A Western-Arab Visit to ‘Forgotten Syria’

Western and Arab envoys on Syria. Photo: Brigitte Curmi's Twitter account
Western and Arab envoys on Syria. Photo: Brigitte Curmi's Twitter account
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A Western-Arab Visit to ‘Forgotten Syria’

Western and Arab envoys on Syria. Photo: Brigitte Curmi's Twitter account
Western and Arab envoys on Syria. Photo: Brigitte Curmi's Twitter account

Ukraine was once again present at the closed meeting of Western and Arab envoys on Syria. But this time, the attendees discussed the means to deal with a politically “forgotten” Middle Eastern Arab state, mired in its economic crisis and geographical divisions, in light of the Russian-Western fiery clash over the land of an eastern European country and its sea and land neighborhoods.

In theory, the Paris meeting, which was called for by French Envoy Brigitte Curmi, was intended to match the positions of Arab and foreign countries, which are involved in varying degrees and with “different weapons” in Syria.

In fact, understanding the stances of these countries, as well as their public and implicit statements and slogans, was necessary, two months after the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, with Washington’s insistence on assuming a “leading role” in the Syrian file, and ahead of the international donors’ conference in Brussels on May 10, which was initially focused on raising funds for millions of Syrians, back when their crisis prevailed over the international agenda.

On the eve of the meeting, the attendees held bilateral and tripartite consultations, before convening a separate expanded session and another with the participation of UN envoy Geir Pedersen. Many discussions and ideas were said and reiterated in previous rounds by the participants themselves, or by their predecessors during the decade of the Syrian crisis.

What’s new, however, were some of the issues that imposed themselves on the agenda: The first shock was the tragedy of the Tadamon neighborhood massacre in southern Damascus, which was revealed by The Guardian. The newspaper published documented photos of the execution of dozens of civilians in this Syrian quarter in 2013. At the meeting, US envoy Ethan Goldrich and a number of his European counterparts stressed the importance of “accountability for crimes” and adherence to the Caesar Act approved by the US Congress.

The “proponents of normalization” with Damascus were also reminded of the importance to avoid “Arab normalization with the regime,” in addition to the Westerners’ reference to the role played by national courts in Europe in prosecuting “war criminals.”

The second case pertained to the Ukrainian war. Concern prevailed over the Western-Russian division there, which would impede the extension of the international mechanism for cross-border humanitarian aid in July.

The Russian side has indeed pointed to this matter. In fact, the US-Russian dialogue, which was launched after the summit of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in Geneva in mid-June, and during which three sessions focused on the humanitarian file, was completely frozen after the Ukrainian war. What’s left is only an accord on the need to “prevent conflict” between the US and Russian armies between the east and west of the Euphrates.

In the Paris meeting, it was noticeable that Western countries “see the Syrian regime as an extension of Russia, especially after Damascus fully adopted Moscow’s position, and even amplified it.”

Some of these countries are looking for “means to hold Damascus accountable,” in the face of a contradictory and multi-sectarian Arab position.

In this regard, a number of Arab states are openly supportive of Moscow and its position in Ukraine, and may want to expedite normalization with Damascus or to circumvent sanctions to finance reconstruction.

Others expressed “hope that the Western-Russian polarization in Ukraine will not increase the suffering of the Syrians,” while major countries maintained their position that Damascus should meet “Arab and Syrian requirements.”

In any case, Ukraine has become an additional perspective for Arab and Western views on Syria.

The third issue was related to Pedersen’s proposal for a “step for step” approach, based on elements that include humanitarian aid, ceasefire, sanctions, early recovery, refugees, displaced people, and prisoners. Indeed, participants engaged in a detailed discussion about the efficacy of the proposal at the present time, amid the Russian-American division.

Moreover, questions were raised about the seriousness of Moscow and Damascus in agreeing to this proposal, especially in light of stances publicly expressed by the officials of the two countries. The Russian side wants to focus on the constitutional track, and rejects any shadows casting on its “accomplishment,” while Damascus refuses to engage in the new approach or any other, “with the presence of the American and Turkish occupations.”

The two sides are perhaps only interested in the funds that the “step for step” approach can provide through the clause of the “early recovery” support under Resolution 2585.

In general, with the lack of important initiatives by the major powers for the Greater Syria file, the meeting saw acceptance of the details and the continuation of collecting some factors for the “step for step” approach, without setting a specific timetable for this purpose. The participants also expressed support for the constitutional process.

Pedersen called for a meeting of the next round, to be held between May 28 and June 5, based on the mechanism adopted in the previous round.

On April 26, Pedersen sent out invitations to representatives of the government, the opposition and civil society, in which he said: “In implementation of my mandate, I invite you to the eighth session of the Constitutional Committee, led and owned by Syria, based on the same mechanism applied in the sixth and seventh sessions.”
He continued: “I am happy to reiterate that additional principles will be presented before delegations leave for Geneva, and that no less than 4 principles will be discussed during the eighth session.”

The Paris meeting was a Western-Arab visit to “forgotten Syria,” to say that it was “not forgotten.” However, the meeting revealed, once again, that Syria is an attachment to other files, and a captive of the moving or stagnant waters between Moscow and Washington.



