‘De-radicalization’ offers Moroccan prisoners route to freedom

Saleh, a prisoner who has been languishing in Moroccan jails for 19 years on terrorism charges, sits at the library inside Kenitra Prison, in the coastal city of the same name, near the Moroccan capital Rabat. (AFP)
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Updated 18 October 2021

‘De-radicalization’ offers Moroccan prisoners route to freedom

  • The program, launched in 2015 and led by Morocco’s DGAPR prison service with several partner organizations, aims to help terror detainees who are willing to question their beliefs

RABAT: Saleh has been languishing in Moroccan jails for 19 years on terrorism charges, but he hopes to be freed soon thanks to a de-radicalization program.

The former hard-line militant, today a bearded prisoner in his 50s, said he once held beliefs that justified violence.

“I believed Muslims had a duty to fight oppressive rulers who don’t apply Islamic law, and to attack states that fight Muslims,” he told AFP in the library of Kenitra Prison, near Rabat.

But those ideas were based on a literal reading of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad “that I wasn’t qualified to understand,” he says.

Today, after passing through the North African kingdom’s Moussalaha (“Reconciliation“) program, he is hoping for a reprieve.

The program, launched in 2015 and led by Morocco’s DGAPR prison service with several partner organizations, aims to help terror detainees who are willing to question their beliefs.

Saleh said his journey into militancy began after he emigrated in the 1990s to Italy, where he met an imam at a Turin mosque who belonged to Jamaa Islamiya, the Egyptian jihadist group that assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

In 2001, he left what he used to call “the country of the infidels” and moved with his family to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

But the Sept. 11 attacks in the US forced him to change his plans.

With the US threatening to invade and topple the Taliban, he fled home to Morocco — and was promptly arrested.

He says he does not have blood on his hands, but he has been in detention ever since.

Morocco has had painful experiences with militancy at home and abroad.

In 2003, five suicide attacks killed 33 people and wounded scores more in the economic capital Casablanca.

Fifteen years later, two Scandinavian tourists were murdered by Daesh-linked militants during a hiking trip in the High Atlas mountains.

The security services have dismantled more than 2,000 extremist cells and made over 3,500 arrests linked to terrorism since 2002, according to official figures published in February.

Many cells busted in recent years have been linked to the Daesh group, which seized a swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq and proclaimed a “caliphate” there in 2014.

More than 1,500 Moroccan fighters are known to have traveled to the area over the past decade, a security source said.

But in 2015, Moroccan authorities launched Moussalaha as part of “a new approach” to detainees, said DGAPR official Moulay Idriss Agoulmam.

The program “includes monitoring the participants and helping those who express a need for guidance,” he said.

It also includes studies on law and the economy, as well as a three-month psychological accompaniment.

It has so far reached 207 detainees, including eight women. Around 116 have received royal pardons and been freed, while 15 have had their terms reduced.

Mohamed Damir, another ex-detainee who had been sentenced to death in 2003 on terror charges, said many radicalized people “only realize they need to leave their extremist ideas once they find themselves alone” in a prison cell.

The 47-year-old said he reached that point after seven years of prison. That began a long process to convince the authorities to help out convicts in a similar situation.

In 2011, his sentence was commuted to 30 years in jail.

Then he was released in 2017 after taking part in the first round of Moussalaha.

Part of his re-education involved reading the works of philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, some of whose ideas “are not far from the spirit of Islam.”

“I discovered the concept of the social contract, which allows everyone to live in peace, as we are obviously all different,” he said.

After leaving prison, Damir joined an Islamic scholars’ association in the town of Mohammadia that oversees the religious aspect of Moussalaha.

Today, he is helping guide detainees through the program.

“It’s not always easy,” he said.

“Most of them don’t know much about the Islamic religion,” he said, adding that he uses religious texts to change their views.

“I try to persuade them that they will not earn God’s favor by following the path (of violence).”


Iraq: Daesh gunmen shoot dead 11 soldiers in brazen attack

Updated 57 min 41 sec ago

Iraq: Daesh gunmen shoot dead 11 soldiers in brazen attack

  • The brazen attack was one of the deadliest targeting the Iraqi military in recent months

BAGHDAD: Daesh gunmen attacked an army barracks in a mountainous area north of Baghdad on Thursday, killing 11 soldiers as they slept, Iraqi security officials said.
The officials said the attack occurred in the Al-Azim district, an open area north of of Baqouba in Diyala province. The circumstances of the attack were not immediately clear, but two officials who spoke to The Associated Press said Daesh group militants broke into the barracks at 3 a.m. local time and shot dead the soldiers.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to issue official statements.
The brazen attack more than 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the capital Baghdad was one of the deadliest targeting the Iraqi military in recent months.


