A new bill being considered by the Algerian government, which could see people have their citizenship revoked if they are considered detrimental to the state, has been decried online by activists and social media users.
The draft law was submitted to the Algerian cabinet by Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati in the form of an amendment to the nationality law.
According to government spokesperson Ammar Belhimir, the withdrawal of someone’s citizenship would occur in three circumstances: if someone is involved in acts that seriously harm the interests of the state, or undermine national unity; if someone takes part in activities abroad that are deemed an act of terrorism, or they are part of an organisation that propagates or finances terrorism; and if someone deals with a country or countries that are hostile to the Algerian state.
The bill needs to be approved by the council and ministers and ratified by the parliament to be made into law.
According to local media, the bill is aimed at dissidents abroad, particularly those who have a large social media following and attempt to disparage the government. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune previously told Algerian media that many of the social media accounts used by Algerians residing abroad try to "create confusion in the country".
Online, many have denounced the amendment to the law as a way to target Hirak activists who have been demanding change and an end to government corruption.
سحب الجنسية مهزلة و لن ترى الضوء و من المستحيل تطبيقها في الميدان و تنافي بنود حقوق الإنسان التي تنص على أن لكل شخص الحق في الجنسية و تمنع على الدول الموقعة إنشاء أشخاص عديمي الجنسية ... أما إن سحبت الجنسية الجزائرية مقابل جنسية أخرى اوروبية مثلا فكلنا زغماتي و تحيا تبون— جلالة العميد (@Mehdiiiiiii5) March 4, 2021
Translation: Withdrawing someone’s citizenship is a catastrophe and you will not see the light of day. It is impossible to implement and contradicts human rights conventions which state that everyone has the right to citizenship. The signatories of the conventions do not allow people to be without citizenship. But if they take your Algerian citizenship and give you another, a European one for example, then long live Tebboune.
لا استبق الاحداث ..لكن اعتقد انّ مشروع قانون سحب الجنسية الجزائرية الذي تفكّر فيه السّلطة الفعلية بعدالتها الهاتفية لدواع أمنية حسبها سيكون "القشّة التي ستقصم ظهر البعير "...!— Fatima Oudina (@FatimaOudina) March 4, 2021
لا أزيد فوق هذا...
Translation: I am not preempting events, however I predict that the decision to withdraw the Algerian citizenship... will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Many took to social media to express the belief that if the law is passed, it would soon become a tool for the government and authorities to silence dissenting voices. Some have also claimed that the conditions outlined are vague and subjective.
بعد سحب الجنسية هل بإمكانكم سحب الدماء الجزائرية من عروقنا؟!!— أم شريف (@VivaAlgeri) March 4, 2021
Translation: After withdrawing nationality, can you withdraw the Algerian blood from our veins?
السلطات الجزائرية على خطى بشار الأسد وع الفتاح السيسي.. سحبُ الجنسية من أي مواطن تشمُّ منه رائحة انتقاد السلطة وعدم رضاه عن سير الأوضاع في بلاده.. هذا دليل آخر على الارتباك الشديد الذي سببهُ الحراك الشعبي لنظام الاستبداد.. الرد منتظر في مسيرات الجمعة الـ7 بعد المائة.#الحراك_مستمر— عثمان سابق (@AthmaneSabeg) March 4, 2021
Translation: Algerian authorities are following in the footsteps of Bashar al-Assad and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, revoking anyone’s citizenship the moment they smell criticism of authorities or mention their dissatisfaction of the situation in the country…
According to Belhimir, the withdrawal of someone’s citizenship would be in line with what international conventions allow, and will take place only after appeal procedures have been heard.
The hashtag #StopTortureInAlgeria was trending in Algeria on Thursday, and used by people to highlight human rights abuses in the country – some called for investigations into human rights abuses, and light to be shed on the plight of activists who have been abused by the authorities.
Some of the testimonies shared with the hashtag included examples of torture, such as electric shocks, beatings, and the denial of access to medical help.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Algerian authorities have continued repressing the Hirak anti-government protest movement. Hundreds of Hirak protesters were arrested during demonstrations that swept across the country in early 2020. Many of those were sentenced on charges of "illegal gathering", "harming national unity" or "demoralising the army".
Pope Francis said he was "happy" to land in Iraq for the first ever papal visit to the country, where he will meet one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.
Iraqi dancers gave the 84-year-old pontiff a traditional welcome as he walked down a red carpet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who welcomed him at Baghdad International Airport.
"I'm happy to resume travel, and this symbolic trip is also a duty to a land that has been martyred for years," Francis told journalists aboard his plane.
Iraqi President Barham Salih also welcomed the pope's visit and said: "The continued migration of Christians from the region will have a detrimental impact on us all."
Unlike previous papal visits, Pope Francis said he would limit the number of hands he will be shaking because of the coronavirus, but vowed before his arrival to "not stay too far" from his followers.
Iraq continues to record at least 5,000 daily positive coronavirus cases as it continues to battle Covid-19.
The Iraqis have vowed to keep security tight for the pope during his visit after rockets were fired at US military targets days before Francis touched down.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said Iraqi authorities had imposed tight security "over the land and air" to ensure the visit goes smoothly.
The pope will be travelling across Iraq, including areas where Iraqi forces are still fighting the Islamic State group (IS).
He will preside over half a dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, with attendance being limited to enable social distancing.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as "Baba al-Vatican".
He will also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where IS fighters in 2014 forced minorities to flee, convert to Islam or be killed.
Catholic charity Aid to Church in Need said that at least 100,000 people, around half of the province's Christians, fled - of whom just 36,000 have returned.
A third of returnees want to leave permanently, dismayed by Iraq's rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which now affects 40 percent of the population.
The visit aims to encourage Christians to stay in their homeland and even prompt some emigres to return from nearby Lebanon or Jordan or the diaspora in countries like Canada or Australia.
The pope's decision to travel to areas long shunned by foreign dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq - as has his planned meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top authority for Iraq's Shia.
A highly reclusive figure who rarely accepts visitors, Sistani, who is 90, will make an exception to host Francis at his humble home in the shrine city of Najaf on Saturday.
Francis, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards hold an interfaith service at the desert site of the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.
A diplomatic letter leaked to Moroccan media outlets has caused a stir in the country.
On Sunday, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita communicated in a letter to Prime Minister Saadeddine el-Othmani Rabat’s decision to “suspend all contact” with the German embassy in Morocco in the wake of “profound misunderstandings” with Berlin on various issues, including the fate of the contested Western Sahara.
All ministerial departments are required to cease all contact, interaction and action with both the German embassy in Morocco and with any associated cooperation agencies and political foundations, the official letter stated.
1. @MarocDiplomatie fait fuiter une note faisant état de la "suspension de tout contact avec l'Ambassade d'Allemagne au Maroc", mais n'explique pas à ses papegais dans la presse en quoi consistent ces "malentendus profonds avec la République fédérale d'Allemagne". pic.twitter.com/fAznNlEjZr— Ali Lmrabet علي المرابط (@Alilmrabet) March 1, 2021
Translation: Morocco diplomacy leaked a note informing the ‘suspension of all contact with the German embassy in Morocco’ without informing his media parrots of the exact nature of these ‘profound misunderstandings’ with the Federal Republic of Germany.
“The foreign affairs minister has also taken the decision to suspend all contact and activity with the embassy,” the letter continued, citing “profound misunderstandings” on “issues fundamental for Morocco”.
“Morocco wants to preserve its relationship with Germany, but this is an alarm sounding expressing unease on numerous issues,” a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed to AFP on Monday evening.
“There will be no contact until such time as there are answers to the various questions that have been asked,” he stressed.
But what are these points of friction?
According to a senior official at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, at the heart of these tensions is Germany’s position on Western Sahara.
Berlin - which has been “hiding behind diplomatic platitudes advocating for a ‘fair, durable political solution that works for both parties under the auspices of the United Nations” according to Moroccan site Yabiladi - has made no secret of its disapproval of former US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in December, in exchange for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel.
“Taking the lead on (resolutions on Western Sahara) comes with responsibility. It goes hand in hand with a strong commitment to resolve a problem,” German ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, said on 24 December.
“You have to be fair, you have to be impartial, you have in mind the legitimate interests of all parties and act within the framework of international law.
“The definitive solution to the problem should be sought under the auspices of the UN, in compliance with international resolutions,” he added.
While it’s no secret in diplomatic circles that Berlin is holding firm on this matter, the Moroccan news site LeDesk reported another story that can only have “greatly displeased’ Rabat”:
On 27 January, the flag of the Polisario Front was hoisted in front of the parliament in the German regional assembly in Bremen for several hours, after an appeal to the European Union and the International Red Cross Committee by the new Austrian president of the Western Sahara parliamentary intergroup in the European Parliament, Andreas Schieder, for action to be taken against Morocco’s “abuses”.
Prior to this, Rabat, like Tunisia, was less than happy at its exclusion from the January 2020 Berlin international conference on Libya. Morocco had at that time officially expressed its “deep astonishment” in a Foreign Affairs Ministry press release.
“The kingdom has always been at the forefront of international efforts to solve the Libyan crisis. The kingdom understands neither the criteria nor the motivations governing the selection of the countries participating in that meeting,” the statement read, citing Germany as “this host country that, distant from the region and from the complexities of the Libyan crisis, should not transform it into an instrument for the promotion of its national interests”.
In October, however, Bourita declined an invitation from his German counterpart to a new conference linked to the United Nations General Assembly.
“This invitation is an attempt at forcible intrusion, coinciding as it does with the start of a new round of inter-Libyan dialogue in Bouznika” instigated by Morocco in September, website Le360 reported.
At the beginning of December, Bourita had remarked in a press release on the “excellent bilateral cooperation between the two countries” after a telephone meeting with Gerd Muller, Germany’s minister for economic cooperation and development.
Berlin had then just released financial support in the amount of 1.38bn euros ($1.66 billion), of which 202.6 million euros ($244m) came in the form of grants, with the remainder in the form of subsidised loans for the reform of the Moroccan financial system and urgent aid for Covid-19 countermeasures.
Another source of tension that has been undermining relations between the two countries for several years: German political foundations.
In December 2019, a confidential Africa Intelligence letter revealed escalating tensions between Rabat and Berlin rooted in the Konrad Adenauer, Friedrich Ebert, Friedrich Naumann and Hanns Seidel foundations, disclosing that the “partnership’s negotiations for multi-sectoral reforms” had been suspended.
“This well-funded programme - 571 million euros ($687m) for the period 2020-2022 - was the object of a memorandum signed in Berlin on 29 November. The parties to this discussion were the foundations who requested specific status in Morocco, where they are classified simply as associations,” explained the letter.
But this claim, made by the German ambassador to Rabat, Gotz Schmidt-Bremme, was rejected by Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit and Bourita. The funding they give certain Moroccan NGOs - including the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) - constitute, according to the interior minister, acts of “interference”.
In 2015, notes LeDesk, the former director of the Friedrich Naumann foundation in Morocco, Andrea Nusse, was pushed out of Morocco, “after pressure from Moroccan authorities”, according to colleagues.
“Moroccan authorities gave her 24 hours to leave the country, her presence in Morocco no longer being advisable. This decision by the authorities would have been taken in response to the funding by the German foundation of activities deemed ‘harmful to the interests of the state,” the sources said.
Several Moroccan media sources cite another final point of disagreement: the matter of the German-Moroccan citizen Mohamed Hajib.
Originally detained in 2009 while traveling to Pakistan, Hajib was subsequently arrested in Germany and released on condition he return to Morocco, where he was sentenced to 10 years in prison - a sentence reduced two years later to five years - for “terrorism” charges.
'I rarely sleep at night for fear of my dreams. German authorities have destroyed my life'
- Mohamed Hajib
Freed in 2017, he claimed 1.5 million euros ($1.8m) in damages from Germany, which he accused of having forced him back to Morocco in 2010, where he says he was tortured.
While he was serving out his sentence in Morocco, Amnesty International had urged Moroccan authorities in 2011 to investigate allegations that Hajib had been tortured and threatened with rape during his detention.
After a detailed investigation of the matter, the UN Human Rights Council concluded that Hajib’s arrest was arbitrary, and in 2012 appealed to the Moroccan government for his immediate release and compensation.
Now living in Germany, Hajib claimed in August that he had been made the object of an international arrest warrant issued by Morocco. On 8 February, he celebrated in a tweet that Interpol had withdrawn his name from its list of wanted persons, calling that decision “a heavy blow for the Moroccan police”.
- The article is a translation of a story originally published on Middle East Eye's French website.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will hold an inter-faith service at the ziggurat of Ur, a massive Sumerian temple at an ancient Iraqi city believed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
The service is set to be one of the most significant moments in a historic papal visit which has drawn the eyes of the world to Iraq and highlighted the archaeological wonder of Ur.
Here’s what you need to know about the ancient site:
Ur lies in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar, 17km from the provincial capital Nasiriyah. It is one of four ancient Sumerian cities found in the province, alongside Eridu, Girsu and Lagash.
Ur was the Sumerians’ capital, and the place where they developed an irrigation system, practised sophisticated agricultural methods and traded extensively with cities around Mesopotamia and beyond.
The city, once oval shaped, is thought to date back to 3800 BC, and is first recorded in text over a millennium later.
Originally, Ur sat on the mouth of the Euphrates, on Iraq’s southern coast. But over the centuries the topography has changed considerably, and the site now lies well inland, set back from the river’s southern bank.
In the 19th century, European archaeologists began to tie the remains at Tell al-Muqayyar with the city of Ur, as mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts.
John George Taylor, British vice consul, first began excavation of the Ziggurat temple in 1853 on behalf of the British Museum.
In 1922, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley undertook the most extensive excavations, finding 16 royal tombs built of mudbrick over the course of a decade.
The ziggurat consists of a three-layered solid mass of mudbrick with a facade of burnt bricks set in bitumen. The bottom layer is part of the original construction, while the upper two are part of the neo-Babylonian restorations in the sixth century BC.
The temple is dedicated to the moon god Nannar, the patron deity of Ur.
Its facade and monumental staircase were restored in the 1980s under Saddam Hussein.
In the Bible, a city named Ur is said to be the birthplace of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, who is believed to have lived in the second millennium BC.
During his excavations in the early 20th century, Woolley found a cylindrical seal in the complex adjacent to the ziggurat that bore the name Abraham. It led him to believe that the complex, dating from around 1900 BC, was Abraham’s house.
“As long as Ur is the birthplace of Abraham, it is an important site for all people around the world, all religions,” Amer Abdul-Razzaq, director of Nasiriyah Museum of Civilization, told MEE.
“Visiting this place is so important to Christian pilgrimage,” he said, adding that plans had been mooted for years to one day establish a pilgrimage between Ur and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Years of tumult have vastly reduced Iraq’s Christian population. In 2003, 1.5 million of Iraq’s 40 million people were Christian. Today, the Christian population numbers around 150,000-400,000.
Habib Hormuz, archbishop of the Chaldean Church in Basra, said he hoped Pope Francis’ visit would encourage Christians to return, but that much more needs to be done to convince them.
“I am not sure that Christians will go back home, even after the pope’s visit, unless we see development in security, good infrastructure, law enforcement, justice and respecting human rights,” he told MEE.
The US is considering sanctions against Lebanon’s long-serving central bank chief, Riad Salameh, as a broader investigation into the alleged embezzlement of public funds in the country gathers pace, according to a US news agency.
Officials in the Biden administration have discussed the possibility of coordinated measures with their European counterparts to target Salameh, four sources told Bloomberg News, requesting anonymity because the talks were private.
However, a US State Department spokesperson denied on Friday that Washington was considering sanctions against Salameh.
"We have seen reports about possible sanctions on Riad Salameh. They are untrue," the spokesperson told Reuters.
Debate has so far focused on the possibility of freezing Salameh’s foreign assets and enacting measures that would curtail his ability to do business abroad, the sources said.
Talk are ongoing and a final decision over whether to take action may not be imminent, Bloomberg said on Thursday.
Salameh's role came under scrutiny after the country's financial system collapsed in 2019, leading to a crash in the Lebanese pound and a sovereign default.
The 70-year-old, who has led Lebanon’s monetary authority for 28 years, denies any wrongdoing.
The possibility of sanctions against Salameh emerged as recently as last year, but then-President Donald Trump was not interested in taking action, two of the sources said.
In January, the Swiss attorney general’s office asked the Lebanese government for help with a probe into money laundering linked to possible embezzlement from the coffers of Banque du Liban (BDL), as the country's central bank is known.
Swiss authorities did not say whether Salameh was a suspect, but the Lebanese judiciary said it had been approached about transfers abroad made via the central bank.
Several jurisdictions, including the UK and France, are reviewing Salameh’s links to properties, shell companies and overseas bank transfers
The investigation involves other jurisdictions, including the UK and France, where authorities are reviewing Salameh’s links to properties, shell companies and overseas bank transfers, the four sources told Bloomberg. They also said that while the Swiss probe lends momentum, potential US sanctions do not necessarily depend on its outcome as much as on shifting political calculations.
Salameh dismissed the allegations made against himself and the central bank.
“It is utterly untrue that I have benefited in any way or form, directly or indirectly, from any funds or assets belonging to BDL or any other public funds,” he wrote in an emailed response on Thursday to questions from Bloomberg News.
Salameh said his net worth was $23m when he took on the role of governor in 1993, a fortune amassed during his previous career as a private banker.
His salary at Merrill Lynch was $165,000 a month, he said.
“The source of my wealth is clearly identified,” he wrote in the email.
Swiss authorities are looking into allegations that Salameh indirectly benefited from the sale of Lebanese Eurobonds held in the central bank’s portfolio between 2002 and 2016, according to a Lebanese judicial official and a person familiar with the Swiss investigation, Bloomberg said, both of whom requested anonymity.
The monetary authority holds Eurobonds from market-to-market transactions as well as swap agreements with the government. BDL would cancel Treasury bills and receive the bonds in return.
Also of interest to authorities is the relationship between Salameh's brother, Raja, and the brokerage firm Forry Associates, which charged commissions on the sale of Eurobonds to investors, the sources said.
The commissions under scrutiny total more than $300m, according to a source familiar with the Swiss investigation.
Bloomberg said Raja Salameh did not immediately issue a response when contacted via Solidere, a property company where he’s a board member.
Under Trump, the US sanctioned several Lebanese officials for supporting Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.
Any action against Salameh would be more sensitive, however, given the push by the Biden administration and European allies to reach a diplomatic accord with Iran over its nuclear deal, as well as efforts to end a political crisis that has left Lebanon without a government for almost seven months.
Potential measures against officials who have helped in the fight against Hezbollah have received a frosty reception from some of Washington’s allies, four of the sources said. Salameh, in particular, forged close relationships with US and European officials as they sought to limit Hezbollah’s footprint in Lebanon's financial sector.
The United Nations has said it is still waiting for proof from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that Dubai's Princess Latifa, the daughter of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is still alive.
The 35-year-old royal has not been seen in public since she tried to escape from Dubai in February 2018.
OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told reporters on Friday that his office had "not yet" received any evidence regarding Latifa's status from the Emiratis.
"We've held discussions with representatives of the UAE government here in Geneva, but I don't have any particular progress to report," said Colville.
Last week, a letter from Latifa was handed to British police urging them to investigate her sister Shamsa's kidnapping and disappearance in Cambridge in 2000. In a handwritten letter given to Cambridgeshire police, Latifa said a new investigation could help free her sister.
Though it only reached British police last week, Latifa wrote her letter in 2019, according to the BBC, while she was being kept in a beachside villa guarded by roughly 30 police officers.
In February, new footage made public by the BBC showed Latifa describing her detention in clips filmed in secret on a mobile phone.
The princess, who is seen speaking with her back to a wall in a locked bathroom, says: "I'm a hostage, I'm not free. I am imprisoned in this jail. My life is not in my hands."
The new developments are the latest twists in a string of headline-grabbing stories involving Dubai's ruling family and its patriarch, Sheikh Mohammed, stretching back several years.
Last year, a British judge ruled that the sheikh, who is prime minister and vice-president of the UAE, kept both his daughters captive and kidnapped the two on separate occasions.
In 2018, Latifa escaped Dubai with the help of her friend, a Finnish capoeira instructor, Tiina Jauhiainen. Eight days later, when she had got as far as India's Malabar coast, Indian - then Emirati - forces violently boarded her boat and returned her to Dubai.
In 2019, Jauhiainen was able to sneak a phone to Latifa, who has since been covertly filming herself.
"I have been here ever since, for more than a year in solitary confinement," she said in the videos shared with the BBC. "No access to medical help, no trial, no charge, nothing."
The Dubai Royal Court has claimed she is safe and well, but friends say she has had little medical care and went over a year without a toothbrush.
"Her family has confirmed that her highness is being cared for at home, supported by her family and medical professionals," said a statement released by Dubai after the BBC report.
"Sheikha Latifa continues to improve, and we are hopeful she will return to public life at the appropriate time."
US Vice President Kamala Harris, in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, reaffirmed US opposition to an International Criminal Court (ICC) probe of possible war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the White House said.
The call, the first between the two since Harris and US President Joe Biden took office in January, came a day after the ICC prosecutor said she would launch the probe, prompting swift rejections by the US and Israel.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who will be replaced by British prosecutor Karim Khan on 16 June, said in December 2019 that war crimes had been, or were being, committed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
She named both the Israeli army and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.
Harris and Netanyahu noted their governments’ "opposition to the International Criminal Court’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel," the White House said.
During the call, Harris and Netanyahu also agreed to continue to cooperate on regional security issues, specifically Iran’s nuclear programme and "dangerous" behaviour, the White House statement said.
Harris "emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security," the statement added.
Biden's bid to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers sets him and Netanyahu on a potential collision course.
The Israeli prime minister opposed the nuclear deal and applauded former US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon it in 2018.
Harris also congratulated Netanyahu on Israel’s coronavirus vaccine programme and they agreed to increase cooperation on the coronavirus, water, green energy and other initiatives, the White House said.
After denouncing the International Criminal Court's probe into alleged Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, US Department of State spokesman Ned Price struggled to answer a question over where Palestinians should seek accountability for abuses carried out by Israel.
"The United States is always going to stand up for human rights," Price said at a media briefing on Wednesday, before pivoting to a familiar declaration of Washington's support for the two-state solution.
