Israel destroys media building in Gaza as conflict rages on, death toll rises

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Smoke billows as a bomb is dropped on the Jala Tower during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza city controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, on May 15, 2021. (AFP)
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Smoke billows above buildings after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City in the Gaza Strip early on May 15, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 15 May 2021

Israel destroys media building in Gaza as conflict rages on, death toll rises

  • The strike came nearly an hour after the military ordered people to evacuate the building
  • In east Jerusalem, video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols at Palestinians

GAZA: An Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza City that housed offices of The Associated Press and other media outlets on Saturday, the latest step by the military to silence reporting from the territory amid its battle with the militant group Hamas.
The strike came nearly an hour after the military ordered people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera, other offices and residential apartments. The strike brought the entire 12-story building down, collapsing with a gigantic cloud of dust. There was no immediate explanation for why it was attacked.
The strike came hours after another Israeli air raid on a densely populated refugee camp in Gaza City killed at least 10 Palestinians from an extended family, mostly children, in the deadliest single strike of the current conflict. Both sides pressed for an advantage as cease-fire efforts gathered strength.
The latest outburst of violence began in Jerusalem and has spread across the region, with Jewish-Arab clashes and rioting in mixed cities of Israel. There were also widespread Palestinian protests Friday in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces shot and killed 11 people.


The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising at a time when there have been no peace talks in years. Palestinians on Saturday were marking Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, when they commemorate the estimated 700,000 people who were expelled from or fled their homes in what was now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation. That raised the possibility of even more unrest.
US diplomat Hady Amr arrived Friday as part of Washington’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict, and the U.N. Security Council was set to meet Sunday. But Israel turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year truce that Hamas rulers had accepted, an Egyptian official said Friday on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.
Since Monday night, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded the Gaza Strip with strikes. In Gaza, at least 139 people have been killed, including 39 children and 22 women; in Israel, eight people have been killed, including the death Saturday of a man killed by a rocket that hit in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
The strike on the building housing media offices came in the afternoon, after the building's owner received a call from the Israeli military warning that it would be hit. AP's staff and others in the building evacuated immediately.
Al-Jazeera, the news network funded by Qatar’s government, broadcast the airstrikes live as the building collapsed.
“This channel will not be silence. Al-Jazeera will not be silenced,” an on-air anchorwoman said, her voice thick with emotion. “We can guarantee you that right now.”
Earlier Saturday, an airstrike hit a three-story house in Gaza City’s Shati refugee camp, killing eight children and two women from an extended family.
Mohammed Hadidi told reporters his wife and five children had gone to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday with relatives. She and three of the children, aged 6 to 14, were killed, while an 11-year-old is missing. Only his 5-month-old son Omar is known to have survived.


Children’s toys and a Monopoly board game could be seen among the rubble, as well as plates of uneaten food from the holiday gathering.
“There was no warning,” said Jamal Al-Naji, a neighbor living in the same building. “You filmed people eating and then you bombed them?” he said, addressing Israel. “Why are you confronting us? Go and confront the strong people!”
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hamas said it fired a salvo of rockets at southern Israel in response to the airstrike.
A furious Israeli barrage early Friday killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing to UN-run shelters. The military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tons of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a vast tunnel network used by Hamas.


Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the military aims to minimize collateral damage in striking military targets. But measures it takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not “feasible this time.”
Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the military said the real number is far higher.
Gaza’s infrastructure, already in widespread disrepair because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas seized power in 2007, showed signs of breaking down further, compounding residents’ misery. The territory’s sole power plant is at risk of running out of fuel in the coming days.
The UN said Gazans are already enduring daily power cuts of 8-12 hours and at least 230,000 have limited access to tap water. The impoverished and densely populated territory is home to 2 million Palestinians, most of them the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel.
The conflict has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen nightly violence, with mobs from each community fighting in the streets and trashing each other’s property.
Late on Friday, someone threw a firebomb at an Arab family’s home in the Ajami neighborhood of Tel Aviv, striking two children. A 12-year-old boy was in moderate condition with burns on his upper body and a 10-year-old girl was treated for a head injury, according to the Magen David Adom rescue service.
In the occupied West Bank, on the outskirts of Ramallah, Nablus and other towns and cities, hundreds of Palestinians protested the Gaza campaign and Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Waving Palestinian flags, they trucked in tires that they set up in burning barricades and hurled stones at Israeli soldiers. At least 10 protesters were shot and killed by soldiers. An 11th Palestinian was killed when he tried to stab a soldier at a military position.


