Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm

Najib al-Ameel stands on a hill overlooking his hometown Rmaych along the Lebanese-Israeli border. (AP)
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Updated 25 January 2023

Lebanese environmental group accused of being Hezbollah arm

  • Israel, the United States and some in Lebanon accuse the NGO of being an arm of Hezbollah to hide its military activities
  • Green Without Borders denies any link to Hezbollah, which also says it is not connected to the environmental group

KFAR-TIBNIT: On the outskirts of this southern Lebanese village, workers in a pickup truck parked at a nature reserve named after a fallen fighter of the militant Hezbollah group. They took two large eucalyptus tree seedlings out of the truck and planted them.
The men are from Green Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that says it aims to protect Lebanon’s green areas and plant trees.
But Israel, the United States and some in Lebanon accuse the NGO of being an arm of Hezbollah to hide its military activities. They say the organization has been setting up outposts for the militant group along the border with Israel. Last month, residents in the southern Christian village of Rmaych near the border said they encountered armed men at an outpost of the organization that was blocking them from farmlands.
Green Without Borders denies any link to Hezbollah, which also says it is not connected to the environmental group.
“We are not an arm for anyone,” the head of Green Without Borders, Zouher Nahli, told The Associated Press. “We as an environmental association work for all the people and we are not politicized.” He spoke at the Bassam Tabaja Nature Reserve, named for a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in 2014, where the NGO has planted hundreds of trees.
He said the organization’s funding comes from the ministries of environment and agriculture as well as from wealthy Lebanese who care about the environment and municipalities, mainly in the eastern Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon. He said he is an Agriculture Ministry employee.
Since it began operations in 2009, the group has helped plant about 2 million trees, Nahli said.
Israel and Hezbollah are archenemies and have fought several wars over the past decades, the last of which ended in August 2006. The 34-day conflict killed 1,200 in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
The UN Security Council resolution that ended that war said the border area should be free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons,” other than those of the government and UN peacekeepers. After the war, thousands of Lebanese troops were deployed in the border zone and the UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which has been present there since 1978, was beefed up.
In a November report, UNIFIL said shipping containers and prefabricated buildings, some of them with visible Green Without Borders markings, had been set up at 16 sites along the border. In several instances, UNIFIL patrols were prevented from nearing the locations, it said.
The Israeli military says Green Without Borders outposts on the border are used by Hezbollah to gather intelligence information.
At a Security Council meeting in September, the US deputy UN ambassador, Richard Mills, said the proliferation of the group’s outposts along the border obstructs UNIFIL access and “is heightening tensions in the area, further demonstrating that this so-called environmental group is acting on Hezbollah’s behalf.”
At the meeting, the council unanimously approved a resolution strongly condemning harassment, intimidation, attacks and restrictions on UNIFIL.
Last month, an Irish UN peacekeeper was killed and several others were wounded when attackers opened fire on a UNIFIL convoy in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah denied any connection to the attack.
Nahli said he was not aware of any shipping containers or buildings being set up by his organization. “All we do along the border is protect forests and all the claims are illogical and baseless,” he said.
Residents in border Shiite villages that support Hezbollah praise the organization. “It is doing good for the environment and planting trees along the border. We are very happy with their work,” said Salah Rammal, a shop owner in the border village of Odaisseh.
Residents of the Christian village Rmaych, however, have complained for years about a position set up by Green Without Borders on farmland belonging to village families in a nearby valley. They say the organization did not plant any trees there and actually chopped down trees and cut a 1.5-kilometer (1-mile) dirt road on their land.
“It is a cover for Hezbollah to have positions. We have no problems with Hezbollah, but it should be outside our lands,” said Bassam Al-Hajj, a Rmaych schoolteacher.
In December, Al-Hajj and other residents went to the outpost and confronted the men there. Al-Hajj said some of the men at the site were masked and armed, and that the outpost included several rooms, a tent and a fence that blocked off village farmland.
The residents and the men argued, he said. One resident who was videoing the encounter was told by one of the men, “We will crush you if you don’t delete the photos that you took,” Al-Hajj said.
Days after the confrontation, a Hezbollah official and members of the organization visited the village and met residents at the mayor’s office, said Father Najib Al-Ameel, a priest from Rmaych who attended the talks.
The mayor and residents asked that the post be removed, he said. Al-Ameel said he told the Hezbollah official, “We will not accept anyone but the Lebanese army to protect us.” A few days later, Green Without Borders removed the post and now residents can freely access their land, he said.
Nahli said the media had blown the incident in Rmaych out of proportion and refused to discuss details. In the past, Hezbollah has blamed frictions at Rmaych on members of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, which is among Hezbollah’s harshest critics.
When asked if peacekeepers could visit the organization’s sites, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said, “We had the possibility, of course, to monitor the whole area of operations and also areas and places where Green Without Borders operated.”
He said there has not been “a breach of 1701,” the Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war.
Nahli argued that Green Without Border’s work is sorely needed. Over the past few decades, Lebanon has experienced one of the world’s worst deforestation rates, which he said has accelerated since the economy collapsed, starting in late 2019, as poor people cut trees to use the wood for heating. The forested area has dropped from 25 percent of the country’s territory to only around 3 percent now, he said.
“We are trying by all our means, in coordination with all concerned authorities, to prevent more deforestation,” he said.


