Frankly Speaking: Biden’s peace plan — too little, too late?

Short Url
Updated 09 June 2024

Frankly Speaking: Biden’s peace plan — too little, too late?

  • Hala Rharrit explains the precise reasons behind her recent resignation as the US State Department’ Arab language spokesperson
  • Underscores urgency of suspending arms sales to Israel, fears that US actions may radicalize a generation of Muslim and Arab youth

DUBAI: Hala Rharrit, who resigned as the US State Department’s Arabic-language spokesperson on April 24 over the government’s stance on Gaza, has commended President Joe Biden’s peace proposal, saying “this will hopefully alleviate some of the suffering; we’ll have to wait and see.” However, she expressed concern that he US is violating international law by continuing to sell weapons to Israel.

Appearing on Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” Rharrit said she was pleased to hear President Biden calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but cautioned that the peace plan neither addressed US arms sales to Israel, nor committed to creating a Palestinian state.

Biden outlined on May 31 a three-phase ceasefire proposal, beginning with Israeli troops pulling out of Gaza’s cities, releasing humanitarian aid, and freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas returning some of the hostages and captured Israeli soldiers.

Under the plan, the warring sides would then discuss a full hostage release and military withdrawal, followed by multilateral talks to rebuild Gaza without rearming Hamas. One week into the US pressure campaign, the world still is waiting for signs that the ceasefire appeal is working.

“First and foremost, the priority is to stop the fighting and stop the violence by any means necessary,” Rharrit told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen during an interview that explored the motives and timing for her resignation from the State Department among other topics.

“I think we can see that there’s been intense suffering and every day that this conflict continues, there are more lives that are lost in Gaza. And I was very pleased to see that the president from the podium was advocating for a ceasefire and saying it is now time for this war to end.

“Of course, it is horrific that it’s taking this long. And I’m also very concerned that we have not stopped our US weapons flow to Israel.

“It does not address the fact that we are still in violation of US and international law, for all intents and purposes, and that we continue to supply deadly ammunition, offensive weaponry to the state of Israel. And that also needs to stop.

“And obviously the issue of a two-state solution and the Palestinian right to self-determination needs to be included in that. But, for the immediate term, we need a ceasefire. We need the weapons to stop dropping and we need the Gazans to be able to breathe and to live.”

Appearing on Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” Rharrit said she was pleased to hear President Biden calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but warned it did not prevent US arms sales to Israel nor commit to creating a Palestinian state. (AN Photo)

Rharrit was neither the first nor the last administration official to quit over the issue. Nearly a month earlier, Annelle Sheline of the State Department’s human rights bureau announced her resignation, and State Department official Josh Paul resigned in October.

A senior official in the US Education Department, Tariq Habash, who is Palestinian-American, stepped down in January, and Lily Greenberg-Call became the latest to go in mid-May when she left her position at the Department of the Interior.

Rharrit said she resigned after failing to influence the administration’s position from within and because the government’s stance made it “impossible” to promote US interests abroad. “I did it, really, to follow my conscience, and I did it, really, in service of my country,” said Rharrit.

“I became a diplomat 18 years ago to help the US promote its interests throughout the world, specifically in the Arab world, and to strengthen ties throughout this particular region. And I felt like I could effectively do that for the last 18 years. This policy unfortunately made it impossible.

“I saw that there was mass killing in Gaza that my government unfortunately was enabling through the continuous flow of US weapons. I could go on and on about the atrocities that we all bear witness to these last few months.

“I did everything I could since Oct. 7 to try to dissuade the US position, to try to help the situation. But after a while, it became clear that the policy was not shifting. And so I decided to submit my resignation, also to speak out on behalf of the US, not as a diplomat, but as an American citizen, to try to help the situation from the outside.”

Challenged by Jensen on whether it was the US policy itself that she objected to or the talking points the administration made her deliver as Arabic-language spokesperson, Rharrit said her opposition was not “based on personal reasons.” Rather it was intended to serve US interest in the face of “growing anti-American sentiment” in the Middle East.

Elaborating on the issue, she said: “The talking points I was expected to deliver to this part of the world really failed to acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians. You cannot speak about one people without speaking about the suffering of another people. ... I had intense pushback and I actually refused to do interviews on Gaza.”

She added: “I was opposed to the policy based on my experience and my regional expertise in the Middle East and what I’ve done for my country in this part of the world.”

Rharrit also emphasized that she was actually a political affairs officer (“This is what I have done my entire career”), citing her previous postings as a political and human rights officer in Yemen and deputy political economic chief in Qatar.

“My latest position was as spokesperson and I was the one that was supposed to go out on Arab television and promote this policy. I did not become a diplomat to promote a war and I certainly didn’t become a diplomat to promote a plausible genocide.

