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Europe

Muslims, Ramadan, and myths facing 'European civilisation'

By Shada Islam

BRUSSELS - Brace yourselves. The purity of European civilisation is going to be tested over the next four weeks by a full-frontal display of 'otherness' by Europe's increasingly feisty and self-confident Muslims.

Yes, it is Ramadan again and observing European Muslims, along with others who practice Islam across the world, have embarked on a month-long journey of abstinence, fasting and prayer.

It is a brazen challenge to the "European Way of Life" and it takes place every year within white, Christian, Europe and - believe it or not - even in the hallowed walls of France de la Laicite.

During the day, European Muslims put in the required time at work as doctors and nurses and other "essential workers" as well as scientists, business leaders, artists, sports stars and others.

It's all nice and European.

Once the sun sets, in the safety of their homes and in mosques, these 'ordinary' people morph into religious fanatics, Islamic zealots, radicals and 'separatists', 'Islamo-Gauchistes' and Shariah-proselytisers. It is the Great Replacement in action.

For more information, ask Hungary's Viktor Orbán, Dutch politician Geert Wilders and other far-right Islamophobes, including France's Marine Le Pen, but also French interior minister Gerard Darmanin and Frederique Vidal, his colleague responsible for higher education.

Do I sense a degree of irritation, dear reader? Am I generalising, simplifying and stereotyping European perceptions of Muslims and Islam?

Blaming an entire community, nay the entire population of a continent, for the evil thoughts, intentions and actions of a racist minority is extremely irresponsible.

Not all Europeans are prejudiced Muslim-haters. Most are good people and many not only believe in an inclusive Europe but are also trying to help build one.

Take the European Commission which has an ambitious Anti-Racism Action Plan, just organised an online summit denouncing bigotry and xenophobia and is planning another conference to celebrate diversity and inclusion.

The commission memo on building a Union of Equality has not yet dropped into the inboxes of national politicians, however.

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is fighting a battle against the all-pervasive but still undefined menace posed by "political Islam" following the terrorist attack by an ISIS sympathiser in Vienna last November, certainly hasn't received it.

Neither has French Muslims' new best friend Darmanin who closed down the anti-Islam watchdog Collectif Contre l'Islamophobie last November and is now asking the EU Commission to stop paying a €60,000 grant to another civil society organisation, Alliance Citoyenne, because it campaigned to allow burkini-clad Muslim women into the municipal swimming pool in Grenoble.

EU anti-racist pronouncements also mean little to French senators who want to ban French Muslim women under-18 from wearing subversive headscarves or to those hurling racist abuse and death threats at Tareq Alaows, a Syrian refugee, who has now abandoned plans to campaign for a seat in the German parliament.


Disconnect


The disconnect between Brussels' ambitions and the racist reality, including unrelenting police violence, facing European Muslims is alarming.

Anxious hand-wringing over the place of Islam in Europe and claims that European Muslims are foot soldiers in an ongoing existential confrontation between Europe and Islam is a familiar trope.

What has changed is the shrillness of the accusations and adoption of the populists' discourse by mainstream European politicians.

What is also new is that European Muslims are no meek pushovers. Eloquently and more and more frequently, despite real-life and online threats, gutsy European Muslims are pushing back.

They are on the winning side. European politicians and 'intellectuals' may moan about 'woke' American ideas tearing apart the old continent but the #BlackLivesMatter movement is here to stay.

Also, despite populist inroads, EU democracies are resilient, European judges are independent and human rights defenders are strong and active. They too are not going anywhere anytime soon.

That is not always the case in other parts of the world. Effective monitoring and reporting of discrimination against Muslims is weak or non-existent in many countries.

Sometimes states themselves can be the principal perpetrators of discrimination.

China's "re-education" of the Uighur community is one glaring example of state-sanctioned policies targeting Muslims. In democratic India, public hostility is driving some Muslims to try and merge with their surroundings, becoming as invisible as possible.

In fact as the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, warned the Human Rights Council last month, institutional suspicion of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim has escalated to "epidemic proportions" worldwide.

Shaheed's report to the council warned that widespread negative representations of Islam, fear of Muslims generally and security and counterterrorism policies were perpetuating, validating and normalising discrimination, hostility and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities.

The truth is even darker. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Pakistan's Imran Khan as well as many Arab rulers and their counterparts in Iran are quick to slam Islamophobia in Europe. But their own record on dealing with fellow Muslims who demand better human rights protection is dismal.

The EU's efforts to denounce human rights violations and stand up for activists around the world are important and commendable.

Europe's voice would be stronger and more credible, however, if its own Muslim citizens were treated with more dignity and respect.

A start should be made now during Ramadan 2021.


Author


Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


Disclaimer


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

 

 

Europe and Africa - rebuilding the future

By Soraya Rodriguez, Barry Andrews and Charles Goerens

BRUSSELS - Today we often talk about the need to establish a relationship between equals in our partnership with Africa.

This paradigm needs to be more than a declaration of good intentions.

The EU Strategy with Africa launched by the European Commission last year and the related parliamentary report recently adopted, focus precisely on the importance of going beyond a donor-recipient perspective.

We need to engage in a constructive dialogue at all levels, look to the continent with honesty, humility, and the conviction that we have a lot to learn from each other.

Such dialogue within the parliamentary dimension of our relations is key for our work at the parliamentary delegation for the relations with the Pan-African parliament.

Our permanent political dialogue on topics spanning from access to vaccines to EU-AU trade relations, represents a unique opportunity to strengthen such ties and foster political and human exchanges that will allow us to better understand each other.

In such contest, Renew Europe will host a high-level seminar on "Europe & Africa - Rebuilding the Future" on 14 April, organised by our political group Renew Europe.

This seminar intends to open up a conversation with our colleagues of the European and African liberal parties to discuss the main challenges of our relations with Africa, ahead the EU-AU summit in 2021.

One of the panels that Renew Europe has the pleasure to host pleasure to host will focus on how gender inequalities affect human development and the need to foster women and girl's empowerment in the continent.

Ending all discrimination against women and girls is not only a fundamental right, it is critical to build the future of our sustainable societies. Empowering women and girls benefits economic growth, social progress and human development.

In the past 20 years, we have seen significant progress in sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNDP and based on the Human Development Index, this region has experienced more rapid growth than any other region.

However, in many areas such as employment, there are still large inequalities as women are systematically denied the same work rights as men, even if it there are more women in the labour market than ever.

Furthermore, women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis is bringing several steps back in the advancement towards gender equality.

In the labour market, women have lost income and pushed out of the labour force at a higher rate, while taking on a greater share of care work with their family. In the healthcare sector, safe maternal and child health are at serious risk in already strained health systems.

The disruption of services has led to an increase in maternal and child mortality, as women do not trust going to hospitals and health centres, for the increased risk of contracting Covid-19.

For the same reasons, safe access to sexual and reproductive health is also under serious threat due to the pandemic. Not to mention the setbacks in the progress achieved in the eradication of violence against women and harmful practices such as FGM.

Lockdowns and restrictive measures resulted in the loss of prevention and protection services to victims, and have generally interfered in the persecution of the crime.

Finally, education is one the most critical areas of concern. Not only could the closure of schools mean that girls will not have the opportunity to complete their educational cycle.

By dropping out of school, girls are actually more vulnerable to domestic violence, facing child marriage and early pregnancy, and being exploited for child labour. UNESCO has projected that 11 million girls may never return to school following the pandemic.

We cannot afford a lost generation of girls.

This is the reason why women and girls' empowerment is crucial for the political agenda of our EU-Africa Partnership.

We need to join our efforts and act united to encourage women's empowerment. It is a matter of full enjoyment of human rights for African women, and it is key for the economic growth of the continent.

Discrimination and the absence of equal opportunities for African women have great negative impact on the continent's prosperity. Africa is the continent that is and will keep growing the most in both population and GDP, while being the world's youngest continent. Women and especially girls have a great transformative potential.

The more women will be denied equal opportunities, the more Africa will be poor.

This is why we must always remember the words pronounced by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan already over 20 years ago: "Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance".


Author


Soraya Rodriguez has been a Renew Europe MEP since 2019. She is member of the Committee on Women’s rights and Gender equality and the Committee on the Environment, Public health and Food safety.

Barry Andrews MEP is a Renew Europe member of the Committee on International Trade and is a member of the Delegation for relations with South Africa, and a substitute member of the Committee on Development.

Charles Goerens MEP is the Renew Europe coordinator in the Committee on Development. He is also the vice-president of the Committee on the Constitutional Affairs.


Disclaimer


This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect only the views of the authors.

 

COPENHAGEN - Denmark has become the first European country to revoke the residency permits of Syrian refugees after claiming that the security situation in parts of the war-torn country has “improved significantly”, writes the British publication The Week.

Almost 200 Syrians have so far had their renewal applications rejected, while around 500 people originally from Damascus and the surrounding areas are still having their renewals reviewed.

After a decade of war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now controls almost all of the country, with fighting mainly confined to the north. But “one of the main reasons people rose up during the Arab spring remains”, The Guardian says: namely his secret police force.
‘I felt so foreign’

The stripping of Syrian refugees’ residency permits was catapulted into the spotlight when 19-year-old Aya Abu-Daher, from Nyborg in central Denmark, pleaded on national television earlier this month for her family to be allowed to stay.

Abu-Daher later told Deutsche Welle (DW) that she received a letter from the Danish authorities at the end of June, at which point she “sat down and just cried”. She added: “I was so sad, I felt so foreign, like everything in Denmark had been taken away from me.”

Danish immigration services first said that Syrian capital Damascus and its surrounding suburbs were safe in 2019 and have since set about “depriving Syrian refugees of their asylum status, even as Syria remains shattered”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

Both the EU and UN have said that the country is “not stable enough to be considered safe for returnees”, the paper adds. However, those being asked to leave Denmark include “high school and university students, truck drivers, factory employees, store owners and volunteers in nongovernmental organisations”.

The Syrians being told that they cannot reside in Denmark “risk being uprooted from a country where they have built new lives”, with Asmaa al-Natour, 50, telling the NYT that “it is as if the Danish immigration services has bombed my dream, just as Bashar al-Assad bombed our homes”.

Charlotte Slente, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, said that the new rules amount to “undignified treatment”, adding that experts “disagree with the decision to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to return to”. “The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can safely go back,” Slente added. “Neither the UN nor other countries deem Damascus as safe.”

Human rights groups, including DRC and Amnesty International, have also disputed the decision, with “left-wing parties that often cooperate with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen's Social Democrat-led minority government” also “protesting the move”, DW reports.

Kristian Hegaard, the integration policy spokesman for the Radikale Venstre or Social-Liberal Party, described the decision to revoke residency as “heartless and senseless” in a Facebook post, noting that Denmark “closed its embassy [in Syria] because of the insecure situation”.

Abu-Daher’s classmates “wrote an open letter” to Danish Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye in which they urged him “not to expel a girl who speaks fluent Danish and wants to give something back to Danish society”, DW reports.

However, “their words fell on deaf ears”, with Tesfaye telling Danish media that he “trusts the authorities’ assessment of the situation” and will not be forced into making exceptions “because someone has appeared on television”, the broadcaster adds.
Hardliners

Denmark has one of Europe's most restrictive immigration policies, a trend that has continued since Prime Minister Frederiksen came to power in 2019. In mid-March, a proposal to limit the number of “non-Western” residents living in some of the country’s most troubled estates triggered headlines and criticism, with Amnesty warning that “many people will be made homeless or pushed into inadequate housing”.

Unveiling the new initiative, Interior Minister Kaare Dybvad Bek argued that having too many “non-Westerners” increased the risk “of an emergence of religious and cultural parallel societies” in “vulnerable areas”.

The decision to revoke residency rights has prompted more criticism, with some of the rejected applicants, “who had originally been granted only a temporary permit”, being “placed in a detention centre” while they await their next move, Al Jazeera reports.

“No other country in Europe has adopted such a policy,” Niels-Erik Hansen, a lawyer specialising in migration issues, told AFP. “Being in a return centre, you can’t work nor study and you get food three times a day. Basically, they keep you there until you sign a paper saying that you’ll return voluntarily to Syria.”

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also voiced its concern over the policy, releasing a statement that said it “does not consider that the recent improvements in security in parts of Syria to be sufficiently fundamental, stable or durable to justify ending international protection for any group of refugees”.

Much of the fear among Syrians facing a return to the country centres on “regime intelligence branches”, which have “detained, tortured and ‘disappeared’ more than 100,000 people since the war broke out in 2011”, The Guardian says. The country’s infrastructure is also unstable, with services like water and electricity remaining “scarce” and the collapse of the Syrian pound sending “food prices rocketing by 230%”, the paper adds.

Danish officials insist that refugees in the country always knew that they would one day have to return to Syria, with Immigration Minister Tesfayer releasing a statement in February that said Denmark was “honest from day one” and that “we have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary”.

As Denmark “does not maintain diplomatic relationships with Mr. al-Assad’s government”, its government “cannot forcibly deport refugees”, the NYT says. But with the Syrian Network for Human Rights warning that hundreds of returnees have disappeared, Syrians in Denmark face being left in a frightening limbo.

 

By Romeo Franz, first published by Euobserver on 8 April 2021

BRUSSELS - Every year on 8 April, Romani people worldwide celebrate International Roma Day.

