Posts Tagged ‘Arabs’

Israeli Minister Proposes Plan to Reduce Number of Arabs in Jerusalem

October 29, 2017

By Nir Hasson and Jonathan Lis

Zeev Elkin wants to divide Jerusalem and create an Israeli municipality for Palestinians in several neighborhoods situated beyond the separation barrier in the city

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Shoafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, next to the West Bank separation barrier. Olivier Fitoussi


Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin has unveiled his proposal for the municipal division of Jerusalem, which would see several Arab neighborhoods beyond the West Bank separation barrier split off from the Jerusalem municipality and be placed under the jurisdiction of one or more new council administrations.

The move will require the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the completion of various legislative amendments, whose first reading was already passed by the Knesset in July.

Elkin said he believed his plan, which he intends to promote in the coming weeks, will not face serious resistance from either the right or left.


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The neighborhoods that would be excluded from Jerusalem’s municipal borders under the bill. Haaretz

This is the first attempt to reduce the municipal area of Jerusalem since it was expanded after the Six-Day War in 1967. It is also the first attempt to establish an extraordinary Israeli local council whose inhabitants are not Israeli citizens, but rather Palestinians with the status of permanent residents only.

The neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier are the Shoafat refugee camp and a neighborhood adjacent to it in northeast Jerusalem, Kafr Aqab, as well as Walajah, in the southern part of the city, and a small part of the neighborhood of Sawahra.


No one knows precisely how many people live in these areas. The figure is estimated at between 100,000 and 150,000, one-third to one-half of whom have Israeli identity cards and residency status. Since the construction of the separation barrier some 13 years ago (the barrier at Walajah is currently being completed), these areas have been cut off from Jerusalem, though they still come under the capital’s jurisdiction.

Following construction of the barrier, the Jerusalem Municipality, police and other Israeli agencies stopped providing services in these areas. Anarchy reigned in the near-absence of police and construction inspectors, with very serious infrastructure problems. Tens of thousands of housing units were constructed without permits, and crime organizations and drug dealers have proliferated.

“The current system has completely failed,” Elkin said. “The moment they routed the barrier the way they did, it was a mistake. But at the moment, there are two municipal areas – Jerusalem and these neighborhoods, and the connection between them is very loose.

Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister Zeev Elkin with Culture Minister Miri Regev, June 2017.Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

“The army can’t formally act there, the police go in only for operations, and the area has become a no-man’s-land,” he added. “Providing services of any kind has become dangerous, and tall buildings and such high density as this can’t even be seen in Tel Aviv.”

Elkin also cited the danger that the buildings could collapse in an earthquake.

However, these are not the only problems worrying Elkin. He is also concerned with the rapid demographic growth in these areas, and its impact on the balance between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.

Many of the families in these neighborhoods consist of one parent who is an Israeli resident, and therefore the children are Israeli residents – which increases the number of Palestinian residents in Jerusalem.

According to Elkin, cheap housing, proximity to Jerusalem and the lawlessness prevailing there have made these neighborhoods a magnet for people from Jerusalem and the West Bank. “There are also dramatic impacts in terms of the Jewish majority and because you can’t improve the standard of living there, because we expect [the population] will continue to grow,” Elkin said.

The minister added: “Precisely because I believe in their electoral right and I want them to use it, I cannot be indifferent to the danger of the loss of a Jewish majority that is caused not by natural processes, but by illegal migration into the State of Israel that there is no way for me to prevent.”

Elkin said various solutions had previously been examined in order to tackle the problem. In terms of security and ideologically, the minister said he rejected solutions such as handing the neighborhoods over to the Palestinian Authority. He also rejected changing the route of the separation barrier for security, financial and legal reasons.

The details of Elkin’s plan are not final. It is unclear whether this will be a single regional council without territorial contiguity or two regional councils. So far, the residents have not agreed to hold elections to establish the new municipal entity, and in the initial years it would operate under an administration appointed by the interior minister.

“I have no doubt that for this plan to succeed, cooperation will have to develop with the local leadership,” Elkin said. “Their interest is in changing their intolerable living conditions. It might take time, because there is a lot of mistrust – but it can’t get any worse,” he added. Elkin pledged significant government investment in the neighborhoods.

Elkin has been working on his plan for several months. When Education Minister Naftali Bennett raised his proposal to amend the Basic Law on Jerusalem, Elkin feared if that bill passed in its current form, it would put his own plan at risk – since Bennett’s proposal would prevent a future division of Jerusalem.

To address this issue, Elkin inserted an ambiguous clause into Bennett’s bill: This would make it impossible to give any part of Jerusalem to the PA, but the municipality could be divided into smaller Israeli council entities.

Most of the lawmakers supporting Bennett’s bill did not know they were voting for a bill that might involve splitting off parts of the Jerusalem municipality. But Bennett’s acceptance of the clause allowed the governing coalition to support the bill, and the law passed with the automatic support of most of the coalition.

Elkin said the legislation would be completed in November and would then be presented to Netanyahu. If the prime minister, who is aware of the details of the plan, supports it, it could move ahead quickly. Legally, the plan does not require Knesset legislation, but only a decision by the interior minister.

“This idea is not easy for either the left or the right to accept,” Elkin said. “Each side can see benefits, but on the other hand there are dangers. It’s true that if someone wants to transfer this area [to Palestinian administration], it will be easier to do so,” he added.

