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Europe

BUCHAREST - French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have cautioned against an escalation in the dispute over Iran's nuclear deal after Tehran said it would stop abiding by parts of the deal and U.S. President Donald Trump said he was open to talks with Iranian leaders.

Tehran on May 8 said it had stopped observing limits on its nuclear activities agreed under the 2015 deal until they find a way to bypass renewed U.S. sanctions. The same day, the U.S. envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, accused Tehran of resorting to "nuclear blackmail."

Macron, speaking in Romania ahead of an EU summit on May 9, told reporters that "Iran must remain in this agreement, and we must do everything we can to ensure that it stays in."

He urged the agreement's signatories not to "get caught up in any escalation" and to "jointly watch over our collective security."

For her part, Merkel said the EU wants to avoid an escalation, adding that Tehran must recognize that it is in its own interests to remain committed to the nuclear deal.

"Our hand remains outstretched at this point; we want to continue to push for a diplomatic solution," Merkel said after the EU meeting.

Trump did not address Iran's latest move. But he told reporters at the White House that he wants the Iranian leadership to contact him.

"What I would like to see with Iran, I would like to see them call me," Trump said.

Amid rising tensions between the two countries, Trump said Washington was not looking for a conflict with Tehran.

"I want them to be strong and great, to have a great economy," Trump said, adding that "we can make a fair deal."

Macron said the landmark 2015 deal curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions is "a good agreement" but added that it should be completed with other pacts governing Iran's missile development and its potentially destabilizing role in the Middle East.

His statement came shortly after the European Union and three European powers issued a joint declaration urging Iran to respect the deal.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany said they still backed the accord but rejected "ultimatums" from Tehran to keep it alive.

"We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran's compliance on the basis of Iran's performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments" under the agreement, the European statement said.

Iran has said its move was in response to the sweeping unilateral sanctions that Washington has reimposed since it quit the agreement one year ago. The reimposing of sanctions has dealt a severe blow to Iran's economy.

The EU powers say they "regret the reimposition of sanctions" by the U.S. and remain "determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran."

They were "determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran" in an effort to keep the deal afloat, the statement added.

But it said that Iran must at the same time "implement its commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) in full as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps."

AB/

BERLIN - European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran’s nuclear deal and rejected “ultimatums” from Tehran, after Iran relaxed restrictions on its nuclear program and threatened moves that might breach the 2015 international pact.

Iran’s announcement on Wednesday, related to curbs on its stockpiling of nuclear materials, was in response to U.S. sanctions imposed following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the accord with Tehran a year ago.

Iran’s initial moves do not appear to violate the accord yet. But President Hassan Rouhani said that unless the world powers which signed the deal protect Iran’s economy from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond limits set in the agreement.

“We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments ...,” read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, co-signatories of the deal.

“We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” they said, adding that this included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling non-dollar business with Iran off the ground.

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a Twitter post that EU countries should uphold their obligations in the nuclear deal with Iran and normalize economic ties despite U.S. sanctions, “instead of demanding that Iran unilaterally abide by a multilateral accord”.

The nuclear deal required Iran to curb its uranium enrichment capacity to head off any pathway to developing a nuclear bomb, in return for the removal of most international sanctions. A series of more intrusive U.N. inspections under the deal have verified that Iran is meeting its commitments.

Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon and says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal.

The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alluded to that in a statement on Thursday.

“To date the regime’s default option has been violence, and we appeal to those in Tehran who see a path to a prosperous future through de-escalation to modify the regime’s behavior,” Pompeo said.

“Our restraint to this point should not be mistaken by Iran for a lack of resolve,” Pompeo said.


TRUMP RENEWS TALKS APPEAL


Trump, who has previously expressed a willingness to meet Iranian leaders to no avail, on Thursday renewed that appeal in an impromptu news conference at the White House.

“They should call. If they do, we’re open to talk to them,” Trump said.

He also said he could not rule out a military confrontation given the heightened tensions. Trump declined to say what prompted him to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the region over what was described as unspecified threats.

In an MSNBC interview, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi said: “All of a sudden he decided to leave the negotiating table ... What is the guarantee that he will not renege again?”

He dismissed U.S. allegations of an Iranian threat as “fake intelligence” comparing it to the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The commander overseeing U.S. naval forces in the Middle East told Reuters on Thursday that American intelligence showing a threat from Iran will not prevent him from sending an aircraft carrier through the vital Strait of Hormuz, if needed.

“I am not in a war-plan footing and have not been tasked to do so,” U.S. Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said in a phone interview. “However we are absolutely ready to respond to any aggression against the United States, partners in the region, or our interests.”

The Trump administration has ratcheted up sanctions this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.

The move creates a dilemma for Washington’s European allies which say they share its concerns about Iranian behavior but think the Trump administration’s tactics are likely to backfire.

The European allies believe Trump’s campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic plays into the hands of Tehran hardliners and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called for the nuclear deal to be extended to cover other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missiles, rather than jettisoned.

“Leaving the 2015 nuclear agreement is a mistake because it is undoing what we have already done. That’s why France is remaining and will remain a part of it and I deeply hope that Iran will remain,” Macron said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU wants to avoid an escalation in the dispute and Tehran must recognize that it is in its own interests to remain committed to the deal.

European countries have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of U.S. sanctions. But in practice this has failed so far, with all major European firms that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.

A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said on Thursday Tehran’s goal was to bring the agreement “back on track”.

But Tehran has also maintained that it will leave the deal, known as the JCPOA, unless it receives more economic support as envisaged by the 2015 pact.

“We have not left the JCPOA so far, but we have put such a move on our agenda and that would happen step by step,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by state-run PressTV on Wednesday night.

Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.

Lifting sanctions, they argue, would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it more difficult for hardliners to roll back reforms.

 

By Gabriela Baczynska and Luiza Ilie

SIBIU, Romania - Fighting climate change, safeguarding the rule of law and finding a modern model for growth must be at the heart of the European Union, the bloc’s leaders agreed in Thursday talks meant to show unity despite the damage from Brexit.

However, their informal gathering in the Romanian town of Sibiu did not produce clear decisions on how to achieve the ambitious goals, underscoring divisions in the EU along multiple fault lines and setting up battles ahead.

The leaders of all members except Britain met on Europe Day in Sibiu, which has German and Hungarian roots, 15 years after the EU’s expansion east finally consigned to history the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since World War Two.

Ahead of European Parliament elections on May 23-26, the 27 leaders also had a first look at assigning the bloc’s most powerful jobs later this year.

“In 15 days, some 400 million Europeans will choose between a project ... to build Europe further or a project to destroy, deconstruct Europe and return to nationalism,” Macron told the gathering.

“Climate, protection of borders and a model of growth, a social model... is what I really want for the coming years.”

On climate change, France and eight other EU countries proposed getting to “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” by 2050 and the bloc will now fight about how to frame and finance any transition to more environmentally-friendly policies.

“Nothing has changed when it comes to divides and different opinions about it,” said the chairman of the talks, European Council President Donald Tusk who used to be the prime minister of Poland, one of the biggest EU stallers on climate reforms.

“What is new is this very fresh and energetic pressure,” he said of youth protests growing in Europe to demand radical action to safeguard the planet. “There is no future for politicians without this sensitivity and imagination.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, mindful of her country’s powerful car industry, refused to endorse the French-led proposal entirely but backed spending a quarter of the EU’s next joint budget for 2021-28 on climate and energy efficiency.