'Roma' in Hungary, 'Traveller' in Ireland, 'Sinti' in Germany, 'Ashkali' in Kosovo, 'Calé' in Spain and plenty of other Romani-speaking groups celebrate their shared culture, history and language emphasising its diversity and unity.

At the same time, this day is important to raise awareness for the many difficulties and injustices that Europe's largest ethnic minority of about 12 million people still faces: extreme poverty, social segregation and last but not least the widespread racism against Romani people, so-called anti-gypsyism, that exacerbates their economic and social disadvantage.

Thursday's International Roma Day is special: 50 years ago, on 8 April, 1971, representatives of Romani communities from numerous European countries met for the first time in London and founded the political self-organisation of Romani people and designated a flag and anthem.

This day marked a milestone in the fight against anti-gypsyism and our claim for justice and equal rights. Thenceforward, Romani activists all over Europe have given our people a voice, initiated grassroots change and brought our political claims into the regional, national and European political arenas.

Since then, a whole new generation of activists and leaders has developed. Our Romani community has brought forth youth organisations, student unions, women rights and LGBTQI-organisations. They are important to represent the diversity of our people and give weight to our common call for participation, inclusion and promotion.

The official recognition of the Holocaust up to 500,000 Romani people by Nazi-Germany in 1982 was an important step for our survivors and descendant to find peace and regain their dignity.

The building Romani self-organisations and establishment of European networks gave us a stronger voice vis-à-vis governments and international organisations.


Resort to law


By resorting to litigation, national and European courts are defending the rights of Romani citizens for inclusion in the school system, like was the case in the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Eventually, the Council of Europe and the European Union recognised anti-gypsyism as a particularly widespread form of racism in Europe that leads to massive human rights violations and requires urgent action by European governments. These are many important successes of the untiring work of our activists.

But the inconvenient truth persists: structural discrimination is still part of everyday life for the members of Europe's largest minority - when looking for accommodation, searching for work, being in need for health care or entering the institutions of the education system.

Furthermore, the majority of the 12 million European Romani people still faces extreme poverty.

The widespread racism against Romani people, so-called anti-gypsyism, exacerbates their economic and social disadvantage.

Political leaders can still sow hate against Romani communities to reap popular support in electoral campaigns. Beatings, forced sterilisation, police violence and fire bombings by right-wing extremists against Romani communities are still a reality in Europe. The Corona pandemic only worsened this situation.

This year the EU member states and enlargement countries have the opportunity to open a new chapter and take structural measures in the fight against anti-gypsyism and for the inclusion of Romani people.

Under the still new EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation, officially adopted in October 2020, the governments are obliged to present this year their nationwide strategies for implementation.

In order to combat anti-gypsyism effectively, solid structural financing for democratic civil society and projects against anti-gypsyism are essential.

The establishment of a monitoring and information centres to record anti-gypsy agitation and violence can support those affected in exercising their rights. Too often, anti-gypsyist attacks are still under the radar.

To promote Romani inclusion effectively, governments and regional administrations need to move away from paternalistic approach and realise a permanent participation of self-organisations in the development and implementation of programmes for housing, healthcare, education and employment.

The EU's new framework is in many aspects well-meant and presents a holistic approach, but a central shortcoming remains the still voluntary character of the recommended measures.

It is not acceptable that the fight against structural human rights violations and measures to get millions of EU citizens out of inhumane living conditions is a voluntary act.

The evidence for the urgent need for action to improve the life of Romani people in Europe is oppressive and well documented by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, Amnesty International, Open Society Foundation and so on.

Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens - this includes citizens of Romani ethnicity. Our next big fight is to achieve a legally binding framework for action against this unbearable situation.


Author


Romeo Franz is a German MEP with the Greens, and a former member of the of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.


Disclaimer


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's and do not necessarily reflect that of our think thank.

 

Mediterranean

Trump-era spike in Israeli settlement growth has only begun

By JOSEPH KRAUSS

EFRAT, West Bank — An aggressive Israeli settlement spree during the Trump era pushed deeper than ever into the occupied West Bank — territory the Palestinians seek for a state — with over 9,000 homes built and thousands more in the pipeline, an AP investigation showed.

If left unchallenged by the Biden administration, the construction boom could make fading hopes for an internationally backed two-state solution — Palestine alongside Israel — even more elusive.

Satellite images and data obtained by The Associated Press document for the first time the full impact of the policies of then-President Donald Trump, who abandoned decades-long U.S. opposition to the settlements and proposed a Mideast plan that would have allowed Israel to keep them all — even those deep inside the West Bank.

Although the Trump plan has been scrapped, the lasting legacy of construction will make it even harder to create a viable Palestinian state. President Joe Biden’s administration supports the two-state solution but has given no indication on how it plans to promote it.

The huge number of projects in the pipeline, along with massive development of settlement infrastructure, means Biden would likely need to rein in Israel to keep the two-state option alive. While Biden has condemned settlement activity, U.S. officials have shown no appetite for such a clash as they confront more urgent problems. These include the coronavirus crisis, tensions with China and attempting to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran — another major sticking point with Israel.

At the same time, Israel will likely continue to be led by a settlement hawk. In the wake of yet another inconclusive Israeli election, either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or one of his right-wing challengers is poised to head the government, making a construction slowdown improbable.

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian spokeswoman, called the Trump administration a “partner in crime” with Netanyahu. She said Biden would have to go beyond traditional condemnations and take “very serious steps of accountability” to make a difference.

“It needs a bit of courage and backbone and willingness to invest,” she said.

According to Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group, Israel built over 9,200 new homes in the West Bank during the Trump presidency. On an annual average, that was roughly a 28% increase over the level of construction during the Obama administration, which pressed Israel to rein in building.

Perhaps even more significant was the location of the construction. According to Peace Now, 63% of the homes built last year were in outlying settlements that would likely be evacuated in any peace agreement. Over 10% of the construction in recent years took place in isolated outposts that are not officially authorized, but quietly encouraged by the Israeli government.

“What we’re seeing is the ongoing policy of de facto annexation,” said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now researcher. “Israel is doing its utmost to annex the West Bank and to treat it as if it’s part of Israel without leaving a scope for a Palestinian state.”

Israel has also laid the groundwork for a massive construction boom in the years to come, advancing plans for 12,159 settler homes in 2020. That was the highest number since Peace Now started collecting data in 2012. It usually takes one to three years for construction to begin after a project has been approved.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, who largely confined settlement construction to major blocs that Israel expects to keep in any peace agreement, Netanyahu has encouraged construction in remote areas deep inside the West Bank, further scrambling any potential blueprint for resolving the conflict.

Settler advocates have repeatedly said that it would take several years for Trump’s support to manifest in actual construction. Peace Now said that trend is now in its early stages and expected to gain steam.

“2020 was really the first year where everything that was being built was more or less because of what was approved at the beginning of the Trump presidency,” said Peace Now spokesman Brian Reeves. “It’s the settlement approvals that are actually more important than construction.”

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but has cemented its control over east Jerusalem — which it unilaterally annexed — and the West Bank.

Nearly 500,000 Israeli settlers live in some 130 settlements and dozens of unauthorized outposts, according to official figures. That amounts to roughly 15% of the total population in the West Bank. In addition, over 200,000 Jewish Israelis live in east Jerusalem, which is also home to over 300,000 Palestinians.

The Biden administration says it is opposed to any actions by Israel or the Palestinians that harm peace efforts. “We believe, when it comes to settlement activity, that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said this month.

Continued settlement growth could meanwhile bolster the case against Israel at the International Criminal Court, which launched an investigation into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories last month. Israel appears to be vulnerable on the settlement issue because international law forbids the transfer of civilians into lands seized by force.

Israel and its Western allies have rejected it as baseless and biased. Israel is not a member of the court, but any potential ICC warrants could put Israeli officials at risk of arrest abroad.


UNPRECEDENTED SUPPORT


The settlements are scattered across the West Bank, running the gamut from small hilltop clusters of tents and mobile homes to full-fledged towns with residential neighborhoods, shopping malls and in one case, a university. Every Israeli government has presided over the expansion of settlements, even at the height of the peace process in the 1990s.

The Palestinians view the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace, a position with wide international support. Israel considers the West Bank to be the historical and biblical heartland of the Jewish people and says any partition should be agreed on in negotiations.

The two sides have not held serious talks in more than a decade, in part because the Palestinians view the continued expansion of settlements as a sign of bad faith.

Trump took unprecedented steps to support Israel’s territorial claims, including recognizing Jerusalem as its capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there. His Mideast plan, which overwhelmingly favored Israel, was adamantly rejected by the Palestinians.

Trump’s Mideast team was led by prominent supporters of the settlements and maintained close ties to settlement leaders throughout his tenure.

He remains popular in Efrat, a built-up settlement in the rolling hills south of Jerusalem that is expanding toward the north into the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.

“You keep using the term settlement,” said Moti Kellner, a retiree who has lived in the area since 1986. “Walk around, does this look like something that’s a camp, with tents and settling? It’s a city!” He described Trump’s policies as “very good, if they’re not overturned.”

Efrat’s mayor, Oded Revivi, says Trump’s legacy can be seen more in the increased approval of projects than in actual construction.

“When Trump got elected, the table was basically empty, with no building plans which were approved,” he said. More importantly, he credits Trump with accepting the legitimacy of settlements, “instead of battling with the reality that has been created on the ground.”


THE FEAR OF LOSING YOUR PLACE


Thousands of Palestinians work in the settlements, where wages are much higher than in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority, and on a personal basis, many get along well with their Jewish employers and co-workers.

“We do know how to live alongside one another, we do know how to build a peaceful relationship,” says Revivi.

But most Palestinians view the growth of settlements as a slow and steady encroachment — not only on their hopes for a state, but on their immediate surroundings. As the years roll by, they watch as the gated settlements spill down hillsides, roads are closed or diverted, and terraced olive groves and spring-fed valleys come to feel like hostile territory.

Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron, which are administered by the Palestinian Authority under interim peace agreements signed in the 1990s. Those cities are all largely surrounded by settlements, settlement infrastructure and closed military zones. Hebron has a Jewish settlement in the heart of its Old City.

Palestinians know to steer clear of settlements. Farmers who tend lands near them risk being beaten or pelted with rocks by the so-called Hilltop Youth and other Jewish extremists. Rights groups have documented dozens of attacks in recent months and say the Israeli military often turns a blind eye. Palestinians have also carried out attacks inside settlements, including the killing of a mother of six who was out jogging in December.

Around a kilometer (mile) north of Efrat, in an area administered by the PA, is a cultural and historical site popularly known as Solomon’s Pools, a network of spring-fed stone reservoirs and canals with ruins dating back more than 2,000 years.

Every few months, dozens of settlers — escorted by Israeli troops — break into the site and force out Palestinian visitors or renovation workers, according to George Bossous, CEO of the company that manages the site and an adjacent convention center.

“You always fear that you are losing more and more of your place,” he said. “To live together means you need to take care of everyone and give rights for all.”

Fatima Brijiyah heads the local council in al-Masara, a Palestinian village southeast of Efrat. The 70-year-old grandmother remembers wandering its hills in her youth, when she and her brother would ride on their father’s donkey when he went to fetch water from a nearby well.

The well is still there, but she says it’s too close to the settlement for Palestinians to visit it safely.

“You feel the pain of not being able to go there now, even just to look,” she said. “You feel that everything about the occupation is wrong.”


POINT OF NO RETURN?


Some critics say the U.S. focus on managing the conflict instead of resolving it has led to a point of no return. They say that there are so many settlements across the West Bank that it is impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. Others argue that Israel has become a single apartheid state in which millions of Palestinians are denied basic rights afforded to Jews.

Peace Now says that — at least in a logistical sense — a partition deal remains possible.

Under a two-state solution based on past proposals, up to 80% of the settlers could stay where they are. Many of the largest settlements are close to the 1967 lines and could be incorporated into Israel in mutually agreed land swaps.

That means at least 100,000 Jewish settlers, and likely more, would have to relocate or live inside a Palestinian state. Some 2 million Palestinians live inside Israel, where they have citizenship, including the right to vote.

“From a logistical standpoint, it’s very possible,” Reeves said. “From a political standpoint, that’s where the trick is.”

Most experts agree that a negotiated two-state solution would require an Israeli government with a mandate to make historic concessions, a united Palestinian leadership able to do the same and a powerful external mediator like the U.S. that could strong-arm both sides.

None of those three elements exist now or will in the foreseeable future.

Israelis are deeply divided over Netanyahu’s leadership, but a strong majority appears to support the settlements and are opposed to a Palestinian state. Those voters back right-wing parties that won 72 seats in the 120-member Knesset last month.

The Palestinians are geographically and political divided between the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamic militant group Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians have not held a vote in more than 15 years, and elections planned for the coming months could be called off.

The last five U.S. presidents have tried and failed to resolve the conflict. The Obama administration scolded Israel over its settlements, while Trump unabashedly supported them. Neither made any headway in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

Biden, who has devoted much of his nearly 50-year political career to foreign policy, knows this well. His administration has signaled it hopes to manage the conflict, not resolve it.

“The question is, can there be momentum? There won’t be peace, but can there be momentum in these next four to eight years?” Reeves said.

“If there is, then I think a two-state solution is very much alive. If there’s not, and there’s another 100,000 settlers added, it just makes it that much harder to make peace.”

