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

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Updated 22 May 2024
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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.”

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South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

Updated 6 sec ago
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South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

  • The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people

JUBA, South Sudan: South Sudan ‘s vice president said Thursday that peace talks in neighboring Kenya have failed to acknowledge the country’s peace agreement established in 2018, alleging a new draft agreement is aimed at replacing the original peace deal.
Riek Machar in a protest letter to the talks’ mediator said the draft established alternative institutions to replace or run in parallel with those established by the previous peace agreement. He added that the current peace talks should complement and not obliterate the original deal.
The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people. Machar and Kiir were on opposite sides in the war and Machar was appointed vice president after the 2018 deal. His group isn’t part of the current talks, which are for groups that were not included in the 2018 agreement.
Despite the peace deal, violence in South Sudan has continued, most of it attributed to rebel groups and warring ethnic groups.
The body mandated with monitoring the implementation of the 2018 peace deal raised concerns in May over the slow implementation of election related tasks with only a few months left until December elections.
Opposition groups that were not part of the 2018 peace agreement have been in talks in Kenya since May 9 aimed at bringing groups on board ahead of the December elections.
The talks have resulted in a draft agreement that recommends an extension of the transitional period to provide more time for election preparations.
President Kiir on Thursday received a progress report from government representatives in the ongoing talks with the government spokesperson telling media that participants in the talks are close to reaching a final agreement.

 


Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

Updated 21 June 2024
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Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

  • Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said Sunday that it was establishing a new safe corridor to deliver aid into southern Gaza. But days later, this self-declared “tactical pause” has brought little relief to desperate Palestinians.
The United Nations and international aid organizations say a breakdown in law and order has made the aid route unusable.
With thousands of truckloads of aid piled up, groups of armed men are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media on the issue.
He said lawlessness has emerged as the main obstacle to aid distribution in southern Gaza — where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from Rafah, or more than half of Gaza’s entire population, are now sheltering in tent camps and cramped apartments without adequate food, water, or medical supplies.
Here is a closer look at the security challenges facing the UN and aid organizations.
Israel’s ‘tactical pause’ stymied
Israel said Sunday it would observe daily pauses in combat along a route stretching from Kerem Shalom — the strip’s only operational aid crossing in the south — to the nearby city of Khan Younis. Before the pause, aid organizations had reported that the need to coordinate trucks’ movement with the Israelis in an active combat zone was slowing aid distribution.
The UN official familiar with the aid effort said that there has been no sign of Israeli activity along the route. The UN tried to send a convoy of 60 trucks down the road Tuesday to pick up aid at Kerem Shalom. But 35 of the trucks were intercepted by armed men, the official said.
In recent days, armed men have moved closer to the crossing and set up roadblocks to halt trucks loaded with supplies, the UN official said. They have rifled through the pallets in search of smuggled cigarettes, a rare luxury in a territory where a single smoke can go for $25.
The surge in lawlessness is a result of growing desperation in Gaza and the power vacuum that left by Hamas’s waning power over the territory, said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza who is now in Cairo.
With the territory’s police force targeted by Israel, he said, crime has reemerged as an untreated issue in Gaza.
“After Hamas came to power, one of the things that they brought under their control was the lawlessness of the so-called big clans,” said Abusada. “Now, that’s left for the Palestinians on their own to deal with it. So once again, we are seeing shootings between families, there are thefts, all the bad things are happening.”
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, used to deploy local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah, the agency said.
Israel says the police are legitimate targets because they are controlled by Hamas.
Is any aid still getting into Gaza?
The situation has largely paralyzed aid distribution to the south — particularly since Gaza’s nearby Rafah crossing with Egypt was closed when Israel invaded the city early last month.
The UN official said that 25 trucks of flour used the route Tuesday. Some private commercial trucks also got through — many of which used armed security to deter groups seeking to seize their cargo. An AP reporter stationed along the road Monday saw at least eight trucks pass by, armed security guards riding on top.
Before Israel’s offensive into the city of Rafah, hundreds of fuel trucks routinely entered the area.
The UN has now begun rerouting some fuel trucks through northern Gaza. Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman, said five fuel trucks entered Gaza Wednesday. The UN humanitarian office reported that these were the first fuel deliveries since early June and supplies remain scarce.
Aid groups say only a ceasefire and a reopening of the Rafah crossing could significantly increase aid flow to the area.
The military body in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, COGAT, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Security concerns also afflict aid from US pier project
The US installed a pier off Gaza’s coast last month, aiming to provide an additional route for aid to enter Gaza. But the ambitious project has suffered repeated logistical and security setbacks.
Cyprus, a partner in the effort, said the pier was up and running again Thursday after being detached for a second time last week because of rough seas. COGAT said Thursday there were “hundreds of aid pallets awaiting collection and distribution by the UN aid agencies.”
But there, too, security concerns are hindering distribution of aid.
The UN suspended its cooperation with the pier on June 9 – a day after rumors swirled that the Israeli military had used the area in a hostage rescue operation that left over 270 Palestinians dead. Photos of the operation have shown an Israeli helicopter in the vicinity of the pier.
Both Israel and the US deny the pier was used in the operation. But the perception that the pier was used for military purposes could endanger humanitarian workers, and threaten humanitarian groups’ principles of of neutrality, the UN says.
Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders.
UN and other humanitarian officials, including Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, met with Israel’s military chief and COGAT officials this week to seek solutions.
USAID said afterward that the meeting ended with promises of specific actions, but gave no details.