A report released on Thursday by the World Wide Fund (WWF) and Global Footprint Network sharply criticized the EU, saying its members consumed the Earth’s resources faster than they can be renewed.

The leaders pledged to protect the rule of law at a time when the governments in post-communist members Poland, Hungary and Romania stand accused of undercutting democracy.

Divided over issues ranging from democratic standards to migration, the EU is grappling with the prospect of Britain’s departure, a wave of populism, and external challenges from China to Russia to the United States.

It is also lagging behind in areas from artificial intelligence to cyber security, and is scrambling to keep alive a troubled nuclear deal with Iran.

But the leaders signed off on a declaration promising to “defend one Europe”, “stay united, through thick and thin” and “always look for joint solutions” ahead.


TOP JOBS UP FOR GRABS


Tusk announced another summit on May 28, two days after the European Parliament vote, to let the national leaders agree on appointing new people to hold the EU’s top roles until 2024.

This will involve fierce horse-trading over names to head the European Council, which brings together national leaders, the executive European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Central Bank and the joint diplomatic service.

All five posts are up for grabs later this year and the outgoing European Parliament has already picked its favorites for the Commission job including a conservative German, Manfred Weber, and a Dutch socialist, Frans Timmermans.

Many national leaders, however, want to keep control of the opaque process to themselves.

Agreement on top roles took three summits the last time round but Tusk said he wanted the new leadership in place in July and was ready to go for a majority vote if unanimity was missing.

Hungary’s eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke against Weber.

He did, however, get the backing of Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Macron, the leaders of Luxembourg and Lithuania opposed the idea of following the parliament’s choice.

Other names in the hat include Brexit negotiator Frenchman Michel Barnier, or Margrethe Vestager, Denmark’s current commissioner who imposed hefty fines on global tech giants Google and Apple.

 

 

 

Rovaniemi, Finland - The participants at the Arctic Council meeting in Finland's far northern town of Rovaniemi have failed to issue a final declaration reportedly due to a U.S. refusal to mention climate change.

At the start of the council's 11th ministerial meeting, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said the final joint declaration was "off the table" and would be replaced by ministerial statements. He provided no explanation.

According to participants, member states were unable to reach an agreement, with the United States alone refusing to mention climate change in the final text.

Temperatures in the Arctic region are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world, prompting the accelerated melting of the polar cap and opening huge untapped energy and mineral resources to commercial exploitation.

This is the first time the Arctic Council, which has been holding ministerial meetings every two years since 1996, failed to present a final declaration.

The meeting was supposed to come up with a two-year agenda to balance the challenges of climate change with sustainable development.

"The hang-up here right now is America making it hard to make a final agreement," Sally Swetzof of the Aleut International Association, one of six organizations representing the Arctic's indigenous peoples, told the media.

The Arctic Council consists of the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

In a speech in Rovaniemi on the eve of the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Donald Trump's administration "shares your deep commitment to environmental stewardship" in the Arctic. But he said collective goals were not always the answer.

"They are rendered meaningless and even counterproductive as soon as one nation fails to comply," he said.

Pompeo also criticized China, which holds observer status, and Russia, slamming their "aggressive behavior" in the Arctic.

 

 

Mediterranean

GAZA - The military wing of the Palestinian Hamas resistance movement says it successfully "overcame" Israel's so-called Iron Dome missile system during its recent confrontation with the Tel Aviv regime thanks to its new rocket-launching tactic.

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said in a social media post on Monday that the fresh rocket-launching tactic had overwhelmed the so-called Iron Dome missile system, leading to the deaths and injuries of numerous Israelis in two days.

"The Qassam Brigades, thanks to God, succeeded in overcoming the so-called Iron Dome by adopting the tactic of firing dozens of missiles in one single burst," he said.

"The high intensity of fire and the great destructive ability of the missiles that were introduced by the Qassam [Brigades]… succeeded in causing great losses and destruction to the enemy," Obeida noted.

Israeli aerial assaults on Gaza prompted the most intense fighting between the regime and the Palestinian resistance fighters since Tel Aviv's bloody war on the blockaded enclave in 2014.

In retaliation, the Palestinian fighters fired around 700 rockets from Gaza into the occupied territories, killing four Israeli settlers and injuring at least 80 others over the weekend.

In the course of Israel's seven-week war in 2014, five Israelis died and 67 others were wounded.

Israeli media reported that the "Iron Dome" intercepted only 240 of the projectiles, adding that some 35 rockets and mortar shells had struck populated areas over the course of Saturday and Sunday.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, former head of Israeli military intelligence's research department, Yaakov Amidror, revealed that the "Iron Dome" had failed to intercept all the missiles launched from Gaza due to a number of reasons.

According to him, one of the key issues was that some of the rockets were launched from a very close range, giving the Israeli system next to no time to react and intercept them.

He added that in general the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip are not unique and are "within the capabilities of the Iron Dome."

Another reason for the failure, the military expert explained, is the system's peculiar design, which makes it ignore missiles aimed at areas it deems empty or uninhabited.


'Israel changed rules of engagement in Gaza'


Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that the Tel Aviv regime changed the rules of engagement in Gaza in the past few days.

"We have changed the rules of the game, and Hamas understands this very well. With that, it is clear that this is not the end of the campaign, and I therefore gave instructions to prepare for what will come next, and gave directives to leave armored and artillery forces around the Gaza Strip," he said.

Netanyahu further said Israel had officially renewed its old policy of targeted killings of "senior terrorists," a term he used in referrence to members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad resistance groups, and claimed that the Tel Aviv regime had killed "dozens of them" over the weekend.

On Sunday, the Israeli military specifically targeted a Hamas member in Gaza, Hamed Ahmed Khudari, by bombing his car, marking the first targeted killing since the 2014 Gaza war.

The fresh Israeli aggression killed 27 Palestinians and wounded dozens of others in the attacks. Two pregnant Palestinian women and two infants were among the dead.

The two-day Israeli onslaught also demolished or damaged hundreds of Palestinian homes in Gaza.

The conflict came to a halt on Monday following a ceasefire between the two sides. Tensions erupted on Friday after the killing of four Palestinians, two in an Israeli air raid on Gaza and two during the regime's live fire at anti-occupation protests.

Meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that although the recent flare-up in Gaza had come to an end, the wider conflict would continue.

"The resistance managed to deter" the Israeli military, he said, according to Israeli Kan public broadcaster.

"Our message is that this round is over, but the conflict will not end until we regain our rights," he said.

The ceasefire, however, has angered Israelis, who say they are tired of having to run to shelters.

"In a month, in two weeks, in a month and a half, it will all happen again – we achieved nothing. I think Israel needs to strike them very, very hard so that they learn their lesson," said Haim Cohen in Ashdod, located 25 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip.

In Ein Hashlosha, a kibbutz about a mile and a half from Gaza, Meirav Kohan, 46, said she was shocked and disappointed at the truce.

"This is a war of attrition" she said, adding the Tel Aviv regime "is not looking for a long-term solution to bring us peace. There's no policy. We're just pawns in a game."

Israel says its warplanes targeted some 350 sites in the Gaza Strip. The tiny coastal territory has been under Israeli land, air and sea blockade for over a decade.

 

 

GENEVA - A lack of health funding in Gaza means 1,700 people shot by Israeli security forces may have to have amputations in the next two years, Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for occupied Palestinian territory, told reporters on Wednesday.