Suez Canal tugs working to move broken down tanker, shipping traffic unaffected: Sources

Updated 54 min 20 sec ago

Suez Canal tugs working to move broken down tanker, shipping traffic unaffected: Sources

  • Canal sources say that shipping traffic is unaffected

CAIRO: Suez Canal tugboats are working to move a broken down LNG tanker called Grace Emilia on Wednesday, two canal sources told Reuters, adding that shipping traffic is unaffected.
The incident happened in a southern section of the canal where a second channel allows for ships to bypass the blockage caused by an engine malfunction, one of the sources said.


Iran says Iraq-based Kurd groups ‘involved’ in drone attack

Updated 01 February 2023

Iran says Iraq-based Kurd groups ‘involved’ in drone attack

  • Iranian authorities earlier reported “unsuccessful” drone attack

TEHRAN: Iran has accused Iraq-based Kurdish groups of being “involved” in a drone attack last week against a defense ministry site in the central province of Isfahan, Iranian media reported Wednesday.
“Parts of the drones that attacked the workshop complex of the defense ministry in Isfahan, along with explosive materials, were transferred to Iran with the participation and guidance of the Kurdish anti-revolutionary groups based in Iraq’s Kurdistan region,” Nour news agency said.
Iranian authorities reported an “unsuccessful” drone attack late Saturday that targeted a defense ministry “workshop complex” in Isfahan province, home to the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.
An anti-aircraft system destroyed one drone and two others exploded, the defense ministry said, adding that there were no casualties and only minor damage to the site.
Nour charged that Kurdish groups brought the drone parts and explosive materials into Iran from “one of the hardly accessible routes in the northwest” upon “the order of a foreign security service.”
The news agency, considered close to the Islamic republic’s Supreme National Security Council, did not specify which country’s security service it accused of being behind the attack. It said the drone parts were delivered to the “service’s liaison in a border city.”
“The parts and materials have been assembled and used for sabotage in an advanced workshop by trained forces,” Nour said.
Some Western media have blamed the attack on Iran’s arch foe Israel.
Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region hosts camps and rear-bases operated by several Iranian Kurdish rebel groups, which Iran has accused of serving Western or Israeli interests in the past.
In November, Iran launched cross-border missile and drone strikes against several of the groups in Iraq, accusing them of stoking the nationwide protests triggered by the death in custody in September of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini.


Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq

Updated 01 February 2023

Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq

  • Iraqi contractor in the base was wounded
  • No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack

IRBIL, Iraq: Unidentified attackers fired eight rockets at a Turkish military base in northern Iraq on Wednesday, two of which landed inside the facility, the Counter-Terrorism Group, a security organization in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, said.
A Turkish security source said the attack had caused no damage and there were no casualties in the base, without going into further detail.
An Iraqi security source who declined to be identified said an Iraqi contractor in the base had been wounded.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the early hours on the Zilkan base, which hosts Turkish troops in Ninevah province of northern Iraq.
Turkiye has been carrying out operations in Iraq for decades against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has bases in the region. It is designated a terrorist group by Turkiye, the United States, and the European Union.
The group launched an insurgency in southeast Turkiye in 1984 in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.


Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions

Updated 01 February 2023

Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions

  • Iraq has in recent months been making efforts to ensure its banking system is compliant with the international electronic transfer system known as SWIFT