In political circles, it is believed that the plan’s main opponent will be Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, because the municipality stands to lose major funding if it loses administrative control of these neighborhoods. The PA is also expected to oppose the plan, seeing it as an attempt to increase the number of Jews in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the coalition is also promoting a plan by MK Yoav Kish (Likud) that would annex – municipally, but not politically – the residents of the settlements situated near the capital under one municipal roof. This would add hundreds of thousands of Jewish voters to the Jerusalem Municipality, and on paper would change the demographic balance of the city.

Although it is on the agenda for the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s meeting on Sunday, there will be no vote on the bill at the meeting. According to a senior member of the coalition, this is because the bill in its current form “invites international pressure and contains serious legal problems. Netanyahu can’t allow himself to promote this form of the bill at this time.”

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Abbas: Trump ‘serious’ about Israel-Palestine peace

March 30, 2017


© PPO/AFP | Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas attending talks of the Arab League summit in the Jordanian Dead Sea resort of Sweimeh on March 29, 2017
RAMALLAH (PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES) (AFP) – President Donald Trump is “serious” about solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas said ahead of a meeting with the US leader.

“The US administration of President Donald Trump is seriously considering a solution to the Palestinian issue,” Abbas told AFP late Wednesday after a meeting of the Arab League in Jordan.

Abbas met with Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt before leaving for the summit and said contacts with the administration were ongoing.

“(There is) continuing dialogue with the American administration and there were a number of issues they wanted our opinion on or our answer to them,” he added.

“We gave them our position on all their questions.”

Abbas is expected to meet with Trump in Washington for the first time in April.

Trump is also expected to meet other Arab leaders in the coming weeks, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Trump caused alarm among Palestinians and many parts of the international community in February when he broke with years of US policy in support of the two-state solution, meaning an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said at the White House before a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas said the Arab League summit on Wednesday confirmed that the Arab world had a “clear” vision for peace on the basis of two-states.

In their final statement, the leaders called for a revival of “serious and productive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians” and renewed their commitment to a two-state solution.

Democrats Turn Against Israel

March 20, 2017

In 1972 ours was the first party to back moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Rep. Keith Ellison on Capitol Hill, Feb. 1.

Rep. Keith Ellison on Capitol Hill, Feb. 1. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Rep. Keith Ellison’s selection as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee is the latest ratification of our party’s turn away from Israel. Mr. Ellison, who complained in 2010 that “United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” narrowly lost a bid for DNC chairman, then was chosen by acclamation as deputy.

The Democrats used to be the pro-Israel party. President Truman recognized the Jewish state within minutes of its independence in 1948. In 1972 the convention that nominated George McGovern ratified the first major-party platform to support moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. The Republicans didn’t follow until 1996.

A lot has changed for the Democrats in 45 years. President Obama created an atmosphere of outright hostility between the U.S. and Israel. He made a nuclear deal with Iran and refused to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution in December that condemned settlements in the disputed West Bank.

Hillary Clinton might have been an improvement, but her commitment to Israel has long been questioned. As secretary of state, she referred to Israeli settlements as “illegitimate.” In 2015 she had to reassure donors to her presidential campaign that she still supported Israel. Even during Bill Clinton’s administration, pro-Israel Democrats worried that Mrs. Clinton would influence her husband in the wrong direction.

Then there’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, who as a presidential candidate in April 2016 accused Israel of being “indiscriminate” in “attacks against civilian areas” when defending itself against rockets fired by terrorists from Gaza. Mr. Sanders received 43% of Democratic primary votes.

How did this happen? There was once an inexorable link between support for Israel and for the civil-rights movement. Both were responses to invidious discrimination—anti-Semitism and racism. Starting in the mid-1960s, however, an anti-Israel minority emerged in the form of the New Left. These groups—such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers—saw Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as engaged in a “just struggle for liberation” as Panthers founder Huey P. Newton put it.

In the 1970s elements of the left became steadily more hostile to Israel. A turning point came in 1975, when the U.N. passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. That provided an intellectual and political opening for those who wanted to drive a wedge between supporters of Israel and of civil rights.

An organization called Basic—Black Americans to Support Israel Committee—was formed to condemn the resolution. “We seek to defend democracy in the Mideast, and therefore we support Israel,” the civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin declared. Unfortunately, that was the last time the organized Jewish and black communities worked together.

In 1979 President Carter fired U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, the first African-American to hold that position, for violating U.S. policy by meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Young’s dismissal led several black leaders to break with their Jewish allies on Israel.

In 1984 Jesse Jackson, who’d publicly embraced PLO head Yasser Arafat five years earlier, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. A Washington Post story about his difficult relationship with Jews quoted him as using the slur “Hymie” and calling New York City “Hymietown.” Mr. Jackson won 3.3 million votes in the primaries. He ran again in 1988 and more than doubled the total, to 6.9 million—another sign of the party’s slow shift.

There are still pro-Israel Democrats, but they are beleaguered and equivocal. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, now the minority leader, described himself in 2010 as the Senate’s protector of Israel: “My name . . . comes from a Hebrew word. It comes from the word shomer, which mean guardian.” But how effectively has he played that role?

In 2015 Mr. Schumer was one of four Senate Democrats to vote against Mr. Obama’s Iran deal. But killing it would have taken 13 Democrats, and Politico reported Mr. Schumer phoned Democratic colleagues to “assure them he would not be whipping opposition to the deal.” Mr. Schumer—whose Brooklyn apartment building has been protested by leftist opponents of President Trump—was also an early backer of Mr. Ellison for the party chairmanship.

One reason Democrats have continued the move away from Israel is that Jewish voters haven’t exacted a price for it. Exit polls in 2016 found they supported Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Trump, 71% to 23%, in line with their historic levels of Democratic support.

