Inter Press Service » Middle East & North Africa http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Mon, 28 Jul 2014 22:29:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Drought and Misuse Behind Lebanon’s Water Scarcity http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/drought-and-misuse-behind-lebanons-water-scarcity/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=drought-and-misuse-behind-lebanons-water-scarcity http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/drought-and-misuse-behind-lebanons-water-scarcity/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 08:55:54 +0000 Oriol Andrés Gallart http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135775 Tank trucks being filled with water in front of Osman Bin Affan Mosque in Beirut. Credit: Oriol Andrés Gallart/IPS

Tank trucks being filled with water in front of Osman Bin Affan Mosque in Beirut. Credit: Oriol Andrés Gallart/IPS

By Oriol Andrés Gallart
BEIRUT, Jul 28 2014 (IPS)

In front of Osman Bin Affan Mosque, in a central but narrow street of Beirut, several tank trucks are being filled with large amounts of water. The mosque has its own well, which allows it to pump water directly from the aquifers that cross the Lebanese underground. Once filled, the trucks will start going through the city to supply hundreds of homes and shops.

In a normal year, the water trucks do not appear until September, but this year they have started working even before summer because of the severe drought currently affecting Lebanon.

This comes on top of the increased pressure on the existing water supply due to the presence of more than one million Syrian refugees fleeing the war, exacerbating a situation which may lead to food insecurity and public health problems.“The more we deplete our groundwater reserves, the less we can rely on them in the coming season. If next year we have below average rainfalls, the water conditions will be much worse than today” – Nadim Farajalla of the Issam Fares Institute (IFI)

Rains were scarce last winter. While the annual average in recent decades was above 800 mm, this year it was around 400 mm, making it one of the worst rainfall seasons in the last sixty years.

The paradox is that Lebanon should not suffer from water scarcity. Annual precipitation is about 8,600 million cubic metres while normal water demand ranges between 1,473 and 1,530 million cubic metres per year, according to the Impact of Population Growth and Climate Change on Water Scarcity, Agricultural Output and Food Security report published  in April by the Issam Fares Institute (IFI) at the American University of Beirut.

However, as Nadim Farajalla, Research Director of IFI’s Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World Programme, explains, the country’s inability to store water efficiently, water pollution and its misuse both in agriculture and for domestic purposes, have put great pressure on the resource.

According to Bruno Minjauw, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative ad interim in the country as well as Resilience Officer, Lebanon “has always been a very wet country. Therefore, the production system has never looked so much at the problem of water.”

Referring to the figures for rainfall, Minjauw says that “what we are seeing is definitely an issue of climate change. Over the years, drought or seasons of scarcity have become more frequent”. In his opinion, the current drought must be taken as a warning: “It is time to manage water in a better way.”

However, he continues, “the good news is that this country is not exploiting its full potential in terms of sustainable water consumption, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.”

Meanwhile, water has become an issue, with scarcity hitting particularly hard the agricultural sector, which accounts for 60 percent of the water consumed despite the sector’s limited impact on the Lebanese economy (agriculture contributed to 5.9% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2011).

“Some municipalities are limiting what farmers can plant,” explains Gabriel Bayram, an agricultural advisor with KDS, a local development consultancy.

Minjauw believes that there is a real danger “in terms of food insecurity because we have more people [like refugees] coming while production is diminishing.” Nevertheless, he points out that the current crisis has increased the interest of government and farmers in “increase the quantity of land using improved irrigation systems, such as the drip irrigation system, which consume much less water.” Drip irrigation saves water – and fertiliser – by allowing water to drip slowly through a network of  tubes that deliver water directly to the base of the plant.

FAO is also working to promote the newest technologies in agriculture within the framework of a 4-year plan to improve food security and stabilise rural livelihoods in Lebanon.

Sheik Osama Chehab, in charge of the Osman Bin Affan Mosque, explains that, 20 years ago, water could be found three metres under the ground surface. “Yesterday,” he told IPS, “we dug 120 metres and did not find a drop.”

Digging wells has long been the main alternative to insufficient public water supplies in Lebanon and, according to the National Water Sector Strategy, there are about 42,000 wells throughout the country, half of which are unlicensed.

However, notes Farajalla “this has led to a drop in the water table and along the coast most [aquifers] are experiencing sea water intrusion, thus contaminating these aquifers for generations to come. The more we deplete our groundwater reserves, the less we can rely on them in the coming season. If next year we have below average rainfalls, the water conditions will be much worse than today.”

Besides, he cautions, “most of these wells have not passed quality tests. Therefore there are also risks that water use could trigger diseases among the population.”

The drought is also exacerbating tensions between host communities and Syrian refugees.

The rural municipality of Barouk, for example, whose springs and river supply water to big areas in Lebanon, today can count on only 30 percent of the usual quantity of water available. However, consumption needs have risen by around 25 percent as a result of the presence of 2,000 refugees and Barouk’s deputy mayor Dr. Marwan Mahmoud explains that this has generated complaints against newcomers.

However, Minjauw believes that “within that worrisome context, there is the possibility to mitigate the conflict and turn it into a win-win situation, employing both host and refugee communities in building long-term solutions for water management and conservation as well as forest maintenance and management. This would be beneficial for Lebanese farmers in the long term while enhancing the livelihoods of suffering people.”

For Farajalla, part of the problem related to water is that “there is a general lack of awareness and knowledge among decision-makers” in Lebanon, and he argues that it is up to civil society to lead the process, pressuring the government for “more transparency and better governance and accountability” in water management.

He claims that “the government failed with this drought by not looking at it earlier.” So far, a cabinet in continuous political crisis has promoted few and ineffective measures to alleviate the drought. One of the most recent ideas was to import water from Turkey, with prohibitive costs.

“Soon, you will also hear about projects to desalinate sea water,” says Farajalla. “Both ideas are silly because in Lebanon we can improve a lot of things before resorting to these drastic measures.”

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Thousands of New Yorkers Protest Gaza Killings http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/thousands-of-new-yorkers-protest-gaza-killings/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=thousands-of-new-yorkers-protest-gaza-killings http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/thousands-of-new-yorkers-protest-gaza-killings/#comments Sun, 27 Jul 2014 14:41:54 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135759 The Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed 1,050 people, mostly civilians, as of Jul. 26, 2014. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed 1,050 people, mostly civilians, as of Jul. 26, 2014. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
NEW YORK, Jul 27 2014 (IPS)

Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets in multiple protests this past week against the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has left at least 1,049 Palestinians dead and over 6,000 injured since Jul. 8.

Among demonstrators’ many demands was that the U.S. government end its massive flow of aid and arms to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), one of the world’s most powerful militaries.

The Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation estimates that the United States has shelled out over 100 billion dollars’ worth of military and economic aid since 1949.

Protests on Thursday, Jul. 24 drew over a thousand people, holding signs proclaiming U.S. complicity in the war on Gaza. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Protests on Thursday, Jul. 24 drew over a thousand people, holding signs proclaiming U.S. complicity in the war on Gaza. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

In 2007, the U.S. government pledged to provide 30 billion dollars worth of weapons to Israel in the decade 2009-2018. This year, according to the FY2015 budget submitted to Congress, the Barack Obama administration set aside three billion dollars for military aid.

The protests also had particular significance for New York City, whose former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced in 2011 his support for a 100-million-dollar partnership between Cornell University and Israel’s Institute of Technology (the Technion) that would allow the construction of a state-of-the-art new complex on Roosevelt Island.

 

Thousands of U.S. citizens have called on the government to end military aid to Israel. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Thousands of U.S. citizens have called on the government to end military aid to Israel. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

An alliance known as New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership (NYACT) says the Technion is “complicit in Israeli’s violation of international law and the rights of Palestinians”, namely its mandate to develop and design weapons and technologies that are used to enforce the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

Among other ‘achievements’, students at Technion were instrumental in creating the remote-controlled Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, the IDF’s weapon of choice in demolishing Palestinian homes; and its Autonomous Systems Program (TASP) was responsible for developing the so-called ‘stealth drone’, capable of carrying two 1,100-pound ‘smart bombs’ for a distance of up to 2,000 miles.

Highly visible at both protests were members of the organisation known as ‘Neturei Karat International: Jews Against Zionism’, who carried signs proclaiming, “Jews reject the Zionist state of Israel and its atrocities”.

A statement prepared by the organisation 'Jews Against Zionism' appeals to world leaders to "stop the latest ongoing cruelty and the attack on the people of Gaza." Credit: Kanya DAlmeida/IPS

A statement prepared by the organisation ‘Jews Against Zionism’ appeals to world leaders to “stop the latest ongoing cruelty and the attack on the people of Gaza.” Credit: Kanya DAlmeida/IPS

Others waved placards claiming “New York Jews Say ‘Not in Our Name’.”

Thursday’s action, which brought out over 2,000 people, was part of the National Day of Action for Gaza, endorsed by over 55 U.S.-based human rights groups. The protest followed on the heels of a demonstration by Jewish Voice for Peace on Jul. 22, which saw the arrest of nine Jewish activists for occupying the office of The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in Manhattan.

The Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has cost Israel billions of dollars in investments. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

The Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has cost Israel billions of dollars in investments. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

One of the co-organisers of the march, Adalah-NY, handed out leaflets urging demonstrators to support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, a non-violent civil society-based campaign modeled on the international boycott movement that was instrumental in dismantling apartheid in South Africa.

Roadside vendors joined a massive protest on Friday, Jul. 25, that snaked through lower Manhattan. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Roadside vendors joined a massive protest on Friday, Jul. 25, that snaked through lower Manhattan. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

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OPINION: The Affinity Between Iraqi Sunni Extremists and the Rulers of Saudi Arabia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia/#comments Sun, 27 Jul 2014 11:58:06 +0000 Peter Custers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135767 By Peter Custers
LEIDEN, Netherlands, Jul 27 2014 (IPS)

Which story line sounds the more credible – that linking the rebel movement ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to policies pursued by Iran or that linking the Sunni extremist force to Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia?

In June this year, fighters belonging to ISIS – a rebel movement that had previously established its foothold in the oil-rich areas of north-eastern Syria – succeeded in capturing Mosul, a city surrounded by oil fields in northern Iraq. Ever since, commentators in the world’s media have been speculating on the origins of the dreaded organisation’s military success.

It is admitted that the occupation of Mosul and vast tracts of the Sunni-dominated portion of Iraq would not have been possible except for the fact that ISIS forged a broad grassroots’ alliance expressing deep discontent by Iraq’s minority Sunnis with the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Nor would Mosul have fallen but for the dramatic desertion by top-officers of Iraq’s state army.

Peter Custers

Peter Custers

Yet various observers have meanwhile focused on the political economy behind the advance of ISIS. Some experts from U.S. think tanks have discussed the likely sources of ISIS’ finance, pinpointing private donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Other writers instead have connected ISIS’ reliance on black market sales of oil in Kurdish territory with Iranian exports of crude, described as “illegal”.

I propose putting the spotlight on the methods of war financing used by ISIS, but first it is necessary to highlight the movement’s complete sectarianism.

Soon after the occupation of Mosul, rebels blew up and bulldozed shrines and mosques in the city belonging to Shia Muslims. Pictures on the demolition of these buildings were circulated widely by the world’s mainstream media. Unfortunately, few Western journalists cared to draw attention to the role which destruction of shrines has played in the history of Islam.

Contrary to Catholicism, the veneration of saints at Sufi and Shia tombs and shrines basically reflects heterodox tendencies within the Islamic faith. On the other hand, Sunni orthodoxy and especially its Saudi variety, Wahhabism, either condemns intercession or, at the least, considers the worshipping of saints at tombs to be unacceptable. Islam’s minority of Shias, and its mystical current of Sufism, freely engage in such worship – and this throughout the Muslim world.“ISIS is … a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish acaliphat, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority”

ISIS’ work of demolition in Iraq can in no way be equated with practices of Iran’s Shia rulers. Instead, they express the extremist movement’s affinity with policies long championed by Saudi Arabia. Ever since the founding of the Saudi state, numerous Shia and Sufi shrines have been rased to the ground at the behest of this country’s Wahhabi dynasty.

What does the political economy behind ISIS’ military advance in Syria and Iraq tell us about the organisation’s affinities? First, in one sense, the ISIS strategy might be interpreted as rather novel.

Whereas the extraction of raw materials is a war strategy pursued by numerous rebel movements in the global South – see, for example, UNITA’s extraction of diamonds in the context of Angola’s civil war, and the trade in coltan by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo – rarely has a Southern rebel movement succeeded in turning crude oil into its chief source of revenue.

Indeed, whereas ISIS originally relied on private funders in Saudi Arabia to build up a force of trained fighters, the organisation has consciously targeted regions in Syria and Iraq harbouring major oil fields and (in the case of Iraq) oil refineries. By laying siege to the oil refinery at Baiji, responsible for processing one-third of oil consumed in Iraq, ISIS hoped to undermine the state’s control of oil resources.

Further, some 450 million dollars was stolen by ISIS fighters from a subsidiary of Iraq’s central bank after the occupation of Mosul. This reportedly was all income from oil extraction. Some observers put the cash income which ISIS derives from smuggled oil at one million dollars a day!

ISIS is thus a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish acaliphat, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority.