“So, from the very beginning there were major concerns that I made very clear about our talking points that they were, indeed, dehumanizing to the Palestinians, that they did not acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, that they tried to gloss over the suffering of Palestinians.

“And why I made that point is that, as spokespeople, our job was not just to be communicators; our job was to be effective communicators. And what I was documenting on a daily basis, and reporting back to Washington, was that what we were saying was creating anti-American sentiment. Generating a backlash. And that, in itself, was not in the interests of the US.”

Israel launched its retaliatory assault in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, which saw some 1,200 people killed and 240 taken hostage. Over the course of the eight-month conflict, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza health officials.

Asked by Jensen why it took so long — and the deaths of so many civilians — before she “developed a conscience” and resigned, Rharrit said she had hoped to influence the administration’s stance from within by communicating the sentiments of the Arab street.

“I believed in my government. I continue to believe in my government despite all of it. And I felt it was my duty and my responsibility to stay on and make my voice heard,” she said.

“Part of what I did as spokesperson was generate daily reports back to Washington covering pan-Arab media — not just traditional media but (also) social media. And we all have been witnessing what has been happening on Arab social media, specifically everything that has been coming out of Gaza.

“I needed and I wanted Washington to see this and I sent those images that were going viral, of the toddlers being killed, of the children being burnt. I sent these images to Washington to wake up their conscience as well to show them that Americans were being blamed for this, not just the Israelis, and that is fundamentally not in the US interest.

“I felt it was my duty as an American diplomat to stay on and do it and say that. But, unfortunately, as you said, it became abundantly clear that there were no red lines and it was intensely disheartening, day after day, week after week, month after month, to see that we would continue to send more and more arms.

“And I would stress, that is in violation of US law in addition to international law. And that is why I eventually submitted my resignation after countless conversations internally, which basically made me feel like no matter what I would do, no matter what anybody else would do, the position wasn’t changing.”

A woman and child walk among debris, aftermath of Israeli strikes at the area, where Israeli hostages were rescued on Saturday, as Palestinian death toll rises to 274, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. (Reuters)

Although they did not resign in “any coordinated manner,” Rharrit said she was in regular contact with other former administration officials who quit over the issue and who hope to continue to change attitudes in Washington.

Rharrit concurred that the stance adopted by the Biden administration could radicalize a generation of Muslim and Arab youth, potentially creating a Hamas 2.0 capable of replicating attacks like the one that befell Israel on Oct. 7.

“This was my argument for months, every single day, that, again if you want to even ignore the plight of the Palestinians, even if you are choosing to not acknowledge their humanity, this is not in the interests of the Israeli people, because all this will do is generate an endless cycle of violence, and this cycle of revenge,” she said.

“And that does not serve Israeli interests and it certainly does not serve the US. It will continue to destabilize the Middle East for generations to come. All the countries in this region will have to deal with that.

“Violence is not the answer. Bombs are not the answer. A political solution which actually recognizes the dignity and the humanity of the Palestinians, establishes a state of self-determination for the Palestinians, that is the only solution to this, and the only thing that really can counter extremism. And we’ve seen that. And that’s what we need to get to, that type of political resolution.”

Of course, Washington’s stance on Gaza could soon change if Biden fails to secure a second term in November’s presidential election and his Republican rival Donald Trump returns to the White House.

Whatever the outcome, Rharrit expects Gaza will weigh heavily on the election.
“I think it will weigh intensely,” she said. “Because I think young Americans have been consuming all of this carnage on their phones and they’ve risen up. It’s awakened their consciousness not just in terms of Gaza, but in terms of so many injustices in this world.

“And they’re seeing through a lot that the government has sort of tried to promote and they’re demanding a change. They’re demanding social change. And it doesn’t matter what walks of life.

“And I want to stress this, that a lot of this movement, it’s not about an us vs. them narrative. Not at all. People that are supporting the Palestinians in Gaza come from all faiths, all backgrounds. And it’s for the sake of humanity and nothing else.”



Iraq resumes rice cultivation after two-year ban with new climate friendly strain

Updated 59 min 16 sec ago

Iraq resumes rice cultivation after two-year ban with new climate friendly strain

  • Iraq is one of the world’s top 10 importers of rice and wheat, to supply a huge food rationing program held over from the era of former ruler Saddam Hussein

BAGHDAD: Iraq has resumed rice cultivation after a two-year ban prompted by water scarcity, and is testing out a strain of the grain that consumes less water than traditionally planted versions.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture Mahdi Sahar Al-Jubouri told Reuters the country has earmarked 150 sq km (58 sq miles) for rice growing this season and forecast a yield of 150,000 tons, as officials said water is more abundant due to heavy winter rainfall and the promise of more water flows from Turkiye.
This follows a two-year production ban which saw just 5 to 10 sq km of rice planted annually for the purpose of seed extraction, amid a water crisis that experts say was tied to upstream dams built by Turkiye and Iran, less rainfall and other climate change-driven factors.
Iraq is one of the world’s top 10 importers of rice and wheat, to supply a huge food rationing program held over from the era of former ruler Saddam Hussein.
Decades ago, the country grew most of its own rice and exported wheat and barley and at one time was the world’s top exporter of dates, until problems with soil salinity, poor irrigation systems, drought and decades of conflict all hit its agricultural sector and made it a major buyer on world markets.
Iraq will still need to import around 1.25 million tons of rice this year to meet domestic demand, the same as last year, grain board officials said.