 

 

 

By Michael Young, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, April 13, 2021

In an interview, Frederic Hof recalls how Bashar al-Assad undercut the party’s position on the Shebaa Farms.


Frederic Hof is a diplomat in residence at Bard College in New York. He is a former U.S. envoy to Syria, and served as ambassador and special adviser for transition in Syria under former president Barack Obama, with a distinguished career in the United States Army and the State Department. Hof also served as the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Recently, he wrote an article for Newlines magazine that received much attention in Lebanon, in which he described meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in February 2011 to discuss the possibility of a Syrian-Israeli settlement. Hof’s book on his mediation efforts is forthcoming. Diwan interviewed him to discuss what happened a decade ago.

Michael Young: Can you tell us the context in which you met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in February 2011.

Frederic Hof: At the time I was trying to mediate peace between Syria and Israel, and there were many challenges I faced in doing so. Among them, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deep skepticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to make peace under any circumstances stood out. Whenever I would report to Netanyahu and his team some progress achieved in Damascus during discussions with then foreign minister Walid al-Muallem, the prime minister would respond skeptically or even dismissively, saying that anything Muallem said or committed to could later be qualified or contradicted by Assad. This was despite the fact that at a key meeting in Damascus in May 2010, Assad himself had told then senator John Kerry that he was personally committed to a full peace with Israel that would, among its provisions, guarantee the return to Syria of all Syrian land occupied by Israel during the June 1967 war.

For whatever reason, Netanyahu declined to accept Kerry’s testimony, which included an unsigned document agreed to by the Syrian side spelling out the prerequisites and components of peace. For whatever reason too, Netanyahu and the Syrians had some confidence in my role as mediator, so when I told the Israeli prime minister that I could seek a one-on-one meeting with Assad to try to draw him out on his personal commitment to meeting Israeli requirements for peace, he readily agreed. With the assistance of then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, I arranged a private meeting with the Syrian president for the last day of February 2011. The meeting took place as scheduled.

MY: You’ve written that Assad’s attitude with regard to an area along the Lebanese-Syrian border known as the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba hills surprised you. Can you explain what these places represent, and why you were surprised by Assad’s remarks?

FH: Lebanon’s claim to the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba Hills—the northernmost strip of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since June 1967—is the key to Hezbollah’s claim that the Israeli occupation of Lebanese land continues. By asserting ongoing occupation, Hezbollah justifies its armed status in terms of “resistance” to that occupation, therefore claiming it is not an illegal militia subject to disarmament.

Before the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war there were periodic discussions between Lebanon and Syria about the land in question, as the boundary between the two states established by France during the Mandate period was, in places, ambiguous. Lebanon (as evidenced by its own maps) acknowledged Syrian sovereignty, but sought boundary adjustments along the Golan Heights to accommodate the apparent ownership of land by Lebanese citizens in territory governed by Syria. But those talks did not produce agreement, and during the June 1967 war the area in question was occupied by Israel, along with nearly all the rest of the Golan Heights. For nearly 33 years after the war the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba Hills were considered by Lebanon and Syria to be Syrian territory and part of the occupied Golan.

This changed abruptly in 2000, when Hezbollah faced the threat of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. I say “threat” because the end of the Israeli occupation would mean an end to Hezbollah’s resistance, which would logically inspire demands for Hezbollah’s disarmament. Hezbollah, followed eventually by the Lebanese government, therefore claimed that the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills were Lebanese territory, claims quickly rejected by the United Nations. But Syria, eager to maintain an armed Hezbollah as a pressure point on Israel, verbally supported Lebanon’s claim.

When Assad told me that the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills were, after all, Syrian, I was not surprised by his statement of fact. What surprised me was his unhesitating readiness to undermine the rationale for Hezbollah’s arms and overrule the stated position of his own government.

MY: You’ve also revealed that Assad said he would be willing to make peace with Israel under certain conditions. What were these, and how seriously did the Israelis take such a commitment?

FH: In my meeting with Assad, he was careful to condition his willingness to break military ties with Iran and Hezbollah on terms of peace that would return to Syria all the land taken from it by Israel in June 1967. Syria’s position was unchanged from the 1990s: Everything to the line of June 4, 1967—the largely undemarcated “line” separating Syrian and Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley before the outbreak of war—must revert to Syria during the implementation of a treaty of peace with Israel.

After my meeting with Assad I discussed at great length his commitments and conditions, as articulated to me, with Netanyahu and his team. Although Netanyahu remained uncomfortable with Syria’s territorial price for peace—a price with which he was long familiar—he deemed the mediation serious and authorized his team to move forward. If his skepticism about Assad’s intentions was not entirely erased, it seemed to be significantly mitigated.

On the U.S. side, we envisioned bringing the Syrian and Israeli teams together in Eastern Europe, perhaps as early as April 2011. There they would work to complete a peace treaty outlined in an American draft that had been under discussion during my months of shuttling between Damascus and Jerusalem. Sadly, a mediation that seemed quite promising—including significant progress on territorial issues in addition to Assad’s security commitments—ended within weeks of the key meetings in Damascus and Jerusalem, when Assad opted for a policy of using deadly force on unarmed Syrian protestors.

MY: In light of the Syrian conflict since 2011, do you think that what you heard from Assad remains significant for the future, particularly as Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights has since been recognized by the United States?

FH: I do not know if former president Donald Trump’s proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory remains U.S. policy under President Joe Biden. But I suspect Assad’s decision to wage war on his own citizenry rather than pursue a promising peace mediation amounted, in a practical sense, to him deeding the Golan Heights to Israel in perpetuity.

Assad had told me in February 2011 that a Syrian-Israeli peace would be followed automatically by a Lebanese-Israel peace, and that threats to Israeli security from either country would not be consistent with peace. He assured me that Iran and Hezbollah would accede to Syrian and Lebanese peace treaty commitments and that Hezbollah would become a Lebanese political party. I doubted the validity of those assurances. They may have been sincere, but I could not imagine Iran and its Lebanese proxy passively agreeing to get out of the “resistance” business.

Does any of this have ongoing relevance? If Assad was correct in his assessment that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was a genuine Lebanese political actor and not a representative of Iran, there would be nothing to prevent Nasrallah now from urging the Lebanese government to propose peace talks with Israel. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Blue Line adjustments, a maritime exclusive economic zone agreement, and even the Shebaa Farms-Kfar Shouba Hills—notwithstanding Assad’s assertion of Syrian sovereignty—could all be part of a Lebanese negotiating agenda.

Whether Assad’s claim to the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills remains significant—either in terms of the ongoing Israeli occupation or as the justification for Hezbollah’s arms—probably has less to do now with Syria than it does for Lebanon. But my purpose is not to recommend policy initiatives to anyone. Ten years after the fact I am interested in filling a gap in the history of U.S. efforts to bring about Arab-Israeli peace. I hope my forthcoming book will do exactly that.

 

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

 

Why was Bashar al-Assad so unprepared for the Syrian uprising, and has he learned anything since?

By Nael Shama, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, April 15, 2021

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to have triumphed. He remains in power, the Syrian conflict is nearly over, and efforts are underway in the Arab world to normalize relations with his regime. Yet, while the level of violence may have gone down after ten years of destruction, can one say that Assad has changed his method of ruling? Has Syria’s experience altered his views about the essence of politics?

To answer those questions, we must recall what happened at the beginning of the Arab uprisings. In early 2011, even after massive social mobilization had overthrown two longstanding strongmen in the span of a few weeks, Assad stated that those events had no relevance for Syria. He told the Wall Street Journal that “Syria was stable.” Referring to what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt, the president remarked that his country was “outside of this.”

A few weeks later, Assad was facing an uprising of his own, revealing how out of touch with reality he had been. A decade on, it is still legitimate to ask why the Syrian dictator overlooked the harbingers of his own vulnerability. Three mechanisms explain this disconnect.

The first was that the Assad family was myopic about the fact that excessive control reduced its exposure to the true workings of Syrian society, hindering its foresight. Politics is a dynamic process that involves expression, negotiation, and conflict. By 2011, the Assad regime had imposed a tight and elaborate system of control for over four decades, with tentacles throughout society. In having tightened its grip on power structures, security agencies, political parties, and public space, the regime had placed nearly all visible aspects of politics under its stringent authority.

The problem with this is that the Assads failed to realize that by placing politics in a straightjacket, they pushed it into murkier recesses, so that political opinion and contestation shifted from party politics, parliamentary debates, and media outlets into private conversations and subtle forms of dissent. Small facts speak to large issues—“winks to epistemology or sheep raids to revolution,” as the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once wrote. Under the Assads, ellipses of speech, allegorical phrases, nods of desperation, exhalations of anger, or even silence, spoke volumes about what was rankling the population.

From his palace overlooking Damascus, Bashar al-Assad saw a different picture. Silence implied loyalty, self-censorship consent. The uprising in March 2011 showed how deeply he had misread reality.

A second mechanism also explained why Assad had failed to grasp the mood in his country. Not only had Syrians concealed their true preferences in response to political pressures, they also feigned many of their reactions and support for the regime. Economist Timur Kuran has called this “preference falsification.” Privately, this may mean faking a smile or compliment in a social gathering. Under authoritarian regimes, however, the practice is more consequential.

It is telling that for both those who supported the Assads and their critics, fear was the Syrian regime’s trademark. While critics called it a “republic of fear,” the regime was fond of upholding the notion of “the prestige of the state,” or haybat al-dawla, albeit blended with awe and dread. Between 1970 and 2011, the politics of terror had been institutionalized in Syria. As a consequence, people acquired a knack for survival. They would bend with the wind, withdraw into their shells, go into mental exile, or simulate devotion.

An astute poet from the early Islamic era, Abu al-Atahiya, stated it well: “If life narrows on you, silence is wider.” And so a spiral of silence pervaded Syria before 2011. Yet, silence is more often a mark of patience than a sign of fidelity. Nor, because it represents a burden for individuals, does it last eternally.

Rather than reading between the lines of silence, the Assad regime had been busy constructing a personality cult around its leader and craving eternal rule: “Assad forever,” or “Al-Assad ila al-abad,” was its favorite slogan. However, it took no great insight to see that sycophancy had bred arrogance.

Third, time widens the disparity between reality and fantasy. The Assad regime suffered from its longevity, so that time had effectively encaged it. Often, the longer an autocrat stays in power, the greater his propensity to rely on a small coterie of confidants who share his opinions and delusions. The leader’s inner sanctum limits his exposure, so that reality becomes “like a night in which all cows are black,” as the German philosopher Hegel put it.

By early 2011, the Assads, Hafez and Bashar, had spent 40 years in an ivory tower. A former advisor to Bashar observed that the president “lives in a cocoon.” In fact, Bashar was probably never fully aware of the inner workings of his own state organs, particularly the unbridled security agencies. Becoming a family heirloom had turned Syria into a compartmentalized dictatorship in which personal fiefdoms had proliferated and public institutions had been emptied of all relevance.

The Syrian uprising took the dictator by surprise, stripped him of his aura, and demonstrated that politics could not be eliminated or forever buried. If the regime repeats its mistakes after the uprising’s conclusion, then the dark events of the past decade will surely reappear again.


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

TEL AVIV/TEHRAN - An incident at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility on Sunday was caused by an act of "nuclear terrorism", the country's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said, adding that Tehran reserves the right to take action against the perpetrators, Reuters reports.

Israel's Kan public radio cited intelligence sources, whose nationality it did not disclose, as saying that Israel's Mossad spy agency had carried out a cyber attack at the site.

A nuclear facility in Iran suffered “sabotage” a day after it unveiled new uranium enrichment equipment, the country’s top nuclear official says.

After the Natanz nuclear facility ground to a halt, Israeli intelligence sources were quoted in Hebrew-language media claiming credit for the attack.

They said that a cyber attack by the Mossad foreign intelligence agency inflicted “severe damage at the heart of Iran’s enrichment programme”.

The blackout injected new uncertainty into diplomatic efforts that began last week to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal repudiated by the Trump administration.

Iran did not say precisely what had caused the blackout at the heavily fortified site, which has been a target of previous sabotage, and Israel publicly declined to confirm or deny any responsibility. But American and Israeli intelligence officials said there had been an Israeli role, according to the New York Times.

Two intelligence officials briefed on the damage said it had been caused by a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified Israeli operation, said that the explosion had dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production.

Iran’s leverage in new talks sought by the Biden administration to restore the nuclear agreement could be significantly compromised. Iran has said it will take increasingly strong actions prohibited under the agreement until the sanctions imposed by President Donald J. Trump have been rescinded.

 

North Africa

CAIRO – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Office launched today its 2020-2024 Regional Strategy, with an online event including panelists from governments, the League of Arab States, UN agencies, regional institutions, academics and other stakeholders in the region.

Guided by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and Agenda 2063 of the African Union Commission (AUC), this strategy aims to prioritize three key pillars – resilience, mobility and governance – for 2020 to 2024, in line with the implementation of IOM’s 2019-2023 Strategic Vision.

The 2020-2024 Regional MENA Strategy reflects how the organization will navigate years to effectively address the growing complex challenges and uncertainties in the fields of migration, mobility and humanitarian aid and to seize the opportunities that migration can offer to both migrants and society.

“The strategic pillars reflect the reality that it is no longer possible to work through strictly defined programmatic areas, but rather through a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to manage migration in a way that recognizes its transnational, transboundary and multi-dimensional nature,” said IOM Director General, Mr. Antònio Vitorino, in his opening remarks.