Yet though ISIS’ methodology of reliance on oil for financing of its war campaigns is novel for a rebel movement, such use of oil is not unique in the context of the Middle East. Ever since the 1970s, most oil-rich countries of the region have squandered a major part of their income from the exports of crude by (indirectly) exchanging their main natural resource against means of destruction – weapon systems bought on the international market.

And while Iran under the Shah was equally enticed into opting for this form of trade in the 1970s, – it is the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia which all the way through from the oil crisis of 1973 onwards and up to today has functioned as the central axe of such a trade mechanism.

Witness, for instance, the 1980s oil-for-arms (!) ‘barter deal’ between the Saudi kingdom and the United Kingdom, the so-called ‘Al Yamamah’ deal, and the 60 billion dollar, largest-ever international arms’ agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States clinched in 2010.

Forward to 2014, and an Iraq desperately struggling to survive. A section of the world’s media has already announced its impending demise, predicting a split of the country into three portions – Sunni, Kurdish and Shia. On the other hand, some commentators have advised that the United States should now change gear and line up with Iran, in order to help the Iraqi government overcome its domestic political crisis.

Yet the United States and its European allies for long, too long, have bent over to service the Wahhabi state. Even as Western politicians loudly proclaimed their allegiance to democracy and secularism, they failed to oppose or counter Saudi Arabia’s oppression of, and utter discrimination against, Shia citizens.

For over 40 years they opted to close their eyes and supply Saudi Arabia with massive quantities of fighter planes, missiles and other weaponry, in exchange for the country’s crude. Playing the role of a wise elderly senior brother, the United States has recently advised Iraq’s prime minister al-Maliki, known for his sectarian approach, that he should be more ‘inclusive’, meaning sensitive towards Iraq’s minority Sunni population.

But has the United States’ prime Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia ever been chastised over its systematic discrimination of Shias? Has it ever been put to task for its cruel oppression of heterodox Muslims? And has the United States ever pondered the implications of the trading mechanism of disparate exchange it sponsored – for the future of democracy, food sovereignty and people’s welfare in the Middle East?

 

*  Peter Custers, an academic researcher on Islam and religious tolerance  with field work in South Asia, is also a theoretician on the arms’ trade and extraction of raw materials in the context of conflicts in the global South. He is the author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’. 

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Fish Before Fields to Improve Egypt’s Food Production http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/fish-before-fields-to-improve-egypts-food-production/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fish-before-fields-to-improve-egypts-food-production http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/fish-before-fields-to-improve-egypts-food-production/#comments Sat, 26 Jul 2014 09:07:35 +0000 Cam McGrath http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135752 Fish cages on the Nile River. Experts are calling for a more holistic approach to aquaculture. Credit:  Cam Mcgrath/IPS

Fish cages on the Nile River. Experts are calling for a more holistic approach to aquaculture. Credit: Cam Mcgrath/IPS

By Cam McGrath
CAIRO, Jul 26 2014 (IPS)

Less than four percent of Egypt’s land mass is suitable for agriculture, and most of it confined to the densely populated Nile River Valley and Delta. With the nation’s population of 85 million expected to double by 2050, government officials are grappling with ways of ensuring food security and raising nutritional standards.

“With the drive toward increasing food production and efficiency, Egypt is going to have to become smarter in how it uses water and land for food production,” says aquaculture expert Malcolm Beveridge. “It would make sense to bring aquaculture together with agriculture in order to increase food production per unit of land and water.”“Why are we using water first for agriculture then taking the drainage for aquaculture? Surely it should be the opposite – use water first for aquaculture and after that to irrigate fields” – Sherif Sadek, general manager of the Cairo-based Aquaculture Consultant Office

One possibility under study is to adopt integrated aquaculture, a holistic approach to food production in which the wastes of one commercially cultured species are recycled as food or fertiliser for another. Projects typically co-culture several aquatic species, but the synergistic approach also encourages the broader integration of fish production, livestock rearing and agriculture.

“An integrated approach would seem the logical next step for Egypt’s aquaculture industry in that it can significantly reduce water requirements while increasing fish farmers’ revenues,” Beveridge told IPS.

Egypt’s aquaculture sector has witnessed explosive growth in recent decades. Annual production of farmed fish climbed from 50,000 tonnes in the late 1990s to over one million tonnes last year – exceeding the combined output of all other Middle East and African nations.

But fish farming as it is predominantly practised in Egypt – by simply digging a pit and filling it with water and fish – has a major drawback. A decades-old government decree requires that drinking water and crop irrigation be given first call on Nile water, leaving aquaculture projects to operate in downstream filth, contaminating fish and limiting productivity.

“Over 90 percent of the aquaculture in Egypt is based on agricultural drainage water, with plenty of pesticides, sewage and industrial effluents,” says Sherif Sadek, general manager of the Cairo-based Aquaculture Consultant Office.

“Why are we using water first for agriculture then taking the drainage for aquaculture? Surely it should be the opposite – use water first for aquaculture and after that to irrigate fields.”

Integrated aquaculture reverses the water-use paradigm, with tangible benefits to both fish farms and farmers’ crops. While the practice is still in its infancy in Egypt, several projects have demonstrated its commercial viability.

At the El Keram farm in the desert northwest of Cairo, farmers use pumped water for tilapia culture, recycling the water into ponds where catfish are raised. The drainage from the catfish ponds, rich in organic nutrients, is then used to irrigate and fertilise clover fields. Sheep and goats that graze on these fields generate manure that is used to produce biogas to heat the tanks where fish fry are raised, or to warm the fish ponds in the winter.

“The project has demonstrated how farmers who switched to aquaculture after salinity rendered their fields infertile can increase their productivity and profits using the same volume of water,” says Sadek.

Other integrated projects on reclaimed desert land culture marine aquatic species such as sea bass and sea bream, directing the downstream wastewater to pools of red tilapia, a table fish able to tolerate high salinity. According to Sadek, the brine from these ponds can be used to grow salicornia, a halophyte in demand as a biofuel input, livestock fodder and as a gourmet salad ingredient.

“Salicornia can be irrigated with extremely salty water and produces seeds and oil, as well as fodder for camels and sheep,” says Sadek.

According to development experts, integrated aquaculture delivers greater efficiencies, requiring up to 70 percent less water than comparable non-integrated production systems. It is also a cost-effective method of disposing of wastes and saves resource-poor farmers from having to purchase fertilisers.

Beveridge says small-scale Egyptian aquaculture ventures unable to afford the complex closed-loop system employed at El Keram could still benefit from integrated practices that would allow them to harvest commercial food products year-round.

“Egypt’s aquaculture industry has a problem in that the growing season is relatively short,” he notes. “During the months of December to February temperatures are too low to sustain much (fish) growth. And during that period, farmers who try to overwinter their fish often lose substantial numbers to stress and disease.”

Pilot studies have shown that fish farmers are able to capitalise on the nutrients locked up in the mud at the bottom of their earthen fish ponds.

“The idea is that you drain down your ponds in November, harvest your fish, then plant a crop of wheat in your pond bottom that you would harvest in March before flooding the stubble area with water and reintroducing young fish,” Beveridge explains.

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Israel’s U.S.-Made Military Might Overwhelms Palestinians http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/israels-u-s-made-military-might-overwhelms-palestinians/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=israels-u-s-made-military-might-overwhelms-palestinians http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/israels-u-s-made-military-might-overwhelms-palestinians/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 20:44:09 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135707 The two-week long conflict has claimed the lives of more than 620 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including over 230 women and children, and over 3,700 wounded, while the Israeli death toll is 27 soldiers and two civilians. Credit: Syeda Amina Trust Charity/cc by 2.0

The two-week long conflict has claimed the lives of more than 620 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including over 230 women and children, and over 3,700 wounded, while the Israeli death toll is 27 soldiers and two civilians. Credit: Syeda Amina Trust Charity/cc by 2.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

The overwhelming Israeli firepower unleashed on the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the ongoing battle in Gaza is perhaps reminiscent of the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962) when France, the colonial power, used its vastly superior military strength to strike back at the insurgents with brutal ferocity.

While France was accused of using its air force to napalm civilians in the countryside, the Algerians were accused of using handmade bombs hidden in women’s handbags and left surreptitiously in cafes, restaurants and public places frequented by the French."Unless you have been on the street facing Israeli troops in Gaza, or sleeping on the floor under an Israeli aerial assault, as I have several times while delivering aid in 1989, 2000, and 2009, it's impossible to imagine the total disproportion of power in this conflict." -- Dr. James E. Jennings

In one of the memorable scenes in the 1967 cinematic classic “The Battle of Algiers,” a handcuffed leader of the National Liberation Front (NLF), Ben M’Hidi, is brought before a group of highly-partisan French journalists for interrogation.

One of the journalists asks M’Hidi: “Don’t you think it is a bit cowardly to use women’s handbags and baskets to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?”

The Algerian insurgent shoots back with equal bluntness: “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims?”

Then he delivers the devastating punchline: “Of course, if we had your fighter planes, it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our handbags and baskets.”

In the current conflict in Gaza, a role reversal would see Hamas armed with fighter planes, air-to-surface missiles and battle tanks, while the Israelis would be hitting back only with homemade rockets.

But in reality what is taking place in Gaza is a totally outmatched and outranked Hamas fighting a country with one of the world’s most formidable and sophisticated military machines, whose state-of-the-art equipment is provided gratis – under so-called “Foreign Military Financing (FMF)” – by the United States.

According to the latest figures, the two-week long conflict has claimed the lives of more than 620 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including over 230 women and children, and over 3,700 wounded, while the Israeli death toll is 27 soldiers and two civilians.

Speaking of the military imbalance, Dr. James E. Jennings, president of Conscience International and executive director of U.S. Academics for Peace, told IPS, “Unless you have been on the street facing Israeli troops in Gaza, or sleeping on the floor under an Israeli aerial assault, as I have several times while delivering aid in 1989, 2000, and 2009, it’s impossible to imagine the total disproportion of power in this conflict.

“I saw boys who were merely running away shot in the back by Israeli soldiers with Uzi [submachine guns] and arrayed in body armour, and in 2009 and 2012 at Rafah witnessed Israel’s technological superiority in coordinating sophisticated computers, drones, and F-15s with devastating effect,” he said.

The repeated missile strikes ostensibly targeted youths scrambling through tunnels like rats to bring food and medicine to the trapped population, but often hit helpless civilians fleeing the bombing as well, said Jennings.

He also pointed out that in terms of the imbalance in the number of casualties in this so-called “war”, statistics speak for themselves. However, numbers on a page do not do justice to the up-close reality.

“In my work I have visited wounded women and children in hospitals in Rafah and Gaza City and helped carry out the bodies of the dead for burial,” Jennings said.

When military capabilities are that asymmetrical, he said, shooting fish in a barrel is the best analogy.

As for the largely homemade Qassam rockets launched by Hamas, their ineffectiveness is apparent in the statistical results: over 2,000 launched, with only two unlucky civilians killed on the Israeli side.

“That is far less than the eight Americans killed accidentally last year by celebratory rockets on the 4th of July,” Jennings noted.

The billions of dollars in sophisticated U.S. weapons purchased by Israel are under non-repayable FMF grants, according to defence analysts.

Israel is currently the recipient of a 10-year, 30-billion-dollar U.S. military aid package, 2009 through 2018.

And according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Israel is also the largest single recipient of FMF, and by 2015, these grants will account for about 55 percent of all U.S. disbursements worldwide, and represent about 23-25 percent of the annual Israeli military budget.

Nicole Auger, a military analyst who covers the Middle East and Africa at Forecast International, a leader in defence market intelligence and industry forecasting, told IPS Israel imports practically all its weapons from the U.S. – and this largely consists of sophisticated equipment it does not produce domestically, or equipment it finds more expedient to buy with U.S. assistance funding.

She said despite a proposed shift in emphasis from air and naval power to ground strength, Israel continues to place priority on maintaining air superiority over all its regional neighbours.

The emphasis on air supremacy and strike capability has resulted in an additional order for F-15I fighters to serve as the lead fighter until the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is brought into service with the Israeli Air Force (IAF), she said.

Along with its 25 long-range strike F-15Is (Ra’ams), the IAF also has 102 multirole combat F-16Is (Soufas) purchased under the Peace Marble V programme in 1999 (50 platforms) and 2001 (option for a further 52 planes), Auger said.

The F-15I and F-16I jets, some of which are being used for aerial bombings of Gaza, are customised versions of the American fighters tailored to specific Israeli needs.

Israel’s military arsenal also includes scores of attack helicopters.

Auger said the Sikorsky CH-53 heavy-lift helicopter fleet was just upgraded with the IAI Elta Systems EL/M-2160 flight guard protection system, which detects incoming missiles with radar and then activates diversionary countermeasures.

Israel has also completed a major upgrade to its fleet of Bell AH-1E/F/G/S Cobra attack helicopters and its Boeing AH-64A Apache helicopters has been converted to AH-64D Longbow standards.

The middle layer of defence is provided by the upgraded Patriot PAC 2 anti-missile system (PAC 3) and the air force is also armed with Paveway laser-guided bombs, BLU-109 penetration bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) kits, and GBU-28 bunker busters.

In terms of vehicles, she said, Israel manufactures the majority of its own.