In east Jerusalem, online video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols as they traded volleys of stones with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, which became a flashpoint for tensions over attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes.
On Israel’s northern border, troops opened fire when a group of Lebanese and Palestinian protesters on the other side cut through the border fence and briefly crossed. One Lebanese was killed. Three rockets were fired toward Israel from neighboring Syria without causing any casualties or damage. It was not immediately known who fired them.
The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.
Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks as Israel has massed troops at the frontier. U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed support for Israel while saying he hopes to bring the violence under control.
Hamas has fired some 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defenses, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

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Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

Updated 18 June 2021

Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Israeli jets launched air strikes on Gaza overnight Thursday to Friday after militants in the Palestinian territory again set off incendiary balloons into southern Israel, the army and AFP journalists said.
The fire balloons and air strikes are the latest violence heaping pressure on a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers that came into place on May 21, ending 11 days of heavy fighting.
“Over the past day, arson balloons were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” Israel’s military said in a statement.
“In response... fighter jets struck military compounds and a rocket launch site belonging to the Hamas terror organization.”
AFP journalists in the Palestinian enclave also reported hearing explosions, which the army said hit sites in both Gaza City and in Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza, home to some two million people.
Soon after the strikes, Hamas militants opened fire with heavy machines guns toward the Jewish state, as Israeli warning air raid sirens rang out.
US Secretary of State Blinken spoke on Thursday with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and discussed “the need to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways,” the State Department said in a statement.
“They also shared opinions on opportunities to deepen normalization efforts as well as on regional security issues, including Iran,” the State Department said.
Palestinian militants in Gaza launched balloons for a third day running on Thursday, according to Israeli firefighters battling the blazes sparked by the devices.
The balloons are basic devices intended to set fire to farmland and bush surrounding Gaza.


Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

Updated 18 June 2021

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

  • Khamenei’s ally Raisi likely to succeed succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani

JEDDAH: Iranians vote on Friday in a race that is seen by the regime’s critics as not democratic, fair, or free by any means.

The election, tightly managed by the nation’s top authorities, is likely to hand the presidency to a judge sanctioned by Washington for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners.

Hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, an ally and protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the favorite to succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani.

“The regime will attempt to project that it enjoys legitimacy during this election. Government employees will be instructed to go to the ballots in order to show the popularity of the regime, while the authorities may manipulate the statistics in order to show a high voter turnout,” Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, writes in Opinion.

Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to turn out and vote, but a record number of people are expected to boycott the polls due to anger over worsening economic hardship and frustration with hard-line rule.

Another potential deterrent for voters is a hard-line vetting body’s disqualification of hundreds of would-be candidates, including many advocating more freedoms.

For an overwhelmingly young population chafing at political restrictions, the lack of choice at the ballot box means a vote serves little purpose, analysts of Iranian politics say.

Soraya, a student at Tehran University, told Arab News: “The government is telling people to vote. But I see voting as an insult. We are not going to vote in order to show the world that we Iranians are frustrated with this clerical establishment.

“We are not with a government that shoots down a passenger plane (Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was downed by the IRGC in January 2020), lies repeatedly, and kills and tortures its own citizens.

“We are not with a government that steals the nation’s natural resources and spends it on its militias. The old game of moderate or hard-liner is over. They are all the same.”

Within Iran’s mix of clerical rulers and elected officials, Khamenei has the final say on all state matters, including nuclear and foreign policies. But the elected president will be in charge of tackling an economy hammered by US sanctions.

