JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank surged ahead in 2019, a watchdog group said in a report Tuesday, maintaining a rapid pace that has drawn strength from the friendly policies of the Trump administration. Peace Now, a monitoring group that opposes the settlements, said that Israel s average annual construction rate has risen 25% since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Perhaps more significantly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s government last year approved plans to build thousands of new homes, laying the groundwork for a sharp spike in construction in the coming years. That included an explosion in plans for new settlement projects approved early this year. “In my opinion, they re trying to take advantage of the window of opportunity that they have under the Trump administration, knowing that it might change in a few months,” said Hagit Ofran, a researcher for the group. “There was no such supportive administration for the settlements previously, ever.” Most of the world considers the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, to be occupied territory and Israeli settlements illegal obstacles to peace. In a break from his Republican and Democratic predecessors, Trump has taken a much softer line toward the settlements. Surrounded by a group of advisers with close ties to the settlement movement, Trump s administration declared last year that it did not consider the settlements to be illegal under international law. Then, in January, he unveiled a Mideast plan that envisions placing large parts of the West Bank, including all of the settlements, under permanent Israeli control. The Palestinians, with wide international backing, seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, also captured in 1967, as parts of a future independent state. With nearly 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and over 220,000 more in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians say the chances of establishing a state in those territories are quickly dwindling. They have rejected the Trump Mideast plan, saying it would extinguish any remaining hopes of independence. According to the Peace Now figures, Israel began construction on 1,917 new homes in the West Bank last year. That marked a slight dip from 2,100 construction starts in 2018. But overall, Israel has begun construction on an average of 2,267 homes per year since Trump took office, compared to an annual average of 1,807 units during the Obama administration. The construction was scattered throughout the West Bank, including small settlements deep inside the territory. That new annual construction could house roughly an addition 9,000 people per year in settlements, based on Peace Now s estimate of four people per a household. Under Israeli law, settlements must go through several stages of bureaucratic planning before construction begins. According to Peace Now, Israel last year advanced plans to build nearly 8,457 new homes, putting them on track to potentially be built in the coming years — up from 5,618 units last year and 6,742 in 2017. By comparison, Israel advanced plans for a total 4,611 new homes during the final two years of the Obama administration, when ties with the U.S. were strained. Peace Now gathers its data from official Israeli sources and by conducting aerial photography of settlements. Israeli settlement groups, using different sets of measures, have also reported rapid growth in the settler population during the Trump era. Oded Revivi, mayor of the settlement of Efrat and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settler council, said it was “no secret” that the Trump administration has been more tolerant of construction. Whether the thousands of units in the pipeline are built, he said, will depend on who leads Israel s next government and who wins the U.S. presidential election in November. “If we still have the same players, Netanyahu and Trump, I predict the figures you will see in 2020, or more accurately 2021, will actually be higher than 2019,” he said. Netanyahu, fighting for his political life, took a number of pro-settlement steps while campaigning for re-election early this year. Immediately after Trump unveiled his Mideast plan, Netanyahu vowed to begin annexing the settlements. When the White House balked, he pushed forward a flurry of new settlement plans as he tried to cater to his hard-line base. During the first two months of this year, Israel pushed ahead plans for an additional 7,500 homes — nearly half of them in the sensitive “E1” area, according to Peace Now. Developing that area, jutting deep into the West Bank east of Jerusalem, would hinder Palestinian hopes of creating a contiguous state. Israel has previously refrained from building in E1 due to opposition by prior U.S. administrations. Israel also moved ahead with plans to build over 1,500 units in a contentious area of east Jerusalem. Despite these steps, Netanyahu came up short as the March 2 election ended in deadlock. Netanyahu s rival, Benny Gantz, is now trying to form the country s next government but also appears to face long odds of success. If neither man can cobble together a governing coalition, the country could plunge into a fourth consecutive election, placing Netanyahu s future into question as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges. Trump s future, meanwhile, also is suddenly in question following widespread criticism of the slow U.S. response to the coronavirus crisis. The virus could also play a role in the growth of the settlements in the coming months. An economic slowdown, for instance, could potentially slow demand in the Israeli housing market, including in settlements. In the West Bank, there are also risks from Israelis and Palestinians — who are covered by two different health systems and governments — coming together. Revivi s settlement, for example, is next to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and residents often come into contact with one other. Thousands of Palestinians, including construction workers, work in the settlements. “With all the potential of catching the virus, all these things become a much more relevant issue that needs to be discussed, determined, decided upon and definitely acted upon,” Revivi said.
Sudan s ruling council said on Tuesday it would step up its drive to remove loyalists of former president Omar al-Bashir, a day after the prime minister of the transitional government escaped an assassination attempt unscathed. A branch of Sudan s security services that was closely linked to Bashir will be brought under control of the civilian government and a committee tasked with dismantling the old regime will be given additional powers, sovereign council spokesman Mohamed al-Faki said in a statement. Authorities have launched an investigation into Monday s assassination attempt, when a blast targeted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok s convoy as he drove to work. They have not said who was behind it, but by reasserting that Bashir loyalists will be firmly dealt with, they have suggested possible links with old regime supporters trying to disrupt a democratic transition. Hamdok heads a government of technocrats serving under a 39-month power-sharing deal between civilian groups and the military that was struck after Bashir was overthrown last April. As part of efforts to disempower Bashir s supporters, the "dismantling" committee has already moved to disband the former ruling party and dismiss senior officials at banks and embassies. Some officers at the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have also been dismissed, and the name of the agency has been changed to the General Intelligence Service (GIS). Faki said on Tuesday that the part of the GIS that operates inside Sudan would be brought under the interior ministry. In mid-January, armed security agents linked to Bashir fought soldiers in Khartoum for several hours, after a dispute linked to severance packages.