Jennings told IPS two facts are largely missing in the standard media portrayal of the Israel-Gaza “war:” the right of self-defence, so stoutly defended by Israelis and their allies in Washington, is never mentioned about the period in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes and pushed off their land to be enclosed in the world’s largest prison camp that is Gaza.

Secondly, the world has stood by silently while Israel, with complicity by the U.S. and Egypt, has literally choked the life out of the 1.7 million people in Gaza by a viciously effective cordon sanitaire, an almost total embargo on goods and services, greatly impacting the availability of food and medicine.

“These are war crimes, stark and ongoing violations of international humanitarian law perpetuated over the last seven years while the world has continued to turn away,” Jennings said.

“The indelible stain of that shameful neglect will not be erased for centuries, yet many people in the West continue to wonder at all the outrage in the Middle East,” he added.

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Focus on Child Marriage, Genital Mutilation at All-Time High http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/focus-on-child-marriage-genital-mutilation-at-all-time-high/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=focus-on-child-marriage-genital-mutilation-at-all-time-high http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/focus-on-child-marriage-genital-mutilation-at-all-time-high/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 14:41:50 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135704 Female genital mutilation (FGM) traditional surgeon in Kapchorwa, Uganda speaking to a reporter. The women in this area are being trained  by civil society organisation REACH in how to educate people to stop the practice. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

Female genital mutilation (FGM) traditional surgeon in Kapchorwa, Uganda speaking to a reporter. The women in this area are being trained by civil society organisation REACH in how to educate people to stop the practice. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

As Tuesday’s major summits here and in London focused global attention on adolescent girls, the United Nations offered new data warning that more than 130 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation, while more than 700 million women alive today were forced into marriage as children.

Noting how such issues disproportionately affect women in Africa and the Middle East, the new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) surveyed 29 countries and discussed the long-term consequences of both female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.“What we’re really missing is a coordinated global effort that is commensurate with the scale and the size of the issue.” -- Ann Warner

While the report links the former practice with “prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and death,” it mentions how the latter can predispose women to domestic violence and dropping out of school.

“The numbers tell us we must accelerate our efforts. And let’s not forget that these numbers represent real lives,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement. “While these are problems of a global scale, the solutions must be local, driven by communities, families and girls themselves to change mindsets and break the cycles that perpetuate [FGM] and child marriage.”

Despite these ongoing problems, Tuesday’s internationally recognised Girl Summit comes as the profile of adolescent girls – and, particularly, FGM – has risen to the top of certain agendas. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a legislative change that will now make it a legally enforceable parental responsibility to prevent FGM.

“We’ve reached an all-time high for both political awareness and political will to change the lives of women around the world,” Ann Warner, a senior gender and youth specialist at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), a research institute here, told IPS.

Warner recently co-authored a policy brief recommending that girls be given access to high-quality education, support networks, and practical preventative skills, and that communities provide economic incentives, launch informational campaigns, and establish a legal minimum age for marriage.

Speaking Tuesday at the Washington summit, Warner added that there has been “a good amount of promising initiatives – initiated by NGOs, government ministers and grassroots from around the world – that have been successful in turning the tide on the issue and changing attitudes, knowledge and practices.”

Advocates around the world can learn from these efforts, Warner said, paying particular attention to the progress India has made in preventing child marriage. Still, she believes that a comprehensive global response is necessary.

“What we’re really missing is a coordinated global effort that is commensurate with the scale and the size of the issue” of FGM and child marriage, she said. “With 14 million girls married each year, a handful of individual projects around the world are simply not enough to make a dent in that problem.”

U.S. action

The need for better coordination and accountability was echoed by Lyric Thompson, co-chair of the Girls Not Brides-USA coalition, a foundation that co-sponsored Tuesday’s Girl Summit here in Washington.

“If we are going to end child marriage in a generation, as the Girl Summit charter challenges us to do, that is going to mean a much more robust effort than what is currently happening,” Thompson told IPS. “A few small programmes, no matter how effective, will not end the practice.”

In particular, Thompson is calling on the United States to take a more active stand against harmful practices that affect women globally, which she adds is consistent with the U.S Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013

“If America is serious about ending this practice in a generation, this means not just speeches and a handful of [foreign aid] programmes, but also the hard work of ensuring that American diplomats are negotiating with their counterparts in countries where the practice is widespread,” she says.

“It also means being directly involved in difficult U.N. negotiations, including the ones now determining the post-2015 development agenda, to ensure a target on ending child, early and forced marriage is included under a gender equality goal.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. government announced nearly five million dollars to counter child and forced marriage in seven developing countries for this year, while pledging to work on new U.S. legislation on the issue next year. (The U.S. has also released new information on its response to FGM and child marriage.)

“​We know the fight against child marriage is the fight against extreme poverty,” Rajiv Shah, the head of the United States’ main foreign aid agency, stated Tuesday.

“That’s why USAID has put women and girls at the centre of our efforts to answer President Obama’s call to end extreme poverty in two generations. It’s a commitment that reflects a legacy of investment in girls – in their education, in their safety, in their health, and in their potential.”

Global ‘tipping point’

Of course, civil society actors around the world likely hold the key to changing long-held social views around these contentious issues.

“Federal agencies, in a position to respond to forced marriage cases, must work together and with community and NGO partners to ensure thoughtful and coordinated policy development,” Archi Pyati, director of public oolicy at Tahirih Justice Center, a Washington-based legal advocacy organisation, told IPS.

“Teachers, counsellors, doctors, nurses and others who are in a position to help a girl or woman to avoid a forced marriage or leave one must be informed and ready to respond.”

Pyati points to an awareness-raising campaign around forced marriage that will tour the United States starting in September. In this, social media is also becoming an increasingly important tool for advocacy efforts.

“Technology has brought us a new way to tell our governments and our corporations what matters to us,” Emma Wade, counsellor of the Foreign and Security Policy Group at the British Embassy here, told IPS. “Governments do take notice of what’s trending on Twitter and the like, and corporations are ever-mindful of ways to differentiate themselves … in the search for market share and committed customers.”

Wade noted within her presentation at Tuesday’s summit that individuals can pledge their support for “a future free from FGM and child and forced marriage” via the digital Girl Summit Pledge.

Shelby Quast, policy director of Equality Now, an international human rights organisation based in Nairobi, reiterated the importance of tackling FGM and child marriage across a variety of domains.

“The approach that works best is multi-sectoral… including the law, education, child protection and other elements such as support for FGM survivors and media advocacy strategies,” Quast explained. “We are at a tipping point globally, so let’s keep the momentum up to ensure all girls at risk are protected.”

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Gaza Under Fire – a Humanitarian Disaster http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/gaza-under-fire-a-humanitarian-disaster/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gaza-under-fire-a-humanitarian-disaster http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/gaza-under-fire-a-humanitarian-disaster/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 12:05:54 +0000 Khaled Alashqar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135676 Following an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian youth inspect the building their families lived in. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

Following an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian youth inspect the building their families lived in. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

As a result of over two weeks of Israeli bombardment, thousands of Palestinian civilians have fled their homes in the north of Gaza and sought refuge in schools run by the UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

Among the worst affected are Gazan children who have been forced to live in constant fear and danger, according to Dr. Sami Awaida, a specialised child psychiatrist for the Gaza Mental Health Programme – a local civil society and humanitarian organization that focuses on war trauma and mental health issues concerning children and adults in Gaza.“Children in Gaza have already suffered from two recent violent and shocking experiences in 2009 and 2012 … This trauma now re-generates previous pain and shock and also leads to a mental state of permanent fear and insecurity among children here” – Dr. Sami Awaida, a specialised child psychiatrist for the Gaza Mental Health Programme

Describing the impact of the current trauma, Awaida told IPS:  “Children in Gaza are suffering from anxiety, fear and insecurity because of this war situation.  The challenge we now face as mental health practitioners is ‘post-traumatic disorder’.”

“This means that children in Gaza have already suffered from two recent violent and shocking experiences in 2009 and 2012,” he continued. “This trauma now re-generates previous pain and shock and also leads to a mental state of permanent fear and insecurity among children here.”

Since Monday July 7, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to a severe military assault and engaged with the Palestinian factions in a new round of violence.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health has so far reported 230 Palestinians killed; most of them are entire families who were killed in direct shelling of Palestinian houses. Meanwhile, the number of injured has risen to 2,500. Many of the injured and the dead are children.

Hospitals in Gaza are currently suffering from a severe shortage of medical supplies and medicines. Ashraf Al-Qedra, spokesperson for the Gaza Ministry of Health, has called on the international community “to support hospitals in Gaza with urgent medical supplies, as Israel continues its military attacks, leaving more than 800 houses completely destroyed and 800 families without shelter.”

Since Israel began its current offensive against Gaza, its military forces have been accused of pursuing a policy of destroying Palestinian houses and killing civilians. Adnan Abu Hasna, media advisor and spokesperson for UNRWA in Gaza, told IPS that “UNRWA has officially demanded from Israel to respect international humanitarian law and the neutrality of civilians in the military operation.”

He added: “UNRWA stresses the need to fulfill the obligations of the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to immediately stop violence, due to the increasing number of children and women killed in the Israeli striking and bombardment of Gaza.”

Assam Yunis, director of the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, spoke to IPS about the stark violations of human rights and the urgent need for justice and accountability. “The current situation is catastrophic in every aspect,” he said.

“Human rights abuses are unbelievable and these include targeting medical teams and journalists, in addition to targeting children and women by Israel.  This points to clear violations of international law as well as war crimes.  Israel must be held legally accountable at the international level.”

Analysing the situation, Gaza-based political analyst and intellectual Ibrahim Ibrash says he believes that “Israel will never manage to end and uproot both Hamas movement and the Palestinian resistance from Gaza. On the other hand, the Palestinian militant groups will never manage to destroy and defeat Israel.”

He told IPS that the consequences for the Palestinians at the internal level after this military aggression ends will be critical, including “a split between the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority; many people will be outraged with the Palestinian leadership, and this of course will leave Gaza in a deplorable state.”

This critical crisis in Gaza comes against a backdrop of a continued blockade imposed on the territory by Israel, widespread unemployment, severe poverty, electricity cuts, closure of borders and crossings since 2006, destroyed infrastructure and a stagnant Gazan economy, combined with a lack of political progress at the Israeli-Palestinian political level.

The real truth that no one can deny is that the civilian population, including women and children, in Gaza are the real victims of this dangerous conflict.

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Food Insecurity a New Threat for Lebanon’s Syrian Refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/food-insecurity-a-new-threat-for-lebanons-syrian-refugees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=food-insecurity-a-new-threat-for-lebanons-syrian-refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/food-insecurity-a-new-threat-for-lebanons-syrian-refugees/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 11:01:34 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135672 By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

A declining economy and a severe drought have raised concerns in Lebanon over food security as the country faces one of its worst refugee crises, resulting from the nearby Syria war, and it is these refugees and impoverished Lebanese border populations that are most vulnerable to this new threat.

A severe drought has put the Lebanese agricultural sector at risk. According to the Meteorological Department at Rafik Hariri International Airport, average rainfall in 2014 is estimated at 470 mm, far below annual averages of 824 mm.

The drought has left farmers squabbling over water. “We could not plant this year and our orchards are drying up, we are only getting six hours of water per week,” says Georges Karam, the mayor of Zabougha, a town located in the Bekfaya area in Lebanon.“Any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity” – Maurice Saade of the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Department

The drought has resulted in a substantial decline in agricultural production throughout the country. “The most affected products are fruits and vegetables, the prices of which have increased, thus affecting economic access of the poor and vulnerable populations,”says Maurice Saade, Senior Agriculture Economist at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Department.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. Although most households in Lebanon are considered food secure, lower income households are vulnerable to inflationary trends in food items because they tend to spend a larger share of their disposable income on staples, explains Saade.

Lebanon’s poverty pockets are generally concentrated in the north (Akkar and Dinnyeh), Northern Bekaa (Baalbek and Hermel) and in the south, as well as the slums located south of Beirut. These areas currently host the largest number areas of refugee population, fleeing the nearby Syria war.

According to Clemens Breisinger, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Lebanon currently imports about 90 percent of its food needs. “This means meant that the drought’s impact should be limited in term of the food available on the market,” he says.

However, populations residing in Lebanon’s impoverished areas are still at risk, especially those who are not financially supported by relatives (as is the custom in Lebanon) or benefit from state aid or from local charities operating in border areas. Lebanese host populations are most likely the most vulnerable to food insecurity, explains Saade.

According to the UNHCR, there are just over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While the food situation is still manageable thanks to efforts of international donors who maintain food supplies to the population, “these rations are nonetheless always threatened by the lack of donor funding,” Saade stresses. In addition, refugee populations are largely dependent on food aid, because they are essentially comprised of women and children, with little or no access to the job market.

Given that Lebanon depends to a large extent on food imports, mostly from international markets, maintaining food security also depends on the ability of lower income groups to preserve their purchasing power as well as the stability of these external markets.

“This means that any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity,” says Saade.

In addition any spikes in international food prices, such as those witnessed in 2008, could lead to widespread hunger among vulnerable populations.

Breisinger believes that despite increased awareness of the international community, the factors leading to a new food crisis are still present.Increased demand for food generally, fuel prices, the drop in food reserves, certain government policies as well as the diversion of grain and oilseed crops for biofuel production are elements that put pressure on the food supply chain and can eventually contribute to hunger in certain vulnerable countries.

