Palestinian refugees welcome US decision to restart aid

Palestinian boys play football at Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 8, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Palestinian refugees welcome US decision to restart aid

  • President Joe Biden’s administration said on Wednesday that it will provide $235 million to the Palestinians

JERUSALEM: Palestinian refugees on Thursday welcomed the US announcement that it will renew humanitarian aid, marking a break with the Trump era.
President Joe Biden’s administration said on Wednesday that it will provide $235 million to the Palestinians and restart funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees.
It was the clearest sign yet of Biden’s apparent intent to repair ties with the Palestinians, who boycotted the Trump White House for most of his tenure, accusing him of pro-Israel bias.
“We are happy,” said Ahmed Odeh in Bethlehem’s Deheisheh refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “The former American administration tried to stop these funds to the Palestinian people.”
“Any funding for the refugee camps and the refugees is out of good will and is good for us ... people are not working or making money, especially during the pandemic,” said Subhi Allian, 71, outside an UNRWA clinic in Far’a refugee camp near Tubas.
Most UNRWA-registered refugees are descendants of 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
Many want the right to return to their families’ former lands in pre-1948 Palestine, lands which now lie in Israel. Israel rejects any such right as a demographic threat to its Jewish majority.
In a Twitter video late on Wednesday, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, voiced “disappointment and objection” about the renewal of funding to the refugee agency without reforming it.
“UNRWA schools regularly use materials that incite against Israel and the twisted definition used by the agency to determine who is a refugee only perpetuates the conflict,” he said. “It should not exist in its current form.”
The Biden plan will provide $150 million to UNRWA and agency officials hope it will lead to more donations from the United States and others.
However, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told Reuters that the agency would “still struggle” amid reduced donations from elsewhere and cuts to their overseas development budgets by Australia and Britain.
Two priorities were COVID-19 and Lebanon, where last week he found residents of the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp to be more desperate than he had ever known them.
“When I was in Ein Al-Hilweh people were saying ... that either ‘we die from COVID or we die from hunger’ or the last choice would be to try to cross the sea to go to Cyprus,” he told Reuters.
“Basically, they say the situation today is between three different types of death for the people. That’s how desperate and stressful the situation is.”


Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

Updated 12 min 24 sec ago

Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday

JERUSALEM: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday, the highest ranked member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Israel.
The two-day visit comes as the Biden administration attempts to return to an Iran nuclear deal abandoned by its predecessor — a deal Israel opposes.
Austin is expected to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and armed forces chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
The trip will also include a tour of the Nevatim air force base and visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and to a Jerusalem memorial to fallen soldiers.
Austin arrives days after representatives of the remaining parties to the troubled 2015 nuclear deal launched talks in Vienna on bringing the United States back into it.
Then president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.
All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.
Israel opposes the US attempt to rejoin the accord.
Speaking last week, Netanyahu said Israel would not be bound by its terms.
“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons — weapons that threaten our extinction — would not compel us in any way,” Netanyahu said in a speech on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Iran and Israel have both recently attacked each other’s commercial shipping, reports say.
Austin will also visit Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium on his tour, according to the Pentagon.

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Iran orders 10-day shutdown amid 4th wave of coronavirus pandemic

Updated 55 min 19 sec ago

Iran orders 10-day shutdown amid 4th wave of coronavirus pandemic

  • The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi says
  • Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East

Iran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country on Saturday to curb the spread of a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported.
The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi said. Businesses, schools, theaters and sports facilities have been forced to shut and gatherings are banned during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Wednesday.
Iran’s coronavirus cases have surpassed 2 million with a new daily average of over 20,000 infections over the past week, according to the health ministry. It has reported more than 64,000 fatalities.
“Unfortunately, today we have entered a fourth wave,” President Hassan Rouhani said in televised remarks. He blamed the surge foremost on the variant that first emerged in the UK which spread to Iran earlier this year from neighboring Iraq.
Other factors included widespread travel, weddings, and celebrations during the Iranian New Year holidays that began on March 20, he said.
The UK variant is now predominant in the country, and 257 cities and towns are in red alert, Raisi said.
Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East. In February, it closed several crossing points with Iraq in an effort to stem the spread of the UK variant.
The country’s vaccination drive has also been slow going. Tehran says it has received more than 400,000 of 2 million Sputnik V vaccines on order from Russia, and that it is awaiting delivery of 4.2 million AstraZeneca shots.
It has also received 250,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and part of an order of 500,000 doses of India’s COVAXIN.
With a population of 83 million, Iran had hoped to secure over 2 million vaccines by March 20 to vaccinate mainly health care workers. It is developing at least four local vaccine candidates, one in cooperation with Cuba, which are expected to reach production in a few months.


Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

Updated 10 April 2021

Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant

TEHRAN: Iran announced Saturday it has started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in a breach of its undertakings under a troubled 2015 nuclear deal, days after talks on rescuing it got underway.

President Hassan Rouhani officially inaugurated the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

The television aired no images of the cascades but broadcast a link with engineers at the plant who said they had introduced uranium hexafluoride gas to the cascades after receiving the order from Rouhani.

Iran’s latest move to step up uranium enrichment follows an opening round of talks Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal on bringing the United States back into the deal.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.

The IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges allow uranium to be enriched more quickly and in greater amounts than the Iran’s first-generation devices, which are the only ones that the 2015 deal allows it to use.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

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Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

Updated 10 April 2021

Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

DJIBOUTI: Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fifth term as president of Djibouti with more than 98 percent of the vote, according to provisional results announced by Interior Minister Moumin Ahmed Cheick Friday night.
“President Ismail Omar Guelleh obtained 167,535 votes, which is 98.58 percent,” he told public broadcaster RTD, adding that confirmed results would be released soon by the Constitutional Council.


US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

Updated 10 April 2021

US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

WASHINGTON: The United States offered “very serious” ideas to Iran on how to revive a nuclear deal during talks in Vienna but is waiting for Iran to show the same “seriousness,” a US official said Friday.
“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” the official told reporters as talks broke for the weekend.
But the official said the United States was waiting for its efforts to be “reciprocated” by Iran.
“We saw some signs of it but certainly not enough. There’s still question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to... take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.
President Joe Biden supports a return to the 2015 agreement trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump under which Iran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.
Iran has demanded that the United States first lift all sanctions imposed by Trump, which include a sweeping unilateral ban on its oil exports, before it falls back in line with obligations it suspended.
The US official indicated that the major stumbling block in the initial talks was not the order of compliance but rather which sanctions were under discussion as Iran is demanding an end to all US restrictions.
Iran’s position is “not consistent with the deal itself because under the deal the US retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections,” the official said.
“All sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA we are prepared to lift. That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate sanctions,” he said, using the acronym for the accord’s official name.
Iran refused to meet directly with US negotiator Rob Malley during the talks led by the European Union, whose envoys shuttled between the two sides in different hotels. Talks are set to resume in the same format next week.