McGoldrick said 29,000 Palestinians had been wounded in protests in the past year, and 7,000 of them had gunshot wounds, mostly in the lower legs.

“You’ve got 1,700 people who are in need of serious, complicated surgeries for them to be able to walk again,” McGoldrick said.

“These are people who have been shot during the demonstrations and who are in need of rehabilitation, and very, very serious and complex bone reconstruction surgery over a two year period before they start to rehabilitate themselves.”

Without those procedures, all these people are at risk of needing an amputation, he said.

The U.N. is seeking $20 million to fill the gap in health spending.

A lack of funding to the World Food Program and UNRWA, the U.N. humanitarian agency that supports Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war of Israel’s founding, also meant there could be an interruption of food supplies for 1 million people.

“If that stops, there is no alternative for people to bring food in from any other sources, because they don’t have purchasing power,” McGoldrick said.

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said a severe lack of funds meant WFP had cut aid for 193,000 people this year in the West Bank and Gaza, with 27,000 getting nothing and the rest getting only $8 per month instead of the usual $10.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

People’s prospects were “precarious”, McGoldrick said. Gaza families averaged $4,000 of debt, while salaries averaged $400 per month, but 54 percent of the population was unemployed.

The health system was impoverished, with unpaid salaries and dilapidated equipment, and many medical professionals had left if they could find opportunities elsewhere.

One teaching hospital was now only teaching trauma medicine, McGoldrick said, but the doctors on the ground did not have the technical ability to carry out the treatment required for the people at risk of amputation.

There have already been 120 amputations, 20 of them in children, in the past year, he said.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM - A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran - a major funder for Islamic Jihad - had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles - over 150 of them intercepted - had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.


LEVERAGE


The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

A Palestinian man is seen through the rubble of an apartment block that was hit by an Israeli air strike, in the northern Gaza Strip May 6, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv - the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March - next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

 

 

GAZA - Israel killed two Hamas militants in air strikes on Gaza on Friday, and two Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli forces along the enclave’s border.

The strikes were a response to gunfire from southern Gaza that wounded two Israeli soldiers, the Israeli military said.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Palestinian enclave, said two members of its armed wing had been killed and three wounded when Israel bombed one of its positions in central Gaza.

Later on Friday, two Palestinians shot by Israeli troops while taking part in weekly protests along the border died of their wounds, Gaza health officials said.

The Israeli military said some 5,200 Palestinians had amassed along the frontier, but did not immediately provide further comment.

The protesters are demanding an end to a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, and want Palestinians to have the right to return to land from which their families fled or were forced to flee during Israel’s founding in 1948, which Israel rejects.

More than 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the ‘Great March of Return’ started on March 30 last year, according to Gaza health officials. An Israeli soldier was also killed by a Palestinian sniper.

Egyptian mediators, credited with brokering a ceasefire after a Hamas rocket attack north of Tel Aviv in March set off a burst of intense fighting, have been working to prevent a new escalation.

Hamas said in a statement on Thursday that its Gaza chief, Yeyha Al-Sinwar, had traveled to Cairo for talks on efforts to maintain calm along the border and alleviate Palestinian suffering.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, whose economy has suffered years of blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts. Unemployment stands at 52 percent, according to the World Bank.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel in the past decade.

Cairo’s mediation had helped persuade Israel to lift some restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza and expand the Mediterranean zone where Gazans can fish.

But Israel scaled back the zone this week in response to rocket fire from Gaza, a spokeswoman for its military liaison agency with the Palestinians said.

Palestinian militants fired a barrage of rockets toward Israeli cities and villages on Saturday, drawing air strikes from Israeli aircraft, the Israeli military said.

There were no reports of Israeli casualties as many of the rockets were intercepted and rockets alerts sent residents running to their shelters.

The flare-up followed the killing in an Israeli air strike on Friday of two militants from the Islamist Hamas group which rules Gaza.

 

 

 

North Africa

By Hamid Ould Ahmed

ALGIERS - Tens of thousands of protesters demanding the removal of Algeria’s ruling elite gathered in the capital Algiers for a 12th successive Friday, defying attempts by the army to ease tensions ahead of presidential election.

The demonstrators are pushing for radical change by seeking the departure of senior figures, including politicians and businessmen, who have governed the North African country since independence from France in 1962.

“They all go,” read a banner held up by protesters draped in national flags gathered in central Algiers, which has seen a succession of large anti-government marches since Feb. 22.

“We will not give up. The battle will continue,” said a 37-year-old school teacher, marching with his wife and two children.

The demonstration was peaceful but smaller than those that have shaken Algiers over the past weeks. This is the first protest since the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Thousands of protesters also took to the streets in other cities, including Oran, Tizi Ouzou and Constantine, chanting anti-government slogans, witnesses said.

After 20 years in power, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika quit on April 2 under pressure from protesters and the army, but demonstrations have continued, seeking the removal of all officials belonging to the old guard and the introduction of political reforms.

Protesters are also demanding the resignation of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of parliament who has replaced Bouteflika for 90 days to oversee a July 4 presidential election.

The army, the north African country’s most powerful institution, has sought appeasement by meeting a number of protesters’ demands including launching anti-graft probes against people suspected of misuse of power and public funds.

Last week, Bouteflika’s youngest brother, Said, and two former intelligence chiefs were placed in custody by a military judge over “harming the army’s authority and plotting against state authority”.

At least five businessmen, including the country’s richest man, Issad Rebrab, who is active in food industry and sugar refining, have been detained for alleged involvement in corruption scandals.

 

 

 

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI - The United Arab Emirates said on Thursday that “extremist militias” were controlling the Libyan capital which its ally Khalifa Haftar is fighting to capture from forces allied to Libya’s internationally recognized government.

The UAE, along with Egypt, support Haftar who they see as a bulwark against Islamist militants in North Africa. A 2017 U.N. report said the Gulf Arab state has provided his eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) with military and logistical support.

Haftar’s offensive launched more than three weeks ago to seize Tripoli has all but wrecked U.N.-backed efforts for a peace deal between the rival factions to end eight years of conflict.

“Priority in Libya (is) to counter extremism/terrorism and support stability in long drawn out crisis,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a Twitter post.

“Abu Dhabi agreement offered opportunity to support the U.N.-led process. Meanwhile extremist militias continue to control capital and derail search for political solution.”

Abu Dhabi, which has voiced support for U.N. peace efforts, last February hosted talks between Prime Minister Fayez Seraj and Haftar, the military commander of Libya’s eastern half, where the two agreed on the need for national elections.

The assault by the LNA, the biggest military confrontation in Libya since the 2011 toppling of leader Muammar Gaddafi, stalled on Tripoli’s stoutly defended southern outskirts last week. But fighting has intensified again, with both sides using artillery.

The U.N. report issued in June 2017 said Haftar’s forces had received aircraft and military vehicles from the UAE, which also built up an air base at Al Khadim, allowing the LNA, which is allied to a parallel government based in the eastern city of Benghazi, to gain air superiority by 2016.

A Gulf source has told Reuters that the UAE had provided logistical support to Haftar to safeguard Egypt’s security following cross-border militant attacks.

“Today, he (Haftar) is his own man and trying to achieve his own goals,” the source said.

Since the Tripoli offensive began, 376 people have been killed in the fighting, including 23 civilians, and 1,822 wounded, 79 of them civilians, according to latest United Nations figures. More than 45,000 people have fled their homes.