To avoid such a risk, some countries have implemented specific measures such as building grain reserves. “I am not sure how Lebanon has reacted so far,” says Breisinger.  With little government oversight and widespread corruption, Lebanon’s vulnerability to food insecurity has been compounded by unforgiving weather conditions, a refugee crisis and worsening economic conditions which, if left unattended, could spiral out of control.

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Malnutrition Hits Syrians Hard as UN Authorises Cross-Border Access http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access/#comments Sat, 19 Jul 2014 12:09:41 +0000 Shelly Kittleson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135643 Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
BEIRUT, Jul 19 2014 (IPS)

Gaunt, haggard Syrian children begging and selling gum have become a fixture in streets of the Lebanese capital; having fled the ongoing conflict, they continue to be stalked by its effects.

Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

By the end of January, almost 40,000 Syrian children had been born as refugees, while the total number of minors who had fled abroad quadrupled to over 1.2 million between March 2013 and March 2014.Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

Lack of proper healthcare, food and clean water has resulted in countless loss of life during the Syrian conflict, now well into its fourth year. These deaths are left out of the daily tallies of ‘war casualties’, even as stunted bodies and emaciated faces peer out of photos from areas under siege.

The case of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus momentarily grabbed the international community’s attention earlier this year, when Amnesty International released a report detailing the deaths of nearly 200 people under a government siege. Many other areas have experienced and continue to suffer the same fate, out of the public spotlight.

A Palestinian-Syrian originally from Yarmouk who has escaped abroad told IPS that some of her family are still in Hajar Al-Aswad, an area near Damascus with a population of roughly 600,000 prior to the conflict. She said that those trapped in the area were suffering ‘’as badly if not worse than in Yarmouk’’ and had been subjected to equally brutal starvation tactics. The area has, however, failed to garner similar attention.

The city of Homs, one of the first to rise up against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, was also kept under regime siege for three years until May of this year, when Syrian troops and foreign Hezbollah fighters took control.

With the Syria conflict well into its fourth year, the U.N. Security Council decided for the first time on July 14 to authorize cross-border aid without the Assad government’s approval via four border crossings in neighbouring states. The resolution established a monitoring mechanism for a 180-day period for loading aid convoys in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

The first supplies will include water sanitation tablets and hygiene kits, essential to preventing the water-borne diseases responsible for diarrhoea – which, in turn, produces severe states of malnutrition.

Miram Azar, from UNICEF’s Beirut office, told IPS that  ‘’prior to the Syria crisis, malnutrition was not common in Lebanon or Syria, so UNICEF and other actors have had to educate public health providers on the detection, monitoring and treatment’’ even before beginning to deal with the issue itself.

However, it was already on the rise: ‘’malnutrition was a challenge to Syria even before the conflict’’, said a UNICEF report released this year. ‘’The number of stunted children – those too short for their age and whose brain may not properly develop – rose from 23 to 29 per cent between 2009 and 2011.’’

Malnutrition experienced in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from pregnancy to two years old) results in lifelong consequences, including greater susceptibility to illness, obesity, reduced cognitive abilities and lower development potential of the nation they live in.

Azar noted that ‘’malnutrition is a concern due to the deteriorating food security faced by refugees before they left Syria’’ as well as ‘’the increase in food prices during winter.’’

The Syrian economy has been crippled by the conflict and crop production has fallen drastically. Violence has destroyed farms, razed fields and displaced farmers.

The price of basic foodstuffs has become prohibitive in many areas. On a visit to rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib province autumn of 2013, residents told IPS that the cost of staples such as rice and bread had risen by more than ten times their cost prior to the conflict, and in other areas inflation was worse.

Jihad Yazigi , an expert on the Syrian economy, argued in a European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) policy brief published earlier this year that the war economy, which ‘’both feeds directly off the violence and incentivises continued fighting’’, was becoming ever more entrenched.

Meanwhile, political prisoners who have been released as a result of amnesties tell stories of severe water and food deprivation within jails. Many were detained on the basis of peaceful activities, including exercising their right to freedom of expression and providing humanitarian aid, on the basis of a counterterrorism law adopted by the government in July 2012.

There are no accurate figures available for Syria’s prison population. However, the monitoring group, Violations Documentation Centre, reports that 40,853 people detained since the start of the uprising in March 2011 remain in jail.

Maher Esber, a former political prisoner who was in one of Syria’s most notorious jails between 2006 and 2011 and is now an activist living in the Lebanese capital, told IPS that it was normal for taps to be turned on for only 10 minutes per day for drinking and hygiene purposes in the detention facilities.

Much of the country’s water supply has also been damaged or destroyed over the past years, with knock-on effects on infectious diseases and malnutrition. A major pumping station in Aleppo was damaged on May 10, leaving roughly half what was previously Syria’s most populated city without running water. Relentless regime barrel bombing has made it impossible to fix the mains, and experts have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe for those still inside the city.

The U.N. decision earlier this month was made subsequent to refusal by the Syrian regime to comply with a February resolution demanding rapid, safe, and unhindered access, and the Syrian regime had warned that it considered non-authorised aid deliveries into rebel-held areas as an attack.

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Why No Vetoed Resolutions on Civilian Killings in Gaza? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/why-no-vetoed-resolutions-on-civilian-killings-in-gaza/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-no-vetoed-resolutions-on-civilian-killings-in-gaza http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/why-no-vetoed-resolutions-on-civilian-killings-in-gaza/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 21:27:54 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135633 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip.  Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

As the civil war in Syria continues into its fourth year, the Western nations sitting on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) have unsuccessfully tried to condemn the killings of civilians, impose punitive sanctions and accuse the Syrian government of war crimes – in four vetoed and failed resolutions.

The United States, France and Britain forced a vote on all four resolutions despite implicit threats by China and Russia, allies of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to exercise their vetoes. And they did.The question looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren't initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

All five countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC.

The vetoes drew strong condemnations from human rights groups, including a coalition of eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which described the last veto by Russia and China as “a shameful illustration of why voluntary restraint on the use of the veto in mass atrocity situations is essential to the Council’s ability to live up to the U.N. charter’s expectations.”

But the question now looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren’t initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

Such a resolution is certain to be vetoed by one, or all three, of the Western powers in the UNSC, as China and Russia did on the resolutions against Syria. But this time around, it will be the Western powers on the defensive, trying to protect the interests of a country accused of civilian killings and war crimes.

Still, an Asian diplomat told IPS that even if a draft resolution is doomed to be shot down during closed-door informals for lack of nine votes, an attempt could have been made to expose the mood of the UNSC  - just as Western nations keep piling up resolutions against Syria even when they are conscious of the fact they will be vetoed by Russia and China, embarrassing both countries.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS just as the Russians and Chinese have blocked Security Council action regarding Syria’s attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas, the United States has successfully blocked Security Council action regarding Israeli attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas.

Though both involve serious violations of international humanitarian law, precedent would dictate that U.N. action on Israel’s assault on Gaza would be even more appropriate because it is an international conflict rather than a civil war, said Zunes, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council.

“What is hard to explain is why the Security Council has not been willing to force the United States to take the embarrassing step of actually vetoing the measure, as it has on four occasions with Russia and China in regard to Syria,” he asked.

Ian Williams, a longstanding U.N. correspondent and senior analyst at Foreign Policy in Focus, told IPS the UNSC is determined to prove that governments do not have principles, only interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians have had no sponsors or patrons.

He said even the Russians and the Chinese weigh the strength of the Israel Lobby in the U.S., and increasingly in Europe, and calculate whether it is in their interests to alienate Washington even more.

Since they see few tangible diplomatic, economic or political benefits from backing the Palestinians, let alone Hamas, they allow atrocities to go unchecked in Gaza while raising their hands in horror about lesser, and less calculated, crimes elsewhere, said Williams.

“And the Russians would have to explain why they defend Assad for similar behaviour against his own people,” he added.

Only popular indignation will force the hand of governments – and the French government knows that, which is why they have banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, he noted.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the UNSC Friday, Dr Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of the State of Palestine, told delegates the 10-day death toll from heavy F-16 air strikes has been estimated at 274, mostly civilians, including 24 women and 62 children, and over 2,076 wounded and more thatn 38,000 displaced.

These are figures, he said, that could be corroborated by U.N. agencies on the ground.

Mansour accused Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity, state terrorism and systematic violation of human rights.

But as of Friday, there were no indications of a hard-hitting resolution focusing on the plight of the 1.7 million residents under heavy fire and who are being defended by the militant group Hamas, accused of firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, with just one Israeli casualty.

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, told IPS that a declaration – adopted at a summit meeting of leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) in Brazil last week – mentions Palestine and Israel in terms of the Middle East peace process, but it does not take a direct position on the ongoing war on Gaza.

“It would have been an apposite place to have crafted a separate and pointed resolution in solidarity with the Palestinians alongside the stated claim to the celebration of the U.N. Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” he said.

He added that it also says something about the lack of confidence by the BRICS members on the Security Council who felt betrayed by Resolution 1973 (on Libya) and did not draft a resolution to call for a No Fly Zone over Gaza based on the principles of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The West has drafted resolutions on Syria, knowing that Russia and China would veto them as a way to deliberately put their rivals in a poor light, he added.

He asked why the BRICS states on the Security Council (currently Russia and China) did not produce a resolution to show the world that the West (or at least the U.S.) is willing to allow the calculated slaughter of the Palestinians at the same time as they want to be the ones to arbiter who is a civilian and what it means to responsibly protect them.

This only shows the BRICS states are not willing to directly challenge the West not in a defensive way (by vetoing a Western resolution), but in an aggressive way (by making the West veto a resolution for ending the slaughter in Gaza), he added.

Brazil, the current chair of BRICS, said in a statement released Friday the Brazilian government rejects the current Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, which represents a serious setback to peace efforts.

“Such an offensive could have serious repercussions for the increased instability in the Middle East and exacerbate the already dramatic humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the statement said.

“We urge the Israeli forces to strictly respect their obligations under the International Humanitarian Law. Furthermore, we consider it necessary that Israel put an end to the blockade on Gaza immediately.”

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Neighbours Turn Foes in Bekaa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/neighbours-turn-foes-in-bekaa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=neighbours-turn-foes-in-bekaa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/neighbours-turn-foes-in-bekaa/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 11:22:20 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135591 By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

Hezbollah clashes with Syrian rebels on the outskirts of Ersal seem to be widening the divide between residents of the Eastern Bekaa town – increasingly dominated by Syrian rebels, including the radical Nusra Front – and other regions as well as the Lebanese state. 

At the bottom of the rugged Syrian Qalamoun mountain chain lies the predominantly Sunni town of Ersal. The region is known historically as a smuggling route between Syria and Lebanon.

Since the beginning of the Syria revolution, politics have pushed its people away from their Bekaa neighbours, who mostly belong to the Shiite community. Ersal largely sympathises with the Sunni-led uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Bekaa Shiites support the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is currently fighting alongside Syrian regime forces.“Clashes between Hezbollah and Syrian rebels have aggravated tensions between local residents and their neighbours, and every incident is causing a backlash on the village [Ersal]” – deputy mayor of Ersal, Ahmad Fleety

Despite the fall of Qalamoun to Hezbollah and Assad regime troops in March, fighting has resumed in the Syrian region as well as the barren valley and rocky tops of Ersal in Lebanon, where rebels are also present.

“The clout of Syrian insurgents over the town has become an unavoidable reality,” says a Lebanese army officer speaking on condition of anonymity.

This week, seven members of Hezbollah died and 31 others were wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The fighters were killed in an ambush in the hills above Ersal. The rugged area is also used a rocket launch pad by rebels who frequently target Hezbollah villages in Bekaa.

“The Syrian-Lebanese border there is the soft belly of Hezbollah’s stronghold as it overlooks the Bekaa and more importantly the city of Baalbeck, which is the birthplace of the militant organisation,” says Professor Hilal Khashan from the American University of Beirut.

“Rebels, including the Nusra Front, are using Ersal to launch attacks on Hezbollah, which is self-compelled to retake the region, at a very high cost,” he adds.

The military source underlines that an estimated 6,000 Syrian fighters have found refuge in Ersal. Hundreds of opposition militants are believed to be hiding in the hills and caves above the town. Dirt tracks connecting Ersal to the Bekaa mountain tops are also used by residents to ferry aid, gasoline and supplies to insurgents.

Deputy mayor Ahmad Fleety admits that Ersal is paying a high price for backing the Syrian revolution.  “Clashes between Hezbollah and Syrian rebels have aggravated tensions between local residents and their neighbours, and every incident is causing a backlash on the village,” he says.

The official points out that an Ersal resident, Khaled Hujairi, was wounded in nearby Laboueh after the funeral of one of the Hezbollah fighters who died in the recent battles.

However, the divide separating Ersal residents from those residing in surrounding villages dates back to the beginning of the uprising and a spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings between Sunnis and Shiites.

Relations between the two communities took a turn for the worse after four Shiites were killed in June last year near Ersal.  The trend was only exacerbated when the town remained under siege for several weeks early this year, after the village became a transit point from Syria into Lebanon for booby-trapped cars targeting Shiite areas.