There’s still an opportunity here for the GOP. Especially if Mr. Trump delivers on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the Jewish vote could start trending Republican. Unless Democrats reaffirm their support for Israel, many lifelong party members—ourselves included—may decide that the time has come to find new political affiliations.

Mr. Stein, who held elective office in New York between 1969 and 1994, is now a business consultant. Mr. Schoen served as a political adviser and pollster for President Clinton, 1994-2000.

Gulf Arab Allies of the U.S. Aghast at Iran’s Syria gains, Hope Trump team can turn the tide

December 20, 2016
By William Maclean | RIYADH

“Where are you, Oh Arabs, Oh Muslims, while we are being slaughtered?”

An old man’s cry, in a video posted online from Aleppo’s ruins, poses an uncomfortable question for the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab states backing rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Iran and Russia.

For Saudi Arabia, locked in a regional struggle with Iran, Assad’s capture of the rebel haven reflects a dangerous tilt in the Middle East balance of power toward Tehran.

Dismayed by this boost to Iranian ambitions for a “Shi’ite crescent” of influence from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, Riyadh is determined to reverse Tehran’s gains sooner or later.

Countering Iran, buoyed by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, remains central to Gulf Arab policy but it is not clear how this might be achieved, especially when other concerns are multiplying.

Beset by low oil prices, at war in Yemen, and ties with Egypt strained, Riyadh and Gulf allies are questioning how much armed help they should now give the rebels, diplomats say.

The monarchies are frustrated with President Barack Obama’s light touch approach to the war – relying on local fighters instead of large U.S. military deployments or missile strikes.

President-elect Donald Trump poses an intriguing contrast.


Seen as more decisive than Obama, Trump’s choices of James Mattis, a retired Marine general distrustful of Iran, as Defense Secretary, and oil man Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, have pleased Gulf Arab energy exporters.

But much remains uncertain, not least Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally.

“What we have learned from the U.S. election is to wait for actions, not words,” said former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

A senior Western diplomat said Saudi officials were curious to see how Trump translates into policy his campaign criticism of Iran and his praise of Putin.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said he had spent time in the United States to sound out the next administration.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva (2 May 2015)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. May 2, 2016 — photo from AFP.

Officials said Gulf states were asking Trump associates about Syria, to assess whether he would pursue a U.S.-led effort with Gulf states, Turkey and Western nations to arm the rebels.

Trump has indicated he may abandon the rebels to focus on fighting Islamic State.

Gulf Arab states want to test that view, said one Western official. A Gulf state foreign ministry official described Trump as “a businessman with whom you can make a deal”.


Gulf humanitarian aid will remain: Sunni Arab societies will not accept curbs on relief to the mostly Sunni country, after a war that has forced 5 million Syrians to flee and killed 300,000.

But the extent of their armed support appears in question.

Qatar, with Saudi Arabia the most enthusiastic backer of the rebels, says it would prefer to continue military aid but insists this should remain a collective effort.

Proclaiming “great faith” in Trump, Asaad al-Zoubi, Saudi-based chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Council, said some rebel backers had met Trump advisers to explain their cause. “They did not receive an answer from Trump’s people. They (the advisers) wanted to listen more than they wanted to answer,” he said.

Sami alFaraj, a security adviser to the Gulf Cooperation Council of six Gulf Arab states, told Reuters that the Gulf countries “need to regroup, have a strategic pause and look at how we pursue our objectives in the time ahead.”

“The Syrian case has not been closed,” he said. They would push for a transitional administration in Syria – something neither Assad nor Tehran accepts.


Any notion of Gulf Arab leverage in future negotiations seems far-fetched, given the determination of Assad, Moscow and Tehran to carve out territorial gains.

But Jubeir told the Arab League in Cairo that if world powers failed to constrain Assad there would be no political solution to the war.

“If we cannot find an effective way to pressure the Syrian regime, we will not reach a political solution and the killing, displacement, and injustice in Syria will go on,” Jubeir said.

While drawn to Trump, the Gulf monarchies feel his views are not fully formed, and they want to do nothing that might cause him to harm their interests.

AlFaraj said he expected Trump to deal favorably with Gulf states, which have the wealth to help create U.S. jobs. He believed a suggestion by Trump that Gulf states pay for safe zones in Syria was worth considering.

“If he wants to create jobs there is no better field than selling weapons,” alFaraj said. “We are the only people who have surplus cash.”

However, Arab resentment at Western inaction over Syria appears deep and enduring.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, foreign minister of Bahrain, an ally of Riyadh, told Reuters: “The whole thing in Syria was because of disengagement from world powers about how to deal with the matter. So with all the changes in the political leadership (in the West) let’s hope for some new commitment for Syria.”

Asked if it was realistic to back rebels who had lost their major urban stronghold, he replied: “Do you think its realistic that we should also allow such bloodshed and people dying to go on and on and on. What’s the next city after Aleppo?”

(Additional reporting by Katie Paul; Editing by Giles Elgood)

France Sending Planes to Help Israel Fight Fires

November 24, 2016

NOV. 24, 2016

JERUSALEM — The Latest on the wildfires in Israel (all times local):

8 p.m.

France says it is sending firefighting planes to Israel to help battle a series of wildfires across the country.

The French presidency said Thursday that President Francois Hollande had instructed his interior minister to dispatch three aircraft.

It says the planes will depart “as soon as possible.” They will join a multinational firefighting effort that has also included assistance from Russia, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia.


7:45 p.m.

The Palestinian Authority has offered Israel assistance in combatting raging wildfires across the country.