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s premier said Tuesday that new banking regulations had revealed fraudulent dollar transactions made from his country, as the fresh controls coincide with a drop in the local currency’s value.
Iraq has in recent months been making efforts to ensure its banking system is compliant with the international electronic transfer system known as SWIFT.
Referring to the new controls, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani hailed “a real reform of the banking system,” but denounced “falsified invoices, money going out fraudulently,” in particular as foreign currency payments for imports.
“That is a reality,” he said in an interview on state television.
The adoption of the SWIFT system was supposed to allow for greater transparency, tackle money laundering and help to enforce international sanctions, such as those against Iran and Russia.
An adviser to Sudani had said that since mid-November, Iraqi banks wanting to access dollar reserves stored in the United States must make transfers using the electronic system.
The US Federal Reserve will then examine the requests and block them if it finds them suspicious.
According to the adviser, the Fed had so far rejected 80 percent of the transfer requests over concerns of the funds’ final recipients.
Before the introduction of the new regulations, “we were selling $200 million or $300 million a day,” Sudani said.
“Now, the central bank provides $30 million, $40 million, $50 million,” he said, questioning: “What were we importing in a single day for $300 million?“
“There are products that were entering (Iraq) for prices that make no sense. Clearly, the objective was to take foreign currency out of Iraq,” he said. “This must stop.”
Money may have been transported to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan province “and from there to neighboring countries,” Sudani said, without specifying whether he was referring to Turkiye, Iran or war-torn Syria.
He said the new controls had been planned for two years, in accordance with an agreement between Iraq’s central bank and US financial authorities, and deplored previous failures to put them in place.
Iraq, which is trying to move past four decades of war and unrest, is plagued by endemic corruption.
The official exchange rate is fixed by the government at 1,470 dinars to the dollar, but the currency was trading at around 1,680 on Tuesday on unofficial markets amid dollar scarcity.
The drop has sparked sporadic protests by Iraqis worried about their purchasing power.
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and the new central bank chief will be among a delegation traveling to Washington on February 7 to discuss the new mechanism and the fluctuating exchange rate, Sudani said.


How Arab governments are leveraging modern technology to conserve limited water resources 

Updated 01 February 2023

How Arab governments are leveraging modern technology to conserve limited water resources 

  • Identifying ways to mitigate and adapt to climate pressures has become a top priority for MENA countries
  • Innovations can help conserve freshwater, recycle wastewater and reduce harm of desalinating seawater

DUBAI: For decades, the Middle East and North Africa region has struggled to meet its growing water needs. With populations booming and natural sources of freshwater rapidly depleting, finding sustainable solutions to address the precarious state of the region’s water security is more urgent than ever.

Water insecurity has exacerbated conflicts and political tensions in many Arab countries, significantly impacting the health and well-being of its people. In nations such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and even several of the Gulf states, many communities lack access to plentiful clean water.

While about 40 percent of the global population experiences water scarcity, the MENA region is considered among the world’s most water-insecure, with about 90 percent of children living in areas of high or extremely high water stress. According to UNICEF, the region is home to 11 of the world’s 17 most water-stressed countries.

The reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, Iraq's southern marshes of Chibayish, have been battered by drought as well as reduced river flows from neighboring Turkey and Iran. (AFP)

“Countries with rapid population growth, an arid climate, and heavily water-consuming agricultural activities are at a much higher risk of facing significant water scarcity before 2050. These nations will therefore require larger counter operations in order to negate the pending impact,” Walid Saad, CEO and co-founder of World of Farming, told Arab News.

“This is a challenge that requires a collaborative approach between public and private sector organizations, and the implementation of technology and innovative solutions across industries, to help ensure greater water efficiency and security for future generations.”

A 2020 report by Orient Planet Research found that the Gulf Cooperation Council area’s water needs will reach 33,733 cubic meters per year by 2050. However, the region’s projected future storage is just 25,855 cubic meters.

Orient Planet Reseach illustration

This means the region needs to boost its water stocks by 77 percent to meet the requirements of its population within the next 30 years.

Identifying ways to mitigate and adapt to climate pressures has become a top priority for regional governments. The coming year is expected to be one of the hottest on record, with extreme weather events likely to grow in scale and frequency and, in the process, exacerbate existing problems of the water-stressed region.

INNUMBERS

11 World’s most water-stressed countries (out of a total of 17) that are in MENA region.

90% Children in areas of high or extremely high water stress in MENA.

77% Increase in water stocks needed by 2050 to meet GCC population’s requirements.

By the end of the century, scientists expect average temperatures in the Middle East to rise by 5 degrees Celsius, making parts of the region potentially uninhabitable if action is not taken urgently to tackle the causes of man-made climate change.

In addition to extreme weather, climate-related water scarcity is expected to wipe up to 14 percent off the region’s gross domestic product over the coming 30 years, according to the World Bank.

As about 60 percent of the region’s freshwater originates from external territories, international relations also play a crucial role in water security.

A view of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Iraq's southern city of Basra, where the Euphrates and Tigris meet. Both rivers originate from Turkiye. (AFP)

The Nile River, for instance, runs through or along the border of 10 other African countries before it reaches Egypt, making Ethiopia’s GERD dam project a point of contention, while Iraq and Syria are fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, which both originate in neighboring Turkiye where large dam projects are also underway.

