Far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions

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Updated 22 May 2024

Far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions

  • The visit was a response to a move by three European countries to unilaterally recognize an independent Palestinian state

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel’s far right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, visited Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound on Wednesday, declaring the contested holy site belongs “only to the state of Israel.”
Ben-Gvir said Wednesday’s visit was a response to a move by three European countries to unilaterally recognize an independent Palestinian state.
“We will not even allow a statement about a Palestinian state,” he said.
The hilltop compound is revered by Jews and Muslims, and the conflicting claims have led to numerous rounds of violence in the past.
Israel allows Jews to visit the compound, but not to pray there. But the visit is likely to be seen around the world as a provocation.
Norway, Ireland and Spain said Wednesday they are recognizing a Palestinian state in a historic move that drew condemnation from Israel and jubilation from the Palestinians. Israel immediately ordered back its ambassadors from Norway and Ireland.
The formal recognition will be made on May 28. The development is a step toward a long-held Palestinian aspiration that came against the backdrop of international outrage over the civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip following Israel’s offensive there.
It was a lightning cascade of announcements. First was Norway, whose Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said “there cannot be peace in the Middle East if there is no recognition.”
“By recognizing a Palestinian state, Norway supports the Arab peace plan,” he said and added that the Scandinavian country will “regard Palestine as an independent state with all the rights and obligations that entails.”
Several European Union countries have in the past weeks indicated that they plan to make the recognition, arguing a two-state solution is essential for lasting peace in the region. The decision may generate momentum for the recognition of a Palestinian state by other EU countries and could spur further steps at the United Nations, deepening Israel’s isolation.
Norway, which is not a member of the EU but mirror its moves, has been an ardent supporter of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The terror has been committed by Hamas and militant groups who are not supporters of a two-state solution and the state of Israel,” the Norwegian government leader said. “Palestine has a fundamental right to an independent state.”
Since the unprecedented attack by Hamas-led militants on Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli forces have led assaults on the northern and southern edges of the Gaza Strip in May, causing a new exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, and sharply restricted the flow of aid, raising the risk of famine.
Wednesday’s announcements come more than 30 years after the first Oslo agreement was signed in 1993. Since then, “the Palestinians have taken important steps toward a two-state solution,” the Norwegian government said.
It added that the World Bank determined that a Palestinian state had met key criteria to function as a state in 2011, that national institutions have been built up to provide the population with important services.
“The war in Gaza and the constant expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank still mean that the situation in Palestine is more difficult than it has been in decades,” it said.
In making his announcement, Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris said the move was coordinated with Spain and Norway — and that it was a “historic and important day for Ireland and for Palestine.” He said it was intended to help move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to resolution through a two-state solution.
Harris said he thinks other countries will join Norway, Spain and Ireland in recognizing a Palestinian state “in the weeks ahead.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Socialist leader since 2018, made the expected announcement to the nation’s Parliament on Wednesday. He had spent months touring European and Middle Eastern countries to garner support for the recognition, as well as for a possible ceasefire in Gaza. He has said several times that he was committed to the move.
“We know that this initiative won’t bring back the past and the lives lost in Palestine, but we believe that it will give the Palestinians two things that are very important for their present and their future: dignity and hope,” Sánchez said.
“This recognition is not against anyone, it is not against the Israeli people,” Sánchez added, while acknowledging that it will most likely cause diplomatic tensions with Israel. “It is an act in favor of peace, justice and moral consistency.”
Sánchez argued that the move is needed to support the viability of a two-state solution that he said “is in serious danger” with the war in Gaza.
“I have spent weeks and months speaking with leaders inside and outside of the region and if one thing is clear is that Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu does not have a project of peace for Palestine, even if the fight against the terrorist group Hamas is legitimate,” the Spanish leader said.
Earlier this month, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Albares said he had informed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken of his government’s intention to recognize a Palestinian state.
Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said “recognition is a tangible step toward a viable political track leading to Palestinian self-determination.”
But in order for it to have an impact, he said, it must come with “tangible steps to counter Israel’s annexation and settlement of Palestinian territory – such as banning settlement products and financial services.”
Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz ordered Israel’s ambassadors from Ireland and Norway to immediately return to Israel. He spoke before Spain’s announcement.
“Ireland and Norway intend to send a message today to the Palestinians and the whole world: terrorism pays,” Katz said.
He said that the recognition could impede efforts to return Israel’s hostages being held in Gaza and makes a ceasefire less likely by “rewarding the jihadists of Hamas and Iran.” He also threatened to recall Israel’s ambassador to Spain if the country takes a similar position.
Regarding the Israeli decision to recall its ambassador in Oslo, Gahr Støre said “we will take note of that. This is a government with which we have many disagreements. What we agree on is to condemn Hamas’s cruel attack on Oct. 7.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking after Norway’s announcement, welcomed the move and called on other countries to follow.
In a statement carried by the official Wafa news agency, Abbas said Norway’s decision will enshrine “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination” and support efforts to bring about a two-state solution with Israel.
Some 140 countries have already recognized a Palestinian state — more than two-thirds of United Nations members — but none of the major Western powers has done so. This move could put more pressure continental heavyweights France and Germany to reconsider their position.
The United States and Britain, among others, have backed the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel as a solution to the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. They insist, however, that Palestinian independence should come as part of a negotiated settlement.
The head of the Arab League called the step taken by the trio of European nations as “a courageous step.”
“I salute and thank the three countries for this step that puts them on the right side of history in this conflict,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit wrote on the social media platform X.
Turkiye also applauded the decision, calling it an important step toward the restoration of the “usurped rights of the Palestinians.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also said the move would help “Palestine gain the status it deserves in the international community.”