“This strategy is based on IOM’s institutional approach to Migration and Sustainable Development which comprehensively integrate migration and development into policymaking and programming within IOM,” said IOM MENA Regional Director Carmela Godeau." IOM MENA strategy seeks to bring greater coherence and development impact to IOM’s activities.”

The strategy was formulated in accordance with regional priorities and Member States’ efforts to enhance migration governance and always protect vulnerable populations. IOM aspires to further support governments in national priorities and regional and international commitments to allow migrants, displaced populations, and host communities to exercise their rights.

The first GCM Regional Review in the Arab Region, held in February 2021, shed light on the cruciality of managing migration through a 360-degree approach to “Build back better” together. Many stakeholders and actors across the region are now showing a growing enthusiasm to integrate this holistic approach into the ways in which they plan, deliver and operate.

While IOM remains committed to ensuring that migration is safe, orderly and regular, this regional strategy will be reviewed periodically to ensure that the ongoing and emerging impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and other significant regional and global developments are being addressed effectively.

Libya: Is Haftar losing control of his forces in Benghazi?

By Sarah Vernhes, The Africa Report, 06 April 2021

 

The explosion of violence in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi marks Khalifa Haftar's loss of control over the Libyan National Army (LNA). Made up of tribal alliances and militias, the LNA is falling apart while its boss continues to lose power.

Atrocities, assassinations, kidnappings… Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, has been plagued by an upsurge in violence since mid-March.

On 18 March, 12 bullet-riddled bodies were found in the city. Six days later, Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a senior commander in Khalifa Haftar’s LNA, was murdered in his car alongside his cousin. On 25 March, Hanine al-Abdali – daughter of Hanane al-Barassi, the lawyer and women’s rights activist who was murdered on a street in Benghazi in November – was kidnapped.

Barassi had been accused by Colonel Ali Madi, head of the Benghazi military prosecutor’s office linked to the LNA, of being involved in the murder of Werfalli alongside Mohamed Abdeljalil Saad.

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LONDON - Morocco moves closer to unlocking domestic gas riches, but funding still hangs in the balance, says the London-based GlobalData.

Two significant gas projects that are poised to take final investment decisions (FID) in Morocco this year could add 70mmcfd of natural gas to the country’s energy mix in the next five years, supporting its ambition of reducing reliance on coal and costly imports from Algeria, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

GlobalData’s latest report, Morocco Exploration & Production, reveals that Morocco is on the brink of unlocking its gas potential – even though the country is not a major producer and imports most of its gas. The country has almost 700bcf of reserves sitting in announced developments.”

Santiago Varela, Upstream Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “Productive growth is expected to materialize with the launch of the first phase of Tendrara, which expects to provide gas volumes by mid-2022 with a development breakeven price of under $5/mcf. Anchois, discovered in 2009, is expected to produce first gas in 2024 and will be the largest gas development undertaken in Morocco to date, by far. For both projects, the major obstacle is obtaining adequate financing, since neither of the two operators have sufficient funds to undertake these developments alone.”

Anchois operator Chariot Oil & Gas has struggled during recent years to convince investors to support the funding of the Anchois development. However, in the last year, the company successfully reprocessed seismic data that led to an upgrade of 1tcf in recoverable resources. In addition, the company announced the expression of interest of Africa Finance Corporation and a Multinational Investment Bank to finance the project as well as a memorandum of understanding for gas sales with the Moroccan ministry of energy. These latest developments move Morocco ever closer to unlocking its largest gas field, and a final investment decision is poised to be taken this year.”

Santiago continues: “Morocco has failed to develop its major gas discoveries to date, mainly due to the fact that oil has been the preferred resource over gas. But now, with the focus turning to gas, an attractive fiscal framework and strong domestic demand, international operators are pushing hard to develop the country’s resources.”

“Although the economics of Tendrara and Anchois projects looks tempting, it is not yet clear whether the current operators will be able to finalise the necessary funding required to develop the fields. Securing capital is the final roadblock in the path for unlocking the country’s gas resources.”

 

 

Europe should not delude itself on Libya

By Dario Cristiani and Karim Mezran, 01 April 2021

Washington/Tripoli - Visiting Libya with his German and Italian counterparts, Jean-Yves Le Drian, French minister of foreign affairs, stressed that Europeans were pleased to see "efforts bear(ing) fruit… meetings in Paris and Palermo, and a conference in Berlin… and today we are seeing the first results."

These words echoed what EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell said in February: "Since the Berlin Conference", Libya has made significant progress toward "securing lasting peace and stability".

He mentioned the reopening of the energy sector, the ceasefire agreement of October 2020, the roadmap for national elections, and the appointment of a transitional unified executive authority as remarkable achievements linked to Berlin.

Let's be clear: all of these developments are important, and above all they are welcome.

The peaceful passage of power between Fayez al-Sarraj and Abdel Hamid Dbaiba was a powerful message of hope.

This evolution is very positive, although the recent wave of killings should act as a reminder that the road toward a "lasting peace and stability" is long and bumpy.

From Brussels' perspective, having the representatives of the three crucial EU countries visiting Libya together is a remarkable breakthrough, particularly after the troubles between Paris and Rome.

However, there is something wrong - or rather missing - in this EU narrative in which the Berlin conference represented the catalyst for change and began of the process that led to the creation of the new Government of National Unity (GNU) in Libya.

European leaders always fail to mention the Turkish military intervention that led to the end of Khalifa Haftar's infamous military operation initiated in April 2019, and the end of the warlord's ambition to become Libya's 'new Gadaffi'.

The few times in which this intervention is mentioned is to condemn foreign meddling in Libya.

However, there have been different types of foreign interference. A military action in support, and at the request of, a legitimate government being attacked by a warlord with no formal role supported by mercenaries from several countries and military resources from others is different.

Europeans might like it or not, but if Turkey had not defeated Haftar militarily, this positive evolution would have been impossible.

The Berlin process would have remained another empty diplomatic exercise. The Europeans should thus not overestimate their impact.

This conference was indeed important, but only insofar as it showed that Germany has the diplomatic capacity to bring countries together.

Yet, while Germany was keen to intervene diplomatically, Germany and the EU remained reluctant to act militarily.

The recent evolution is proof of what many observers said for years: without a military solution, a political solution would have been impossible.

The idea that the Berlin process was instrumental in creating an environment conducive to the ceasefire first, and the new government then, is misleading.


Post-disaster narrative


This rhetorical posture is a post-disaster narrative that some are now pushing to conceal the European fiasco on Libya: a post-conflict construction to pretend that Europeans shaped events on the ground when they actually did not.

Libyans themselves, from both sides of the barricade, never considered this process as a factor to take into great consideration.

The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) became a success thanks to the impressive efforts of Acting UN Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, who succeeded where many before her failed.

The crucial talks happened in Moscow, Ankara, Tunis, and in Cairo. Not in Europe.

European countries had a marginal role, as they lacked the capacity and willingness to influence dynamics on the ground by playing by the rules of the game: unfortunately, this game was a military one.

This does not mean that Europeans cannot play a role now.

Yet, they should be realistic and not fall victim to their own narratives on Berlin. Spinning off the conference as a success might boost Europe's self-confidence.

But this should also be an occasion for the EU to reflect on its ambitions to build an autonomous capacity to intervene and project influence - especially in its neighbourhood, without having to wait for others to do it, be it the Americans in the Balkans in the 1990s, or the Turks in Libya in 2020.

When talking of strategic autonomy, Europe should be capable and willing to act on its own, diplomatically but also militarily. Berlin represented an important diplomatic step, but one that had little impact on the ground.

Libya, at that point, needed a military solution to unblock the situation and allow for the diplomatic process to restart. This is something that diplomacy alone evidently could not achieve.

That military solution arrived, and Haftar's defeat allowed for a return to diplomacy.

In this new reality, European diplomatic efforts can assume a greater relevance, as the EU and its major countries involved in Libya have the capacities to play a constructive role.

Yet, they should remain realistic on how this breakthrough was achieved.


Author


Dario Cristiani is senior fellow with the Institute of International Affairs and German Marshall Fund. Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

 


DISCLAIMER


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's.

Research Papers & Reports

Algeria’s Achilles’ Heel? Resource Regionalism in Ouargla

By Dalia Ghanem, alcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, March 24, 2021

Ouargla Province, in central Algeria, is a resource-rich but infrastructure-poor province. As protests there ramp up, Algiers may find itself squeezed on solutions.


Introduction


In mid-January of this year, some 5,000 people in Ouargla, a province that straddles central and southern Algeria, held a demonstration calling on the government to end their region’s marginalization, create employment opportunities, and fight corruption in public institutions. According to their spokesperson, Kamel Bouchoul, who at one point read out nineteen demands on behalf of the assembled protesters, corruption is endemic within the National Employment Agency (ANEM). Bouchoul accused the Ouargla branch of ANEM of rigging its hiring system to the benefit of “outsiders,” meaning northern Algerians, despite a 2005 law obliging companies to give priority to locals in matters of employment and to make adequate provisions for their training. Through Bouchoul, the demonstrators, most of whom were unemployed or underemployed, went on to demand that the authorities dismiss the local ANEM director, investigate the agency, and dismiss those officials responsible for abuse of power, corruption, and nepotism.

These demonstrations were nothing new. The sparsely populated center and south of Algeria, the largest country in Africa, may have escaped the civil war of the 1990s, but they have suffered decades of governmental neglect. In the 2000s, these historically peripheral regions began to undergo a political awakening, much of it stemming from widespread indignation that, despite oil-extraction progressing apace, locals continued to see little in the way of economic dividends. As part of such “resource regionalism,” voices of dissent made themselves heard from Ghardaïa, in north-central Algeria, to In Salah, in the south-central part of the country.

Sitting on oilfields that have enriched Algeria’s north, Ouargla Province, which lies some 570 kilometers south of the capital, Algiers, witnessed the most political ferment of all. With each round of protests by Ouarglis, the state launched or promised to launch investment projects even as it intensified its policing of local communities. Little came of the measures ostensibly intended to ameliorate the plight of people in Ouargla, and the repression created further resentment. Perhaps the most telling example of the state’s failure was the Ouarglis’ call during the January protest for the disbandment of the local ANEM branch. In the eyes of the people of Ouargla, the very agency meant to ensure their participation in local economic ventures had lost its legitimacy.

Now, Ouarglis appear to have reached the end of their tether. In March, a judicial court found local activist and blogger Ameur Guerrache, who hails from the Mekhedma quarter of Ouargla, guilty of “condoning acts of terrorism.” The verdict was widely seen as political, as Guerrache had voiced his support for antigovernment demonstrators. In response to the court’s decision to sentence Guerrache to a seven-year prison term, Mekhedma erupted in protest. Alarmingly, the protest degenerated into violence between locals and the gendarmerie, which may portend a slide toward greater confrontation.


Rich Land, Poor People


Ouargla Province is one of Algeria’s wealth poles, with the extraction of oil from the Hassi Messaoud oil fields playing a crucial role in keeping the national economy afloat. Hassi Messaoud supplies 400,000 barrels of oil per day and contains 71 percent of the country’s crude oil reserves. Until recently, Ouargla was home to an estimated 600,000 people, which is high when compared to other provinces south of the Edough Massif, which runs across northern Algeria.1 The province is divided into three districts and seven municipalities. Ouargla City, which lends its name to the province, is the most populous and serves as an administrative center.

Ouargla may sit on oil reserves, but it has fared no better than other provinces in Algeria’s center and south, a vast area that falls within the Sahara Desert. Due to its distance from the capital that resulted in spatial disparities, a legacy of the colonial past that continued after independence in 1962, there is twice as much poverty among people living in the Sahara as among those in the coastal region. If anything, the imbalance is even more apparent when a desert locality is resource-rich. In such cases, the government pours money into the area for the purpose of extracting resources that power the national economy, but often avoids diverting any of the subsequent revenue to local communities. This is readily apparent in Ouargla, which remains poor and underdeveloped. Many Ouarglis complain of being abandoned in a country blessed with oil reserves (mahgurin fi bled al-petrol).2

The deficiency in public services is best illustrated by the health sector. Few and far between to begin with, health facilities in Ouargla Province are also understaffed and underequipped. In fact, it is common for several health centers to rely on a single roving doctor.3 University-affiliated public hospitals and private health clinics, which generally provide better care, are at a considerable distance from Ouargla municipality. For example, the nearest health clinic is located in El Oued, 320 kilometers away, while the closest university hospital is in Batna, 550 kilometers away. People who can afford it seek medical care in El Oued, Batna, or even across the border in Tunisia, where medical facilities are of a higher standard than those in southern Algeria.4

Those who opt to try their luck in Ouargla may find themselves in a hospital that lacks certain specialists. In 2018, the death of academic Aïcha Aouissat following a venomous scorpion sting prompted Ouarglis to publicly denounce subpar healthcare conditions and accuse political leaders of criminal negligence. According to Aouissat’s brother, her death due to respiratory failure stemmed from the absence of both a cardiologist and a neurologist at the Ouargla hospital where she was admitted. Her death was neither the first nor the last of its kind. That year, Aouissat was one of seven people in Ouargla who died of complications following a scorpion sting.