Over 50 percent of Iran’s 85 million population has been pushed under the poverty line since 2018 when then US President Donald Trump ditched a 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions that have squeezed Tehran’s oil income.

Aware of its vulnerability to anger over the economy, the leadership fears a revival of street protests that have erupted since 2017, in which protesters called for “regime change.”


Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

Updated 18 June 2021

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

  • Threat to military ‘leaves entire country at risk,’ defense ministers warn summit

BEIRUT: Lebanese army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun on Thursday expressed confidence that the military will overcome what he described as a “crucial and delicate period” facing Lebanon.

The military chief warned of an increasingly untenable situation, but said that the institution remains strong.

“We believe that we will overcome this crucial and delicate period thanks to the strong will of our soldiers, and to the support of the Lebanese people and the friendly countries,” Gen. Aoun said.

His remarks came as 20 members of the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG), in addition to European and Arab countries, the UN, EU and other international organizations attended a virtual conference on Thursday to support the army.

Discontent is brewing among Lebanon’s security forces over a currency crash that has wiped out most of the value of their salaries. Lebanon’s pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar since late 2019.

The conference, organized by France in collaboration with Italy and the UN, aimed to mobilize support through in-kind aid for the Lebanese Army such as food, medicine and spare parts for its military equipment, in light of the collapse of the pound and the effect of the country’s struggling economy on the military.

Lebanon is facing a political deadlock and the biggest economic crisis in its history, and there are expectations that the army will step in to protect public safety in the event of a full collapse — much feared by the international community.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said: “We are concerned that the Lebanese army remains capable of fulfilling its duties in maintaining security and stability.”

Her Italian counterpart, Lorenzo Guerrini, highlighted the importance of “quickly responding to the needs of the army by providing it with basic support requirements.”

Joana Wronecka, UN special coordinator for Lebanon, said that the army must be kept “cohesive and operative.”

Zeina Akar, Lebanon’s caretaker defense minister, said: “Taking into consideration the unstable environment — full of upheaval and uncertainty — that surrounds Lebanon, the army is a guarantee for stability and for the security of the Lebanese people.”

The minister said the army is facing the same problems as the Lebanese people.

“Its purchase power is eroding and it needs strong support to keep performing its duties. The army’s personnel need support in order to provide livelihood for their families.”

Gen. Aoun reviewed the army’s requirements at Thursday’s talks, saying that there is “an incremental need today to support it so that it remains tenacious and capable of doing its duties.”

He said that the depreciation of the Lebanese pound had stripped military salaries of 90 percent of their value.

Gen. Aoun warned that “the continuous retreat of the economic and financial situation in Lebanon will eventually lead to the collapse of institutions, including the military institution, which will render the whole country vulnerable on the security level.”

Soldiers “need support as individuals to overcome this precarious period,” he added.

“The army is the guarantee for security and stability in Lebanon and the region. Jeopardizing its role will lead to the collapse of Lebanon and to the spread of chaos.”

France, which has led international efforts, has sought to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after failed attempts to agree a new government and launch reforms.

“The participants highlighted the dire and steadily degrading economic and social conditions in Lebanon. In this context, they stressed that the Lebanese army, though overstretched, remains a crucial pillar of the Lebanese state,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

“Their cohesiveness and professionalism remain key to preserving the country’s stability.”


How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

Updated 18 June 2021

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

  • Iran-backed groups willing to kidnap, kill to protect corrupt revenue streams: Experts
  • Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

LONDON: Iran-backed militias in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) employ assassinations, kidnappings and other forms of violence in order to protect the income they derive from widespread and deep-rooted corruption in Iraq, a panel of experts said on Thursday.

At an online event hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Mohammad Al-Hakim, senior advisor on economic reform to Iraq’s prime minister, said the country’s corruption crisis extends back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but is now systemic, politically sanctioned and backed by the threat of violence by Iran-backed groups.

