Frankly Speaking: Why Spain stands out in standing up for Palestine

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Updated 11 February 2024

Frankly Speaking: Why Spain stands out in standing up for Palestine

  • Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares indicates Madrid will take its own decision if Europe continues to waver in its support
  • Backs two-state solution with land corridor linking Gaza Strip and West Bank and East Jerusalem as capital
  • Urges donors to restore UNRWA funding, says allegations against 12 employees unrepresentative of agency

DUBAI: Spain’s minister of foreign affairs has indicated that if Europe continues to waver in its support for the Palestinians, “as a sovereign country” Spain would “take its own decisions.”

Jose Manuel Albares also said that peace in the Middle East can only be achieved through the creation of a Palestinian state, linking Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Spanish diplomat, who has been serving as minister of foreign affairs, European Union and cooperation since 2021, made the remarks during an appearance on the Arab News current affairs show “Frankly Speaking.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares on Frankly Speaking. (AN photo)

According to Albares, while the 27 member states of the European Union “all want peace” in the Middle East, there were “nuances” in the way they saw this materializing.

For Spain, however, the position is “very clear:” It wants to see an immediate halt to the Israel-Hamas conflict, unrestricted humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip, and the implementation of the “two-state solution.”

“We’re calling for a permanent ceasefire, the immediate release of hostages, the immediate access of humanitarian aid, and for a peace conference that will be the framework (for the) implementation of the two-state solution,” Albares said.

“In the end, we all know that as long as the Palestinian people do not have a state, there will be no stable Middle East.

“And we all know the real solution for this situation in the Middle East and for a definitive peace is a state with the West Bank and Gaza under one single Palestinian authority that is connected by a corridor with an exit to the sea and with the capital in East Jerusalem.”

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said that while the 27 member states of the European Union “all want peace” in the region, there were “nuances” in the way they saw this materializing. (AN photo)

Describing the solution as “fair and just” for the Palestinian people, Albares said the two-state model offered Israel the “best guarantee” of achieving domestic security and of avoiding a wider regional conflagration.

However, in his role coordinating Spain’s engagement with the European Union, Albares acknowledged that the proposal was still in the “dialogue” stage, as the bloc sought a way to move forward as a collective unit.

He also noted the “growing concern” in the Global South — a term often used to denote the world’s developing economies — over the bloc’s dithering response to the crisis in Gaza compared to its firm alignment on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“That’s why it’s so important, and I always explain it to my European colleagues, that we maintain the same position: To follow the UN Charter and its principles, whether it’s Ukraine, on which we have a clear position, a very clear position,” Albares told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

“Any country has the right to defend itself from a terrorist attack, Israel as well, but you must do it in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are treated in a hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo)

“There must be a difference between terrorist targets and bombing hospitals, schools, places of prayer, UN headquarters. Refugees are the same. It doesn’t matter the color of their skin, their religion, their sex, they are all the same and they all deserve our protection.”

Speaking to Arab News from Riyadh, during an official tour of three Gulf countries, Albares said Spain shared the opinion of his Arab hosts, with discussions having inevitably turned to the conflict in Gaza and its wider regional ramifications.

Albares praised his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, for his “incredible role” in working towards peace in the region.

Spanish Foreign Minister Albares praised his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, for his “incredible role” in working towards peace in the region. (Supplied)

“We needed a great moment of Euro-Arab unity and we have discussed joining forces to make sure definitive peace comes back to the Middle East,” he said.

“This is what we are calling for and we will not stop calling for that. And my tour in the region, in Riyadh, in the Emirates, it’s carrying this message and in the medium and long term we need the state of Palestine.”

In the interim, Albares said the most pressing need for Gazans is an increase in the amount of humanitarian aid permitted to enter the besieged Palestinian enclave.

“We are not going to stop calling for a permanent ceasefire. A permanent ceasefire and the immediate release of hostages and immediate access of humanitarian aid is what we need in the very short term,” he said.

Aid deliveries, already reduced to a trickle by onerous Israeli border checks, have been further hampered by recent allegations lodged against staff working for the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which caters for Palestinian refugees.