The offer comes as Israeli leaders are implying that Arab arsonists are behind some of the fires.

The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Thursday that the Palestinians offered teams of firefighters to help join an international effort to extinguish the fires.

Yousef Nassar, the director general of the Palestinian Civil Defense, said the offer was “a humanitarian message.” The Palestinians assisted Israel during a deadly wildfire in 2010.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said some of the fires roaring around the country were the result of “terror,” an apparent reference to Arab or Palestinian assailants.

Some 50,000 people have been evacuated from Israel’s third-largest city Haifa, the site of the largest fires.


7 p.m.

Israel’s prime minister is blaming “arsonists’ terror” for some of the fires raging across the country.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Haifa, where the largest of several wildfires around the country has prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, Benjamin Netanyahu said those setting the fires would be “punished severely.”

Netanyahu did not elaborate on the identity of the suspected arsonists or their motives, but Israeli officials typically use “terror” to refer to Arab or Palestinian militant activity.

Earlier, Israel’s police chief said arrests have been made, without elaborating.

Some 50,000 people have been evacuated from Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Fires have been sparked around the country for several days, with dry, windy weather spreading the flames quickly.


10:30 a.m.

Israeli police have arrested four Palestinians in connection with one of several large fires that damaged homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of people over the past few days.

Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Thursday that police are investigating all possible causes, including arson. Windy and hot weather have helped fan the flames.

He says the blazes started three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together.

Later, fires erupted in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere near Jerusalem. In all, hundreds of homes have been damaged and thousands of people have been evacuated. About a dozen were treated for smoke inhalation.

Cyprus, Russia, Italy and other countries are assisting the Israeli firefighters with equipment as the fires continue.



BBC News

Tens of thousands of people are being evacuated as wildfires rage through parts of Israel’s third largest city of Haifa.

The fires follow a two-month drought and are being fanned by strong winds in the north of the city.

Wildfires are also threatening homes near Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Israel’s police chief said arson was suspected in some cases and PM Benjamin Netanyahu said any such attacks would amount to “terror”.

“Every fire that was the result of arson or incitement to arson is terror in every way and we’ll treat it as such,” he was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as saying.

“Anyone who tries to burn parts of the state of Israel will be severely punished.”

Police chief Roni Alsheich said that if fires had been started deliberately it was “safe to assume… it is politically-motivated”.

In pictures: Israeli wildfires

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, also appeared to suggest Arab or Palestinian involvement in the fires, writing on Twitter: “Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it.”

On social media, the Arabic-language hashtag #Israel_on_fire began trending, with most tweets expressing pleasure over the outbreak.

Residents flee fire in HaifaImage copyrightAP
Image captionHuge flames roared between apartment blocks as residents fled

Four Palestinians have been arrested in connection with a fire near Jerusalem and are due to appear in court, officials said.

The Palestinian Authority has offered to help Israel’s fire department, a senior Israeli security official told the BBC, but has not yet received a reply.

Meanwhile, hundreds of military reservists have been called up to help battle the three-day outbreak of fires.

Map showing Haifa

In Haifa, about 50,000 of the city’s residents had left their homes, the city council said, and several neighbourhoods will be without electricity overnight.

People loaded up supermarket trolleys with belongings, while schools, kindergartens, universities and an old people’s hospital were evacuated.

More than 130 people have been taken to hospital with minor injuries, mainly from smoke inhalation, but most were later discharged, Haaretz reported.

Two prisons near Haifa have also been evacuated.

Further south, Highway 443 – which links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, crossing through the West Bank – was closed to morning traffic on Thursday as another blaze reached the city of Modi’in.

Homes and cars were damaged, and 300 students were evacuated from a school in Talmon, an Israel settlement in the occupied West Bank, police said.

Car passing fire in HaifaImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionMonths of dry weather have left the country vulnerable to fires

Firefighters have been battling fires in several locations since Tuesday and forecasters are warning that the dry conditions and strong winds are likely to continue until early next week.

Several countries – including Cyprus, Russia, Italy, Croatia and Greece – have sent help and equipment, including aircraft, to help tackle the blazes.

Mr Netanyahu said officials were also contacting the US company which operates a huge firefighting plane known as the “Supertanker”.

In 2010, 42 people died in a fire on Mount Carmel, just south of Haifa.

In Raqqa offensive, Kurds seek ‘insurance’ against Turkish attack

November 8, 2016


© Delil Souleiman, AFP | Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces attend a funeral for fellow fighters in the town of Kobane in June 2016. 24, 2016. In the background, a Martyrs’ memorial is under construction.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-11-08

Both Turkey and their Kurdish foes in Syria have argued that they should lead the battle to drive the Islamic State (IS) group out of Raqqa. But the rivals are more concerned with keeping each other in check than tackling the militants’ stronghold.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made their move on Sunday, announcing the start of their offensive to capture the IS group‘s de facto capital. The coalition – which includes Arab groups but is dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – engaged in skirmishes with jihadist fighters north of Raqqa, and warned Turkey against interfering with the operation.

The long-expected move has angered Ankara, which also claimed it should lead the battle for Raqqa. Turkey sees the YPG as an appendage of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its mortal foe that has fought for decades for independence for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Turkish authorities accuse the Kurds of seeking to take over Arab lands, including Raqqa. They are calling for time to train Arab forces to liberate the city.

According to Fabrice Balanche, a Middle East expert and associate fellow at the Washington Institute, neither side has the means – or the will – to tackle the jihadist bastion. “For the Kurds, Raqqa is an insurance policy against Turkish aggression,” Balanche told FRANCE 24. Conversely, “Turkey sees Raqqa as a pretext to break up Kurdish territory and prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state,” he added.