Israel and US Are at Odds over Conflicting Visions for Postwar Gaza

An Israeli army self-propelled artillery howitzer fires rounds from a position near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on December 7, 2023 amid battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)
An Israeli army self-propelled artillery howitzer fires rounds from a position near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on December 7, 2023 amid battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)
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Israel and US Are at Odds over Conflicting Visions for Postwar Gaza

An Israeli army self-propelled artillery howitzer fires rounds from a position near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on December 7, 2023 amid battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)
An Israeli army self-propelled artillery howitzer fires rounds from a position near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on December 7, 2023 amid battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

The United States has offered strong support to Israel in its war against the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. But the allies are increasingly at odds over what will happen to Gaza once the war winds down.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, this week announced that Israel would retain an open-ended security presence in Gaza. Israeli officials talk of imposing a buffer zone to keep Palestinians away from the Israeli border. They rule out any role for the Palestinian Authority, which was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 but governs semi-autonomous areas of the occupied West Bank.

The United States has laid out a much different vision. Top officials have said they will not allow Israel to reoccupy Gaza or further shrink its already small territory. They have repeatedly called for a return of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority and the resumption of peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

These conflicting visions have set the stage for difficult discussions between Israel and the US.

Here’s a closer look at the issues.

SHAKY COMMON GROUND Israel declared war on Hamas after the militant group burst across its southern border on Oct. 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping more than 240 others. President Joe Biden quickly flew to Israel on a solidarity mission, and his administration has strongly backed Israel’s right to defend itself while providing weapons and military assistance.

Israel has said its goal is to destroy Hamas —- a difficult task given the group’s deep roots in Palestinian society.

The US, which along with other Western countries considers Hamas a terrorist group, has embraced this goal. But as the war drags on, it has expressed misgivings about the dire humanitarian conditions and mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, where health authorities report over 16,000 dead, at least two-thirds of them women and children. Israel says Hamas is to blame by using civilians as human shields.

Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it is critical that Israel protect Gaza’s civilians.

“If you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” he said. “So I have repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken went even farther, telling Israel that “civilian casualties remain too high and that Israel must step up its efforts to reduce them,” his office said. Blinken also called on Israel to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

DIFFERENT VISIONS The biggest differences between the allies have emerged over the longer-term vision for Gaza.

Netanyahu has offered only glimpses of what he plans.

On Tuesday, he said the military would retain open-ended security control over the Gaza Strip long after the war ends, suggesting a form of extended Israeli occupation.

Netanyahu ruled out the idea of foreign peacekeepers, saying only the Israeli army could ensure that Gaza remains demilitarized. Netanyahu has also rejected a return of the Palestinian Authority, saying its leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot be trusted.

“After destroying Hamas, Gaza will be demilitarized and de-radicalized so that no threat will be posed to Israel from Gaza,” said Ophir Falk, an adviser to Netanyahu. “The buffer zone may be part of the demilitarization. That’s the plan.”

Biden and other top officials have repeatedly said that a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority must play a role in postwar Gaza and that Israel must seek a two-state solution involving the PA. They have ruled out a long-term re-occupation or redrawing of Gaza’s borders.

Vice President Kamala Harris laid out perhaps the clearest US vision during an address in Dubai last weekend.

“Five principles guide our approach for post-conflict Gaza: no forcible displacement, no re-occupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory, and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism,” she said. “We want to see a unified Gaza and West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian voices and aspirations must be at the center of this work.”

Frustration with Netanyahu may not be limited to the US.

Amos Harel, the military affairs columnist for the Haaretz daily, said Israeli army commanders believe Netanyahu is motivated by domestic political considerations and refusing to deal with the Palestinian Authority “due to coalition constructions from his far-right partners.” Netanyahu and his hardline coalition partners oppose Palestinian independence.

HOW SERIOUS ARE THE DISPUTES? For now, both sides seem to be focused on the shared goal of destroying Hamas.

“It's important for them that Israel achieve the military goals because this is the starting point for any changes that can happen the day after,” said Eldad Shavit, a former high-ranking Israeli intelligence official.

He said US pressure in the short term will be on immediate issues — such as pressure to minimize civilian casualties and to allow more deliveries of humanitarian aid.

The US has indicated that it will show some patience after the fighting subsides.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US understands “there will have to be some kind of transition period after the end of major combat operations.” He declined to say how long that would take.

But as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise, conditions deteriorate, and Biden enters an election year with significant portions of his Democratic base pushing for an end to Israel’s offensive, these differences are likely to grow in the absence of a clear endgame.

Shavit said that tensions could rise if the US at some point concludes that Israel is dragging its feet or ignoring American demands. But for now, “the Americans want Israel to succeed,” he said.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is president of the US/Middle East Project, a policy institute that studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the Americans are unlikely to put their foot down.

He cited what he described as a tepid American response to heavy civilian casualties in southern Gaza as an indicator of what lies ahead.

“Israelis have a sense that their road to run is not endless, but they still feel they have lots of road to run,” he said.


Two Months of War in Gaza Leave Elderly and Newborns Destitute and Displaced

A flare falls over Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Reuters)
A flare falls over Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Reuters)
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Two Months of War in Gaza Leave Elderly and Newborns Destitute and Displaced

A flare falls over Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Reuters)
A flare falls over Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Reuters)

After two months of war in Gaza, most of its people are homeless, crammed by a pounding Israeli bombardment into yet smaller areas of an already tiny enclave where the elderly and newborns live alike in tents amid the rubble.

Three women pushed from their homes in the Gaza Strip over 61 days of fighting have now ended up desperate for shelter and safety after fleeing from one place to another under air strikes and shellfire.