Israeli soldiers operate next to the UNRWA headquarters in the Gaza Strip Feb. 8, 2024. (Reuters)

According to evidence shared with the UN by Israeli intelligence, 12 members of UNRWA staff in Gaza actively participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the death of 1,200 and the kidnap of 240, sparking the current conflict.

In response to the allegations, the US and other major UNRWA donors suspended their funding for the agency, which could be forced to halt its operations throughout the region by the end of the month unless donations are restored.

Asked whether he believed the allegations were true, or whether the funding suspensions were justified, Albares said that 12 people out of 30,000 staff, none of whom had any connection to UNRWA’s leadership, was a “very small number.”

“There are allegations against 12 people and we take this very seriously and we are looking at the conclusion of the inquiry,” he said, referring to the UN agency’s own internal investigation.

“But UNRWA is indispensable. There is no substitute for UNRWA. They are taking care of millions of refugees in Gaza. And in many other places — Lebanon, in Jordan, the West Bank — and what they do in Gaza is absolutely fundamental.”

Palestinians walk past a UNRWA worker in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on February 5, 2024. (REUTERS)

Given the essential role played by UNRWA, Albares said millions of people who depend on its support would go unfed unless funding is restored. That is why Spain intends to up its UNRWA contribution to help stave off the agency’s collapse.

“They give food and emergency aid to refugees, so, if they fail, if they are not sufficiently funded from one day to the other, they will not be able to feed those people,” Albares said.

“This is why we have decided to increase our contribution to around 3.5 million euros, to make sure that UNRWA will be able to function, and this is what I am explaining to all of my European colleagues.”

Spain is not alone among European nations in bolstering its support for UNRWA. Ireland and Norway have likewise renewed their commitment to the agency.



However, these nations alone cannot make up for the huge shortfall created by the suspension of US funding, which had contributed $300-400 million annually. Without this funding, Albares said the region was “heading toward a real humanitarian catastrophe.”

“We are already there. Almost 30,000 Palestinians, civilians, dead. It’s a catastrophe. But here we are talking about something unthinkable — hunger in Gaza,” he said.

“And we can avoid it if we continue giving sufficient funding. That’s why we are increasing. We are showing commitment to the Palestinian refugees in Gaza.”

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said that while the 27 member states of the European Union “all want peace” in the region, there were “nuances” in the way they saw this materializing. (AN photo)

Mindful of the potential misuse of donations, Albares said Spain has a “very tough screening” process for any country to which it is sending aid, adding that the money going to Palestine is “well used.”

He implored countries to restore their donations, pointing out that UNRWA and the UN have not tried to “hide anything.”

“They have their own investigation and they’ve also called for an independent investigation, so, I think they are showing goodwill. Let’s wait until those investigations are carried out,” he said.

“Meanwhile, let’s follow what the secretary-general of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has made an appeal for. Let’s continue funding UNRWA.”


Kuwait names Ahmad Abdullah al-Ahmad al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency says

Updated 6 sec ago

Kuwait names Ahmad Abdullah al-Ahmad al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency says

Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Updated 16 min 52 sec ago

Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

  • Opposition leader: ‘Jewish terrorist violence’ against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank ‘out of control’
  • ‘If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us’

JERUSALEM: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of leading to a “total loss of Israeli deterrence” in the wake of an unprecedented Iranian attack.
In a scathing criticism posted on X, former premier Lapid also said that under Netanyahu, “Jewish terrorist violence” against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank was “out of control.”
Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a coalition with far-right parties, has brought “heaps of destruction from Beeri to Kiryat Shmona,” Lapid said, calling for early elections.
Beeri, a kibbutz community near the Gaza border, came under attack when Hamas militants stormed the area on October 7, triggering the ongoing war, while the northern town of Kiryat Shmona has suffered during months of cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Lapid’s remarks came two days after Iran — which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah — launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.
Israel, the United States and other allies intercepted nearly all launches in the late Saturday aerial attack — the first direct Iranian military action against arch foe Israel.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has weighed Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, but the prime minister has not made any public comments.
In the West Bank, where violence has soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars over the weekend, killing at least two people, after an Israeli teen was “murdered in a suspected terrorist attack,” according to the Israeli military.
Pointing to surging “terrorist” settler attacks, Lapid said: “If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us.”
The government, which includes hard-line settlers, has prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Netanyahu has faced in recent months mass protests over the fate of hostages held in Gaza and pressure from a resurgent anti-government movement.
The prime minister’s Likud party responded to Lapid in a statement stressing Netanyahu’s part in “the global campaign” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which Tehran denies it is seeking.

UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

Updated 19 min 16 sec ago

UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

  • Meetings held between Foreign Office, Rapid Support Forces in bid to end fighting, increase aid supply
  • News criticized by some experts as RSF accused of crimes against humanity

London: The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has revealed that it has held talks with Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The Guardian reported on Monday that a freedom of information request to the FCDO revealed that the UK government had opened diplomatic channels with the RSF, including a meeting on March 6.

The FCDO told the newspaper that the talks were aimed at increasing humanitarian aid flow and access in Sudan, as well as ending the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The RSF has been engaged in a civil war in Sudan for the past year, and has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US, including massacres, mass rape, looting and ethnic cleansing. The UN said the RSF’s activities in Geneina in West Darfur have left 15,000 people dead.

The war has claimed the lives of many thousands of Sudanese civilians, with around 8 million displaced by the fighting.

The UK’s willingness to meet with the RSF has drawn condemnation for what some say is a policy that could normalize a paramilitary group accused of crimes against humanity.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, told The Guardian that although talking to potentially unsavory groups is perceived as necessary in some diplomatic circles, “talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades.”

He added: “When (the RSF are) committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, (the UK is) putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the talks are justifiable as part of efforts to end the war and alleviate civilian suffering.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95 percent of Darfur,” he added.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

However, Maddy Crowther, co-director of the Waging Peace human rights group, described the talks as “a terrible move,” saying negotiating with the RSF could prove futile.

“These talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” she said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

She added that “for the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face,” and that the diaspora will interpret the news as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf.”

An FCDO spokesperson told The Guardian: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence — to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”

Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

Updated 57 min 37 sec ago

Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

  • Fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge
  • On Monday death toll in Gaza reached 33,797 during more than six months of war

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israel struck war-battered Gaza overnight, Hamas and witnesses said Monday, as world leaders urged de-escalation awaiting Israel’s reaction to Iran’s unprecedented attack that heightened fears of wider conflict.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday that at least 33,797 people have been killed in the territory during more than six months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants.
The toll includes at least 68 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, adding that 76,465 people have been wounded in the Gaza Strip since the war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.
World powers have urged restraint after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel late Saturday, though the Israeli military has said nearly all were intercepted.
The Israeli military said it would not be distracted from its war against Tehran-backed Hamas in Gaza, triggered by the Palestinian armed group’s October 7 attack.
“Even while under attack from Iran, we have not lost sight... of our critical mission in Gaza to rescue our hostages from the hands of Iran’s proxy Hamas,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said late Sunday.
As mediators eye a deal to halt the fighting, fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge.
“Hamas is still holding our hostages in Gaza,” Hagari said of the roughly 130 people, including 34 presumed dead, who Israel says remain in the hands of Palestinian militants since the Hamas attack.
“We also have hostages in Rafah, and we will do everything we can to bring them back home,” the military spokesman told a briefing.
The army said it was calling up “two reserve brigades for operational activities,” about a week after withdrawing most ground troops from Gaza.
The Hamas government media office said Israeli aircraft and tanks launched “dozens” of strikes overnight on central Gaza, reporting several casualties.
Witnesses told AFP that strikes hit the Nuseirat refugee camp, with clashes also reported in other areas of central and northern Gaza.
Hamas’s attack that sparked the fighting resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday following the Iranian attack, where Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the region was “on the brink” of war.
“Neither the region nor the world can afford more war,” the UN chief said.
“Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate.”
More than six months of war have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Rumours of a reopened Israeli checkpoint on the coastal road from the territory’s south to Gaza City sent thousands of Palestinians heading north on Sunday, despite Israel denying it was open.
Attempting the journey back to northern Gaza, displaced resident Basma Salman said, “even if it (my house) was destroyed, I want to go there. I couldn’t stay in the south.”
“It’s overcrowded. We couldn’t even take a fresh breath of air there. It was completely terrible.”
In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, civil defense teams said they had retrieved at least 18 bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Responding late Saturday to the latest truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Hamas said it insists on “a permanent ceasefire” and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency called this a “rejection” of the proposal, accusing Hamas of “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran.”
But the United States said mediation efforts continue.
“We’re not considering diplomacy dead there,” said the National Security Council’s Kirby.
“There’s a new deal on the table... It is a good deal” that would see some hostages released, fighting halted and more humanitarian relief into Gaza, he said.