Churches across Egypt have announced the suspension of church meetings and activities, following a government decision to suspend schools and universities for two weeks as a precautionary measure to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Coptic Orthodox Church confirmed the suspension of all church education programs for two weeks. The church s official Spokesperson Father Paul Halim announced in a press statement Sunday the suspension of all other church activities as well, including gatherings of large groups and services at nurseries, rehabilitation centers and church trips. The statement also stressed the suspension of study in all theological institutes and colleges. Meanwhile, the statement also said that it remains possible to hold more than one daily religious service at churches to avoid overcrowding at mass, especially on occasions and holidays. The statement stressed the need to take precautions before heading to mass, and warned citizens not to attend if they were suffering from a fever or displayed other influenza-like symptoms. The statement also cautioned churchgoers to frequently wash their hands and avoid shaking hands and sharing drinks and food as much as possible. Egypt had confirmed 126 cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, as of Sunday, according to the Ministry of Health. The country has reported two deaths from the respiratory illness, which produces mild to moderate symptoms in most people, such as a fever and cough. For the elderly and immunocompromised, however, COVID-19 can cause more serious illness, including pneumonia, and require hospitalization. Last week, Egypt reported that a 60-year-old woman from Daqahlia had died from complications of coronavirus. The first death reported in Egypt – a 60-year old German tourist who passed away in a hospital in Hurghada – was confirmed on March 8. Egypt has moved to close schools and universities across the country for two weeks and has halted large public gatherings to stop the spread of the virus, which has killed over 6,500 worldwide and infected upwards of 170,000. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanon declared a state of emergency and announced that the country s airports, borders, and ports would close starting Wednesday and extending through March 29, with nonessential businesses ordered to shut down and citizens urged to stay indoors. Jordan has also moved to suspend all incoming and outgoing flights beginning on Tuesday, according to Reuters, and has closed all tourism sites across the country. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have halted passenger flights as well, and the UAE has also imposed entry restrictions and moved to close restaurants and pubs across the country, while Qatar has restricted entry for all travelers except Qatari nationals and issued a ban on public transportation, according to Reuters. Local officials in Saudi Arabia announced over the weekend the closure of malls, restaurants, cafes, and public parks. Pharmacies, grocery stores, and food delivery were to remain open. Kuwait has moved to shutter restaurants and cafes as well, with businesses providing essential goods and services to stay open. A curfew is also set to be imposed in Iraq beginning late Tuesday, and includes suspending all flights from Baghdad s airport. Businesses remain open in Iran, however, the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East.
Egypt s Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Religious Endowments have suspended most of their activities for two weeks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. The decision came after Egypt s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ordered on Saturday the suspension of schools and universities for two weeks as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Egypt has 110 confirmed coronavirus cases, 21 of whom have recovered. The country has recorded two deaths from the flue-like virus: a 60-year-old Egyptian woman and a German tourist. The Coptic Orthodox Church said in a statement late on Saturday that it is suspending all church education services and theology schools for two weeks in line with the president s directives. The Church said that the daily mass may be split up into several smaller services to avoid large gatherings, especially on days off and on special occasions. The Church also urged those suffering from high temperature or flu symptoms to not take part in masses and called on people to avoid shaking hands. Similarly, the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments has temporarily banned holding marriage celebrations and funeral services at mosques or halls attached to them. It also decided to close all mausoleums and shrines nationwide and suspend classes at Islamic cultural centres affiliated with the ministry for two weeks. Mosques will be open only for daily prayers and the weekly Friday sermon, the ministry said in a statement, stressing that any other gatherings or events at mosques will be suspended. The ministry announced earlier that it was cancelling the annual Israa and Miraj celebrations, which mark the miraculous journey that the Prophet Muhammad embarked on from Mecca to Jerusalem and heaven. Since its outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected more than 157,000 people globally and killed more than 5,800.
Iraqi and United Nations officials scrambled Thursday to contain the fallout from an unprecedented rocket attack that killed three US-led coalition members and threatened yet another escalation of Iran-US tensions. Within hours of the attack on Taji air base, north of Baghdad — the deadliest in years on a base used by US forces in Iraq — an air strike killed more than two dozen Iran-aligned fighters in neighbouring Syria. It marked a dramatic uptick in violence less than three months after rockets killed a US contractor in northern Iraq, unleashing a round of tit-for-tat attacks between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi soil. Fearing an even bloodier flare-up this time, Iraqi officials and the United Nations were quick to condemn the coalition deaths. Iraq s military command said it was “a serious security challenge” and pledged to open an investigation. President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi condemned a “terrorist attack” which targeted “Iraq and its security”. The UN mission in Iraq called for “maximum restraint on all sides”. “These ongoing attacks are a clear and substantial threat to the country, and the risk of rogue action by armed groups remains a constant concern,” it said. “The last thing Iraq needs is to serve as an arena for vendettas and external battles.” Kataeb Hezbollah hails attack Wednesday s attack was the 22nd on US interests in Iraq since late October. It saw a volley of 18 rockets slam into the Taji base, one of about a dozen facilities across Iraq where coalition forces are posted. The coalition confirmed three of its personnel were killed and around a dozen more wounded. One of the dead was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Britain confirmed. A US military official told AFP the other two were a US soldier and an American contractor. There was no immediate word on Iraqi casualties and no group claimed responsibility. Kataeb Hezbollah, a hardline faction within Iraq s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance, hailed the attack and its perpetrators, without saying they were behind it. “We believe it is the best time for popular, nationalist forces to resume operations to oust the evil attackers,” the group said in a statement. Kataeb Hezbollah also criticised “those who were quick to denounce and express their sympathy”, in a hint at top Iraqi officials who had condemned the rocket attack. In late December, the US accused Kataeb Hezbollah of killing an American contractor at a base in northern Iraq and carried out air strikes on western Iraq that killed 25 of its fighters. Days later, a US drone strike killed senior Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad airport. Iran then launched its own strikes on a western Iraqi base, leaving dozens of US troops suffering from brain trauma. Hashed factions have repeatedly pledged to avenge Muhandis s death in their own way. Hashed hammered in Syria Within hours of Wednesday s attack, an air strike near the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Albu Kamal killed 26 Iran-aligned Iraqi fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The US-led coalition denied carrying out any raids overnight on either Syria or Iraq. Both the coalition and Israel have targeted Iran-backed fighters in Syria, whom they fear could be transferring missiles from their regional foe Iran. The Hashed also blamed Israel and the US for a string of unexplained explosions last year. Post-Saddam Iraq counts years of close ties with both Iran and the United States, and Baghdad has been put in an increasingly difficult position by the spiralling tensions between its allies. In January, Iraqi lawmakers voted to oust all foreign troops from Iraq in reaction to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. Some 5,200 US troops are stationed in Iraq as part of the coalition formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State jihadist group. While IS has lost all of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, sleeper cells remain capable of carrying out attacks on both sides of the border. On Sunday, two US soldiers were killed north of Baghdad while helping Iraqi forces battle IS remnants. US officials have previously told AFP they considered the Hashed a bigger threat than IS, given the frequency and accuracy of rocket attacks on US troops that could be traced back to the paramilitaries.