Zainab Khalil, 57, is seeking to move for a fourth time as Israeli tanks roll into the southern city of Khan Younis. Israa al-Jamala, 28, lives in a tent tending her infant daughter who was born the night a short-lived truce began. And Mai Salim walks by the Egyptian border fearing she and her family will be forced across it into a life of permanent exile.

Most of Gaza's 2.3 million people were taken unawares by the sudden disaster that began to unfold for them on Oct. 7 as Israeli jets began strikes to retaliate for a surprise Hamas attack across the border that Israel says killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

The Israeli military has vowed to crush Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza and is pledged to Israel's destruction, but says the group hides its weapons, command centers and fighters among a civilian population it uses as "human shields". Hamas denies this.

Four-fifths of Gaza residents have now been displaced, many of them several times over. Their homes, businesses, mosques and schools have been damaged, destroyed or abandoned as too dangerous in the face of the Israeli assault. Health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say 17,177 people have been killed there.

With no real sign of any imminent respite, Palestinians are living with little food or clean water, often on the street, trying to calm screaming children at night as bombs and shells fall.

"A new mother should be in her home raising the child with her mother, with her family," said Jamala, cradling her tiny daughter, also called Israa, amid the tents that have sprung up around a hospital in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza.

After the Jamala home was shelled, the family moved into the makeshift camp outside Shuhada al-Aqsa hospital, she said. Little Israa was born there on Nov. 24, the night a week-long truce began, raising hope that the conflict might relent.

But after a week, fighting resumed and the family remains in the tent, a carpet covering the sand and Israa sleeping in a small cot.

Like others in Gaza, they struggle to find food and other necessities. "See how much we're in need. There's no milk. No powdered milk," Jamala said.

Even when the war finally ends, she does not know what she will do as their home was shelled. "Where will we stay? Where can we raise this baby? Where can we live?" she said.

Bombardment

Khalil lived in Sheikh Radwan, a suburb of Gaza City near Beach Refugee Camp in the enclave's north. Israel started telling residents to go south in mid-October, though it continued with air strikes across the territory.

She did not want to leave, calling it the most difficult decision of her life. She finally moved to a shelter nearby where she thought she would be safer from bombardment, but as air strikes intensified over 10 days she decided to move on.

"A journey mixed with fear, despair, displacement and sadness under heavy bombardment," was how she described her odyssey from shelter to shelter.

When Israeli troops pushed into Gaza City and surrounded al-Shifa Hospital, she headed south with a friend and her family, alternately walking and riding in a donkey cart.

As they crossed a front line, Israeli soldiers ordered them to "walk a bit and stop, walk and stop" over four hours, she said.

She wound up living in a school in Khan Younis being used as a shelter for around 30 displaced people, where some of her nieces had already ended up. "In this war, who doesn't get killed by bombs gets killed by disease, sadness and despair," she said.

But Israel's military is now ordering people in Khan Younis too to leave and Khalil must look for a new place to stay.

The only major town left to run to is Rafah, hard against the border with Egypt. Most Gaza residents are descended from refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel during the war of 1948. Many are terrified they will end up as refugees again, forced from Gaza altogether.

Walking by the border fence, Salim and a friend peered over towards Egypt. She had fled her home in Gaza City, moving first to Nuseirat and later to Khan Younis before finally ending up in Rafah after the Israeli military ordered people to move again.

"For us, this is the last stop. After that, if they want to forcibly displace us we will not leave. They can kill us right here but we will not leave our land and our entire lives. We will not do that," she said.


US Sales of Palestinian Keffiyehs Soar, Even as Wearers Targeted

Izzat Hirbawi shows different keffiyeh fabric colorss in a textile factory in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 24,2023. (Reuters)
Izzat Hirbawi shows different keffiyeh fabric colorss in a textile factory in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 24,2023. (Reuters)
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US Sales of Palestinian Keffiyehs Soar, Even as Wearers Targeted

Izzat Hirbawi shows different keffiyeh fabric colorss in a textile factory in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 24,2023. (Reuters)
Izzat Hirbawi shows different keffiyeh fabric colorss in a textile factory in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 24,2023. (Reuters)

A growing number of Americans are donning the keffiyeh, the distinctive patterned scarf that's closely linked with Palestinians, to demand a ceasefire to Israel's attacks on Gaza or to signal their support for Palestinians.

Sales of the scarves have jumped since the Israel-Hamas war began in October, US distributors say, even as keffiyehs have been forcibly removed by security forces at some protests and wearers report being targeted for verbal and physical abuse.

"It was like a light switch. All of a sudden, we had hundreds of people on the website simultaneously and buying whatever they could," said Azar Aghayev, the US distributor for Hirbawi, which opened in 1961 and is the only manufacturer of keffiyehs left in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"In two days, the stock that we had was just gone, and not just gone, it was oversold."

Hirbawi, which has patented its brand, sells scarves internationally via its US and German websites and on Amazon. All 40 variations on the US website, which include many in bright colors as well as the traditional black and white, are sold out, Aghayev said.

Unit sales of keffiyeh scarves have risen 75% in the 56 days between Oct. 7 and Dec. 2 on Amazon.com compared with the previous 56 days, data from e-commerce analytics firm Jungle Scout showed. Searches for "Palestinian scarf for women" rose by 159% in the three months to Dec. 4 compared with the previous three months; searches for "military scarf shemagh,keffiyeh palestine" and "keffiyeh" rose 333%, 75%, and 68%, respectively.

The keffiyeh, with its fishing net pattern, is common throughout the Arab world, with roots dating as far back as 3100 BC. It first came to symbolize Palestinian resistance during the 1936 Arab Revolt against British rule and later became the signature head gear of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.

