Bedouin lawmaker seeks change through new Israeli government

Lawmaker Saeed Alkhrumi, 49, hails from the Bedouin heartland in the Negev Desert, where tens of thousands of people live in unrecognized villages. (File/AP)
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Updated 01 July 2021

Bedouin lawmaker seeks change through new Israeli government

  • Alkhrumi’s party made history by becoming the first Arab faction to sit in an Israeli government.
  • The Arab community, including the Bedouin, makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population

JERUSALEM: In the weeks before his Arab party made history in Israel by joining the ruling coalition, Saeed Alkhrumi says his relatives and neighbors were notified that their homes would be demolished.

It was a stark illustration of the challenge ahead for the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that played a key role in forming Israel’s fragile new government and now hopes to secure gains for the Arab minority, including the impoverished Bedouin community in the south.

Alkhrumi, 49, hails from the Bedouin heartland in the Negev Desert, where tens of thousands of people live in unrecognized villages that are largely cut off from basic services and where homes and other structures have been built without legal permits, putting them at risk of demolition by Israeli authorities.

In recent years, Israel has sought to relocate the Bedouin to established towns, saying it would allow the state to provide modern services and improve their quality of life. The Bedouin view such efforts as a way of uprooting them from their ancestral lands, disrupting their traditional way of life and confining them to impoverished, crime-ridden communities.

Israeli plans to establish new communities catering to Jews on lands from which the Bedouin are being evicted have led many to fear Israel is replicating its settlement activities in the occupied territories, with the aim of displacing the Bedouin and changing the region’s demographics.

Alkhrumi has spent years negotiating with the government to recognize some of the Bedouin villages but says such efforts were repeatedly stymied during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign, when right-wing parties dominated the state and its bureaucracy.

The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, a rights group that closely tracks demolitions, says they spiked from 697 in 2013 to 2,586 last year, when the country was coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

“When Netanyahu came to power he increased the number of demolitions by a factor of 10,” Alkhrumi said. “Only a country in a state of war would demolish as many homes as are demolished in the Negev.”

He says his own relatives were given demolition orders in the weeks before the new government was approved by parliament and sworn in on June 13. He abstained for “private reasons,” he said, but his party provided the crucial margin in the 60-59 vote.

Alkhrumi says the new government is on track to eventually recognize eight villages, which would remove the threat of demolition and give them access to services.

“The extreme right realized these eight villages would be recognized, or maybe even more, that there would be progress and solutions for people, and they didn’t want it,” he said. “They issued hundreds of demolition orders in two weeks and they launched a media campaign against me.”

Now that the UAL has made history by becoming the first Arab party to join a governing coalition, Alkhrumi hopes to continue the negotiations and work with other parties to improve conditions in the south.

“I want the Arab Bedouin of the Negev to choose their way of life,” he said. “Those who want to live a traditional, agricultural life as Bedouin should have the opportunity to do so on their own land. What’s the problem?“

Regavim, a right-wing group that describes itself as committed to a “Zionist vision,” says the Bedouin can’t expect the government to provide services to “illegal squatters’ camps” established without any central planning.

“The state of Israel wants to give them all of the benefits of living in a modern Western society. The only way to do that is to collect people in some way,” said Naomi Kahn, head of the group’s international division. “You can’t both expect the state to give you all of the services that it provides and refuse to obey any of the rules of the state.”

The UAL is also hoping to use its political leverage to assist Israel’s non-Bedouin Arab minority, by securing larger budgets for housing, infrastructure and law enforcement, and by resisting or rolling back discriminatory legislation.

The Arab community, including the Bedouin, makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population. They have citizenship, including the right to vote, but face widespread discrimination. They have close familial ties to the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with their cause, leading many Israelis to view them with suspicion.

Alkhrumi has no illusions about the challenge his party faces. The coalition includes eight parties from across the political spectrum. Three right-wing parties joined out of desperation to oust Netanyahu and avoid another election after four votes in less than two years.

“It’s an experiment,” Alkhrumi said. “Can we influence the government to benefit our society and exploit the political conditions that exist, or do we keep to ourselves. The easiest thing is to stay back and say I won’t get involved.

Then we have elections, and maybe the right comes back and we get Netanyahu again.”


Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Updated 50 min 42 sec ago

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

  • Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry
  • Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge on Thursday fined and issued a six-month travel ban to a woman who stormed her bank with a fake pistol and took her trapped savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country’s economy continues to spiral. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, and stormed into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks.
Her lawyer, Ali Abbas, said that Hafiz turned herself in Wednesday night, and that the bank had pressed charges. Another sister involved in the heist was with Sali.
“The judge decided to let them go on a bail of 1 million pounds each, and a six-month travel ban,” Abbas said in a phone interview from the Justice Palace.
One million Lebanese pounds was once worth over $666, but has since devalued to $25.
Following the incident last month, the Depositors’ Outcry had vowed to support more bank raids, and about a dozen of similar incidents have since occurred.
On Wednesday, Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir staged a sit-in at her bank branch with a lawyer, demanding to withdraw $8,500 to cover expenses for a surgery.
These developments have rocked the Lebanese banks, who say they have been unjustly targeted for tiny Mediterranean country’s fiscal crisis. The Association of Banks in Lebanon temporarily closed for a week, before partially reopening last week, citing security concerns.
Lebanon for over two years has been struggling to implement a series of reforms to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and make its battered economy viable again.


Iran airs video with 2 French citizens arrested for spying

Updated 06 October 2022

Iran airs video with 2 French citizens arrested for spying

  • The clips resembled other videos of Tehran has forced prisoners to make
  • Clips are part of what is described as a forthcoming documentary

DUBAI: Iran on Thursday published video showing two French citizens arrested for spying amid ongoing protests roiling the country that Tehran has sought to describe as a foreign plot instead of local anger over the death of a 22-year-old detained by the country’s morality police.
The video released by the state-run IRNA news agency showed two French citizens, Cecile Kohler and Chuck Paris, who are unionists associated with France’s National Federation of Education, Culture and Vocational Training.
The clips resembled other videos of Tehran has forced prisoners to make. In 2020, one report suggested authorities over the last decade had aired at least 355 coerced confessions.
In the clips, Kohler wears a headscarf and purportedly describes herself as an “intelligence and operation agent of French foreign security service.” Paris purportedly says: “Our goals in French foreign security service is put pressure on Iran’s government.”
The clips are part of what is described as a forthcoming documentary to air on Iranian state television.
France did not immediately respond to the release of the video clips. However in May, the French government demanded their release and condemned “these baseless arrests.”
Their visit to Iran coincides with months of protests by teachers for higher wages in the country.
Meanwhile, Iran has been roiled by weeks of protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being detained by the country’s morality police.


US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

Updated 06 October 2022

US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

  • It is first such operation in regime-controlled areas, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said

BEIRUT: A US airborne operation involving multiple helicopters left one person dead in a government-controlled area of Syria’s northeast, Syrian state TV reported Thursday.
It is first such operation in regime-controlled areas, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said.
“US occupation forces carried out a landing operation using several helicopters in the village of Muluk Saray in the southern countryside of Qamishli and killed one person,” Syria’s state broadcaster said, without elaborating.
The US armed forces’ Central Command (CENTCOM) said it currently has “no information to provide.”
The village targeted by the operation lies 17 kilometers (10 miles) south of the city of Qamishli and is controlled by Syrian regime forces, according to the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights and AFP correspondents.
“It is the first time,” that US forces conduct such an operation in regime-held areas, the Observatory said, without identifying the victim.
Several other people were captured, the monitor said, without providing a figure.
A resident of the village said that three US helicopters carrying troops had landed overnight.
US forces raided a house, killing one person and taking several others captive, the resident told AFP on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“They used loud speakers to call on residents to stay indoors” during the operation, he said.
The resident said the victim is a little-known Syrian from Hassakeh province, who he named as Abu Hayel.
Washington is part of a US-led coalition battling the Daesh group in Syria.
In July, the Pentagon said it killed Syria’s top Daesh extremist in a drone strike in the northern part of the country.
CENTCOM said he had been “one of the top five” leaders of Daesh overall.
The July strike came five months after a nighttime US raid in the town of Atme, which led to the death of the overall Daesh leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi.
US officials said Qurashi died when he detonated a bomb to avoid capture.
After losing their last territory following a military onslaught backed by the US-led coalition in March 2019, the remnants of Daesh in Syria mostly retreated into desert hideouts.
They have since used such hideouts to ambush Kurdish-led forces and Syrian government troops while continuing to mount attacks in Iraq.


Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

Updated 06 October 2022

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

  • The draft deal has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments

JERUSALEM: Israel’s top cabinet ministers on Thursday will discuss a prospective US-mediated border demarcation deal with Lebanon addressing a disputed Mediterranean gas field, but were unlikely to take a final vote, Israeli officials said.
The draft deal, which has not been made public, has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. But there has also been domestic opposition in both countries, which are technically at war.
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said Israel’s security cabinet would meet at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to discuss the draft.
“The main points of the deal, and the matters we support, will be presented to it,” Roll told Ynet TV, adding that a discussion in the full cabinet, and a parliamentary review at an as-yet undecided level of the Knesset assembly, would follow.
With centrist Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid serving in a caretaker capacity ahead of a Nov. 1 election, the political opposition has demanded Knesset ratification for the deal.
Lapid’s main rival, conservative ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that the deal could surrender Israeli maritime rights and benefit the enemy Lebanese Hezbollah movement. The Lapid government insists Israel’s security will be safeguarded.
Beirut, meanwhile, has balked at Lapid’s assertion that Israel will be paid partial royalties from future Lebanese exploration in the Qana gas prospect. A Lebanese ex-negotiator and some opposition lawmakers have argued that the proposed border demarcation skews too far north, thus favoring Israel.
Israeli security cabinet minister Hili Tropper said Thursday’s forum would receive Lebanese caveats and revision requests through US mediator Amos Hochstein.
“We will discuss them, and if they are significant, I am convinced that we will not accept this deal,” Tropper told Ynet.
Asked if the deal might go through before Israel’s election — a likely boon for Lapid’s campaign — Tropper said: “I can’t answer that. Our goal is to get it done as quickly as possible.”
Clocks are also ticking in Lebanon, which is keen for any sign of relief from a spiralling economic crisis and whose president, Michel Aoun, wants to seal the maritime deal before he steps down at month’s end, according to political sources. 


In an empty kitchen, Yemeni family struggles with hunger

Updated 06 October 2022

In an empty kitchen, Yemeni family struggles with hunger

  • Eight years of conflict have devastated the economy and left millions of people across Yemen struggling to feed themselves

SANAA: In a bare kitchen in her house in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, Umm Zakaria Al-Sharaabi prepares for a daily challenge — creating a meal out of virtually nothing to feed the 18 people in her extended family.
“Today we have yet to make lunch,” she says, gesturing at an empty stove. In the corner, a bag of bread and a few containers of spices are the only scraps of food to hand. “Every day is like this... We have nothing in the kitchen, we have nothing.”
Eight years of conflict have devastated the economy and left millions of people across Yemen struggling to feed themselves.
A truce agreed in April offered some respite but the United Nations says the number of families who lack adequate food has continued to grow since then. The truce expired on Monday without agreement on another extension.
Umm Zakaria’s mother-in-law Umm Hani, who shares their home in central Sanaa, says before the war they lived modestly but well on her husband’s salary from his job at the education ministry and money she earned as a maid.
“Our situation was okay. I used to work for a family continuously and my son... worked and his brother too.”
“Nowadays, I swear, we can’t afford flour,” Umm Hani says. “Look at the kitchen and everywhere. Even flour, simply flour, we don’t have it. And we don’t have rice...”
“We have a little bread I’ve just brought from the bakery. We’ll eat it with tomato sauce or anything available.”
The Sharaabi household’s struggles are shared across Yemen, both in the main populated areas like Sanaa controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, and the rest of the country held by forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition. Both sides have come under international pressure to reach a peace deal.
The United Nations says 19 million people — or 60 percent of the population — are experiencing what it calls acute food insecurity, where shortages put people’s lives or livelihoods in immediate danger.
Aid from donor states meets only half of the country’s need, according to World Food Programme (WFP) which is running the largest operation in Yemen it has ever undertaken anywhere, supplying flour, pulses, oil, sugar and vouchers for food.
Families like the Sharaabis have battled on. Those who could, sold assets or family heirlooms, even parcels of land. Others have been supported by neighbors or relatives overseas.
“The Yemen people’s coping capacity in this time of conflict is enormous,” WFP’s Yemen representative Richard Ragan said. “(They are) doing all the coping things that someone does in a time of crisis. But it’s not easy. I think many people in the country are at a breaking point.”
Although the truce reduced the violence, Ragan said WFP was still building stockpiles and tackling the impact of fuel shortages. “When you are feeding almost 20 million people on a regular basis, it’s very hard to turn that on and off,” he said.
In the second half of the year, the number of people whose food insecurity was deemed an emergency has risen by a quarter to 7.14 million while those “in catastrophe” rose five-fold to 161,000, according to UN estimates.
“The biggest challenge ... is that the inadequacy of the aid compared to the number of those in need continues to increase daily,” said Nabil Al-Qadasi of the Houthi-run School Feeding and Humanitarian Relief Project, which delivers food to 3 million people in 12 of Yemen’s 21 provinces.
In Sanaa’s northern district of Geraf, Amal Hasan and her husband and three children live in a small single room where they moved after their previous rent became too high.
Hasan travels to work as a maid in another part of the capital, spending most of her income on transport and saving just 1,000 to 2,000 riyals ($1.7 to $3.4) each time.
She is looking for a home with affordable rent, but says her day is dominated instead by worry about feeding her family.
“When they finish breakfast I start thinking of where to get them lunch. After that, I worry about dinner. I had never had the chance to think about how to build their future or educate them because we could barely manage to think of their food.”