Balancing act

Among the multiple actors in the Syrian conflict, the YPG and its allies have emerged as the most potent ground force in the battle against the IS group. In pushing toward Raqqa, they hope to cement their standing as the West’s indispensable partner in Syria. Indeed, the US and its allies have welcomed news of the Kurdish-led offensive, dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates”, and promised air support.

The international coalition battling the IS group is eager to keep the militants on the defensive in Syria and Iraq, where it is helping local forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga, recapture the northern city of Mosul. France, in particular, wants to neutralize the jihadist group’s capacity to strike abroad, with the anniversary of the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris looming. Western intelligence agencies believe such attacks are planned in Raqqa.

The campaign to liberate is code named Ops. Wrath of Euphrates – use the hashtag to follow latest developments:

Coalition leaders have been struggling with the timing of the Raqqa campaign, not only because of the demands of the Mosul operation but also because the political and military landscape in Syria is far more complicated, amid a protracted civil war that has devastated much of the country. The rivalry between Turkey and the Kurds is a particularly thorny issue in this complex landscape.

Washington is enmeshed in a delicate balancing act between its NATO ally Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish forces it trained and equipped. US President Barack Obama spent more than two hours on the telephone in late October with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an attempt to overcome Erdogan’s objections to YPG participation in the Raqqa offensive.

Whether or not Turkey agrees, the YPG fighters are a necessary part of the Raqqa offensive, the commander of anti-IS coalition forces said last week. “The facts are these — the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. “So, we’re negotiating, we’re planning, we’re having talks with Turkey and we’re gonna take this in steps.”

Kurdish sacrifice

According to Balanche, in strict military terms Raqqa presents a less daunting challenge than Mosul. “It is smaller, less dense, and with large avenues that can easily be penetrated by armed vehicles,” he said. “Its buildings are also lower, meaning they are less suited to snipers and to use civilians as human shields. And while Mosul is crossed by the River Tigris, Raqqa sits just north of the Euphrates, meaning it can be attacked from the north, east and west without crossing the river.”

The US plan for Raqqa calls for an assault force of thousands of fighters from the YPG and their Arabs allies, whose job it would be to take and hold the city itself. However, US special operations forces have yet to recruit enough Arab fighters to do the job. Experts doubt that Washington will be able to soon field an Arab force large and strong enough to defeat 4,000 to 5,000 IS group militants who have had months to prepare a final stand.

“The Kurdish-led SDF currently has insufficient forces at its disposal to capture Raqqa,” Balanche said. He said Kurdish territory, stretching just north of Raqqa, provided the ideal training ground and launch pad for a future assault on the IS group’s bastion. “But the Kurds will not sacrifice their own men to take Raqqa alone. Especially not if it means Turkey can then stab them in the back.”

Turkey’s priorities

While Kurdish forces are ideally placed to spearhead the Raqqa offensive, they are also vulnerable to incursions from Turkey, which has amassed troops along its southeastern border with Syria, and trained a motley force of Arab and Turkmen rebels from Syria. For Ankara, defeating the IS group is not as high a priority as preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state along its border, which might serve as a rear base for the PKK. Should Turkish-backed forces launch a southward thrust, ostensibly heading for Raqqa, they would drive a wedge between Kurdish enclaves the YPG is desperate to hold together.

One option for Turkey and its allies would be to enter through the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, which is on the most direct route to Raqqa. The area is mostly populated by Arabs, including tribes that took part in the expulsion of the local Kurdish population in 2013. Fearing reprisals, those tribes fled to Turkey when the area was captured by the YPG in 2015.

“Turkey could seek to foment an Arab revolt in Tal Abyad and then come to the locals’ rescue, using the fugitive Arab tribes as a pretext,” said Balanche. “But the Turkish-backed forces are unlikely to go any further than what is required to break up Kurdish territory. They would be incapable of capturing Raqqa.”

Alarming Russia

Turkey is already thwarting efforts to unite Kurdish enclaves further west, where it is carving out a buffer zone on Syrian territory, free of both IS group militants and Kurdish forces. Ankara-backed rebels are now locked in a race with the SDF to capture the strategic town of al-Bab, which is currently held by the IS group.

Should al-Bab fall to the Turkish-backed force, it would effectively end Kurdish hopes of linking all their enclaves in Syria – and possibly affect their readiness to take part in the Raqqa offensive. It would also alarm the Syrian regime and its Russian ally, by threatening their stranglehold on rebels besieged in nearby Aleppo.

“Russia has secretly agreed to a Turkish buffer zone in Syria, but only 25 kilometers deep. [President Vladimir] Putin will allow no more,” said Balanche, noting that al-Bab is some 30 kilometres from the Turkish border. “Al-Bab will eventually be recaptured by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies, because it is of strategic value to the battle for Aleppo,” he added.

With his efforts focused on Aleppo, the country’s former economic hub, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has kept out of the race for Raqqa. “For now, Assad and Russia are busy elsewhere, but once Aleppo and [the central] Hama Province are secure, they will try to push further east,” said Balanche. “Meanwhile, they are happy to let the Kurds, Turks and Americans wrangle over Raqqa.”

Iraqi army drives Islamic State from Christian region near Mosul — Biggest battle in Iraq since 2003

October 22, 2016


Sat Oct 22, 2016 | 7:27am EDT

Iraqi forces gather during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer
By Phil Stewart and Babak Dehghanpisheh | QAYYARA, IRAQ

Iraqi army troops on Saturday stormed into a Christian region that has been under Islamic State control since 2014 as part of U.S.-backed operations to clear the entrances to Mosul, the militants’ last major city stronghold in Iraq.

