Middle East faces stark choice between diplomacy and escalation, Lebanon’s caretaker PM Najib Mikati tells Arab News

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, speaks to Arab News in Davos. (Supplied)
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Updated 16 January 2024
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Middle East faces stark choice between diplomacy and escalation, Lebanon’s caretaker PM Najib Mikati tells Arab News

  • Gaza ceasefire would reduce hostilities on Lebanese border, allow progress on two-state solution, says Mikati
  • Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, caretaker PM denounces Israeli strikes on Lebanese soil

DAVOS: Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, said on Tuesday that Israel’s recent attacks on Lebanese soil, as well as the ongoing hostilities in Gaza, presented the region with two possible outcomes — win-win or lose-lose.

In an interview with Arab News at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mikati said the region faced a stark choice between a diplomatic resolution to the region’s many overlapping crises or a major escalation.

“We are faced with two solutions today: Either a win-win solution or a lose-lose one,” he said. “In the lose-lose scenario, a region-wide war would be declared, whereas the win-win scenario would involve the required diplomatic solution.”




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Mikati, who is heading Lebanon’s first delegation to the annual meeting since 2019, when the country’s financial crisis began, said his country favored a diplomatic solution that would avoid dragging the region into a costly war.

“Since the war erupted in Gaza, we have been calling for a ceasefire, as it would serve as the foundation for any potential solution,” he said.

“As soon as a ceasefire is reached in Gaza, we will explore a solution aimed at achieving sustainable and permanent stability in south Lebanon, in accordance with the UN Resolution 1701, which must be fully applied.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 ended the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. However, since the war in Gaza began on Oct. 7, Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters have traded fire along the shared border.

Our greatest fear is that those violations will lead to a war — a prolonged and devastating one for all involved.

Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister

In November, Mikati proposed a three-step plan for peace in Gaza, starting with a five-day pause in hostilities.

During this pause, Hamas would release some of the hostages it seized during its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, while Israel would allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, where Palestinian civilians have endured months under siege.

Meanwhile, world leaders would begin working towards an international summit to implement a permanent two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, Israel has been reluctant to halt its military operation in Gaza. Instead, it appears to have broadened the scope of its mission to include precision airstrikes against Hamas and Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon.




A shell that appears to be white phosphorus from Israeli artillery explodes over a house in al-Bustan, a Lebanese border village with Israel, south Lebanon, on Oct. 15, 2023. (AP)

Saleh Al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau and founder of the group’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, was killed in a suspected Israeli strike alongside several of his henchmen at an apartment in a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in Beirut on Jan. 2.

Then, on Jan. 8, Wissam Al-Tawil, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Radwan Force, was also killed in a suspected Israeli drone strike on a vehicle in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Selm.

This was followed on Jan. 9 with the death of Ali Hussein Burji, commander of Hezbollah’s aerial forces in southern Lebanon, also in Khirbet Selm in another suspected Israeli airstrike.

The killings on Lebanese soil have only compounded the threat of escalation, with the exchange of missiles and drone attacks along the shared border continuing to intensify.




A Palestinian man carries a victim of an Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 7, 2023. (AFP)

Israeli shelling has burned 462 hectares of agricultural and forested land, according to the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, and sparked an exodus from southern villages close to the border with Israel.

Likewise, Israeli civilians living close to the border have been relocated, fearing an attack akin to the Hamas assault of Oct. 7.

An Amnesty International report confirmed that “the Israeli army fired artillery shells containing white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon, in military operations along Lebanon’s southern border” between Oct. 10 and 16.

Furthermore, videos verified by Human Rights Watch in October indicated that Israel had used white phosphorus in military operations in south Lebanon and Gaza on Oct. 10 and 11, respectively.




Hezbollah members take part in a military exercise during a media tour organized for the occasion of Resistance and Liberation Day, in Aaramta, Lebanon May 21, 2023. (REUTERS)

The monitor said on Oct. 12 that these attacks placed civilians “at risk of serious and long-term injuries.”

On Jan. 9, Lebanon filed a formal complaint to the UN Security Council accusing Israel of violating Resolution 1701, citing the use of prohibited weapons containing white phosphorus.

International humanitarian law prohibits the use of white phosphorus in, or in close proximity to, populated civilian areas or infrastructure.

This incendiary substance burns at extremely high temperatures and often starts fires that spread and continue until the phosphorus is depleted.




Pedestrians walk past a closed-down shop with a rental sign in the wake of an economic crisis in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)

People exposed to white phosphorus can suffer respiratory damage, organ failure and other life-changing injuries. Burns caused by the substance are extremely difficult to treat and can be fatal when affecting just 10 percent of the body.

“We have filed a complaint with the UN on the type of weapons used and other violations committed by Israel,” Mikati told Arab News. “Our greatest fear is that those violations will lead to a war — a prolonged and devastating one for all involved.”