'The whole issue is that Palestinians are not being considered in this equation. The only thing that's being considered is Israel'
- Jonathan Kuttab, legal expert
Unsatisfied with the answer, Associated Press correspondent Matthew Lee kept asking while Price was delivering the generic lines: "Where do they go? Where? Where? Do they go to the Israeli courts? Where do they go? Where. Do. They. Go?"
The query went unanswered as Price moved on to another subject.
The question, rights advocates say, is of tremendous importance. The new US administration has condemned all measures of Palestinian resistance, including the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as well as efforts to secure justice at international forums including the ICC and the United Nations.
Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian-American lawyer specialising in international law, said the administration was not merely questioning the methods Palestinians were using to fight for their rights; it was implying that Palestinians don't have any rights at all.
"They can't use armed struggle obviously; they call that terrorism. They can't use BDS and nonviolent methods because that's somehow not good," Kuttab told MEE.
"The whole issue is that Palestinians are not being considered in this equation. The only thing that's being considered is Israel."
The office of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced on Wednesday that the court will proceed with a probe into possible abuses committed in the Palestinian territories since 2014.
The investigation will cover alleged war crimes both by Israeli forces and Hamas during the conflict in Gaza and Israel's settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
The court opens investigations in places where the domestic authorities are unable or unwilling to look into allegations of abuse.
The Israeli government was quick to condemn the decision, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the court of antisemitism. Palestinians, including Hamas, welcomed the probe, with the group saying it was ready to defend its "legitimate resistance".
After the press briefing on Wednesday, the State Department issued a strongly worded statement, saying Washington was "deeply disappointed" in the court's decision.
The US administration argued the ICC has no jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories, because Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute that formed the court - and Palestinians do not have a state.
"The Palestinians do not qualify as a sovereign state and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership as a state in, participate as a state in, or delegate jurisdiction to the ICC," the statement said, avoiding mentioning the word "Palestine".
It went on to reaffirm Washington's "strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly".
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also sent out a tweet echoing the formal statement.
The United States firmly opposes an @IntlCrimCourt investigation into the Palestinian Situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 4, 2021
Blinken's post was met with outrage from Palestinian rights advocates.
"The audacity of trying to deprive the Palestinian people of legal recourse and international protection is sickening," Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison, a Palestinian-American activist, told MEE.
"The arrogance of trying to bully and intimidate the international justice system to shield Israel from even an investigation is appalling. Doing both while speaking and acting on my behalf as an American is outrageous."
Critics also pointed out that far from singling out Israel, the court has 14 ongoing investigations, nine of which are in Africa.
'International law is nothing if it doesn't apply to everybody'
- Jonathan Kuttab, legal expert
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said Washington should not impede the court's efforts to investigate and deliver justice for victims of human rights violations in Israel and Palestine. "No one is above the law," she tweeted in response to Blinken.
Khaled Elgindy, director of the programme on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute, said the State Department's statement showed that Washington benefited from suppressing Palestinian statehood.
"Based on this framing it's feasible to conclude that the US not only doesn't recognize Palestinian statehood but has an active interest in preventing that outcome in the future," Elgindy wrote on Twitter.
"In other words, ICC involvement creates a disincentive for the US to work toward a Palestinian state."
Yara M Asi, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said if Blinken did not believe Palestine was a state, he should press Israel to fulfill its duties as the occupying power of the Palestinian territories.
"Palestine is not a sovereign state, so not able to engage in legal forum questioning the occupation," Asi tweeted.
"I look forward to his statement calling on Israel to thus adhere to its responsibilities as an occupying power, including vaccinating the 5 million Palestinians under its control."
On the legal front, Kuttab said the question of Palestinian statehood was merely a technical hurdle that the Israeli and American governments cite to "foreclose the discussion" because it was a "slam dunk" to prove Israeli war crimes.
"The settlements are clearly illegal. There's no question. Any international forum that looks at the facts - the Israelis are guilty of a grave breach of the Geneva Convention, of war crimes and crimes against humanity," Kuttab told MEE.
The Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly states the occupying power cannot "deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies".
Despite not being recognised as a state by Washington, Palestine is party to many international organisations, including the UN cultural body, Unesco. In 2012, Palestine also gained non-member observer state status at the UN General Assembly.
Kuttab stressed that the ICC did have jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories. "You can't say that you can get away with murder just because there is no state where the murder occurred," he said.
The Biden administration's criticism of the ICC comes as the new US president and his top aides are yet to criticise the Israeli policies of occupation and settlement.
President Joe Biden had promised to reverse some of the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, including resuming the delivery of aid for Palestinians.
But he has refused to move the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv or to undo US recognition of Israel's claims to Syria's occupied Golan Heights.
"International law is nothing if it doesn't apply to everybody - friends and foes alike," Kuttab said.
While the debate over whether to sanction Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rages on in Washington, advocates have quietly begun laying the groundwork for a campaign targeting the kingdom's coffers.
Buoyed by new revelations that the country's $400bn sovereign wealth fund owned the two jets that ferried Jamal Khashoggi's killers to Istanbul, advocacy groups are exploring ways to go after a key instrument in Prince Mohammed's vision to transform the oil-dependent kingdom into a high-tech economy of the future.
"Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund was directly involved in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by using its planes to transport the monarchy's assassins," said Sunjeev Bery, the executive director of Freedom Forward, an advocacy group that aims to end US support for non-democratic countries.
"That's a clear argument for the Biden administration putting sanctions on the senior leadership of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund," including its chairman, Prince Mohammed.
'Companies that are connected to the Saudi monarchy are going to find themselves facing a lot of tough questions'
- Sunjeev Bery, Freedom Forward
The campaign is also expected to put pressure on US and western investors to stay away.
"For a long time, businesses have held the political behaviors of the Saudi monarchy at a rhetorical arm's length while doing business with the Saudi monarchy via its financial institutions," Bery said. "Now we know that there's basically no difference - that the leading investment fund of the Saudi monarchy is itself completely tied up in the brutal repression of that same government."
Freedom Forward and its allies fired their first salvo on Tuesday with the release of a statement signed by 42 liberal groups calling for sanctions against Prince Mohammed and other PIF leaders following Friday's release of the US intelligence assessment of the crown prince's role in Khashoggi's killing.
Signatories include Human Rights Watch (HRW), J Street and the United Methodist Church.
The next day, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, one of the groups that signed the statement, followed up with an article detailing the case for sanctioning PIF leaders under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Prince Mohammed's "role as chairman of PIF and the use of PIF assets - the two Gulfstream jets - raises questions about the fund’s involvement in the assassination and the knowledge of other PIF executives about the operation to kidnap or kill Khashoggi," author Eli Clifton wrote.
CNN first reported on PIF's ownership of the jets last month after obtaining Canadian court documents in an embezzlement suit brought by a group of PIF-owned companies against former Saudi intelligence chief Saad al-Jabri.
PIF took over Sky Prime Aviation Services, which had been run by al-Jabri's son-in-law, and its fleet of jets the year before Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the US Gulf States Institute in Washington, who focuses on political economy, said the PIF was "really at the heart of the economic transformation that's going on in Saudi Arabia".
The fund notably owns the Neom Company, which is building the $500bn futuristic mega-city that is the crown jewel of Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 plan to transform the country.
"It's not just a big pot of money," he said. "It's really connected to a number of high-profile development economic development initiatives across the kingdom."
Mogielnicki noted that the US government has not yet sought to obstruct the fund's investments in the US, and that it seems unlikely at this point. The fund has $12.8bn invested in US stocks, according to the latest quarterly report with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including a $3.7bn stake in Uber.
"There hasn't been a [huge] level of scrutiny over the past couple of years directed toward the Saudi Arabian government's international investments, and specifically, investments in Europe and in the US," he said.
"Part of the reason for that is that some of the investment capital floating around does act as a tide that lifts all boats."
Still, he said, any pressure on the fund is likely to be taken very seriously by the PIF, whose governor Yasir al-Rumayyan has set a target of having $2 trillion in assets under management by 2030, which would make it the world's largest sovereign wealth fund.
"I think it's safe to say that they would much prefer not to have additional headaches that get in the way of meeting these very ambitious targets that already were going to be very challenging," Mogielnicki said.
"I would expect that there will be a strong response from the Saudi side on any pressure because this is a very important economic instrument that the government has at its disposal."
Bery said sanctions would make it difficult if not impossible for PIF officials such as Rumayyan, who sits on the board of Uber, to continue doing business as usual.
"This would prevent the PIF leadership from travelling in the United States and it would freeze their assets in the US," he said. "It would become a lot more difficult for companies to take PIF money or place PIF leadership on their boards of directors."
The Saudi Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
But Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator and member of Neom's advisory board, dismissed the advocacy campaign as a "very thin stretch".
"The Public Investment Fund owns hundreds of millions of dollars of assets," he said. "To say because the crown prince is the chairman of the public investment fund that this is his money, that's nonsense."
He said Saudi Arabia is used to the scrutiny and is well prepared to deal with any new threats.
"When you want to go after a party, you look at the most visible [assets]," Shihabi said. "That was one of the reasons why the government would never list Aramco on the New York Stock Exchange. Because it would have just been a target for anybody who wanted to go after the Saudi government."
The campaign comes as the Saudis have spent millions in recent years to showcase the country as an attractive investment destination.
The Public Investment Fund itself pays KARV Communications of New York $114,000 a month for investor and public relations advice and outreach to current and potential investors and portfolio companies, business leaders and media.
The firm has been registered as a foreign agent for the PIF since February 2019 and is notably tasked with helping to "enhance the reputation and image" of the fund and its senior executives.
In a nod to the kingdom's controversial reputation, the firm's contract specifically mentions ensuring that the PIF is "well prepared for any potential negative developments and future external scrutiny that it may encounter."
And until recently, the Neom Company had no fewer than four PR firms on its payroll as it grappled with investor scepticism and bad press over alleged forced displacements.
BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) signed a $1.1m contract to design and institute an international media strategy for the project between April and July 2020, while Edelman was paid $236,000 from November 2020 to its termination on 31 January to promote The Line, a 100-mile belt of zero-energy walkable communities being built as part of the Neom development.
Neom still has a multi-million dollar contract with New York CEO advisory firm Teneo to create a “strategic positioning plan” for Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr and handle crisis management and communications, and a $1.7m contract with Ruder Finn to promote its corporate social responsibility efforts.
Meanwhile, the Saudi embassy in Washington hired Iowa-based Larson Shannahan Slifka Group (LS2 Group) in November 2019 for $126,500 per month as part of a campaign to showcase the country's social and economic transformation across the US heartland.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under its transformative Vision 2030 program, is committed to diversifying its economy while continuing to expand their 75 years of partnership with the United States," former Senator Norm Coleman wrote in a recent email to congressional staff, highlighting the Saudi outreach to states.
"These dual goals are predicated on strengthening the Kingdom's economic ties with the US and specifically with American businesses in all 50 states."
Bery said the pressure campaign will only intensify as advocates in the US and globally look to dissuade businesses from participating in Saudi Arabia's annual investment forum, the Future Investment Initiative, in October.
"As our campaigning continues to accelerate," he said, "companies that are connected to the Saudi monarchy are going to find themselves facing a lot of tough questions."
But Shihabi remained sceptical.
"Skittish investors wouldn't be coming to the region anyways," he said. "Usually the people investing in the Middle East are people who've been around the neighbourhood. I don't expect the guy who has never operated in the Middle East to get on the plane in Wichita and come invest in Neom."
A Turkish court trying 26 Saudi suspects in absentia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi refused on Thursday to admit a US report blaming the kingdom's crown prince for the killing, despite a petition from the journalist's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.
The court, in Istanbul, is trying two close former aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a case that has gained added attention after the delayed release last week of the declassified US assessment of the October 2018 killing.
Khashoggi, a US resident, journalist and prominent government critic, was murdered and dismembered inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul after going there to get documents for his wedding to Cengiz.
Cengiz, accompanied by a German diplomat, attended the third hearing in the trial and asked the court to add the US report to the evidence case file.
But the presiding judge rejected her petition on the grounds that it would "bring nothing" to the trial, instead allowing her to file a new request with prosecutors spearheading the Turkish government's case.
The US intelligence report "directly attributes responsibility to the crown prince. Therefore, we want this to be taken into account by the court," Cengiz told reporters after the hearing.
Turkish prosecutors allege that former Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court's ex-media czar Saud al-Qahtani led the operation and gave orders to a Saudi hit squad.
The declassified US report said Washington had grounds to conclude that Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, "approved" the operation since it fit a pattern of him "using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad".
Cengiz said, following the report's release last week, that the crown prince should be punished without delay, adding there was "no longer any political legitimacy" for him.
On Monday, Reporters Without Borders filed a 500-page criminal complaint against MBS in Germany, accusing him of "crimes against humanity" in Khashoggi's murder and the imprisonment of other journalists.
Thursday's hearing took witness testimonies from two Turkish employees of the Saudi consulate - a driver and a security guard.
Driver Edip Yilmaz said he and his colleagues were locked in a room by the consulate's security team and not allowed to leave on the day of Khashoggi's murder.
"It gave me the impression that something abnormal was going on," the driver told the court.
The next hearing has been scheduled for July 8.
Erol Onderoglu, Turkish representative for the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which monitored the hearing, said the Turkish trial was a "step in the right direction", but added that it "speaks to the truly abysmal situation within Saudi Arabia, where the trial that was held in this case represented a complete mockery of justice".
For more than two weeks after the murder, Saudi officials stressed that the journalist had left the building alive before eventually acknowledging that he was killed. Riyadh still maintains that the assassination was a rogue operation that occurred without the approval of top officials.
Five suspects who were sentenced to death in an opaque trial in Riyadh last year later had their sentences commuted to 20 years in jail.
Relations between Ankara and Riyadh deteriorated sharply in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi's death.
But Turkey has been taking steps to mend its relations with Saudi Arabia as it looks for regional allies and has refrained from commenting on the declassified US report.
Onderoglu suggested that diplomatic calculations might have influenced the court's decision.
"Our concern is that the court has taken a more passive stance... because of strategic relations or the state of diplomatic relations," Onderoglu told reporters, as reported by AFP.
"We hope that this is not the case."
More than a dozen rights groups have urged the Biden administration to restrict arms sales to Bahrain and pressure the Gulf monarchy to introduce reforms and address the "severe deterioration of human rights" there.
In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, 15 groups urged Washington to pressure Manama over its ban on opposition political parties and independent media, and demand an "end [to] the use of torture and other ill-treatment".
"Last December, you noted that '[i]n too many countries, people are imprisoned and face torture or death for speaking their minds, reporting the news, or demanding their rights'," the letter said.
"This statement sadly reflects the situation in Bahrain over the last four years, where human rights defenders and political activists have borne the full brunt of political repression.
"The Biden administration should urge Bahrain to rescind restrictions on civil society, take genuine steps towards justice reform and the restoration of civil rights and reinstate restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain pending an improvement in the country's rights record."
The letter was signed by 15 groups including the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD); Amnesty International; Freedom House; the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
"Until US policy in Bahrain focuses on resolving the consequences of 2011 and pushing for democratic reform, the political crisis in the country will remain unresolved," Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at BIRD, said in a statement.
The State Department did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment by the time of this article's publication.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which saw pro-democracy demonstrators take to the streets of the Gulf nation, the Sunni monarchy has launched a comprehensive crackdown on opposition groups and human rights activists.
A recent report compiled by the London-based BIRD rights group said at least 51 people had been sentenced to death since 2011, with leaders of the protest movement languishing in prison despite promises from the country's leadership to enact reforms.
The letter notes that the crackdown reached new heights under former US President Donald Trump, with "Bahrain's rulers 'emboldened' by President Trump's public disdain for international human rights norms".
In 2017 Trump said, "there won't be strain with this administration" when it came to US-Bahrain ties. His administration reportedly sold $8.5bn worth of arms to Bahrain, the rights groups said in their letter, and abandoned human rights conditions on selling arms to Manama put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama.
With US President Joe Biden recently announcing that Washington would end support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the groups urged the administration to pressure Manama over its dismal human rights record.
"We hope that your administration will ensure that human rights are once again placed at the center of US foreign policy in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region," the letter said.
In January, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, a signatory to Wednesday's effort, sent a similar letter to Biden.
In Egypt, a woman can be a minister who signs a multi-billion-dollar deal and yet be unable to legally travel abroad, contract her marriage or even approve life-saving surgery for a child she gave birth to without a male guardian’s prior consent, according to a draft law ratified recently by the government.
The Egyptian cabinet, which includes eight female ministers, has recently referred the controversial personal status draft law to a joint parliamentary religious-legislative committee.
'The law simply calls off the rights women have acquired over decades of fighting, taking us more than 100 years backwards'
- Entissar El-Saeid, lawyer
The draft law, leaked by the portal of daily independent Youm 7 newspaper, known for being loyal to the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was removed from the website hours later.
But it was already too late, as the bill had sent shock waves across the country after social media users had shared the 45-page text online to be picked up by media outlets shortly afterwards.
Feminist and human rights groups have been quick to issue several statements condemning their "exclusion" from the drafting process and describing the amendments as "archaic".
The government, meanwhile, has not denied the authenticity of the leaked document, which opponents say contradicts the principles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that Egypt ratified in 1982.
The draft law seems confusing to many. Whereas some articles may sound favourable to women, legal experts argue that it strips women of their basic rights and gives men full authority over them.
One article, which stirred the outrage of women’s rights advocates, has to do with the legal right of a male guardian who can have the marriage of his sister, daughter or niece annulled within one year, provided that there is no pregnancy or childbirth, in case she marries someone her brother sees as incompetent or socially unequal, or if she gets married without his approval.
“The law simply calls off the rights women have acquired over decades of fighting, taking us more than 100 years backwards,” lawyer Entissar El-Saeid told Middle East Eye.
“A grown woman has the right to decide her destiny regardless of her status or education. She is not a toy in the hands of a man to control,” El-Saied argued.
Political sociologist Said Sadek could not agree more, describing the law as “a continuation of violence against women”.
“It’s a new form of legal oppression against women, which echoes the dominant patriarchal culture of the ruling class,” Sadek told MEE.
“It further shows that the recent political improvements in Egypt are fake. The fact that women have a quota in the parliament and a high presence in the government doesn’t seem to be reflected in social and political development in Egypt,” he added.
Another article indicates that a mother has no guardianship of her child with matters pertaining to healthcare, education, travel and the issuance of official papers, further denying her right to have her newborn registered on her own without the father’s presence.
“It’s as if the law is ending my very being as a mother. It’s a known fact that women in Egypt carry out most of the rules and responsibilities that have to do with their children. So how come they are not legally recognised as guardians?” a divorced woman told MEE on condition of anonymity.
Though it may seem like a means of limiting polygamy, the law includes an article stipulating that a man must officially inform his wife of his intention to marry another, otherwise he will be jailed and fined.
On the other hand, a maazoun (a legal registrar) will also be imprisoned and deposed if he registers the marriage of a married man who did not notify his other spouse beforehand.
'Such articles will likely open the door for the spread of extramarital affairs and unregistered ‘urfi’ marriages in the society'
- Hanan Marzouk, counselling psychologist
“Such articles will likely open the door for the spread of extramarital affairs and unregistered ‘urfi’ [common-law] marriages in society, which already exist, and in turn, the loss of rights of women and children,” counselling psychologist Hanan Marzouk argued.
“Islam has stipulated special conditions for a man to marry more than one woman, and women have the right to reject it and ask for a divorce,” she added.
Islamic scholars are divided over the draft law. While preacher Khalid El-Gindi, known for being pro-government, hailed it on the TV programme he presents on the DMC private satellite channel, calling it “a reason to celebrate”, Ahmed Karima, professor of comparative jurisprudence at Azhar University argued that “it violated Islamic sharia law” and, hence, “is deemed unconstitutional”.
The second article of the Egyptian constitution dictates that “the principles of Islamic sharia law are the main source of legislation”.
“As per sharia, there is no penalty in the absence of a crime. At the same time, a man can’t be punished for doing what’s rightfully his,” Karima told national TV.
El-Saeid, the lawyer, begs to differ. “I’m for banning polygamy. The idea itself is demeaning to women. But since it’s hard to criminalise it, I suggest that the law organises it. Men have to prove their financial and physical competence to be able to marry another woman, but with the approval of his wife,” she argued.
One seemingly positive article is about the wife being offered an insurance policy upon marriage that she can benefit from in case the husband divorces her without her consent, a provision appreciated by some women, especially those who have no source of income and could suffer negative consequences after an unfair divorce. Yet the legislation detailed no mechanisms for applying it.
“An insurance policy may not be of real worth after the woman gets divorced as the value of the Egyptian pound declines over the years,” El-Saeid argued. “I’m for dividing the husband’s wealth upon divorce.”
According to the new draft law, any lawsuit to have a marriage ratified will be rejected in case the age of the wife or the husband is below 18 at the time of filing it.
While the article may be interpreted as a way of ending the phenomenon of child marriage in Egypt, Marzouk argues that it is yet another article that will allow for the loss of women’s and children’s rights.
The bill stipulates that whoever facilitates a child marriage, whether it is a maazoun or a family member, will be fined and sentenced to prison as well.
It is quite common in rural areas and among poorer families to marry their children off at a young age.
“I don’t believe this article will make people stop having their minor children married. The phenomenon can be solved by awareness-raising rather than incrimination, while preserving, at the same time, the rights of wives and children born through child marriages,” Marzouk said.
Based on the draft law, verbal divorce can be counted with a single declaration by a husband, which again has raised controversy. According to Islamic law, a verbal divorce only counts in a case where a man is in his full senses at the time when he utters the phrase “I, hereby, divorce you” to his wife three times. If he declares it just once, only separation follows, which can be reversed.
Both President Sisi and Azhar have been at loggerheads in recent years after Sisi called on Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb to enact legislation that calls off verbal divorce in order to lower the high divorce rates in Egypt.
Over the past few years, Sisi has further demanded that Azhar, as the highest Islamic institution in the region, adopt modern religious discourse, which has been met by the rejection of some Islamic scholars and the lenience of others.
A member of the Houthi movement's political bureau has called on Yemenis to donate money to the manufacture of ballistic missiles, a decision criticised by the internationally recognised government.