Rice farming in Iraq typically begins in June and concludes with a harvest in November.
Several varieties of rice are grown, with the Amber rice, known for its unique aroma and flavour, the most popular.
Iraqi agricultural scientists have developed a new strain of rice, named Ghiri, which is a hybrid of the Amber and Jasmine varieties and can be planted using fixed sprayers without the need for flooding. It has been planted on a small scale this season under trial after being tested at the Al-Mishkhab Research Station last year.
Plans are in place to broaden its cultivation in future seasons, Jubouri said in an interview with Reuters.
The government aims for the sector to transition from the traditional irrigation method, which involves flooding the crop with water, to using fixed irrigation systems and mechanical seeders.
Farmers adopting modern agricultural methods like sprinkler systems will be offered incentives akin to the support provided for wheat production such as higher prices for their produce, Jubouri said.
For the current 2024 season, rice farming has been permitted in five provinces: Najaf, Diwaniyah, Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Babel. Najaf province has been allocated the largest share.
Muhsin Abdul Ameer, head of the farmers’ association in Najaf province, said that approximately 80 sq km of agricultural land in the province has been planted, representing about 37 percent of the total agricultural land allocated across the country. The planted varieties include Amber, Jasmine and Euphrates rice.
Abdul Ameer said the planting season in Najaf province, which began in the middle of June, has now been completed.
The water, agriculture and marshes committee in the Iraqi parliament said rainfall last winter and pledges from Turkiye to increase Iraq’s access to water released from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that originate in Turkiye had enabled the resumption of rice growing.
Lawmaker Hussain Mardan, deputy chairman of the committee, told Reuters that agricultural land will be expanded in the coming years by adopting drip irrigation methods for rice, which are currently under study, potentially reaching 1,000 sq km.

Canadian citizen attempted a stabbing attack in Israel, Israeli police say

Updated 22 July 2024

Canadian citizen attempted a stabbing attack in Israel, Israeli police say

JERUSALEM: Israeli police said on Monday that a Canadian citizen attempted a stabbing attack in a southern Israeli town and was "neutralised".
The police referred to the incident as a terrorist attack.

Houthi harbor still ablaze days after Israel strikes on Yemen

Updated 22 July 2024

Houthi harbor still ablaze days after Israel strikes on Yemen

  • Hodeidah port is a vital entry point for fuel imports and international aid for Houthi-held areas of Yemen, a country where the United Nations says more than half the population relies on humanitarian assistance

HODEIDAH: Firefighting teams on Monday were struggling to contain a massive blaze at Yemen’s Hodeida port, days after a deadly Israeli strike hit oil tanks and a power plant in the harbor.
Heavy flames and black smoke were seen spiralling into the sky for a third consecutive day following the strike on Saturday, said an AFP correspondent in Hodeidah.
Firefighting teams appear to have made little progress, with the blaze seemingly expanding in some parts of the port, the correspondent said, amid fears it could reach food storage facilities.
High-resolution satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies showed flames consuming a heavily damaged fuel storage area at the Hodeidah harbor.
The fuel depot is run by the Yemen Petroleum Company which said late Sunday that the six people killed in the Israel strike were its employees.
The Houthis say more than 80 others were wounded in the attack, many of them with severe burns.
With black smoke billowing overhead, a funeral ceremony was held Monday for the victims of the strikes.
Their coffins were carried through the streets of Hodeidah, flanked by crowds and led by a Houthi marching band.
The strike on Saturday was the first by Israel on the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country and came in response to a Houthi drone strike that breached Israel’s air defenses, killing one person in Tel Aviv the day before.
The Houthis, who are fighting Israel, have pledged a “huge” response to the strikes and threatened to once again attack Tel Aviv.
Yemeni port authorities said Hodeidah “is operating at its full capacity,” according to the rebels’ Saba news agency.
“We are working around the clock to receive all ships and there is no concern about the supply chain and supplies of food, medicine, and oil derivatives,” port official Nasr Al-Nusairi was quoted by Saba as saying on Sunday.
But the US-based Navanti Group said the strikes on Hodeidah destroyed five cranes and reduced the port’s fuel storage capacity from 150,000 to 50,000 tons.
Hodeidah port is a vital entry point for fuel imports and international aid for Houthi-held areas of Yemen, a country where the United Nations says more than half the population relies on humanitarian assistance.
“Hodeidah port is a vital lifeline for delivering humanitarian aid to Yemen,” the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in an emailed statement to AFP.
“Any impact on this infrastructure jeopardizes the entry of essential goods and hampers aid efforts.”