Ersal’s grim reality is only compounded by the town’s isolation. A small asphalt road connects it to the rest of Bekaa, and from there onward to the capital Beirut. Syrian planes frequently fly over, firing missiles into the village and the mountain tops above it. An attack this week led to the injury of seven Ersal residents.

These repetitive incidents rarely draw any complaints from Lebanon.

“Ersal is an outlying territory neglected by the government, which can explain the rise of extremism there. If Ersal residents felt they belonged to the Lebanese state, they would not be so supportive of Syrian rebels,” points out Khashan.

In addition, relations with the state have been strained by a series of incidents, the most recent leading last year to clashes between an army patrol and local residents, claiming the lives of two Lebanese armed forces members as well as one suspect who was being pursued.

The presence of over 120,000 Syrian refugees – which exceeds the local population threefold – is further straining relations with the state and other villages. “Ersal people have chosen to support the Syrian revolution, they won’t back down,” says local activist Abu Mohamad Oueid.

The deepening feeling of distrust between old neighbours now turned foes seems to be here to stay, and the fates of Ersal residents to be intertwined with that of Syrian rebels.

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North’s Policies Affecting South’s Economies http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/norths-policies-affecting-souths-economies/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=norths-policies-affecting-souths-economies http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/norths-policies-affecting-souths-economies/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 08:40:13 +0000 Yilmaz Akyuz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135587

In this column, Yilmaz Akyuz, chief economist of the South Centre in Geneva, argues that in recent years developing countries have lost steam as recovery in advanced economies has remained weak or absent due to the fading effect of counter-cyclical policies and the narrowing of policy space, and he recommends measures to reduce the external financial vulnerability of the South.

By Yilmaz Akyuz
GENEVA, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

Since the onset of the crisis, the South Centre has argued that policy responses to the crisis by the European Union and the United States has suffered from serious shortcomings that would delay recovery and entail unnecessary losses of income and jobs, and also endanger future growth and stability. 

Despite cautious optimism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world economy is not in good shape. Six years into the crisis, the United States has not fully recovered, the Euro zone has barely started recovering, and developing countries are losing steam. There is fear that the crisis is moving to developing countries.

Yilmaz Akyuz

Yilmaz Akyuz

There is concern in regard to the longer-term prospects for three main reasons.

First, the crisis and policy response aggravated systemic problems, whereby inequality has widened. Inequality is no longer only a social problem, but also presents a macroeconomic problem. Inequality is holding back growth and creating temptation to rely on financial bubbles once again in order to generate spending.

Second, global trade imbalances have been redistributed at the expense of developing countries, whereby the Euro zone especially Germany has become a deadweight on global expansion.

Third, systemic financial instability remains unaddressed, despite the initial enthusiasm in terms of reform of governance of international finance, and in addition new fragilities have been added due to the ultra-easy monetary policy.“The external financial vulnerability of the South is linked to developing countries’ integration in global financial markets and the significant liberalisation of external finance and capital accounts in these countries” – Yilmaz Akyuz

The policy response to the crisis has been an inconsistent policy mix, including fiscal austerity and an ultra-easy monetary policy. While the crisis was created by finance, the solution was still sought through finance. Countries focused on a search for a finance-driven boom in private spending via asset price bubbles and credit expansion. Fiscal policy has been invariably tight.

The ultra-easy monetary policy created over one trillion dollars in fiscal benefits in the United States – which was more than the initial fiscal stimulus; the entire initial fiscal stimulus was limited to 800 billion dollars.

There was reluctance to remove debt overhang through comprehensive restructuring (i.e. for mortgages in the United States and sovereign and bank debt in the European Union). Thus, the focus was on bailing out creditors.

There was also reluctance to remove mortgage overhang and no attempt to tax the rich and support the poor, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States – where marginal tax rates are low compared with continental Europe. There has been resistance against permanent monetisation of public deficits and debt, which does not pose more dangers for prices and financial stability than the ultra-easy monetary policy.

The situation in the United States has been better than in other advanced economies. The United States dealt with the financial but not with the economic crisis, whereby recovery has been slow due to fiscal drag and debt overhang. And employment is not expected to return to pre-crisis levels before 2018.

As for the Euro zone, Japan and the United Kingdom, all have had second or third dips since 2008. None of them have restored pre-crisis incomes and jobs.

Meanwhile, trade imbalances have not been removed, but redistributed. East Asian surplus has dropped sharply and Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have moved to large deficits. Developing countries’ surplus has fallen from 720 billion dollars to 260 billion dollars. On the contrary, advanced economies have moved from deficit to surplus, whereby U.S. deficits have fallen and the Euro zone has moved from a 100 billion dollars deficit to a 300 billion dollars surplus.

As tapering comes to an end and the U.S. Federal Reserve stops buying further assets, the attention will be turned to the question of exit, normalisation and the expectations of increased instability of financial markets for both the United States and the emerging economies.

This exit will also create fiscal problems for the United States because, as bonds held by the Federal Reserve mature and quantitative easing ends, long-term interest rates will rise and the fiscal benefits of the ultra-easy monetary policy would be reversed.

Developing countries lost steam as recovery in advanced economies remained weak or absent due to the fading effect of counter-cyclical policies and the narrowing of policy space. China could not keep on investing and doing the same thing. Another factor contributing to the change of context in developing countries has been the weakened capital inflows that became highly unstable with the deepening of the Euro zone crisis and then Federal Reserve tapering. Several emerging economies have been under stress as markets are pricing-in normalisation of monetary policy even before it has started.

The external financial vulnerability of the South is linked to developing countries’ integration in global financial markets and the significant liberalisation of external finance and capital accounts in these countries. These include opening up securities markets, private borrowing abroad, resident outflows, and opening up to foreign banks. While developing countries did not manage capital flows adequately, the IMF did not provide support in this area, tolerating capital controls only as a last resort and on a temporary basis.

Several deficit developing countries with asset, credit and spending bubbles are particularly vulnerable.  Countries with strong foreign reserves and current account positions would not be insulated from shocks, as seen after the Lehman crisis. When a country is integrated in the international financial system, it will feel the shock one way or another, although those countries with deficits remain more vulnerable.

In regard to policy responses in the case of a renewed turmoil, it is convenient to avoid business-as-usual, including using reserves and borrowing from the IMF or advanced economies to finance large outflows. The IMF lends, not to revive the economy but to keep stable the debt levels and avoid default. It is also inconvenient to adjust through retrenching and austerity.

Ways should be found to bail-in foreign investors and lenders, and use exchange controls and temporary debt standstills. In this sense, the IMF should support such approaches through lending into arrears.

More importantly, the U.S. Federal Reserve is responsible for the emergence of this situation and should take on its responsibility and act as a lender of last resort to emerging economies, through swaps or buying bonds as and when needed. These are not necessarily more toxic than the bonds issued at the time of subprime crisis. The United States has much at stake in the stability of emerging economies. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

 

*   A longer version of this column has been published in the South Centre Bulletin (No. 80, 30 June 2014).

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Proposed Arms Embargo on Syria a Political Mockery http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/proposed-arms-embargo-on-syria-a-political-mockery/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=proposed-arms-embargo-on-syria-a-political-mockery http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/proposed-arms-embargo-on-syria-a-political-mockery/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:48:33 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135545 The Security Council votes unanimously earlier this year to maintain arms sanctions on Côte d’Ivoire until Apr. 30, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Security Council votes unanimously earlier this year to maintain arms sanctions on Côte d’Ivoire until Apr. 30, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

When the 15-member Security Council, the most powerful body at the United Nations, fails to resolve a military conflict, it invariably exercises one of its tried, and mostly failed, options: punish the warring parties by imposing punitive sanctions.

Currently, there are 15 U.N. sanctions committees, supported by 65 “experts” overseeing 11 monitoring teams, groups and panels, at a cost of about 32 million dollars a year.There have been no takers so far in a sharply divided Security Council, mostly with vested political and military interests in the Syrian civil war.

The sanctions, imposed so far on about 25 countries, have included arms embargoes, travel bans and financial and diplomatic restrictions.

U.N. military sanctions go back to apartheid South Africa in 1977, and since then, have been imposed on several post-conflict countries, including Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, the former Yugoslavia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Last month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly called on the Security Council (UNSC) to impose an arms embargo on Syria.

But there have been no takers so far in a sharply divided Security Council, mostly with vested political and military interests in the Syrian civil war.

Ban has persistently – and unyieldingly – maintained that the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has claimed over 150,000 lives since March 2011, could be resolved only politically, not by military force.

But his voice is lost in the political wilderness – with no diplomatic or moral support either from the United States, Western Europe, Russia, Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – all of them explicitly or implicitly providing military or financial support to the warring parties in Syria.

The United States, Britain and France could possibly opt for military sanctions – but only on Syrian military forces.

Russia and China, who are supportive of the Bashar al-Assad regime, want sanctions on Western-supported rebel forces.

As a result of the deadlock, the proposal for an arms embargo has remained grounded.

The secretary-general’s proposal took another beating late last month when the United States announced plans to spend about 500 million dollars to train and arm “moderate” Syrian rebels – making the proposed arms embargo a mockery.

“Considering the deadlock over Syria in the past few years, the call by the secretary-general is not likely to change anything,” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Arms Transfers and Arms Production Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS.

Russia has been very outspoken about its opposition to an arms embargo, backed by China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC, he pointed out.

“This has been related to the widespread view in Russia that the end of the Syrian regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) will lead to chaos and fundamentalism in Syria,” Wezeman said.

On top of that, he said, Russia has repeatedly pointed at the experiences of the conflict in Libya, when several states provided weapons to Libyan rebels legitimising this, and using ambiguous language in UNSC resolutions, that Russia thought imposed a full arms embargo on Libya when it agreed with the resolutions.

Russia has stated repeatedly that an arms embargo is out of the question if there are no convincing guarantees that states will stop supplying weapons to the rebel forces opposing Assad’s regime, said Wezeman, who has been closely tracking military developments in Syria.

Currently, Russia is the major arms supplier to the Assad regime.

There is also the question of the effectiveness of sanctions, because the United Nations does not have the means to rigidly enforce any arms embargoes, according to U.N diplomats.

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Centre for International Policy, told IPS the secretary-general’s call for an arms embargo on all sides of the Syrian war is a welcome effort to reduce the bloodshed there.

The biggest impact would be stopping the flow of Russian arms to the Assad regime, but unfortunately, Russia is also the country most likely to veto any embargo proposal that comes before the Security Council, he noted.

“So the question will be how to pressure Moscow to reverse course on its military support of the Syrian government, or whether an embargo by the U.S. and the European Union (EU) only would have the desired effect,” he said.

Still, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said the UNSC has been using both economic and military sanctions with increased regularity since the mid-1990s.

“We know that sanctions can work when they are designed and implemented well and when they enjoy the support of member states on and outside the Security Council,” Eliasson said.

Speaking at a high-level review on sanctions last month, he said in almost all of the 25 cases where sanctions have been used by the U.N., they have been part of an overarching strategy featuring peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding elements.

On another line of analysis, Eliasson said, “Let us also remember that sanctions are not only punitive.”

Some sanctions regimes are designed to support governments and regions working towards peaceful transition, he pointed out.

In Libya, sanctions continue to help transitional authorities recover state assets and prevent the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

In Liberia, the arms embargo on non-state actors continues to provide the government with protective support.

In Guinea-Bissau, he said, the sanctions regime is acting as a deterrent against post-electoral violence by encouraging key local actors to respect the results.

“Steps are also being taken to assist peaceful and benign governments whose countries are still under sanctions,” Eliasson added.

Meanwhile, the secretary-general recently dispatched an assessment mission to Somalia to explore how the United Nations and others can help the federal government comply with the partial lifting of the arms embargo, he said.

Hartung told IPS past embargoes have been imperfect, but have been worthwhile nonetheless.

The embargo on the apartheid regime in South Africa was violated through third party transfers and undermined by sales of arms-making technologies to Pretoria, but it did reduce the flow of arms to South African forces and it made it more expensive for South Africa to maintain its war machine.

He said arms dealers like Viktor Bout, in collaboration with key governments, undermined embargoes on Sierra Leone and Angola, but a more forceful and coordinated effort to stem this trade could have made a difference.

“So it really comes down to the political will of key governments to make embargoes work,” he concluded.

Even when they aren’t perfect, he said, they can make it harder for parties to conflicts to arm themselves and therefore reduce levels of violence.

Since the early 1990s, Wezeman told IPS, there have been around 25 separate U.N. arms embargoes.

Quite certainly all of these have been violated to some extent. However that should be expected from any sanction imposed by the U.N., or even any sanction or law imposed in general.

“Still, most if not all of them have made it considerably more difficult for the targets of the embargoes to continue to acquire weapons,” he said.

Obviously more is needed to end wars, he said, as often large stocks of weapons will still be available to continue fighting. However, not imposing an arms embargo can be argued to make things even worse, Wezeman added.

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New Palestinian World Heritage Site Under Threat of Defacement http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/new-palestinian-world-heritage-site-under-threat-of-defacement/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-palestinian-world-heritage-site-under-threat-of-defacement http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/new-palestinian-world-heritage-site-under-threat-of-defacement/#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 17:56:20 +0000 Ido Liven http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135527 View of the terraces in the Palestinian village of Battir, now a World Heritage site. Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

View of the terraces in the Palestinian village of Battir, now a World Heritage site. Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

By Ido Liven
BATTIR, West Bank, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

The Palestinian village of Battir, just six kilometres southwest of Jerusalem and a similar distance from Bethlehem, is the latest to be trapped in the gap between international recognition and Israel’s policies in the West Bank.