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, in a post to an unverified Twitter account, asked Yemenis to call a hotline collecting funds for the Iran-backed militia force, which has been fighting against Yemen's internationally recognised government (GNA) since 2015.
"Call 180 on Yemen Mobile to donate a hundred riyals per call to support the ballistic missile industry and the air force," Bukhaiti said in a post on Tuesday.
In another brazen public campaign, Houthis ask Yemenis living under their control to give money to build ballistic missiles & drones. While intl community has sought funding to mitigate the humanitarian crisis, #Houthis seek donations from poor Yemenis for more war. 1/3 https://t.co/cXTtE9tLGo— Yemen Embassy D.C. (@YemenEmbassy_DC) March 4, 2021
The government's embassy in Washington responded on Thursday, calling the fundraiser "another brazen public campaign" and slammed the movement for attempting to collect funds while the country seeks donations to mitigate what the UN has called "the world's worst humanitarian crisis".
The majority of Yemenis are dependent on aid and millions in the war-torn country face hunger. Meanwhile, aid agencies have warned that cuts in international aid threaten widespread famine.
Bukhaiti's call also comes as the United States, under newly sworn-in President Joe Biden, attempts to mediate peace accords between the parties involved in the civil-turned-proxy war.
But the Yemeni embassy said the "new public campaign for funds to procure more lethal weapons" is evidence that the Houthi movement, which controls northern Yemen, is "not sincerely engaging in aspects for diplomacy & deescalation".
"They still maintain a belligerent posture and aim to expand hostilities," the embassy continued, highlighting recent attacks on Marib as further evidence.
The Houthis resumed a push to capture Marib city, which lies close to some of Yemen's richest oil fields in the north of the country, early last month.
Hundreds of fighters from both sides have been killed in recent weeks, as the movement intensifies its attempts to capture the strategic province.
Houthi forces also fired a cross-border missile at a Saudi Aramco facility at the Red Sea city of Jeddah on Thursday, according to a Houthi military spokesman.
Since the start of the war, the Houthis have insisted their movement seeks to combat economic underdevelopment and political marginalisation in Yemen, as well as greater autonomy for Houthi-majority regions of the country.
While the Houthi movement relies mostly on short-range missiles, small arms and light weapons, as well as some small weaponised drones, the Saudi-led coalition backing the government regularly utilises air strikes against the militia as well as civilian targets.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have justified their interference in Yemen, which began during the early days of the war, with accusations that Iran, a regional rival, had been interfering by heavily arming the Houthi movement.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the United Nations have, in part, refuted such claims.
"While Iranian arms supplies have not been trivial, the primary sources of arms from the Houthis have been local, from those sections of the Yemeni army that supported them, from their former pro-Saleh allies, captured weapons, and the sort of locally assembled equipment," The World Peace Foundation said in a report summarising SIPRI and UN findings.
On Wednesday, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman rejected recent US allegations that Iran has been fanning "the flames of the conflict" in Yemen, lashing out at Washington for selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, calling its role in the war a "blood trade".
Israel’s internal intelligence agency Shin Bet is intimidating members and supporters of the Hamas movement in the occupied West Bank and warning them against running in the upcoming Palestinian legislative elections on 22 May, according to Haaretz.
Hamas, a fierce enemy of Israel, has a strong chance of winning the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament amid splits inside the rival Fatah movement and the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership.
The Shin Bet has made phone calls to some Hamas members and supporters, threatening them with detention, the Israeli daily reported.
Some received the warning during the night, when soldiers delivered the message to their doorsteps, while others were asked to report at Shin Bet stations for interrogation.
“Due to Israel’s direct control of the West Bank, any political activity and meeting of the organisation’s supporters will end in arrests, all the more so when it comes to open parliamentary elections,” Haaretz reported.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced in January that a legislative election will be held in May, followed by a presidential one in July.
It will be the territories' first elections since 2006, when Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, triggering a wave of Israeli arrests of its members.
Eight elected Palestinian parliamentarians are currently in Israeli prisons. On Monday, an Israeli military court sentenced Khalida Jarrar, a prominent political activist and member of the legislative council, to two years in prison for "inciting violence" and belonging to a “banned organisation".
According to Palestinian prisoners' rights group Addameer, 4,400 Palestinians were being detained by Israel as of January: 37 were women, 160 were children.
Saudi youths, including many university graduates, have taken to social media to criticise the kingdom over a lack of job opportunities, despite policies announced in recent months and years to address unemployment.
'The private companies are run by expats who just want you to work like slaves on a salary that’s not enough'
- Saudi youth
The hashtag “Unemployed and we won’t stay silent” briefly trended in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, with users describing their difficulties and frustrations in looking for work - while accusing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, of being indifferent to their plight.
“I am an engineering graduate and I have come back to Saudi, and I can’t find a job here,” one Saudi youth explained in a video.
“The private companies are run by expats who just want you to work like slaves on a salary that’s not enough - and they are graduates from universities you probably couldn’t even find on Google Maps.”
“We have applied to everything, even in the public sector - and keep getting rejected, and the reason? Because you don’t have a connection to put you through. Where can I get one from?” he asked.
“If I knew tears would achieve something I would have cried - but talking about it is more important.”
MBS has created an atmosphere of fear in our country & has suppressed the freedom to innovate. He imposed taxes & ruined businesses. He doesn’t care about the jobless. his twitter trolls always hide the hashtag & jail those that are vocal about this issue— السعودي الحر (@freesaudi4ever) March 2, 2021
Another user said that he had been searching for a job for three years since graduating with a bachelor's degree in IT from New Zealand, but only receives replies stating “we will be in contact”.
Meanwhile, a user named "Hani" claimed to have been jobless since graduating ten years ago, despite utilising the app Taqat - an e-portal set up by the government to help Saudis find jobs.
According to the latest figures released by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, the unemployment rate was 14.9 percent in the third quarter of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic caused a marked spike in unemployment, which had hovered around the 12.5 percent mark since 2016.
Among those without work, 61 percent are under the age of 30, and 54 percent have a bachelor’s degree. The unemployment rate is 8 percent among Saudi men, while it stands at 30 percent for the country’s women.
As part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 project to diversify the economy and move away from oil reliance, the Saudi Labour Ministry announced a process of “Saudisation” in 2016 - a policy which would obligate firms to employ a certain percentage of Saudi workers within their workforce.
Foreign workers play a critical role in the kingdom's economy, making up roughly a third of the country’s population of 35 million.
Since the process of Saudisation was announced, there has been an exodus of migrant workers. Over 650,000 foreign employees left in 2017 and early 2018, while as many as 1.2 million were predicted to have left last year.
However, unemployment statistics and the outcry on social media suggest this has not yet translated into more jobs for Saudi citizens.
#عاطلين_محنا_بساكتين— INTJ-T 👑 (@Thrille_R) March 2, 2021
Unemployed and we will not be silent ....
For six years, MBS has been reporting huge numbers of job opportunities for young men and women.
Until now and in our present time nothing has changed, no one has been employed, pic.twitter.com/fLQltxSDl3
Some users posted pictures of people dressed as graduates serving hot drinks, to stress the point that the country’s educated youths were struggling for opportunities.
Others pointed the finger at the crown prince and his modernisation policies, which were deemed not to be benefiting job-seekers.
One user posted a picture of a Vision 2030 symbol next to a traffic sign which read “The vision is not clear.”
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has made a number of announcements in an attempt to boost foreign investment and create job opportunities.
The crown prince launched “The Line” in January, an ambitious plan to construct a zero-carbon city built in a 170km straight line, the first major construction project for the $500bn futuristic megacity Neom.
He said that the project would contribute $48bn to the country’s economy and create 380,000 jobs. However, many observers have described it as a vanity project, and some have questioned its feasibility.
Later that month, bin Salman said that the Saudi Public Investment Fund would invest $40bn annually in the domestic economy over the next five years, in an attempt to tackle soaring unemployment and the Covid-19-triggered economic downturn.
He also unveiled plans to transform Riyadh into one of the world’s top ten city economies, during an interview at the Future Investment Initiative earlier this year.
To do so, the crown prince aims to increase the capital’s population from 7.5 million to between 15 and 20 million by 2030, claiming that “good demand creates good supply”.
In addition, Riyadh announced two weeks ago that it would stop signing contracts with companies whose regional headquarters were based outside of the kingdom from 2024.
The move is seen as an attempt to jostle for foreign investment and job opportunities from multinational companies which often prefer to be based in the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is permitted and everyday life is comparatively liberal.
Political and security figures from the Palestinian Authority (PA) were the first in line to receive the opening batch of Covid-19 vaccinations, the PA Ministry of Health revealed on Tuesday, following criticism over its handling of the immunisation campaign.
The ministry had been asked to disclose how it was managing the distribution of the vaccines following accusations of corruption by Palestinian civil society and human rights organisations.
In a statement published on its official Facebook page, the ministry said that the PA had received 12,000 doses.
According to the statement, those who received the vaccine include PA ministers; presidential and ministerial security personnel in direct contact with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh; members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee; workers in the Central Elections Committee; employees of a number of Arab embassies in the occupied territories; players in the Palestinian national football team; and 100 students heading abroad.
The ministry later modified the statement on Facebook and on the PA-owned Wafa news agency, removing a reference to the delivery of 200 doses to the royal court of Jordan.
The ministry’s statement was met with widespread criticism from Palestinian citizens and NGOs, as it flew in the face of previous assurances that medical personnel, the elderly, and chronically ill patients would be given priority in vaccination.
In spite of the damning revelations in the ministry statement, Palestinian activists said that it failed to mention that Palestinian media personalities close to or affiliated with the PA - such as those working at the Palestine Radio and Television Corporation, Wafa, or Ma'an news agency - had also received the vaccine.
A news report published on 8 February by Ma’an Agency stated that members of its staff had received the vaccine to “encourage the audience” to get it.
“The statement of the Ministry of Health came too late and only following pressure and questions by the Palestinian street,” Issam al-Arouri, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Legal Aid and a spokesperson for civil society organisations in Palestine, told Middle East Eye.
“The statement contains lies, the most important of which is the cover-up of those who received the vaccine, whom the statement did not mention.
“The Ministry of Health’s priority in distributing the vaccine violates the standards that most countries adhere to, such as age group, health status, and those most at risk,” Arouri added. “The priority of the Ministry of Health was the political class and those close to it.”
Palestinian civil society organisations held a press conference on Monday calling on Shtayyeh to establish a committee of inquiry into the distribution of vaccines, publish a plan, and hold accountable those who violate these standards.
“Incoming information and testimonies indicate that there are still many [personalities] receiving the vaccine… in disregard of the principle of distribution priorities, which [includes] medical personnel, the elderly and patients,” a joint statement by the NGOs read.
The organisations accused the PA of “neglecting the principles of transparency regarding coronavirus vaccination, which generated a fertile environment for favouritism and selfishness, and ignores the public interest”.
“The Ministry of Health’s statement confirms the mismanagement of the distribution of the vaccine,” Issam Haj Hussein, executive director of the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability (Aman), told MEE. “It violated the protocols it had set regarding the mechanisms for distributing the vaccine, including vaccination priorities."
While the vast majority of Palestinians have yet to be vaccinated, the number of new Covid-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian territories continues to rise. Since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago, at least 2,296 Palestinians have died of the virus, according to PA statistics.
“It has emerged that the Ministry of Health is not the main player in managing the distribution of the vaccine,” Islam al-Tamimi, director of the community advocacy department at the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, told MEE.
Tamimi called on the Anti-Corruption Committee to hold to account “those who are found responsible for depriving the groups that actually need the vaccine”.
While it is accused of “vaccination corruption”, the PA vaccination plan faces a $30m funding shortfall, “even after factoring in support from a global vaccine scheme for poorer economies”, as it needs a total of around $55m to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, according to the World Bank.
Palestinian activists took to Twitter demanding the PA explain the distribution process, using the Arabic hashtag “Where is the vaccine.”
“Human rights demands are not limited to investigating what happened, but also for the Palestinian Authority to provide guarantees and a clear strategy to ensure that what happened will not be repeated,” Tamimi said.
A military alliance between Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian army was behind an explosion aboard an Israeli-owned ship on 25 February in the Gulf of Oman, according to an Iranian conservative newspaper
The Kayhan daily, which has close ties to Iran's supreme leader, revealed that despite Iranian officials' rejection of any involvement in the blast, the "Axis of Resistance" carried out the attack.
'The incident in the Sea of Oman, regardless of who carried it out, was a highly professional operation that would disillusion the Zionist regime'
- Kayhan daily
The term Axis of Resistance has generally referred to the Shia forces fighting against Israel and the US in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
"Wickedness in Syria and Iraq [was] responded [to] in Yemen and Oman Sea," the daily's headline read, claiming that the blast was a response to the US and Israel attacks on Iranian-backed forces in Syria and Iraq.
"A series of Israeli attacks on resistance forces in Iraq and Syria have deluded Israelis [about their power]," wrote the daily on 27 February.
"The incident in the Sea of Oman, regardless of who carried it out, was a highly professional operation that would disillusion the Zionist regime."
Meanwhile, Mashregh News, another conservative outlet, published an opinion piece by Iranian analyst Alireza Taghavi saying that the blast on the Israeli-owned ship was a warning to Israel, as well as the Gulf states that are seeking normalisation agreements with Tel Aviv.
"Following the Zionist regime's attacks on Resistance Forces in Syria, it was logical to expect a response," Taghavi wrote.
"Being recognised by some Arab states in the Persian Gulf would not earn legitimacy for Israel... and, sooner or later, those [states] collaborating with Israel would be punished," he added.
An analyst has suggested that President Hassan Rouhani's administration has lost hope that a meaningful change in US policy toward Iran will occur during President Joe Biden's time in the White House.
During Biden's 2020 presidential campaign, he promised to abandon former President Donald Trump's maximum pressure policy on Iran. However, politicians in Iran are now worried that Biden has been purposely killing time to determine which political camp will win Iran's June presidential elections.
'They prefer not to reach an agreement with an administration that would be in power for only a few more months'
- Vahid Karimi, Iranian foreign policy analyst
In an interview with the Aftab daily, Vahid Karimi, an Iranian foreign policy analyst, said that a recent move by Biden's administration to introduce a new anti-Iran resolution to the UN board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency is a tactic to postpone the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
"The Democrats closely follow the developments regarding Iran's 2021 presidential elections," Karimi was quoted as saying by the Aftab.
"They prefer not to reach an agreement with an administration that would be in power for only a few more months."
Meanwhile, former Iranian legislator Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh suggested that Biden's strategy of killing time would put him in a more difficult situation after the next elections in Iran.
"If Biden keeps losing time, he would eventually find himself in a situation that there are no diplomats in Tehran to negotiate with," Felahatpisheh told the ISNA news agency.
He referred to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)'s recent attempt to support a military commander's candidacy in the elections.
"If this happens, Biden would have no choice other than negotiating with the language of the militaries, and that's what happened in Trump's era," he added.
Experts have warned that Iran's deteriorating economic situation has caused a rapid increase in school dropout rates in the country, raising serious concerns about a sharp decline in the number of skilled workforces in the coming years.
According to local media, Iran's economic difficulties, which have been multiplied by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions, have led to many schoolchildren leaving schools to help their parents make ends meet.
The Hamshahri daily has reported that due to the enormous number of students leaving school, officials have refused to reveal the country's exact number of total dropouts.
The daily revealed the data it accessed in a few Iranian provinces, showing that this year, in Kerman province, 4,510 students quit their studies in the first year of high school. During the same period, 3,677 seven-year-old children did not register in school at the beginning of the school year.
According to Hamshahri, 4,500 students in the oil-rich Khuzestan province, over 40,000 in Khorasan Razavi, and 10,055 in West Azerbaijan dropped out of school since September due to economic difficulties.
Since the beginning of the outbreak of coronavirus, schools have been closed in Iran, and distance learning through television and the internet has been the primary education mechanism. However, many Iranian families do not have internet access or cannot afford to buy a smartphone or tablet for their children to pursue their studies through virtual learning.
Last week, the ILNA news agency reported from one of Tehran's slums, where families do not even have access to a television to let their children follow classes broadcast for school children on state TV channels.
Libya’s prime minister designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah paid a private visit to Ankara to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last month, days after his election to the post in a UN-led peace process.
A person familiar with the issue told Middle East Eye that Dbeibah arrived in Ankara on 11 February as part of routine engagements between the two countries.
The source, who didn’t explain why the visit was kept confidential, said that senior Turkish officials personally wanted to convey their good wishes to the newly elected leader and offer support in any areas possible, from military training to the rebuilding of infrastructure.
After signing a maritime delimitation deal to disrupt Greek pipeline plans in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2019, Turkey invested significant resources in the North African country, from armed drones to special forces, which helped the Tripoli-based government to fend off an attack by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.
'The perception or reality is that Dbeibah is intimately linked to Ankara on a number of levels and that many of his business interests go through Turkey'
- Mohamed Eljarh, analyst
Turkey currently has a bilateral military aid deal with Libya, which hosts Turkish special forces and de-facto military bases.
Ibrahim Kalin, a chief foreign policy advisor to Erdogan, told Turkish newspaper Sabah on Monday that Turkey had been in touch with the new Libyan officials since their election, and some "visits" have taken place.
"President [Erdogan] exchanged opinions with [the Libyan leaders.] He made phone calls to congratulate them and there have been some visits. And [these engagements] will continue," he said.
Dbeibah’s links to Turkey are pretty well known. The billionaire granted contracts to Turkish companies through state-owned agencies before the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.
Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan researcher and analyst who first reported the visit on Twitter last month, said that Dbeibah, with his extensive business interests, was expected to maintain but also deepen his ties with Ankara.
“What was the interesting issue here is the attempt to keep the visit secret. The reason for that is that Dbeibah and his aides were worried about the signal and perception the visit would send and confirm in Libyan public opinion,” he said.
"The perception or reality is that Dbeibah is intimately linked to Ankara on a number of levels and that many of his business interests go through Turkey."
Dbeibah also granted his first interview to Turkish public news agency Anadolu last month following his election to the post. He told Anadolu that Turkey was an ally, friend and a brotherly state.
“It has huge capabilities to help the Libyans achieve their real goals. Turkey is considered a real partner to Libya. We hope to bolster this cooperation and enhance our trade exchange to the highest level," he added.
'Dbeibah also wants the continuing presence of the Turkish military in the country as a safeguard against any future risks, in case of the renewal of hostilities'
- Murat Yesiltas, SETA think tank
Murat Yesiltas, the director of security studies at Ankara-based think tank SETA, said both sides had immense interest in keeping the relations as close as it was under Tripoli's outgoing prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
“Turkey is keen on maintaining the maritime deal, which provides a multilateral angle to Ankara’s claims in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said. “Dbeibah also wants the continuing presence of the Turkish military in the country as a safeguard against any future risks, in case of the renewal of hostilities.”
Dbeibah himself said last week that his government will maintain the maritime delimitation deal with Turkey and would seek more ways to cooperate on other areas such as trade.
Turkey hasn’t shied away from public statements indicating its willingness to take part in reconstruction efforts and oil drillings, which could become a boon for Turkey’s economy.
Eljarh, the analyst, says Dbeibah’s victory in the UN-led dialogue that selected him was a sweet surprise for Ankara.
“Erdogan wants to capitalise on Dbeibah's winning to translate Ankara's diplomatic and military investment since 2019 in Libya into business opportunities and political influence,” he said.
Last week, Dbeibah unveiled his proposed government, which is set to be considered by the Libyan parliament in the coming days and voted on. The government would be tasked with reuniting Libya, which has been split into rival, and occasionally warring, administrations. It is meant to prepare the groundwork for general elections in December.
However, damaging allegations have also emerged that delegates at the Libyan dialogue were offered up to $500,000 to vote for Dbeibah's slate, which claimed an unexpected victory against Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.
If parliament rejects Dbeibah's government, the vote will go back to the UN-backed dialogue forum, which can then approve it instead. The corruption allegations have raised questions about whether the forum will now back Dbeibah again, however.
Saudi Arabia is concerned about a possible election defeat for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they consider a "spearhead" against Iran, according to i24 News.
A Saudi source close to the royal family told the Israeli channel on Wednesday that Riyadh is following the Israeli election campaign closely and hopes that Netanyahu will not be removed from power in the 23 March vote.
“[The Saudi royal family] not only prefer Netanyahu, but they love him," the source was quoted as saying. "He has the required charisma, and he knows very well what he is doing."
On Iran, the source added: "We are very concerned about his replacement by the head of the opposition [Yair Lapid], who will change some things."
Saudi Arabia's ties with Israel have strengthened in recent months, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco all signing US-sponsored normalisation deals with Israel.
In November, Netanyahu made a secret visit to Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Saudi Arabia is wary of Netanyahu’s rival, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) party. It worries he would be more likely to engage with Iran and to acquiesce to US President Joe Biden's foreign policy shift towards China and Asia, reducing the number of US staff devoted to the Middle East.
Another Saudi source told i24 News that Saudi Arabia sees Netanyahu as the “spearhead against Iran”, the channel reported, adding that Saudi officials will not address this publicly or interfere in the Israeli election.
Lapid’s office declined to comment on the statements.
Last week, the US published a report revealing that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
Saudi-US relations appear cooler now, under the Biden administration, than they were during the tenure of Donald Trump, who was the driving force behind the recent normalisation deals.
In February, an Israeli pro-democracy watchdog called for a criminal investigation into contacts made by a member of Likud - Netanyahu's party - with Palestinian Authority (PA) figures to “quietly” endorse the sitting prime minister in the upcoming March elections.
The Likud plan was to convince Palestinians inside Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, to vote for them instead of the Joint List, a Palestinian political alliance.
The PA in the occupied West Bank is also wary of Likud rival parties New Hope and Yamina. It sees them as more right-wing and extreme in their political views than Netanyahu.
The PA believes that a government ruled by Yamina and New Hope could accelerate the annexation of large areas of the West Bank and Jordan Valley, making any peace talks and the two-state solution even less likely.
At the ancient city of Ur, recent days have seen a flurry of activity. Pope Francis’s impending visit to the site, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, is set to be one of the most important moments of his historic four-day visit to Iraq.
Seventeen kilometres south, however, unrest has been roiling. Last week, violent clashes between anti-government demonstrators and security forces erupted in the city of Nasiriyah, with at least five protesters killed and dozens more wounded, including security personnel.
For Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the protests in the capital of the southern Dhi Qar province couldn’t have come at a worse time, when the world’s eyes were trained on Iraq and its ability to host the sensitive papal visit.
Yet just when it looked like the deadly unrest could upend Francis’s tour, Kadhimi has managed to quell the protests and keep a lid on a potential crisis, Iraqi officials, politicians and activists told Middle East Eye.
The next few days will be critical. On Friday, the pope touches down on Iraqi soil, beginning the first papal visit to the country that will see him visit Baghdad, Erbil, Najaf and Mosul.
At Ur on Saturday, Francis will hold an interfaith ceremony, part of his efforts to boost interreligious relations in Iraq. The resumption of demonstrations in Nasiriyah and the clashes between protesters and the security forces doubled the fears of the trip’s organisers, who were worried they could not guarantee the safety of the pope, his companions, and the religious delegations meeting him.
Kadhimi had to move swiftly, and he did. The prime minister dismissed Dhi Qar governor Nazem al-Waeli "in response to the protesters’ request”, and assigned Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, head of the National Security Agency, as acting governor until the protesters agreed to a replacement.
Meanwhile, counter-riot forces and local police were pulled from the city and replaced by the army. An advisory council linked to the premier was also launched, tasked with solving the governorate’s problems, and a federal probe was formed to uncover those responsible for the deadly attacks on protesters.
As Asaidi took over, calm and control returned to Nasiriyah after five days of violence. Asadi immediately began extensive discussions with tribal heads, activists and dignitaries, handing them the task of starting a dialogue to name a new governor. Meanwhile, the former counter-terrorism commander embarked on a rapid renovation process that included the ancient city of Ur and the roads leading to it.
'The people of Nasiriyah are aware of the importance of the pope's visit to their city and to the country as a whole'
- Hassan Nadhim, culture minister
“We know that Nasiriyah was the source of the first spark that was set off to bring down the previous government, and we know that the city has a special status, but the government took care of Nasiriyah not because it is a source of this [threat], but because it needs special attention,” Hassan Nadhim, the culture minister and official spokesman for the Iraqi government, told Middle East Eye.
Nadhim stressed that nothing would endanger the pope’s visit, and Baghdad and the Vatican were determined to make it successful.
"The demands of the demonstrators are legitimate and this government, since its formation in June, has taken care of neglected cities, described them as afflicted, and allocated funds for their reconstruction,” he said.
"We know that there are those who are using the current situation [in Dhi Qar] for their own purposes... But we believe that these events [the violence] have nothing to do with the pope's visit. The people of Nasiriyah are aware of the importance of this visit to their city and to the country as a whole.”
Dhi Qar governorate and its capital, Nasiriyah, which is located on the left bank of the Euphrates river, is the cradle of the Sumerian civilization. Its people are known for their tendency to revolt and stubbornness in the face of authority.
Most opposition political movements in Iraq’s modern history were launched from the area, including the Communist Party that overthrew the monarchy in the 1950s and the Baath Party, which then brought down that government in the 1960s.
It later became a hub for the Shia armed groups that challenged the rule of Saddam Hussein, with its marshes used as sanctuaries after attacks carried out on party headquarters and security services in the region. The 1991 Shia uprising, which was brutally repressed by Saddam, also began in Dhi Qar.
During 2019’s massive anti-government demonstrations, the province’s protesters were seen as the “icons of the sacrifices”, as Nasiriyah suffered the highest death toll of any city outside Baghdad. The massacre committed by the security forces in the city on 28 November 2019, in which 32 protesters were killed and 225 others were wounded within just two hours, led to the downfall of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and his government.
Those bloody events forced the former governor of Dhi Qar, Adel Al-Dakhili, to resign as well. And the major political and armed factions in Nasiriyah were beaten back into a retreat: most of their headquarters were either bulldozed or torched.
Despite promising protesters they would not interfere in the governor’s matters or reopen offices in the city, those powerful political forces refused to relinquish Nasiriyah.
Instead, they began to use the demonstrators themselves as tools to undermine the newly assigned Waeli, activists, local and federal security officials told MEE.
Waeli, a judge who was introduced to the protesters as an independent, was soon adopted by the Sairoon bloc, influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political wing. He quickly replaced most of Dhi Qar’s top officials with people loyal to Sadr.
Some of those replaced officials were in lucrative positions, where service contracts could be awarded in return for millions of dollars. Each of these officials either belonged to an influential political force, or was at least allied to one.
In August, the government allocated a 50bn dinar ($34.2m) emergency grant to Nasiriyah "to improve the services situation in the city”, which prompted the political factions to resume their jostling for positions and influence, seeking a slice for themselves. Suddenly, the position of governor took on new importance.
“The first demonstration in Nasiriyah nearly 10 days ago [23 February], which demanded the dismissal of the governor, was led by the office manager of one of the former department directors, who was dismissed by Waeli,” said a local intelligence officer involved in the investigations into the latest violence in the city.
"Our information indicates that the aforementioned person paid money to a number of youths to attack the governorate building. The number at the beginning was small, but [the police’s] killing one of them angered the rest of the protestors, who had distanced themselves from that demonstration at the beginning,” added the official, speaking to MEE on condition of anonymity.
“Events escalated over the following five days, and ended as they did.”
All the activists and local and federal officials, including two commissioners of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), MEE spoke to for this story corroborated the intelligence officer’s version of events.
The youths coopted on that first day of demonstrations come from very deprived backgrounds, sources said. Most were teens, some as young as 11, and the vast majority were unemployed.
“They were paying these young men 50,000 dinars ($33) to attack the building and the security services with stones and cut the streets with burning tires," the intelligence officer said.
The officer said regular protesters are easy to spot and familiar to the security services. They introduce their representatives and give demands in a polite manner, he said.
"Matters do not descend into violence except when something happens that provokes them, but these protesters were attacking the security personnel fiercely and without prior indication, deliberately colliding with them,” the officer said.
'The ongoing struggle between political forces over the position of the governor used youth as fuel. This is the story in a nutshell'
- Prominent activist
"The problem is that our security personnel deployed in the streets, including the riot police, are not professionally qualified to confront and contain such behaviour, and this always causes losses between the two parties."
By the end of the fifth day of the demonstrations, six protestors were killed and 271 others wounded, including 147 security personnel, according to IHCHR records.
“Unfortunately, there has been a dangerous shift in the demonstrations in Nasiriyah. The ongoing struggle between political forces over the position of the governor used youth as fuel. This is the story in a nutshell," a prominent activist in the city told MEE.
The activist, who declined to be named for security reasons, said competing political forces had been using demonstrators as tools in recent months. Tactics, he said, included infiltrating protests with their supporters, as well as buying off poor youths.
“The problem is that the real activists and demonstrators are subjected to systematic terminations,” the activist said, warning it had become difficult to isolate agitators.
"We are between two fires, and the actual beneficiaries of everything that is happening are the political forces that penetrated the demonstrators and are manipulating them, with or without their knowledge.”
The Sadrists are at the forefront of the conflicting political forces in Nasiriyah, followed by the Badr Organisation, the Islamic Virtue Party, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the al-Hikma Movement. Although all of these forces have political and security influence in the governorate, the Sadrists are the most inclined to use violence to achieve their goals, local and federal officials and activists told MEE.
Assigning Asadi exclusively to the task of managing the governorate’s affairs during this sensitive period was not arbitrary, as he has security and military experience and is fully supported by the Sadrists. His choice has sent reassuring messages to them that none of their opponents will occupy the position at this stage, lawmakers and federal officials told MEE.
“Asadi is originally from Nasiriyah and is supported by the Sadrists and enjoys good tribal relations in the region, so the choice was smart,” a lawmaker originally from Nasiriyah told MEE.
"A person of such characteristics with broad security and administrative powers is the most capable of confronting the conflicting forces, at least until the pope's visit ends.”
Discussions over the new governor began a few days ago in the Nasiriyah home of Sheikh Hussein Ali al-Khayoun, the emir of the al-Aboudah tribe, one of the largest in Dhi Qar and one of those close to Kadhimi. They have been attended by representatives of the old political forces and the demonstrators.
Initial indications do not bode well, lawmakers, security and federal officials told MEE, warning that clashes could break out again at any time.
"Kadhimi succeeded in dismantling the crisis and neutralised the parties that inclined to violence [the Sadrists] by sending Asadi there. This cannot be denied,” a lawmaker involved in the ongoing talks to calm the situation told MEE.
"Everything that has happened and what may happen is not aimed at cancelling the pope's visit. The aim is to use the timing to blackmail Kadhimi and obtain some gains," he added.
"It is clear that he [Kadhimi] played with all the parties according to their rules. The demonstrations may return, but they will not be with the same momentum and strength as long as the big players remain far from the arena.”
A car bomb killed and injured a number of fighters travelling in a convoy of vehicles belonging to Yemen's main southern separatist forces in the city of Aden on Thursday, the militia said.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces tweeted that the casualties were part of a convoy that included Brigadier General Mohsen al-Wali, but gave no figures.
In a separate post, they said Wali and another general had survived "an assassination operation using a rigged car".
Video footage shared by STC activists on Facebook showed a white four-wheel drive vehicle with extensive damage.
Aden is the seat of Yemen's internationally recognised government, which in December formed a new power-sharing cabinet, including the STC, under a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh is leading a military coalition fighting to oust Houthi rebels who control much of north Yemen and the capital Sanaa, and restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
On 30 December, at least 22 people were killed and dozens wounded in an attack on Aden airport moments after a plane landed with members of the new cabinet.
The coalition blamed the Houthi movement, which denied responsibility.
The power-sharing deal ended a standoff that had triggered clashes in Aden and complicated United Nations efforts to broker a permanent ceasefire in the overall conflict.
In December, the UN humanitarian office estimated a death toll of at least 233,000 deaths in the Yemen conflict, mostly civilians, including around 100,000 combat deaths.
The conflict is described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with the majority of Yemenis dependent on aid and millions facing hunger. Cuts in international aid to Yemen threaten widespread famine this year, aid agencies have warned.
Last month, US President Joe Biden announced the end of US support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition, in a major policy reversal from the previous administration that may alter the course of the conflict.
"This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales," Biden said in his first major foreign policy speech.
Smugglers threw scores of people into the Red Sea as they headed to Yemen in the hope of crossing into Saudi Arabia to find work, UN officials have said.
The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said the boat carrying 200 people had left Djibouti in the early hours of Thursday morning.
But half an hour after the boat set off from the east coast of Africa, smugglers began throwing people off the ship near the coastal town of Obock in Djibouti.
Yvonne Ndege, a spokeswoman for the IOM, said smugglers threw at least 80 people off the boat after it became overloaded.
'Smugglers started shouting there were too many onboard and began throwing people overboard'
- Yvonne Ndege, IOM spokeswoman
"The boat left Oulebi in Djibouti with 200 migrants onboard at 2 AM local time heading to Yemen," Ndege told Middle East Eye.
"Smugglers started shouting there were too many onboard and began throwing people overboard."
Ndege said minors were on board the boat and she fears that at least 20 people may have died.
She added that rescuers had retrieved five bodies, with survivors being treated by the IOM in Djibouti.
Thousands of people, mainly Ethiopians and Somalis, have crossed the Red Sea from East Africa to find work in Saudi Arabia.
Last October, two similar incidents took place, with smugglers also throwing people from boats attempting to cross over to Yemen.
The pandemic has left many heading for Saudi Arabia stranded in Yemen, forcing some to pay smugglers all over again to return.
Tens of thousands of people who managed to return to their countries of origin across the Horn of Africa have received IOM's assistance in government-operated Covid-19 quarantine facilities in countries including Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Among these are more than 2,000 children.
Last March, Amnesty International revealed that Houthi officials in Yemen had forced thousands of Ethiopian workers and their families to cross the border into Saudi Arabia.
At the time, thousands of Ethiopians worked in northern Yemen, earning money to seek travel and work in Saudi Arabia. But when the Covid-19 pandemic began to worsen, Houthi officials ejected the Ethiopian workers and sent them to the Saudi border.
Once they crossed the border, the Ethiopians were apprehended by Saudi security officials, who confiscated their belongings and, in some cases, beat them.
Detainees who spoke to Amnesty said they were chained together in pairs and forced to use their cell floors as toilets.
Among the detained were pregnant women and babies, with three detainees telling Amnesty they saw children who had died.
Most of the detainees were sent to the Jizan central prison, while the IOM estimates 2,000 Ethiopians remain in Yemen.
The growth of Middle Eastern fibre optic cable networks has given Western signals intelligence agencies unprecedented access to the region’s data and communications traffic.
“There is no question that, in the broadest sense, from Port Said [in Egypt] to Oman is one of the greatest areas for telecommunications traffic and therefore surveillance. Everything about the Middle East goes through that region except for the odd link through Turkey,” said Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist specialising in surveillance since 1975.
The Five Eyes, a signals intelligence (SIGINT) alliance of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has been snooping on the Middle East since the network was formed during the Second World War.
The key players are the US’s National Security Agency (NSA), and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), utilising both known and secret facilities in the region to collect data.
The Middle East is a hotbed of surveillance for obvious reasons: its strategic political-economic importance, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and political divisions between the allies of the Five Eyes and their adversaries, from militant groups to countries such as Iran and Syria.
While all conventional forms of surveillance are carried out, from airspace surveillance to tapping phone lines, the region is a strategic asset for mass surveillance due to the current routes of fibre optic cables.
“The importance of cables is still largely unknown by the average person. They think smartphones are wireless and it goes through the air but they don’t realise it is through cables,” said Alan Mauldin, research director at telecommunications research firm TeleGeography in Washington.
Spy agencies have tapped into fibre optic cables to intercept vast volumes of data, from phone calls to the content of emails, to web browsing history and metadata. Financial, military and government data also passes through cables.
Such intercepted data is sifted by analysts, while filters extract material based on the NSA and GCHQ’s 40,000 search terms – subjects, phone numbers and email addresses - for closer inspection.
“This physical system of fibre optic cables joins the major countries of the world and carries over 95 percent of international voice and data traffic. Given the importance of undersea cables, they are poorly protected by international law," said Athina Karatzogianni, an academic researching the importance and regulation of undersea cables.
"They represent perhaps the most extreme example of states privatising critical infrastructure but failing to extend protection."
Between the Red Sea and Iran there are no terrestrial fibre optic cables crossing the Arabian peninsula. All internet traffic going from Europe to Asia either passes through the Caucuses and Iran, using the Europe Persia Express Gateway (EPEG), or via the far more congested Egyptian and Red Sea routes.
Egypt is a major chokepoint, handling traffic from Europe to the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and vice versa. The 15 cables that cross Egypt between the Mediterranean and Red seas handle between 17 percent to 30 percent of the world population’s internet traffic, or the data of 1.3 billion to 2.3 billion people.
Geography and politics has led to this particular set-up. “You cannot build a link through Syria or Iran due to the conflict and the political situation, and the war in Yemen takes out another terrestrial option, so [cables] take another path,” said Guy Zibi, founder of South African market research firm Xalam Analytics.
“There are only a few areas globally that are so highly strategic; the Red Sea is one of them, and in the African context, Djibouti.”
Most cables run under the sea, making the land crossing of Egypt more of an exception than the rule. Subsea cables are preferred as they are considered more secure, with greater vulnerability when cables hit land and then run terrestrially. “It is difficult to go under the sea and harm cables,” said Zibi.
The cables that run across Egypt and via the Suez Canal have logistical risks, such as breakages by anchors in the Suez’s shallow waters or from human interference.
“In 2013, three divers with hand tools cut the main cable connecting Egypt with Europe, reducing Egypt’s internet bandwidth by 60 percent,” said Karatzogianni.
The cables running through Egypt do not give the Egyptian state free rein to intercept data on behalf of the Five Eyes, however, despite the importance that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former director of military intelligence, and his son, Mahmoud, the deputy head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), place on mass surveillance of Egyptian citizens.
“The Egyptians are superbly placed to have access [to data on the cables], but are not considered a trustworthy or stable partner. It is not where you want to put slick high-end [surveillance] equipment,” said Campbell.
Despite its strategic importance, Egypt is not part of any wider SIGINT networks. The Five Eyes alliance has information-sharing arrangements in place with some European countries and Japan and South Korea, for example, to intercept data from Russia and China. The NSA also has a relationship with Sweden, because it is a landing point for all cable traffic from Russia’s Baltic region.
By contrast, the US has less formal information-sharing relationships with a number of countries in the Middle East region including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.
“The Egyptians have an intelligence-sharing agreement [with the US], but they are probably quite supine in the relationship, being after the money [from the cable operators] and some intelligence sharing, which is largely [from the US side], ‘here’s what you get’,” said Hugh Miles, founder of Arab Digest, in Cairo.
The Five Eyes could be tapping cables in Egypt or its territorial waters, however. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 refer to a clandestine NSA base in the Middle East called DancingOasis, also referred to as DGO.
“It is extremely secret. Significantly it was built without [the host] government knowing, which is an immense risk to the Americans,” said Campbell. “Where it is located is pure guesswork. Candidate one is Jordan, then Saudi Arabia, and three, Egypt. Geographically the only other place would be Oman, from where Britain covers the Gulf.”
The cables connecting Europe, Africa and Asia run across Egypt and then down the Red Sea to the Bab el Mandeb strait between Yemen and Djibouti. The cables heading east veer off towards Oman. To the west of the capital Muscat is a GCHQ surveillance site in Seeb, with the code name Circuit.
“It is very close to where the submarine cables come in. Virtually all cables take a landfall between Seeb and Muscat. How convenient is that?” said Campbell.
For internet traffic to be tapped going from Oman to Europe, “the best option would be ultra-secret taps in the sea,” he added.
The Snowden leaks revealed that subsea taps are carried out by a specially converted submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter.
“There is a high degree of suspicion that American or other countries’ submarines use subsea platforms to intercept cables,” said Campbell.
Israel is another country with the technical capability to tap subsea cables in the region, according to Campbell, though it currently has no connections to Middle Eastern networks.
There are no cables that go beyond the two coastal landing points of Tel Aviv and Haifa, which are connected to continental Europe and Cyprus.
This could change if Google’s reported plans for its new “Blue-Raman” cable running from Europe to India through Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman come to fruition.
The cable is split in two, with the Blue part of the cable running from Italy to Aqaba on Jordan's Red Sea coast. The Raman cable runs from the Jordanian port south to Mumbai.
“As it is a Google cable, they know how to secure everything end-to-end. They will have built into their business plan the landfall at or near Tel Aviv, and will factor in that the Israelis will copy all data at the landing point, and encrypt against them. That doesn’t mean they [Israel] won’t take the traffic and see what they can get,” said Campbell.
It is not clear if the Blue-Raman cable will go ahead, seemingly dependent on a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Google did not respond to Middle East Eye's queries about the reported project.
“If Saudi Arabia signs up to the deal with the Israelis, it will be a significant moment in geopolitics, where tech infrastructure - the fibre optic cable - becomes a facilitator for strategic collaboration between regional historical enemies,” said Karatzogianni.
Yemen's Houthi forces fired a cross-border missile at a Saudi Aramco facility at the Red Sea city of Jeddah, a Houthi military spokesman said on Thursday, but there was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities.
Saudi Aramco, whose oil production and export facilities are mostly in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, more than 1,000km across the country from Jeddah, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition that has been battling the rebel Houthi movement for six years also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said in a Twitter post that the attack took place at dawn using a winged Quds-2 missile and had struck its target, without elaborating.
He posted an image with coordinates of what appeared to be a petroleum products distribution plant in Jeddah used for domestic supplies that the Houthis struck with a Quds-2 missile in November 2020.
Military experts estimated at that time that the missile was fired from about 700km away in Houthi-controlled territory.
The Houthis, who control northern Yemen, have struck other Saudi energy assets in the past.
In November, the Saudi energy ministry said a limited fire broke out near a floating platform belonging to the Jazan oil products terminal after a foiled attack using explosive-laden boats in the southern Red Sea.
The Houthis have recently stepped up cross-border drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, mostly targeting southern Saudi Arabia.
The coalition says it intercepts most attacks.
On Thursday, the coalition destroyed a Houthi ballistic missile launched towards Jazan and an armed drone launched towards Khamis Mushait, both cities in the south of the kingdom, state media reported.
The Houthi's Sarea said in a separate Twitter post that the Khamis Mushait attack targeted a military site.
The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from the capital, Sanaa.
The United States and United Nations have renewed peace efforts as fighting recently intensified in Yemen's gas-rich Marib region.
The US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on Tuesday on two Houthi military leaders.
The conflict is described by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with the majority of Yemenis dependent on aid and millions facing hunger. Cuts in international aid to Yemen threaten widespread famine this year, aid agencies have warned.
Last month, US President Joe Biden announced the end of US support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition, in a major policy reversal from the previous administration that may alter the course of the conflict.
"This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales," Biden said in his first major foreign policy speech.
Iran's foreign ministry hit back at American accusations that Tehran is prolonging the conflict in Yemen, saying that Washington must be held accountable for "crimes" in the war-torn country, following a move by the Biden administration to sanction two Houthi commanders.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, rejected on Wednesday the US claim that Iran has been fanning "the flames of the conflict" in Yemen and lashed out at Washington for selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, calling its role in the war a "blood trade".
"The Americans, who must be held accountable for their crimes in Yemen for six years, cannot make groundless accusations against others as a plaintiff," he said in a statement.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran's stances have been clear since the outset of the Yemen war, as we have always emphasised that there is no military solution to the crisis in Yemen," he added.
On Tuesday, the US sanctioned Mansur al-Saadi, the Houthi naval forces chief of staff, and Ahmad Ali Ahsan al-Hamzi, commander of the Yemeni air force and air defence forces.
According to the US government, both Houthi officials received training in Iran.
"Iran's involvement in Yemen fans the flames of the conflict, threatening greater escalation, miscalculation, and regional instability," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the sanctions.
The designations came weeks after the administration removed the rebel group from its blacklist of foreign terrorist organisations, which was done to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid into areas under their control.
Last month, US President Joe Biden announced that Washington was halting support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, in a major policy reversal that fulfilled a campaign promise he had shared with all Democratic presidential candidates.
The administration also said it imposed a temporary freeze on Trump-era arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including the sale of precision-guided munitions, as it issues a review of the deals.