By Tom Westcott, Freelance journalist and regular contributor to The New Humanitarian

22 April 2019


‘Libyans feel they are now facing the same future as Syria or Yemen’

As fighting on the outskirts of Libya’s capital heads into its third week and shows no signs of abating, the casualty count is rising, some aid organisations are moving expatriate staff out of the country, and it’s only getting worse for civilians on the ground.

“Humanitarian needs are growing by the day,” said Rabab al-Rifai, communication coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya. “A large-scale escalation of violence in an urban area like Tripoli, which counts over one million inhabitants, could have dramatic consequences. The situation in and around the city has evolved rapidly over the past two weeks, and fears of yet another protracted conflict are on the rise.”

Violence broke out in the southern and southeastern outskirts of Tripoli a fortnight ago, as the Khalifa Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA), loyal to the country’s eastern-based governing bodies, launched an offensive to take control of the city from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The battle – the latest in a complex series of civil conflicts that followed the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi – comes on the back of years of UN-led efforts to broker a settlement between rival Libyan governments.

The World Health Organisation says 254 people have been killed and 1,228 wounded, while more than 32,000 people have been displaced since 4 April, including some 7,300 children.

This weekend saw several airstrikes in Tripoli, shortly after US President Donald Trump reportedly expressed support for Haftar, and the UN now says humanitarians can’t access some parts of the city due to clashes and shelling.


Growing needs, limited access


In addition to distributing food and other essentials to displaced people across the city, the ICRC is bringing supplies for treating the war wounded to hospitals in the city and field hospitals further out, said al-Rifai.

The dramatic escalation in medical needs has put a burden on aid agencies and hospitals, given that Libya’s crumbling healthcare system is already often unable to handle basic care.

Médecins Sans Frontières said its “teams have remained on the ground responding to medical needs”, including delivering aid to shelters for displaced people and supplies to three hospitals.

The UN says it is also delivering food, medical supplies, and other items, but residents of the capital’s southern suburbs, which have seen some of the most sustained fighting and are hard for humanitarians to enter safely, said little help had reached them.

“We have seen no visible movement of international organisations in our area, although some local organisations helped people,” said Mohamed, a resident of a village south of the capital recently taken by the LNA.

Libyans have been mobilising via social media, requesting blood donations and encouraging their fellow citizens to offer spare rooms to people who have had to flee their homes.

Fadiel Fadel, a Tripoli-based civil society activist, criticised the delivery of humanitarian aid by international organisations as “very weak, even with all these people fleeing”.


Detained migrants thrust onto front lines


Migrants and refugees remain in serious danger.

The UN’s refugee agency said on Friday that it had moved a total of 539 refugees away from the fighting and evacuated 163 on a flight to Niger, but it still estimates that more than 3,000 migrants and refugees, including children, are in detention centres near front lines.

“Over 3,000 refugees and migrants trapped in detention centres are at a severe risk of being caught in the crossfire,” said MSF’s field communication coordinator Jason Rizzo. “These people are unable to seek safety on their own, and their provision of food, water, medical care, and other essential services has deteriorated from already poor levels seen before the fighting.”

Three detention centres are in the direct vicinity of fighting, while several others in Tripoli’s south and southeastern suburbs are now dangerously close to the clashes.

“The Qasr bin Gashir detention centre is now on the other side of front lines in an area of active fighting, and our medical teams have been unable to reach the nearly 900 people who are trapped there,” Rizzo said. “MSF is calling for all refugees and migrants in Tripoli detention centres to be immediately evacuated out of the country due to the severe life-threatening risk amidst the worsening conflict.”

There are an estimated 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, and those who are not in detention and have been displaced by the violence in Tripoli “continue to face discrimination… [in accessing] collective shelters”, according to the UN.


International withdrawal


Within days of the outbreak of violence, international organisations began pulling their expatriate staff out of Tripoli due to safety concerns, although some remain on the ground.

Safa Msehli, information officer for IOM, the UN’s migration agency, said that “as it stands IOM maintains its operations in Libya,” but added that the security situation remained unpredictable.

“Although local staff are still active, international presence has been seriously minimised and all non-essential staff… have already been evacuated,” said a Libyan employee of a major international NGO, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media. “You can’t blame them,” the NGO employee added, noting that the agencies were likely looking to avoid an international crisis or a rescue mission.

The point was reinforced by ICRC’s al-Rifai. “There is no doubt that our strength lies in our Libyan colleagues, who have been working to respond to the needs of the populations over the past two weeks in various parts of Tripoli,” he said.

The international community has been in this position before. During Tripoli’s last major outbreak of violence, a five-week militia-led conflict in 2014 that left civilian infrastructure and the international airport destroyed, most major NGOs and Western embassies pulled out of Libya.

Five years later, much of the aid operation is still headquartered in Tunisia, and a return to Libya since mid-2017 has been slow and cautious.

Although NGO press officers refer to current staff movements to Tunisia as “temporary”, the earlier exodus left many Libyans feeling abandoned by the international community, and now they are concerned the shift is a sign they are in for a repetition of the ruinous 2014 conflict.

“Libyans are not happy about the withdrawal of embassies and international NGOs, which many view as caring about themselves but not Libyans,” said Fadel. “I’m not exaggerating when I say Libyans feel they are now facing the same future as Syria or Yemen.”



The New Humanitarian, 22 April 2019

GENEVA - The United Nations (UN) has warned against the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya as fierce fighting rages on between rival forces for control of the capital, Tripoli.

UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya Maria do Valle Ribeiro issued the warning in an interview with AFP late Sunday, amid clashes that continue in and around Tripoli between forces loyal to Libya's internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and those allied with the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar.

"As long as the situation continues, even if it just stagnates and continues like this, we can expect to see a continuing deterioration," Ribeiro told AFP. "When we see the use of air power, the indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas, it is very difficult to be optimistic."

The UN official made the remarks after the GNA reported that air raids by the LNA had killed four people and wounded 20 others in Tripoli a day earlier.

"We continue to call for a respect of civilians, we continue to call for humanitarian pauses and most of all we continue to hope that the situation can return to a more peaceful settlement of the crisis," Ribeiro said.

The UN official also voiced concern over a breakdown in basic services, including electricity and water supplies, and said more relief funds were needed for the oil-rich African country.


GNA decries UN 'silence' on Haftar attacks


Separately on Sunday, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord held the UN Security Council responsible for refraining from taking action regarding attacks carried out by Haftar's forces on the Libyan capital.

The GNA "holds the UN mission and Security Council responsible for their silence and complacency towards the actions of the criminal Haftar," the government said in a statement.

It went on to say that since the Libyan renegade general failed to make progress on the ground, he has resorted to seek support from "foreign air forces to strike civilians and the unarmed in the city".

Libya has been divided between two rival governments - the House of Representatives based in the eastern city of Tobruk and the GNA headed by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli.

The 75-year-old Haftar who enjoys the loyalty of a group of armed militia and backing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt has taken upon himself to protect the government in Tobruk.

Armed forces and militia loyal to the GNA have been fighting back.

Libya's crisis began to escalate on April 4 when forces loyal to Haftar launched a deadly campaign to invade and conquer Tripoli.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has recently said that intensified fighting for control of Tripoli was turning the densely-populated residential areas of Tripoli into "battlefields."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the fighting has so far killed at least 278 people and wounded more than 1,300 others. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also reported that about 39,000 people have been displaced by the clashes.