The village’s agricultural terraces covering the surrounding hill slopes, and the spring water-fed open irrigation channels that run through them, have been in use for centuries.

Last month, this unique landscape was designated a World Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), making it only the second such Palestinian site after the Old City of Jerusalem site.

Already in autumn last year, the World Monuments Fund, an international organisation working to preserve important cultural heritage sites, had added Battir’s ancient terraces to its 2014 World Monuments Watch.Local residents, who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, have been campaigning against the six-kilometre long Separation Barrier plans since 2005, and fear the barrier will take a toll, not only on the centuries-old living landscape, but also on their way of life.

The decision to inscribe Battir in the World Heritage list comes amid Israeli plans to establish a new section of its Separation Barrier at the foot of the terraced hill slopes, cutting through the Palestinian village’s lands.

According to the Israeli military authorities, this section of the Separation Barrier is mainly intended to protect the railway on the margins of the village’s lands. Military representatives told the Israeli Supreme Court in 2011, there is “specific intelligence about attempts of terror organisations to infiltrate into Israel from this direction.”

However, they also reiterated that “the abovementioned security threat is not at all posed by residents of Battir, but from other hostile elements active in this area and those especially coming to the Battir area due to the fact the barrier route is still incomplete there.”

Local residents, however, who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, have been campaigning against the Separation Barrier plans since 2005, fearing the new six kilometre-long barrier will take a toll, not only on the centuries-old living landscape, but also on their way of life.

Over the years, their campaign has garnered much support, including from environmental groups such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). Two perhaps unlikely other sources of support have been an Israeli field school in the settlement bloc of Gush Etzion and the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA).

Their environmental support might be genuine, but their objection to the Separation Barrier also fits well with their own political agenda, says Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

INPA, in particular, has added its voice in support of protecting the Palestinian village’s traditional terraces, while managing a number of national parks – some of which are included in the tentative list of Palestine’s World Heritage sites.

In May last year, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered suspension of the works on the section of the barrier in Battir’s lands, but a final ruling is still pending. Now, the petitioners from the village and from FoEME are hopeful that the new World Heritage status could influence the court’s decision.

Nevertheless, Battir’s eggplants, vines and olives are closely intertwined with the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The World Heritage nomination was submitted under a special emergency procedure a day after the latest court session, and right before this year’s deadline.

But it could have been made already a year earlier if it had not been for a request from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to Israeli daily Haaretz. Freezing the Palestinian bid, the paper reported, was meant to allow the renewal of peace negotiations. “Senior Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem noted that Israel is keeping track of the Palestinian move and will try to prevent it,” Haaretz added.

Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that suspending Battir’s nomination was part of a deal whereby, in exchange, Israel would allow a UNESCO team to examine the Old City of Jerusalem, another World Heritage site.

Eventually, Battir’s application was successful and, in acknowledging the threat to the site, the World Heritage Committee also agreed to include it in its ‘in danger’ list, despite an expert opinion from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the professional cultural heritage body advising UNESCO, which was generally sceptical about the merits of the site’s inscription.

However, Israel’s Ministry of Defence remains intent on going ahead with the barrier plan. “The barrier’s route in the area of Battir is intended to protect the citizens of Israel from terrorists and terror entering [the country],” read a statement from the ministry to IPS.

“The Security Barrier’s route will be established with no harm to natural assets,” it continued. “No terrace will be destroyed and the irrigation system will not be harmed. The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] is sensitive to the natural assets at the site, but it is first and foremost committed to the security of the citizens of Israel.”

And it does seem rather unlikely that Battir’s World Heritage inscription will have a significant impact on the Supreme Court ruling.  “I’d be surprised if, on these grounds, the Supreme Court categorically rejects building the barrier there,” Zalzberg told IPS.

“I think that’s not good for the image of Israel to be destroying World Heritage sites,” says Nader al-Khateeb, FoEME’s Palestinian co-director.

But Zalzberg believes such designation would not be seen by the Israeli government as a major factor. “There are already places where Israel has taken its own stance on things that are much more serious in the eyes of the international community,” he said.

Rather, an Israeli decision to go ahead with the barrier in Battir, thus defying the U.N. agency, “could be part of a trend where Israel further pushes UNESCO to the wall on anything related to managing sites, possibly also in Jerusalem.”

From the court proceedings, it seems that a barrier will eventually be built. In its latest session on the case, in January, the Supreme Court focused on ways to mitigate damage to the terraces, for example by examining the option of removing one of the train tracks, and by ordering the Israeli military to allow Battir farmers access to their lands through gates in the barrier.

Opponents, however, are concerned about additional, collateral damage to the ancient terraces landscape from the construction process involving heavy machinery.

Akram Bader, mayor of Battir, is concerned that building the barrier would not only take a toll on the local cultural heritage, but also on the peaceful situation in the area. “Through the last 64 years there have been no incidents in the area, so why are they saying they want to build a Security Barrier?” he asks.

In fact, establishing the barrier, ostensibly to ensure Israel’s security, could lead to violence, Bader warns. “If the terraces are damaged, it means that the people will not think about peace in this area. They will change their minds about it.”

Israel is, at least formally, committed to protecting cultural heritage in the West Bank, as a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and also as one of the earliest signatories of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict.

Meanwhile, Battir might not be the last case of its kind. At least two proposals on Palestine’s World Heritage Tentative List could overlap the route of Israel’s Separation Barrier. In one, Umm Al-Rihan Forest, the barrier already exists. In another, El-Bariyah, also known as the Judean desert, plans to establish a stretch of the Separation Barrier triggered vocal protest from Israeli environmentalists six years ago.

In response, Amir Peretz, then Defence Minister and today Environmental Protection Minister, ordered works to be halted.

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice had issued an Advisory Opinion on Israel’s Separation Barrier, concluding that it was “contrary to international law” and calling on Israel to cease its construction. Exactly ten years later, Israel’s Separation Barrier looks set to defy the international community once again.

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Syria’s Chemicals Haunt the Mediterranean http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/syrias-chemicals-haunt-the-mediterranean/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrias-chemicals-haunt-the-mediterranean http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/syrias-chemicals-haunt-the-mediterranean/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 15:00:45 +0000 Apostolis Fotiadis http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135502 By Apostolis Fotiadis
ATHENS, Jul 11 2014 (IPS)

Scientists and local communities are expressing serious concern about the ongoing destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal on board a vessel in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea.

“Neutralisation” of the chemicals, including mustard gas and the raw materials for sarin nerve gas, began earlier this week under Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) guidelines, on board the specially modified U.S. maritime vessel Cape Ray.

The operation, which is expected to be completed within 60 days, uses Deployable Hydrolysis Systems (FDHS), but the technique is being criticised.

According to Thodoris Tsimpidis, director of the Archipelagos Institute, a Greek non-profit organisation specialising in marine conservation, hydrolysis is not a safe method for neutralising chemicals on board.

“We were invited for a tour of the Cape Ray before the operation but we did not go because whenever we asked something important they replied that it was confidential. We do not understand why scientists are not allowed on board during the operation,” he told IPS.Syria agreed to surrender it chemical weapons to international control after a chemical attack with sarin gas on August 21 last year against rebels in disputed areas of the Markaz Rif Dimashq district around Damascus.

“The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not responded to our concerns. Why is Greece sending a submarine to escort the operation and not its specialised maritime vessel that could monitor any sea contamination if this happens?”

Syria agreed to surrender it chemical weapons to international control after a chemical attack with sarin gas on August 21 last year against rebels in disputed areas of the Markaz Rif Dimashq district around Damascus. It is estimated that 281 died in the attack, with some reports raising numbers up to 1,729.

France accused the Assad regime, saying it had proof that it was the perpetrator of the attack but the Syrian regime blamed militants who had taken control of elements of its chemical weaponry.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States threatened the regime with military action but, after Russia’s intervention, Syria asked in September 2013 to join the OPCW and surrender its chemical arsenal for destruction.

Initially Belgium and Norway refused to host the neutralisation process on their territories, while Albania initially accepted, only to retract after public opposition rapidly invalidated plans.

U.S. authorities leading the operation then decided to attempt the destruction of chemicals on board, a process in which over 30 countries and the European Union have been actively involved.

The last consignment of chemicals left Syria on June 23 and was loaded aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura with destination the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy. There it was trans-loaded to the Cape Ray, which then sailed to the Mediterranean where the operation is now under way.

The operation has been cloaked in secrecy for fears of terrorist threats but others believe this is due to the precariousness of the operation itself.

On Thursday, members of political organisations and activists met in Chania, Crete, to coordinate protests against the operation. In an effort to break what they said was the “concealment” and “silence” of the big national media they plan to block a U.S. military base on the island for three days and attempt a symbolic sail against Cape Ray.

In an announcement on Wednesday, they said: “We warned them long before they started, by participating, together with thousands of people who reacted once they found out about their plans, in demonstrations and events throughout Greece. They decided, using concealment and silence by the mass media, to move on; we decided to meet them at sea. We are coming!”

Although the exact location of the neutralisation operation is unknown, it is thought to be taking place 100 km west of the island of Crete.

Secrecy about the process has disturbed the local community. “Monitoring by international observers and environmental organisations from the European Union and scientists of the countries directly concerned is necessary,” says professor Evaggelos Gidarakos, head of Laboratory of Toxic and Hazardous Waste Management at the University of Chania in Crete.

“None of those stakeholders have been given access in this case which has become an issue of the American military navy alone. The scientific community has been marginalised, so that even if something goes wrong we will never know.”

The presence of OCPW inspectors on board Cape Ray throughout the operation has not appeased critics. Tsimpidis said that OPCW “is not going to be held accountable” if anything goes wrong.

OCPW, a United Nations body, has continually repeated that all possible safety precautions have been taken for the operation, but it has also clarified that it “bears no responsibility” for any chemical accident and that is the U.S. Navy which will “assume all liabilities”.

IPS approached the OCPW for comments but only received an email answer directing it to the organisation’s FAQ page.

After the neutralization operation has been completed, the Cape Ray will sail to Germany and Finland to deliver the by-products of the operation for further processing

Meanwhile, the Ark Futura will continue on to the United Kingdom and then Finland to deliver chemicals to be destroyed at commercial facilities.

A second cargo ship, the Norwegian vessel Taiko, has already delivered a quantity of chemicals to Finland. The ship is now sailing to Port Arthur, Texas, in the United States, where the last cargo of chemicals will be destroyed at a commercial facility.

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Liberated Homs Residents Challenge Notion of “Revolution” http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/liberated-homs-residents-challenge-notion-of-revolution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=liberated-homs-residents-challenge-notion-of-revolution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/liberated-homs-residents-challenge-notion-of-revolution/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 06:35:03 +0000 Eva Bartlett http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135420 Volunteers have planted a garden in the courtyard of the burned St. Mary's Church in Homs. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS

Volunteers have planted a garden in the courtyard of the burned St. Mary's Church in Homs. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS

By Eva Bartlett
HOMS, Syria, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Al-Waer, Homs’s most populated area and the city’s last insurgent holdout, might soon achieve the truce that Hom’s Old City saw in May this year when, in an exchange deal, the insurgents left their strongholds.

Today, Al-Waer’s population stands at more than 200,000, many of them internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled their homes in other parts of Syria, only to find themselves caught in the middle of the efforts of the Syrian army to eradicate the armed militants.

Homs, Syria’s third largest city and dubbed in the media as the “capital of the revolution”, suffered nearly three years of the insurgents’ presence and the Syrian army’s fight to oust them and restore calm. By May this year, many areas had been destroyed by both army bombing and insurgent rockets and car bombs.

On May 9, 2014, Homs’ Governor Talal Barazi was reported as having declared Homs “empty of guns and fighters” and under a truce agreement, the roughly 1,200 insurgents who had taken over most of the Old City in early 2012 were bussed out and residents could finally return to their neighbourhoods.Many of them [residents of Homs’ Old City] argued that what had happened in Homs was not revolution, as Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt had argued before he was assassinated, just one month before Homs was liberated.

Some of those residents who had stayed on in the Old City of Homs during the siege talked to IPS about their ordeals and losses at the hands of armed groups, including Nusra and Farooq brigades. Many of them argued that what had happened in Homs was not revolution, as Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt had argued before he was assassinated, just one month before Homs was liberated.

“I was baptised in this church, got married in it, and baptised my children in it,” said Abu Nabeel, a resident of Homs’ Old City. The St. George Church, with its crumbling walls, is one of 11 reported destroyed in the Old City. It no longer has its wooden ceiling and ornately-carved wooden ceiling panels and wall lattice lie in heaps outside the ancient church.

“Most of the damage is from the last days just before the insurgents left,” he said. “But we’ll rebuild.”That rebuilding has already begun, with residents scraping away rubble and re-paving small areas that had been damaged.

The arched interior of the St. Mary’s Church (Um al-Zinnar) bears the char marks of its burning by retreating insurgents. Like many others, the church was looted of objects and vandalised, with the insurgents leaving sectarian graffiti on the walls. “Symbols related to Christianity were removed. Even from inside houses. If you had a picture of the Virgin Mary, they removed it,” said Abu Nabeel.