Over and above shortcomings in basic services, such as healthcare and potable water, is the issue of perennial unemployment (see figure). On the face of it, Ouargla is not unique in this regard. As with other central and southern regions of Algeria, natural population growth, a decline in agriculture, rapid urbanization, and a decrease in cross-border commerce due to the militarization and securitization of Algeria’s borders with Tunisia and Libya have all contributed to a situation in which many people cannot find work. Yet there is an additional reason for unemployment in Ouargla: discrimination. Local applicants, competing against better educated and highly skilled northerners for a limited number of vacancies at the Hassi Messaoud oil fields, have traditionally experienced great difficulty landing such jobs.

Indeed, the 159 companies engaged in oil-related projects throughout Ouargla have long favored northerners. The national state-owned oil company, SONATRACH, is the leading employer in the region and embodies this phenomenon. High- and mid-level positions for SONATRACH’s Ouargla projects are generally filled by employees whom the company has transferred from Algiers and other major northern cities such as Oran and Constantine. SONATRACH has even built apartment complexes in Hassi Messaoud to house such employees. This has sharpened a sense of exclusion among locals, who until the end of the 2000s needed a pass simply to enter the town. SONATRACH and other companies would hire Ouarglis for lower-level positions, but the locals would still earn less than lower-level employees from the north.5

Over the past decade and a half, Ouarglis have grown increasingly vocal about acquiring what they view as their rightful share of the oil bonanza. Two movements giving voice to people’s grievances emerged during this period. In 2004, a group of young men who wanted to remain unconnected to traditional parties and tribal leaders formed the Southern Children’s Movement for Justice (MSJ). The MSJ issued a list of demands: more jobs, with companies doing business in Ouargla obliged to grant locals preference when hiring; more money devoted to local projects; and the implementation of development programs that had until then existed only on paper. Significantly, when it came to this last point, the MSJ insisted that it should have a say in the development programs in order to maximize the benefits to local communities and simultaneously minimize adverse effects on the environment.

In 2011, the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC) was established. The CNDDC, like the MSJ a largely male youth organization, was an outgrowth of an earlier Ouargla-based union, the National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Staff. Significantly, the CNDDC charted a course that was more overtly political than its predecessor, creating a popular movement that sought to represent all unemployed Algerians and pressure the government to take action to alleviate their plight. It also successfully transcended divisions between secularists and Islamists, with its cadres drawn from both camps, and won the support of sectors of society sympathetic to the cause of marginalized southerners: human rights activists, university students, and politicized members of the middle class. Thanks in large part to the CNDDC, which enjoyed a wider support base than the MSJ, ordinary yet disaffected Ouarglis became more informed, better organized and connected, and oftentimes more politically engaged than previously.


Between Development and Repression


In response to the establishment of the CNDDC as well as the frequency of the protests that the MSJ helped organize, Algiers moved toward enacting reforms. The government overhauled ANEM and tasked the employment agency with recruiting locally and raising salaries. It also pledged to reduce the interest rate for loans granted to southerners and invested in professional training for them. For a while, it looked as though the government was making good on its promises. In 2013, a training center for oil-related professions, the first of its kind, was opened in Ouargla. And in 2018, training programs were inaugurated in fields such as cereal farming, construction, telecommunications, and new technologies. The authorities also invested in a tramway that went operational in 2018.

It soon became apparent, however, that the government was more interested in appearances than in bringing about real change. Most development projects did not benefit ordinary people. Some were never even completed. For example, much-needed roads and irrigation canals were left unfinished. The fact that large sums of money were clearly invested in such ventures heightened suspicions among locals that they were elaborate schemes to enrich the government’s cronies. Basically, following an opaque bidding process, a company whose owner was connected to high-ranking government figures would win a tender, despite having inflated the projected cost of the venture in question. The company’s owner would then take the money that the government paid his company and divide it into three portions: one for himself, one as a kickback for the government official who ensured that his company won the tender, and one for the agreed-upon project, which was invariably of shoddy quality and sometimes not even completed.6

Certain projects were questionable to begin with, given their lack of relevance. In Ouargla, locals have complained that while development of one kind or another is almost always underway, oftentimes it does not cater to their needs. A good example of this occurred in the municipality of Frane. Locals had asked for a health center. Instead, they got a library. Worse yet, the facility never opened its doors to the public. Saleh, a thirty-five-year-old resident of Frane, spoke for many of his town’s inhabitants when summing up the situation:

In this neighborhood, there are some 23 projects underway. [With the politicians] it is all about corruption. . . . They eat and feed their clique. . . . We ask for one thing, and they bring us another. . . . You ask them for a glass, and they bring you a chair. They brought us a sanitation network, and we do not even have water. . . . So today, the road remains broken, and the network is not connected.7

Going over the heads of the developers to complain to state officials is seen as futile. State officials, including representatives who are presumably answerable to the people, rarely prove willing to arbitrate disagreements between them and developers. This creates mistrust and suspicion toward the state. Many Ouarglis view state officials as highly unscrupulous middlemen between the cash cow that is the government and greedy developers. Institutional controls are weak and accountability is nonexistent, meaning that judicial courts are of little help. Ultimately, a closed bidding process, secretive contracts for tender awardees, inappropriate projects with murky rules governing the procurement of materials, high costs, and shoddy work have caused the government’s development spree in Ouargla to fail—both at the municipal and provincial levels.

At the same time that the government was attempting to mollify the inhabitants of Ouargla with development projects, it was increasing its repression of political activists. Members of the MSJ and CNDDC were often targeted for arrest—particularly after protests that these groups organized. Algiers did not only intensify policing in general when it came to Ouargla and other disaffected areas, but went so far as to attempt to prevent media coverage of grassroots movements agitating for change. Indeed, although the government lifted the country’s three-decade-old state of emergency in 2011, it quickly passed laws that restricted media freedoms and NGO activity. Activists who fell afoul of these laws were often imprisoned, a development that was to have far-reaching consequences.

According to human rights activist and trade unionist Yacine Zaïd, who has himself spent time in Ouargla prison, jihadi inmates launched recruitment drives among the disaffected southerners who had wound up behind bars. In Ouargla prison, the jihadists succeeded in radicalizing nonviolent MSJ and other activists arrested on trumped-up charges of “ secessionism” or trying to destabilize the country. It was not long before this had an impact. For unlike many of the jihadis themselves, the newly radicalized southerners were released from prison.

Some of these men made their way back to the MSJ and sought to tap into widespread frustration among its members, many of whom had begun to feel that the group was ineffectual. The radicalized returnees tried to steer the group in an altogether different direction, one that was both Islamist and confrontational. Together with the state’s continued harassment of the MSJ, this internal pressure eventually caused the group to disintegrate. Several of its former activists who had spent time in prison, including Lamine Bencheneb and Abdessalam Termoun, joined jihadi groups and took up arms.

Bencheneb went underground and is believed to have had a hand in the attack on the Djanet airport in 2007, as well as the 2012 attack on the headquarters of the Ouargla gendarmerie. At some point he, along with similarly inclined former members of the MSJ, established the Southern Children’s Movement for Islamic Justice (MSJI). In 2013, the MSJI collaborated with infamous jihadi Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar in the four-day siege of the Tiguentourine (Ain Amenas) gas facility. In that notorious incident, thirty-seven hostages and twenty-nine jihadis—among them Bencheneb—were killed before Algerian special forces ended the siege.

Termoun vacillated between militancy and legal political activity until 2012. In that year’s legislative elections, he attempted to run as a candidate on an Islamist party’s slate. However, he was disqualified by the authorities owing to his past membership in a terrorist organization. Termoun subsequently committed himself to militancy, went underground, and passed through several jihadi groups, including Signatories by Blood, which was led by Bel Mokhtar. He eventually had a falling out with the latter, who called for his death. Termoun was killed by unidentified jihadis in 2018 in Sebha, southwestern Libya.

In short, the central authorities’ dual strategy for containing the situation in Ouargla is demonstrably unsustainable. The strategy might have worked had the economic development that was meant to accompany the increased repression borne greater fruit. Yet the very limited tangible improvement in people’s everyday lives has made the state’s repression all the more unpalatable. Consequently, the possibility of social unrest has increased, with the riots in the wake of Guerrache’s sentencing a clear indication of this phenomenon. Moreover, outright militancy is on the rise. While most social movements in the south are rooted in nonviolent activism despite facing increased repression, many of their members have grown frustrated with the ineffectuality of petitions and even demonstrations. As evidenced by the trajectories of Bencheneb and Termoun, the region’s jihadi groups, which are always looking for new recruits, sometimes succeed in capitalizing on such members’ frustration.


Conclusion: Trouble in The Desert


The Algerian regime’s maneuverability vis-à-vis the volatile situation in Ouargla, already considerably reduced by the failure of its dual approach of indiscriminate development and political repression, has shrunk further due to a host of national crises. Foremost among these are an economic recession that was intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, a new president who has proven highly unpopular, and a nationwide protest movement that toppled the previous president in April 2019 and has recently regained momentum following a period of inactivity. All this means that the government will find it difficult to preserve the already tenuous peace in Ouargla.

Further agitation on the part of Ouarglis, which is almost inevitable given their dismal conditions, may prompt Algiers to ramp up repression. From the perspective of a regime that, irrespective of who stands at its helm, is allied with the military and has often relied on security solutions for social problems, the attractiveness of such a perceived remedy lies first and foremost in the success of previous clampdowns elsewhere in Algeria. Yet Algiers has an additional motivation to use force. The economic crisis, which has been compounded by the pandemic, has depleted state coffers and indefinitely suspended the rentier-oriented economy. There is little money left for bloated development projects meant to enrich political officials and appease locals. Consequently, the state may well choose to dispense with the carrot and wield the stick. Time will tell if such a heavy hand succeeds in stamping out protests, or if the latter mutate into unrest and spread to other central and southern provinces.


Notes


1 In December 2019, the Algeria government upgraded Touggourt to a province, removing it administratively from Ouargla. At that point, the population of Ouargla fell from 600,000 to a little under 400,000.

2 Several interviewees of disparate backgrounds used this expression during interviews conducted in Ouargla and its outskirts, December 2020 - February 2021.

3 Fieldwork visits and interviews conducted in Frane and Sidi Khouiled, December 2020.

4 Interviews with locals in Ouargla, December 2020 – February 2021.

5 Hassi Messaoud consists of the town and the oil fields. There is no distinction between the two; in fact, the oil fields encroach onto the urban space.

6 Interviews conducted in Ouargla with several people, including activists, former civil servants, and ordinary citizens, December 2020–February 2021.

7 Interview conducted in Frane, December 19, 2020. Salah is a former SONATRACH employee and an activist in a local association.


For a map and illustrations, visit: https://carnegie-mec.org/2021/03/24/algeria-s-achilles-heel-resource-regionalism-in-ouargla-pub-84157

 

This publication was produced with support from the X-Border Local Research Network, a program funded by UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

 

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

 

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project(ACLED) report, Feb 2021

The Sahel: Insurgency and fragile politics at the center of an unabated crisis

By Heni Nsaibi


Assessing the insurgency

 

As the Sahel crisis nears a decade, numbers of events and fatalities from armed, organized acts of political violence in 2020 surpassed 2019’s full totals in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. This escalating trend continued for the fifth consecutive year. However, there was a significant shift when comparing conflict patterns of violence in the past two years. In 2019, the Sahelian insurgency reached its apex when the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) simultaneously overran “the tri-state border” region. Government forces in all three countries were forced to withdraw from the border areas and leave previously disputed territories under jihadi militant control. This left government forces in a highly defensive position, and the militant offensive underscored the lack of effective coordination and interoperability between the affected member states of the G5 Sahel Force.

A progressive change began when France, in early 2020, shifted its posture by surging troops and scaling up operations alongside local forces. While widespread human rights abuses accompanied the operations (ACLED, 20 May 2020), international and local forces progressively regained momentum. The descent into a full-fledged turf war between JNIM and ISGS further weakened the insurgency. Fighting between the two organizations and counter-militancy operations accounts for a substantial increase in reported fatalities and conflict recorded in Mali and Burkina Faso. When comparing 2019 and 2020, estimated militant fatalities doubled as a result of offensive state military actions. JNIM and ISGS clashed on at least 121 occasions, causing an estimated 712 fatalities in 2020. The sheer number of militant losses are also indicative of the cumulative growth of the insurgency. While counter-militancy operations and jihadi-on-jihadi fighting are concentrated in the tri-state border region, this particular focus should not overshadow militant consolidation processes underway in other parts of the region and their potential longer-term impact. Both JNIM and ISGS have repeatedly demonstrated resilience and ability to recover. Hence, so far, tactical victories for international and local forces are not leading to strategic defeats for the jihadi militants, whose playbook continues to hinge on the logic of winning by not losing (completely). Instead, they are changing behaviors. JNIM is increasingly engaging its enemies using remote violence, as evidenced by recent fatal IED attacks targeting French, United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Malian forces. ISGS often resorts to mass violence and exerts pressure on civilian populations through excessive tax extortion and cattle rustling.