Still, the administration has repeatedly pledged to remain committed to the kingdom's national security while many in Congress have called for clarifying details on the new Yemen policy.
"We will ensure Saudi Arabia and our regional partners have the tools they need to defend themselves, including against threats emanating from Yemen that are carried out with weapons and support from Iran," Blinken said on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia has led a coalition with regional allies in Yemen since 2015 against the country's Houthi rebels to restore the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Riyadh views the Houthis as Iran proxies, but the rebels deny receiving material support from Tehran.
The war has killed more than 230,000 people, caused outbreaks of disease and brought Yemen to the verge of famine, in what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The United States is calling on Saudi Arabia to give up its "developing" status at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which grants the kingdom special treatment in economic negotiations, noting that the G20 member was designated as a high-income country by the World Bank.
"Saudi Arabia is a wealthy and influential player in the global economy," Washington said in a statement to the WTO on Wednesday.
"We call on Saudi Arabia to no longer seek special and differential treatment in current and future WTO negotiations. By taking this step, Saudi Arabia would make a significant contribution to ensuring that the WTO remains a viable forum for meaningful trade negotiations."
On Wednesday, the WTO held its third review of Saudi Arabia, where the organisation assessed the Gulf kingdom's economic growth and the development of its trade policies.
Riyadh is currently considered to be a developing member of the WTO, meaning it receives "special and differential treatment provisions", including longer time periods in reducing tariffs and increased access to trading opportunities.
The rules also aim to ensure that all WTO members safeguard the interests of developing country members.
The goal of these measures is to help lesser-developed countries integrate themselves into the global economy.
The WTO does not have a specific policy on what constitutes a developing country, and any member nation can declare itself one, according to Bloomberg News.
Still, despite this designation by the WTO, the World Bank identifies Saudi Arabia as high-income, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $793bn in 2019.
The kingdom is also a member of the Group of 20, a forum of the world's biggest economies, and virtually hosted its latest meeting last November.
The US has previously asserted that other countries listed as "developing" in the WTO should withdraw their status, namely China, which currently has the world's second-largest economy.
Former President Donald Trump heavily criticised China's special and differential treatment at the WTO. He described the designation in November 2019 as "one of the reasons they've taken advantage of us".
Last year, the WTO issued a 130-page report outlining that the Saudi government was behind beoutQ, a streaming service that pirated content from Qatari-owned sports network beIn Media Group.
A month before the report, the US placed Saudi Arabia on a watch list for failing to protect and enforce intellectual property rights around the world, identifying beoutQ as a main offender.
Wendy Sherman, US President Joe Biden's nominee for deputy secretary of state, has suggested that Washington should keep some sanctions on Iran - even if the United States returns to the multilateral nuclear deal.
During a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Sherman - a veteran diplomat who helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear pact - agreed with senior Democratic Senator Bob Menendez that some sanctions must remain in place against Iran.
"It is a fair statement that we have to keep sanctions on [Iran] that deal with human rights abuses, state sponsorship of terrorism, arms sales, et cetera, what we've done in terms of Hezbollah and Hamas. So yes, I think there are many things that need to stay in place," she said.
During the hearing, Menendez, an Iran hawk who now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pushed Sherman on the kinds of sanctions relief that reviving the Iran deal may grant Tehran, arguing that non-nuclear-related sanctions should not be lifted.
"There are sanctions which I helped fashion that are not about the nuclear portfolio and issue but about terrorism and other things. Iran likes to try to claim that all sanctions that we levy are just about their nuclear portfolio.
"We cannot tolerate that or else we will have nothing in our arsenal of peaceful diplomacy to deal with Iran's other nefarious activities," Menendez told Sherman. "Is that a fair statement?"
Sherman agreed with the chairman's take and promised the Biden administration sought "true consultation [with], not just notification" of Congress.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran in 2018 and imposed an ongoing series of sanctions against the country.
Fresh rounds of sanctions against Iran had been imposed by the Trump administration up until its final days in office. During the end of Trump's term, however, the administration began to shift the focus of sanctions, specifically imposing non-nuclear-related measures.
The moves appeared strategic and in anticipation of the Biden team's plans to re-enter the deal with Iran, as analysts warned non-nuclear sanction would be difficult to reverse during negotiations.
The nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had seen Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting US-led international sanctions against its economy.
During the hearing, Sherman repeatedly stressed the Biden administration is seeking a "longer and stronger" nuclear deal with Iran, but was unable to elaborate on which requirements would differ under the Biden plan compared with the Obama-era JCPOA.
A principal Biden campaign promise, re-entering the nuclear deal is one of the administration's top foreign policy goals, US officials say.
The administration's insistence on "compliance for compliance", however, has led to roadblocks in the initial steps of the negotiation process, as Iran has demanded that the US, which made the first move in leaving the nuclear deal, be the first to make a concession towards restoring it.
Since the US withdrawal in 2018, Iran has been loosening its commitments to the pact including by enriching uranium beyond the limits set by the agreement.
Earlier on Wednesday, a group of 32 leading progressive organisations came together to urge Biden to "quickly" follow through on efforts to revive the JCPOA, arguing that it would not be unreasonable to expect the US to move first.
"We support your policy of 'compliance for compliance', but the fact of the matter is that the United States was the first to violate the deal," the groups said in the letter. "It is, therefore, reasonable to expect the United States to at the very least take concurrent steps with Iran to rejoin it."
The letter included signatories from some of the top progressive groups in the US, including MoveOn; Americans for Peace Now; CodePink; Daily Kos; J Street; and Justice Democrats, among others.
The groups also slammed what they called Trump's "reckless, belligerent unilateralism" in dealing with Tehran.
"The JCPOA is the opening of a conversation, not the end of it. By restarting diplomacy on a road already traveled, the US will better be able to tackle many other concerning policies of the Iranian Government through diplomacy," the organisations said.
"'Maximum pressure' was always a way to justify collective punishment of people in Iran for the actions of their government, a particularly cruel policy given the public's limited ways to truly change their government's policies," they continued.
Palestinian civil society representatives have denounced as "crippling" a new decree issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regulating the work of nonprofit organisations.
On Tuesday, Abbas issued a decree with force of law that introduced significant amendments to the law on Palestinian NGOs.
Speaking after a press conference on Wednesday, Amjad al-Shawa, director of the Palestinian NGOs Network (PNGO) said the new law would set "a dangerous precedent" which risked undermining "the already-shrinking space of civil society work”.
“The legislation imposes on nonprofit organisations to submit their yearly plan of action to the government, in line with the government’s policy, which is an interference in the work of nonprofits," Shawa told Middle East Eye.
He said that civil society’s work was complementary to the work of the government, not part of it.
'This decree gives the government unlimited control over the nonprofit sector'
- Isam Abdeen, Birzeit University
"It shouldn’t be controlled by the government," he explained.
The new law is not without precedent: in June 2007, during a state of emergency, a decree-law was passed giving the interior ministry unlimited powers to dissolve NGOs, one hundred of which were shut down.
In 2015, another decree-law created a commission that reported directly to the president, charged with overlooking nonprofit organisations.
But this latest decree is different, according to Isam Abdeen, a jurist and professor of law at Birzeit University.
“This decree gives the government unlimited control over the nonprofit sector, demolishing whatever remains of the Palestinian political system," he told MEE.
“After dissolving the legislative council and ending the independence of the judiciary, civil society was the last thing that remained out of the executive branch’s control."
“This will only make things worse.”
The decree also forbids nonprofits to use more than 25 percent of their yearly budget for salaries, which Shawa said would put at risk the jobs of more than 30,000 NGO workers and undermine the work of NGOs, many of which are the only service providers in many rural areas and Israel-controlled areas of the West Bank, known as Area C.
It is just the latest in a series of new laws which have raised fears of increasing authoritarianism from the Palestinian Authority.
In December, three law-decrees were issued to modify the judicial code, prolonging the mandate of a "higher transitory judicial council" which replaced the Palestinian supreme court.
The decrees also dismissed key judges and named new ones, provoking protests among jurists who described it as an attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary.
The Palestinian nonprofit sector had already been facing serious limitations in recent years.
In July 2019, the European Union announced a set of conditions on funding Palestinian NGOs, mainly vetting workers and beneficiaries on grounds of political affiliation.
In response, over forty Palestinian NGOs launched a campaign calling for the rejection of “politically conditioned funding”, stating in a joint statement that they would rather shut down than accept political conditions.
At the same time, many Palestinian NGOs have lost parts of their funds coming mainly from European countries.
In July 2020, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the largest organisations providing assistance to Palestinian farmers, was informed by the Dutch government that their funding was being suspended.
According to the director of UAWC, Fouad Abu Seif, this funding loss will stop UAWC’s major projects.
“The projects include irrigation systems, rural roads, and land rehabilitation in more than 3,000 dunums (approximately 741 acres) of Area C all over the West Bank, benefiting more than 10,000 people, he told MEE.
For Abu Seif, the Palestinian president’s decree-law “will only make things worse".
"It will turn nonprofit organisations into government agencies. We are supposed to overlook the government’s work, not the other way around," he warned.
The timing of the decree has also raised questions.
“Why two months before elections?” asked Shawa.
“Civil society has an essential role in overseeing elections. The decree cripples our capacity to do so,” he said.
Legislative elections in the Palestinian territories have been announced for May and presidential elections for July.
They will be held under a state of emergency, declared since last March when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Palestine.
This “crippling” will not be direct, Isam Abdeen pointed out.
“Civil society organisations, especially the ones who work in the human rights sector, are expected to report abuses or fraud during elections. But under the new conditions created by the decree-law, they will hesitate to do so. They will be caught up in a cycle of self-censorship," he said.
Representatives of Palestinian civil society organisations have announced a series of actions to oppose the decree, including protests.
“It is a critical time for the Palestinian civil society," said Shawa.
“We are facing Israeli smear campaigns, fund-cuts, and a 40-45 percent deficit for four years already, in addition to the pandemic. This is not the time for a law like this."
The nonprofit representatives are set to meet on Thursday with several political parties, in an attempt to crowd support, with Shawa adding he expected them to "join us in the protests that we will announce in the coming days".
But for Isam Abdeen, “Not only [does] this decree have to be abolished, but all the ones before, especially the ones undermining the independence of judges."
"You can’t have healthy elections in such conditions," he said.
The Financial Times is investigating a complaint that French President Emmanuel Macron issued false and inflammatory statements about Muslims, Middle East Eye can reveal.
Defamation lawyer Greg Callus, who is the British newspaper’s editorial complaints commissioner, is investigating Macron’s claim, made in a letter published in the FT in November, that in parts of France “small girls aged three or four” wore the veil and were “raised in hatred of France’s values”.
Callus’s investigation follows a complaint to the FT by a Muslim reader of the newspaper - a mother from the Paris suburb of Bobigny - whose identity is known to MEE but who has asked for anonymity.
The complaint was referred to Callus in December after Suzanne Blumsom, the FT's executive editor, wrote in reply to the woman that Macron’s letter contained “no significant inaccuracies, misleading statements or distortions”.
The role of the complaints commissioner is to review complaints that cannot be resolved by the FT’s senior editors, according to the paper’s editorial code.
Callus told the complainant on 1 February that he hoped to “be able to publish in days rather than weeks”.
The complaint was made in the wake of a letter from the French president to the newspaper in response to a column by the newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, Mehreen Khan, which criticised his rhetoric towards Muslims.
Macron said he had been “misquoted”, adding that the article “accused me of stigmatising French Muslims for electoral purposes and of fostering a climate of fear and suspicion towards them”. He told readers: “Let us not nurture ignorance, by distorting the words of a head of state.”
Khan’s article was withdrawn within hours of being published, with the paper explaining that it had been removed “after it emerged that it contained factual errors”.
The focus of Callus’s investigation is whether Macron’s letter contained its own inaccuracies, which the complainant described as “fake news”.
The most serious is his description of “districts where small girls aged three or four are wearing a full veil, separated from boys, and, from a very young age, separated from the rest of society, raised in hatred of France’s values.”
'[The letter fell] within the bounds of legitimate freedom of expression on the part of a head of state'
- Suzanne Blumsom, FT
In her response to the complainant, seen by MEE, Blumsom defended publication of the letter, stating that it fell “within the bounds of legitimate freedom of expression on the part of a head of state” and on the grounds that there was “strong public interest in such political pronouncements by the French president”.
“French authorities have been objecting for some time to clandestine, unsafe locations where they said that young girls, removed by their parents from registered schools teaching the French curriculum for ‘home education’, were taken during the day for instruction by unqualified people,” said Blumsom.
“Officials say the government has closed several such locations in the past two years. In reference to your first three points, illegal institutions and acts, including making young girls wear full veils, are in many cases by nature hidden from view.”
Four days later, Blumsom wrote again to the complainant, saying: “We have further reviewed your complaint and stand by our previous response that there were no significant inaccuracies, misleading statements or distortions in Emmanuel Macron's letter.”
The next day the complaint was passed on to Callus, who promised that “I will be speaking to the editor and producing an adjudication in due course.”
Following a delay of almost three months, Callus wrote to the complainant, apologising and saying that he was “hopeful I will be able to publish in days rather than weeks”.
Two weeks later the complainant wrote to Callus, saying: “It is now three months since I wrote to the FT requesting evidence to justify Emmanuel Macron’s hate-spreading letter referenced above. It was provably full of fake news.
“In recent weeks you have continually claimed that you are about to publish an objective report on this scandal, but you never do. All of the assurances you have offered to date have come to nothing.”
On Wednesday, Callus told MEE: “I expect to publish this adjudication shortly, hopefully this week. I will be sending it to the complainant and the FT, before putting it up on FT.com, where it will be publicly available.”
MEE has spoken to the Elysee Palace, the Police Nationale, the Ministry of the Interior and other relevant authorities. None have been able to substantiate Macron's claims about small girls wearing a veil and being separated from boys.
Macron’s claims are highly sensitive, coming during a crackdown on French Islam, which has included deportations, bans on mosques and preachers, and new powers to proscribe organisations for fostering Islamism or separatism.
Macron has described Islam as a “religion in crisis”, fundamentally at odds with freedom of expression and the secular values of the French Republic.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.
Twitter has announced the removal and investigation of thousands of accounts that it said were involved in spam activity, following the release of the US intelligence report into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The US intelligence report, the executive summary of which was published on Friday, publicly concluded that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for Khashoggi's assassination in his kingdom's Istanbul consulate in October 2018.
Riyadh has repeatedly denied its de facto ruler played any part in the killing of Khashoggi, a Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist.
'Authoritarian regimes and other bad actors attempt to generate trends in order to increase the salience of their message'
- Marc Owen Jones, social media analyst
Sarah Harte, a Twitter spokesperson, said the company had suspended around 3,500 accounts.
“Our internal teams have investigated and suspended any accounts engaged in platform manipulation and spammy activity in relation to this report, and we will continue to monitor this activity,” she said.
According to Marc Owen Jones, a social media analyst and professor of Middle East Studies at Doha's Hamad bin Khalifa University, a number of hashtags were used to dilute criticism of the crown prince on the day the report was released.
“The hashtags certainly make Twitter unusable for those attempting to follow genuine real-time conversation about the Khashoggi case in Arabic. Any keyword searches pertaining to the case are swamped with spam, misinformation, or tweets lionising the crown prince,” he told Middle East Eye.
In the wake of the CIA release of Khasoggi report dozens of identical tweets per second saying "I am Saudi and proud of this great country and trust and have faith in the wise leadership". So much for Twitter's spam and platform manipulation policy... pic.twitter.com/DlddA3eTQr— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) February 27, 2021
An analysis conducted by Jones showed that several misspellings of Khashoggi were used in an attempt to avoid being blocked for violating Twitter’s spam policies.
Another key pattern identified by Jones was that 99 percent of the 1,152 accounts involved in the disinformation campaign used Twitter’s web app, showing almost no application diversity. He said the pattern shows inorganic behaviour and the Twitter web app is often used for platform manipulation.
Jones believes that hashtags and such campaigns are a key tool used to shape public perceptions around an event.
“Hashtags that trend are like newspaper headlines. Those that rank highly dominate the conversation by being salient. By the same token, trending hashtags demote other topics,” he explained
“Authoritarian regimes and other bad actors attempt to generate trends in order to increase the salience of their message. Fundamentally, hashtags are about controlling the thought diet of social media users.”
Research into the Twitter activity around the release of the report also showed that many of the accounts demonstrated inauthentic or suspicious activity, such as the majority tweeting the same thing and being recently created.
Prior to the release of the report, the hashtag "All_of_us_MBS" was trending in Saudi Arabia, where thousands of social media accounts rallied to support the crown prince, sharing photos of him and reiterating their loyalty to him and the kingdom.
Some were genuine accounts, but many others were suspicious. Dozens of identical tweets per second expressed their faith and support for the kingdom's rulers.
Another hashtag used prior to the release of the report was "The people of the kingdom support the crown prince".
Twitter has become one of the most widely used platforms for disinformation campaigns. According to Jones, this is because it has become one of the most common microblogging platforms for sharing breaking news, and people are able to interact with politicians, journalists and celebrities.
“This functionality has put it at the forefront of discussing political events in an open space. It is also relatively easy to manipulate, compared to, say, Facebook, and for this reason is popular with spammers and disinformation agents,” he said.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, an activist and outspoken critic of bin Salman, who has been warned by Norwegian authorities that he too was targeted by Saudi agents, also took to Twitter to highlight the bot campaign.
“We have said repeatedly that MBS cannot take a hint. If you are silent about his actions he takes it as permission. Here he is feeling empowered to go on the offensive, just days after the ODNI report. This is the result of impunity,” he tweeted, using a common abbreviation for bin Salman.
Baghdadi, who resides in Norway, has said that he now worries for his safety after it was revealed that no sanctions would be made against the crown prince.
“I feel less safe now than before the ODNI report. We went from a White House that denies MBS did it and lets him walk, to one that accepts he did it and lets him walk. Guess what’s a more dangerous world for dissidents.”
IMPORTANT: MBS's disinfo machine is now producing propaganda videos targeting @DAWNmenaorg and its members, including @sarahleah1. These videos are being distributed here on Twitter. This kind of output has in the past been coupled with hacks and other forms of state action. https://t.co/pYIBdHKE3z— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) March 2, 2021
Trending topics and hashtags have proven to be an essential tool in framing conversations and influencing narratives, both within Saudi Arabia and beyond.
Bot accounts typically copy-and-paste the same content and spread it across social media networks in a short period of time, often looking like plausible accounts and featuring real people in the profile photos. However, they often do not interact with one another and focus mainly on broadcasting information.
The accounts will often tweet hundreds or thousands of times a day, to spread content or hashtags quickly.
The use of social media disinformation campaigns and hashtags to divert attention from issues, or reshape the narrative around them, are not new.
Last year, a Saudi-led disinformation campaign using various accounts and influencers spread information about an alleged coup in Qatar. A Saudi smear campaign also targeted Al Jazeera journalists Ola Fares and Ghada Oueiss due to their examination of sensitive issues in the kingdom, such as women’s rights and the murder of Khashoggi.
In April of last year, Twitter also announced that it had deleted over 5,000 accounts that were used to spread propaganda on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. According to Twitter, the accounts were “amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen”.
It said the Saudi-linked accounts were being run out of the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, where Twitter's Middle East headquarters is based, as well as Egypt.
Twitter said it took the actions because the accounts violated its policies and represented a targeted attempt to undermine public conversation. However, mass Twitter campaigns have continued to be on the rise.
According to Jones, loopholes in Twitter’s policy allow such campaigns to thrive.
“There was an instance where the accounts were using Twitter marketing functionality to actually promote MBS. While Twitter bans political advertising it actually has a caveat that allows people to praise their leadership, which is quite incredible," he said.
"Essentially it is against their rules to pay for political advertising in democracies, but in dictatorships praising the leadership (where many have no choice) is permitted.”
A majority of Syrians living in the country's embattled northwest have been directly impacted by attacks on health care facilities, according to a new report published on Wednesday.
“A Decade of Destruction: Attacks on Healthcare in Syria”, released to mark the tenth anniversary of the war in Syria by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian NGO, surveyed 237 Syrians and 74 health care professionals in parts of the Aleppo and Idlib governorates where the last of the country's opposition now resides.
The report found that two-thirds of non-medical workers had been directly impacted by an attack on health care.
Of those, 33 percent had experienced it themselves within a facility, while 24 percent were unable to receive medical treatment due to an attack.
“My house was bombed while I was pregnant. I suffered from severe bleeding and lost my first child. I was unable to go to the clinic because I was afraid of the bombing,” Layla*, from the town of Atareb in Aleppo, told the IRC.
The toll was even worse on health workers, 81 percent of whom knew a colleague or patient wounded or killed due to an attack over the past decade.
“I had a friend who wanted to go to the hospital for treatment and took her children with her, and then the hospital was bombed and my friend was killed, along with one of her children,” Muna*, a psychosocial support worker, told the IRC.
“She was pregnant. It also led to the complete destruction of the neonatal intensive care unit. The incubators were destroyed, even the children inside the incubators.”
Seventy-eight percent of medical workers surveyed had witnessed an average of four attacks on health care facilities, while some had seen as many as 20 in the past decade.
“I was in the operating room during one of these attacks. A bomb hit the ground a few metres from the building. All the staff, including the people who were with me in the operating room, ran for safety, but I stayed,” said 35-year-old Dr Yamen*. “I was scared, but I couldn’t leave my patient.”
Under international law, health care facilities should be protected from attacks. However, Physicians for Human Rights have documented 595 attacks on health care in Syria since the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
Middle East Eye reported in November that the health care system in the Idlib province and northern Aleppo was on the verge of collapse due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in overcrowded displacement camps.
“Covid cases climbed to an alarming 41,406 across Syria in January this year – a more than five-fold increase in the last three months alone - and attacks on health care have severely compromised the ability of the health care system to respond to the pandemic,” said David Miliband, CEO of the IRC.
“The international community has a choice," he added. "It can drive collective efforts to ensure Syrians have continued access to the aid they require by reauthorising UN cross border aid into Syria, and it can establish meaningful steps to hold those responsible for attacks on health care to account.”