Israeli general turned lawmaker emerges as settler critic

Updated 21 January 2022

Israeli general turned lawmaker emerges as settler critic

JERUSALEM: Retired general Yair Golan spent a significant part of his military career serving in the occupied West Bank, protecting Jewish settlements. Today, he is one of their most vocal critics.
Golan, a former deputy military chief, is now a legislator with the dovish Meretz party, where he has repeatedly spoken out against settler violence against Palestinians.
His comments, highlighted by his recent description of violent settlers as “subhuman,” have rattled Israel’s delicate governing coalition, and his opponents have labeled him a radical. He joins a cadre of former security personnel who, after not speaking up while in uniform and positions of influence, have in retirement sounded the alarm over Israel’s five-decade-long military rule of the Palestinians.
“You can’t have a free and democratic state so long as we are controlling people who don’t want to be controlled by us,” Golan told The Associated Press in an interview at his office in the Knesset this week. “What kind of democracy are we building here long term?”
Golan has emerged as a rare critical voice in a society where the occupation is largely an accepted fact and where settlers have successfully pushed their narrative through their proximity to the levers of power. Most members of Israel’s parliament belong to the pro-settlement right wing.
Golan, 59, had a long military career, being wounded in action in Lebanon and filling key positions as head of the country’s northern command and as commander of the West Bank, among others.
Along the way, he gained a reputation as a maverick for decisions that sometimes landed him in hot water. At one point, he reached an unauthorized deal to remove some settlers from the West Bank city of Hebron. He was reprimanded and a promotion was delayed after he permitted the use of Palestinian non-combatants as human shields during arrest raids, a tactic the country’s Supreme Court banned.
At the same time, he was credited with permitting thousands of Syrians wounded in their country’s civil war to enter Israel for medical treatment.
As the deputy military chief, he was passed over for the top job after comparing what he saw as fascistic trends in modern-day Israel to Nazi Germany. He believes the speech cost him the position.
A few years after retirement, he was elected to parliament and eventually joined Meretz, a party that supports Palestinian statehood and is part of the current coalition headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Meretz has been one of the few parties to make ending Israel’s occupation a top priority. But since joining the coalition, which has agreed to focus on less divisive issues to maintain its stability, most of its members have appeared to tone down their criticism.
Golan has not. Earlier this month, he caused a firestorm when he lashed out against settlers who vandalized graves in the Palestinian West Bank village of Burqa.
“These are not people, these are subhumans,” Golan told the Knesset Channel. “They must not be given any backing.”
His remarks angered Bennett, a former settler leader, and sparked criticism from others within the coalition.
Golan acknowledged his choice of words was flawed but said he stands by the spirit of his remarks.
“Is the problem the expression that I used or is the problem those same people who go up to Burqa, smash graves, damage property and assault innocent Palestinians?” he said.
Such statements have turned him into a poster boy for what far-right nationalists describe as dangerous forces in the coalition challenging Israel’s role in the West Bank. The Palestinians seek the area, captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of a future state.
Some on Israel’s dovish left also have been hesitant to embrace Golan, who continues to defend the army’s actions in the West Bank.
Golan always saw his duty in the territory as primarily combatting Palestinian militants, and he continues to believe that most settlers are law-abiding citizens. The international community overwhelmingly considers all settlements illegal or illegitimate, and the Palestinians and many left-wing Israelis see the military as an enforcer of an unjust occupation.
Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group for former Israeli soldiers who oppose policies in the West Bank, called for action, not just words, against settler violence.
“Yair Golan knows full well what settler violence looks like and what our violent control over the Palestinian people looks like. That’s why his criticism is valuable, but it’s not enough,” the group said in a statement.
Golan said he always saw Israeli control over Palestinian territories as temporary. He said separating from the Palestinians is the only way to keep Israel a democratic state with a Jewish majority.
In 2006, Golan commanded the violent evacuation of the Amona settlement in the West Bank, which was built on privately owned Palestinian land.
“I can’t come to terms with the idea that someone Jewish who holds Jewish values supports the theft of someone else’s lands,” he said.
In recent months, as violence between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank has ticked up, videos have emerged of soldiers standing by as settlers rampage. Golan said he never would have allowed such a thing under his command.
“These people don’t accept the essence of Israel and abide by the law only when it’s convenient for them,” he said.
His comments about settlers aren’t the first to rankle the establishment. In a 2016 speech marking Israel’s Holocaust memorial day, Golan, then deputy military chief, said he was witnessing “nauseating processes” in Israeli society that reminded him of the fascism of Nazi-era Germany.
He said the remarks were sparked by the fatal shooting of a subdued Palestinian attacker by a soldier. The soldier was embraced by nationalist politicians, including then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Golan said the shooting was nothing short of an execution.
Next to his desk, Golan keeps a photo of Netanyahu arriving for his corruption trial at a Jerusalem courthouse, surrounded by his Likud Party supporters as he rants against police and prosecutors.
Golan said the image is a reminder of what he is fighting against — and for.
“I served the country in uniform for so many years, I really gave it my life,” Golan said. Pointing to the photo, he said: “I didn’t endanger my life countless times for these people.”


