Blinken turns to ‘effective partner’ Egypt to calm Middle East

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace on May 26, 2021. (AFP)
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he leaves Israel on May 26, 2021 at Ben Gurion Airport following his visit to Israel and Palestinian territories. (AFP)
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Updated 26 May 2021
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Blinken turns to ‘effective partner’ Egypt to calm Middle East

  • Blinken landed in Cairo a day after holding intensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders
  • Later he traveled to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II

CAIRO: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken jetted to Egypt on Wednesday as he pressed ahead with a diplomatic mission aimed at shoring up a cease-fire that ended an 11-day war between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas militant group.
Blinken landed in Cairo a day after holding intensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In Egypt, he met with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and other top officials. Later he traveled to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II.
Blinken has vowed to “rally international support” to rebuild the destruction in hard-hit Gaza while promising to make sure that none of the aid reaches Hamas. He is instead trying to bolster Hamas’ rival, the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
Blinken has set modest goals for the trip, his first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. His main goals have been to help rebuild Gaza and lower the tensions in contested Jerusalem that helped fuel the war.

But he has made it made clear the US has no immediate plans to pursue peace talks between the sides and done little to address the underlying causes of the decades-long conflict, though he expressed hope for creating a “better environment” that might lead to negotiations.
In Cairo, Blinken on Wednesday met with El-Sisi for nearly two hours. Meeting with American diplomatic staff afterwards, he described Egypt as a “real and effective partner” that helped end the Gaza war and is helping “build something positive.” El-Sisi spoke to President Joe Biden last week before and after the cease-fire was announced.
“I think we both believe strongly that Palestinians and Israelis deserve equally to, to live in safety and security to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity. And we’re working on that together,” Blinken said before departing to Jordan.

El-Sisi told Blinken that the latest developments between Israelis and Palestinians reaffirmed the need for direct talks between the two sides with Washington’s involvement.
Washington and Cairo agreed to strengthen their coordination in consolidating the cease-fire and launching the reconstruction process in the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian presidency said in its statement.
Both Egypt and Jordan are key US allies that have peace agreements with Israel and frequently serve as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt maintains ties with Hamas, but also enforces a tight blockade on Gaza, along with Israel, with a shared goal of preventing the Islamic group from arming.
The stop in Cairo, along with Biden’s phone talks with El-Sisi, signal a closer relationship between the countries after a cooler beginning, when the US expressed concern over El-Sisi’s human rights record.
The Gaza reconstruction effort will be an important test. The 11-day war killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Blinken also said he discussed Egypt’s water needs and the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam during his meeting with El-Sisi.
Ethiopia says the hydropower dam is crucial to its economic development, and that it is asserting its rights over Nile waters long controlled by downstream countries under colonial-era agreements.
Widely arid Egypt relies on the Nile for as much as 90 percent of its fresh water. 

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a video call with El-Sisi that the Gaza cease-fire must be stabilized, a German government spokesman said on Wednesday.
They also agreed on the goal of supporting a resumption in political negotiations, he said. 
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, said US commitment is critical for the region. Before the Gaza war, the Biden administration had kept its distance, preferring to focus on higher foreign policy priorities like China and Iran.
“In the absence of an effective role for the US, we should expect nothing but more cycles of violence and bloodshed of innocent people,” he wrote in the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
One of the US goals is to ensure that any assistance be kept out of the hands of Hamas, which opposes Israel’s right to exist and which Israel and the US consider a terrorist group.
In Gaza, Hamas leader Yehiyeh Sinwar told journalists Wednesday that the group welcomed international reconstruction aid, as long as it did not come from Israel, and had no objections to international oversight.
“I emphasize our commitment in Hamas that we will not take a single penny earmarked for rebuilding or humanitarian issues,” he said.
Sinwar, who has close ties with the group’s armed wing, said Hamas receives ample military assistance from outside sources — led by Israel’s archenemy, Iran. “When I said we do not take money destined for aid, this is because we have comfortable sources of funds covering our activities,” he said.
He also lashed out at Blinken for trying to strengthen the Palestinian Authority at Hamas’ expense. “They are trying to add more fuel to the fire of Palestinian division,” Sinwar said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was in Israel on Wednesday to build on the momentum of Blinken’s visit.
Echoing Blinken’s message, Raab said the UK supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire and would seek to prevent aid money from reaching Hamas. But he also expressed hope that cease-fire efforts would lead to a broader regional peace effort.
“We want to support Israel but we also want the Palestinians to find a track toward an enduring peace,” he said.
Blinken said Tuesday the US is trying to bolster the rival government of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority now administers autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abbas has been largely sidelined by recent events, is deeply unpopular at home and has little influence in Gaza.
Abbas hopes to establish an independent state in all of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
In a gesture to the Palestinians, Blinken on Tuesday announced plans to reopen a diplomatic office in Jerusalem that oversees outreach to the Palestinians. He also pledged nearly $40 million in additional aid to the Palestinians.
In all, the Biden administration has pledged some $360 million to the Palestinians, restoring badly needed aid that the Trump administration had cut off.
The truce that ended the Gaza war on Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those challenges include a hawkish Israeli leadership that seems unwilling to make major concessions, Palestinian divisions, years of mistrust and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.
The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims that has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years. The protests were directed at Israel’s policing of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.
On Wednesday, an Israeli court heard arguments from a Palestinian family trying to block their eviction in Silwan, another east Jerusalem neighborhood targeted by settler groups.
“The settlers want to take my house, to steal my house with their fake papers,” said Kaet Abdel Fath El Rajabi, who said his family has lived in the building for 60 years. Several dozen protesters stood outside the courthouse in support of the family.
In his remarks after his meeting with Blinken on Tuesday, Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians, warning of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the cease-fire while expressing support for economic development in the West Bank.
Blinken repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself. But he also called on leaders of all sides to chart a “better course” in hopes of laying the groundwork for peace talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