“Or it can stand by and watch as the Syria playbook becomes the blueprint for future wars in which the lawlessness and brutality of the last decade become the norm, and no longer the exception.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said that Israel has "become a wedge issue" in American politics since the presidency of Donald Trump.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post published on Wednesday, Friedman said that "there was not a place to land this issue in a way that would have great consensus" during his tenure as ambassador from May 2017 to January 2021.
"Had we reached out to get more buy-in from the Left, we would have lost the support of the Right," he told the Post, referring to some of Trump's controversial moves in favour of Israel, including moving the US embassy, declaring West Bank settlements not illegal, and recognising the occupied Golan Heights as Israel's sovereign territory.
US liberal supporters of Israel have been accusing Trump and Republicans of using Israel as a domestic political tool to rebuke Democrats and question their commitment to the alliance.
Trump himself had repeatedly denounced Democrats and called them "anti-Israel" over the rise of progressives critical of Israeli government policies. In 2019, the former president sparked outrage and accusations of antisemitism when he said that Jewish Americans who vote for the Democratic party have "great disloyalty".
After the Post published the interview with Friedman on Wednesday, many critics noted that it was the Trump administration that turned Israel into a "wedge issue".
"Gotta love this - as if the Trump administration had nothing at all to do with it," Shalom Lipner, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council said in a tweet.
The Trump administration pushed the already staunch bipartisan support for Israel in Washington to its brink, leading to dissent from some Democrats against moves seen as violations of international law that would threaten US interests in the region.
One of these moves included the Trump administration declaring in 2019 that Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank are not "inconsistent with international law", reversing a then-41-year legal opinion that had been the basis of US policy.
Friedman said that while bipartisanship is important, finding the "lowest common denominator" in negotiations is not worth it.
"You cannot abandon principles to achieve great consensus," he said, adding that "it is clear… that uniform support for Israel in the US is being challenged".
Still, the former envoy noted that Trump's decision to move the country's embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had been met with bipartisan support in Congress, and the administration of US President Joe Biden has said it will keep the embassy there.
Friedman said it was he who made sure that moving the embassy to Jerusalem was a priority for Trump.
Friedman also said that he does not believe the Biden administration will call on Israel to return to the negotiating table in peace talks with the Palestinian leadership, nor will he ask Israel to make any concessions.
"I don’t think anyone really thinks there is an opportunity today for there to be a peace agreement," the former ambassador said. "The parties are extremely far apart… I don’t think anyone thinks that now is the right time to push for peace negotiations."
Biden has said he plans to reverse some of the previous White House's policies towards Palestinians - namely, by restoring aid to the Palestinians and reopening diplomatic relations between the US and Palestine.
"While we support normalisation between Israel and countries in the Arab world, it's also not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that's very important," Price said at a media briefing.
The deal would allow Israel to keep all of its West Bank settlements and annex the Jordan Valley - both illegal under international law - in exchange for establishing a disjointed Palestinian state with no control over its borders or airspace.
"The plan maximises Palestinian autonomy and their opportunity for propensity while minimising the security risks of the State of Israel," he told the Post.
Several prominent Democrats had opposed the proposal when it was announced, saying that it was a one-sided deal for Israel that undermines "decades of bipartisan US policy and international law".
Diplomatic sources in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that "there is a state of anxiety and uneasiness sweeping Cairo” over US policy under President Joe Biden, particularly since a call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry last week, according to Al Araby Al Jadeed.
Blinken reportedly told Shoukry that human rights would be "central" to ties between Cairo and Washington.
"These concerns are growing, but there is confidence that the observations of US agencies on Egypt’s human rights record cannot be compared to the Khashoggi crisis, and there is also a difference between what can be targeted in Saudi Arabia and what Washington can pressure (Egyptian President Abdel Fattah) el-Sisi on," the sources told the publication.
The sources stated that Cairo is determined "not to rush in making concessions to the Biden administration at the current stage”.
Sisi’s government - which has been accused of committing numerous human rights violations - has received advice from some MPs and politicians affiliated with US lobby groups on measures to take to display a desire to improve human rights conditions in the country, including the possibility of releasing a "very limited number of well-known" political detainees and convicted US citizens, according to the newspaper.
The same sources told Al Araby Al Jadeed that it is however unlikely at this time that prisoners will be released en masse. However, the release of the former spokesman for ex-army chief Sami Anan, Hazem Hosny, on 23 February “can be duplicated”.
The European Union (EU) and its affiliated institutions have provided exceptional aid to Jordan since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic amounting to approximately 841 million euros ($1bn) distributed to the sectors most affected by the epidemic, according to Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad.
The EU has intensified its operations to back the Jordanian economy by granting a financial assistance packages to Amman in the form of soft loans to complete the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) economic support programme for Jordan, in addition to providing support to the private sector to protect jobs, according to the newspaper.
The EU supported the government's "Education during emergencies" plan, whereby 98,000 students in 390 schools received basic hygiene supplies from European countries.
Jordan has recorded over 400,000 cases of Covid-19 and 4,756 deaths in nearly a year.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said that “the Iraqi state is trying today to restore its balance and independence”, while denouncing the presence of militias that fire missiles at US facilities in the country.
Kadhimi said that Iraqi security services were pursuing the parties suspected of being responsible for the attacks.
The premier’s statements to the Saudi newspaper came days before Pope Francis’s visit to Baghdad, after an escalation of missile attacks.
'Our security services are pursuing the outlaw gangs that are trying to sow confusion through launching missile strikes here or there, and we have detainees and those involved who will be brought to court'
- Mustafa al-Kadhimi
In response to a question about the status of the Iraqi government, seemingly caught between Iran and the US, and the extent to which Iraq could be independent from tutelage, Kadhimi replied: “It cannot be said that Iraq is a country that lives today under guardianship, whether international or regional.”
“But there have been political circumstances and grave mistakes committed against the Iraqi people over the past decades that have contributed to the transformation of Iraq into a playground for ambitions, adventures and the excess of intellectual or armed violence regionally and internationally,” he added.
“Our security services are pursuing the outlaw gangs that are trying to sow confusion through launching missile strikes here or there, and we have detainees and those involved who will be brought to court.”
Regarding Baghdad’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the Iraqi PM stressed the close cooperation between the two states, highlighting “the tangible escalation of cooperation in terms of trade and investment exchange and other vital sectors”.
*Arabic press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye
Azerbaijani forces used a sophisticated method to destroy Russian-made S-300 air defence systems during the Nagorno-Karabakh war last year, combining Soviet-era single-engine planes with Israeli-made "suicide" drones, Middle East Eye can reveal.
Azerbaijan’s battle strategy was based on the use of advanced drone technology in the disputed mountainous territory, tactics that won Baku the 44-day war against Armenian forces. Yerevan suffered huge losses of Russian weaponry, including six S-300 systems, according to the Azerbaijan military.
A senior official, who was briefed on Azerbaijan’s drone warfare, told MEE that at first Baku found it difficult to detect the S-300s, which were concealed and difficult to spot.
'Azerbaijan even didn’t need to change the actual shape of the Antonovs, they just need to appear as military drones on the radar'
- Can Kasapoglu, analyst
The solution, according to the official, was simple: Azerbaijan needed a decoy aircraft to lure and identify the Russian-made systems. Baku then began to employ Soviet-era Antonov An-2 single-engine utility and agricultural aircraft, which cost no more than $100,000 and were readily available.
Azerbaijani engineers converted the aeroplanes into unmanned aerial vehicles by replacing the pilot with a kit that allows remote control.
“The Antonovs would appear on radar as legitimate military-grade drones and activate the S-300 systems,” the official said. “And then Israeli-built Harop loitering munitions, dubbed 'kamikaze drones', would hit the Russian-made systems.”
A satellite image published by Russian media last October indicated that Azerbaijan had moved 50 An-2 biplane aircraft to Yevlakh airport, near the Azerbaijani city of Ganja.
Shushan Stepanyan, the spokesperson for the Armenian military, reportedly said on 1 October that they shot down an An-2 that didn’t eject any pilot, raising suspicions that it was being used as an unmanned aerial device, collecting information on Armenia's air defences.
(Footage released by the Armenian Defence Ministry shows the moment when an Azerbaijani An-2 was hit by their air defences on 1 October 2020)
Can Kasapoglu, director of defence research at Turkish think-tank EDAM, told MEE that the method was a textbook approach to the Russian weaponry.
“The Russian military, like the Armenians, wouldn’t activate their systems unless they see a threat on the radar,” he said. “Azerbaijan even didn’t need to change the actual shape of the Antonovs, they just need to appear as military drones on the radar.”
During the September-November conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a nominal Azerbaijani territory that had been occupied by Armenian forces since 1994, Turkey and Israel provided unprecedented support for Baku.
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on a ceasefire after six weeks of heavy fighting in November, following the Azerbaijani army’s seizure of the strategic city of Shusha (known as Shushi in Armenian).
The agreement, which was met with anger and disbelief among Armenians, handed administrative control over several areas of the mountainous territory to Azerbaijan.
The International Criminal Court's prosecutor said on Wednesday that she would formally open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Fatou Bensouda confirmed that the ICC would begin its inquiry after the court ruled last month - following a five-year preliminary investigation - that it had jurisdiction to pursue a probe into suspected war crimes in Palestine.
Bensouda said her investigation would examine alleged war crimes perpetrated from 13 June 2014 and that the court's priorities would be "determined in due time".
"My office will take the same principled, non-partisan approach that it has adopted in all situations over which its jurisdiction is seized," Bensouda said on Wednesday.
"We have no agenda other than to meet our statutory duties under the Rome Statute with professional integrity."
Bensouda added that the court's primary concern would be "for the victims of crimes, both Palestinian and Israeli, arising from the long cycle of violence and insecurity that has caused deep suffering and despair on all sides".
In December 2019, Bensouda said that "war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip".
She named both the Israeli army and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.
The next step in the investigation will be to determine whether Israeli or Palestinian authorities have similar war crimes investigations open and, if so, begin by looking into their findings.
Unlike the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and is not a member of the International Criminal Court.
The PA welcomed the prosecutor's investigation and said it was a "long-awaited step that serves Palestine’s tireless pursuit of justice and accountability, which are indispensable pillars of the peace the Palestinian people seek and deserve".
Hamas also welcomed the probe and said it was a "step forward on the path of achieving justice" for the Palestinians.
Israel's Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi condemned the move and said: "The decision to open an investigation against Israel is an exception to the mandate of the tribunal and a waste of the international community's resources by a biased institution that has lost all legitimacy."
Later on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price stressed that the United States has long-opposed ICC attempts to investigate Israeli officials on the grounds that Israel is not a member of the court and Palestine is not an internationally recognised state.
"We firmly oppose and are disappointed by the ICC prosecutors' announcement of an investigation into the Palestinian situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly," Price said during a news briefing.
"We have serious concerns about the ICC's attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel. The Palestinians do not qualify as a sovereign state and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership."
Price also noted that the Biden administration is reviewing Trump-era sanctions on ICC officials.
The United States firmly opposes an @IntlCrimCourt investigation into the Palestinian Situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 4, 2021
Earlier this year, when the ICC said it had jurisdiction to investigate war crimes in the occupied territories, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as "pure antisemitism".
Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer and international criminal law prosecutor, is set to be replaced by British prosecutor Karim Khan on 16 June.
What this will mean for the ICC investigation is unclear.
French President Emmanuel Macron has admitted that France's army “tortured and murdered” Algerian nationalist Ali Boumendjel, whose death was previously framed as a suicide during the country's war of independence.
“Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then murdered,” the president told the former freedom fighter’s grandchildren in a meeting on Tuesday.
Boumendjel, a 37-year-old lawyer at the time, played a prominent role in the campaign against France’s colonial rule, before being arrested by French troops during the Battle of Algiers in 1957.
He was “placed in solitary confinement, tortured, then assassinated on 23 March 1957,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.
After being killed, Boumendjel’s body was thrown from the sixth floor of a building in an attempt to frame his death as a suicide.
The presidency confirmed that Paul Aussaresses, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers, confessed in 2000 to ordering the nationalist’s death and disguising it as a suicide.
"Boumendjel left behind an important political legacy. His fights and his courage forever marked the spirits of Algeria and France," the statement said.
The presidency added that Boumendjel fought "against the injustice of the colonial system", and noted his speech at the 1955 Helsinki World Congress as a testimony to his commitment to peace.
It also acknowledged that Boumendjel's wife, Malika, who died last year, had long fought for the truth about her husband's death, in addition to the fate of several other family members who went missing in 1957.
Macron’s admission forms part of a series of measures shedding light on France’s colonial past.
The presidency was widely criticised earlier this year after it said there would be “neither repentance nor apologies” in light of the release of a much-anticipated report on France’s 132-year colonial rule of Algeria.
Instead, the government decided on “symbolic acts” and “a process of acknowledgment”, which included setting up a joint Franco-Algerian “memory and truth” commission to push forward initiatives between the two countries.
“Rather than ‘repentance’, France should recognise the discrimination and exactions of which Algerian populations were the victims, and put forward precise facts,” the report, written by French historian Benjamin Stora, said.
“The excesses of a culture of repentance, or mollifying visions of a history trapped by memorial lobbies, do not contribute to appeasing the relationship to our past.”
The French presidency said the recognition of Boumendjel’s murder “was not an isolated act”.
“No crime, no atrocity committed by anyone during the Algerian War can be excused or concealed," it said.
"They must be looked at with courage and lucidity, with absolute respect for all those whose lives were shattered and whose destinies they have torn apart.”
According to Tuesday's statement, Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren that he would encourage the opening up of historical archives to help the families of those missing establish the truth.
Last year, Algeria marked its 58th independence anniversary with the repatriation from France of the skulls of 24 Algerian resistance fighters.
The skulls had been decapitated and taken back to France as “war trophies”, where they had been kept since the 19th century in the Musee de l'Homme, an anthropology museum in Paris.
The Philippines will lift a suspension on its maids working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after striking a deal with the Gulf state that guarantees additional protections for its domestic workers.
Filipino workers will now be able to work in the UAE from 31 March after the new provisions were added to the UAE-Philippines Memorandum of Understanding on Labour Cooperation.
The Philippines Department of Labour and Employment (Dole) confirmed on Tuesday that Filipino maids would be given a unified employment contract to provide them with additional protections.
A unified employment contract means that foreign and local recruitment agencies are liable for any harm that happens to the contracted Filipino worker.
Under the new deal, Filipino maids in the UAE will keep their own passports and their employers will be banned from holding them.
The Philippines embassy in the UAE will also be notified if one of their nationals decides to convert their tourist visa to a work visa.
The deal also states that domestic workers should get at least eight hours of sleep a day, one paid day off per week, the right to have a bank account for their salary and be allowed to cook their own food.
Other agreed protections include allowing Filipino domestic workers to keep their mobile phones and a ban on employers from confiscating them.
The new set of protections is similar to one agreed by the Philippines and Kuwait after domestic workers' deployments to that Gulf state were also halted following reports of maid abuse, according to Dole Undersecretary Claro Arellano.
The UAE agreement came after a two-day meeting in Manila with an Emirati delegation to discuss the conflicting labour laws.
Manila halted Filipino domestic workers going to the UAE in 2014 after the Emiratis stopped foreign embassies from verifying the contracts of their nationals working as domestic help.
The UAE's rule change went against Filipino law, which states that labour agencies must verify and record all domestic workers' contracts before they are deployed to a country.
The Philippines Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello praised the new agreement and said it marked a milestone in his country's attempt to protect overseas Filipino workers.
The death of a Lebanese x-ray technician and former paramedic due to Covid-19 last week has shed new light on the plight of overwhelmed health workers battling the pandemic in the cash-strapped country.
Tributes to Fadi Abou Hassan, with an image of him in Lebanese Red Cross garb where he once volunteered, have poured out across social media, days after it was revealed that the health ministry bypassed the country's rollout policy to vaccinate a handful of MPs.
'This is shameful. They are frontline workers who protect us,'
- Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the Doctors’ Syndicate
Abou Hassan was one of the half of Lebanon’s medical frontline staff that have yet to be vaccinated since the country began its inoculation campaign in mid-February.
“Half of Lebanon’s 12,000 doctors weren’t vaccinated yet, and it’s roughly the same among the nurses,” head of the Doctors’ Syndicate, Sharaf Abou Sharaf, told MEE. “This is shameful. They are frontline workers who protect us.”
Just 159 of 2000 Lebanese Red Cross workers dealing with Covid-19 cases have been vaccinated, the organisation's under-secretary-general, Nabih Jabre, told MEE.
Lebanon started its vaccination drive on 14 February after receiving the first batch of a total 2.1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the night before.
“No wasta [nepotism]” was often said by World Bank officials on social media to assure Lebanon’s disgruntled population, already reeling from a crippling economic crisis that left about half the country in poverty.
The first stage of the vaccine rollout prioritises medical frontline workers and the elderly aged 75 and above.
However, 10 days later, it was revealed that 16 MPs were vaccinated in parliament, as well as President Michel Aoun, his wife, and 10 people from his team at Baabda Palace.
Many of those vaccinated were below 75.
The World Bank’s regional director claimed in a tweet that funding for Lebanon’s vaccine rollout could be suspended.
Even the head of the country’s Covid-19 committee was on the verge of resigning, calling what happened a “violation that can’t be tolerated”.
The following night, caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan said it was a “sovereign decision” the ministry made to thank MPs for passing a law that approves emergency authorisation of the vaccine back in January.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Hasan said on state television.
“Why haven’t they [rest of the medical workers] been vaccinated yet? Believe me, I don’t know,” an outraged Abou Sharaf said, implicitly blaming the health ministry. “Of course there have been violations and mistakes.”
Hospitals have been on the edge for some time. Doctors have been tirelessly working while facing shortages of beds, oxygen tanks, and other crucial medical equipment.
'We could have had everything done in a week, but unfortunately the ministry declined and told us to register our names [like everyone else],'
- Sharaf Abou Sharaf, Doctors’ Syndicate
The country entered the new year with record-breaking deaths and infection rates after the authorities eased lockdown measures for about two weeks during the holiday season.
The head of the doctors’ syndicate said he was baffled when physicians who called the health ministry to follow up on getting vaccinated were told to talk to him to handle the matter. “We previously asked if we ourselves could secure vaccines for all of us in the health sector – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists,” he said.
“We could have had everything done in a week, but unfortunately the ministry declined and told us to register our names [like everyone else].”
Lebanon received 60,000 Pfizer vaccine doses since its inoculation drive began two weeks ago.
The issue, according to an advisor to the health ministry, was a matter of supply and demand.
“We asked Pfizer to send us a larger batch, but they couldn’t because of global demand,” the advisor told MEE. “Through [World Health Organisation programme] Covax we’re getting 300,000 doses from AstraZeneca. I think we’ll be far more comfortable once they arrive.”
Lebanon has secured 6.3 million doses, which would be sufficient for about half the population, but it is hoping to vaccinate up to 80 percent of its residents.
While the country is in the throes of an economic crisis, it is hoping the private sector can fill that gap by importing Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines.
“In March, I think we’ll be able to have all the doctors vaccinated and everyone above 75,” the advisor said optimistically. “It’s natural. This is a global crisis.”
China donated 50,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to Lebanon on 1 March. While that will ease some of the pressure on the health ministry, experts remain critical of the country’s vaccine rollout so far.
Lebanese nationals and residents have always had a keen eye on systemic corruption and mismanagement. The international community has expressed its concerns on the matter as well after protests swept the country in October 2019 over Lebanon's collapsing economy.
'The government, in partnership with healthcare institutions, businesses, and community members must step up,'
- Sara Chang, public health professional
It was unsurprising that there were fears of mismanagement and nepotism in the country’s vaccine rollout, and this is why public health professional Sara Chang says an effective campaign was crucial.
“We are seeing the results of that failure now,” Chang told MEE. “Some healthcare institutions are booking appointments themselves rather than waiting for the authorities, where data is lagging and of poor quality, and much of the public remains confused and skeptical about the vaccine and its rollout.”
Chang has been tracking and analysing Covid-19 data in Lebanon since its first case back in late February 2020, and says that these failures are a reflection of wider problems in the country’s health sector.
“Deaths due to Covid-19 aren’t just numbers – they are years and lives lost,” she said. “The government, in partnership with healthcare institutions, businesses, and community members must step up, or else there will continue to be more suffering than hope.”
Meanwhile, there have been broader issues brought up in the country’s wider rollout strategy, which has thus far excluded large segments of the country’s population.
“Migrants and refugees are left out of the campaign. This is a breach of the terms and conditions made by the authorities,” CEO and president of international organisation Project HOPE, Rabih Torbay, told MEE, pointing out that migrant workers and undocumented refugees are obstructed from registering for the vaccine.
Torbay fears that these developments could jeopardise Lebanon’s relationship with the international community, which has provided humanitarian aid for the crisis-hit country.
“This sends a terrible message to the international community that has mobilised to support Lebanon, and risks jeopardising future possibilities for financial support,” he said.
Meanwhile, while anxiously waiting for thousands of medical workers to get vaccinated, Abou Sharaf has tried to sympathise with the MPs who jumped the queue and got vaccinated behind closed doors in parliament, but indirectly says that the health minister needs to be held to account for that decision.
“Look, I don’t blame the MPs who took the vaccine,” Abou Sharaf told MEE.
“People are scared of the virus, and a large portion of the MPs are older and perhaps have a chronic illness. But I blame those who let them take the vaccine before others, and they should be held to account for this decision and its consequences.”
In the Christian-majority, northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, a community uprooted by the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014 is now preparing for an event that, just a few years ago, seemed unimaginable: a visit by His Holiness Pope Francis.
When IS entered Qaraqosh, which lies 30km from Mosul, the town's entire population - save two elderly ladies - fled to neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, leaving militants to a campaign of looting and destruction. Churches were desecrated, steeples toppled, statues smashed; Christian homes were looted and set ablaze.
After liberation by Iraqi forces in 2016, IS graffiti marred walls across the ruined and deserted town, while a church hall used as an IS bomb-making facility was still full of chemicals, explosive components and IS stencils.
With only around half the town’s former residents having returned, reconstruction has been slow and patchy. Some homes have been rebuilt and several churches restored, largely relying on foreign aid.
But the community is now abuzz with preparations for the pope’s visit. Roads are being hastily patched up and posters depicting the pope and his sayings are hung from the town’s lamp posts.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception - Qaraqosh’s largest, which only reopened last August - is also getting a makeover. Choir children practise there daily.
