The Kerry process continues but is under increasing threat of failure. Israeli Prime minister has just started a visit to the US in which he is scheduled to meet the President as will President Abbas later in March. President Obama gave an interview on 2 March in which he warned that time was running out.
The US Secretary of State was expected to have produced a framework document, though this has been delayed and delayed. Media reports suggest that it proposes a Palestinian capital in Greater Jerusalem not Jerusalem, something the Palestinians have said would be unacceptable (Greater Jerusalem has no clear definition). There has also been a fall out in relations between Israel and the US especially after comments from the Israeli Defence Minister about Kerry being “obsessive” and “messianic.”
Regular announcements regarding the expansion of settlements have put pressure on the Palestinian leadership. The most recent was an announcement of 1400 settlement units including in Jerusalem on 10 January. On 5 February 2014 the Jerusalem municipality granted building permits for 558 new homes in Neve Ya’akov, Pisgat Ze’ev and Har Homa. It was reported in mid-February that a further 35 isolated settlements will be added to the national priority areas.
On 16 December, the 28 EU foreign ministers unanimously warned against Israel's continuous expansion of settlements. Then
EU states including the UK summoned Israeli Ambassadors to express their continued concern about settlements in early January 2014. This had happened in early December 2012 as well.
The EU’s guidelines preventing EU states from cooperating, transferring funds, giving scholarships or research grants to bodies from inside settlements came into effect on 1 January 2014.
Demolition of Palestinian homes and other structures
The Israeli army has continued to demolish Palestinian homes and other structures. One day in advance of winter storms in December Palestinian homes were destroyed in the Jordan Valley. This was repeated in January.
A Caabu elegation visited Palestinian communities under threat of demolition in the South Hebron Hills in an area under exclusive Israeli control. Former Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon Jack Straw, wrote about this in the Times.
Israel released a further 26 Palestinian prisoners adding to the 52 it has released since August. These releases are part of the agreed confidence building measures. There remains around 5000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
There are continued concerns about Israeli treatment of child detainees. As of January 2014, 183 Palestinian children were detained in Israeli facilities, 42% of whom were held inside Israel, in violation of IV Geneva Convention.
Following a recent delegation to the West Bank with Caabu and Medical Aid for Palestinians, former Culture Secretary Dame Tessa Jowell MP asked Foreign Secretary William Hague a written question on the treatment of Palestinian child detainees.
Caabu’s report on this issue can be read here. A recent delegation of British Jewish lawyers also visited Ofer court – a review can be read here.
Night raids and pilot programme to issue summons
According to a briefing by the chief Israeli military prosecutor in the West Bank at the end of February, the Israeli military carried around 1,360 night arrest operations in the West Bank in 2013 the equivalent of four night arrest operations every night. These figures do not include night raids where nobody was arrested.
Israelis officials say that a pilot scheme to issue summonses to Palestinian children suspected of crimes, instead of using night time arrests, will be introduced.
Use of force in the West Bank
2013 saw a huge increase in violence in the West Bank with 21 Palestinians killed in the West Bank as opposed to 8 in 2012. This is a 5-year-high according to the Israeli human rights group, B’tselem. UNRWA told Caabu that they had seen an increased use of live ammunition by Israeli forces during the year. Amnesty International produced an in depth report into Israel’s increased use of violence at the end of February 2014.
There have been increasing clashes, including rockets from Gaza and Israeli fire into Gaza.
The closure of Gaza has tightened since the events in Egypt in July. The Egyptian military has destroyed or closed many of the tunnels that have been supplying Gaza. There were over 2000 in 2008 but now hardly any are operational. Egypt has also restricted movement in and out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing
The winter storms in December led to massive flooding of areas of Gaza and 10,000 people were forced to leave their homes. Thousands of homes were damaged. The effects of these storms were exacerbated by major power cuts that can last up to 18 hours a day. Gaza’s power plant was forced to shut down in December 2013 due to fuel shortages, heightening the humanitarian crisis inside Gaza.
Situation on the ground
As the Syria crisis approaches the third anniversary of the uprising, the Asad regime and those opposing it continue to fight but with neither side able to defeat the other. Both sides suffer from internal divisions. One of the main areas of fighting has been in the Qalamoun mountains bordering Lebanon. This has increased refugee flows out of Syria.
There have been clashes between armed opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaida affiliated group. ISIS were expelled from large areas of Syria’s second city Aleppo by an alliance of other armed opposition groups. ISIS have lost control in many towns across northern Syria, but remain in many others, especially the provincial capital of Raqqa.
Jihadis from the EU
There is mounting concern in Europe about the number of fighters going to Syria from the EU. British officials fear there may be as many as 500 UK nationals fighting in Syria some of whom maybe being trained to fight back in the UK. French officials estimate that there are 250 French fighters there.
Political process and Geneva II
In May 2013 the US and Russia agreed to bring all sides to the negotiating table based on the Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012. The Geneva II conference that took place at Montreux on 22-23 January. Iran was invited and then disinvited.
The strategy of the regime was to push this as a means to end its isolation in the West and to define this as a conference designed to combat terrorism. President Asad has made it clear repeatedly that his position is not up for negotiation. The opposition did not want to talk about ‘terrorism’ but transition. In two rounds so far there has been little progress.
On the ground many of the armed opposition groups do not want Geneva to take place. On the other hand, most Syrians, the overwhelming majority of whom have not been involved in fighting, are desperate to see an end of the crisis.
The UN Arab League Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, sees Geneva II as a start of a process. Increasingly his team and diplomats would like to see a broader representation of Syrians especially women and civil society. (The Geneva communiqué stated that women must be represented in all aspects of the transition). The Syrian Civil Coalition put out a statement regarding civil society participation.