While Hirbawi is the best-known manufacturer, others include small artisans and global copycats; luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton sold a version in 2021.

US supporters of the Palestinians and Israel have faced threats and attacks since the Middle East conflict began, with Jewish Americans seeing an increase in antisemitism and Muslim Americans an uptick in Islamaphobia.

Hazami Barmada, 38, a former United Nations official who lives in Virginia, wore one recently as she protested outside the White House and in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.

Donning the scarf felt like a "superpower," she said, reconnecting her with her Palestinian heritage and offering a symbolic link to children in Gaza. But she believes it also attracts verbal abuse. "I'm taking a calculated risk," said Barmada.

Security target, Vermont shooting

At New York City's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting in November, one attendee who wore a keffiyeh had it yanked off by a security officer - a moment captured in a Reuters photograph.

The security officer approached protesters at the front of the crowd who had a banner, a Palestinian flag, and one wearing a keffiyeh, and grabbed all three items, taking the keffiyeh from around the neck of the protester, photographer Eduardo Munnoz said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has documented several instances of people targeted for wearing a keffiyeh, from a father assaulted on a Brooklyn playground to a Harvard graduate student who was told she was wearing a "terrorist" scarf.

In the most serious incident, three college students of Palestinian descent - two wearing keffiyehs - were shot in Burlington, Vermont, while taking a walk last month. Hisham Awartani, 20, is paralyzed from the chest down. Authorities have charged a suspect with attempted murder in the shootings and are investigating whether it was a hate-motivated crime.

Tamara Tamimi, the mother of one of the students, Kinnan Abdalhamid, told CBS News last week that she believed they would not have been targeted if they had not been "dressed the way that they were and speaking Arabic."

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group at the center of US campus activism since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. has been encouraging students to “wear your keffiyeh” in solidarity with the students shot in Vermont in the week after the incident.

Still, in Houston, Texas, SJP member Anna Rajagopal said she and other members had not worn their keffiyeh outside spaces they considered friendly to Arabs and Muslims since October, after people waving Israeli flags surrounded a cafe they were in, screaming insults.

"Myself and a friend have been cognizant of taking off our keffiyehs after leaving Palestinian, Arab spaces to be safe," said Rajagopal, 23, a freelance writer who graduated from Rice University in May and is also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that advocates for Palestinian independence.

Demand is unabated, though, sellers say. "If we could stock 20,000 keffiyehs, we would have sold them," said Morgan Totah, founder of Handmade Palestine, a group based in the Palestinian city of Ramallah that sells local artisans' wares online.


A Decade after Mandela's Death, His Pro-Palestinian Legacy Lives On

Former South African president Nelson Mandela (R) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (L) address the media after holding talks on the crisis in the Middle East May 3, 2001. JN/WS/ File Photo
Former South African president Nelson Mandela (R) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (L) address the media after holding talks on the crisis in the Middle East May 3, 2001. JN/WS/ File Photo
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A Decade after Mandela's Death, His Pro-Palestinian Legacy Lives On

Former South African president Nelson Mandela (R) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (L) address the media after holding talks on the crisis in the Middle East May 3, 2001. JN/WS/ File Photo
Former South African president Nelson Mandela (R) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (L) address the media after holding talks on the crisis in the Middle East May 3, 2001. JN/WS/ File Photo

Days after his release from 27 years in prison in February 1990, anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela gave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a bear hug, symbolizing his embrace of a cause his country's governing ANC party continues to champion.
It was a gesture as controversial then as South Africa's support for the Palestinian cause is today, but Mandela brushed off criticism.
Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization had been an unwavering supporter of Mandela's struggle against white minority rule and many South Africans saw parallels between it and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
"We were fortunate that with their support, we were able to achieve our freedom ... My grandfather ... said our freedom is incomplete without the Palestinian struggle," his grandson Mandla Mandela recalled in an interview ahead of the 10th commemoration of Mandela's death.
From Dec. 3 to 5 Mandla Mandela, who is also an ANC lawmaker, hosted a solidarity conference in Johannesburg for the Palestinians.
It was attended by members of Hamas, an organization Israel has vowed to annihilate in retaliation for its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw around 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.
Israeli bombing of Gaza since then has killed more than 15,500 people, according to Gaza's Hamas-run government, and displaced more than three-quarters of the Strip's 2.3 million population.
Last month, the ruling ANC backed a motion in South Africa's parliament to suspend diplomatic ties with Israel until it agreed to a ceasefire in Gaza.
"LAND ANNEXED"
"Palestinians still do not enjoy fully their freedom on their land. And instead their land has been annexed more and more, something that we also faced in South Africa," said the ANC's deputy chair of international relations, Obed Bapela.
Israel has disputed the comparison with apartheid as a lie motivated by antisemitism, but many South Africans follow Mandela's lead.
"That's something that he (Mandela) never compromised on and nor should we," poet and author Lebogang Mashile told Reuters.
Some in South Africa's Jewish community criticize the ANC's stance, pointing out that Mandela himself eventually tried to build bridges with Israel.
Historian and author of "Jewish Memories of Mandela", David Saks, noted that Mandela was the only South African president to have visited Israel since 1994 - albeit only after he left office - and that "he received a rapturous welcome from the Israeli public," addressing then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-President Ezer Weisman as "my friends".
"He pointed the way which things should have gone (diplomatically with Israel), but (they) didn’t go that way," Saks said.