Palestinian foreign minister says US moving too slow on pushing peace

Updated 21 January 2022

Palestinian foreign minister says US moving too slow on pushing peace

  • The US “has yet to ensure the current Israeli government renounces its colonial policies and abandons its rejection of the two-state solution and peace negotiations,” Malki says

NEW YORK: Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki criticized US President Joe Biden on Thursday for moving too slowly to reverse all of former President Donald Trump administration’s adverse policies against the Palestinians and not using Washington’s special relationship to pressure Israel to abandon “its rejection of a two-state solution and peace negotiations.”

Malki told the UN Security Council there were hopes that the end of Donald Trump’s administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “would be enough to pave the way for renewed momentum for peace.”

But while the Biden administration reversed several “unlawful and ill-advised” Trump policies, he said it has been slow to act, especially on the US commitment to reopen the US consulate in east Jerusalem which would restore Washington’s main diplomatic mission for the Palestinians in the contested city.

After Biden took office a year ago, the Palestinians thought the US “could try to move the Israeli position toward us,” Malki told reporters later.

“But we have seen that the Israeli position has been able to move the American position a little bit toward them — and this is really what troubles us very much.”

The US “has yet to ensure the current Israeli government renounces its colonial policies and abandons its rejection of the two-state solution and peace negotiations,” Malki said.

“This is an unacceptable stance that should neither be tolerated nor excused and must be reversed.”

Malki said he had “a very open, frank discussion” earlier on Wednesday with US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, including on US-Palestinian relations, the peace process, Palestinian expectations from the US and “what they are trying to do in the near future in order to see things moving forward in the right direction.”

He said the Palestinians are engaging with the US administration about possible ways to eliminate restrictions imposed by Congress on reopening the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.

Tor Wennesland, the UN Mideast envoy, told the council that six Palestinian men were killed by Israeli security forces, another died in unclear circumstances, and 249 Palestinians were injured, including 46 children, in the West Bank in he past month.

He said 15 Israelis were injured in attacks by Palestinians.

Malki called on the Security Council to take urgent action to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and save the two-state solution, pointing to Israel’s accelerated settlement construction, demolition of Palestinian homes, confiscation of Palestinian land “and even annexing Palestinian land.”

“Absent this sense of urgency, prepare yourself then to attend the funeral of this solution, with all the consequences of such a death for the lives of millions of people, Palestinians and others,” Malki warned.

“The Palestinian people will survive, but the two-state solution may not,” he said.

“What happens then? Will you convert to advocates of the one-state solution of freedom and equal rights for all between the river and the sea? These would be the only options available then.”

Malki urged support for an international peace conference and echoed Russia’s call for a ministerial meeting of the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the US, UN, EU and Russia — “as soon as possible to mobilize efforts to get out from the current impasse.”

He said the UN, EU and Russia have agreed to a ministerial meeting but “we’re still waiting for the approval of the American side.”

He said the three other Quartet members should convince the US about the importance of a ministerial meeting to move the Middle East peace process forward.

Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador, made no mention of the meeting with Malki or the Quartet in her briefing to the council, but she reaffirmed the Biden administration’s “strong support for a two-state solution” and said “this year offers an opportunity to recommit to reaching a political solution to the conflict.”

The US envoy, who visited Israel and the West Bank in November, reiterated that Israel and the Palestinians “are locked in a spiral of distrust.”

“Israelis don’t believe they have a partner for peace, while Palestinians are trapped in despair born of the complete absence of a political horizon,” she said.

To make progress, Thomas-Greenfield said both sides must refrain from unilateral steps that increase tensions and undercut efforts toward a two-state solution.

That means Israel should refrain from annexing territory, settlement activity, demolitions and evictions “like what we saw in Sheikh Jarrah,” the Jerusalem neighborhood where Israel on Wednesday evicted Palestinian residents from a disputed property and demolished it, and Palestinians should stop inciting violence and compensating individuals imprisoned “for acts of terrorism,” Thomas-Greenfield said.