Fragile politics


Unrest boiling over and leading up to an August 2020 coup d’état underscored the complexity and uncertainty of Mali’s crisis. Key stakeholders within the international community feared that Mali would slide further into chaos, which did not materialize. Nevertheless, the country has witnessed escalating sub-conflicts and new flashpoints. For instance, JNIM expanded its operations to the southern regions of Kayes (Dakaractu, 20 November 2020) and Sikasso. In the central Mopti region’s “Dogon Country,” conflict substantially increased, between JNIM and Fulani militias on one side and the Dogon-majority Dan Na Ambassagou movement on the other. Both sides also incessantly targeted local communities. Fatalities remained on par with 2019 even though 2019 experienced a spate of unprecedented mass atrocities. In neighboring Segou region’s Niono Cercle, relations between Bambara and Fulani communities deteriorated into conflict. Consequently, Donso hunters strengthened their hold of the urban areas, causing many Fulani pastoralists to flee. At the same time, Katiba Macina militants (part of the JNIM alliance) control the surrounding rural areas and have imposed an embargo to subjugate Bambara farmer communities along the river area (ACLED, 17 December 2020).

The insecurity afflicting the region is accompanied by a soaring humanitarian emergency with more than two million people displaced (Le Monde, 22 January 2021) and rampant food insecurity (WFP, December 2020). Burkina Faso has shown to be particularly vulnerable, being the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis. Elections held in November proved the central government’s tenuous hold on the periphery, as no voting took place in numerous localities in the country’s north and east. Despite a continuously worsening security situation, with 14 provinces under a state of emergency for more than two years, incumbent President Roch Kabore was re-elected for a second term in elections that took place amid a relative calm (Sahelblog, 30 November 2020).

Neighboring Niger held its first presidential election round in December, putting the country on course for its first democratic transition of power. Former Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, and protege of incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou, is the favorite for the second round scheduled for February 2021. Niger has often been considered less overrun by armed groups compared to its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso. Yet, the country faces several distinct threats: the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad basin, the Sahelian insurgency driven by ISGS and JNIM in Tillaberi, and a criminal insurgency raging along its border with Nigeria. Niger was also largely spared the trend of mass violence against civilians troubling its neighbors, though this began to change in 2020. Recent attacks in Toumour by Boko Haram (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad) — both a predecessor and offshoot of Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) — and ISGS in Tchomabangou and Zaroumadarey demonstrate the conflict’s increasingly dangerous scope in Niger.
Threatening neighbors

The lingering presence of Sahelian militant groups along the northernmost borders of the West African littoral states continues to pose a significant threat. Benin and Ivory Coast are especially susceptible to the risks of jihadi militant violence due to political instability, internal vulnerabilities, and social dynamics in border communities. Clandestine militant activities including cross-border movements are more frequently recorded across these states’ territories and bordering regions. While Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger undoubtedly remain Sahelian militants’ primary focus, observed precursors, even if transitory or for logistical purposes, in neighboring states cannot be ignored. External pressure could potentially push militant encroachment into new areas and circumstantially alter jihadi militants’ tactical calculus.
What to watch for in 2021:

Previous large-scale operations have only achieved short-term gains and the military effort has yet to translate into dividends for populations in the targeted areas. International and local forces need to establish and provide security after ongoing operations have ended if these are to have any useful and lasting impact.

Fragile relations between states and communities and armed groups instrumentalizing ethnic and communal cleavages have led to some of the deadliest violence ever recorded in the Sahel. Recent attacks by Boko Haram (JAS) and ISGS underscore that the region remains at imminent risk of experiencing further mass atrocities at the hands of jihadi militant groups, community and ethnic-based militias, and state forces.

Further reading:

State Atrocities in the Sahel: The Impetus for Counterinsurgency Results is Fueling Government Attacks on Civilians
Mali: Any End to the Storm?

 

https://acleddata.com/2021/02/02/ten-conflicts-to-worry-about-in-2021?utm_source=Armed+Conflict+Location+%26+Event+Data+Project&utm_campaign=3772aa9660-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_21_06_50_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_26a454684a-3772aa9660-99497315#1612195879250-fd67dc25-cc2c

 

Further reading: https://acleddata.com/2020/05/20/state-atrocities-in-the-sahel-the-impetus-for-counter-insurgency-results-is-fueling-government-attacks-on-civilians/

After eight years of conflict in the Sahel, the international community remains primarily focused on the two main jihadi militant groups driving the sub-regional insurgency in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger: the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The reality on the ground is far more complex. While jihadi groups are the main contributors to the violence, community-based militias and government forces often perpetrate equally deadly attacks (Bloomberg, 2019). ACLED data show that abuses by government forces are inherent to prevailing conflict dynamics in the central Sahel, and these actors routinely commit atrocities with impunity. Reports of such violence are now simultaneously emanating from all three G5-Sahel countries confronted by the sub-regional insurgency (Orient XXI, 2020), and it is increasingly clear they can no longer be ignored. If these dynamics are left to persist, the creeping militant expansion will certainly carry on with them (ACLED, 2019).

Ahead of the end of the rainy season in August 2019, ISGS and JNIM – in tandem – launched an offensive in the tri-state border area, also known as the Liptako-Gourma. It was a campaign in which military outposts were overrun like dominoes, forcing government troops to tactically withdraw from the border areas and leave previously contested territory under militant control. These developments underscored the lack of cooperation and coordination between the constituents of the struggling regional G5-Sahel force, for years promoted as an effective coalition to address the jihadi threat (Ouest-France, 2018). Amid mounting popular discontent in Mali over the presence of foreign forces as Malian soldiers were killed in scores (RFI, 2020), French president Emmanuel Macron summoned the leaders from the G5-Sahel countries to clarify their positions on France’s role in the Sahel. During the summit convened on 13 January 2020 in the French town of Pau, a roadmap was outlined to counter the jihadi onslaught (The Conversation, 2020). France decided to deploy 600 supplemental troops to its Barkhane mission (Le Monde, 2020), ensued by the official launch of ‘Takuba’, a task force gathering special forces from several European countries aimed at shoring up Barkhane and Malian forces in the fight against jihadi groups (Ouest-France, 2020). The primary focus of the counter-offensive was to be ISGS, now the ‘Greater Sahara’ faction of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Although the group carried out some of the deadliest attacks targeting security forces to date, this announcement largely neglected the comparable threat posed by its Al Qaeda counterpart, JNIM (Liberation, 2019; DW, 2020).

In the wake of the Pau meeting, state violence targeting civilians increased in all three countries as local and foreign forces stepped up their operations. If the Pau Summit did not encourage civilian targeting, it evidently appears to be a direct consequence (see graph below).

Amid the surge to regain momentum against the jihadi groups, reports of abuses by state forces have accumulated. In Burkina Faso, Human Rights Watch documented how soldiers arrested and summarily executed 31 men in the town of Djibo on April 9 (HRW, 2020). On the day of the extrajudicial killings, JNIM fighters had attacked a military camp in Sollé, in the adjacent Loroum Province, albeit at a 50-kilometer distance. Notably, the town of Djibo was already under militant blockade, limiting access to food and other essentials such as fuel and medicine (WFP, 2020). Four weeks later, security forces raided the Mentao Refugee Camp, reportedly wounding at least 32 people and giving the refugees an ultimatum to leave “within the next 72 hours or face death” (UNHCR, 2020). Earlier that day, JNIM militants ambushed a gendarmerie patrol in nearby Gaskindé. The Burkinabe minister of communication defended the Mentao events, stating that security forces pursued militants “who ran away into the camps” and responded to “the resistance of certain refugees” (Fasozine, 2020). Both events appear to fit a pattern of reprisal carried out by state forces in the wake of militant attacks.

In neighboring Niger, security forces reportedly executed or disappeared 102 members of Tuareg and Fulani pastoralist communities over the course of a week in the areas of Inates and Ayorou. These reports were accompanied by the discovery of mass graves. Additional attacks on civilians by Nigerien forces were reported in other parts of Tillabery including Ouallam and Torodi (Mondafrique, 2020), as well as in the Menaka Region on the Malian side of the border (UN MINUSMA, 2020).

In Mali, a recent report by the Human Rights Division of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission MINUSMA documented 101 summary executions attributed to Malian security forces, primarily targeting the Fulani community in the central regions of Mopti and Ségou (Le Monde, 2020). The report also detailed evidence of torture and enforced disappearance. In many cases, there are no discernible causal links between incidents of state violence targeting civilians and militant action. For example, two recent and particularly deadly JNIM attacks against the Malian army in the Gao Region did not result in reprisals (Opex 360, 2020), while the assassination of a member of the National Guard in the town of Gossi triggered security forces to lash out against the population by burning motorbikes and property (Inkinane on Twitter, 2020).

Certain areas are also more prone to state-sanctioned violence than others (see map below). While linked to broader systemic problems within the region’s security forces, abuses can often be linked to specific units in different areas. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report identified two specialized army and gendarmerie units known as GFAT (now referred to as GFSN) and USIGN, operating in northern Burkina Faso as frequent perpetrators of attacks on civilians (HRW, 2018). Similarly, in Mali, abusive behavior in Mondoro has often been attributed to the National Guard (HRW, 2017, 2019). A meeting was set to be held on 14 May at the United Nations’ Security Council on allegations of severe human rights abuses by the concerned G5-Sahel countries. However, the meeting was annulled by Niger, a non-permanent member state of the Council, which faces accusations alongside Mali in the aforementioned report of MINUSMA’s Human Rights Division (Africa Intelligence, 2020).

A multitude of factors can explain the surge in state violence targeting civilians. For one, there is a demand for counterinsurgency results following a steady rise in militant mass-casualty attacks. Forced to withdraw from the borders, security forces may seek vengeance when returning to contested areas — an urge aggravated by years of stigmatization of pastoral communities and a perception that they are complicit in the insurgency (The Conversation, 2020). The presence of poorly trained and equipped forces in areas plagued by insecurity only elevates the risk of abuses. Moreover, a prevailing culture of impunity within the security forces ultimately provides state personnel with carte blanche to perpetrate atrocities.

Broad-based military operations accompanied by gross human rights violations alienate local populations and undermine any short-term gains they might achieve (ACLED, 2019). When these operations end and security forces leave, militants inevitably fill the void and tighten their grip (Sidwaya, 2020). If current dynamics persist, and local and international forces fail to establish a permanent presence in contested areas that can bridge the gap with key segments of the population, it will enable militant groups to continue to pose as ‘community protectors’ and further consolidate their control.

 

 

NEW YORK - Almost half of women in some 57 countries do not have the power to make choices over their healthcare, contraception, or sex lives, a new United Nations report launched on Wednesday, has revealed.

According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)’s State of World Population report, the lack of bodily autonomy may have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, placing record numbers of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence and harmful practices such as early marriage.

“The fact that nearly half of women still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or seek healthcare, should outrage us all”, Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings.

“In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others”, she added, noting that the denial of bodily autonomy is a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights. It also reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination.

“It is nothing less than an annihilation of the spirit, and it must stop”.

The report also noted that a woman’s power to control her own body is linked to how much control she has in other spheres of her life, with higher autonomy associated with advances in health and education, income and safety.


Alarming findings


Amongst its findings, the report documented several ways through which bodily autonomy of not only women and girls, but also men and boys, is violated, with factors such as disability worsening the situation.

For instance, girls and boys with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, with girls at the greatest risk, the report said.

It also noted that punitive legal environments, combined with stigma, discrimination and high levels of violence, placed gay men and other men who have sex with men, at high risk of HIV infection because they are driven underground out of fear of prosecution or other negative consequences.

As a result, they do not receive appropriate health education, and are reluctant to seek healthcare services, testing and treatment.

The report added that some 20 countries or territories have so-called “marry-your-rapist” laws, where a man can escape criminal prosecution if he marries the woman or girl he has raped, while 43 countries do not have legislation addressing the issue of marital rape.

The report also outlined how efforts to address abuses can lead to further violations of bodily autonomy. For example, to prosecute a case of rape, a criminal justice system might require a survivor to undergo an invasive so-called virginity test.


‘Men must become allies’


The report highlighted that addressing the appalling situation “requires much more than a disconnected series of projects or services”, stressing that real, sustained progress largely depends on uprooting gender inequality and all forms of discrimination, and transforming the social and economic structures that maintain them.

“In this, men must become allies. Many more must commit to stepping away from patterns of privilege and dominance that profoundly undercut bodily autonomy, and move towards ways of living that are more fair and harmonious, benefiting us all”, Dr. Kanem said, urging everyone to challenge discrimination “wherever and whenever it is encountered.”

LONDON - The risk of developing a blood clot with the coronavirus itself is up to 10 times higher than experiencing the complication post-vaccine, research suggests.

Concerns have been raised over the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. As of 31 March, 79 blood clot cases had been linked to the vaccine's first dose, of whom 19 patients died.

"Out of the utmost caution" the UK's jab regulator recommends healthy people under 30 in the UK have one of the other two approved coronavirus vaccines, developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

To better understand the issue, scientists from the University of Oxford – who are not affiliated with the AstraZeneca jab – studied the blood clot risk among coronavirus patients, vaccine recipients and the general population.

Results reveal the risk of developing a cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT) is considerably higher while enduring a severe case of the coronavirus than after one of the three vaccines that protects against it.

A CVT forms in the brain's venous sinuses, preventing blood from draining from the vital organ.

Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is thought to make blood stickier and trigger widespread inflammation in extreme cases.

The results are preliminary and yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"There are concerns about possible associations between vaccines and CVT, causing governments and regulators to restrict the use of certain vaccines," said study author Professor Paul Harrison.

"Yet, one key question remained unknown: 'What is the risk of CVT following a diagnosis of Covid-19?'

"We've reached two important conclusions. Firstly, Covid-19 markedly increases the risk of CVT, adding to the list of blood clotting problems this infection causes.