Lebanon has filed additional complaints against Israel at the UN Security Council, including over the suspected targeted killing of Hamas commander Al-Arouri.

If an all-out war breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, many in Lebanon fear it would be far more devastating than the 2006 conflict, which left at least 1,100 Lebanese dead and severely damaged civilian infrastructure, including Rafik Hariri International Airport.




US Ambassador Alternate Representative of the US for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations Robert A. Wood raises his hand during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Gaza, at UN headquarters in New York City on December 8, 2023. (AFP)

Since 2019, Lebanon has been grappling with a range of overlapping political and economic crises, which have pushed some 80 percent of the population into poverty. The country’s financial crisis has been deemed one of the world’s worst since the 1850s.

However, the Lebanese government has failed to implement critical reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund to address the root causes of the country’s economic problems.

Parliament has also repeatedly failed since Oct. 2022 to elect a new president, with its 12th unsuccessful attempt in June last year.

“More than 14 months have passed without the election of a president,” Mikati told Arab News, adding that he hoped “all political entities in Lebanon (would) demonstrate the necessary (level of) awareness to expedite the process.”

In the context of regional tensions, however, Mikati seemed doubtful about progress in the short term. “At the present time, electing the president of the Lebanese republic is a top priority, but there have been new developments,” he said.

“This is especially important during these challenging times in the region.”

 


US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

The North Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2024
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US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

  • The White House said it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region

WASHINGTON: The United States expects an attack by Iran against Israel but one that would not be big enough to draw Washington into war, a US official said late on Thursday.
The White House said earlier Washington did not want conflict to spread in the Middle East and the US had told Iran it was not involved in an air strike against a top Iranian military commander in Damascus.
The White House added it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region.
Suspected Israeli warplanes bombed Iran’s embassy in Damascus on Monday in a strike for which Iran has vowed revenge and in which a top Iranian general and six other Iranian military officers were killed, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
Iranian sources told Reuters Tehran has signalled to Washington that it will respond to Israel’s attack on its Syrian embassy in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily, as Tehran presses demands including a Gaza truce.
The United States has been on high alert about possible retaliatory strikes from Iran and US envoys have been working to lower tensions.
Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s military assault on Hamas-governed Gaza has since killed over 33,000 according to the local health ministry, displaced nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, caused a humanitarian crisis and led to genocide allegations that Israeli denies.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, waging attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, while declaring support for its allies.

 


Russia, Germany and UK urge restraint as Iranian threat puts Middle East on edge

Updated 12 April 2024
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Russia, Germany and UK urge restraint as Iranian threat puts Middle East on edge

  • “Iran should instead work to de-escalate and prevent further attacks,” said Cameron
  • Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that Israel would respond directly to any attack by Iran

MOSCOW: Russia, Germany and Britain on Thursday urged countries in the Middle East to show restraint and Israel said it was preparing to “meet all its security needs” in a region on edge over an Iranian threat to strike Israel.

The German airline Lufthansa, one of only two Western carriers flying to Tehran, extended a suspension of its flights to the Iranian capital and Russia warned against travel to the Middle East.
Iran has vowed revenge for the April 1 airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus that killed a top Iranian general and six other Iranian military officers, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday Israel “must be punished and it shall be,” saying it was tantamount to an attack on Iranian soil.
The “imperative for Iran to punish this rogue regime” might have been avoided had the UN Security Council condemned the strike and brought the perpetrators to justice, Tehran’s mission to the United Nations said on Thursday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was keeping up its war in Gaza but making security preparations elsewhere.
“Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We are prepared to meet all of the security needs of the State of Israel, both defensively and offensively,” he said in comments released following a visit to an air force base.

A view of the consular annex of Iran's embassy in Damascus, Syria, that was demolished by an Israeli airstrike on April 1, 2024, killing at least 13 people, including two Iranian Revolutionary Guards generals and five personnel from the force. (AP)

Iran has signalled to Washington that it will respond to Israel’s attack in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily, Iranian sources said.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that Israel would respond directly to any attack by Iran, Gallant’s office said.
Conflict has spread across the Middle East since the eruption of the Gaza war, with Iran-backed groups declaring support for the Palestinians waging attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, while declaring support for its allies.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian to urge “maximum restraint” to avoid further escalation.
Russia’s foreign ministry told citizens they should not travel to the Middle East, especially to Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
“Right now it’s very important for everyone to maintain restraint so as not to lead to a complete destabilization of the situation in the region, which doesn’t exactly shine with stability and predictability,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing.

‘Potential for miscalculation’
British foreign minister David Cameron said on Thursday he had made clear to Amirabdollahian that Iran should not draw the Middle East into a wider conflict.
“I am deeply concerned about the potential for miscalculation leading to further violence,” Cameron said on X.