Lebanon’s Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?

Updated 20 June 2024
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Lebanon’s Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?

  • Many of the Shiite Muslim group’s weapons are Iranian, Russian or Chinese models

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah has drawn on an expanded arsenal in ongoing hostilities with Israel, with leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah saying in a speech on Wednesday the Iran-backed group had obtained new weapons.
He did not identify the new weapons, but said they would “emerge in the field.”
Hezbollah’s latest conflict with Israel, which has raged in parallel with the Gaza war, has raised concerns of further escalation between the regional enemies, which last fought a major war in 2006.
Here is a snapshot of Hezbollah’s arsenal:

AN OVERVIEW
Hezbollah’s military strength is underpinned by upwards of 150,000 missiles and rockets of various types and ranges, according to the World Factbook of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Hezbollah says it has rockets that can hit all areas of Israel. Many of them are unguided, but it also has precision missiles, drones and anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.
Hezbollah’s main supporter and weapons supplier is Iran. Analysts say Tehran sends arms to the group by land via Iraq and Syria, both Middle Eastern countries where Iran has close ties and influence. Many of the Shiite Muslim group’s weapons are Iranian, Russian or Chinese models.
Nasrallah said in 2021 the group has 100,000 fighters. The CIA World Factbook says it was estimated in 2022 to have up to 45,000 fighters, split between roughly 20,000 full-time and 25,000 reserve personnel.

ANTI-TANK MISSILES
Hezbollah used guided anti-tank missiles extensively in the 2006 war. It has deployed guided rockets again in the latest hostilities. These include the Russian-made Kornet.
Hezbollah has also used an Iranian-made guided missile known as “al-Mas,” according to a report by the pro-Iran Arabic broadcaster Al-Mayadeen.
A report by Israel’s Alma Research and Education Center published in April described the Al-Mas as an anti-tank weapon that can hit targets beyond the line of sight following an arched trajectory, enabling it to strike from above.
The missile is part of a family of weapons made by Iran through reverse engineering based on the Israeli Spike missile family, the report said. It said the missile was a “flagship product” of Iran’s defense industry in Hezbollah’s possession.
ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILES
Hezbollah said on June 6 it had fired at an Israeli warplane. A source familiar with its arsenal said it was the first time the group had done so, calling it a milestone, while declining to identify the weapon used.
Hezbollah has also shot down Israeli drones during this conflict using surface-to-air missiles.
The first such incident was on Oct. 29 when Hezbollah for the first time said it had used anti-aircraft weaponry it had long been thought to have.
Hezbollah has used such missiles several times since, downing Israeli Hermes 450 and Hermes 900 drones.

DRONES
Hezbollah has repeatedly launched explosive one-way drones, including in some of its more complicated attacks. It launched some to distract Israeli air defenses, while explosives-laden drones were flown at targets.
More recently, the group has announced attacks that use drones that drop bombs and return to Lebanon, rather than just flying at their targets.
Hezbollah’s drones include what it says are the locally-assembled Ayoub and Mersad models, which analysts say are cheap and relatively easy to produce.