ATHENS (Reuters) — The Greek government dismissed on Wednesday a report in The New York Times newspaper that it was holding migrants who cross the border from Turkey at a secret “black site” where they are denied access to lawyers and cannot file asylum claims. Tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to get into Greece, a European Union member state, since Turkey said on Feb. 28 it would no longer keep them on its territory as part of a 2016 deal with Brussels in return for EU aid for the refugees. Greece has used tear gas and water cannon to deter the migrants and says it has stopped more than 42,000 people from entering its territory over the past two weeks. In its article, The New York Times quoted migrants who said they had been captured by Greek security forces, stripped and beaten and held in a complex of buildings near the border. Using satellite imagery and mobile phone data, the newspaper said the site was near the village of Poros, in the northeast, not far from the Greek-Turkish border in the Evros river delta. “There is no secret detention center in Greece,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters, adding that if an international newspaper knew about the site, it wasn t secret. “All issues related to guarding the borders or issues of security are transparent. The constitution is being applied… and there is nothing secret.” On March 3, Greece passed a decree suspending asylum applications for a month and allowing for the immediate deportation of any migrants seized crossing the border. Erdogan s decision to open the border appears designed to put pressure on the EU to provide more aid for some 3.6 million refugees and migrants Turkey is hosting. Ankara says it has received only about half of some 6 billion euros promised by the EU under the 2016 deal for the refugees. The New York Times article, citing video evidence and witness testimony, also alleged that Mohammed Yaarub, a 22-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who was shot dead near the border last week, had been killed by a Greek security officer. Petsas, the government spokesman, reiterated Greece s previous denials that its forces have killed any migrants. “We have categorically denied there was such an issue, at least on the part of Greece … This is organized Turkish propaganda and the spreading of fake news,” he said.
JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court on Tuesday rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s request to delay the start of his corruption trial, clearing the way for proceedings to begin as planned next week. Netanyahu s lawyers had appealed for a delay, saying they needed more time to review evidence. State prosecutors responded that they oppose any delays and the court accepted their position. In overruling the request the presiding judge wrote that the first session on March 17 was a procedural reading of the charges only and the defendant s response was not needed, therefore there was no justification for a delay. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals that include accepting expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt. His legal troubles stood at the center of last week s national election, Israel s third in less than a year. Like elections last April and September, this one ended inconclusively. Netanyahu s opponent, Benny Gantz, refused to sit with him in government and appears poised to push for legislation in the incoming parliament that would bar anyone indicted for a crime being able to lead a government — in effect disqualifying Netanyahu from leading the country. While the most straightforward way out of the deadlock in each of the previous rounds was a unity government, the sides have grown increasingly acrimonious toward each other with each campaign. On Tuesday, members of Netanyahu s Likud Party abstained from a procedural vote meant to approve the official election results, citing their demand for a recount of hundreds of ballots that are in contention. Gantz s Blue and White said the move set a “dangerous precedent” that damaged the legitimacy of the country s elections commission. The anti-Netanyahu forces in the new incoming parliament command a 62-58 majority but are deeply divided among themselves, even though Gantz and the smaller Yisrael Beitenu party, led by Netanyahu ally-turned-nemesis Avigdor Lieberman, have agreed to cooperate to form a government. Israel s president will soon begin consultations with the elected parties to determine who to tap as prime minister-designate, typically the leader of the largest party and in this case Netanyahu. If the deadlock continues, Israel could see itself heading toward a fourth straight election, which experts say would have disastrous effects on the public s confidence in their elected officials and electoral system. Netanyahu, Israel s longest-serving leader, is desperate to remain in office because installing a new government would give him an important political boost and potentially allow him to legislate his way out of the legal quagmire. Amit Haddad, one of Netanyahu s lawyers, had said he would seek a delay in the start of the trial. He said the request was “technical” and meant to give the defense time to review investigative materials that it still has not received.
Migration crisis talks were set to be held between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and senior EU officials in Brussels on Monday, as Germany said the bloc was considering taking in 1,500 child refugees. Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been trying to break through the land border from Turkey for a week after Ankara announced it would no longer prevent people from trying to cross into the European Union. Turkey, which hosts around four million mostly Syrian refugees, has repeatedly railed against what it describes as unfair burden-sharing. Erdogan called on Greece to “open the gates” to the migrants after Greek police used tear gas and water cannon in skirmishes with crowds at the border. “I hope I will return from Belgium with different outcomes,” he said at a speech in Istanbul on Sunday as he announced the meeting. “Hey Greece! I appeal to you… open the gates as well and be free of this burden,” he said, adding: “Let them go to other European countries.” Early on Monday, Germany said the EU was considering taking in up to 1,500 migrant children who are currently housed in Greek camps. “A humanitarian solution is being negotiated at the European level for a coalition of the willing to take in these children,” the government said in a statement. Berlin was ready to take in an “appropriate” share, it added, saying the country wanted to support Greece in the “difficult” situation it is facing. Concern over the plight of the minors have grown as they either require urgent medical treatment or are unaccompanied by adults. On Friday, Erdogan ordered the Turkish coastguard to prevent risky Aegean sea crossings after more than 1,700 migrants landed on Lesbos and four other Aegean islands from Turkey over the past week. The coastguard however said Turkey s policy of allowing migrants and refugees to leave by land was untouched, and the instruction only affected sea crossings. Aid agreements The Turkish president will meet European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at 6pm (1700 GMT) on Monday. They will “discuss EU-Turkey matters, including migration, security, stability in the region and the crisis in Syria,” Michel s spokesman said on Twitter. In 2016, Turkey and the EU agreed a deal whereby Brussels would provide billions of euros in aid in exchange for Turkish authorities curbing the flow of migrants. But Ankara has repeatedly accused the bloc of not fulfilling promises that were made while Europe suffered its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Over a million people fled to the continent in 2015. Erdogan s top press aide has said one of the unmet conditions was that the EU would take in refugees from Turkey. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Michel met Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday as Turkey demanded greater support over the conflict and migrants. After the talks, Borrell promised an additional 170 million euros ($192 million) in aid for vulnerable groups in Syria. Erdogan has felt extra pressure as nearly a million people in Syria s northwestern province of Idlib fled towards the Turkish border during the recent Syrian regime assault backed by Russia and Iran. But the president and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed a ceasefire on Thursday after Turkey launched an offensive against Damascus following the deaths of 59 Turkish security personnel in attacks blamed on the regime.
More than 50 people in Zambia have been killed in mob violence in response to a spate of poision spray attacks, President Edgar Lungu said on Friday, blaming church leaders for encouraging some of the reprisals. The chemical attacks began in December and were initially confined to the mineral-rich copperbelt but have since spread to the capital Lusaka. Some 26 people have been arrested under suspicion of being behind the incidents, but police have still to pinpoint the motive or exact number of victims. In a speech to parliament, Lungu said some church and traditional leaders were inciting mobs to assault people suspected of being involved in the attacks. Many Zambians have been angered by what they perceive as an inadequate response by police. Lungu said after the arrests over the chemical attacks the situation had improved. However, some people had now targeted rural areas where they were spreading false information about the attacks to instigate mob violence, he said. "We have witnessed merciless killings. We have equally witnessed merciless reactions," Lungu said after parliament observed a moment of silence for the victims. Lungu did not name any church leaders who he believed to be responsible for the reprisals, but pentecostal pastor Jones Chiyana of the Lusaka-based New Life Assembly Church said anyone involved was not genuine. "If a church person is involved, then they are using the church to conceal their true identity. The church is for justice," Chiyana told Reuters. The president said he was considering establishing a commission of inquiry to explain the chemical attacks and the mob killings, a move pastor Chiyana said would be welcome.