UAE jails 57 Bangladeshis, including 3 for life, over riots

Updated 22 July 2024

UAE jails 57 Bangladeshis, including 3 for life, over riots

  • Life imprisonment handed to three people who called for the demonstrations to pressure their home government
  • The remaining 53 defendants received 10-year prison terms

ABU DHABI: The UAE has imprisoned 57 Bangladeshis, including 3 for life, for inciting riots on Friday in several streets across the country, state news agency WAM reported.

The Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal handed the life imprisonment terms to three people who called for the demonstrations to pressure their home government.

The remaining 53 defendants received 10-year prison terms, with one, who entered the country illegally and took part in the riot, being sentenced to 11 years.

The Bangladeshi nationals will be deported after serving their sentences, WAM reported.

On Friday, UAE Attorney-General Hamad Saif Al-Shamsi ordered an investigation into the arrest of several Bangladeshi nationals who were apprehended for inciting riots against their home country, which has been struggling to quell violent student-led protests over a controversial job quota scheme.

The investigation, led by a team of 30, confirmed the defendants’ involvement in assembling in public spaces, “inciting unrest, disrupting public security, and promoting such gatherings and protests,” WAM said.

They recorded and published audiovisual footage of their actions online. A court witness during the trial said that demonstrators did not respond to a police warning to disperse, according to WAM.

The witness confirmed that the defendants gathered and organised large-scale marches in several streets across the UAE in protest against decisions made by the Bangladeshi government.

Several of the defendants confessed to the crimes with which they were accused.

Israel orders evacuation of part of Gaza humanitarian zone, kills 16

Updated 22 July 2024

Israel orders evacuation of part of Gaza humanitarian zone, kills 16

  • The military said it is planning to begin an operation against Hamas militants who have embedded themselves in the area
  • The area includes the eastern part of the Muwasi humanitarian zone, which is located in the southern Gaza Strip.

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip: Israeli tank shelling and airstrikes killed at least 16 Palestinians near Khan Younis, Gaza medics said on Monday, after Israel issued new orders to evacuate some neighborhoods following what it said were renewed attacks from those areas.
To facilitate evacuations, the military said, it was adjusting the boundaries of a humanitarian zone in Al-Mawasi to keep the civilian population away from areas of combat with Hamas-led Palestinian militants.
Palestinian health officials said at least 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli tank salvoes in the town of Bani Suhaila just east of the southern city of Khan Younis, with the area also bombarded by air.
The Gaza health ministry said the dead included six children and four women. It added that dozens of others were wounded by Israeli fire. Hamas media put the number of the dead at 26.
The military statement said the new orders were due to renewed Palestinian militant attacks, including rockets launched from the targeted areas in eastern Khan Younis. The evacuation orders did not include health institutions, Palestinians said.
The Palestinians, the United Nations and international relief agencies have said there is no safe place left in Gaza. Earlier in July, dozens of Palestinians were killed in separate Israeli attacks in the humanitarian-designated Al-Mawasi area.
Israel said the attacks were aimed at armed militants, including some top Hamas military commanders. Palestinian officials called those allegations false and said they were used to justify the attacks.
Later on Monday, health officials at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis urged residents to donate blood because of the large number of casualties being rushed into the medical center.
Reuters footage showed casualties, including some women and children, arriving at Nasser Hospital in ambulances and others in private cars.
“A family, including children, were all torn to pieces while they were sleeping,” said a man who arrived in an ambulance bearing the bodies.
The Palestinian Civil Emergency Service said it had reports of dozens of people killed by Israeli aerial and tank fire on the eastern outskirts of Khan Younis but teams could not reach them because of the intensity of the bombardment.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military carried out air strikes on two houses in the Al-Bureij and Deir Al-Balah areas of the central Gaza Strip, wounding several people, medics said.
Another air strike in Gaza City in the north of the densely populated enclave killed two other Palestinians, they added.
Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas after militants killed 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages in a cross-border assault on Oct. 7 last year, according to Israeli tallies. At least 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory offensive since then, Gaza health authorities say.
A ceasefire effort led by Qatar and Egypt and backed by the United States has so far fallen short because of disagreements over terms between the combatants, who blame each other for the impasse.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday ordered a delegation charged with negotiating a hostage deal to be dispatched on Thursday, his office said, without giving the delegation’s destination.
Netanyahu held a meeting on Sunday with the delegation and senior members of Israel’s defense establishment, it said.