Battleground: Jerusalem
The biblical battle for the Holy City



Israeli parliament votes to label UN relief agency a terror organization

Updated 4 sec ago

Israeli parliament votes to label UN relief agency a terror organization

JERUSALEM: The Israeli parliament gave preliminary approval on Monday to a bill that declares the main United Nations relief organization for Palestinians a terrorist organization and proposes to sever relations with the body.
The vote against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) is the latest step in a Israeli push against the agency, which Israeli leaders have accused of collaborating with the Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza.
The bill was approved in a first reading and will be returned to the foreign affairs and defense committee for further deliberation, the Knesset information service said.
The bill’s sponsor, Yulia Malinovsky, was quoted as describing UNRWA as a “fifth column within Israel.”
UNRWA provides education, health and aid to millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It has long had tense relations with Israel but relations have deteriorated sharply since the start of the war in Gaza and Israel has called repeatedly for UNRWA to be disbanded.
“It’s another attempt in a wider campaign to dismantle the agency,” UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma said. “Such steps are unheard of in the history of the United Nations.”
Israel has said hundreds of UNRWA staff are members of terrorist groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but has yet to provide evidence to a UN-appointed review.
Several donor countries halted funding to UNRWA following the Israeli accusations but many have since reversed the decision, including Britain which said last week it would resume funding.
Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority condemned the Israeli vote, and Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior ally of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called on the international community to resist attempts to dissolve the agency.

Sonic booms heard over Beirut as Israeli raids on Lebanon continue

Updated 7 min 25 sec ago

Sonic booms heard over Beirut as Israeli raids on Lebanon continue

  • Lebanon expects extension of UNIFIL mandate for another year, PM says
  • Mikati: ‘No one can guarantee Israel’s intentions’

BEIRUT: Israeli warplanes broke the sound barrier over Beirut, Sidon and other parts of Lebanon on Monday.

The planes conducted mock raids over the Hasbaya area and the occupied Shebaa Farms, reaching as far as Bekaa.

Although hostile operations on the southern front have significantly decreased, sporadic strikes continue.

One Israeli air raid targeted a house in the town of Chihine in the Tyre district.

The raid resulted in injuries, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party reported that one of its members was killed.

A Lebanese Army unit, meanwhile, found the wreckage of a drone in the town of Aaiha in the Rashaya district. Army command did not clarify the nature of the drone or whether it was Israeli-made or from another source.

A Lebanese Army watchtower was attacked by Israel on Sunday night on the outskirts of the town of Alma Al-Shaab in southern Lebanon, resulting in “moderate injuries to two soldiers, who were transferred to a hospital for treatment,” according to the military.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, targeted the Israeli military site of Al-Malikiyah with an attack drone, hitting one of its bunkers.

The developments in the south and the issue of renewing UNIFIL’s mandate, which is on the UN Security Council’s agenda, have been the focus of internal political attention.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said at a meeting with key officials that recent developments “naturally call for caution, but we continue to discuss with concerned parties and engage in necessary diplomatic contacts to prevent matters from spiraling into undesirable consequences.”

He added: “We cannot say there are reassurances and guarantees, as no one can guarantee the Israeli enemy’s intentions. However, we continue our diligent efforts to address the situation.”

Regarding the renewal of the mandate for the international forces operating in the south of Lebanon, Mikati said: “We continue diplomatic contacts to ensure a calm extension of UNIFIL’s mandate, whose essential role in the south we highly appreciate, along with the fruitful cooperation between them and the army.