Israel releases Palestinians held after eviction

Updated 21 January 2022

Israel releases Palestinians held after eviction

  • Police had accused several Salhiya family members of “violating a court order” and public disturbance

JERUSALEM: Five members of a Palestinian family arrested after Israeli police demolished their house in East Jerusalem have been released, their lawyer said on Thursday.

The arrest of several members of the Salhiya family came as they were evicted from their house in the sensitive neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah by Israeli authorities before dawn on Wednesday. Walid Abu Tayeh, the family’s lawyer, confirmed “the release of the five people detained since Wednesday, including Mahmoud Salhiya and his sons.”

Police had accused several Salhiya family members of “violating a court order” and public disturbance.

Abu Tayeh said the release of the five on Thursday was conditional on payment of a 1,000 Israeli shekel ($320) fine, and that the group was forbidden from entering Sheikh Jarrah for one month.

The looming eviction of other Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in May last year partly fueled an 11-day war between Israel and armed Palestinian factions in Gaza.

In those cases, Palestinians risked having to surrender plots of land to Jewish settlers who had mounted legal claims to the land.

But Jerusalem authorities have stressed the Salhiya family eviction is a different case and that the city intends to build a special needs school on the land, benefitting Arab residents of east Jerusalem.

The city has said it purchased the land from previous Arab owners and that the Salhiya’s had lived there illegally for years, but failed to agree to a compromise on an eviction order first issued in 2017. The foreign ministries of France, Germany, Italy and Spain urged Israeli authorities to stop the construction of new housing units in East Jerusalem.

In a statement, the European countries said that the hundreds of new buildings would “constitute an additional obstacle to the two-state solution,” referring to international peace efforts to create a state for Palestinians.

Israeli authorities recently approved plans for the construction of around 3,500 homes in occupied East Jerusalem, nearly half of which are to be built in the controversial areas of Givat Hamatos and Har Homa.

The foreign ministries said that building in this area would further disconnect the West Bank from East Jerusalem and that these settlements are a violation of international law.

The four countries also expressed concern about the evictions and demolitions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Israel captured East Jerusalem including the Old City in a 1967 war and later annexed it, a move not recognized internationally.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem for the capital of a state they seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which abuts the city, and the Gaza Strip. Israel views the entire city as its indivisible capital.

Most world powers deem the Israeli settlements illegal for taking in territory where Palestinians seek statehood.


Two children among 6 civilians killed in attack on northern Syrian city

Updated 21 January 2022

Two children among 6 civilians killed in attack on northern Syrian city

  • On Thursday, Kurdish forces marked four years since Turkey launched it’s push into Afrin in an operation that triggered a wave of mass displacement

BEIRUT: Six people were killed, including two children, in an attack on the Turkish-held city of Afrin in northern Syria on Thursday, the latest in a spate of attacks, a war monitor said.

It was not immediately clear who fired the artillery shells but the attack came from a region where Kurdish fighters and Syrian regime forces are present, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Six people, including two children, where killed,” said the UK-based monitor which relies on sources inside Syria for its reports.

Nearly 30 others were wounded, it added.

The shelling came a week after a suicide bomber launched an attack near a military base run by Turkey-backed fighters in Afrin, according to the Observatory.

Turkey and its proxies have seized control of territory inside Syria in a number of military operations launched since 2016 against Daesh and the Kurdish YPG militia.

In March 2018, they seized Afrin after pushing the Syrian Kurd forces out.

On Thursday, Kurdish forces marked four years since Turkey launched its push into Afrin in an operation that triggered a wave of mass displacement.

“Recovering Afrin and (securing) the safe return of it’s inhabitants ... is our main priority,” Mazlum Abdi, the head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, tweeted.

Nearly half-a-million people have been killed in the war in Syria, which has spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II, since it broke out in 2011.

Meanwhile, five Roman artifacts from the ancient city of Palmyra, a site damaged during the conflict, were returned to Damascus on Thursday by a private Lebanese museum where they had been on display since 2018.

The limestone statues and carved funerary stones dating from the second and third centuries AD were returned by a private Lebanese collector - Syrian antiquities chief Mohamed Nazir Awad said at a handover ceremony hosted by Lebanon’s National Museum in Beirut.

The collector, Jawad Adra, acquired them from European auction houses before Syria’s war began in 2011, Awad said, describing his actions as “a generous initiative.”

The pieces, which had been on display at the Nabu Museum in northern Lebanon, were returning to “their original homeland,” the Syrian regime official added.

During the Syrian conflict, the site of Palmyra, one of the most important cultural centers in the ancient world, fell under the control of Daesh, which destroyed some of its major monuments, including the Arch of Triumph.

Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim, said talks were underway to arrange the return of other artifacts from the National Museum in Beirut to Syria.