CAIRO (AP) — The only civilian airport in the Libyan capital of Tripoli came under direct attack by eastern-based opposition forces, authorities in the capital said Thursday, as diplomatic efforts to end the war continued to falter. Four missiles had hit Mitiga International Airport late Wednesday, said Amin al-Hashemi, spokesman for the health ministry in Tripoli. A Grad rocket also struck several homes nearby, sending shrapnel crashing into one family s dining room. At least 20 more missiles struck the tarmac earlier in the week “causing structural damage,” including to a commercial airplane. Flights were diverted to the coastal city of Misrata. There were no reports of causalities. The eastern forces under the command of Khalifa Haftar accuse the Tripoli government of using the landing strip to receive foreign weapons and fighters. The renewed fighting around the capital comes days after the United Nation s envoy for Libya abruptly quit his post, throwing new doubt on whether a diplomatic solution to the conflict was possible. Ghassan Salame tied his resignation to his health, saying he could no longer take the stress. Last week he appeared deeply frustrated over moribund political talks between the Tripoli-based government and its rival eastern-based administration. His abrupt departure, which caught U.N. Security Council members by surprise, “comes at a perilous time,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as the possibility looms “that both sides will now take the gloves off.” Libyan factions across the political spectrum, which have long expressed doubts about the U.N. s efforts, gloated over Salame s departure. “Ghassan Salame escaped before the boat sank,” said Hamad al-Bandaq, member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, the eastern-based body allied with Haftar. “He failed from the beginning.” “I consider Salame s period to be the worst of all envoys,” said Abdul-Qader Hwaili, a member of the High Council, an advisory body to the Tripoli-based government. “Under his watch, Libya witnessed several offensives, the destruction of cities and the current siege on the capital.” Haftar s forces attacked the capital last spring, plunging the country into an intensified round of fighting that has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced over 150,000 people. Salame, an academic and seasoned diplomat who cut his teeth uniting Iraqi factions after the U.S.-led invasion, “was facing a Herculean challenge in Libya,” said Wehrey. His failure to get both sides to solidify even a basic cease-fire points to “broader international disorder” and the weakness of the flouted U.N. arms embargo. Libya s chaos has worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite their pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year. Turkey has sent armored drones, air defenses and more recently Syrian militants with links to extremist groups to prop up the embattled U.N.-backed Tripoli government. On the other side, Russia has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Haftar s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Haftar with fighter jets, drones and mine-resistant vehicles. Even over the last few days, rival Libyan factions accused each other of violating a tentative truce with foreign weapons. The spokesman for Haftar s forces claimed they shot down six Turkish-made drones and killed 35 Syrian fighters. For its part, a coalition of militias allied with the Tripoli government announced a “sweeping attack” that destroyed six Emirati armored vehicles. “In the coming hours our combat will be extremely active,” Ahmed al-Mosmari, the spokesman for Haftar s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, told reporters late Wednesday. Salame departed with no hint of who might replace him, or obvious way for the U.N. s peacemaking efforts to proceed. “Without an acceptable political process in place that the parties adhere to, it s most likely that the conflict will continue in the same way we ve seen over the last few weeks,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Turkey said that two more of its soldiers were killed Wednesday in a Syrian government attack in northwestern Syria, as steady clashes between the two national armies continued to rack up casualties. Turkey has sent thousands of troops into the area to support Syrian insurgents holed up there, but hasn t been able to stop the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to retake the Idlib province. Near the Turkish border, the Idlib area is the last rebel stronghold after nine years of war in Syria. The Turkish Defense Ministry s statement said that the latest Syrian attack on its troops also wounded six soldiers. It did not provide further details. The assault came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to depart for Moscow where he says he aims to broker a cease-fire in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces in northwestern Syria have killed more than 50 Turkish troops in the past month, including 33 soldiers killed Thursday in a single airstrike. Moscow has laid the blame for the escalation on Ankara, ahead of the summit between the two main power brokers in Syria. Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of a cease-fire agreement reached in Sochi, Russia in 2018. They say Ankara has failed to honor the deal and rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.
REYHANLI, Turkey/AMMAN (Reuters) — Turkey shot down a Syrian government warplane on Tuesday over northwest Syria, where fighting has intensified in recent days, bringing Turkish and Russian forces close to direct conflict in the battle over the last swathe of Syria still held by rebels. It was the third Syrian warplane Turkey has shot down since Sunday in an escalating campaign against President Bashar al-Assad s forces. NATO-member Turkey supports the rebels, while Assad relies on his superpower ally Russia. With more than a million refugees amassing since December on the Turkish border, the battle for Syria s Idlib province has brought what the United Nations fears might be the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year-old Syrian civil war. “This relief operation has been overwhelmed. There needs to be more of everything. The first thing is money,” U.N. Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told reporters at a trans-shipment point for supplies in southern Turkey. Fighting was raging north of the strategic crossroads town of Saraqeb, recaptured on Monday by Syrian troops, one of several times the town, which controls access to Idlib city and Aleppo, has changed hands in recent weeks. Syrian state media said the army was now combing the town and had dealt heavy blows to fighters still holed up in hideouts on its outskirts. A state television correspondent said Turkey was firing artillery to halt the government advance. Rebels said the government was aided by thousands of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi militiamen brought from other areas to help storm the town after two days of failed attempts. A Syrian general who has defected to the opposition, Ahmad Rahhal, said a Russian announcement on Monday that it had deployed military police in Saraqeb was aimed at blocking Turkey from trying to help rebels reclaim the town. HUMANITARIAN CRISIS Turkey has sent thousands of troops and armored vehicles into northern Syria over the past month to fight back against Assad. Last week, a Syrian air strike killed at least 34 Turkish soldiers in the deadliest attack on the Turkish army in decades. Moscow, which has anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, has since warned Turkey that it cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish planes in Syrian skies. The Turkish Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that its forces had shot down a Syrian L-39 ground attack jet. Syria s state-run SANA news agency confirmed the plane had been shot down over Idlib province by missiles fired from Turkish warplanes. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia s Vladimir Putin are due to meet on Thursday to seek ways to avert conflict. Asked about the prospect of direct clashes with Turkey, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “We hope that we re able to absolutely minimize this risk thanks to the close contact between the two countries militaries.” Turkey, already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot take any more. It wants to push Assad s forces back to lines agreed in a 2017 deal brokered with Russia and Iran, which left a buffer zone in northern Syria near its border. Since last week, Turkey has thrown open its frontiers with Greece and Bulgaria to allow migrants to enter the EU, a move apparently aimed at putting pressure on European countries to back it in Syria. Some 10,000 migrants have tried to cross into Greece by land in recent days and more than 1,000 have arrived by sea at Greek islands, creating fears of a repeat of the 2015-2016 migration crisis, when more than 1 million people crossed into Greece and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean. The opposition says Syrian government forces are deliberately attacking civilians to provoke them to flee. A rocket attack believed to have been fired by the Syrian army on a residential quarter of Idlib city left at least nine civilians dead, including five children, according to Osama Idlibi, a rescuer in the opposition-run Syrian Civil Defence. Overnight Russian and Syrian jets killed at least 10 people in the town of Al Foah in what residents said was a spike in strikes on several towns, including Binish and the outskirts of Tatanaz in Idlib province. Russia and its Syrian army ally deny indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they target jihadists. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, in Turkey inspecting the relief efforts, announced $180 million in additional funding for the humanitarian crisis in Idlib. “Humanitarian aid is only a response but the solution is an immediate ceasefire,” Craft told reporters. “This is not something that just happened. This is planned by the Assad regime,” Craft said. “It is cruel and brutal.”