The advance took place as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived on a visit to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and assess the campaign that started on Monday with air and ground support from the U.S-led coalition.

A military statement said Iraqi units entered the center of Qaraqosh, a mainly Christian town about 20 kms (13 miles) southeast of Mosul, and were carrying out mop-up operations across the town.

Further action was under way to seize a neighboring Christian village, Karamless, also known as Karemlash in the Syriac language. The region’s population fled in the summer of 2014, when Islamic State swept in.

Earlier this week, Iraqi special units also captured Bartella, a Christian village north of Qaraqosh.

A U.S. military official estimated there were fewer than a couple of hundred Islamic State fighters in Qaraqosh.

“I’ve seen berms in Qaraqosh. I anticipate there’ll be trenches, there’ll be passageways between different buildings,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.


The offensive on Mosul is expected to become the biggest battle fought in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The army is also trying to advance from the south and the east while Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are holding fronts in the east and north.

U.S. forces at Iraq’s Qayyara West airfield, south of Mosul, put on protective masks after winds brought fumes from a nearby sulfur plant set alight by Islamic State fighters, U.S. military officials said.

A Reuters reporter in Qayyara saw Iraqi soldiers wearing gas masks on top of their heads, ready to pull them down. A cloud of white smoke blanketed the region to the north, where the factory is located, mingling with black fumes from oil wells that the militants torched to cover their moves.

The Iraqi army’s media office said about 50 villages had been taken from the militants since Monday in operations to prepare the main thrust into Mosul itself, where 5,000 to 6,000 IS fighters are dug in, according to Iraqi estimates.

Islamic State also controls parts of Syria.

“It’s the beginning of the campaign. We do feel positively about how things have started off, particularly with the complicated nature of this operation,” said a U.S. official who briefed reporters ahead of Carter’s trip to Baghdad.

Carter signaled during a visit to Ankara on Friday his support for a possible Turkish role in the campaign and said there was an agreement in principle between Baghdad and Ankara — potentially ending a source of tension.

Officials said the details on any Turkish participation still needed to be worked out.


Roughly 5,000 U.S. personnel are in Iraq. More than 100 of them are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces involved with the Mosul offensive, advising commanders and helping ensure coalition air power hits the right targets.

U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan was killed on Thursday by a roadside bomb in northern Iraq as he was accompanying Iraqi forces, in the first U.S. casualty of the Mosul campaign.

The militants retaliated to the advance of the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish fighters in Mosul by attacking on Friday Kirkuk, an oil city that lies east Hawija, a pocket they continue to control between Baghdad and Mosul.

Authorities in Kirkuk regained control of the city on Saturday and partially lifted a curfew declared after the militants stormed police stations and other buildings. The region’s oil producing facilities were not damaged.

At least 50 people have been killed and 80 others wounded in clashes between security forces and the militants in Kirkuk, according to a hospital sources.

Four Iranian technicians doing maintenance work at a power station north of the city are among the dead, they said. The toll does not include the jihadists who were killed or who blew themselves up during the fighting.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took control of Kirkuk in 2014, after the Iraqi army withdrew from the region, fleeing an Islamic State advance through northern and western Iraq.

Kurdish leaders say they will never give up the ethnically mixed city, to which they, as well as Turkmen and Arabs, lay claim. Arabs complain that Kurds have since flooded to Kirkuk to tilt the demographic balance the other way.

(With additional reporter by Saif Hameed in Baghdad, Mahmoud Mustafa in Kirkuk; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Helen Popper)


The Greatest Admiral Spread Islam, Trade Across Southeast Asia — The Inspiration of Xi Jinping’s Present Day “Maritime Silk Road” and the “China Dream”

August 20, 2016

By Chow Chung-yan
South China Morning Post

Saturday, August 20, 2016, 6:23 p.m.
 Near my childhood home in Kunming (昆明), Yunnan (雲南) province, is a park dedicated to its most famous son: Admiral Zheng He. Our teacher would take us to pay tribute to the great eunuch of the Ming dynasty, recounting his legendary seven expeditions that brought glory to the motherland.

The marble bust of Zheng He shows the face of a typical Chinese, with a square chin, brushy eyebrows and a flat nose. My father joked it more resembled comrade Lei Feng than the admiral. Not until years later did I realise how true this was. The statue was erected in 1979 – a year after Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) launched his open-door policy. Zheng, barely mentioned during the Cultural Revolution, was plucked from obscurity and hailed as a national hero who embodied China’s open spirit. A park near his ancestral home was dedicated to him. The same craftsmen who churned out revolutionary statues were employed to build his.

 Statue of Admiral Zheng He in Nanjing, where his fleet was built

In real life, Zheng probably looked very different. My school textbook mentioned only that he was a Hui minority (Muslim Chinese). In fact, the admiral was a descendent of a powerful Persian family. Records discovered in 1913 trace his lineage to Sayyid Ajall, who was sent by Kublai Khan to conquer Yunnan and became its first governor. In 2014, Chinese scientists at Fudan University in Shanghai put the theory to test. They examined DNA samples collected from descendents of the admiral’s close kin and found they originated from Persia, modern-day Iran. In addition to Zheng He, most senior officers of the storied Ming armada were also Muslims.