The church was looted, trashed and burned by IS, who made a pyre of religious texts and hymnbooks in the courtyard. When MEE first visited in November 2016, after liberation, the church was a blackened hollow. The courtyard - also used as a firing range for militants to practise their shooting skills - was carpeted with bullet casings and fragments of smashed statues.
Above bullet-ridden mannequins strewn across the floor, courtyard pillars had been so consistently shot that nothing remained but their metal reinforcements.
The announcement of the pope’s unexpected visit to Iraq, a country that has endured two decades of security, political and sectarian issues, delighted Iraq’s Christian minority, who hope that the trip will draw the world’s attention to their plight.
“The visit of the Holy Father comes as a real sign of hope that we will not be completely forgotten by the world,” Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil Bashar Warda told MEE.
He described the remaining Christians of Iraq as “essentially a missionary people”, due to the large drop in numbers over the past two decades. Estimates put the number of Christians in Iraq at around 250,000, down from an estimated 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion.
Off the record, two senior members of the country’s Christian community told MEE on separate occasions that they believe the real number to be fewer than 200,000.
“Our mission is to preserve a true Christian witness in Iraq. The visit of Pope Francis can be a rock for us in building this mission,” said Archbishop Warda.
“As for the current situation of the Christians and religious minorities in Iraq, the people have been so abused and persecuted that what they need and hope for is for the violence to stop, and corruption from foreign influences and corrupt governments to end.”
The pope’s schedule is ambitious, encompassing the south - where he is expected to meet with Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's highest Shia religious authority - and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as Mosul and Baghdad.
"It’s a feeling full of happiness and holiness to know about the visit of Pope Francis to my country Iraq and, God willing, it will bring changes for the lives of Christians here and across the Middle East," said Sinan Wadeea Eskander, 38, a biochemistry graduate who is currently a stay-at-home mother-of-two. "It will bring big support - not financial support but spiritual and emotional support.
“The situation here is terrible for Christians," she added. "Unfortunately, since 2003 until now there has been mass displacement of Christians. We have also been abused, kidnapped, killed, and have had our human rights undermined and our homes and land seized.”
A Shia Muslim family renting a large house in downtown Baghdad from a Christian family who fled abroad also spoke of attempted land seizures. On two separate occasions, armed men came to the house, asking who lived there and who owned it.
“I think they only left us alone because we were a Muslim family… otherwise I believe they would have taken the whole property,” a family member told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Iraqi Minister of Culture Dr Hassan Nadhem described Iraqi Christians as “the original people of this soil”, adding: “The pope’s visit represents an important step in spreading worldwide awareness that Iraqi Christians are part of this country’s rich cultural diversity."
But the road towards mutual religious respect, in a country where some schoolchildren are taught that Christians, among other Iraqi minorities, are "infidels", is likely to be a long one.
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq soured relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as other minorities who had lived side by side for centuries. Almost two decades of sectarianism have done much damage.
For those who have settled abroad, even after the defeat of IS, Iraq currently offers few reasons to return. Legal counsel for the Archdiocese of Erbil, Steven Rasche, described the situation as “almost the same as right after IS”, citing severely damaged towns, and lost homes, livelihoods and savings, with few lucrative job opportunities.
Just two years ago, on a visit to London, Archbishop Warda warned that "Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest churches, if not the oldest church in the world, is perilously close to extinction”, adding: “Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”
'The visit of the Holy Father comes as a real sign of hope that we will not be completely forgotten by the world'
- Bashar Warda, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil
Reema Rafed, the only member of her family still living in Iraq, hopes Pope Francis’s visit will bring changes for the better for Iraqi Christians. But the problems, she admits, run very deep.
“Christians in Iraq are badly treated, especially after the explosion of the Mother of Salvation Church in Baghdad (a 2010 attack by Islamic hardliners that left 58 dead and 78 injured). Then there was IS and the mass displacement of people,” she told MEE.
For Rafed, another challenge is that Iraq’s Christians lack any meaningful political representation. Those holding political positions have so far failed, she said, to benefit any of Iraq’s Christian denominations.
“We want Iraq to respect Christians… that is a key reason for the pope’s visit, to ensure Christians are respected and given their rights,” insisted Rami Esa Saqat, 27, an English teacher and poet from Qaraqosh.
Amid the town's preparations - including a group of women hand-embroidering a traditional scarf as a gift for Pope Francis - he has been inspired to write a poem in English commemorating the visit, though he knows it may not be possible to present it in person.
An extract shared with MEE depicts the sense of tragedy that has come to underscore the lives of many Iraqi Christians:
God, so much is for us your love
That's always like a white dove,
Hovering in the sky and our heads above,
And now your love and endless blessing
Are embodied in Pope Francis's visit, dressing
And curing our wounds which are deep and depressing.
Despite the challenges they face, some Iraqi Christians nurture quiet optimism for the future.
"For sure we will stay here because it is our country and we hope to live in peace and love with all our Iraqi brothers and sisters, from all the different religions, and to live as one,” said Eskander, who senses a recent shift in Iraqi thinking about Christians.
This may be due to the forthcoming papal visit, she says, or because, after IS, there has been a resurgence of interest in history and nationality.
“Now there is a kind of understanding that we, as Assyrian Christians, are actually the original people of the country, have the right to live here and also the right to defend our rights here,” she said, adding that many ordinary Iraqis were starting to talk about this, not only the country’s Christians.
“My message to the world, and from the depths of my heart, is that I would like you to pray for my injured country and pray for things to return to normal, like before 2003. Actually, even better than before.
"If God is willing, the pope’s visit will be a blessing to all Christians in Iraq and will help make this hope our reality.”
There are only a few historically strategic transit points around the Mediterranean Sea: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bosphorus, and the Suez Canal.
While the Suez Canal has been a jewel in Egypt’s crown since 1869, netting the country some $5.6bn in revenues in 2020, it accounts for just eight percent of world cargo shipments.
But Egypt’s location as a fibre optic cable hub, linking Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, means up to 30 percent of the global population’s internet connectivity transits through the country.
“If you want to route cables between Europe and the Middle East to India, where’s the easiest way to go? It is via Egypt, as there’s the least amount of land to cross,” says Alan Mauldin, research director at telecommunications research firm TeleGeography in Washington DC.
Egypt, through its state-owned monopoly Telecom Egypt (TE), has successfully capitalised on its position to entice cable operators to transit the country.
“It is one of Egypt’s trump cards, like the Pyramids, which never goes out of fashion. They are used to making business out of transit and tourism, but now they’re doing it with data. It is a digital Suez canal, which trades on its geopolitical position,” Hugh Miles, editor of Arab Digest, in Cairo, told Middle East Eye.
There are 10 cable landing stations on Egypt’s Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines, and some 15 terrestrial crossing routes across the country, of which 10 are operated by the Egyptian telecom giant, spanning a region stretching from the Mediterranean as far as Singapore, according to TE.
Its centrality to global connectivity - TE estimates that 17 percent of internet traffic flows through Egypt while some analysts suggest it could be as high as 30 percent, connecting between 1.3bn and 2.3bn people - has led to Egypt being considered a choke point.
“Internally we call it the Red Sea bottleneck, as you have a dozen plus cables linking Asia to Europe, and Africa to Europe. It is essentially a toll one has to pay to pass through the Suez area, which is busy due to shipping and technology lanes,” says Guy Zibi, founder of South African market research firm Xalam Analytics.
The monopoly has provoked the ire of the cable industry and global internet players, with reports that Egypt is charging 50 percent more than other transit cable routes.
“There is a fee they charge for capacity, which was lowered a few years ago. There is constant pressure to lower it more,” says Mauldin.
It is not just price that has the industry concerned. “The challenge with Egypt is if there is a break, or some kind of regulatory uncertainty, that blocks traffic, as it would choke off a substantial part of internet traffic around the world,” says Zibi.
Mauldin says it is in Egypt’s interest that there are no disruptions to global internet traffic but what the industry wants is more diversity. “You are forced to go through Egypt, which is partly why there’s a need to create alternative paths and for competition. The best way to improve international connectivity is to simply build more cable paths.”
There has been a flurry of new cables laid across Egypt in the past few years, including the Pakistan East Africa Cable Express (PEACE) network, 2Africa, and the Cape Town to Cairo network.
But now a new route between India and Italy reportedly being planned by Google - though still unconfirmed - risks undermining Egypt’s stranglehold.
According to reports, the $400m “Blue-Raman” network would consist of two linked cables. The “Blue” cable would run from Genoa in Italy to Israel, and then bypass the Suez area via a terrestrial cable running to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The “Raman” cable would run from Aqaba through Saudi Arabia and Oman and across the India Ocean to Mumbai.
“Google, Facebook, the hyper-scale providers, are all looking to have more control of their own traffic rather than purchasing capacity on existing cables. Nothing is cheaper than to own your own capacity,” says Zibi.
If constructed, Blue-Raman would be a geopolitical game changer for the region’s cable networks. Israel currently has no link to the Middle East, relying on cables from Europe to Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Blue-Raman has already caused a furore in Egypt. Osama Kamal, an Egyptian TV host, was suspended in December by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation after accusing the authorities of corruption and of losing the country’s position as a fibre cable hub.
“It was a major scandal, with the host suspended, and we don’t know what happened to him during that time,” said an Egyptian academic working on surveillance issues.
Blue-Raman would not, however, seriously impact Egypt’s cable-transiting dominance, or undermine the EGP2.9bn ($185.3m) that TE makes a year from fibre cable services.
“It is not about taking traffic from Egypt, but diversifying away from TE without getting rid of TE,” says Zibi.
Google has yet to make any official comment on Blue-Raman and told Middle East Eye: "We don't comment on market speculation".
This may be due in part to expectations of a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel following the Abraham Accords, inked just months before Blue-Raman made headlines, failing to materialise.
“Blue-Raman totally hinges on regional politics. Of course it’s a great idea and makes perfect business sense and that’s why Google wants to do it, but it overlooks the small issue of Middle Eastern politics - projects don’t often go as planned, due to wars, enmities, and other regional problems,” says Miles.
The speculation is that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is opposed to recognising Israel, which would make the Google cable’s prospects dependent on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman becoming monarch. One attraction of such a deal for the Saudis would be access to Israeli IT and surveillance technology, which has been a particular draw for the UAE.
Such technology, a fibre optic cable with ample capacity, and a peace deal would bolster the viability of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 ambitions, which include the $500bn Neom project that borders the Red Sea, and the recently announced $200bn project, The Line.
“Blue-Raman fits into a bigger picture of unity in the region. Neom is supposed to be the heart of this, of four countries [Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel] all coming together and working together. You can be sure the Saudis want to be networked on this big cable,” says Miles.
Google’s plan to establish a new Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia, which the kingdom has sought as part of its diversification plans to digitalise the economy, is also a motivation.
“The data centre would link to Blue-Raman, and is probably one of the things that helped justify the investment,” says Zibi.
While Google has been silent about Blue-Raman, in January the company signed a deal with TE for cable capacity through Egypt.
“The deal isn’t necessarily an alternative to the Blue-Raman cable because the new plan still doesn’t solve the bottleneck issue,” says Sarah Smierciak, an independent political economy analyst in Cairo.
Google would link up to the TE North cable that runs from southern France to the Red Sea.
“This is the same general route that most cables take, so it doesn’t fix the problem of over-reliance on Egypt and the country’s quasi-monopoly,” added Smierciak.
TE collected 10 percent of its earnings from cables in 2019, and looks set to remain a contender even if Blue-Raman is started.
Any cable deal through the country benefits Egypt’s military industrial complex.
“The military almost certainly owns the land where the new cables for the Google deal will be laid,” Smierciak says.
A 2016 presidential decree placed the land straddling national roads under control of the Ministry of Defence. “Any revenues from commercial deals on that land will go to the military's coffers. The Google deal will be a boon for TE and the military will also enjoy substantial rents,” she added.
A civilian contractor with the US-led coalition in Iraq died of a heart attack during a rocket attack on a western base on Wednesday, Iraqi and Western security sources said.
At least 10 rockets hit the sprawling Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts Iraqi forces and troops from the US-led coalition helping fight Islamic State (IS).
The sources could not confirm the contractor's nationality and the US-led coalition did not respond to requests for comment, AFP reported.
The attack comes two days before Pope Francis's historic visit to the country.
The Ain al-Assad base hosts Iraqi forces as well as troops from the US-led coalition helping Iraq fight remnants of Islamic State.
Earlier, coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto confirmed that 10 rockets hit the base at 7.20am (04:20 GMT), but did not provide details on any casualties.
Iraqi security forces said 10 "Grad-type rockets" hit the sprawling base on Wednesday morning, but said there were "no notable casualties".
A Baghdad Operations Command official told Reuters that 13 rockets had been launched from a location about 8km from the base.
Western security sources told AFP that the rockets were Iranian-made Arash models, which are 122mm artillery rockets and heavier than those seen in other attacks on Western targets in Iraq.
Dozens of rocket attacks and roadside bombs targeted Western security, military and diplomatic sites in Iraq in 2020, with Iraqi and Western military sources blaming hardline pro-Iran factions.
They came to a near-complete halt in October following a truce with the hardliners, but they have resumed at a quickening pace over the past three weeks.
On 15 February a rocket attack on US-led forces killed a civilian contractor and injured a US service member in the Kurdish regional capital Erbil.
Last month, commanders of Iran-backed factions told Middle East Eye that the attack on Erbil was aimed at “disciplining the Kurdish authorities” and not meant as a message to the US.
However, the commanders insisted they were unaware of who exactly carried out the attack.
The Pope reaffirmed on Wednesday that he would be going to Iraq, where his predecessor John Paul was not allowed to go in 2000, because "the people cannot be let down for a second time".
Speaking at the end of his general audience, Francis asked for prayers so that the visit "can take place in the best possible way and bring about the desired fruits".
He made no mention of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, which recently saw the first big suicide bombing in Baghdad for three years.
Pope John Paul had to cancel a planned trip in 2000 after a breakdown in talks with the government of then leader Saddam Hussein.
"For some time I have wanted to meet that people who suffered so much, and meet that martyred Church," Francis said.
Iraq's minority Christian community has been devastated by wars and repression by IS fighters.
Francis will visit the former IS stronghold of Mosul, where churches still bear the signs of conflict.
He will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90.
"In the land of Abraham, together with other religious leaders, we also will take another step forward in fraternity among believers," Francis said.
About 10,000 security forces will be deployed to protect the Pope, who is likely to be travelling in armoured vehicles.
The number of people who will be able to see him has been severely limited because of coronavirus restrictions.
The US intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi stated what many experts, advocates and lawmakers had been saying for more than two years - that the assassination could not have taken place without the approval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Releasing the report of the US Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was still significant in that it represented the first official, public acknowledgement of bin Salman's role by the US government.
'This is a test of our humanity'
- Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
Despite declassifying the findings, the Biden administration decided against imposing sanctions on the crown prince, known as MBS, to avoid a "rupture" in US-Saudi ties.
The US failure to go after the crown prince angered activists who say accountability cannot be achieved if the mastermind of the assassination is spared consequences.
This week, Democratic US House members introduced two bills to penalise MBS for the murder, signalling tensions between President Joe Biden and lawmakers from his own party over the handling of the situation.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a left-wing progressive, announced on Tuesday a bill that would freeze the crown prince's assets and impose a visa ban on him.
"This is a test of our humanity," Omar said in a statement. "If the United States of America truly supports freedom of expression, democracy and human rights, there is no reason not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman - a man our own intelligence found to have approved the murder of US resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."
Congressman Tom Malinowski introduced a different bill on Monday. His legislation, backed by Democratic House members James McGovern and Andy Kim, would mandate a visa ban against MBS, based on existing rules that bar human rights abusers from entering the US.
The legislation also allows the president to issue a national security waiver to lift the visa ban.
"I applaud the Biden Administration for naming MBS as Khashoggi’s killer, but it undercuts our message to Saudi Arabia if we accuse him of the crime and then do nothing to hold him accountable," Malinowski said in a statement. "The law is clear that the Secretary of State must apply a visa ban on persons he knows are linked to gross human rights abuses - exactly what the Khashoggi report lays out.
"Our bill makes this doubly clear, and reminds the world that in America, no one, whether a president or a prince, is above the law."
McGovern, who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, stressed that there must be consequences for the murder.
"Such a heinous crime must not be met with impunity. This legislation is an important first step in ensuring that those responsible are named and held accountable," he said in a statement.
"I believe more can and should be done, including ending US arms sales and security aid to the Saudi government. I look forward to working with Representative Malinowski to swiftly advance this important bill."
Khashoggi, a renowned journalist and former government insider who became a critic of MBS, was killed and dismembered by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
For more than two weeks, Saudi officials insisted that he had left the building alive before eventually acknowledging that he was killed. But Riyadh still maintains the assassination was a rogue operation that was not approved by top leaders.
Last week, the Saudi foreign ministry rejected ODNI's findings, calling the report "negative, false and unacceptable".
The gruesome murder shook US-Saudi relations, with Congress members - particularly Democrats - pushing to hold MBS accountable as former President Donald Trump moved to shield Saudi leaders from the fallout.
The Biden administration followed through with the pledge to release the ODNI report as required by law. But the failure to spell out consequences for MBS left many of the activists and legislators seeking justice for the slain journalist disappointed.
Marcus Montgomery, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC who tracks congressional affairs, said with many domestic priorities, including a raging pandemic, congressional Democratic leaders do not appear keen to press Biden - a president from their own party - on MBS sanctions.
For a bill to make for a final vote in the House, it has to get the backing of top lawmakers, including the chairs of relevant committees and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Legislation also needs to pass in the Senate before making it to the president's desk.
Imposing sanctions and conducting foreign policy are within the purview of the president and his cabinet. But lawmakers can mandate sanctions through legislation. The president, in turn, can veto bills approved by Congress, and lawmakers can overturn presidential vetoes with two-third majorities in the House and the Senate.
"I don't really see an appetite among Democrats to fight this, especially because there are so many pressing issues going on here," Montgomery told MEE.
He said the bill by Malinowski, who is the vice-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and sits on its Middle East subcommittee, is more likely to get a floor vote than Omar's more forceful legislation.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Gregory Meeks had called last week for "further steps towards accountability" against MBS, while lauding Biden for releasing the report.
Montgomery said congressional Democrats may use future must-pass bills, including the Pentagon budget and appropriation legislation, to impose sanctions on MBS.
"Democrats have unified control of Congress, but they're much less eager right now to push the administration on something like this with all the other issues that they're trying to get through," he said.
UN human rights experts have called on Israel to immediately end its efforts to demolish a Palestinian village in the northern Jordan Valley and allow the residents to live undisturbed on their lands.
UN special rapporteurs Balakrishnan Rajagopal and Michael Lynk, in a report on Tuesday, warned that an ongoing destruction campaign launched by Israel against the village of Humsa al-Bqaia is putting the homes and livelihoods of nearly 100 Palestinians at risk.
'Severing the villagers from their lands and their homes is particularly punitive'
- UN special rapporteurs
"The ongoing destruction by the Israeli military of the homes, and the destruction and seizure of property, including humanitarian assistance, in Humsa–Al Bqai'a has been causing great hardship to the approximately 60 villagers, including 35 children," the special rapporteurs, who focus on human rights and adequate housing, said in Tuesday's report.
Rajagopal and Lynk said that the Bedouin village, located in Area C of the occupied West Bank, depends upon its traditional homes, water tanks and animal herds for shelter, food security and economic livelihood.
"Severing the villagers from their lands and their homes is particularly punitive given the harsh winter they are experiencing and the ever-present dangers of a global pandemic," said the experts.
Israel has justified its attempt to destroy the village on the grounds that it allegedly lies within an Israeli military firing zone - an explanation often used by the occupying power to dismantle rural Palestinian communities.
"These justifications by Israel do not satisfy its strict obligations under international law," the experts stated. "An occupying power cannot use the territory under occupation to conduct military training operations without ample justification. We note that Israel has plentiful grounds for military training within its own borders."
The UN experts stressed that "the wanton destruction of property" and the forcible removal of an occupied population is only allowed under international law when rendered absolutely necessary by legitimate military operations. Even then, such displacement is only legal for temporary periods of time until hostilities have ceased, they continued.
"There are no active military hostilities in the occupied West Bank, and have not been for many years," Tuesday's report highlighted.
UN member states, primarily from Europe, and various non-governmental organisations have provided emergency tents and other forms of property assistance to the villagers after the initial destruction by the Israeli military. To date, researchers have documented that at least 93 donated humanitarian relief structures have been seized or destroyed by the Israeli military this year.
The human rights experts observed that the threat to permanently expel the inhabitants of Humsa al-Bqaia "is part of a larger worrisome pattern of forcible removals and home demolitions in the occupied West Bank".
The Israeli military demolished at least 227 Palestinian-owned properties in the occupied West Bank during the first seven weeks of 2021, displacing at least 367 people, including some 200 children, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
The latest numbers represent a near 185 percent increase in Palestinian structures targeted by Israel when compared to the previous year, while a 450 percent increase in the destruction of donor-funded structures has been documented.
"The international community has positive obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure that High Contracting Parties such as Israel fully respect their responsibilities during an occupation," Rajagopal and Lynk said in the report.
On Friday, seven European countries - Ireland, Estonia, Norway, the UK, France, Belgium and Germany - signed a joint statement condemning the destruction of homes in Humsa al-Bqaia as well as EU donated structures.
"We reiterate our call on Israel to halt demolitions and confiscations. We further call on Israel to allow full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to the community," the countries said.
"We recall our firm opposition to Israel’s settlement policy and actions taken in that context, such as forced transfers, evictions, demolitions and confiscations of homes and humanitarian assets, which are illegal under international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, and are an impediment to a viable two-state solution," they continued.
In Tuesday's report, the two UN experts welcomed the support of diplomatic representatives but called for more action.
"Much more must be done by their governments to insist upon Israeli accountability, which is the missing key to ending this protracted occupation," the experts said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration "enthusiastically embraces" the International Holocaust Remembrance Association's (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, the Jewish Insider reported late on Monday.
In a letter sent to American Zionist Movement President Richard Heideman, Blinken said the White House supported the IHRA's controversial working definition of antisemitism, "including its examples".