NAZARETH, Israel (Reuters) – On the eve of Israel s third election in a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been urging supporters to mount a final push to win the one or two more seats he says he needs to form a government. But as he campaigns, another force in Israeli politics – the Arab minority – is hoping to use a new surge of anger against the right-wing leader and his U.S. allies to edge the electoral arithmetic the other way. Arab lawmakers are urging their communities to turn out in ever greater numbers on March 2 to show their opposition to the new peace plan – dubbed the “Deal of the Century” – unveiled by U.S. President Donald Trump in January. Anger among Israel s Arabs has focused on one part of that plan in particular, a proposed redrawing of borders that would put some Arab towns and villages outside Israel and into the area assigned to a future Palestinian state. “There is someone who set this plan: Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Ayman Odeh, chief of the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition. “We need to overthrow him, our biggest agitator, the person behind the Deal of the Century,” Odeh added during a stop in Taibe, a village that could be moved outside Israel under Trump s plan. Polls show Netanyahu s Likud movement virtually neck and neck with centrist leader Benny Gantz s Blue and White party. Arab lawmakers currently hold 13 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If the Arab and centrist blocs both hold their voting share – and certainly if they increase – that would make it harder for Netanyahu to get the extra seats he needs in the country s finely-balanced political set-up. Nearly 80% of Arabs who are familiar with the Trump plan oppose it, according to a Feb. 24 poll by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University. The poll s author, Arik Rudnitzky, said the Trump initiative had injected “new blood into this relatively calm electoral campaign” and forecast a slight increase in Arab turnout over last September s election, from 59% to 60%. Graphic: Trump s Middle East plan – here I AM STILL OCCUPIED Israel s Arab minority – Palestinian by heritage, Israeli by citizenship – makes up 21 per cent of Israel s population. Mostly Muslim, Christian and Druze, they are descendants of the Palestinians whose communities, including Nazareth, found themselves inside Israel as the country was formed in 1948. Their political representatives have had to choose their words diplomatically as they push their campaign against Netanyahu. If they reject the notion of coming under Palestinian rule too aggressively or overtly, they could be seen as selling out their brethren in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But if they embrace that notion, they risk losing the benefits of Israeli citizenship. “Everyone wants to stay in Israel, everyone wants an Israeli I.D. because they can see the situation in the West Bank, and here it is better,” said Zuhri Haj Yahya, a Taibe resident. He said it made no difference to his sense of identity whether he lived under Israeli or Palestinian rule. “I am Palestinian,” he said. “I am still occupied, whether I am here or there.” As the election neared, Netanyahu dismissed concerns about land swaps and sought to win over Arab voters. “The last thing I believe in is uprooting anyone from their home. No one will be uprooted,” he told Arabic-language channels PANET and Hala TV on Feb. 18. Likud also said its 15 billion shekel ($4.37 billion) investment program was more than any government ever invested in Arab communities. But Arab politicians derided Netanyahu s appeals, and his promises of direct flights to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims. “What did Netanyahu really do for us,” asked politician Ahmad Tibi, calling it a last-ditch effort to “manipulate our community”. Reporting by Rami Ayyub, additional reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer in Taibe, Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Heaven.
KASTANIES, Greece (AP) — Syria s official news agency said two of its warplane were shot down by Turkish forces inside northwest Syria, amid a military escalation there that s led to growing direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces. SANA says the jets were targeted over the Idlib region, and that the four pilots ejected with parachutes and landed safely. Turkey s Defense Ministry said it had shot down two SU-24 aircraft and destroyed air defense systems after one of its aerial drones was downed. Earlier, Syrian military-run media said it had downed a drone inside northwest Syria, and was closing its airspace for any flights or drones across the country s northwestern region. It said any aircraft that penetrates Syrian airspace will be treated as hostile and shot down. The Syrian announcement came after two days of Turkish drone attacks in Idlib province that Syrian activists said caused heavy losses to Syrian government forces. These confrontations have added to soaring tensions between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides of the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had on Saturday announced his country opened its western borders to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union. The United Nations said Sunday that at least 13,000 people were massed on Turkey s land border with Greece, Erdogan did not explicitly link his decision to open the gates to Europe to the military escalation in Syria s northwestern Idlib province. However, he has warned that Turkey “can t handle a new wave of migration,” an apparent reference to Idlib where hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian civilians fleeing Syrian troop advances have moved toward the Turkish border. Turkish Defense Minsiter Hulusi Akar, speaking from military headquarters near the Syrian border, said Turkey aimed to confront Syrian government forces rather than Russian troops. He called on Moscow to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to withdraw to 2018 cease-fire lines on the edges of Idlib. Referring to losses inflicted on Syria, he said Turkey had “neutralized” more than 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks and eight helicopters. “The Spring Shield operation, which was launched following the abominable attack in Idlib on Feb. 27, continues successfully,” Akar said, referring to air strikes that killed 33 Turkish soldiers. The operation is Turkey s fourth in the war-torn country since 2016. The heavy fighting in northwest Syria has also triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the single largest wave of displacement in the nine-year Syrian civil war. Ankara is worried it might come under renewed international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to hundreds of thousands more Syrian civilians. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan s decision to open his country s borders with Europe made good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent. His announcement marked a dramatic departure from the current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south. The U.N. s International Organization for Migration said Sunday that by the previous evening, its staff working along the Turkish-Greek land border “had observed at least 13,000 people gathered at the formal border crossing points at Pazarkule and Ipsala and multiple informal border crossings, in groups of between several dozen and more than 3,000.” Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades through Saturday to prevent repeated attempts by a crowd of more than 4,000 people massed at the border crossing in Kastanies to cross, and fought a cat-and-mouse game with groups cutting holes in a border fence along the border to crawl through. Erdogan s communications director Fahrettin Altun later said Turkey had changed its focus to preparing for the possibility of new arrivals from Syria “instead of preventing refugees who intend to migrate to Europe.” “Europe and others must take robust action to address this monumental challenge,” Altun said. “We can t be expected to do this on our own.” He accused critics of Turkey s refugee policy of “rampant hypocrisy.” He claimed 80,888 had left Turkey for Europe “in the past several days” and called on Europe to share the burden of looking after refugees. But there was no evidence to support his claim. Greece has shut its border, and there were a few dozen arrests of people who managed to cross through the border, Greek authorities have said. Greek Deputy Defense Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis told the local broadcaster Skai there were around 9,600 attempts to illegally cross Greece s border during the night Saturday to Sunday. Stefanis said all were successfully thwarted. Previously several dozen migrants had managed to make it through. Greek officials said they arrested 66 migrants Friday, 17 of whom were sentenced to 3.5 years in jail for entering the country illegally. All Afghans, they were the first migrants sentenced for illegal entry since 2014. On Saturday, Greece arrested another 70 people who tried to cross the land border illegally. Stavros Zamalides, president of the local community in Kastanies, said Turkish soldiers were actively helping people cross the Greek border clandestinely. “Turkish soldiers with cutters in their hands were cutting the wires of the fence to lead the illegal migrants” into crossing the border, he said. “The attempt was thwarted by the intervention of our own patrol that happened to be passing that area on patrol at the time, and it repaired the damage in the fence,” he added. Twenty-year-old Afghan Ayamuddin Azimi made it to the Greek border village of Nea Vyssa along with a compatriot. He said Turkey had opened its borders “to save the refugees” but when they got to the frontier they found the Greek side closed. He crossed clandestinely, he said. “What can I do? We have nothing to do. This is our life.” Others were making the short but often perilous sea crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. Initial figures collected by Greece s Merchant Marine Ministry from the coast guard around the eastern Aegean islands showed a clear increase in the number of people arriving by dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast. By midday Sunday, the ministry said initial figures indicated 390 people had arrived since Sunday morning in several boats. The vast majority arrived on the island of Lesbos, with smaller numbers on Chios and Samos. More were believed to be attempting to reach the islands. In parallel, the heavy fighting in northwest Syria has pushed nearly 950,000 displaced Syrian civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey. Turkey is a strong backer of the rebels in Syria s Idlib province. But the presence of thousands of Turkish troops there has done little to stop Assad s relentless campaign to seize the last rebel-held territories. Dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed by the Russian-backed Syrian government forces around Idlib in recent days. Erdogan has warned of an “imminent” operation against Assad s forces unless they pull back from Turkish lines in Syria by the end of February. As that deadline passed Saturday night, Turkish drones bombed Syrian government targets in Idlib, and Turkey-backed rebels shelled Syrian army positions. Fighting raged near the strategic town of Saraqeb as government troops sought to take it back from rebels, opposition activists and Syrian state-media said. The town, which lies on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, had changed hands several times in the last month. Turkey has lost 55 soldiers in Idlib in February, including 33 killed in an airstrike on Thursday, and now feels the need to respond strongly. Talks between Turkey and Russia, the main power brokers in Syria, have so far failed to defuse tensions. On Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey would no longer stand in the way of refugees and migrants already in the country who hope to head to Europe. “We will not close the gates to refugees,” he said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees.” Under a 6 billion euro deal in 2016, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. It has since accused the EU of failing to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided.
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — An Israeli drone fired a missile at a car in southern Syria on Thursday, killing one person, Syrian state TV reported. The state-run media outlet gave no further details on the attack near the southern village of Hader in the Quneitra region on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It said the person killed was a civilian. There was no immediate comment from Israel about the drone attack. Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has warned against any permanent Iranian presence on the frontier. A Syrian military statement reported this week an Israeli attack near Damascus International Airport and said its air defenses confronted Israeli rockets coming from the direction of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It said the defenders intercepted or shot down most of them. In a rare acknowledgment of operations in neighboring Syria, Israel said its warplanes attacked targets late Sunday of the Palestinian militant Islamic Jihad group south of Damascus, in addition to sites in the Gaza Strip. It said the sites attacked were used for “research and development of armaments” manufactured in Syria and the Gaza Strip. It said the sites also produce dozens of kilograms (pounds) of rocket fuel each month.
BEIRUT (AP) — Shelling and airstrikes by Syrian government forces killed at least three people on Wednesday in northwestern Syria, where dozens of villages, including major rebel strongholds in the last opposition-held area, have been captured over the past few days. The new push by Russian-backed Syrian troops could worsen the humanitarian crisis that has displaced nearly a million people and left more than 300 civilians dead since the beginning of December. The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group operating in the country s northwest, said that government forces had struck numerous civilian targets in the past 24 hours, including eight schools, three medical centers, and several settlements where people displaced by the fighting had taken shelter. The group s statement condemned the “silence by the international community” calling it an “open invitation” for Russian-backed government forces to continue their assault. The violence came as a Russian delegation was scheduled to arrive in Turkey later Wednesday to resume talks aimed at easing tensions in the northwestern Idlib region. The area is the country s last rebel-controlled stronghold and the Syrian government s military campaign there, backed by Russia, has created a humanitarian catastrophe with more than 900,000 people displaced from their homes in nearly three months. Turkey and Russia back rival groups in the Syrian conflict and over the past weeks Ankara sent thousands of Turkish troops to Idlib. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops so far this month have left 16 Turkish soldiers dead. Syrian opposition activists said government forces shelled a Turkish military convoy on a road near the northwestern village of Bara on Wednesday. There was no immediate word on casualties. On Tuesday, Syrian troops shot down a Turkish drone over Idlib, saying it was carrying out a reconnaissance mission over a town recently captured by government forces. A Syrian army statement said government forces captured, in addition to dozens of villages, some strategic hills deep inside the heavily fortified areas once held by insurgents. It said the villages captured include former strongholds such as Kafranbel, Has, Kfar Sajneh and al-Dar al-Kabira. The announcement came a day after shelling and airstrikes in Idlib province left at least 16 civilians dead, including students and teachers in a school in the provincial capital, also called Idlib. An airstrike on the rebel-held village of Arnabeh on Wednesday morning killed three people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, and Idlib-based activist Hadi Abdullah. A doctor in Idlib said in a video released late Tuesday that the medical conditions are deteriorating in Idlib. “The medical situation is getting worse and worse,” said the doctor who identified himself as Ihsan Eidi. The video was released by a charity organization known as Islamic Relief Worldwide. The doctor said more than 50 hospitals and health centers have gone out of service over the past nine months as conditions worsened. “We had little equipment and most of it was damaged by the bombs, unfortunately,” the doctor said. He added that with the flow of displaced people in the cold weather, tent settlements have become overcrowded, which makes disease spread more easily. Also Wednesday, a car bombing wounded a Palestinian official near the capital Damascus, according to the Observatory and the pro-government Sham FM radio station. The name of the wounded official in the Damascus suburb of Qatana has not been made public. Reporting by Basses Mroue; Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.