Over the past decades, researchers have concluded Zhang and his armada were the key force behind Islam’s spread in Southeast Asia. The Arabs established settlements in Southeast Asia from the eighth century. But Islam did not become dominant there until the 15th century – around the time Admiral Zheng began to sail in the South China Sea. Historians found evidence of Zheng’s missionary work in documents discovered in Semarang, Indonesia, by Dutch officials in 1925. This prompted Indonesian religious leader Hamka to write in 1961: “The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He.”

Zheng He’s fleet

A crowning moment of Zheng’s expedition was converting the King of Malacca, Parameswara, to Islam shortly after he paid homage to the Yongle Emperor in Beijing in 1411. The conversion played a crucial role in the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, according to Professor Xiao Xian of Yunnan University.

 Replica of one of  Zheng He’s ships

Xiao was one of the scholars who presented research work on Zheng He at an international symposium in 2005. They painted a vivid picture of the Ming armada, which had all the elements of a multinational enterprise.

The 300 ships – many twice as big as the largest European vessels of the time – were constructed in dry docks in Nanjing ( 南京 ), Jiangsu ( 江蘇 ) province. Building materials were sourced from across the Ming Empire. The 27,000-strong crew included Han Chinese, Muslim Hui, Arabs, Persians, and peoples from Central and East Asia. The lingua franca was Persian or Sogdian – a language used for centuries by merchants of the ancient Silk Road, according to Professor Liu Yingsheng of Nanjing University.

Size was not the only difference between Zheng’s fleet and that of Christopher Columbus 70 years later. The Europeans aboard the Santa Maria were exclusively Catholic – the Ming fleet was culturally and religiously diverse. Zheng was a Muslim but he was fluent in the teachings of Confucius, Buddhism and classic Chinese philosophy. The fleet included many Buddhist missionaries. Many regard his expeditions as the high-water mark of Chinese civilization. The Ming armada’s true greatness lay not in its size or sophistication but in its diversity and tolerance.

 Statue of  Zheng He at Nanjing

After the Yongle Emperor’s death, the Ming court lost its global vision. Power was in the hands of the Confucius gentry-class, who jealously guarded against other schools of thoughts. China became increasingly introspective and insulated. The court stopped further expeditions and banned seafaring. The Chinese civilization gradually lost its vigour and started a long decline.

Today as the new “Silk Road” and “soft power” become China’s new catchphrases, it is important to remember what makes the Chinese civilization unique in the first place. Its greatest strength lies in its people’s amazing ability to absorb, adopt and assimilate different cultures.

Buddhism, which originated in India, flourished in China. The Zen school – a hybrid of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism – spread to East Asia by monks in the Tang dynasty and became mainstream. Islam arrived from Central Asia and the Middle East during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. It took root in western China before spreading to Southeast Asia with Zhang’s fleet. We should remember that until 100 years ago, China was not a nation state in the Westphalian sense. Narrow-minded nationalism and xenophobia are the exception rather than the norm of the world’s oldest surviving civilization.

This fortnightly column looks at patterns from the past to understand the present. Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations

For completeness, a friend of Peace and Freedom recommended we add the following:

Zheng He’s initial trip took him from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India, and back. The emperor’s purpose for this expedition seems to have been to obtain recognition and gifts from other rulers. The voyagers did not intend to conquer or colonize, but they were prepared to use military force against those who refused to respect them.

Near the end of the voyage Zheng He’s ships encountered pirates in the Sumatran port of Palembang. The pirate leader pretended to submit, with the intention of escaping. However, Zheng He started a battle, easily defeating the pirates — his forces killing more than 5,000 people and taking the leader back to China to be beheaded.

Five more voyages followed before Emperor Yongle’s death in 1424; they included excursions to Hormuz — the Arab port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf — and the coast of eastern Africa, from which He returned with giraffes, zebras, and other items unfamiliar to the Chinese.

On his seventh and final voyage, from 1431 to 1433, Zheng He apparently died at sea and was likely buried off the coast of India, although some of his descendants believe that he made it back to China and died soon after his return.



See also: The Great Adventures of Zheng He

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone says creation of Israel was a ‘great catastrophe’

May 6, 2016
In an Arabic TV interview, Ken Livingstone reportedly said: ‘The creation of the state of Israel was fundamentally wrong’

By Katie Forster
The Independent

Ken Livingstone has said the creation of the state of Israel was “a great catastrophe” which has created a situation with “potential for nuclear war”.

The former London mayor found himself at the centre of controversy last week and was suspended from the Labour Party after suggesting Adolf Hitler supported Zionism.

But in newly emerged footage of an interview, filmed on 20 April and broadcast in Arabic by TV station Al Ghad Al Arabi on Wednesday, he said: “The creation of the state of Israel was fundamentally wrong, because there had been a Palestinian community there for 2,000 years.”

Ken Livingstone

The clip was translated by the organisation MEMRI, which describes itself as a non-profit organisation dedicated to “bridging the language gap” between Middle Eastern regions and the West.

In the clip, Mr Livingstone suggested some tensions in the Middle East could have been avoided by Jewish people being resettled in the UK and America after the Second World War.

“The creation of the state of Israel was a great catastrophe,” he said.

“We should have absorbed the post-World War II Jewish refugees in Britain and America. They could all have been resettled, whereas 70 years later, the situation is still very tense, and there is potential for many more wars, potential for nuclear war,”

He also made the claim that Hitler originally “wanted to deport all the Zionists to Israel”.

“The simple truth is that the situation in Iraq today is worse than what it was under the rule of Saddam Hussein,” Mr Livingstone said.

“All the western interventions in the Middle East had nothing whatsoever to do with introducing democracy.”

He also said he chose to boycott Israeli products such as dates.