Libya has been the scene of increasing violence since 2011, when former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power after an uprising and a NATO military intervention.

His ouster created a huge power vacuum, leading to chaos and the emergence of numerous militant outfits, including the Daesh terrorist group.

 

 

Research Papers & Reports

By Tim Eaton, Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, and,

Mohamed Eljarh, Co-founder, Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting (based in eastern Libya)

Chatham House, London, 16 April 2019

Protracted fighting could damage the economy of eastern Libya and undermine the funding model of his Libyan Arab Armed Forces.


The Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on 3 April. The offensive soon lost momentum as forces in western Libya nominally-aligned to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) rallied to prevent the advance of Haftar’s forces. Significant reinforcements have been despatched from across the country, raising the prospect of a protracted period of fighting – everyone involved has few incentives to back down and many incentives to avoid failure.

If the fighting drags on, the LNA’s revenue generation model may be its undoing.

Securing the necessary funding for the LNA’s operations has been key to Haftar’s success and the sustainability of his effort to establish security and a military governing authority across territories under LNA control. Yet, despite Haftar's efforts, the GNA still has greater access to resources due to the presence of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) in Tripoli and the CBL’s monopoly over access to foreign exchange. As such, on the economic level, the anti-Haftar forces may be better placed to endure this bout of violence.

Justifiably, the spotlight has been placed upon the material support that the LNA has received from external backers such as the UAE and Egypt for its military efforts and diplomatic support from France. On an economic level, the printing of currency and minting of coinage by a Russian company has been critical to keeping the finances of eastern Libya afloat.

But little attention has been given to local sources of revenue generation, from where the LNA appears to access most of its financial resources. These come either from (1) elements in the Libyan state (both internationally recognized and unrecognized) or (2) the commercial banking sector based in the east of the country.

In particular, the sustainability of the second may be open to question. Such vulnerability may mean that the LNA will require further financial support from external backers. A report claiming Saudi officials had promised ‘tens of millions of dollars’ to Haftar prior to the launch of the operation is significant and perhaps a sign of things to come.


Developing a legal framework to generate revenue


In 2014, the sources of income open to the elements of the LNA affiliated with Haftar were limited to tribes, businessmen, illicit activities networks and subsidized foreign support, mainly from Egypt and the UAE. Since, the LNA has built a greater capacity to generate revenue via state sources.


Libya’s War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness


Libya suffers from interlinked political, security and economic crises that are weakening state institutions, damaging its economy and facilitating the continued existence of non-state armed groups.

LNA soldiers registered prior to 2014 are paid through a dual mechanism. It fuses funds received (circa $18 million per month) from the Tripoli-based (and internationally recognized) Central Bank of Libya with the revenue streams developed via support from legislative and political institutions based in the east: the House of Representatives, which is the internationally recognized parliament, and the Interim Government that it supports, which is unrecognized. In 2018, for example, the Interim Government secured over $475 million for the LNA through legal budgetary allocations, according to official sources.

Critically, the establishment of an Eastern Central Bank of Libya Headquarters in al-Bayda, which is also unrecognized by the international community, has played a key role in securing financial support for the LNA.

In particular, the setup of a joint defence committee between the LNA, the Interim Government, the Eastern Central Bank and the House of Representatives has provided access to funds generated by taxation and the issuing of bonds. Notably, the Interim Government taxes fuel and petroleum products sold in eastern Libya and also generates taxes from the telecoms sector.

In an interview in February, the governor of the Eastern Central Bank branch, Ali al-Hibri, noted that around a third of its spending went to the LNA in the period 2016-18. This amounted to approximately $6.8 billion over three years. These funds were likely raised directly from the sale of government bonds from commercial banks headquartered in the east.


Economic expansion


In addition to these sources of financing, the LNA has developed a long-term strategy for its economic, business and investment role in Libya, predicated on the model of neighbouring Egypt, where the army dominates politics and the economy. The adoption of the House of Representatives’ Military Investment Legislation in November 2018 has expanded the ability of the LNA to generate revenue without facing legal challenges from the Interim Government.

The LNA is now engaged in economic activities such as waste management, metal scrap and waste export, agricultural mega projects and the registration of migrant labour workers.

Some of these activities are lucrative. For example, the contract for waste management in the city of Benghazi has a weekly fee of $500,000. In addition, the LNA has sought the control of ports, airports and other transportation facilities and infrastructure, as well as a potential role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped cities and regions.

There are obvious concerns that the LNA’s expansion into the provision of governance services presents a serious threat to civilian rule and that the LNA’s engagement in the private sector may lead to LNA dominance of the economy. Entrenching the LNA in the economy, particularly through engagement in the private sector, is likely to have long-term consequences and will be hard to roll back.

As such an LNA victory or its entrenchment in other parts of Libya will see the domination of the formal military in the public enterprise and private spheres strengthen. This would have a generational impact on security sector reform prospects.

The legislative framework that underpins these activities is also not transparent. The Audit Bureau, based in the eastern city of Bayda, claims that $4.3 billion is not properly accounted for by the Eastern Central Bank. Moreover, some Interim Government officials believe that whatever the LNA cannot get through legal means, it obtains via others. The LNA’s budget for 2018 is believed to be the largest to date.


Vulnerabilities of the eastern economy


As the military confrontation between the LNA and its opponents on the northwest coast escalates, it is also noteworthy that – in lieu of influxes of foreign support – LNA funding appears to be dependent on the continuing functioning of the banking sector in the east.

In his February interview, al-Hibri noted that the Eastern Central Bank would not begin to repay the principal on the debt to commercial banks for 15 years, leaving the banks with significant liabilities. Meanwhile, the eastern banks are reliant on access to foreign exchange through their accounts in Tripoli. Put together, these issues may undermine the banking sector and negatively affect all the civilian and business customers of the banks in addition to the LNA.

In a period where costs are likely to go up and large-scale fighting could endanger state revenues from oil production, such economic instability could have a deep impact, not only on the LNA’s ability to finance its military ambitions, but on the population more broadly. And if financial support from international backers to the LNA leads the backers of GNA-aligned groups to respond in kind, the standoff – and the violence – could drag on.

 

By Carlo Bastasin, Brookings, May 2019

Executive summary

The doctrine of nationalism will continue eroding Europe’s integration until its hidden cause is recognized and addressed. In order to do so, Europe’s policymakers must acknowledge a new, powerful, and pervasive factor of social and political change: divergence within countries, sectors, jobs, or local communities.

The popularity of the nationalist rhetoric should not be underestimated. Nationalist parties—like the Italian “Lega,” the French “Rassemblement National,” or the German “Alternative für Deutschland”—present themselves as a response to the damages inflicted by globalization in terms of impoverishment and inequality. Their rhetoric claiming that borders must be closed is simple and attractive. In fact, empirical evidence does not confirm a direct relation between open borders and impoverishment in Europe; there is also no univocal relation between economic inequality or stagnation and the rise of consensus for nationalist or anti-European parties. Finally, inequality seems to have increased more within countries than between them. Therefore, none of the reasons underpinning the claims for closing borders is watertight.

This paper offers a different explanation of the increasing unease in European societies leading to the popularity of nationalism: the development of two persistent social dynamics, the first trend driving individuals to fear their irreversible decline, and the second dynamic leading more prosperous parts of society to protect their increasing economic advantages and well-being. These dynamics lead to what I call “secular divergence,” a trend that does not coincide with the obvious inequalities, and not even only with regional inequalities. It is rather a protracted sense of marginality felt by those who fear the unstoppable decline of their profession, community, or family, and a sense of detachment among those who instead protect their growing well-being in an unstable world.