(With AP and Reuters)


Jerusalem official takes on French consulate after Israel arms show ban

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Jerusalem official takes on French consulate after Israel arms show ban

JERUSALEM: Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, an ultranationalist Israeli politician, has asked for rubbish not to be collected from the French consulate after Paris barred Israeli firms from an arms show.
Organizers of the Eurosatory trade show just outside Paris said last month French authorities had banned Israeli firms, with the French defense ministry attributing the decision the Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip’s Rafah city.
Deputy Mayor Arieh King posted on social media platform X a letter he had addressed to the municipal sanitation department, asking “to instruct Jerusalem municipal maintenance workers to cease immediately garbage removal service from the French consulate building.”
A City Hall statement said King’s request would not be implemented.
In his letter, he denounced “traitorous and anti-Israeli conduct” by French President Emmanuel Macron, who King said aimed “to harm the State of Israel and Israeli industry,” in an apparent reference to the French expo move.
“As the City Hall of Israel’s capital, we must not stand idly by and accept the French president’s decision to stand alongside the Hamas terrorist organization,” King wrote.
France has an embassy in the coastal city of Tel Aviv and a consulate in Jerusalem which also serves Palestinians in the city’s Israeli-annexed east as well as the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the future capital of an independent state, while Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem as its indivisible capital.
The Jerusalem City Hall told AFP in a statement that garbage collection would continue at the French consulate.
“The Jerusalem municipality removes trash from all parts of the city on a professional basis and provides the best service to all its residents,” it said.
A municipal official, requesting anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the press, told AFP King has no authority to decide on such a move.
French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu has told French media it was inappropriate to host Israeli weapons manufacturers and defense firms at the expo given Macron’s calls for an end to the fighting in Rafah, which went unheeded.
Israel, which has vowed to crush Hamas militants in Gaza following the group’s October 7 attack, sent ground troops into the far-southern city in early May despite widespread concern for Palestinian civilians sheltering there.
Seventy-four Israeli firms were set to take part in the Eurosatory event which opened on Monday. Organizers said about 10 of them were planning to exhibit weapons.
“By decision of the government authorities, there will be no stand for the Israeli defense industry at the Eurosatory 2024 fair,” Coges Events had said in a statement confirming the ban.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant last week condemned “hostile policies against Israel” by France, in remarks rejected by other senior officials.