"Secondly, the Covid-19 risk is higher than [what we] see with the current vaccines, even for those under 30; something that should be taken into account when considering the balances between risks and benefits for vaccination."

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has specifically been linked to thrombocytopenia; blood clots with low platelets, the cells that promote clotting following a bleed.

An insufficient number of thrombocytopenia cases were in the Oxford team's database to assess this complication specifically, with the scientists instead focusing on the less "nuanced" CVT.

CVT is "at the heart of" the clotting concerns, according to Professor Harrison.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs are based on the same technology, which differs from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The former two jabs have not yet been linked to blood clots.

Using largely US health records, the Oxford scientists counted the number of CVT cases diagnosed in the two weeks after more than half a million people tested positive for the coronavirus.

These were compared against the number of CVT incidences after a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca jab is not yet approved in the US, however, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) estimates around five CVT cases occur in every 1 million people after their first dose.

Vaccines aside, the Oxford scientists calculated 39 cases of the clot would be expected to occur for every 1 million people with the coronavirus.

This is compared to zero cases among those with seasonal flu, which was included in the analysis due to it also being a viral respiratory infection.

After assessing more than 480,000 people who received a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, the scientists calculated four in 1 million would develop a CVT after either jab.

This is not dissimilar to the EMA's five per 1 million estimate after the first Oxford-AstraZeneca dose.

The Oxford scientists concluded the risk of developing a CVT is eight times higher while infected with the coronavirus than after the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The risk rises to 10 times higher if a person becomes infected rather than having the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna jabs, the results suggest.

Coronavirus patients also face around a 100 time higher risk of a CVT than an average person without the infection, the results suggest.

"The incidence of CVT following COVID-19 was higher than the incidence observed across the entire health records network," wrote the scientists.

Perhaps surprisingly, the scientists also found 30% of the CVT cases occurred in coronavirus patients under 30. Coronavirus complications and clots themselves are known to be more common in old age.

The benefits of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine over any risks are said to be more obvious among older people, but become blurred in younger age groups.

This is why the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommends healthy individuals under 30 receive a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna jab.

The Oxford scientists have stressed their study is ongoing and should be interpreted with caution.

Participants were not age matched when comparing the CVT risk among coronavirus patients to those of the general population.

Co-author Dr Maxime Taquet pointed out the data on the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab came from the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Other information was gathered from the electronic health records network TriNetX.

The data's accuracy and "completeness" are also unknown.

Nevertheless, "the signals COVID-19 is linked to CVT is clear, and one we should take note of", added Dr Taquet.

Further research should investigate why the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and the coronavirus itself, may cause clots, according to the scientists.

Africa

DAKAR - The United Nations World Food Program warns that millions of people in West and Central Africa are facing catastrophic levels of hunger driven by conflict and soaring food prices.

More than 31 million people, an increase of 10 million over last year, are expected to be unable to feed themselves during the upcoming June to August lean season. This period precedes the next harvest and is the time of year when food stocks in West Africa are at their lowest.

A U.N. food analysis found nearly 2.7 million people are a step away from famine. Among them, it says some 800,000 people are facing emergency levels of hunger in northeast Nigeria's conflict-ridden states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

World Food Program spokesman Tomson Phiri says years of conflict have uprooted millions of people from their homes, destroying their livelihoods and making them dependent upon international aid. He says high food prices also are stoking the growing hunger emergency in the region.

"They have increased sharply across West Africa, leaving millions of people struggling to meet their basic food needs. The price of virtually all local staples has shot up. In some areas, prices are 200 percent higher — the highest levels since 2008," Phiri said.

WFP reports that escalating violence in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is deepening food shortages for some 6.5 million people.

Phiri says malnutrition is worsening in the region. He notes a staggering 10 million children under age five are estimated to be acutely malnourished, a condition that is life-threatening and inhibits their physical and mental development.

"Almost half of those children in the Sahel countries are faced with high levels of global acute malnutrition, out of which 70 percent, approximately 3.3 million, will need emergency food and nutrition assistance immediately," he said.

WFP is scaling up its emergency food operation. It plans to help nearly 18 million people in 19 countries in West and Central Africa this year. The agency is appealing for $770 million to implement its humanitarian operation in the coming six months.

BAMAKO - With a deteriorating security situation in central and northern Mali, the UN peacekeeping chief told the Security Council on Tuesday that ‘blue helmets’, the Malian Defence and Security Forces, continue to suffer repeated attacks and significant losses, while some large towns “live under constant threat from armed groups”.

The head of UN Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, recalled that on Friday, heavily armed terrorists had attacked a UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) camp in the Kidal region, killing four Chadian peacekeepers and wounding 34 others.

He said the assault was a tragedy, and an “illustration of the bravery and determination of our peacekeepers to support the people of Mali”, noting that the “determined and heroic defense inflicted a serious setback on the attackers”.

In addition to the terrorist threat, Mr. Lacroix expressed concern over the continuing “destabilizing activities of militias” operating along ethnic lines in the restive central region.

In a bid to that ensure militias and armed groups lay down their weapons and join the dialogue process, he called on the transitional Government to improve the security situation in parallel with protecting civilians and restoring State authority and basic social services.


Political ‘litmus test’


He maintained that the country’s long-term security hinges on the success of its fragile political transition.

The Malian Government has been seeking to restore stability and rebuild following a series of setbacks since early 2012, including a military coup d'état, renewed fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical extremists.

Among other things, the UN mission, considered to be the most dangerous UN operation to serve in, supports the implementation of a 2015 Peace Agreement signed by the authorities and two coalitions of armed groups.

While pointing to some recent “encouraging signs”, including the kickstarting of several important institutions, he highlighted the importance of political and institutional reform, such as territorial redistricting as well as electoral and Constitutional law changes.

He said that “an official electoral calendar has not been issued”, pending agreement on various reforms, including poll management.

“At this critical juncture, we encourage Malian political actors to work in a spirit of compromise and enact reforms aimed at creating an environment conducive to peaceful, inclusive, transparent and credible elections”, said the peacekeeping chief.

“These elections represent the litmus test for the current transition and a necessary step towards the return of Mali to constitutional rule”, he said.


Translate commitments to peace


Conceding that the implementation of the Peace Agreement has been slow, Mr. Lacroix said that in recent weeks, a positive momentum and a new sense of trust among Malian parties has emerged.

He drew particular attention to the importance of two recent meetings as being “of major symbolic significance” and “essential steps” to improve Malians’ political representation, which he said was “a key factor in its implementation”.

Mr. Lacroix stressed that international support, including that of the Council, remains of “utmost importance to ensure that national stakeholders live up to their commitments”.

'Leave no Tigrayan': In Ethiopia, an ethnicity is erased

By CARA ANNA

HAMDAYET, Sudan — The atrocities have been seared into the skin and the minds of Tigrayans, who take shelter by the thousands within sight of the homeland they fled in northern Ethiopia.

They arrive in heat that soars above 38 C (100 F), carrying the pain of gunshot wounds, torn vaginas, welts on beaten backs. Less visible are the horrors that jolt them awake at night: Memories of dozens of bodies strewn on riverbanks. Fighters raping a woman one by one for speaking her own language. A child, weakened by hunger, left behind.

Now, for the first time, they also bring proof of an official attempt at what is being called ethnic cleansing in the form of a new identity card that eliminates all traces of Tigray, as confirmed to The Associated Press by nine refugees from different communities. Written in a language not their own, issued by authorities from another ethnic group, the ID cards are the latest evidence of a systematic drive by the Ethiopian government and its allies to destroy the Tigrayan people.

The Amhara authorities now in charge of the nearby city of Humera took Seid Mussa Omar’s original ID card displaying his Tigrayan identity and burned it, the soft-spoken nurse said. On his new card examined by the AP, issued in January with the Amharic language, an Amhara stamp and a border of tiny hearts, even the word Tigray had vanished.

“I kept it to show the world,” Seid said. He added that only 10 Tigrayans remained of the roughly 400 who worked at the hospital where he had been employed, the rest killed or fleeing. “This is genocide … Their aim is to erase Tigray.”

What started as a political dispute in one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries has turned into a campaign of ethnic cleansing against minority Tigrayans, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan and dozens more by phone, along with international experts. The Ethiopian government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed is accused of teaming up with his ethnic group — his mother was Amhara — and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea to punish around 6 million people. Witnesses say they have split much of Tigray between them, with the Amhara in the west and Eritrean forces in the east.

Ethiopia claims that life in Tigray is returning to normal, and Abiy has called the conflict “tiresome.” But the refugees the AP spoke with, including some who arrived just hours before, said abuses were still occurring. Almost all described killings, often of multiple people, rapes and the looting and burning of crops that without massive food aid could tip the region into starvation.

For months, the people of Tigray have been largely sealed off from the world, with electricity and telecommunication access severed and mobile phones often seized, leaving little to back up their claims of thousands, even tens of thousands, killed. That has begun to change.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted last month that “ethnic cleansing” has taken place in western Tigray, marking the first time a top official in the international community has openly described the situation as such. The term refers to forcing a population from a region through expulsions and other violence, often including killings and rapes.

Refugees told the AP that Amhara authorities and allied forces in western Tigray have taken over whole communities, ordering Tigrayans out or rounding them up. A refugee from Humera, Goitom Hagos, said he saw thousands of Tigrayans loaded into trucks and doesn’t know what happened to them.

The Amhara now control some government offices in western Tigray and decide who belongs — and even whether Tigrayans exist at all. Some were ordered to accept the Amhara identity or leave, and others were told to leave anyway, the refugees said.

Lemlem Gebrehiwet was forced to flee while heavily pregnant and gave birth three days after reaching Sudan. She recalled the new authorities telling her, “This is Amhara.”

Shy, her baby girl waiting, she struggled to comprehend. “Maybe we did something wrong.”

Seid, the nurse, fled Humera early in the conflict after his hospital came under heavy shelling, with the wounded carried in screaming and colleagues killed. He returned in January in the hope that conditions had improved, as Abiy’s government promised.

They hadn’t. His home had been looted, and the remaining Tigrayans had shrunk to a quiet population of the elderly, women and children who were discouraged from speaking their own language, Tigrinya.

At the hospital, Tigrayans had to pay for care, unlike the Amhara. Anyone who came was allowed to speak Amharic only. Tigrayan staffers weren’t paid, and every night there was gunfire.

Ten days after returning to the hospital, Seid left for Sudan. Now, at this dusty post, refugees pass blazing days sprawled on plastic mats under shelters of woven straw. They stay perilously close to the border in the hope that missing loved ones will emerge from Tigray.

The conflict began in November as a political clash of past and present, with all of Ethiopia arguably at stake.

Tigray leaders had dominated the country’s government for nearly three decades, creating a system of ethnic-based regional states. But when Abiy took office in 2018, he moved to centralize power. He sidelined the Tigray leaders and made peace with Eritrea after years of war, earning a Nobel Peace Prize.

After last year’s election was delayed, the defiant Tigray leaders viewed Abiy’s mandate as illegal and held their own vote. The government then opened a military offensive, saying Tigray forces had attacked a military base.

“The federal government is trying to be king. We Tigrayans refuse,” said one refugee, Nega Chekole.

In response to allegations that the Amhara are ordering Tigrayans to leave and issuing new ID cards, the spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, Billene Seyoum, said the area is under a provisional administration “who are all from the region.”

The Ethiopian government says it rejects “any and all notions and practices of ethnic cleansing” and will never tolerate such practices, “nor will it turn a blind eye to such crimes.” However, almost everyone the AP interviewed said they had watched fellow Tigrayans being killed or seen bodies on the ground.

In her town of more than a dozen ethnic groups, Belaynesh Beyene was dealt a ghastly lesson in just how little Tigrayans suddenly were worth.

In the early days of the fighting, she said she saw 24 bodies in the streets of Dansha in western Tigray. The 58-year-old grandmother and other residents were prevented from burying them by the Amhara youth militia, a practice that witnesses across Tigray have reported as an added insult to grief. The practice applies only to Tigrayan corpses.

“They accidentally killed an ethnic Oromo in a Tigrayan household,” she said. “When they realized their ‘mistake,’ they came and buried him.”

A spokesman for the Amhara regional government, Gizachew Muluneh, didn’t answer questions from the AP. The Amhara have said they are taking back land they claim belongs to them.

Soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of Tigray’s now-fugitive leaders, have also been blamed for some of the worst human rights abuses. Under pressure, Abiy said last month the soldiers will leave, after long denying their presence.

Hiwot Hadush, a teacher from Zalambessa, said scores of people were killed after the Eritreans went house to house, opening fire.

“Even if someone was dead, they shot them again, dozens of times. I saw this,” she said. “I saw many bodies, even priests. They killed all Tigrayans.”

In another border community, Irob, furniture maker Awalom Mebrahtom described hiding and watching Eritrean soldiers order 18 Tigrayans, mostly young men like him, to lie in a remote field. They were shot to death.

The killings continue. In early March, after months on the run, 30-year-old Alem Mebrahtu attempted a desperate crossing of the Tekeze river. Separated from her three small children in the early chaos of the conflict, she had heard they were in Sudan.

Sympathetic women from the Wolkait ethnic group pleaded with Eritrean soldiers near the river to let Alem cross, while urging her to pretend to be Wolkait, too. It worked, but she saw a grim reminder of what could have happened if she had failed.

Bodies lay scattered near the riverbank, she said. She estimated around 50 corpses.