that Egypt s Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic sects agreed Monday on a new unified personal status draft law for non-Muslims, with the draft set to be submitted to Egypt s Justice Ministry in March for revisions before passing it to the House of Representatives, Legal advisor to the Coptic Orthodox Church Monsef Soliman said. Soliman said that there had been “some points of disagreement” regarding the wording of the draft law but not over its principles, explaining that the Catholic side was set on sticking to certain points in the draft law s language. He commented that although the disagreements between the Evangelical and Coptic sides were minimal, the Justice Ministry and the House of Representatives has been asked to redraft the law, so that any amendment would be enforced from the top down and not from the Catholics, which are bound by the regulations set by the Eastern Churches. Moreover, given the Catholic Church in Egypt is under the authority of the Vatican, the draft law cannot be signed without the approval of the Roman Catholic Church. He also requested a translation of the draft law in Latin. “There are some points of disagreement from (the) Catholics regarding the wording (of the draft law). (The) Orthodox Church wanted to add pastoral texts regarding marriage and others that we respect. However, (the) Catholics refused it under the pretext that (these issues) are included in the regulations (in different words).” Soliman said that there is no disagreement on principle issues of belief, but that some points of contention revolve around the wording of the draft law. He explained, for example, that Catholics refer to divorce in the Orthodox Church as annulment of marriage because there is no divorce in Catholicism. The main point of disagreement was divorce, according to Soliman, who explained that divorce exists in the Coptic Church, whereas only separation is recognized by Catholics. All the sects, however, managed to agree on other points concerning marriage, such as the terms of marriage and engagement. Mohsen George, a member of the Coptic Church s Congregation Council in Alexandria, which represents the laity of the church as opposed to clergy, also commented that the church will continue to adhere to religious rather than civil marriage. The draft law aims to preserve the doctrinal constants of the Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic churches, George said. The Coptic Orthodox Church has sought to have a unified personal status law for non-Muslims since 2011, aiming to prevent a possible crisis between the Church and the judiciary and to address the problem of Copts seeking a divorce, with the Church having only recognized apostasy and adultery as reasons for granting divorce. Catholic bishops, meanwhile, reject divorce on principle, even in the case of adultery, with couples advised to separate only if one partner has committed adultery. Yousef Talaat, the legal advisor to the Evangelical Church, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that all of the demands of the Evangelicals, especially those related to divorce, have been addressed in the final draft of the personal status law, pointing out that the evangelical church only recognizes two reasons for divorce — adultery and conversion to Islam or Judaism. The Evangelical Church did not expand upon the reasons for divorce in the draft law, according to a representative from the church. Meanwhile, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Church in Egypt Father Hani Bakhoum said that the three sects had agreed during a session on January 19th, 2020 on the final text of the draft law, commenting that each sect contributed its views to the draft. Egypt s three Christian sects had embraced the draft law, but priests from the Evangelical Church did not recognize the signature of the head of their church, Safwat al-Bayady, and insisted on the application of the 1938 bylaws, which apply less stringent rules on divorce.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Gaza militants resumed their intense bombardment of southern Israel on Monday, with some rockets slipping through Israel s Iron Dome defense system and one landing in the yard of a kindergarten. There was no word of casualties, but the second day of violence threatened to unleash a new round of hostilities just a week before Israel heads to elections. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Gaza s Hamas rulers with a “war” if the new round of rocket fire continued, ramping up his rhetoric amid the final stretch of his campaign. Speaking to Israel s Army Radio, Netanyahu said he d conveyed a message to Hamas that if it did not stop Gaza militants behind the attacks, Israel would target Hamas directly. “If you don t shoot them, we will shoot you. I m talking about a war,” he said. “I only go to war as a last option but we have prepared something you can t even imagine.” Netanyahu s interview was interrupted with news of fresh air raid sirens warning of incoming rockets, as Palestinian militant fire resumed midday after a morning lull. The Israeli military said it identified 14 rockets fired in the hour-long spree, of which it intercepted 12. Shortly after, the military began striking militants sites in Gaza. The Islamic Jihad militant group fired at least 20 rockets on Sunday after Israeli forces killed a Palestinian militant who had tried to place a bomb along the Israel-Gaza barrier fence, and then removed his body with a bulldozer. The image outraged Palestinians who fired rockets. Israel responded by striking militants targets in Gaza and Syria. As a precaution, schools were closed in Israeli areas adjacent to Gaza and restrictions placed on outdoor public gatherings. Israel and Hamas have engaged in three wars between 2008 and 2014 and several intense rounds of violence after that. Israel and the Islamic Jihad group engaged in a heavy round of fighting last November after the Israeli military killed a top Islamic Jihad commander. Since then, Israel and Gaza s more powerful Hamas group have been working through Egyptian mediators to cement an informal cease-fire. But Islamic Jihad has continued to try to carry out attacks. The sudden exchanges after months of relative calm put Israel s tense security situation back on the agenda a week before the the country s third election in less than a year. The campaign has thus far largely focused on domestic issues and Netanyahu s precarious legal situation after he was indicted on corruption charges. Despite the tough talk and a typical preference to highlight his national security credentials, Netanyahu appears to have little appetite for a major confrontation as he fights for re-election. “Israel didn t seek escalation in Gaza. On the contrary, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the crucial stage of the battle for his political life, it seems the last thing he needed was a violent eruption in the strip,” wrote Amos Harel, the military affairs commentator for the Haaretz daily. “An uncontrolled upsurge at this time could actually hurt Netanyahu s chances more than it would help him.”
BARI, Italy (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Sunday warned against “inequitable solutions” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying they would only be a prelude to new crises, in an apparent reference to US President Donald Trump s Middle East peace proposal. Francis made his comments in the southern Italian port city of Bari, where he traveled to conclude a meeting of bishops from all countries in the Mediterranean basin. “The Mediterranean region is currently threatened by outbreaks of instability and conflict, both in the Middle East and different countries of North Africa, as well as between various ethnic, religious or confessional groups,” Francis said. “Nor can we overlook the still unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with the danger of inequitable solutions and, hence, a prelude to new crises,” he said. The participants included Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whose jurisdiction includes Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. It was believed to be the first time the pope, who has often defended both Palestinian rights and Israel s need for security, has spoken in public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Trump announced the plan on Jan. 28. The plan would recognize Israel s authority over West Bank Jewish settlements and require Palestinians meet a series of conditions for a state, with its capital in a West Bank village east of Jerusalem. Although Trump s stated aim was to end decades of conflict, his plan favored Israel, underlined by the Palestinians absence from his White House announcement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side. The Palestinians and Arab League foreign ministers have rejected the plan and the Palestinian Authority has cut all ties with the United States and Israel. Palestinians, with broad international backing, want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, while Israel views the whole city its “united and eternal” capital. The pope expressed concern in 2018 when the United States announced the moving of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying the city s “status quo” should be respected. Francis has called for all to honor U.N. resolutions on the city. “There is no reasonable alternative to peace, because every attempt at exploitation or supremacy demeans both its author and its target. It shows a myopic grasp of reality, since it can offer no future to either of the two,” Francis said, speaking in general about the Middle East. Francis again warned against populist politicians who he said used “demagogic terms” such as “invasion” when talking of migration. “To be sure, acceptance and a dignified integration are stages in a process that is not easy. Yet it is unthinkable that we can address the problem by putting up walls,” he said.