Volunteer Divers Guard Oman’s ‘Unique’ Coral Reefs

A picture shows coral reefs at Oman's Daymaniyat islands on October 4, 2023. (AFP)
A picture shows coral reefs at Oman's Daymaniyat islands on October 4, 2023. (AFP)
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Volunteer Divers Guard Oman’s ‘Unique’ Coral Reefs

A picture shows coral reefs at Oman's Daymaniyat islands on October 4, 2023. (AFP)
A picture shows coral reefs at Oman's Daymaniyat islands on October 4, 2023. (AFP)

On a sailing boat anchored off Oman's pristine Daymaniyat Islands, volunteer divers pull on wetsuits, check their scuba tanks and then take turns plunging into the clear turquoise water.

They are diving for a reason: to remove the massive fishing nets damaging an unusually resilient coral reef system that is seen as more likely than most to survive rising sea temperatures.

The clean-up is one example of how divers and Omani authorities are joining forces to protect the reefs -- which are critical for marine wildlife -- from man-made damage.

"Coral reefs are a refuge for marine habitat and wildlife," said Hammoud al-Nayri of Oman's environmental authority, as he watched the divers.

"To protect marine ecosystems, we must first preserve coral reefs," said the 45-year-old who oversees the Daymaniyat Islands, Oman's only marine reserve.

Most shallow-water corals, battered and bleached white by repeated marine heatwaves, are "unlikely to last the century", the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last year.

Global warming, as well as dynamite fishing and pollution, wiped out a startling 14 percent of the world's reefs between 2009 and 2018, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

But Oman's relatively cooler waters provide a rare refuge for its reefs, which are among the least studied in the world.

"Oman's reefs are actually considered to be relatively less vulnerable than some regions," said John Burt, associate professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi.

"This is largely due to the influence of the monsoon," the marine expert explained.

"During peak summer temperatures, when we would expect to see bleaching related to marine heatwaves in most regions, the Indian Ocean monsoon picks up in southern Oman, cooling water temperatures dramatically."

'Huge environmental treasure'

Oman's reefs may be resilient to warming sea temperatures, but they are not immune.

The sultanate saw its last major bleaching event in the summer of 2021, when sea temperatures were particularly warm, said Burt.

Cyclones, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change, are also a major threat.

Between 2005 and 2010, more than half of corals in Oman were lost because of Super-Cyclone Gonu in 2007, Cyclone Phet in 2010, as well as a large-scale algal bloom in 2008-2009, Burt said.

"We have had over a decade of recovery in the intervening years which has allowed coral to come back to these reefs," Burt said.

To protect the reefs from fishing nets and coral-killing starfish, Hasan Farsi dives in Daymaniyat every week to inspect for damage.

The son of a fisherman, he records the GPS coordinates of damaged coral areas and sends them to the environment ministry to register them as clean-up targets.

He then joins the dozens of volunteers who dive down to remove the sunken nets and crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on the reefs.

Coral reefs are "a huge environmental treasure", Farsi said from a sailing boat, with extracted nets piled up behind him.

"The coral reefs, because of wrong practices by fishermen, are deteriorating year by year," said the 52-year-old diving instructor.

"Without clean-up campaigns, they would be destroyed completely."

Reefs database

Farsi is not alone in his effort.

Jenan Al Asfoor, a diver and trainer, is a central figure in Oman's coral reef conservation.

The 40-year-old heads Reef Check Oman, which is part of the global Reef Check Foundation.

It was established in 2017 with the aim of building a full database of the country's coral reefs, monitoring their health, identifying their main threats, and working with authorities on protection policies.

Over the years, the organization has conducted several surveys across the country.

"During these surveys, we noticed that we didn't record much bleaching happening... most of the reefs we have surveyed look healthy and in good condition," Asfoor said.

"The uniqueness of corals here, is that while other countries are suffering from high sea temperatures during summer, usually in Oman, we have a cool water temperature all around the year due to the cold water currents travelling from the south of Oman during the monsoon season."

According to Asfoor, Oman's coral reefs have also adapted to high salinity in Oman's northern seas.

"We have a very unique ecosystem happening here, which is not found often anywhere else around the world," she said.

"Our goal in Reef Check Oman is to continue protecting it for generations to come."


Palestinians Lose Jobs as Israeli Firms Seek Foreign Replacements

Israel has sent back thousands of Palestinians to the besieged Gaza Strip - Reuters Photo
Israel has sent back thousands of Palestinians to the besieged Gaza Strip - Reuters Photo
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Palestinians Lose Jobs as Israeli Firms Seek Foreign Replacements

Israel has sent back thousands of Palestinians to the besieged Gaza Strip - Reuters Photo
Israel has sent back thousands of Palestinians to the besieged Gaza Strip - Reuters Photo

When Taha Amin-Ismail Khalifeh dialled into a conference call with his Israeli employer last month, the Palestinian hotel worker expected a briefing on how the Israel-Hamas war was affecting business. Instead, he and 40 others were laid off.

Khalifeh, who lives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, had worked as a housekeeper in the hotel in East Jerusalem for more than 20 years.

About 160,000 Palestinians from the West Bank who were working in Israel and in Jewish settlements have lost or are at risk of losing their jobs because of the closure of border crossings from the West Bank into Israel and settlements, and restrictions on their access to Israel's job market, according to the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO).

Israel has also sent back thousands of Palestinians to the besieged Gaza Strip, Reuters report said.