LAND-ATTACK ROCKETS AND MISSILES
Unguided rockets comprised the bulk of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal in the last war with Israel in 2006, when the group fired about 4,000 of them into Israel — mostly Russian-made Katyusha-style missiles with a range of up to 30 km (19 miles).
Nasrallah has said the biggest change in Hezbollah’s arsenal since 2006 is the expansion of its precision guidance systems.
In 2022, he said Hezbollah had the ability within Lebanon to retrofit thousands of rockets with guidance systems to make them precision missiles.
Hezbollah has Iranian models, such as Raad (Arabic for Thunder), Fajr (Dawn) and Zilzal (Earthquake) rockets, which have a more powerful payload and longer range than Katyushas.
Rockets fired by Hezbollah at Israel during the Gaza conflict since October have included Katyushas and Burkan (volcano) missiles with an explosive payload of 300-500 kg.
Its Iranian-made Falaq 2 rockets it used for the first time on June 8, could carry a bigger warhead than the Falaq 1 used in the past.
Hinting at the damage it could do, Nasrallah in 2016 made a veiled threat that Hezbollah could hit ammonia storage tanks in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, saying the result would be “like a nuclear bomb.”

ANTI-SHIP MISSILES
Hezbollah first proved it had anti-ship missiles in 2006, when it hit an Israeli warship 16 km (10 miles) off the coast, killing four Israeli personnel and damaging the vessel.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has acquired the Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missile with a range of 300 km (186 miles), sources familiar with its arsenal say. Hezbollah has not confirmed it has the weapon.
Hezbollah has also broadcast videos that it says show more of the same type of anti-ship missile used in 2006.

 


Activists file torture complaint against Iranian held in France

Bashir Biazar. (Photo/social media)
Updated 20 June 2024
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Activists file torture complaint against Iranian held in France

  • It accuses Biazar of complicity in torture due to his past work with Iranian state broadcasting conglomerate IRIB, describing him as a former director of production there

PARIS: Activists said on Thursday they were filing a torture complaint against an Iranian citizen held in France who was reportedly a former senior figure in state television in the country.
During strained relations between Paris and Tehran, Bashir Biazar has been held in administrative detention in France since June 3, pending expulsion from the country for separate reasons.
His lawyer has denounced his detention and planned expulsion as “political,” while officials in Iran have condemned France over his arrest and urged his release.
Activist group Iran Justice and victims of human rights violations filed the complaint against Biazar in Paris. If the court decides to follow up, he could be kept in France to stand trial.
It accuses Biazar of complicity in torture due to his past work with Iranian state broadcasting conglomerate IRIB, describing him as a former director of production there.
Iranian state media have described him as a “cultural figure.”
The complaint refers to the regular broadcasts by Iranian state television of statements by — and even interviews with — Iranian or foreign prisoners, which activists regard as forced confessions.
There are “serious indications” that Biazar could have been “personally involved” in recording such broadcasts, said lawyer Chirinne Ardakani.

 


Netanyahu says Israel needs US ammunition in ‘war for its existence’

Updated 20 June 2024
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Netanyahu says Israel needs US ammunition in ‘war for its existence’

  • The Israeli leader’s comments came after he angered Washington with a video statement this week accusing it of “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel“
  • US officials have said they were not aware of what Netanyahu was referring to

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday the country needs ammunition from the United States in “the war for its existence,” directly addressing the White House after it criticized him for complaining about arms deliveries related to the Gaza war.
“I am prepared to suffer personal attacks provided that Israel receives the ammunition from the US that it needs in the war for its existence,” he said in a statement.
The Israeli leader’s comments came after he angered Washington with a video statement this week accusing it of “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel.”
US officials have said they were not aware of what Netanyahu was referring to.
“Those comments were deeply disappointing and certainly vexing to us, given the amount of support that we have and will continue to provide,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists earlier on Thursday.
Washington said that there is only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs that is under review because of concerns about their use in densely populated areas in Gaza.
Kirby separately said that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is due to meet his Israeli counterpart Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer on Thursday.
Washington is Israel’s main military backer, but the White House has voiced frustration over the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, where Israel has conducted more than eight months of operations against Hamas.