The major changes have occurred between 2013 and 2014, before the major migration crisis. In fact, we have not been able to understand what was happening because it is actually something new that affects the credibility of democracy, public discourse, and its rationality.

The credibility of democracy suffers from a temporal contradiction. If a government wants to, it can correct inequality in just a few months by changing tax levels and enacting redistributive policies. However, it takes many years, and sometimes decades are not enough, to correct the divergence, de-industrialization, or obsolete knowledge and technologies. If this unprecedented temporal contradiction between the popular vote and the solution to problems is not made explicit, then democracy, its cycles, and even its language will become worthless in the eyes of citizens.

In fact, divergence changes the language of society: As long as the problem was the defeat of poverty, political competition was between leaders—either Christian or communist, liberal or socialist—who could use, in alternative ways, the same rhetoric of good feelings and even of a universal community. But if the problem is divergence between states, regions, ethnic groups, jobs, or individuals, then public rhetoric will aim to discriminate. Therefore, it must be aggressive, deprecating, dehumanizing. The change in the public discourse is one of the clearest features of the new populist leaders. At the political level, the same language trickles down to individuals through the interaction of new and old media. If discrimination is consistent with hitting back against divergence, then injustice caused to others becomes a necessary means to achieve another type of justice. The objective observation of political costs and benefits becomes secondary and truthfulness may be only an obstacle. Pulsion prevails over reason. In a few years the whole society changes.


To download the full report, visit: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/FP_20190516_secular_divergence_bastasin.pdf

 

By James Kirchick, 13 May 2019


Editor's Note: With European Parliament elections coming up later this month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's reception at the White House by President Trump appears an endorsement of illiberal, nationalist forces which seek to weaken the European Union, providing opportunities for Russia and China to divide the West, argues James Kirchick. This piece originally appeared in NBC News.


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was one of the only European leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s underdog presidential campaign in 2016. Now, it appears Trump will return the favor.

On Monday, Trump hosts Orbán at the White House. It’s a meeting that could not come at a worse time. Voting for the European Parliament elections commences May 23, just 10 days after the autocratic Orbán poses for a grip-and-grin with the titular leader of the free world in the Oval Office.

Those elections are projected to result in increasing support for a variety of nationalist factions, from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, all of which seek to weaken the European Union and, in doing so, provide opportunities for powers such as Russia and China to divide the West from within.

Having transformed his country into the illiberal democracy he prophesied in 2014, Orbán has emerged as the most visible leader of these forces. Under such conditions, the United States should be isolating the Hungarian prime minister, not embracing him.

Monday’s will be the first visit of a Hungarian leader to the Oval Office since 2005. White House meetings are a precious commodity that presidents typically dispense to close allies or to achieve clear-cut U.S. foreign policy objectives. Under Orbán, Hungary has repeatedly snubbed the U.S. and the liberal, democratic values it seeks to uphold in Europe. It has expelled U.S.-accredited Central European University, blocked NATO cooperation with Ukraine, unleashed state-sponsored Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism, and refused to extradite a pair of Russian arms dealers wanted for selling weapons to Mexican drug cartels, to name just a few of Budapest’s more egregious rebuffs.

Orbán has largely gotten away with all of this by skillfully appealing to conservative politicians, activists and intellectuals across the Western world with an anti-immigration, anti-EU mantra, and it is this message that has attracted Trump’s favor. Steve Bannon, Trump’s ex-consigliere and a longtime admirer of Orbán, once referred to the Hungarian prime minister as “Trump before Trump.”

But genuine conservatives, those who still believe in old-fashioned values such as limited government, individual rights and the rule of law, shouldn’t be fooled: Viktor Orbán is not a democrat and he is working against America’s traditional interests in Europe.

Since the collapse of communism 30 years ago, those interests have consisted of three major objectives: strengthening the European Union, guarding against Russian interference and bolstering liberal democracy. On all three fronts, Orbán has been at best unhelpful, at worst, counterproductive.

Earlier this year, the international rights watchdog Freedom House downgraded Hungary to “partly free” status, the first European Union country and first post-communist country to experience such a decline, putting it at the forefront of democratic backsliding in Europe. This demotion was registered in response to a series of moves undertaken by the Orbán government over the past nine years aimed at hollowing out Hungarian democracy, from rewriting the country’s constitution to expelling the George Soros-founded Central European University to gerrymandering the electoral system in such a way that ensures perpetual rule by Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party.

Trump’s meeting with Orbán will also have the effect of boosting the illiberal, pro-Russian European far right over the mainstream, pro-American center-right. In his latest overture to Russia, Orbán announced in March that the Moscow-based International Investment Bank, which Western intelligence officials worry will be used as a cover for Russian intelligence operations, would relocate to Hungary.

Occurring at such a delicate moment in European politics, empowering Orbán could also undermine EU cohesion. In March, Fidesz was suspended from the European People’s Party, the largest coalition of center-right parties in the EU parliament. Europe’s mainstream conservatives hoped to send Orbán a belated message that his attacks on democratic values would come with a cost.

Yet Orbán has only been emboldened to solidify his status on the far right, a strategy he hopes to impose on the rest of the continent. Last week, he appeared at a press conference alongside Heinz-Christian Strache, a former neo-Nazi and leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, which was founded by ex-SS officers after the Second World War. Though the Freedom Party currently serves in the Austrian governing coalition, with control over the Interior Ministry, its formal ties to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has convinced the U.S. and other European allies to downgrade intelligence cooperation with Vienna.

Orbán sees the Freedom Party as a model for the rest of Europe. If it is possible “for the center-right ruling party to work together with the right-wing patriotic party,” he told journalists, “then why can’t this happen on the European level as well?” By welcoming Orbán to the Oval Office less than two weeks before a pivotal European election, Trump essentially sends the signal that the U.S. backs such a realignment across Europe.

Last week, in anticipation of the White House confab, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, signed a letter to Trump criticizing the Hungarian government and urging him to “remain true to these democratic values that have undergirded our relations with Central and Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War.” This is the right message to send, and it is vitally important that more Republicans and conservative voices endorse it.

 

BY DANIEL BYMAN, Foreign Policy, 16 May 2019

Countries from Sri Lanka and Israel to the United States and Norway have failed to prevent attacks because their intelligence agencies were fixated on the last threat rather than the next one.


As the dust settles on the jihadi terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people, mostly Christian worshippers, on Easter Sunday last month, one of the most painful details emerging is that, in contrast to most terrorist attacks, the government received clear and precise warnings well in advance. The New York Times reports that the chief of Sri Lanka’s intelligence warned the police chief that, “Sri Lanka based Zahran Hashmi of National Thowheeth Jama’ath and his associates are planning to carry out a suicide terrorist attack in Sri Lanka shortly.” Specific warnings were issued about attacks on churches as well as the names and addresses of those suspected in the attack. Law enforcement officials rarely get better intelligence than that.

We still don’t know why Sri Lankan security forces did not act on this detailed warning. Bureaucratic incompetence and political rivalries are possible explanations. Another, ironically, is that Sri Lanka did not act on this terrorism warning because it was too focused on other terrorism problems.