Volunteers have now planted a garden in its courtyard, which they say is an attempt to “bring some beauty back” to Homs.

In the courtyard of the Jesuit church sat a lone plastic chair adorned with flowers and a photo of Father Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest assassinated on April 7, 2014.

Nazim Kanawati, who knew and respected the Jesuit, arrived moments after the 75-year-old priest had been shot in the back of the head.”We were surrounded and under siege. This was the only place we could go to. Everyone loved it here,” he said. Like Father Frans, Kanawati refused to leave Homs while others fled. “I didn’t want to leave, I’m a Syrian, I had the right to be there.”

Although he chose to stay in the Old City, Father Frans was critical of the insurgents. In January 2012, he had written: “From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.”

“People in Homs were already armed and prepared before the protests began,” said Kanawati. “If they hadn’t been planning for the protests from the beginning, the people wouldn’t have had the quantity of arms that they had.”

Abu Nabeel explained that in addition to the Hamidiyeh district where various old churches are to be found, Christians in other areas occupied by the armed insurgents also fled. “There were an estimated 100,000 Christians living in the Old City of Homs before it was taken over by terrorists. Most fled in February 2012. By March, only 800 had stayed, and by the end just over 100 remained,” he said.

The siege that the Syrian army enforced on the Old City in an attempt to drive out the insurgents had a drastic effect on the daily lives of those remaining. Before Homs was freed of the armed insurgents, who were also stealing from homes, life had become impossible. “There was food at the beginning, but it started to run out. At the end we had nothing, we ate whatever we could collect,” said Kanawati.

Mohammed, a Syrian from the Qussoor district of Homs, is now one of the reported 6.5 million internally-displaced Syrians.

“I’m a refugee in Latakia now. I work in Homs, two days a week, and then return to Latakia to stay at my friend’s home. I left my house at the very end of 2011, before the area was taken over by al-Nusra and al-Farooq brigades.”

He spoke of the sectarian nature of the insurgents and protests from the very beginning in 2011.

“I was renting a home in a different neighbourhood of Homs, while renovating my own house. Just beyond my balcony there were protests that did not call for ‘freedom’ or even overthrowing the ‘regime’.They chanted sectarian mottos, they said they would fill al-Zahara – an Alawi neighbourhood – with blood. And also al-Nezha – where there are many Alawis and Christians.”

The windows and door handle to the home of Aymen and Zeinat al-Akhras were missing, but the house itself was intact. Zeinat, a pharmacist, and Aymen, a chemical engineer, survived the presence of the armed men and the resulting siege on the Old City.

“I’ve gained five kilos!” Zeinat said. “I dropped to 34 kilos. Aymen told me to weigh myself. I got on the scale and said, ‘What’s 34 kilos?’. A ten-year-old weighs more than that! And Aymen was 43 kilos. For a man, 43 kilos,” she said laughing.

“Thirty-eight times they came to steal our food. The first couple of times, they knocked on the door, after that they just entered with guns. The last things they took were our dried peas, our cracked wheat, our olives, finally our avatar (wild thyme). We started to eat grass and whatever greens we could find in February, 2014, and that’s all we had till Homs was liberated,” Zeinat said.

“The last time they came all we had were some spices. I was putting the spices on the grass and weeds that we were eating at that point, to give themsome flavour. They even took the spices. They didn’t leave us anything.”

Meanwhile, despite the return of calm to Homs’ Old City, insurgents continue their campaign of car-bombing civilian areas of Homs. Tens were killed by car bombs and rocket attacks in June alone.Then, on June 26, the Nusra brigades, an al-Qaeda affiliate and one of the main factions which occupied Homs, is reported to have pledged allegiance to the Takfiri extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS).

This allegiance to a group documented to have beheaded, mutilated, crucified and flogged Syrians and Iraqis gives more credence to Homs’ residents’opinion that the events in Syria are no revolution.

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Bahrain’s Expulsion of U.S. Official Sets Back Ties, Reform Hopes http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/bahrains-expulsion-of-u-s-official-sets-back-ties-reform-hopes/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bahrains-expulsion-of-u-s-official-sets-back-ties-reform-hopes http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/bahrains-expulsion-of-u-s-official-sets-back-ties-reform-hopes/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 01:55:35 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135419 By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Monday’s expulsion order by Bahrain against a visiting senior U.S. official has set back tentative hopes for internal reforms that could reconcile the kingdom’s Sunni-led government with its majority Shia community and drawn a sharp protest from Washington.

The surprise declaration that Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski was persona non grata (PNG) was greeted with calls by rights groups here and in Bahrain for a strong reaction on Washington’s part.Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority.

For its part, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the expulsion order and denounced the action as “not consistent with the strong partnership between the United States and Bahrain.”

Moreover, the fact that the expulsion order came just two weeks after the widely welcomed acquittal on terrorism charges of a top leader, Khalil al-Marzouq, of the Shi’ite-led al-Wefaq opposition party has created consternation among officials and other observers regarding the kingdom’s intentions.

“This is really an alarm that the U.S. should’ve been hearing for some time now — that it needs to reassess its relationship with the Bahrain government,” said Brian Dooley, a Gulf expert at Human Rights First (HRF).

“It’s an unreliable government with an increasingly erratic ruling family that, on the one hand, is quite happy with U.S. military support, but, on the other, also vilifies U.S. diplomats,” he told IPS in a telephone interview.

Malinowski, an outspoken critic of Bahrain as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch until his nomination as assistant secretary last year, was accused of having “intervened flagrantly in Bahrain’s internal affairs and held meetings with a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors, thus discriminating between one people, contravening diplomatic norms, and flouting normal interstate relations.”

The charge was apparently related to his attendance without the presence of a Foreign Ministry official at a Sunday night Ramadan gathering hosted by al-Wefaq, according to Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While the declaration said Malinowski should leave the country “immediately”, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki told reporters Monday afternoon that he “remains on the ground” in Bahrain and that U.S. officials were in “close touch” with their counterparts in Manama.

Some seven hours later, she issued a stronger written statement noting that Malinowski’s visit to the kingdom “had been coordinated far in advance and warmly welcomed and encouraged by the government of Bahrain, which is well-aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially-recognized political societies.”

As noted by Henderson, “Being PNG’ed is rare and typically seems to occur when an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover is discovered by the host government. For it to happen between allies – and to be publicly revealed – is quite unusual.”

Rarer still is the PNG’ing of a senior official who is not stationed in the host country, according to administration sources who noted that Malinowski’s immediate predecessor as assistant secretary, former HRF director Michael Posner, had visited Bahrain half a dozen times without incident despite well-publicised meetings with opposition and civil-society leaders.

Home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain occupies a strategic position in the Gulf that the Pentagon. Tied to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a causeway, it faces Iran across the Gulf.

Like the other Gulf monarchies, Bahrain’s royal family, the al-Khalifas, are Sunni. But, unlike other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), they rule over a majority Shia population which has long pressed for democratic reform.

During the so-called “Arab Spring” of early 2011, popular pressure for reform featured major demonstrations by opposition and civil-society groups, both Shia and Sunni.

These protests, however, were met with a crackdown by the regime – reinforced by troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — in which several dozen people were killed, several thousand more arrested, hundreds tortured by security forces and in many cases forced to sign confessions, among other abuses, according to an exhaustive report released in November, 2011, by an independent international commission headed by an Egyptian-American jurist, Cherif Bassiouni.

While King Hamad pledged to implement reforms recommended by the commission, virtually no progress has been made to date, according to independent human-rights groups who have noted that, if anything, sectarian tensions have only become worse, often flaring into violence and street battles between Shia youths and security forces.

While Washington, including President Barack Obama himself, has admonished Manama about its human-rights record, called for full implementation of the Bassiouni recommendations, and encouraged reconciliation, it has taken no concrete actions against the government beyond suspending delivery of those parts of a 53-million-dollar arms deal that could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority, although the charges against Marzouq came a day after Vice President Joseph Biden spoke by phone with King Hamad and assured him of “America’s enduring and overlapping interests in Bahrain’s security, stability, and reform.”

Malinowski’s visit was a follow-up to Posner’s periodic visits to demonstrate Washington’s continuing concerns.

“The Bahraini government’s decision to expel Mr. Malinowski for meeting with Al-Wefaq mainstream Shia opposition party belies the government’s recent public relations claims that it was encouraging the opposition to participate in the upcoming elections,” according to Emile Nakhleh, an expert on Bahrain and a former senior regional analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who was himself threatened with expulsion by the Bahraini government when he was a Fulbright Scholar there in 1972.

“Declaring Mr. Malinowski persona non grata should be viewed as part and parcel of Al Khalifa’s incendiary policy of continued massive human rights violations against the Shia majority and the stoking of sectarianism.”

Henderson also warned that Malinowski’s expulsion could derail plans to hold elections in Bahrain this fall, as well as other confidence-building measures “intended to encourage al-Wefaq’s participation.”

“If so, that could please some factions in Bahrain, including the minority Sunnis who regard their Shiite countrymen with suspicion.” The expulsion, he said, “represents a hugely convenient nadir in bilateral relations, which both countries will need to rebuild quickly before the negative consequences spread.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

 

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Lebanon’s Closed Doors for Palestinian Refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/lebanons-closed-doors-for-palestinian-refugees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=lebanons-closed-doors-for-palestinian-refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/lebanons-closed-doors-for-palestinian-refugees/#comments Sun, 06 Jul 2014 10:02:35 +0000 Mutawalli Abou Nasser http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135390 Palestinian refugees in makeshift shelter in Lebanon. Credit: Mutuwalli Abou Nasser/IPS

Palestinian refugees in makeshift shelter in Lebanon. Credit: Mutuwalli Abou Nasser/IPS

By Mutawalli Abou Nasser
BEIRUT, Jul 6 2014 (IPS)

Tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Syria have been uprooted since the violent government crackdown on the uprising and the ensuing battles that ensnared their communities. For around 50,000 of them, Lebanon was their only safe route out but now it seems this door is being closed on them.

The family of 19-year-old Iyad was exiled from Palestine in 1948 upon creation of the state of Israel and fled to Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria, where they settled but violence and war have once again uprooted their community. Iyad now finds himself on the run from Syria, but his security in Lebanon is far from assured.

Having fled to Lebanon in December last year, Iyad was intent on traveling onto Libya and from there to make the perilous journey to the now renowned Italian island of Lampedusa. However, last month his plans were thwarted when the Lebanese security services detained him, along with 48 other young Palestinian men, as they tried to leave Lebanon through Rafiq Hariri airport in Beirut.Trapped in a Kafkaesque labyrinth, more and more Palestinians are being forced to smuggle themselves across the border, putting themselves in the increasingly vulnerable position of living in Lebanon without valid papers.

After less than ten hours of investigation, the officials decided to deport the young men back to Syria because they did not have the correct papers. In taking this step the Lebanese authorities were reneging on a previous policy not to forcibly return any refugees fleeing the bloodshed next door.

Under the new restrictions, Palestinians from Syria cannot enter the country unless they have permission from the Lebanese General Security and meanwhile the Syrian authorities are not giving permission for any Palestinians to leave for Lebanon without prior consent from the Lebanese embassy.

What is more, border guards have the discretion to turn Palestinians back without referring back to the main authorities in Beirut. Trapped in a Kafkaesque labyrinth, more and more Palestinians are being forced to smuggle themselves across the border, putting themselves in the increasingly vulnerable position of living in Lebanon without valid papers.

Human Rights Watch has warned that the Lebanese government is violating the international principle of “non-refoulement”, which forbids states from returning asylum seekers or refugees to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

“There is no way I can return to Syria, not under any conditions. I am of military age and I know they will take me into the army and make me carry arms and kill. I will not do it. I will not fire a gun in a fight that is not my fight,” said Iyad. He has since made his way back into Lebanon where he is lying low.

Mahmoud was among the group alongside Iyad, but now he talks of his fears of being snapped up by the Syrian security services if he crosses back into Syria. He does not have many options but he says he will “do the impossible” not to return to Syria.

“I know I am wanted by the Syrian security services and we all know what happens once you go into one of those places, it’s a one way ticket. They don’t even deliver the bodies to the family. They just tell them their son has died of an illness and that they are keeping the body,” he told IPS.

“We are worried that if they start deporting our youngsters and they are wanted by the security services on the other side then we know very well their fate is either prison or death. We need an answer to the question of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria, especially as the one window they used to have was Lebanon,” said local human rights monitor, Alaa al Sahli.

The Lebanese government clearly has the right to defend its borders and the huge influx of refugees is putting immense strain on the country but the Palestinians desperate for some semblance of safety and security are asking why they are the ones being singled out.

The United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East said it have been given assurances by the Lebanese government that the restrictions are only temporary but to date there has been no indication of a change of course. Dozens of Palestinian families have been separated or stranded with the change in the rules.

Nour came to Lebanon with her family around a year ago but with their finances drying up and no end of sight to the fighting in Syria they decided to try and emigrate as refugees to Europe.

Nour borrowed the equivalent of 400 dollars to travel back to Syria with her little daughter to fix all the papers that the family would need to travel to Europe. It was too expensive to travel with her husband and three other children so they stayed in Lebanon. Having jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops, Nour and her daughter returned to the border only to be refused entry by the Lebanese officials there.