“I believe that the endorsement of double standards in the Middle East was one of the causes that led to the development of the terrorist Islamic groups today,” he said.

“We imposed harsh sanctions on Iran for over a decade, because we believed that it was developing nuclear arms […] On the other hand, Israel has possessed nuclear arms for 40 years. It is the first country to introduce nuclear arms to the Middle East.

“But we have still not acknowledged that, and not imposed sanctions upon it.”

Al Ghad Al Arabi has been broadcasting from London since 2013. The station was also launched in Cairo in November 2015, with a ceremony attended by Tony Blair.

Mr Livingstone is one of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s oldest political allies, but Mr Corbyn was forced to move against him after his attempt to defend the Labour MP Naz Shah backfired, leading to the former London mayor himself being accused of racism.

Syrian government refuses to meet with ‘terrorist’

March 16, 2016

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The latest developments in ongoing Syria peace talks (all times local in Beirut):

3 p.m.

The head of Syria’s government delegation at peace talks in Geneva is refusing to take part in direct talks with the opposition’s top negotiator, calling him a “terrorist.”

Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, did not mention Mohammed Alloush by name, though Alloush represents the powerful Army of Islam group and is the chief negotiator for the Saudi-backed opposition, known as the High Negotiations Committee.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday after a meeting with the U.N. envoy for Syria, Ja’afari accused Alloush of membership in a terrorist group that “bombed embassies” and “killed engineering school students” and other people. He did not elaborate.

Ja’afari said he would not take part in direct talks “unless that personality apologizes for the statement he made previously and withdraws it,” without specifying.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has been hosting separate meetings with government and opposition delegates — including Alloush — since the “proximity talks” resumed Monday.


2:40 p.m.

A Turkish foreign ministry official says his country rejects any moves that would compromise Syria’s national unity and considers the territorial integrity of Syria as “essential.”

The official says it’s up to the Syrian people to “decide on the executive and administrative structure of Syria in line with the new constitution which will be formulated through the political transition process.”

The official told the Associated Press that “unilateral moves carry no validity.”

Wednesday’s statement effectively rejected a Syrian Kurdish political party’s stated intention to declare a federal region in northern Syria.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government practice.

—Dominique Soguel in Istanbul


1:30 p.m.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador has dismissed plans by Syria’s Kurds to declare a federal region in northern Syria.

Bashar Ja’afari, who also heads the Syrian government team at the U.N. brokered talks underway in Geneva, says the negotiations in Switzerland are meant to discuss the unity of Syria and how to preserve its territorial integrity.

The diplomat says that “betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure.” he said.

Ja’afari spoke to reporters in Geneva on Wednesday, responding to a question about Kurdish plans to declare a federal region in northern Syria. He says he will not comment on “unilateral statements coming from here and there.”

Ja’afari ignored a reporter’s question on whether President Bashar Assad could be replaced.


12:50 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman says Moscow is satisfied with the joint work with Washington on coordinating Syria peace efforts.

Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday the Syrian peace process is the main focus now for Moscow and Washington.

He hailed Washington’s “readiness to coordinate those efforts.”

The remarks come two days after Putin announced the withdrawal of most of Russian warplanes from Syria, voicing hope it should help Syria peace talks underway in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry said two more groups of Russian warplanes took off from Russian Hemeimeem air base in Syria on Wednesday.

Putin has said Russia will keep some troops at Hemeimeem and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous. Peskov wouldn’t say if Russia could turn them into permanent military bases.


12:10 p.m.

A spokesman for a powerful Syrian Kurdish political party says his faction is planning to declare a federal region in northern Syria.

Nawaf Khalil of the Democratic Union Party told The Associated Press that his party is not lobbying for an only-Kurdish region but wants to see the “model of federalism applied to all of Syria.”

Khalil, in a phone interview, says the area envisioned for northern Syria would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds.

The declaration is expected to be made at the end of a Kurdish conference that is being held Wednesday in the town of Rmeilan in northern Syria.


11:30 a.m.

A Syrian government delegation is meeting with the U.N. special envoy for Syria for the second time since indirect peace talks resumed this week in Geneva.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja’afari was meeting with Staffan de Mistura on the third day of revolving-door diplomacy.

The talks are known as proximity talks, in which the U.N. envoy meets separately with Syrian government representatives and envoys of the so-called moderate opposition.

Wednesdays’ meetings are expected to move onto more substantive matters, after procedural steps and an outlining of goals from the two sides were covered in the two previous days.

On Tuesday, de Mistura met with the Saudi- and Western-backed opposition group known as the High Negotiations Committee.


10:50 a.m.

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed Russia’s decision to withdraw most of its fighting forces from Syria.

Stoltenberg told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it’s a contribution to efforts to reduce military tensions and find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.

Stoltenberg says the consequences of the withdrawal are yet to be seen but that he “would welcome any action that reduces the military tensions in Syria.”

The remarks were Stoltenberg’s first since President Vladimir Putin’s surprise decision earlier this week. The NATO chief spoke during a visit to the Afghan capital of Kabul.


9:30 a.m.

Russia’s defense ministry says another group of its aircraft has left the Russian air base in Syria and is returning home.

Wednesday’s announcement comes two days after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military to withdraw most of its fighting forces from Syria, signaling an end to Russia’s five-and-a-half month air campaign.

The pullout from the Hemeimeen base coincides with the resumption of U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the representatives of the moderate, Western-Backed opposition.

On the ground, a cease-fire has been in effect since late February. Extremist factions — such as the Islamic State group or the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front — are not part of the truce.

Russia didn’t indicate when the next group of planes will leave or how many will be pulled out.