Indeed, Sri Lanka has long focused on a terrorism problem—just not the one that emerged on Easter. For decades, the country’s minority Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, rebelled against the Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated government; over 100,000 people died in a civil war that did not end until 2009. The Tamils used terrorism extensively in the conflict and were early and avid users of suicide bombing, among other tactics. Buddhist nationalists remained aggressive and even sought to destroy ancient mosques. But Muslim-Christian violence seemed a minor issue at best.
Sri Lanka’s experience is tragic, but it is hardly unique—and it cannot be dismissed because Sri Lanka is a developing country with divided politics and weak institutions. The same has happened in countless countries, many of them wealthy and with highly skilled intelligence services.

In 1995, a Jewish terrorist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dealing a devastating blow to peace talks that lingers more than 20 years later. A subsequent investigation found that Israel’s domestic intelligence service had considerable evidence of a threat from Jewish right-wingers, but it focused instead on the long-standing danger of Palestinian terrorism.

Six years later, in the United States, the 9/11 attacks, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history, also suffered from an aspect of this problem. Although the U.S. government, and the CIA in particular, provided strong warning on the al Qaeda threat in general, much (though not all) of the warning focused on the danger of al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets overseas. This was with good reason—al Qaeda had repeatedly launched devastating attacks on U.S. targets such as in the 1998 suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 suicide boat attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden but had not successfully targeted the U.S. homeland. Even the FBI, despite its domestic mandate, was focused on the risk to Americans overseas more than Americans at home.

In 2011, a Norwegian white supremacist terrorist murdered 77 people, mostly youths at a camp for a left-leaning political party. A later investigation criticized the intelligence and police services for their lapses in preparedness. When the attack occurred, pundits first focused on what seemed obvious to them—the threat al Qaeda posed to Norway—because of the history of al Qaeda attacks in Europe and the group’s particular hatred of Norway, which may stem from Norway’s participation in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, treatment of jihadis at home, and toleration of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed. Police, to their credit, quickly determined that the killer was a right-wing terrorist, not a Muslim.

Those pointing fingers at Sri Lankan security services that failed to stop the Easter attacks should remember that they were not the only officials who focused on the wrong threat. Israel, Norway, and the United States had competent governments with excellent and well-resourced intelligence services, yet they too made mistakes that allowed devastating terrorist attacks in their countries.

Failure has many potential sources. One is simply cognitive, as even the best analysts suffer from a range of analytic biases. Confirmation bias, for example, leads analysts to screen data to back up their existing preconceptions. So if the terrorism threat is known to come from Tamils or Sinhalese and there is no serious history of Muslim-Christian violence, it is tempting to downplay the jihadi threat and play up data that implicates known dangers.

Resources also come into play. It is easier to allocate money, people, and collection assets to a danger that has already manifested itself rather than a potential one. Vested interests can rightly point to past dangers to justify future threats, while more hypothetical risks do not have a built-in constituency to argue for people and budgets. Israel, for example, had entire directorates devoted to the very real Palestinian threat, so focusing more on Jewish terrorism, particularly when Palestinian terrorism risked jeopardizing the peace process, was difficult to justify.

 

Africa

PRETORIA - The African National Congress was set to easily win South Africa’s election on Saturday but with a lower vote share reflecting anger at corruption scandals and racial inequalities that remain entrenched a generation after the party took power.

With 99.9 percent of voting districts counted following Wednesday’s election, the ANC led with 57.5% of the vote. The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was on 20.79% and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had 10.78%

It would be the worst electoral performance by the late Nelson Mandela’s former liberation movement, which has governed South Africa uninterrupted since the country’s first free election marked the end of white minority rule in 1994.

The ANC’s victory will secure it enough seats in parliament to give President Cyril Ramaphosa another five years in office but may leave him short of ammunition to battle party rivals who oppose his reforms to galvanise the economy and counter graft.

The ANC had not previously won less than 60% of the vote in a national election. Two results are still to come from nine provincial polls also held on Wednesday.

Ramaphosa, who replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as president in 2018, had sought to re-engage ANC voters whose support was eroded by faltering efforts to address corruption, unemployment and disparities in housing, land and services.

AB/

By Nafisa Eltahir

DUBAI - After spearheading the rallies that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s main protest group is now locked in a stand-off with the country’s new military rulers that is testing its clout as a political force.

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) gained widespread support during more than four months of protests and it has helped win a string of apparent concessions from the military council that took over from Bashir on April 11.

But as the unionists and activists in the SPA try to chart a course to full-fledged democracy, they are coming up against a powerful rival that has shown little sign yet that it is willing to move aside for a civilian-led transition.

Frustrated by a lack of progress, the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), a broad coalition of opposition groups headed by the SPA, called on Wednesday for a campaign of civil disobedience to crank up the pressure on the military.

“We have all options open from now on,” Ahmed Rabie, an influential SPA member, told Reuters. “If (the council) insists on holding on to power, we are going to consider this a military coup, and we will escalate our tactics, peacefully.”

The SPA has said such a campaign would likely focus on mass strikes, which have been successful in previous uprisings in post-independence Sudan. Strikes called by the SPA before Bashir’s fall met with limited success, but workers may be less cowed following his removal.

It may also call for a boycott of non-essential goods and public services in a bid to starve the government of tax revenue, and intensify rallies and sit-ins across Sudan.

The biggest ongoing sit-in, which began on April 6 outside the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, has become the focal point of the uprising.

The Transitional Military Council (TMC) has said it will not use force to end the sit-in. But the SPA could be undermined by maneuvering due to its lack of political experience.

“The politicking is starting. This is a terrain that the professionals association might not be as well-equipped for as it seems,” said Sudanese analyst Magdi el-Gizouli.


CONCESSIONS


To try to placate protesters the TMC replaced its first head after one day, dismissed senior allies of Bashir, announced anti-corruption measures and moved to restructure security and intelligence agencies.

Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur, is in prison in the capital Khartoum.

But while the DFCF wants a transitional body led by civilians to steer a four-year transition, the TMC has indicated that it wants to retain overall control of any joint military and civilian sovereign council.

As talks between the two sides have dragged on, the SPA has accused the military leaders of expanding their powers.

The TMC has said it is open to more dialogue and that elections could be held after six months if there’s no agreement on an interim government - well ahead of the end of the council’s planned two-year transition.

The SPA’s civil disobedience could put pressure on the military council given Sudan’s economic vulnerability. The country is already suffering from spiraling inflation and shortages of cash and basic goods.

But its rivals in the TMC have powerful and wealthy backers.

The TMC’s leaders, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, have ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which together promised Sudan $3 billion to support the central bank and provide fuel, wheat and medicine.

Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, controls the feared Rapid Support Forces, which fought in Darfur and are participating in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. They are also deployed across Khartoum.

“This is an army establishment and they don’t want to lose control,” said Sudanese writer and commentator Reem Abbas. “There’s a lot of things at stake: resources, land, immunity for war crimes.”


SHADOW UNIONS


The SPA, by contrast, was formed in 2016 from unofficial parallel trade unions outside the state apparatus representing doctors, lawyers, journalists and other professions.

It was campaigning for higher wages when demonstrations against Bashir, triggered by a deepening economic crisis, spread across Sudan from Dec. 19 and propelled the SPA into the role of protest coordinator. It has since expanded to include more than 20 unions.

The SPA’s non-political image was key to its success in ousting Bashir after three decades in power, said Rabie, a high school physics teacher from the Haj Yousif neighborhood on the outskirts of Khartoum.