“I don’t know what happened. It makes no sense. My husband and children are in Lebanon and I am here with my daughter. The border guard told me that I can’t get through and the rest of the family will have to come back to Syria if I want them to be with me, but what do they expect me to do? Take my family and go and live on the streets to face hunger and war and death?” she said.

A briefing issued on July 1 by Amnesty International highlights the desperate plight of families torn apart while trying to cross into Lebanon. Among others, the human rights organisation says that its research has found evidence of a policy to deny Palestinian refugees from Syria entry into Lebanon altogether – regardless of whether they meet the new conditions of entry.

This evidence includes a leaked document, apparently from the security services, instructing airlines using the main Beirut airport not to transport any traveller who is a Palestinian refugee from Syria to Lebanon, regardless of the documents they may hold.

“The Lebanese authorities must immediately end the blatantly discriminatory policies towards Palestinian refugees arriving from Syria. While the influx of refugees has placed an immense strain on Lebanon’s resources, there is no excuse for abandoning Palestinian refugees who are seeking safety in Lebanon,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have always been marginalised, and often scapegoated, especially since their prominent role in Lebanon’s own protracted civil war from 1975 to 1990. Now, as the region is fracturing under the strain of the Syria conflict, they find themselves once again pilloried and punished for a war that was not of their making.

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Trouble Brewing in Kurdish-Controlled Kirkuk http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/trouble-brewing-in-kurdish-controlled-kirkuk/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=trouble-brewing-in-kurdish-controlled-kirkuk http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/trouble-brewing-in-kurdish-controlled-kirkuk/#comments Tue, 01 Jul 2014 07:01:29 +0000 Mohammed A. Salih http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135306 By Mohammed A. Salih
KIRKUK, Iraq, Jul 1 2014 (IPS)

The Kurdish flag is flying high in the wind from the rooftop of an old brick house inside Kirkuk’s millennia-old citadel, as Rashid – a stern-looking man sitting behind a machine gun – monitors the surroundings.

Rashid commands a small unit of a dozen fighters, members of the Kurdish armed forces – known as the Peshmerga – deployed to the oil-rich province since June 13.

On June 12, the Iraqi army evacuated its positions in Kirkuk province after its troops had earlier conceded control of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, in the face of advancing Sunni militant groups led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

“Since we have been deployed here things have changed,” says Rashid, a Peshmerga for 25 years, with a sense of pride. “It’s safer now and people can go out and do their daily business.”By appearing to favour Shia armed elements, Kurds might risk alienating the local Sunni Arabs and potentially push them toward cooperation with ISIS and other militant Sunni factions.

However, although the deployment of thousands of Peshmerga troops has in fact brought relative calm to the city so far, trouble appears to be brewing.

Rich in natural resources such as oil and home to a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, Kirkuk is no stranger to conflict. It has been at the heart of decades of armed and political struggles between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments.

Since the Kurdish takeover there, armed Shia groups have been flexing their muscles, a move that has infuriated the considerable Sunni Arab population in the province and could be a potentially destabilising factor, while insurgent activity by Sunni militants continues in some parts of the province and has left tens of casualties behind so far.

The local office of the influential Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr organised a military parade on June 21 in which hundreds of armed Shia men walked through the streets in downtown Kirkuk.

“The parade was meant to send a couple of messages. One was a message of reassurance to all Iraqis that there are soldiers to defend all segments of the people,” says Sheikh Raad al-Sakhri, the local representative of Sadr, sitting on the floor of his well-protected Khazal al-Tamimi mosque. “And the other was a message to terrorists that there is another army ready to fight for the sake of the country if the [official] military [forces] fall short of their duties.”

Al-Sakhri might claim his men will protect everyone, but the Sunni Arabs here are not convinced.

At the peak of Iraq’s sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007, Sadr’s Mahdi Army was seen as responsible for summary execution of thousands of Sunnis in the capital Baghdad and other areas.

“A question for the local government [in Kirkuk] is will it allow Sunni Arabs to carry out a similar (military) parade,” says Massoud Zangana, a former human rights activist turned businessman, who alleges he has been threatened with death by Shia armed groups.  “The number of Sunni Arabs is more than the Shia in this city.”

Zangana owns a television channel called Taghyir – Arabic for ‘Change’ – that broadcasts from Amman, Jordan, which some Iraqis refer to as the “Revolution Channel” for its steady coverage of Sunni protests two years ago and of the current fight between Sunni militants and the Iraqi army.

Local media are also buzzing with reports that the central government in Baghdad has delivered a couple of arms’ shipments via the city’s airport to Shia militiamen here.

Officials in Kirkuk or Baghdad have not confirmed those reports.

“Giving weapons to official security forces is okay but providing arms to one side to fight the others is wrong,” says Mohammed Khalil Joburi, a Sunni Arab member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, wishing that the news of arm deliveries is not true.

The local government in Kirkuk is run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major Kurdish party that has close relationship with Iran. Many in the local media speculate that the PUK-controlled administration in Kirkuk had possibly agreed to the military display by Shia groups under pressure from Iraq’s powerful eastern neighbour, Iran.

Despite the appearance of relative calm, tensions are high in Kirkuk and security forces are visible throughout the city.

By appearing to favour Shia armed elements, Kurds might risk alienating the local Sunni Arabs and potentially push them toward cooperation with ISIS and other militant Sunni factions.

In Bashir, a village in southern Kirkuk populated by Shia Turkmen, local Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have clashed with ISIS and other Sunni militant groups.

In the western part of the province around Hawija district, the Kurdish Peshmerga have repeatedly fought against ISIS and its local allies.

Kirkuk has not been spared suicide attacks, a trademark of ISIS and jihadist groups.

On June 25, a suicide attack killed at least five people and injured around two dozen others.

The challenge before Kurds who effectively rule most parts of the province is to prevent a spillover of violence and sectarian divisions in other parts of the country into Kirkuk.

Kurds view Kirkuk as part of their homeland, Kurdistan, and hope they can maintain their current military and political dominance in the city.

In the latest Iraqi parliamentary elections in April, Kurds won eight out of the 12 parliamentary seats allocated to the province.

Kirkuk’s vast oil fields have the capacity to produce around half a million barrels of oil per day and Kurds consider Kirkuk central to their aspirations to build an independent state.

Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, recently said that he will deploy as many forces as needed to maintain Kurdish control of the contested province. 

On June 30, Barzani asked the head of United Nations Mission to Iraq to organise a referendum in which Kirkuk’s residents can decide whether they want to be part of the Kurdistan Region.

The official territory of the Kurdistan Region includes Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk provinces.

But after the Iraqi military’s recent defeat at the hand of ISIS-led Sunni militant groups, Kurds have expanded their control over large parts of the neighbouring Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces.

Now in charge of Kirkuk, the challenge for Kurds is walking a fine line between Shia and Sunni, Arab and Turkmen populations to maintain order in the medium and long term.

In a deeply-divided city facing the threat of jihadists close by, Kirkuk’s Shia and Sunni leaders who spoke to IPS appeared to have no objection to Peshmerga’s control of Kirkuk, at least in the short term.

In the heart of the city’s historic citadel, Rashid and his young men are well aware of the difficult task lying ahead. “We are here to protect all groups … We don’t wish to fight but this area is surrounded by ISIS and all sorts of other groups,” says Rashid.

“We don’t know what their goal is, but we are on alert here.”

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Syrian Kurds Have Their Own TV Against All Odds http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/syrian-kurds-have-their-own-tv-against-all-odds/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrian-kurds-have-their-own-tv-against-all-odds http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/syrian-kurds-have-their-own-tv-against-all-odds/#comments Mon, 30 Jun 2014 15:31:17 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135259 Rudi Mohamed Amid gets set before going live at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds´ TV channel. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Rudi Mohamed Amid gets set before going live at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds´ TV channel. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
QAMISHLI, Syria, Jun 30 2014 (IPS)

Rudi Mohamed Amid gives his script one quick, last glance before he goes live. “Roj bas, Kurdistan (Good morning, Kurdistan),” he greets his audience, with the assuredness of a veteran journalist. However, hardly anyone at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds’ first and only television channel, had any media experience before the war.

After Syria’s uprising began in 2011, local Kurds distanced themselves from both the government and opposition, sticking to what they call a “third way”. In July 2012, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad loosened his grip on Syria’s Kurdish region and that the country’s biggest minority – between 3 and 4 million, depending on the source – claimed those parts in northern Syria where the Kurdish population is primarily located.

The relative stability of the northeast led to a myriad of civil initiatives that were unthinkable for decades. The Kurdish language, long banned under the ruling Assad family – first Hafez and then his son, Bashar – gained momentum: it was taught for the first time in schools, printed in magazines and newspapers, and it is the language spoken on air through the Ronahi (“Light” in Kurdish) TV station.

But despite such significant steps, life in this part of the world remains inevitably linked to the conflict.“250 people work as volunteers at Ronahi TV. Funds come from the people, either here or in the diaspora and our employees get between the equivalent of 30 and 90 dollars per month, depending on each one's needs” – Perwin Legerin, general manager of Ronahi TV

“I was studying oil engineering at the University of Homs, but I returned home, to Qamishli – 600 km northeast of the capital Damascus – when the war started,” recalls Reperin Ramadan, 21, operating one of the three cameras at Ronahi’s studio.

Syria’s northeast is an oil-rich region, so had Ramadan finished his studies, he could have applied for a job at the Rumelan oil field, less than 100 km east of Qamishli. The plant has remained under Kurdish control since March 1, 2013, but it has gradually come to a halt due to the war.

Besides, Ramadan’s former university town has been levelled to the ground after being heavily bombed by Assad´s forces. Unsurprisingly, Ramadan says he has “completely ruled out” becoming an oil engineer.

Once the programme is over, Perwin Legerin, general manager, helps to unwrap boxes of light bulbs, waiting to be hung from atop the TV set. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old briefs IPS on those who make all this happen:

“250 people work as volunteers at Ronahi TV. Funds come from the people, either here or in the diaspora and our employees get between the equivalent of 30 and 90 dollars per month, depending on each one’s needs.”

Legerin added that Qamishli hosts the channel’s main headquarters, and that there are also offices in Kobani and Afrin – the two other Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north.

Supplying the three centres with the necessary equipment is seemingly one of the biggest challenges.

“We still lack a lot of stuff to be able to work in proper conditions mainly because both Ankara and Erbil – the administrative capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region – are enforcing a blockade on us, hardly letting in any equipment across their borders,” lamented Legerin.

The young manager admitted that the recent Sunni uprising in the bordering western provinces of Iraq poses “yet another threat to Kurdish aspirations.”

Against all odds, Ronahi still manages to reach its public seven days a week, mainly in Kurdish, but also in Arabic and English. There are interviews with senior political and military representatives, documentaries, funerals of fallen Kurdish soldiers, but also a good dose of traditional music to cope with the war drama. Needless to say, fresh news and updates from the frontlines are constant.

But not every Syrian Kurd supports the station. Several local Kurdish opposition sectors accuse Ronahi of being biased and on the side of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant party among the Syrian Kurds.

“I cannot but disagree with such statements,” said Perwin Legerin. “We show stories from all sides and all peoples in Rojava – that´s the name local Kurds give to their area – and Syria, but there´s little we can do if somebody refuses our invitation to come to our studio and share their point of view.”

Syrian Kurdish politics are, indeed, a thorny issue. A majority of the opposition parties are backed by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) while around three others are backed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.

The PYD has repeatedly said that it has an agenda akin to that of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Salih Muslim, PYD co-chair with Asia Abdullah – they scrupulously follow gender parity – told IPS that Ronahi is “a mirror of society in Rojava which has already become part of people´s life.”

For the time being, Syrian Kurdish forces keep engaging in clashes with both government and opposition forces. Sozan Cudi knows it well. This young soldier was just a high school student when the war started. Today, she receives video training at the station, two hours a day, three days a week. Ronahi´s management told IPS that their training courses are “open and accessible for anyone willing to participate.”

“Three of us were told by our commanders to come and get training in media for a month,” recalled the 20-year-old Cudi, a member of the YPJ (Kurdish initials for “Women’s Protection Units”). The YPJ is affiliated to the YPG  (People’s Protection Units), a military body of around 45,000 fighters deployed across Syria’s Kurdish regions.

“Journalism in Syria often involves working in the frontlines and not everyone is ready to risk that much,” noted Cudi. “I´m ready to hold a rifle to fight our enemies, or a camera to show their atrocities, whatever is needed to achieve our rights,” she added, just before her lesson.

Serekaniye – Ras al-Ain in Arabic, 570 km northeast of Damascus – is one of those towns which has seen intense violence over the last years. Abas Aisa, a producer at Ronahi, escaped just in time from this village on the Turkish border where Islamic extremists have reportedly been funnelled into the area to quell the Kurdish autonomous project.

“Our small village had a mixed Arab and Kurdish population, but many people have left and the place remains under the control of Jihadist groups,” Aisa, whose family is Arab, told IPS.

The 30-year-old is one among several other non-Kurds working at Ronahi. He said he has always been fluent in Kurdish thanks to his neighbours back home.

“My parents are still in the village, so I’m constantly thinking about them,” admitted Aisa, explaining that he doubts he will go back any time soon. Nonetheless, he believes his parents will feel reassured “as long as Ronahi keeps reaching their living room.”

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