Germany cancels arrest warrant for Lebanon’s ex-central bank chief

Updated 30 min 32 sec ago
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Germany cancels arrest warrant for Lebanon’s ex-central bank chief

  • The cancelation had come after an appeal from the defendant, and because he no longer held the position of central bank chief
  • The regional court of Munich had “confirmed the urgent suspicion with regard to the offenses charged against the defendant“

MUNICH/BEIRUT: German authorities have canceled their arrest warrant for Lebanon’s former central bank chief for technical reasons, but are continuing their probe and keeping his assets frozen, the Munich prosecutor’s office told Reuters on Wednesday.
Riad Salameh, 73, was Lebanon’s central bank governor for 30 years until July 2023. In his final months as governor, Germany issued an arrest warrant for him on corruption charges, two sources in Lebanon told Reuters.
Responding to questions from Reuters, a spokeswoman for the Munich prosecutor’s office confirmed on Wednesday that the arrest warrant was canceled on June 10.
The spokeswoman said the cancelation had come after an appeal from the defendant, and because he no longer held the position of central bank chief — meaning there was “no longer any risk that he will suppress evidence in this function.”
She said the regional court of Munich had “confirmed the urgent suspicion with regard to the offenses charged against the defendant” and that Germany’s “investigations are ongoing.”
Salameh declined a Reuters request for comment on the development.
Salameh and his brother Raja are being investigated in Lebanon and at least five European countries for allegedly taking hundreds of millions of dollars from Lebanon’s central bank and laundering the funds abroad. They deny the accusations.
Germany confirmed in February that it was conducting money laundering investigations into Salameh and his brother, and had issued an arrest warrant.
The Munich public prosecutor’s office said in February it had also seized three commercial properties in Munich and Hamburg with a total value of around 28 million euros, and shares worth around seven million euros in a Duesseldorf-based property company, as part of the case.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the public prosecutor’s office said it had “dismissed as unfounded” an appeal against the seizure order, which it said dated back to Jan. 26, 2023.
Lebanese judge Helene Iskandar, who has charged Salameh in a separate case in Lebanon and has been following up on the foreign probes into him, confirmed on Wednesday that the warrant had been canceled but that Germany’s investigation into Salameh would remain open.
Salameh still faces an arrest warrant in France as part of its own investigation into whether he embezzled public funds, as well as a resultant Interpol red notice.


Hezbollah fires more projectiles at Israel as tensions spike

An Israeli soldier checks a house that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the Lebanon border
Updated 19 June 2024
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Hezbollah fires more projectiles at Israel as tensions spike

  • "Approximately 15 projectiles were identified from Lebanon toward the area of Kiryat Shmona," the military said
  • "IDF artillery struck the sources of fire"

JERUSALEM: Lebanon’s Hezbollah fired a fresh barrage of projectiles into northern Israel on Wednesday, the Israeli army said, a day after Israel warned of a “total war” with the Iran-backed militant group.
Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, and Israel have been trading near-daily fire since the Gaza war was triggered by the Palestinian militant group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.
“Approximately 15 projectiles were identified from Lebanon toward the area of Kiryat Shmona, several of which were intercepted by IDF (army) aerial defense array,” the military said in a statement.
“IDF artillery struck the sources of fire,” it said, adding the incoming fire did not cause any casualties.
The military said its warplanes also struck a Hezbollah military structure in the area of Tyre and infrastructure in Khiam in Lebanon.
Hezbollah said on Wednesday it fired “dozens of Katyusha rockets and artillery rounds” at a barracks in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel in retaliation for the “Israeli enemy attacks” on Yarun and Khiam.
Lebanon’s official National News agency reported Israeli strikes on several areas in south Lebanon on Wednesday, including on the villages of Yarun and Khiam.
The Shiite Muslim movement, which also claimed a drone attack on troops in Metula in northern Israel, said four of its fighters had been killed.
The clashes came a day after the Israeli military said it had approved operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon.
“As part of the situational assessment, operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon were approved and validated,” the military said in a statement.
The approval came as Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz warned Hezbollah on Tuesday that it would be destroyed in the event of a “total war” between the two.
“We are very close to the moment when we will decide to change the rules of the game against Hezbollah and Lebanon,” he said in a statement issued by his office.
“In a total war, Hezbollah will be destroyed and Lebanon will be hit hard.”
The latest tit-for-tat comes as US presidential envoy Amos Hochstein visited Israel and Lebanon this week, calling for an “urgent” de-escalation on the border.
The Israel-Lebanon clashes have killed at least 478 people in Lebanon, most of them fighters but also including 93 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israeli authorities say at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed in the country’s north.


Shipping industry urges Red Sea action as Houthis sink second vessel

Updated 19 June 2024
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Shipping industry urges Red Sea action as Houthis sink second vessel

  • “It is deplorable that innocent seafarers are being attacked while simply performing their jobs, vital jobs which keep the world warm, fed, and clothed,” the world’s top shipping associations said
  • “These attacks must stop now”

LONDON: Urgent action must be taken in the Red Sea to stop attacks on merchant shipping by Yemen’s Houthis, leading industry groups said on Wednesday, after the sinking of a second ship.
Iran-aligned Houthi militants first launched drone and missile strikes on the important trade route in November in what they say is solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. In more than 70 attacks, they have also seized one vessel and its crew and killed at least three seafarers.
“It is deplorable that innocent seafarers are being attacked while simply performing their jobs, vital jobs which keep the world warm, fed, and clothed,” the world’s top shipping associations said in a joint statement.
“These attacks must stop now. We call for states with influence in the region to safeguard our innocent seafarers and for the swift de-escalation of the situation in the Red Sea.”
The Greek-owned Tutor coal carrier attacked by Yemen’s Houthi militants in the Red Sea last week has sunk, salvagers confirmed on Wednesday.
The vessel was struck with missiles and an explosive-laden remote-controlled boat, according to sources.
International naval forces have been deployed to provide mainly defensive support for ships still sailing through the Red Sea, but the attacks have increased significantly.
Insurance industry sources said on Wednesday there was also mounting concern over the use of attack drone boats by the Houthis.
“They are harder to defend against and potentially more lethal as they strike the waterline,” one industry source said.
“Missiles have — to date — mainly caused deck and superstructure damage (to ships).”
There have been 10 Houthi strikes so far in June compared with five in May, said Munro Anderson, head of operations at marine war risk and insurance specialist Vessel Protect, part of Pen Underwriting. “The first successful use of an unmanned surface vessel represents a new challenge for commercial shipping within an already complex environment,” he added.
Insurance industry sources said that additional war risk premiums, paid when vessels sail through the Red Sea, had hovered close to 0.7 percent of the value of a ship in recent days from around 1 percent earlier this year.
They added that with a second ship sinking and the losses likely to emerge from that, rates are likely to firm up, adding hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra costs to every voyage.
Ships must divert around southern Africa, which is the best way to protect seafarers, said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the leading seafarer’s union.
“We would also welcome proper escorts and the shielding of ships by naval forces, which would reduce the risks of ships being hit,” he added.


Palestinian girl with burns from Israeli shelling hopes for treatment

Updated 19 June 2024
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Palestinian girl with burns from Israeli shelling hopes for treatment

  • Hanan was out walking in Al-Bureij refugee camp where the family had taken shelter after leaving their home when she was caught in Israeli shellfire
  • Instead of spending the Eid Al-Adha festival playing with friends, she has spent it in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital being treated

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza: The disfiguring facial burns of 10-year-old Hanan Akel show how Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is not only causing thousands of deaths but terrible injuries afflicting both old and young.
Hanan lay in a hospital cot in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza Strip, struggling to move her mouth as she spoke and with her eyes partly shut, patches of her forehead still raw and stitched scars across her nose and lips.
When her mother Walaa Akel tried to clean her, she wailed.
Israel has been at war in Gaza for more than eight months saying it wants to destroy Hamas, the Palestinian group that attacked Israeli communities on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,200 people and grabbing 253 hostages according to Israeli tallies.
The ground and air assault on Gaza has killed more than 37,396 people and injured 85,523 according to Palestinian health authorities, while driving nearly all the tiny territory’s people from their homes with massive bombardments.
Hanan was out walking in Al-Bureij refugee camp where the family had taken shelter after leaving their home when she was caught in Israeli shellfire, her mother Walaa said.
Instead of spending the Eid Al-Adha festival playing with friends, she has spent it in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital being treated for second and third degree burns on her face and limbs.
“I used to go with my friends. Play, buy things, eat and celebrate Eid. We were happy. We used to play on the swings and we used to wear our Eid clothes. We used to wear nice new shoes,” she said.
Now she hopes for treatment and for her face to heal.
“I want to go back to what I was like before,” she said.
Since Israel expanded its offensive last month to include the southern city of Rafah, where the border post to Egypt is located, the frontier has been closed and Gaza residents have been unable to go abroad for medical help.
Doctor Mahmoud Mahani, the plastic surgeon treating Hanan at the hospital, said she needs urgent treatment somewhere with more advanced equipment.
Walaa Akel said her daughter used to be “as beautiful as the moon.” Now, Hanan often wants to look at videos and pictures of what her face was like before.
“She says to me ‘mama, I wish I could walk. Mama, I wish I could stand. I wish I could play with my siblings’,” said Walaa.