Despite its large following, the SPA says it will not become a political party. It has no leader or strict hierarchy and, until recently, operated largely underground.

That could leave a vacuum.

Under Bashir, opposition parties’ activities were limited and membership dwindled. Analysts say they still have much work to do to become effective political forces.

The opposition also faces a challenge presenting a united front. The DFCF is made up of a wide range of political parties, civil society associations and armed groups from across Sudan and they have already made conflicting statements about their approach to the negotiations.

Many protesters believe the SPA shouldn’t be negotiating with the military at all, chanting: “Civilian rule is the decision of the people.” The SPA has sought to reassure them, saying it will act as a guarantor of the revolution and democracy during the transition.

“We always work hard to get democracy in this country and then we lose it,” said Rabie, who was jailed from Jan. 4 until shortly after Bashir’s downfall. “We worked hard to get it, and, God willing, we can protect it.”

 

 

By Mfuneko Toyana and Wendell Roelf

JOHANNESBURG/CAPE TOWN - The African National Congress faced its toughest electoral test on Wednesday as it sought to reverse a slide in support from voters frustrated by graft and racial inequalities a generation after it won power in South Africa’s first all-race poll.

South Africa is holding parliamentary and provincial elections amid frustration with a lack of progress 25 years after Nelson Mandela’s ANC swept to power at the end of white minority rule in 1994.

Queues built up at polling stations through the morning. Some polling stations around Johannesburg opened late or did not have voting materials.

Officials have said the results could be announced on Saturday.

The national election is the first under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as head of state in February 2018 after four years as his deputy.

Opinion polls suggest the ANC will again win a majority of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, but analysts have predicted its margin of victory will fall.

“I’m a member of the ANC but I didn’t vote for them this time,” said construction worker Thabo Makhene, 32, in the commercial hub of Johannesburg.

“They need to catch a wake-up. The way they run the state, mishandling state funds, they’ve lost their morals.”

Pete Mokokosi, a 77-year-old pensioner, said he felt South Africans needed change, a better economy, education and jobs.

“The weather changes everyday, why can’t we?” he said as he waited to vote in Soweto.

In Cape Town, Anneke du Plessis, 43, who works at a media company, said her vote was to end corruption.

“We have to unite and stop this downward spiral. This is the most important vote since 1994,” she said.

Some voters said they would back the ruling party.

“They have made mistakes before but this time we have the right man,” said Alpheus Zihle, 69, a pensioner in Alexandra township in Johannesburg who said he would vote for the ANC.


ECONOMY IN FOCUS


The ANC’s biggest challengers are the main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The ANC won 62 percent of the vote in 2014’s parliamentary election, down from 2009 and far short of its best result, 69 percent in 2004 under President Thabo Mbeki.

Analysts have put that falling support down to corruption allegations against government officials, a slowing economy with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and demands from black citizens for more equitable distribution of land.

Ramaphosa - who became ANC leader after narrowly defeating a faction allied with Zuma - has promised to improve service delivery, create jobs and fight corruption. But his reforms have been held up by divisions and opposition within his own party.

“Reforms will remain at best one-step-forward, one-step-back and so potential growth will not rise,” Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex, said in a note.

Africa’s most industrialized economy grew at an estimated 0.8 percent in 2018 after recovering from a recession in the first half of the year when a drought hit farming, although blackouts at power utility Eskom continue to drag on activity. Growth is forecast at 1.5 percent this year.


PARTY LEADERS VOTE


The center-right DA won 22 percent of the parliamentary vote in 2014. It appointed its first black leader Mmusi Maimane in 2015 and made headlines by leading coalition victories in local government elections in Pretoria and Johannesburg a year later.

But splits within the party could see its support wane.

“Fear says to us let’s stick with what we know, hope says let’s bring change,” Maimane said after casting his ballot in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg where he grew up.

The EFF’s leader Julius Malema, a fiery orator who formed the party in 2013 after he was expelled from the ANC, cast his vote in the northern city of Polokwane.

“If you need change, the EFF is the way to go,” said Malema, whose party won 6 percent of the vote in 2014, making it the third-largest presence in parliament.

It wants to nationalize mines and banks, and played a key role in holding Zuma to account for spending state money on non-security upgrades to his private residence.

Hundreds of people covered in blankets and coats in the chilly winter morning gathered outside a polling station in Soweto, where Ramaphosa cast his vote.

“We’ve made mistakes, but we are sorry about those mistakes, and we are saying our people should re-invest their confidence in us,” the president said. “We are going to correct the bad ways of the past,” he said.

JUBA - The South African government on Monday signed an oil production agreement with South Sudan, signalling intent to pump money into Juba’s nascent petroleum industry that has almost stalled over conflict.

The deal known as the Exploration and Production Sharing Agreement (EPSA) will see Pretoria’s state-owned Strategic Fuel Fund (SFF) granted permission to explore oil in an area known as Block B2, which is in the wide oilfields of the Muglad basin that straddles both Sudan and South Sudan.

The exploration is to take about six years and SFF will enter a joint venture with local petro company Nilepet for aerial exploration, seismic tests as well as drill wells when oil is found.

Last year, South Africa’s Department of Energy pledged to invest $1 billion into South Sudan’s petroleum industry, with the aim of securing affordable energy supplies for South Africa.

The countries are now in talks to set up a 60,000 barrel per day refinery to supply oil products to the local market in South Sudan, as well as to secure exports to Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries.

The B2 area includes productive parts of the Muglad Basin and is part of the 120,000 kilometre square block Block B which was split into three in 2012.

There has been much interest in South Sudan’s Block B acreages since the entry of Oranto Petroleum to Block B3 in 2017.

Much of South Sudan’s oil and gas blocks are yet to be fully explored and resources assessed.

South Sudan has the third-largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, estimated at 3.5 billion barrels, with just 30 percent of the country explored.

The deal, coming at a time South Sudan is facing uncertainty over the transitional government of national unity, protected the social pillars of oil production.

The South African firm will be required to train local people for oil production and management, give back to hosting communities and ensure local women benefit from their work.

A dispatch from Juba issued after the signing ceremony celebrated the agreement as one way to foster stability for a country that hasn’t known peace since independence in July 2011.

“We expect to discover more oil and help us boost our economy,” said Petroleum Minister Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth who signed the agreement with South Africa's Energy Minister Jeff Radebe.

“The SFF’s commitment can help us raise production levels which have fallen recently.”

South Sudan’s oil production peaked to 350,000 barrels per day but dipped to under 150,000 as conflict forced producers to abandon wells.

Mr Radebe said the deal would strengthen energy security for South Africa.

“We are bullish about this strategic opportunity into Block B2. It provides South Africa with a chance to further strengthen its energy security while entering one of the top three most lucrative onshore oil and gas markets in Africa. Investment is key to guaranteeing the economic progress of South Sudan,” Mr. Rabede said

As officials prepare for a transitional government, the local Petroleum ministry says it expects the production to rise from 270,000 barrels per day.

The products are often exported in crude form through the pipeline to Sudan.

According to the deal’s legal advisors Centurion, the arrangement means South Sudan could be involved in exploring more oil fields.

“The potential discoveries can be quickly and cheaply tied into existing infrastructure,” said NJ Ayuk, CEO of Centurion Law Group.

“South Sudan’s ability to attract, retain, and leverage energy investment is key for an inclusive and sustainable economic growth,” Mr Ayuk, also Executive Chairman of continental lobby African Energy Chamber said in a dispatch on Monday.