It had previously issued 18,000 permits allowing Gazans to cross into Israel and the West Bank to take jobs in sectors like agriculture or construction that had salaries up to 10 times what a worker could earn in the blockaded enclave.

Many of the Palestinians worked as day laborers in Israel, or in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and have been unable to travel to their jobs due to the closure of border crossings since Hamas's Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel.

Like many of them, Khalifeh had mixed feelings about working for an Israeli business, but it was his best option for a reliable pay cheque. Unemployment is running at about 46% in Gaza and 13% in the West Bank, and wages are much lower.

"There is nothing that would provide us with a living except working in Israel," Khalifeh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "We have no other choice."

Now jobless for more than a month, he fears he may never be able to return as Israeli businesses urge the government to plug the labor gap left by the Palestinian workers from nations including India and Sri Lanka.

Israeli farms, buildings sites and hotels are among the sectors struggling with a shortage of workers since the war erupted, and some foreign migrant laborers have left, fearing for their safety.

The Israel Builders Association (ACB) has asked the government to seek to recruit at least 60,000 foreign laborers to fill the gap left by the Palestinians, Shay Pauzner, the ACB's deputy director-general, said in emailed comments.

Sri Lanka, desperate for dollars and remittances, plans to send 10,000 workers for the Israeli construction industry, part of a wider contingent of 20,000 workers also including farm laborers, a government minister told Reuters last month.

Israel's Foreign Ministry, the Population and Immigration Authority and COGAT, the government agency that oversees entry permits, did not respond to requests for comment.

- FRAGILE ECONOMY

Efforts to bring in replacements from overseas have raised fears that Palestinian workers' long-term employment prospects could be jeopardized, regardless of what happens in the current conflict.

"This is dangerous issue," Saeed Omran, head of media at the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions, said by phone, though he added that it would take time for tens of thousands of foreigners to be hired.

"How are they going to get them so fast?" he said.

The long-term loss of Israeli jobs would deal another blow to the fragile Palestinian economy, which is dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to Israeli travel restrictions in the West Bank.

According to the ILO, the Palestinian job losses since the start of the war equate to a daily income loss of $16 million. That raises concerns about how Palestinians will live and work in the months and years to come, especially in Gaza, said Miriam Marmur, the public advocacy director at Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit which campaigns for freedom of movement of Palestinians.

"It's hard to imagine that workers from Gaza will be given access to jobs. What's going to be the humanitarian and economic reality in the Strip? What's the situation of the Palestinian economy going to be coming out of this?" Marmur said.

For low-paid workers, the loss of income is already causing financial pain.

Construction worker Muthana Jamal Hassan, 33, who lives in the West Bank city of Jenin, had just finished a painting job in Tel Aviv when the war broke out.

He earned $140 a week and was his family's main breadwinner, but has had no income since the war began, and said he will soon be forced to get into debt to cover his family's basic needs.

Because of the border closures, he said he can not safely cross the border and fears being shot at or detained by Israeli security forces if he tries to do so.

"We used to work to eat and drink, not to buy villas and cars," he said by phone from his home. "We were living in a certain way and now it was taken away from us overnight."

- FOREIGN WORKERS

Israeli efforts to recruit foreign workers to replace Palestinians have drawn criticism from trade unionists in India, with the Construction Workers Federation of India calling the push "immoral", pointing to the death toll in Israel's bombardment and ground invasion of Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Palestinian health authorities deemed reliable by the United Nations say more than 15,000 Gazans have been confirmed killed.

Referring to the ACB's request for foreign laborers to be hired, a spokesperson for Israeli migrant rights labor group Kav LaOved said the mass recruitment of foreign workers at short notice during wartime might threaten their rights.

"They want to bring in so many people without being prepared," said spokesperson Assia Ladizhinskaya.

"We need Israel to enforce (workers') rights to check if they're being recruited normally, if the employer can communicate with them with translators, and do checks in the fields and the construction sites to see if the workers are being treated well," Ladizhinskaya added.

The group has been helping dozens of workers recover unpaid wages by contacting their employers, and has urged the Israeli government to let laid-off Palestinians withdraw funds from their pensions to help them cope with the earnings loss.

Construction worker Ahmad Mohammad Abu Sbay used to be paid 3,800 shekels ($1,023) per month, which he said was just enough to cover the family's needs, but he has not worked since the war began.

"I don't know how I'm going to feed my family," the 37-year-old father-of-four said by phone from his home in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

"I feel the mental pressure every minute and every hour."


Far From Violence, Gaza Wounded Find Care at Cairo Hospital

A Palestinian boy receives medical care at Nasser Institute hospital in Cairo, on December 3, 2023, after he was evacuated to Egypt following his injuries sustained amid fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
A Palestinian boy receives medical care at Nasser Institute hospital in Cairo, on December 3, 2023, after he was evacuated to Egypt following his injuries sustained amid fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
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Far From Violence, Gaza Wounded Find Care at Cairo Hospital

A Palestinian boy receives medical care at Nasser Institute hospital in Cairo, on December 3, 2023, after he was evacuated to Egypt following his injuries sustained amid fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
A Palestinian boy receives medical care at Nasser Institute hospital in Cairo, on December 3, 2023, after he was evacuated to Egypt following his injuries sustained amid fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Ilham Majid was praying when bombs fell on her Gaza house, and her husband only found her hours later under the rubble, alive but seriously wounded.

She was one of the luckier ones -- 17 other family members, including two of her children, were killed in that fateful October 31 raid in the Jabalia refugee camp of northern Gaza, where Israel has been fighting Hamas militants following deadly attacks earlier that month.

