel for their alleged links to the leftist militant group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), though Israeli officials have not publicly shared any evidence of the links.
The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group.
“We are concerned about the Israeli security forces’ closure of the six offices of the Palestinian NGOs in and around Ramallah today,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price at a press briefing.
“We have not changed our position or approach to these organizations,” said Price, though he noted that Washington does not fund any of them.
“We have seen nothing in recent months to change (our position)” he added.
US officials have reached out to their Israeli counterparts “at the senior level” to obtain additional information, which Israel has promised to provide, according to Price.
The seventh organization raided by Israel on Thursday, the Union of Health Work Committees, was banned by Israel from working in the West Bank in 2020.


Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

Updated 19 August 2022

Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

  • A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday

JERUSALEM: Israel said Friday it plans to grant more work permits to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza, reviving a pledge made ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden but later scrapped.
A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday, the military said in a statement.
“The decision will take effect ... on condition that the security situation remains quiet in the area,” said COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories.
The move to boost to 15,500 the total number of work permits was initially announced on July 12, on the eve of Biden’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But it was scrapped four days later, in the wake of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory strikes by Israeli warplanes.
The work permits provide vital income to some of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, who have been living under a strict blockade imposed by Israel since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in 2007.
Friday’s announcement follows three days of fighting this month between Islamic Jihad militants and Israel.
At least 49 Gazans were killed and hundreds wounded, according to figures from the enclave’s health ministry.
The plan to issue additional permits follows a decision by Hamas largely to stay out of the recent fighting.


Market blast in north Syria kills 19 people, wounds dozens

Updated 20 August 2022

Market blast in north Syria kills 19 people, wounds dozens

  • Assad regime shelling hits busy market in rebel-held Aleppo town, says monitor
  • 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

JEDDAH: At least 19 civilians were killed in northern Syria on Friday in an upsurge in violence along the border with Turkey.

Artillery fire by Assad regime forces hit a busy market in the border town of Al-Bab, which is under the authority of Turkish-controlled Syrian fighters, killing 15 people.

In the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria, four children were killed and 11 were injured in a Turkish strike on a rehabilitation centre for girls near the city of Hasakeh.

The new bloodshed comes against a backdrop of increased tensions pitting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the regime against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor in Britain that has a network of sources in Syria, said the shelling that hit Al-Bab originated from Assad regime positions. A spokesman for the SDF denied any involvement.

The strike ripped through the market area and witnesses described a jumble of body parts, strewn vegetables and mangled handcarts.

BACKGROUND

The new bloodshed comes against a backdrop of increased tensions pitting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the regime against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies.

Violence between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds escalated this week with a deadly Turkish strike killing 17 regime and Kurdish fighters in retaliation for Kurdish fire inside Turkey.

Ankara considers the main Kurdish component of the SDF — allied with the US against Daesh militants —to be a terrorist organisation with links to the outlawed PKK.

The warring factions in Syria's 11-year conflict have carved up the north into a patchwork of zones of control. Al-Bab is within the areas of Aleppo province held by Turkish-backed rebels. Other parts are held by Assad regime troops backed by Russia.

The SDF, spearheaded by Kurdish groups who have opened a dialogue with the regime in Damascus, also control parts of the north and northeast.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened a new military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria, but has failed to obtain a green light from allies Iran and Russia.

Erdogan insisted on Friday that Turkey did not intend to seize any Syrian territory despite stepping up its attacks against Kurdish forces.

“We do not have eyes on the territory of Syria because the people of Syria are our brothers,” Erdogan said. “The regime must be aware of this.”

But he also hinted that Turkey may be open to a reproachment with Assad after fiercely opposing his regime.“There should be no resentment in politics,” he said.


Deadly wildfires contained in Algeria after homes, livelihoods lost

Updated 19 August 2022

Deadly wildfires contained in Algeria after homes, livelihoods lost

  • Justice Ministry launches inquiry after interior minister suggests some of this year’s blazes were started deliberately

ALGIERS: Wildfires which killed at least 38 people across northern Algeria have been contained, firefighters said Friday, as volunteers mobilized to help those who lost homes and livelihoods in the tragedy.

“All of the fires have been completely brought under control,” said fire brigade Col. Farouk Achour, of the civil defense department.
Fierce fires have become an annual fixture in Algeria’s parched forests where climate change exacerbates a long-running drought.
Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have devastated hundreds of hectares.

BACKGROUND

Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Algeria, which has more than four million hectares of forest.

In the badly hit region of El Tarf, farmers examined the charred remains of their animals killed when flames swept through the area.
The fire “didn’t spare anything,” said one farmer, Hamdi Gemidi, 40, who walked in rubber sandals on the ash-covered earth where the carcasses of what appeared to be sheep lay.

An elderly Algerian woman reacts inside the ruins of her home. (AFP)

“This is our livelihood ... We have nowhere to go and nothing to make a living from.”
Ghazala, 81, said she had been rescued along with a few animals after flames came dangerously close to her house.
“I don’t know where to go now. Should I stay in the fields, forests or mountains?” she asked, on the verge of tears.
“I really don’t know where I should go.”
The Justice Ministry launched an inquiry after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of this year’s blazes were started deliberately, and authorities on Thursday announced four arrests of suspected arsonists.
But officials have also been accused of a lack of preparation, 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.
Authorities said they deployed more than 1,700 firefighters over Wednesday and Thursday.
The dead included more than 10 children and a similar number of firefighters, according to multiple sources including local journalists and the fire service.
Most were in the El Tarf region near Algeria’s eastern border with Tunisia, an area which was sweltering earlier this week in 48 degree Celsius heat.
Algerians both at home and in the diaspora have mobilized to collect clothing, medicines and food to help those affected.
Late on Thursday, dozens of trucks carrying humanitarian aid from various cities arrived in El Tarf, regional authorities said.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also offered support to Algerians “hard-hit by the terrible fires.”
Writing on Twitter, he said: “The EU stands by your side in these difficult times.”
Twelve people burned to death in their bus as they tried to escape when fire ripped through an animal park, a witness who asked not to be named said.
When “nobody came to help us, neither the fire service nor anyone else,” park staff assisted families with young children to escape as flames encroached on the area, Takeddine, a worker at the park, said.
Fires last year killed at least 90 people and seared 100,000 hectares of forest and farmland in the country’s north.
Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Algeria, which has more than 4 million hectares of forest.
Algeria had agreed to buy seven firefighting aircraft from Spanish firm Plysa, but canceled the contract following a diplomatic row over the Western Sahara in late June, according to specialist website Mena Defense.
Spain, too, has this year battled hundreds of wildfires following punishing heat waves and long dry spells.
On Thursday, Algeria’s Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane defended the government’s response.
He said his country had ordered four new firefighting aircraft but they would not be available until December.
The prime minister added that strong winds had exacerbated the fires and authorities deployed “all their means” to extinguish them.

 

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