“Some were face-down. Some were looking up at the sky,” she said.

Exhaustion still pressed deep under her eyes, Alem started to cry. There by the river, confronted with death, tears hadn’t been allowed. The Eritrean soldiers beat people for expressing grief, she said.

Samrawit Weldegerima, who had arrived just two weeks earlier in Hamdayet, also saw corpses by the river, counting seven. Freshly branded on their temples were the markings some Tigrayans have to express their identity, she said.

“When I saw them, I was terrified,” Samrawit said, touching her belly, six months pregnant. “I thought I was already dead.”

Those who crossed the river were amazed to find that the Amhara were now in charge in western Tigray. Alem’s home in Humera was occupied by Amhara militia. She asked them for her clothes, but they had been burned. She was told to get out.

Reluctantly, to protect herself, she is trying to learn Amharic.

“Their aim is to leave no Tigrayan,” she said. “I hope there will be a Tigray for my children to go home to.”

The idea of home remains dangerous. Days after Abiy urged people in Tigray to return in late March, at least two men trying to do so from Hamdayet were fatally shot within sight of the border crossing.

They were buried by hundreds of refugees at the Orthodox church in Hamdayet, where the blank walls are being mapped for murals of sacrifice and salvation. Some of the faithful drop to their knees and clutch the stones, deep in prayer. Others rest their foreheads against the entrance, as if they can’t go on.

Even as the Amhara fighters took turns raping her, they offered the young woman a twisted path to what they considered redemption.

She had returned to her looted home in Humera. There, she was seized by militia members speaking Amharic. When she asked them to speak her native Tigrinya, which she understood far better, they became angry and started kicking her.

She fell, and they fell upon her. She remembers at least three men.

“Let the Tigray government come and help you,” she recalled them saying.

They also made her a proposal: “Claim to be Amhara and we’ll give you back your house and find you a husband. But if you claim to be Tigrayan, we will come and rape you again.”

The woman’s Amhara neighbor was present during the attack. When she later approached him for help, there was none.

“So what?” she recalled him saying. “You came back. Behave and be quiet.”

The woman cried all night. The next day, she found little comfort in learning that many others in her neighborhood had been raped, too.

“One mother and daughter had been forced to watch each other,” she said. “One woman was raped on the road, with people watching. Other accounts were worse than mine.”

She left for Sudan. It was mid-February. Afraid to speak with anyone, she waited almost a month before seeking medical care.

“I was ashamed,” she said, and started to cry. She watched the doorway warily, fearing the rumors that can spread among the refugees.

She said she was grateful to be HIV-negative, but she is pregnant. For a long moment, she was silent. She can hardly think about that yet. Her family back home doesn’t know.

The United Nations has said more than 500 rapes in Tigray have been reported to health care workers. But the woman from Humera, whose account was confirmed by her doctor, assumes many more survivors are hiding it just as she did. The AP doesn’t name people who have been sexually abused.

Several refugees from different Tigray communities told the AP they watched or listened helplessly as women were taken away by Amhara or Eritrean fighters and raped. It was like taunting, said Adhanom Gebrehanis from Korarit village, who had just arrived in Hamdayet with the welts from a beating by Eritrean soldiers on his back.

“They do these things openly to make us ashamed,” he said.

He described watching Eritreans pull aside 20 women from a group of Tigrayans and rape them. The next day, 13 of the women were returned.

“Go,” Adhanom said the Eritreans told the others. “We already have what we want.”

A midwife from Adwa, Elsa Tesfa Berhe, described treating women secretly after Eritrean soldiers swept through health centers, looting even the beds and telling patients to leave. As Berhe snuck out to deliver babies and care for the wounded, she saw people trying to bury bodies at the risk of being shot, or pouring alcohol on corpses in an attempt to hide the smell.

With the health centers destroyed, little if any care remains for women and girls who have been raped. No one knows how many now carry the children of their attackers.

Berhe had just arrived in Sudan. She cried as she recalled a 60-year-old woman who was raped vaginally and anally by Eritrean soldiers and then waited for days, trying to hide the bleeding, before seeking help.

“She didn’t want to tell anyone,” Berhe said. She heard the woman ask, “Can anyone trust me if I say I was raped?”

Another woman was raped by four Eritrean soldiers while her husband hid under the bed, Berhe said. Her husband recounted the attack when they sought an abortion.

A third woman described how Eritrean soldiers ordered her father to rape her, then shot and killed him when he refused. The soldiers raped her instead.

Berhe fears that the situation in rural areas is even worse, as described by the displaced people arriving in cities. So far, few from the outside world can reach the areas where the majority of Tigrayans lived before the conflict, as fighting continues.

“Do you think there is a word to explain this? There is no word,” said a midwife from Humera, who gave only her first name, Mulu.

In Hamdayet she befriended seven women from the same village, Mai Gaba, who said they were raped separately by various fighters, including Ethiopian federal forces. Mulu fears that Mai Gaba is a conservative example and estimates that some communities have seen scores of assaults.

“This is to harm the community psychologically,” Mulu said. “Most of the people in Tigray support the (fugitive Tigray leaders). To destroy them, you must destroy Tigrayans.”

There is more to come.

Almost every person interviewed described a worrying shortage of food, and some said Tigrayans are being starved. Many recalled seeing crops being looted or burned in communities by Amhara or Eritrean fighters, a toll that even shows up in satellite imagery.

Kidu Gebregirgis, a farmer, said he was questioned almost daily about his ethnicity, his shirt yanked aside to check for marks from the strap of a gun. He said the Amhara harvested around 5,000 kilograms (5.5 short tons) of sorghum from his fields and hauled it away, a task that took two weeks. He shook his head in amazement.

The conflict began shortly before the harvest in the largely agricultural region. Now the planting season approaches.

“But there is no seed,” Kidu said. “There’s nothing to start again.”

The prospect is terrifying, said Alex de Waal, the author of a new report warning of mass starvation in Tigray and a researcher at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“What I fear is that millions of people are in the rural areas, staying because they are hopeful they will be able to plant,” he said. “If they’re not able to plant, if food supplies run out, then all of a sudden we could see a mass migration.”

Tigrayans who passed through rural communities described starving people, often elderly, begging outside churches. Sometimes they did, too.

Alem, the exhausted mother, begged for money and tightened her clothes to control the hunger pangs. Abedom, a day laborer who only gave one name, begged while roaming the mountains and villages for three months.

“It was normal to go a whole day without food,” he said. “So many people were hungry. They loot everything, so if they take it all, how do I survive?”

The hunger was staggering. One refugee saw a man faint on the road in Adi Asr, close to death. Another described a fellow traveler so tired he simply stopped walking. Yet another saw a child, too weak to go on, left behind.

Again, ethnicity was crucial. Belaynesh, from Dansha, said she made sure to speak Amharic when approaching farmhouses in western Tigray for food.

Ethiopia, under international pressure, has said food aid has been distributed to more than 4 million people in Tigray. Refugees disagreed, saying they saw no such thing in their communities or asserting that food was being diverted.

Maza Girmay, 65, said she heard food was being distributed, so she went to the government office in her community of Bahkar to inquire.

“They told me, ‘Go home, you’re Tigrayan,’” she said. “We Tigrayans are Ethiopian. Why do they treat us as non-Ethiopian?”

The rejection brought her to tears. An Orthodox cross tattooed on her forehead, long faded from childhood, wrinkled with her sorrow.

In the community of Division, farmer Berhane Gebrewahid said he was shot by Amhara fighters seeking his cattle. He said food aid was distributed in February by Amhara authorities but refused to Tigrayans, including him. Even the name of his homeland had been changed to Northern Gondar, after a major city in Amhara.

A colonel with the Tigray fighters, Bahre Tebeje, worried that starvation will kill more people than the war itself.

“Most food aid returns to the Amhara and Eritreans,” he asserted, leaning forward intently, a tattered black-and-white kaffiyeh around his neck. “It’s not being distributed to the people.”

Severe malnutrition is already above emergency levels as humanitarian workers rush to reach communities, the U.N. has said. In Hamdayet, a handful of such cases were recently sent to a regional hospital for treatment, according to a doctor there. One woman, recovering, still couldn’t produce milk for her baby, who whimpered and sucked at a limp breast.

Battered and hungry, Tigrayans still arrive daily at the border post where Sudanese soldiers watch a no man’s land in the shadow of a fading flag. One recent evening, the AP saw three new refugees approaching.

In Sudan, the Tigrayans are registered and asked for their ethnicity. For once, they are free to answer.

 

 

 

By Joe Evans, The Week, London, 08 April 2021


Alliances with local militants offer lifeline after collapse of self-declared caliphate

 

Battered and bloodied but unbowed after losing its Middle Eastern caliphate, the Islamic State is targeting another region of the world to establish a jihadist battleground.

Following the US killing of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and “stinging defeats in Syria and Iraq”, the Islamists have “found a new lifeline in Africa”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

Isis “has forged alliances with local militant groups in symbiotic relationships that have pumped up their profiles, fund-raising and recruitment”, says the paper - triggering a deadly rise in Islamist violence on the continent.
New allies

Joe Biden is currently deciding whether to stick to a schedule set by Donald Trump for all US troops to leave Iraq by 1 May. But that the US is even considering an imminent withdrawal is evidence of the extent to which Isis strength has “waned”, says CNN.

The US currently has around 2,500 troops in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the international effort to secure the total and enduring defeat of Isis in the region.

The jihadists’ grip on power in the Middle East has been loosening for some time. The US-based Wilson Center policy institute reports that “by December 2017, the Isis caliphate had lost 95% of its territory”, including its nominal capital, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, and Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul.

Analysts say that this loss of territory led Isis to turn to Africa, where the group has “trumpeted” recent “battlefield wins” by Islamic extremists “to project an image of strength and inspire its supporters worldwide”, the NYT reports.

Isis has claimed responsibility for some of these deadly clashes, including an assault last month on Palma, a town in Mozambique.

Some experts view the Palma attack - in which dozens of people were killed - as a turning point “in what has until now been a widely ignored African war”, the Financial Times (FT) reports.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “reported fatalities linked to African militant Islamist groups rose by a third in 2020”, while violence linked to the extremists was up by 43%.

Counterterrorism analyst Colin P. Clarke of global intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group says that “as an organisation more broadly, Isis is hurting”.

“To improve morale among its supporters, its leadership is seeking to elevate regional branches showing the most promise in launching attacks and maintaining a robust operational tempo,” Clarke told the NYT.

John Godfrey, the anti-Isis envoy for the US government, has also argued that outbreaks of jihadist violence across Africa “are clear indicators that Isis continues to actively seek to spread its malign activity to new fronts”.

“The attacks there are horrific, frankly, and show a complete disregard for the life, welfare and security of the local population,” Godfrey told reporters following the killings in Palma.

This warning was echoed by Paul Rogers, a professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University. Isis-affiliated insurgency groups have been “developing for years” in Africa, reaching across “half a dozen countries, from Mauritania in the west to Chad, more than 3,000 kilometres to the east”, he wrote in an article on openDemocracy.

“Biden and his administration may want to see an end to Isis” and America’s so-called forever wars in the Middle East, but “rising Isis attacks in Africa mean the ‘war on terror’ is far from over”, according to Rogers.
Counter insurgency

As the NYT notes, “American military and counterterrorism officials have warned that Africa was poised to become the next frontier” in the battle against international terror organisations for “over a decade”.

Al-Qaeda has also “forged alliances with local jihadist groups in recent years and established new strongholds in West, North and Central Africa from which they can carry out large-scale attacks”, the paper adds.

Meanwhile, Isis is still firing warning shots in Syria, where insurgents this week “kidnapped dozens of people in a surprise desert attack, their largest such operation for at least three years”, The Times reports.

The group stormed a police station in al-Saan, a town in a western region that was “under Isis control until the Syrian army ousted the terrorists in September 2017”, the paper continues. In a bid to retake the area, “cells of Isis fighters have emerged in recent months to ambush buses carrying soldiers” and carry out “guerilla attacks across the border in Iraq”.

These attacks come as the Biden administration focuses on a push to confront Isis on the jihadists’ new frontier in Africa. The CIA has “recently completed work on a drone base in the north of Niger”, while “French and US armed drones and special forces are already based in Mali”, says Rogers on OpenDemocracy.

But as US forces “expand their presence in the north and southeast of Africa”, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq risks handing the group an opportunity to win back a foothold in the Middle East, he warns.

US officials have also warned that despite “its weakened condition”, Isis “remains a cohesive organisation in its former strongholds in Iraq and Syria”, the NYT says. An estimated 10,000 fighters went into hiding after the fall of the caliphate, and counterterrorism experts believe the group “still has a war chest of $100m and a global network of cells outside the Middle East, from the Philippines to Afghanistan”, the paper continues.

In Africa, meanwhile, Isis is funding activity in areas “previously untouched by extremist violence”, fuelling fears that what began as “an insurgency with just a few dozen fighters three years ago” could escalate “into full-fledged war”.

“None of these groups are extraordinarily powerful,” Joseph T. Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told the NYT.

“It’s just that they have enough capacity to destabilise these fragile states which are not able to maintain a security presence.”


https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/world-news/africa/952465/isis-africa-rebuild-defeat-middle-east?_mout=1&refid=F5AE96AAB3B00EE5B3B152A47EBFBA31&utm_campaign=theweekdaily_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter