New Israeli government approves nationalist march in Jerusalem

Outgoing Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin (C) is flanked by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during a photo with the new coalition government. (AFP)
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Updated 14 June 2021

New Israeli government approves nationalist march in Jerusalem

  • Jerusalem march by Jewish nationalists poses immediate challenge to the new coalition
  • March comes just weeks after devastating Israeli bombardment of Gaza

JERUSALEM: Israel’s new government on Monday approved a Jewish nationalist march in Jerusalem, a step that risks inflaming tensions with Palestinians hours after veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu handed over power to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
In the flag-waving procession, planned for Tuesday, far-right groups will march in and around East Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where tensions have remained high since 11 days of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants in May.
Palestinian factions have called for a “day of rage” against the Jerusalem march, with memories of clashes with Israeli police still fresh from last month in the contested city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and in a neighborhood where Palestinians face eviction in a court dispute with Jewish settlers.
“This is a provocation of our people and an aggression against our Jerusalem and our holy sites,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said of the march.
After meeting with Israel’s police chief and other security officials, newly sworn-in Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev approved the march and said police were well-prepared, according to a statement carried by Israeli media.
“(Great) efforts are being undertaken to preserve the delicate fabric of life and public security,” Barlev was quoted as saying.
It was not clear whether participants would be allowed to enter the Old City’s Muslim quarter, on a route that Israeli police had previously barred. A police spokesman did not immediately provide comment.
An original march on May 10 was re-routed at the last minute as tensions in Jerusalem led Hamas to fire rockets toward the holy city and Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza. Right-wing Israeli groups accused their government of caving into Hamas and rescheduled the march after a truce took hold.
Hamas has warned of renewed hostilities if it goes ahead, and Israeli media reported the military had made preparations for a possible escalation.
The US Embassy in Jerusalem prohibited its personnel and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday “due to calls for a Jerusalem Flag March and possible counter-demonstrations.”
The march poses an immediate challenge for Bennett’s government, which was approved on Sunday by a 60-59 vote in parliament.
A route change or cancelation of the procession could expose the Israeli government to accusations from Netanyahu, now in the opposition, and his right-wing allies of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.
Suggesting that a route adjustment could be in store, Yoav Segalovitz, a deputy internal security minister, said past governments had stopped nationalists visiting Muslim sites in times of tension.
“The main thing is to consider what’s the right thing to do at this time,” he told Israel’s Kan radio.
Formation of Bennett’s alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties, with little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, capped coalition-building efforts after a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth poll in two years.
Minutes after meeting Bennett, 49, on his first full day in office, Netanyahu repeated a pledge to topple his government.
“It will happen sooner than you think,” Netanyahu, 71, who spent a record 12 straight years in office, said in public remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party.
With any discord among its members a potential threat to its stability, Israel’s new government hopes to focus on domestic reforms and the economy and avoid hot-button issues such as policy toward the Palestinians.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition after capturing the area in a 1967 war, regards the entire city as its capital.
A key test for the new government and its stability will be how quickly it moves to pass a budget, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“If within 3-4 months this government will pass the 2021-22 budget then we can expect this government to serve for at least two or three years. Otherwise, the instability will continue,” he said.
Palestinians held out scant hope of a breakthrough in a peace process leading to a state of their own. Talks with Israel collapsed in 2014.
“We don’t see the new government as less bad than the previous ones,” Shtayyeh told the Palestinian cabinet.
Under the coalition deal, Bennett, an Orthodox Jew and tech multi-millionaire who advocates annexing parts of the West Bank, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a former television host.
Lapid, widely regarded as the architect of the coalition that brought down Netanyahu, is now foreign minister.


UN chief: Threat to global peace from Daesh rising

Updated 3 min 45 sec ago

UN chief: Threat to global peace from Daesh rising

UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says in a new report that the threat to international peace and security from extremist group Daesh is rising, pointing to an “alarming” expansion of its affiliates in Africa and its focus on a comeback in its former self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
The report to the UN Security Council, which was circulated Tuesday, said Daesh and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of “the disruption, grievances and development setbacks” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both on the ground and online.
While lockdowns in non-conflict areas suppressed terrorist activity, in conflict areas where pandemic restrictions have less impact the threat from Daesh “has already increased,” Guterres said.
“As pandemic-related restrictions gradually ease, there is an elevated near-term threat of Daesh-inspired attacks outside conflict zones by lone actors or small groups that have been radicalized, incited and possibly directly remotely online,” he said.
The UN chief said this exemplifies a wider and evolving risk from the accelerated use of digital technologies during the pandemic, and the potential for “new and emerging technologies to be used for terrorist purposes.”
In assessing Daesh’s threat, Guterres said its leader, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman Al-Mawla, “remains reluctant to communicate directly with supporters,” and “the group’s command and control over its global affiliates has loosened, even though it continues to provide guidance and some financial support.”
He said the autonomy of regional affiliates has strengthened especially in West Africa and the Sahel, East and Central Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. This evolution will be an important factor in Daesh’s future global impact, he quoted unidentified UN member states as saying.
Member states also assess that the extremist group “will continue to prioritize regrouping and seeking resurgence” in Iraq and Syria as its core area of operations, he said.
The 16-page report, prepared by Security Council counter-terrorism committee and by experts monitoring sanctions on Daesh, said the group remains active in wide swaths of Syria, where it is seeking to rebuild its combat capabilities and expand its insurgency.
Guterres said Daesh wages hit-and-run operations against checkpoints from hideouts on both sides of the Euphrates River in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and continues operations against government forces and in the Syrian desert.
In Iraq, Daesh remains under constant counter-terrorism pressure but continues to carry out hit-and-run operations “seeking to undermine critical infrastructure projects, inflame sectarian divisions and communal grievances and generate media coverage,” he said.
As for the extremist group’s finances, the UN chief said estimates of financial reserves available to Daesh in Iraq and Syria range between $25 million and $50 million, with one unidentified UN member state saying most funds are in Iraq.
The secretary-general said the most striking development in the first half of 2021 has been the expansion of Daesh in Africa, where terrorist groups have inflicted the largest number of casualties.
He said some of the most effective Daesh affiliates are spreading their influence and activities from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger, from Nigeria into Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and from Mozambique into Tanzania.
“It highlights that the interplay between terrorism, fragility and conflict has grown stronger, and underscores the need for an urgent, global response to support African countries and regional organizations,” Guterres said.
In Afghanistan, he said, the Daesh affiliate has expanded its presence in several provinces and in and around the capital Kabul, “despite leadership, human and financial losses during 2020.” In Kabul, most of its attacks have targeted minorities, civil society actors, government employees and security forces, he said.
In Daesh’s efforts to regroup and rebuild in Afghanistan, Guterres said the group has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters and hopes to attract Taliban members and other militants who reject the US-Taliban agreement as well as fighters from Iraq.
Estimates of Daesh strength in Afghanistan range widely, from 500 to 1,500 fighters, with one unidentified UN member state saying its strength may rise to 10,000 in the medium term, he said.
Guterres said UN member states have already warned “that Daesh could regain the ability to orchestrate international attacks if either its core or one of its regional affiliates became strong enough.”
“This scenario has only become more plausible,” the UN chief warned.


British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

Updated 27 min 49 sec ago

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

  • “Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” a crew member said in a radio recording
  • Apparently responding to the incident, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role

FUJAIRAH, UAE: The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Arabian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the years-long shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

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Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

Updated 04 August 2021

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

  • Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran
  • Taghavi suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes

BERLIN: A German-Iranian woman held in Iran has been given a decade-long jail term by an Iran court for participating in an outlawed group, her daughter said Wednesday.

Nahid Taghavi, 66, was given “ten years for membership in an illegal group” and “eight months for propaganda against the regime,” said her daughter Mariam Claren.

Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran, in particular for women’s rights and freedom of expression, according to the rights group IGFM.

According to Claren, Taghavi has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she contracted Covid-19 last month.

Claren has repeatedly flagged up warnings about her mother’s health, saying that she suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Germany’s foreign ministry said in October that it was aware of the arrest of a German-Iranian woman in Iran, but did not name the detained citizen.

Frank Schwabe, who is the spokesman on human rights issues for the Social Democrats, condemned the verdict.

“The charges are baseless and the verdict a farce,” he wrote on Twitter.


International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

Updated 04 August 2021

International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

  • The Aug. 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut port killed at least 214 people
  • About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference

SAULIEU, France: The French presidency said an international conference on Lebanon has gathered over $357 million in aid required to meet the country’s humanitarian needs, one year after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port.
Wednesday’s virtual conference, co-hosted by France and the United Nations, was meant to show support for the Lebanese people, French President Emmanuel Macron said.
France will provide 100 million euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months, Macron said. Paris will also send 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the country.
President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference in a video message, pledged to give $100 million in new humanitarian assistance.
About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference, according to Macron’s office. Participants included Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and European Council President Charles Michel.
Lebanon’s current humanitarian needs have been estimated by the UN to be at least $357 million. Aid will focus on food, schools, the health sector and clean water supply, Macron’s office said.
Wednesday’s event was also meant to mount pressure on Lebanese leaders to form a new government able to implement reforms and start rebuilding the country.
Lebanon is going through the worst economic and financial crisis of its modern history, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.
Biden said that “no amount of outside assistance will ever be enough, if Lebanon’s own leaders do not commit to do the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and combating corruption. That’s essential, and has to start now.”
Lebanese politicians have only made the situation ”worse by placing their individual and political interests above the Lebanese people’s interests,” Macron criticized. “Lebanon definitely deserves better.”
Macron said that humanitarian aid promised Wednesday will be unconditional.
However, he warned that “there will be no blank check to the Lebanese political system because it is defaulting. ... Lebanese leaders seem to opt for the deterioration (of the situation). I regret it. I think it’s a historical and moral error.”
Michel, the European Council President, stressed that the EU adopted a few days ago a “sanctions framework ... to target those in Lebanon who obstruct efforts to end the political crisis. We obviously hope that we will not be obliged to activate it.”
Macron, who went to Beirut twice since the explosion at the port, has led international efforts to try to help the former French protectorate by providing emergency aid. Last year’s conference on Lebanon, organized in the wake of the explosion, raised about 280 million euros ($332 million).
According to the UN, over half of Lebanese people now live in poverty, one in three Lebanese suffer from food insecurity and nearly 4 million people are at risk of not accessing safe water.


Israel shells Lebanese border areas after rockets fired

Updated 18 min 53 sec ago

Israel shells Lebanese border areas after rockets fired

  • The US State Department will remain engaged with Israeli and Lebanese partners to de-escalate the situation
  • The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon

BEIRUT: Tensions rose on the Lebanese-Israeli border on Wednesday after unknown individuals fired three rockets from Lebanese territory.
Two fell on the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona while the third rocket landed inside Lebanon. No party has yet claimed responsibility.
Israel retaliated by bombing Lebanese border areas, causing fires. Avichay Adraee, spokesman for the Israeli military, said: “The Lebanese government is fully responsible for any rocket fire originating from its territory.”
Rocket warning sirens sounded in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, the military said.
There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon.
Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett left a Knesset (Parliament) session to hold security consultations following the rocket fire from Lebanon.
The United States condemns rocket attacks by armed groups based in Lebanon on Israel, the US State Department said on Wednesday.
It will remain engaged with Israeli and Lebanese partners to de-escalate the situation.
“We absolutely condemn the rocket attacks from armed groups, based in Lebanon, that were fired into Israel,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Candice Ardell, deputy director of the media office of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), said: “The Commander of UNIFIL Stephano Del Col is in direct contact with all parties. He urged them to cease fire and exercise maximum restraint to avoid further escalation, especially on this sad anniversary (of the Beirut port explosion).”
The border has been mostly quiet since Israel fought a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who have sway in southern Lebanon and advanced rockets.
But small Palestinian factions in Lebanon have fired sporadically on Israel in the past, and two rockets were launched at Israel on July 20, causing no damage or injuries. Israel responded to that incident with artillery fire.

— With input from AFP and Reuters.