Jordan and the West Bank, meanwhile, rely on the Jordan River, whose source lies in Israeli territory. Conflicts, rivalries and failures to cooperate on shared water access can lead to pollutants, fish-stock depletion and water shortages further downstream.

In the face of these challenges, several Arab governments are now prioritizing investment in new innovations and technologies to help conserve freshwater sources, recycle and reuse wastewater, and reduce the environmental harm of desalinating seawater.

Israel's Hadera desalination plant plans to pump excess output into the Sea of Galilee, depleted by overuse and threatened by climate change. (AFP)

“Technologies such as membrane bioreactors, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection are being used to treat wastewater to a high standard, making it suitable for reuse in irrigation, industrial and even potable uses,” Fawzi Al-Dibis, manager of sustainability and climate change at WSP Middle East, told Arab News.

Another solution is localized greywater treatment, which allows for the use and reuse of water at source, thereby avoiding additional pumping costs. At present, about 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is being discharged untreated into the environment, according to the UN.

Atmospheric water harvesting is another promising means of overcoming water scarcity by collecting water from the air through various methods, including condensation, dew collection and fog harvesting.

Water is harvested from fog clouds in Morocco using technology developed by the German Water Foundation. (Supplied)

Agriculture accounts for almost 80 percent of the MENA region’s water usage, compared to the 70 percent global average. According to the World Bank, freshwater is being drawn from natural underground aquifers faster than it can be replenished.

To monitor and control this dwindling resource, new smart water management systems, employing artificial intelligence technology, are being developed, Al-Dibis told Arab News.

“These technologies help to analyze data from various sources, such as weather forecasts and sensor networks, to make more accurate predictions of water availability, and to optimize the distribution and use of water resources,” he said.

Agriculture alone accounts for around 80 percent of water usage in MENA region, according to the World Bank. (Supplied)

If farming and irrigation can be made more sustainable, Saad says that the region could also reduce its carbon footprint by growing more of its own crops, thereby cutting its reliance on imported goods.

“The use of smart irrigation and automation in agriculture provides savings in water consumption by optimizing the amount of water needed, in controlled time periods,” he said. The process can be automated using remote wireless sensors that gather live data to make accurate predictions regarding irrigation schedule, location and requirements.

A more holistic approach, implementing “a closed-loop system” in agricultural operations, could reduce the strain on all elements of water supply in the region and ease the existing reliance on transportation, outsourcing, and infrastructure beyond the local ecosystem.

A sample closed-loop water treatment system for crops, designed by e-Gro, a collaborative effort of American floriculture specialists. (Diagram courtesy of e-gro.org) 

Clean technologies and other innovations are also being deployed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful byproducts during the desalination process. “Fortunately, the science of new materials is offering new solutions to current desalination plants,” Al-Dibis said.

Saad concurs that leveraging new technologies is crucial to reducing the region’s dependence on desalination to meet its water needs. “The Middle East is leading the charge for many of these developments, spurred on by the drier climate and heavy reliance on importation,” he said.

The UAE launched its Net Zero 2050 strategy in 2021, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with its global climate commitments and to address its own environmental challenges.

Engineers monitor control panels at a desalination plant in the Omani port city of Sur, south of the capital Muscat. (AFP)

The UAE’s water table has dropped by about 1 meter a year over the past 30 years, giving the country less than 50 years until all its natural freshwater resources are depleted.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has rolled out its Vision 2030 initiative, part of which focuses on the optimal use of water resources, reducing consumption and using renewable water, together with its Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives.

The Kingdom’s NEOM smart city giga-project taking shape on the Red Sea coast also aims to reduce average water loss from 30 percent to 3 percent by building infrastructure and optioning innovative technology through ENOWA, its energy and water subsidiary.

NEOM says it will have strategically located water reservoirs placed throughout its network and up to 10 pipeline and pumping stations to ensure abundant drinking water supplies. (Supplied)

“This endeavor will provide a blueprint for achieving sustainable water and resource management at scale, and once achieved, a success model the rest of the world may adopt or adapt,” Saad said.

While acknowledging that technology and real-time innovation are essential to reducing water waste, Saad believes the preservation of natural resources can only be achieved through cooperation between governments, businesses and consumers.

“The decisions we make when we source and consume our food and the way we live our day-to-day lives can all have an impact,” he said.

“Everyone can contribute to the overall goal of sustainability by addressing our own day-to-day habits and decisions.”