Top Syrian officer faces war crimes charges in Swedish court

Updated 15 April 2024

Top Syrian officer faces war crimes charges in Swedish court

  • Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65 who lives in Sweden, is accused of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and could get a life jail sentence

Stockholm: The highest-ranking Syrian military official to be tried in Europe on Monday appeared before a Stockholm court accused of war crimes during Syria’s civil war.
Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65 who lives in Sweden, is accused of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and could get a life jail sentence.
The war between President Bashar Assad’s regime and armed opposition groups, including Islamic State, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
It has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure.
Wearing a dark blue shirt, jeans and sneakers, Hamo listened carefully and took notes as prosecutor Karolina Wieslander read out the charges.
Wieslander said Hamo had contributed — through “advice and action” — to the Syrian army’s warfare, which “systematically included attacks carried out in violation of the principles of distinction, caution and proportionality.”
“The warfare was thus indiscriminate,” Wieslander told the court.
The charges concern the period of January 1 to July 20, 2012. The trial is expected to last until late May.
The prosecutor said the Syrian army’s “widespread air and ground attacks” caused damage “at a scale that was disproportionate in view of the concrete and immediate general military advantages that could be expected to be achieved.”
In his role as brigadier general and head of an armament division, Hamo allegedly helped coordinate and supply of arms to units.
Hamo’s lawyer, Mari Kilman, told the court her client denied criminal responsibility.
“In any case he has not had the intent toward the main charge, that indiscriminate warfare would be carried out by others,” Kilman said.
Kilman said the officer could not be held liable for the actions “as he had acted in a military context and had to follow orders.”
Hamo also denied all individual charges and argued that Syrian law should be applied.
Several plaintiffs are to testify at the trial, including Syrians from cities that were attacked and a British photographer who was injured during one strike.
“The attacks in and around Homs and Hama in 2012 resulted in widespread civilian harm and an immense destruction of civilian properties,” Aida Samani, senior legal adviser at rights group Civil Rights Defenders, told AFP.
“The same conduct has been repeated systematically by the Syrian army in other cities across Syria with complete impunity.”
This trial will be the first in Europe “to address these types of indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army,” according to Samani, who added that it “will be the first opportunity for victims of the attacks to have their voices heard in an independent court.”
Hamo is the highest-ranking military official to go on trial in Europe, though other countries have tried to bring charges against more senior members.
In March, Swiss prosecutors charged Rifaat Assad, an uncle of President Bashar Assad, with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
However, it remains unlikely Rifaat Assad — who recently returned to Syria after 37 years in exile — will show up for the trial, for which a date has yet to be set.
Swiss law allows for trials in absentia under certain conditions.
In November, France issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar Assad, accusing him of complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes over chemical attacks in 2013.
Three other international warrants were also issued for the arrests of Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, the de-facto chief of the army’s elite Fourth Division and two generals.
In January 2022, a German court sentenced former colonel Anwar Raslan to life jail for crimes against humanity. This was the first international trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria and was hailed by victims as a victory for justice.