“There’s a deep problem with the structure of the Iraqi state. This is very much a legacy that needs to be addressed,” Al-Hakim said. “The Iraqi state system has been deteriorating over 50 years.”

Iraq ranks in the bottom 20 countries in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Government employees from the bottom to the top of Iraqi governance are engaging in systematic corruption, said Al-Hakim.

At the highest levels of the Iraqi state, civil servants have developed relationships with politicians that they use to line their own pockets and make money for their political allies.

Maya Gebeily, Middle East correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said one of the underpinnings of this system is the PMF, which operates as a “cartel,” using violence to suppress any opposition or attempt to upturn the status quo.

“It’s important to think about this corruption as a cartel. There are players in the cartel who agree with each other on how to divvy up the spoils that are coming in either from tariffs, from a specific project, or into the ministry,” she added.

“That’s why there are no ‘turf wars’ … because everyone is benefitting from this system. As soon as the bodies start showing up, that means an economic loss.”

But that has not deterred the militias from violence, Gebeily said. They just do not use it against each other.

“What they’re doing is using violence against anybody who’s trying to root out corruption. Researchers, activists and others who’ve been extremely vocal about corruption have been kidnapped, murdered or otherwise harassed,” she said.

Law-abiding officials have been physically threatened, beaten up or had their families attacked when they refused to be complicit in corruption.

“Armed groups use violence as an enforcement mechanism to make sure their economic interests are secured,” said Gebeily.

“Let’s say you want to import cigarettes. Cigarettes are extremely lucrative to import, so you need an extremely powerful group — and the one I discovered was importing them was Kata’ib Hezbollah — to be involved in that import.”

Iraq’s most powerful armed militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah has directly attacked US forces in the country.

It is also widely believed to be behind a string of assassinations and kidnappings, including that of Hisham Al-Hashimi, a journalist who described the Iran-backed group as “the strongest and most dangerous group in the so-called Islamic resistance.”

Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, said: “If we’re talking about power and where it lies in the Iraqi state, you only need look at the attempt by the prime minister to arrest Qasem Muslih, the leader of a brigade in the PMF, and why the prime minister was unable to keep someone who he accused of having a role in assassinations in jail.”

Mansour added: “Actually, these aren’t just militias. They have more connectivity to Iraq’s Parliament, to Iraq’s judiciary, than the prime minister does. They’re effectively connected to power in a more central way than the traditional and formal heads of state.”

This reveals the true and farcical nature of power in Iraq, Mansour said. “Those sitting on top of the system struggle with access to the state that they’re meant to be head of,” he added.

“Those apparently sitting outside the state actually have more connectivity to the essence, the power, the core of the state.”


Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

Updated 17 June 2021

Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

DUBAI: Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have come closer than ever to an agreement, but essential issues remain to be negotiated, the top Iranian negotiator said on Thursday.
The Islamic Republic and six world powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for both sides to take. The United States withdrew in 2018 from the pact, under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of many foreign sanctions against it.
“We achieved good, tangible progress on the different issues .... we are closer than ever to an agreement but there are still essential issues under negotiations,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as telling Al Jazeera television.
Araqchi said Iran’s presidential election on Friday would have no effect on the negotiations and the Iranian negotiating team will continue the talks regardless of domestic policy.
The sixth round of talks resumed on Saturday with the remaining parties to the deal — Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union — meeting in the basement of a luxury hotel.
The US delegation to the talks is based in a hotel across the street as Iran refuses face-to-face meetings.
Since former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.
“We want to make sure that what happened when Trump pulled out of the deal will not be repeated by any other American president in the future,” Araqchi told the pan-Arab satellite TV network.
Russia’s envoy to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, added a note of caution, saying progress had been made in the last few days but talks were tough.
“Some difficult and time-consuming topics still remain unresolved,” he said.
France’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday there were still significant disagreements.
Iran’s new president is expected to name his Cabinet by mid-August. Current President Hassan Rouhani’s term ends on Aug. 3, a government spokesman said.