Now, like several other Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, Majid is receiving medical treatment in Egypt.

"All of a sudden I felt the house crumbling. Three stories collapsed on top of me," the 42-year-old recalled from her hospital bed at Cairo's Nasser Hospital.

"I got shrapnel all over my body. My liver was hit, my leg, ribs and my jaw are all broken. I cannot walk."

Majid said her husband found her trapped under the rubble of the house by chance four-and-a-half hours later, thanks to one of her fingers that was sticking out.

"I almost could not breathe -- almost dead," she said, AFP reported.

Her 15-year-old daughter was killed in the bombardment, and 10 days later the body of her 17-year-old son was pulled from under the debris. It was already rotting.

Ever since the tragedy that ripped apart her family -- 50 relatives were staying at the house when it was hit -- Majid has been looking at pictures of her son on her cell phone.

Since early October, several Palestinians wounded in Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip, and some suffering various illnesses, have been authorized to leave the besieged territory and travel to Egypt for medical care.

More than 15,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Gaza since fighting began on October 7, according to Gaza health ministry.

Israel unleashed an air and ground campaign against the densely-populated territory with the aim of destroying Hamas, after the militants broke through Gaza's militarized border into Israel.

The war on Gaza has devastated swathes of the coastal territory, levelled entire neighbourhoods and destroyed much of the infrastructure, including hospitals.

Even before fighting resumed on Friday after a week-long pause during which Hamas released hostages in exchange for prisoners held by Israel, Gaza's health system was on its knees with hospitals resembling a "horror movie", according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Now it is "catastrophic", the UN agency has said.

Currently, only 18 of Gaza's 36 hospitals are even minimally to partially functional, with the three main hospitals in the north barely operative, Richard Peeperkorn, WHO's representative in the Palestinian territories, told reporters in Geneva via video-link from Gaza on Friday.

The United Nations says not a single hospital in northern Gaza can carry out surgeries after several were attacked by Israel, while those in the south are overwhelmed by the number of casualties they receive daily.

At Cairo's Nasser Hospital, patients such as Majid are trying to slowly regain their strength far away from the violence and chaos consuming Gaza.

Yussef, 13, lay in a bed staring into the distance, his face puffy.

Dried blood stained his right leg which was held together with metal rods.

"He was in a complete state of shock when I found him," said his older brother, under the rubble of their four-storey home in the Shati refugee camp.

In another hospital room further down the corridor, Lubna al-Shafei, 36, said she was being treated for a "neck wound".

"On October 23, our house in the centre of Gaza City was destroyed. My son was killed and my husband was wounded," she said.

Last week the Egyptian health ministry announced the launch of an initiative aimed at providing medical care for 1,000 children wounded in Gaza.

Already 28 premature babies who were trapped at Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest which was besieged and ultimately raided by Israeli forces, have been taken to Egypt.

The United Arab Emirates and Tunisia have also taken in Palestinians wounded in Gaza, namely children in need of medical care.

France and Italy have sent ships to Egypt to serve as hospitals for wounded civilians from Gaza.


Yemeni Antiquities: Ongoing Hemorrhage through Global Auctions

Yemeni Antiquities: Ongoing Hemorrhage through Global Auctions
Yemeni Antiquities: Ongoing Hemorrhage through Global Auctions
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Yemeni Antiquities: Ongoing Hemorrhage through Global Auctions

Yemeni Antiquities: Ongoing Hemorrhage through Global Auctions
Yemeni Antiquities: Ongoing Hemorrhage through Global Auctions

A Yemeni archaeology expert has revealed that several Yemeni artifacts have been put up for public auctions in Western countries over the past two weeks.

Abdullah Mohsen, a Yemeni specialist in tracking and monitoring smuggled antiquities, has confirmed that a range of artifacts was put up for sale in international auctions on Nov. 15-27.

Among the showcased items were a bronze high-relief dating back to the 5th century BCE, a rare female figurine with inscriptions in cursive script, and a rare 1st-century BCE artifact.

Additionally, a collection of artifacts, sculptures, and antiquities estimated to be around 5,000 years old was featured.

According to Mohsen, an “archaeological tomb” was also relocated from Al-Jawf governorate to Shabwa governorate, and subsequently, it was flown to France.

Mohsen emphasized that this incident serves as a genuine illustration of the ease with which antiquities can be smuggled out of Yemen.

This reinforces speculations around the sale of these artifacts occuring wholesale from their discovery sites rather than through retail transactions.

Mohsen, through a series of Facebook posts, sheds light on the sale of a rare headstone in Toronto, Canada, on Nov. 17.

In the posts, Mohsen explains that the artifact dates back to the prehistoric period and is part of Yemen’s antiquities from Saba or Qataban.

The headstone was presented for sale in an auction after being acquired from an exhibition in New York on May 15, 2008, for approximately $40,000.

This revelation comes at a time when multiple sources confirm the ongoing looting and random excavation in several archaeological sites scattered across Houthi-run areas in Yemen.

These activities are driven by gangs and antiquities mafias supported by key Houthi leaders.

Nearly 12 out of 20 museums, as reported by a former official from the General Authority for Antiquities and Museums in Sanaa, have fallen victim to systematic looting, destruction, and devastation orchestrated by Houthis.