“From the contacts we have made, we have sensed a keenness to maintain this role, especially under the delicate circumstances the south is going through.”

Speaking after a meeting with Mikati, Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib said he informed the prime minister that “there is a quasi-agreement to renew the work of UNIFIL forces for one year, under the same conditions and without any modifications.”

Bou Habib, who briefed Mikati upon his return from New York, also said that US and European officials he met with emphasized “the importance of not expanding the war and working to avoid escalating military actions in the south.”

He added: “There is a kind of optimism, or less pessimism, about the outbreak of a wide war in Lebanon.”

Also on Monday, a group of opposition MPs submitted a petition requesting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri hold a session to discuss the repercussions of the ongoing conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli military, now in its 10th month. 

The opposition MPs — Georges Okais, Mark Daou, Ashraf Rifi, and Salim Sayegh — demanded Berri “hold a parliamentary session at the earliest opportunity to discuss the ongoing war, prevent its escalation, and ensure that the government fulfills its constitutional duties.”

In their petition, the parliamentarians called for diplomatic efforts to return to the 1949 ceasefire agreement and fully implement UN Resolution 1701.

They stressed the need to put an end to military actions “outside the framework of the Lebanese state and its institutions, declare a state of emergency in the south, hand over control to the army, and allow it to respond to any attack on Lebanese territory.”

They referred to the “escalation and threats reaching the highest level since Oct. 8, and the increasing fears of the expansion of the ongoing war, which has cost us hundreds of Lebanese lives and thousands of destroyed residential units so far, in addition to the economic and environmental damage caused by daily Israeli attacks, and the repercussions of this in light of the political and economic crises plaguing the country, and the obstruction of electing a president for the country.”

Nabil Qaouk, a member of the Central Council of Hezbollah, stated that Israel had put the region “on a path of escalation.”

He said that “the support fronts in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen have entered a new phase, introducing new field equations through which we hope to increase pressure on the Israeli enemy to stop the aggression on the Gaza Strip.”

West Bank village lives in constant fear of Israeli settler raids

Updated 11 min 25 sec ago

West Bank village lives in constant fear of Israeli settler raids

SUSYA, Palestinian Territories: The stress shows on the face of Samiha Ismail, who since Oct. 7 has been stuck in her home in an occupied West Bank village that lives in constant fear of attack by Israeli settlers.

The day after the Hamas raid into southern Israel, settlers entered Susya, a hilltop village in the south of the West Bank, vowing retribution and “humiliation,” the 53-year-old Palestinian recalled.

More than nine months on, Ismail is among 450 inhabitants who spend most of the day indoors. Even their sheep are not allowed out of their sheds.

“Every time we take them to pasture, the settlers chase us,” said the panicked Ismail.

Instead, the sheep of Israeli settlers now dot the nearby hills.

Susya’s inhabitants say their livelihood has gone. 

One international aid group has sent counselors to help Susya residents with their mental health.

“Before the war, we would have defended our land, but today, nobody moves,” she said.

The settlers are armed and protected by the army, she added, and her husband and son have been “beaten up” several times.

Since the start of the Gaza war, Israeli settlement of the occupied West Bank — considered illegal under international law — has hit new records.

Excluding annexed East Jerusalem, some 490,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank alongside some 3 million Palestinians.

In June, the Israeli government declared more than 12 sq. km. of the West Bank to be state land, the largest land appropriation since the 1993 Oslo Accords set out the foundations for land use in the territory.

Land that is declared as Israeli state property can be used for more settlements.

In addition, 25 settlement outposts — not even authorized by Israel — have sprung up across the West Bank since the start of the year, according to Peace Now, a settlement watchdog.

Men in military fatigues have meanwhile raided Susya at night, kicking down doors and looting property, including donkeys and mules, locals said.

Some have even entered houses at night to intimidate residents.

“Most of us no longer sleep at night,” Ismail said.

Mohamed Al-Nawajaa, 78, was born before the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948 — known as the Nakba, or catastrophe, to Palestinians.

“After October 7, they took all these hills. We were kicked out in 1948, 1967 ... and again in 2024. But this land is ours,” the shepherd said, his head wrapped in a traditional keffiyeh scarf.

Israel’s offensive has killed at least 39,006 people in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to data from the Health Ministry in the territory.

Since the war erupted, violence has soared in the West Bank, with at least 579 Palestinians killed in violence with settlers or Israeli troops, according to the Palestinian authorities.

At least 16 Israelis, including soldiers, have been killed in attacks involving Palestinians, according to official Israeli figures.

Nawajaa said his biggest concern is his grandchildren. He does not let them leave the house.