 

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Secretary of State Antony Blinken called counterparts including the Turkish, Chinese and Saudi foreign ministers “to make clear that escalation is not in anyone’s interest and that countries should urge Iran not to escalate.”
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Iran was threatening to launch a “significant attack in Israel,” and that he had told Netanyahu that “our commitment to Israel security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is iron-clad.”
The US expects an attack by Iran against Israel but one that would not be big enough to draw Washington into war, a US official said late on Thursday.
Iran is the third-largest oil producer in the OPEC group and oil prices stayed near six-month highs on Thursday.
Late on Wednesday, an Iranian news agency published an Arabic report on the X platform saying the air space over Tehran had been closed for military drills, but then removed the report and denied it had issued such news.
Lufthansa said it would probably not fly to Tehran before April 13. Austrian Airlines said it was still planning to fly on Thursday but was adjusting timings to avoid crew having to disembark for an overnight layover.
Iranian air space is also a key overflight route for Emirates’ and Qatar Airways’ flights to Europe and North America.
Emirates, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Aeroflot and Air Arabia, among the airlines that fly to Tehran, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

 


US tells staff in Israel not to travel outside cities amid Iran threat

The US embassy in Jerusalem. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 12 April 2024
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US tells staff in Israel not to travel outside cities amid Iran threat

  • Israel has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory
  • US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Iran was threatening to launch a “significant attack in Israel,” and that the US remained committed to its ally’s security

WASHINGTON: The United States said on Thursday it had restricted its employees in Israel and their family members from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva areas amid Iran’s threats to retaliate against its regional adversary.
Iran has vowed revenge for the April 1 airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
“Out of an abundance of caution, US government employees and their family members are restricted from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv (including Herzliya, Netanya, and Even Yehuda), Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva areas until further notice,” the US embassy said in a security alert on its website on Thursday. “US government personnel are authorized to transit between these three areas for personal travel.”
Washington has a policy of informing all American citizens via such warnings when it updates security measures for its personnel in a country.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday Iran was threatening to launch a “significant attack in Israel,” and that the US remained committed to its ally’s security.
Asked about the security alert, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller noted that Iran had been making public threats toward Israel.
“We conduct ongoing assessments all the time about the situation on the ground,” Miller said at a press briefing. “I’m not going to speak to the specific assessments that led to us to restrict our employees’ and family members’ personal travel, but clearly we are monitoring the threat environment in the Middle East and specifically in Israel.”

 


More aid is supposed to be entering the Gaza Strip. Why isn’t it helping?

Updated 12 April 2024
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More aid is supposed to be entering the Gaza Strip. Why isn’t it helping?

  • While Israel says it has dramatically increased the number of aid trucks entering the territory, UN workers report only a slight uptick — possibly because they count trucks differently