Makeshift Bakery Turns Out Scarce Bread in Gaza City

Makeshift bread ovens like this one in the central Gaza Strip have proliferated across the territory as Israel's punishing air and ground offensive has forced bakeries to close - AFP
Makeshift bread ovens like this one in the central Gaza Strip have proliferated across the territory as Israel's punishing air and ground offensive has forced bakeries to close - AFP
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Makeshift Bakery Turns Out Scarce Bread in Gaza City

Makeshift bread ovens like this one in the central Gaza Strip have proliferated across the territory as Israel's punishing air and ground offensive has forced bakeries to close - AFP
Makeshift bread ovens like this one in the central Gaza Strip have proliferated across the territory as Israel's punishing air and ground offensive has forced bakeries to close - AFP

With a metal box for an oven, planks of wood for fuel and a folded strip of cardboard for a makeshift potholder, a baker on a Gaza City street turned out tray after steaming tray of flat bread on Saturday.

A staple food before the war, bread has become rarer and rarer in the Gaza Strip, with bakeries shut across the heavily bombed north and flour in short supply after mills and storage warehouses were damaged in fighting between Israel and Hamas.

To Abu Abdullah Muhaysa, the volunteer who came up with the idea to bake bread for remaining residents of the devastated city, the improvised kitchen is a "response to the catastrophic situation in the Gaza Strip".

"We crafted this by hand with iron sheets to provide bread for people and their children, to help them survive and fulfil their needs after all basic necessities were cut off," he told AFP.

Patrons are asked to pay just a token amount to cover the cost of gathering firewood.

"Our efforts and manpower are solely dedicated to the sake of God and our community," Muhaysa said.

Since Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel sparked an Israeli pledge to crush the Palestinian militant group, a humanitarian disaster has been unfolding in Gaza.

The World Food Program has warned that the population faces a "high risk of famine", and only a trickle of aid has made it into the territory.

Earlier this month, one of Gaza's last grain warehouses was hit by Israeli strikes, and at least two of its five flour mills have been damaged.

Azmi Abu Assira was among those who turned out for bread in Gaza City on Saturday, the second day of renewed Israeli bombardment after a week-long truce fell apart.

"We were compelled to come here as there are no bakeries available," he said, adding that the price of a 20-kilogramme (44-pound) bag of flour had shot up to between 300 and 400 shekels (between $80 and $100).

"The people are suffering, as you can see," he added, calling for "a ceasefire to relieve us from the hardship".

Muhaysa, for his part, urged the international community "not to apply double standards, but to grant Palestinians their right to a normal life".

"We seek attention for our cause so that Palestinian children can smile like children everywhere else in the world," he said.


Nowhere to Go, Say Gazans in South under Israeli Bombardment

Palestinians inspect the damage in the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on December 2, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)
Palestinians inspect the damage in the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on December 2, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)
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Nowhere to Go, Say Gazans in South under Israeli Bombardment

Palestinians inspect the damage in the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on December 2, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)
Palestinians inspect the damage in the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on December 2, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Under aerial bombardment from Israel, people sheltering in the south of the Gaza Strip after fleeing their homes earlier in the war said on Saturday they had nowhere safe to go now.

The city of Khan Younis is the focus of Israeli air strikes and artillery fire after fighting resumed on Friday following the collapse of a week-long truce. Its population has swelled in recent weeks as several hundred thousand people from the northern Gaza Strip have fled south.

Some are camping in tents, others in schools. Some are sleeping in stairwells or outside the few hospitals operating in the city. A World Health Organization official said on Friday that one of the hospitals was "like a horror movie" as hundreds of wounded children and adults waited for treatment.

Abu Wael Nasrallah, 80, scoffed at the Israeli army's latest order to move further south to Rafah, bordering Egypt. Children were injured in Israeli strikes in the town on Friday.

The message was delivered via leaflets dropped from the sky over several districts in Khan Younis.

"This is nonsense," Nasrallah told Reuters. He had heeded Israeli evacuation orders and moved from the northern Gaza Strip earlier in the war that broke out on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants crossed into Israel and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

Some 193 Palestinians had been killed since the truce expired, the Gaza health ministry said on Saturday, adding to the death toll of more than 15,000 Gazans announced by Palestinian health authorities.

Israel says it is making efforts to prevent civilian casualties as the fighting moves south. Addressing reporters in Tel Aviv on Saturday, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said humanitarian groups were informed of what he described the "safer areas".

"We've not asked the whole population of the south to relocate, we've not even asked the whole population of Khan Younis to relocate. But those neighborhoods, those specific areas where we know there is going to be heavy combat, we've asked people there to relocate," Mark Regev said.

'Night of horror'

Nasrallah said he and his family would stay put because they had already lost everything.

"There is nothing left to fear. Our homes are gone, our property is gone, our money is gone, our sons have been killed, some are handicapped. What is left to cry for?"

A mother of four, who gave her name as Samira, said she had fled south from Gaza City with her children after Israel began bombing there last month. They now shelter with friends in a home west of Khan Younis.

She said Friday night had been one of the most terrifying since she arrived: "A night of horror."

She and other residents said they feared the intensity of the bombing in Khan Younis and the nearby city of Deir al-Balah meant Israel's ground invasion of the south was imminent.

Another man, who gave his name as Yamen, said he and his wife and six children had fled the north weeks ago and were sleeping in a school.

"Where to after Deir al Abalah, after Khan Younis?" he said. "I don't know where to take my family."

The UN estimates that up to 1.8 million people in the Gaza Strip - or nearly 80% of the population - have been forced to flee during Israel's devastating bombing campaign.

Israel has sworn to annihilate Gaza-based Hamas in response to the Oct. 7 attack.