The IHRA definition contains 11 "contemporary examples of antisemitism", including denying the Holocaust and promoting conspiracy theories about the Jewish people.
But other more controversial examples include "applying double standards" to Israel, describing the creation of Israel as a "racist endeavor", and comparing the Israeli government's actions with the Nazis.
The definition has been condemned by prominent Jewish groups and hundreds of leading Jewish and Israeli scholars, who argue it serves to "shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law".
"We know this won't keep us safe," IfNotNow, a youth-led organisation seeking an end to American support for Israel's occupation, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, in response to the announcement of the letter.
"We've seen how it's only been used by the right to curb the free speech of Palestinians and their allies."
In the letter, Blinken said the US was "eager to work with allies and partners to counter Holocaust distortion and combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance abroad while we strengthen our efforts at home."
The letter comes three weeks after a State Department official also announced support for the IHRA definition.
"We must educate ourselves and our communities to recognize anti-Semitism in its many forms so that we can call hate by its proper name and take effective action," Kara McDonald, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said during an experts' meeting on antisemitism.
"That is why the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, with its real-world examples, is such an invaluable tool.
"As prior US administrations of both political stripes have done, the Biden administration embraces and champions the working definition."
Meanwhile, a coalition of pro-Israel Jewish groups - including J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund - have in the past few weeks called on Biden to reject codifying the definition.
The groups warned that instead of combating antisemitism, the IHRA definition "is being misused and exploited to instead suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions, and advocacy for Palestinian rights".
The definition has also been used to label the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic.
The Palestinian-led BDS movement, founded in 2005, encourages individuals, nations and organisations to boycott Israel over its violations of international law and human rights standards.
The Biden administration imposed sanctions on two Houthi commanders on Tuesday, accusing the Yemeni rebels of prolonging the conflict and carrying attacks against civilians and neighbouring countries "to advance the Iranian regime’s destabilizing agenda".
The US Treasury Department announced the sanctions against Mansur al-Saadi, the Houthi naval forces chief of staff, and Ahmad Ali Ahsan al-Hamzi, commander of the Yemeni air force and air defence forces, on Tuesday.
The measures, which come weeks after the new US administration removed the Houthis from the US list of foreign terrorist organisations, would freeze the Houthi officials' assets and bar US citizens from doing business with them.
The US administration had said that it reversed the blacklisting of the Houthis to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid into areas under their control, but it continued to condemn the rebels and cautioned them to cease their ongoing offensive on the city of Marib.
Both the Treasury and State departments released statements on the sanctions that heavily referenced and criticised Iran for its involvement in the conflict.
"Since the onset of the conflict in Yemen, the Houthis, with the support of the Iranian regime, have waged a bloody war against the internationally recognized Yemeni government using ballistic missiles, explosives, naval mines, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to attack bases, population centers, infrastructure, and nearby commercial shipping," the Treasury said.
It accused Saadi of dispensing naval mines that indiscriminately target ships, including those carrying humanitarian assistance, and it said Hamzi is responsible for the Houthis' drone attacks.
"The United States condemns the destruction of civilian sites by the Houthi militants designated today. These individuals command forces that are worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen," said Andrea M Gacki, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
"The United States remains committed to promoting accountability of Houthi leadership for their actions, which have contributed to the extraordinary suffering of the Yemeni people."
According to the US government, both targeted Houthi officials received training in Iran.
"Iran's involvement in Yemen fans the flames of the conflict, threatening greater escalation, miscalculation, and regional instability," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Tuesday.
"Ansarallah uses Iranian weapons, intelligence, training, and support to conduct attacks threatening civilian targets and infrastructure in Yemen and Saudi Arabia."
Ansarallah is an alternate name for the Houthi rebels.
US President Joe Biden announced last month that Washington is halting support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, fulfilling a campaign promise that he had shared with all Democratic presidential candidates.
Still, the administration has repeatedly pledged to remain committed to the kingdom's national security amid congressional calls for clarifying the details of the new Yemen policy.
The Saudi-led offensive in Yemen started in 2015 when the kingdom and its regional allies embarked on a bombing campaign to restore the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had been toppled by the Houthis.
The war has killed more than 230,000 people, caused outbreaks of disease and brought Yemen to the verge of famine, in what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
"We will ensure Saudi Arabia and our regional partners have the tools they need to defend themselves, including against threats emanating from Yemen that are carried out with weapons and support from Iran," Blinken said on Tuesday.
"At the same time, the United States is working diligently at senior levels alongside the United Nations and others to bring an end to this conflict."
A prominent rival of Libya’s interim prime minister-designate, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, is calling for an investigation into the legitimacy of his win in last month’s UN-led peace talks following newly emerged bribery allegations.
'If it is proven that votes were bought, this is a crime that cannot be ignored and its perpetrator cannot be allowed to benefit from it'
- Aquila Saleh, eastern-based speaker of parliament
Aquila Saleh, the Tripoli-based speaker of parliament who was also in the running to lead Libya, said investigations were being launched in light of media reports that alleged several participants in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) were given hundreds of thousands of dollars each in bribes to vote for Dbeibah.
“If it is proven that votes were bought, this is a crime that cannot be ignored and its perpetrator cannot be allowed to benefit from it,” Saleh told The Times newspaper on Tuesday.
The UN launched the LPDF in November, aiming to establish a unified executive in a country governed by rival eastern and western administrations backed by an array of armed groups and foreign powers.
But the initial talks in Tunisia were marred by allegations of vote-buying.
According to AFP, in a report seen by the news agency on Sunday and set to be presented to the Security Council in March, UN experts found that during the Tunisia talks, two participants "offered bribes of between $150,000 to $200,000 to at least three LPDF participants if they committed to vote for Dbeibah as PM".
In a passage of the report, the experts say that one delegate "erupted in anger in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Tunis on hearing that some participants may have received up to... $500,000 for their Dbeibah votes, whereas he had only received $200,000”.
The report was prepared by UN experts tasked with examining breaches of an international arms embargo on the North African country, AFP said.
The Guardian newspaper said the report was due to be published on 15 March, after an investigation into the allegations of bribery was demanded by the then-acting UN special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams.
Dbeibah's office has denied the allegations and said he was "monitoring attempts to undermine the process of forming a government and obstruct the process of approving it, by spreading rumours and false reports”.
"We assure the Libyan people that the first stage of the roadmap will soon be completed" with a confidence vote in parliament to approve the government, Dbeibah said.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) issued a statement distancing itself from the latest saga in the peace process.
“With regard to media reports circulated about allegations of bribery during the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunisia, citing a 'UN expert panel report,' UNSMIL reiterates that the Panel of Experts (PoE) is a separate entity, completely independent from UNSMIL. The PoE provides its report to the Security Council Sanctions Committee," it said.
“The Mission further stresses that it does not receive the reports of the PoE including its latest report, and it is therefore not in a position to comment on it."
The latest LPDF, held on 5 February in Geneva, produced a new interim government for Libya. Delegates voted for Dbeibeh, a billionaire from the western city of Misrata, to head the government as prime minister. Meanwhile, Mohammed al-Menfi, a former diplomat from Benghazi, would head a three-man presidency council.
The leaks and allegations that have thus far surfaced only cover day 1 of the LPDF series.— Libya Desk (@LibyaDesk) March 2, 2021
Agila Saleh has already started capitalising on the corruption allegations in the #LPDF by demanding the postponement of the #HoR session until a full investigation is carried out.
The appointment of the relatively less well-known leaders came as a surprise to observers, many of whom expected to see eastern-based Saleh to take a leading role in the peace process.
In light of the bribery allegations, Saleh said he had asked for the postponement of a parliament session scheduled for 8 March to approve the new interim government.
“I believe it is appropriate to delay the session until the [UN] report is made public, and if it indeed says there were bribes, then those who committed it must be excluded,” he said.
However, UNSMIL urged the House of Representatives in the city of Sirte to hold the session as scheduled.
“Following consultations with international partners, UNSMIL and its partners strongly encourage the HoR to meet as scheduled to discuss and consider the vote of confidence to the Cabinet to be proposed by the prime-minister designate," it said.
“They encourage the PM-designate to present the line-up of the government without further delay. This call comes in line with the increasing public demand for the urgent need to form a unified government to address the most pressing needs and facilitate the holding of national elections in December 2021.”
One hundred and seventy bipartisan members of the US House of Representatives have issued a letter to the State Department urging the Biden administration to hold the Turkish government accountable for "human rights abuses" taking place in the Nato country.
In a letter sent on 26 February, but made public on Monday, the lawmakers called out the Turkish president specifically for "democratic backsliding", asking the Biden administration to place more concern on Turkey's domestic issues.
'President Erdogan has strained the relationship between our nations'
- Letter sent from US House to State Department
"As the Biden administration formulates its foreign policy in regard to Turkey, we ask that you aim to address the troubling human rights abuses taking place under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan," the letter reads.
"Turkey has long been a key United States ally. Unfortunately, President Erdogan has strained the relationship between our nations," it continued. "Strategic issues have rightfully received significant attention in our bilateral relationship, but the gross violation of human rights and democratic backsliding taking place in Turkey are also of significant concern."
While a significant chunk of House members, both Republicans and Democrats, signed the letter, official leadership from both parties refrained from participating.
Signers did, however, include Representatives Greg Meeks, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Michael McCaul, the panel’s ranking Republican member.
Days before the letter was sent, Erdogan released a video address to Twitter, where he insisted that the common interests of Turkey and the United States outweigh their differences. The Turkish President stressed that Turkey wants to improve cooperation with Washington "on a win-win basis".
But relations have frayed over a host of issues in recent years, including Turkey’s purchase of Russia's S-400 missile defence system and US support for the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, dubbed a terrorist group by Turkey.
Both the White House and Congress have expressed repeated concern over rights and freedoms in recent weeks.
Upon taking office, the Biden administration swiftly rebuked Turkey, urging the release of prominent civil society leader Osman Kavala. The administration also criticised homophobic rhetoric in a crackdown on student demonstrators.
In the February letter, lawmakers highlighted such cases, accusing Erdogan and his party of weakening Turkey’s judiciary, installing political allies in key military and intelligence positions, and wrongfully imprisoning political opponents, journalists and members of minority groups.
"Since 2016, more than 80,000 Turkish citizens have been imprisoned or arrested and more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations have been closed to suppress political opposition," the lawmakers wrote.
They also highlighted "dubious" criminal charges against three Turkish staff employed by the US State Department, urging the administration to prioritise their cases, including "their immediate release and dismissal of all charges".
"While it is in our mutual interest for the United States and Turkey to remain strategic allies and repair the rifts between us, we believe changes to President Erdogan and his party’s behavior are vital to seeing that relationship restored," the lawmakers wrote.
"We hope that the State Department under your leadership and the Biden administration more broadly will elevate human rights and democratic backsliding concerns in our bilateral relations."
Egypt has ordered the pre-trial detention of journalist and government critic Gamaal el-Gamal after his return from Turkey, where he spent the past five years in self-imposed exile.
According to his lawyer Naser Amin, the Supreme State Security Prosecution on Sunday ordered Gamal to be detained for 15 days on charges of involvement with opposition media in Istanbul.
On 22 February, Gamal returned to Cairo voluntarily, according to his son.
'The incident just confirms that the fate of many dissidents abroad if they return home is to be abducted in the airport, forcibly disappeared,'
- Amr Magdi, Human Rights Watch
“My father was feeling unwell, and decided to come back to Egypt suddenly because he couldn’t bear the thought that he would never see me again,” his son wrote on Facebook, adding that his father was missing for over 24 hours after his arrival.
In recent years, Gamal has been known to be a critic of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite the journalist's initial support for his coup in 2013. Gamal was a columnist for the now-suspended outlet Tahrir news, then was suspended from writing a column for Al Masry Al Youm newspaper in 2015 due to his anti-government writings.
It was widely reported that in 2015 Gamal received a phone call from Sisi himself to express rejection of his critical writings.
In 2017, he traveled to Turkey, known to be a safe haven for the Egyptian opposition, and presented a TV programme on the opposition Al-Sharq channel for nearly two years but then stopped and thereafter only focused on writing posts on his Facebook page.
Gamal’s detention has garnered widespread condemnation by rights groups and opposition activists in exile.
Amr Magdi, Egypt researcher at Human Rights Watch, described Gamal’s detention as “shocking but not unexpected”.
"The incident just confirms that the fate of many dissidents abroad if they return home is to be abducted in the airport, forcibly disappeared and later interrogated by prosecution officials whose only job is apparently reduced to rubber-stamping whatever security agencies claim without any evidence,” he told Middle East Eye.
Opposition journalists Gamal Sultan, Zein Tawfik, and Wael Qandil have expressed solidarity with Gamal, while opposition politician Ayman Nour said Gamal took the decision to return to Egypt despite the high risks.
Nour, who had hired Gamal to work in his Al-Sharq channel in Istanbul, told MEE that he met the journalist several times before his departure, and that he warned him against travelling to Egypt.
"He was extremely homesick," Nour said. "But I tried to convince him that his decision was a dangerous one."
Nour added that he was concerned about Gamal's safety particularly due to his vulnerable health condition. He said that Gamal is in his late 60s, suffers from five chronic illnesses, including diabetes and hypertension, and may not survive the notoriously harsh prison conditions in his country.
"There is a high chance he might succumb to his sickness if he continues to be incarcerated," the head of the liberal Al-Ghad Party added. "I hold the authorities accountable for his life."
Amnesty International said in January that Egyptian authorities were deliberately denying political prisoners health care as a way of punishing dissent.
Another rights group, the Committee for Justice, said in its annual report on deaths in custody in Egypt in 2020 that at least 100 prisoners died in custody in Egypt last year mostly due to medical negligence.
The organisation told MEE that at least ten prisoners had died since the beginning of 2021 due to the same reason.
In one of Gamal's posts in the summer of 2019, he expressed his wish to return to Egypt.
“I simply cannot remove from my mind the idea of going back to Egypt and confrontation from inside,” he wrote.
“I cannot cope outside my country. My role will not be more than being a parrot in the name of the revolution and inciting people from abroad, and this is not what I’d like to do. My role is to raise awareness, and I’ve paid the price for that.”
Following his arrest, Gamal’s friends widely shared a video by a pro-government journalist Nashaat al-Dihi, on his programme on Ten TV, urging Gamal to return to Egypt. “I personally tell Gamal, come to Egypt and be an opponent here,” Dihi said in response to Gamal’s Facebook post.
“I know that Gamal’s hands are not stained with blood. He never incited murder. He had an aggressive opinion, which I oppose, but it’s just an opinion.”
Egypt has initiated a number of trials against opposition journalists based in Turkey on various charges, including “spreading false news” and “joining a terror group”. Gamal, according to his lawyer, has been added to one of these cases, called “Mekameleen 2”.
The arrest of Gamal at Cairo airport is reminiscent of similar cases of journalists and activists, such as former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, researcher Patrick Zaky and Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein.
The international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describes Egypt as one of the worst jailers of journalists worldwide, and ranks it at 166 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
The group said that since Sisi’s military coup in 2013, the country’s media has been undergoing a process of “Sisification”, with a witch-hunt waged against opposition journalists and those who voice criticism online.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of 1 December 2020, there were 27 journalists imprisoned in Egypt for their work.
Saudi Arabia said pilgrims hoping to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage would need to be vaccinated against Covid-19, according to local reports.
Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said "compulsory vaccination" would be required for all pilgrims planning to attend the five-day event in July.
Rabiah did not confirm whether pilgrims from outside the kingdom would be permitted to undertake Hajj, but said a vaccine would be the "main condition" for participating.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims who are physically and financially able are expected to perform it at least once in their lifetime.
The pilgrimage would typically attract at least 2.5 million people from across the world.
But last year, Riyadh made the historic decision to restrict the number of pilgrims able to attend Hajj because of the coronavirus.
Two-thirds of the pilgrims were foreign residents, and one-third of those selected were security and medical staff from Saudi Arabia.
Pilgrims selected to attend the pilgrimage were chosen via an online portal and required to be aged between 20 and 50.
Those able to attend were given prayer rugs and special attire to wear.
In October, Saudi authorities relaxed coronavirus restrictions and allowed thousands of pilgrims to enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform the Umrah, a lesser pilgrimage that can be done all year round, for the first time in seven months.
Pilgrims were allowed to visit the cities of Mecca and Medina, but despite allowing them to return, a range of restrictions had been put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A health worker must accompany groups, and medical teams are present in case of an emergency.
Other restrictions include banning pilgrims from touching the Kaaba, the cubic structure Muslims pray towards five times a day.
The UK Labour Party is facing a legal challenge over its decision to recruit an Israeli former military intelligence officer as one of its social media managers.
A leading London law firm is threatening to bring proceedings against the party following the hiring of Assaf Kaplan, who served with the Israeli army signals intelligence and surveillance branch known as Unit 8200.
Unit 8200 is the counterpart of civilian agencies such as the US National Security Agency and GCHQ in the UK but has faced widespread criticism – including from its own soldiers – for its role in the close surveillance of Palestinian civilians.
In a letter to the Labour Party, the law firm Bindmans alleges that it is “very likely that Mr Kaplan was involved in the unlawful coercive surveillance practices” of Unit 8200 or was at the very least aware of them.
“Either situation renders Mr Kaplan’s current recruitment untenable.”
Bindmans has also asked the party whether Kaplan remains a reservist in the Israeli Defence Force.
The firm is acting on behalf of a British Palestinian Labour Party member, Adnan Hmidan, from west London, who says he is concerned about the recruitment of Kaplan to a position that the party describes as its “social listening and organising manager”: monitoring online conversations, including among party members.
Hmidan is worried that the appointment may jeopardise his rights under the UK’s data protection laws and under the European General Data Protection Regulation.
“I am very concerned that the Labour Party has recruited a former Israeli spy to a position that involves monitoring the social media accounts of its members including those that are British Palestinian, supportive of Palestine or opposed to the occupation of Palestine," he said.
'I am very concerned that the Labour Party has recruited a former Israeli spy to a position that involves monitoring the social media accounts of its members including those that are British Palestinian...'
- Adnan Hmidan, Labour member
“The Labour Party has provided no assurances that the recruitment is in accordance with its stated position on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, its commitment to the Fourth Geneva Conventions, or its public condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies.
“The party has also failed to confirm what steps, if any, have been taken to limit the risks to these members or to ensure that our data is not processed without our consent.”
Jamie Potter, a partner at Bindmans, said: “The Labour Party has an obligation to apply principles of fairness and natural justice to its members, as well as to act consistently with the party’s stated values.
“Given Mr Kaplan’s apparent background it is deeply concerning that the Labour Party recruited him without providing any assurances whatsoever to its Palestinian and other members, and has still not done so despite senior figures within the party condemning the recruitment.
“This is all the more surprising given the Labour Party’s public condemnation of Israel’s unlawful settlement policies. We hope that the Labour Party will now engage with our client and respond fully to his questions concerning the recruitment decision.”
Kaplan works in the office of Labour leader Keir Starmer in the UK’s parliament buildings, rather than in the party’s headquarters, where some staff are said to be deeply uneasy about his role.
His appointment has been condemned by a number of senior figures within the party.
Much of their concern focuses on the way in which a number of Unit 8200’s own soldiers have said that their surveillance has led to Palestinians being blackmailed into working as informers for the Israeli government. Gay Palestinians are said to have been particularly vulnerable.
In 2014, 43 of its members and former members wrote publicly to their commanders, and to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, complaining that electronic surveillance of Palestinians was widespread and was not targeted only at people suspected of involvement in violence.
'It is a dark system that has no limits. This tool has been used to keep the people oppressed in order that they don't resist the occupation'
- former Israeli soldier who served with Unit 8200
Following Kaplan’s appointment, a former Israeli soldier who served with Unit 8200 told Middle East Eye that its work included collecting compromising private information on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza that could be used to pressure them to collaborate with Israel.
He said he served for a year in a department that was eavesdropping on people's conversations but had quit because of his concerns about its work.
"It is a dark system that has no limits. This tool has been used to keep the people oppressed in order that they don't resist the occupation," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I believe that the Labour Party or any side that identifies itself as democratic and cares about human rights... has to ask questions before they give a job to someone who was part of a system that is promoting this policy against Palestinians."
When Kaplan’s recruitment was disclosed in January, Chris Mullin, a Labour MP for 23 years, and who and served as a foreign office minister under Tony Blair, told MEE: "I am not sure if this is a good idea. Is he still working for the Israelis or for the Labour Party?"
John McDonnell, Labour's former shadow chancellor, said: "I believe most party members will be bewildered to say the least that despite all the social media talent available in our movement, the party has decided to recruit someone with a track record of working in an intelligence organisation roundly condemned for its role in the abuse of the human rights of Palestinians."
'Our client’s concerns are exacerbated by the fact that it is likely Mr Kaplan was involved in covert surveillance practices in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory that would be considered unlawful in the United Kingdom'
- Bindmans letter to Labour Party
Another senior Labour MP described Kaplan's appointment as "extremely troubling" and added: “The decision should be immediately reversed and he should be removed from his position."
In its letter to the Labour Party, Bindmans said that Kaplan’s appointment was in breach of its own rule book and contrary to its stated policies.
“The recruitment is particularly untenable when considered against the involvement of British Palestinians in the Labour Party, the contextual backdrop of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Mr Kaplan’s involvement in maintaining that occupation as part of the Israeli Defence Forces.
“Our client was deeply distressed to learn of the recruitment. Our client considers that Mr Kaplan’s background and qualifications render him wholly unsuitable for the position in question and our client is concerned about the implications of his recruitment for Arab and Palestinian Labour Party members.
“Our client’s concerns are exacerbated by the fact that it is likely Mr Kaplan was involved in covert surveillance practices in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory that would be considered unlawful in the United Kingdom.
“The recruitment … invites the question of what due diligence, if any, the Labour Party conducted, prior to the appointment and since, to limit the risks to its Arab and Palestinian members.”
The Labour Party refused to comment on the planned litigation. A spokesperson said: “We do not comment on staffing matters.”
The party has refused to answer any of MEE's questions about the appointment since it was disclosed in January.
In particular, its press office has repeatedly declined to say whether the party was aware of Kaplan's military intelligence background before he was hired.
Kaplan also declined a request for a comment, made through the party.