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey-backed opposition forces attacked government troops in a village in northwest Syria on Thursday, triggering violent clashes between the two sides, Turkish state-run media and Syrian opposition activists said. The fighting came amid faltering talks between Turkish and Russian officials on restoring calm to the Idlib area. Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in Syria s civil war. The Syrian government s crushing military campaign against the rebel-held Idlib stronghold, backed by Russia, has strained cooperation between Moscow and Ankara and led to direct clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops on several occasions in recent weeks. Turkey s state-run Anadolu Agency said opposition fighters attacked Syrian government forces and entered the the village of Nairab, which the troops had captured Feb. 3. It said the opposition forces began advancing toward Nairab after Syrian government targets there were hit with artillery fire. They destroyed a tank and an armored personnelcarrier belonging to Syrian government forces and seized a second tank, according to the report. Syrian opposition activists confirmed the report, saying Turkey-backed insurgents stormed the village of Nairab near the strategic town of Saraqeb, both of which were captured by Syrian troops earlier this month. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syria war monitor, reported casualties on both sides. It wasn t immediately clear if Turkish troops were participating in the attack. Syrian state TV reported that government forces have repelled the attacks on Nairab. Syrian government forces have, for weeks, been conducting a crushing military campaign to recapture parts of the last rebel-held areas in Idlib province as well as the countryside of neighboring Aleppo province. The swift advances on multiple fronts have triggered the largest single wave of displacement in the nine-year civil war, with nearly 1 million people driven from their homes toward the Turkish border. The advance has angered neighboring Turkey, which backs the opposition fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad and maintains observation posts in northern Syria that were set up to monitor an earlier cease-fire agreement reached with Russia. Turkey sent in thousands of additional troops and armored vehicles in recent weeks and threatened to attack Assad s forces unless they retreat. “We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter (Idlib) suddenly one night.” Erdogan spoke a day after a top Turkish official said talks in Moscow between Russian and Turkish representatives to reduce tensions in Idlib did not yield a “satisfactory result” for Ankara. The official said however, that the sides agreed to continue discussions. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russian and Turkish delegations would hold further talks on how to reduce tensions in Idlib province and that the Turkish and Russian leaders could meet too, if necessary. “It is true that at the moment, there are differences in the (two sides ) positions,” Cavusoglu told state television TRT. The delegations narrowed their differences a bit but “are not yet at the point we want” to be, he said. Turkey and Russia have closely coordinated their moves in recent years in Idlib province. A truce reached between the two countries collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Syrian offensive, backed by Russia. Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of the cease-fire deal struck in Sochi, Russia in September 2018, saying Ankara had not held up its end of the deal to rein in militants in Syria who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.
Before sunrise, thousands of Palestinians streamed toward the mosque in Nablus s Victory Square, swelling the usual crowds of morning worshippers to launch a new front in their protests against Israel and the United States. The scene has been repeated elsewhere in the West Bank, where people have begun turning out for early prayers in unprecedented numbers, forsaking the usual protest sites where they risk arrest and channeling their anger into a mass expressions of faith. “This is the most peaceful way to get the message out,” said restaurant owner Saif Abu Baker, as the Nablus crowds spilled out of the mosque into surrounding alleyways and courtyards. Political slogans including “For the sake of God, we have risen up” echoed through Nablus s Old City after the calls from the muezzin and the murmured recitations of the faithful. “I would hope that it is a new form of channeling the way the message is being sent out there,” said Abu Baker. “Because we have tried protesting and it did not work because we don t have enough power. It s the safer way for everyone.” Much of the crowd s message at Friday s fajr (dawn) prayers - the day when most people turn out - was a rejection of the perceived pro-Israel bias of U.S. President Donald Trump s Middle East peace plan. There have only been small regular street rallies since that plan was launched last week. Few have responded to calls by President Mahmoud Abbas s Palestinian Authority for Days of Rage . Instead many have begun heeding calls on Facebook and other social media sites to attend what is becoming known as the Great Fajr Campaign - described as a show of solidarity against Trump and what they see as Israeli threats to Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron. Those two cities have also seen larger turnouts in the past few weeks. The first calls for a surge in attendance were from Fatah, Abbas s nationalist political faction that dominates the Palestine Liberation Organization. Numbers grew after the campaign gained support from the Islamist group Hamas, which holds sway in mosques, especially in cities where it has a sizeable following. Knights Of The Dawn Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, in Gaza, told Reuters the campaign was a bid to alert Palestinians to the Trump plan, and to Israel s plans to annex its West Bank settlements. In Nablus - where crowds surged to several thousand on Friday, from around 2,000 the week before - worshippers insisted there was no single group behind the drive, describing it as a grassroots movement still finding its feet. But the streets echoed with chants popular at Hamas rallies, including: “A nation with the leadership of Muhammad will not be defeated”. The event appeared to be organized - extra prayer carpets were rolled out, food and water were available in abundance and the gathering was supervised by stewards wearing fluorescent jackets proclaiming them Knights of the Dawn, and bearing the stenciled image of the nearby al-Nasr (Victory) mosque. The crowds have been much smaller than the numbers that attended the Great March of Return protests at the Gaza border fence when that campaign started nearly two years ago. In those Gaza demonstrations, 215 Palestinians were killed and several thousand injured in confrontations with Israeli troops. One Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper. In Nablus the crowds at dawn prayers have been peaceful, with little sign of any heightened security. Hani Al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, said the campaign reflected Hamas s cautious approach to operating in the West Bank, where, unlike Gaza, it faces Israeli troops and Palestinian Authority forces intent on stopping Hamas from inflaming the streets and seizing control. “Hamas s organization in the West Bank is not in good shape because of crackdowns by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel,” he said. “Fajr prayers is the most that Hamas can do.” Asked whether Israel was aware of the enlarged dawn prayer meetings, an Israeli military spokesman and the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency had no immediate comment.
I lived my life without fearing death. However, I had to face it several times in war and in surgeries. Yet, I suffer these days when I see the poor dying because of the floods. They had to live in very bad conditions and nobody cared for them till they died. Hearing discussions of people thinking that religion is against science make me feel sick. They think that Niqab provides protection against Coronavirus and