JERUSALEM: Under heavy US pressure, Israel has promised to ramp up aid to Gaza dramatically, saying last week it would open another cargo crossing and surge more trucks than ever before into the besieged enclave.
But days later, there are few signs of those promises materializing and international officials say starvation is widespread in hard-hit northern Gaza.
Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said this week she accepted “credible” reports that famine is now occurring in the area and urged Israel to take further steps to expedite humanitarian aid shipments.
Power’s remarks echoed those of US President Joe Biden, who said on Wednesday that Israeli efforts to increase aid were “not enough.”
While Israel says it has dramatically increased the number of aid trucks entering the territory, UN workers report only a slight uptick — possibly because they count trucks differently.
Here’s what we know about the aid entering Gaza, and why discrepancies in reporting persist:
HOW MUCH AID IS ENTERING GAZA?
Israel says that since Sunday it has transported an average of 400 trucks a day into Gaza and that aid is now piling up on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, one of two major crossings into the territory.
But Juliette Touma, communications director for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said that while aid workers have noticed a slight increase in the amount of aid entering Gaza, it’s nothing close to the surge Israel is claiming.
On Monday, UNRWA says 223 trucks of aid passed. On Tuesday, that number hit 246. On Wednesday, it was down to 141.
Meanwhile, only trickles of aid are reaching northern Gaza.
WHAT HAS ISRAEL PROMISED?
After Biden said last week that future American support for the war in Gaza depends on Israel doing more to protect civilians and aid workers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a series of steps. Biden spoke out after an Israeli airstrike killed seven aid workers delivering food to the strip.
Netanyahu pledged to immediately re-open Israel’s Erez crossing into northern Gaza — a pedestrian crossing destroyed by Hamas militants when they stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7. Netanyahu also said he would allow Israel’s port in Ashdod to process aid shipments and increase Jordanian aid packages through another land crossing.
But Israeli officials this week dropped the plan to open Erez. Instead, they say a new crossing will be built, though it is unclear when it will open. The Ashdod port, meanwhile, is not yet accepting aid shipments and Gaza aid groups report no significant increase in trucks received at their warehouses.
Before the latest Israel-Hamas war, some 500 trucks carrying food, fuel and other supplies entered Gaza daily. That was supplemented by fish and produce farmed within the territory.
Even that was barely enough in a crowded territory whose economy has been battered by a 17-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. The blockade, meant to keep Hamas from arming, restricted the flow of goods in and out of Gaza and contributed to widespread poverty and unemployment.
Scott Anderson, the acting director of UNRWA in Gaza, said the low levels of aid since the war started have compounded an existing, pre-war nutrition deficit in the territory.
“You have to remember, this was not a nutrition-rich environment before the war. The resilience was not there,” said Anderson.
WHY IS THERE A DISCREPANCY BETWEEN THE UN AND ISRAEL’S NUMBERS?
Israel and the UN count trucks arriving in Gaza differently.
Israel counts every truck it inspects and allows to pass into Gaza, according to Shimon Freedman, a spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli defense body in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs.
At the Kerem Shalom crossing, once the trucks pass into Gaza, the pallets of aid they are carrying are deposited in a 1-kilometer-long (a half-mile) zone for Palestinian drivers to pick up.
UNRWA only counts the trucks, driven by a Palestinian contractor, returning from that zone, Anderson said.
He also said that sometimes the trucks arriving from Israel are not fully loaded. Palestinian drivers on the Gaza side of the crossing load their trucks fully before passing through the gate — something that could further account for truck count differences.
WHAT IS SLOWING AID TRANSFER?
Getting from Israeli inspection, through the corridor and past the gate into Gaza takes time — and is made more arduous by the way Israel uses the Kerem Shalom crossing, Anderson said.
Since the war began, Israel has kept the crossing partially closed, Anderson said. Palestinian drivers must also wait for the incoming trucks to be unloaded — further narrowing the window of time allowed for pickup.
Aid inspected by Israel sometimes sits overnight, awaiting pickup. The UN says it stops all operations at 4:30 p.m. for safety purposes due to a breakdown in public order and airstrikes at night. UNRWA says they used to use local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah. Israel says armed Hamas militants have tried to siphon off aid.
COGAT denied allegations that they restrict the crossing’s hours or limit movement of trucks to pick up aid and blamed the UN for the backup, saying the agency does not have enough workers to move aid to warehouses for timely distribution.
WHAT HAPPENS MOVING FORWARD?
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday night that increasing aid efforts is a top priority.
“We plan to flood Gaza with aid and we are expecting to reach 500 trucks per day,” said Gallant. He did not specify a time frame for reaching that goal.
But even if Israel meets its goal, slowdowns at the crossings and convoy safety concerns may continue to hamper distribution. The UN has called for a return to prewar procedures — with additional terminals open and a significant amount of commercial goods, in addition to humanitarian aid, able to pass through.
“Gaza has become very quickly dependent on relief handouts,” Touma said. “The market has been forced to shut. This is not sustainable.”


No Security Council ‘consensus’ on Palestinian UN membership

Updated 12 April 2024
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No Security Council ‘consensus’ on Palestinian UN membership

UNITED NATIONS, United States: Members of the UN Security Council failed to reach a consensus Thursday on a bid by Palestinians for full UN membership, meaning the longshot effort is now likely headed for a more formal council vote.
The Palestinians, who have had observer status at the world body since 2012, have lobbied for years to gain full membership, which would amount to recognition of Palestinian statehood.
Any request to become a UN member state must first pass through the Security Council — where Israel’s ally the United States wields a veto — and then be endorsed by the General Assembly.
In light of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, Palestinians revived a 2011 UN membership application last week, prompting the Security Council to launch a formal review process. This included the ad hoc committee that failed to reach consensus Thursday and was composed of the council’s member states.
During its closed-door meeting “there was no consensus,” said Maltese Ambassador Vanessa Frazier, who holds the council’s rotating presidency for April.
However, two-thirds of the members were in favor of full membership, she said, without specifying which countries.
While the ad hoc committee can only move forward by consensus — loosely speaking, when everyone is in agreement — any Security Council member may now put forth a resolution for vote on the matter.
According to diplomatic sources, a vote could be held April 18, brought forth by Algeria which represents Arab nations on the Council.
Even if the matter were to receive the necessary nine of 15 votes, observers predict a veto from the United States.
Washington maintains the United Nations is not the place for hashing out Palestinian statehood, which it stresses should be the result of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“All we ask for is to take our rightful place among the community of nations,” Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour told reporters earlier this week.
The Gaza war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack against Israel left 1,170 people dead, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,545 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.