He said the settlers had struck him and left him lying on the floor of his house. Others in the village have had similar experiences.

“They come at night, around 3 a.m. They say, ‘this house is mine,’” he said

The harassment has frayed nerves in Susya. The Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, charity set up tent clinics this year due to concerns for the villagers’ mental health.

“There is no doubt that this is the biggest problem here,” said Simona Onidi, an MSF coordinator. 

“We can’t talk about post-traumatic disorder here. It’s never post; it’s a permanent trauma.”

Abdul Rahim Al-Nawajaa is despondent about the future. “The suffering is endless,” said the 60-year-old Bedouin as he pruned his acacia tree, the only one left standing since his olive trees were “vandalized.”

Settlers killed his father a few years ago in a dispute over a sheep and have demolished Abdul’s house “several times.”

“The settlers act in total impunity. A soldier might put a gun to your head, and you can’t do anything,” the shepherd said.

Fears of a new forced exodus stalk Susya. But Mohamed Al-Nawajaa defiantly declared: “We will stay in our houses.”

Iraq hangs 10 convicted of ‘terrorism’: security and health sources

Under Iraqi law, terrorism and murder offenses are punishable by death, and execution decrees must be signed by the president.
Updated 22 July 2024

Iraq hangs 10 convicted of ‘terrorism’: security and health sources

  • Health official said 10 Iraqis “convicted of terrorism crimes and of being members of the Daesh group were executed by hanging” at Al-Hut prison in Nasiriyah

NASIRIYAH: Iraqi authorities on Monday hanged 10 people convicted of “terrorism,” security and health sources said.
Courts have handed down hundreds of death and life imprisonment sentences in recent years to Iraqis convicted of “terrorism.”
Under Iraqi law, terrorism and murder offenses are punishable by death, and execution decrees must be signed by the president.
A health official said 10 Iraqis “convicted of terrorism crimes and of being members of the Daesh group were executed by hanging” at Al-Hut prison in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
A security source confirmed the executions.
They were hanged under Article 4 of the anti-terrorism law and the health department had received their bodies, the health official told AFP.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Al-Hut is a notorious prison in Nasiriyah whose Arabic name means “the whale,” because Iraqis believe those jailed there never walk out alive.

Egypt keen to work with partners to find swift solution to Sudan crisis, foreign minister says

Updated 22 July 2024

Egypt keen to work with partners to find swift solution to Sudan crisis, foreign minister says

  • African Union official praises Cairo during talks in Ghana for its pivotal role in efforts to enhance regional security and stability
  • FM Abdelatty emphasized the need for increased consultation and coordination between member states and the union’s agencies

CAIRO: Egypt earned praise during talks on Monday in Accra, Ghana, for the pivotal role it plays in efforts to enhance security and stability on the African continent.

Bankole Adeoye, the African Union’s commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, said he was keen to continue to coordinate with Cairo on all priority issues related to the bloc.

It came as he held talks with Badr Abdelatty, Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs, emigration and Egyptian expatriates, on the sidelines of the sixth Mid-Year Coordination Meeting of the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities.

They discussed the latest political and security developments in the crisis in Sudan and agreed on the need to unite the country’s civil political forces, preserve national unity and institutions, and coordinate regional and international mediation.

Abdelatty said Egypt was aware of the seriousness of the situation and eager to work with all partners and mechanisms to resolve the crisis swiftly. He stressed the importance of fully involving Sudan in talks about ways to resolve the situation, to preserve “our Sudanese brothers’ ownership of these solutions and proposals.”

The minister welcomed consultations and coordination with the African Union’s commissioner on peace and security in Africa. He said Egypt remains committed to support of the organization and its agencies, and to participation in its Peace and Security Council, in pursuit of peace and stability.

Abdelatty emphasized the need for increased consultation and coordination between member states and the union’s agencies in response to escalating security challenges on the continent, the expanding scope of conflicts and the associated human suffering.

He also outlined Egypt’s agenda and planned activities for its chairmanship of the Peace and Security Council in October. He said its plans prioritize the operationalization of the African Union Center for Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development, an effort that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has led within the union to support countries facing multiple crises.

Egypt welcomed the approval by the Peace and Security Council of a request from the Somali government to extend the time frame for the third phase of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, Abdelatty said. He highlighted plans for the deployment of a new mission in the country when the current one expires, and emphasized the need to support the Somali government’s efforts to enhance security and stability.

Adeoye and Abdelatty also discussed other issues of mutual concern, including the Great Lakes issue, the Renaissance Dam, security challenges in the Red Sea, and the situation in the Horn of Africa.