There has been a temporary ceasefire negotiated in Syria’s third city, Homs, between rebel groups and regime forces to allow civilians to leave the old city and surrounding areas. This happened independently of Geneva and the opposition elements insisted that the Syria national coalition did not represent them.
1,348 civilians were evacuated from the besieged areas in Homs by the UN and the SARC in four batches on the 7th, 9th, 10th and 12th of February. There are an estimated 1800 left inside the old city sources from within Homs told Caabu.
Winter storms have caused additional acute hardship in Syria and neighbouring countries. Some refugees froze to death. According to the UN there are 245,000 living in besieged areas. Over 50 children have reportedly died of hunger in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk where 18,000 remain sealed off. (The camp had a pre-crisis population of 160,000)
On 22 February the UN Security Council finally passed a resolution on humanitarian access – text here. The earlier draft was weakened following Russian objections so did not include a specific threat of sanctions.
Inside Syria the situation is at its most acute. There are well over 6.5m Syrians in need, (likely to rise to 10 million by end of the year) - half are children. There are over 6.5m internally displaced Syrians
According to UNHCR, on 20 February there were 2,448,352 registered Syrian refugees with 9.5 million having been driven from their homes in total. This number is being added to at a rate of 5-7,000 a day. Approximately 1 in 4 people in Lebanon are Syrian. Jordan’s Syrian population is up to 10 per cent (probably higher). The UNHCR estimates that in 2015 there will be over 4 million refugees.
A group of 25 aid agencies and charities wrote a letter addressed to the Prime Minister in the Independent on 18 January calling on the UK to join the UN resettlement programme for refugees. After a successful campaign, Caabu and many other organisations welcomed the Government’s decision to help the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, but still believe more can be done.
Kuwait hosted a major donor conference for the second year in a row on 15 January. Overall $2.4 billion was pledged towards a UN Appeal of $6.5 billion. However, pledges have not always meant funds being delivered. The UK has now donated £600m in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees.
Oxfam published a fair share analysis for the pledging conference. This showed that the UK was doing more than its share at 298%, and that many Arab states had also been generous - Jordan (12,720 per cent), Lebanon (5,617 per cent), Kuwait (1,444 per cent), Saudi Arabia (324 per cent), and Iraq (450 per cent) topping the league table.
The Syria crisis has had a disastrous impact on Lebanon. The Prime Minister, Najib Mikati resigned in March 2013 but it was not until mid-February that a new government under Tammam Salam was formed. This was due to rivalries between the Hizbollah-dominated March 8 bloc and the March 14 bloc led by Saa’d Hariri. In addition, the President’s term of office runs out in May.
In the last month and a half, Lebanon has been hit by a wave of explosions linked to heightened Sunni-Shia tensions over the Syrian war. Whomever the group responsible for these attacks (be it Hizbollah or ISIS; Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), what is clear is that they are triggering a conflict into Lebanon.
The latest was a twin suicide bombing attack on 19 February on the Iranian Chancellery at Bir Hassan in Beirut that has so far killed 12 people. Many Shia are leaving southern Beirut out of fear.
Rise of sectarian attacks in Tripoli
Sectarian tensions between the Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood and surrounding Sunni neighborhoods have led to increasing targeted attacks against Alawites in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
According to Human Rights Watch, the clashes have killed at least 141 people since June 2008 and injured hundreds of others and in some cases have hampered access to medical assistance. They have also badly damaged property and severely affected residents’ livelihoods, freedom of movement, and access to education.
According to the UNHCR on 20th February 2014, there are 934,895 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon and 48,810 are awaiting registration. This amounts for 21 per cent of the Lebanese pre-crisis population.
Syrian refugees are in over 1,400 sites all over Lebanon, with many settling around Tripoli, Akkar and the northern Bekaa valley. There are no refugee camps and many refugees have been absorbed into Lebanese communities. However, as thousands of refugees continue to pour in tensions between host communities and refugees are high.
The UN is pressing the Lebanese government to allow the establishment of a dozen of refugee camps in order to help resettle Syrian refugees. Former caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, during an international donor conference in Kuwait, 15th January 2014 called the international community to seriously consider the establishment of safe camps inside Syria where refugees can take shelter as means to ease the burden off host countries such as Lebanon.
Special Tribunal for Lebanon
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) opened on 16 January 2014 in The Hague. It was set up in 2007 by the UN Security Council to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005, and 22 civilians killed in the same attack, as well as subsequent assassinations following Hariri’s death.
Five suspects affiliated with Hizbollah are currently being judged in absentia for the assassination.
Hizbollah’s has opposed the STL and demands that Lebanon cuts all ties with the tribunal.
At the tribunal, the son of Rafiq Hariri and former prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri said he would return to Lebanon for elections in November 2014 after his self-imposed exile.
The mere existence of the STL has been highly contested, leading to additional assassinations and violence - some argue that the quest for accountability is coming with a heavy price. In most Lebanese eyes the tribunal has become intensely politicised.
As a new government is sworn in at the beginning of March Egypt still faces a major crisis. There remains a deep and massive polarisation between the two camps – the army and its supporters against the Muslim Brotherhood. This is hampering constructive dialogue between parties and perpetuating violence. The Egyptian government declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organisation in 25 December.
There is still speculation as to who will run for the Presidency but most commentators expect that Filed-Marshall Sisi will announce his candidacy soon. Other candidates have entered the race but nobody expects the Egyptian strongman to be defeated .
There is a new head of the Dustour party, Hani Shukrallah. She becomes the first female and first Christian to lead a major Egyptian political party.
The economy is still in a parlous state. This has not been helped by widespread strikes across the country.
Arrest and trial of Al Jazeera journalists
Three Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt have been put on trial for alleged terrorist offences. Their trial was postponed for two weeks on 20 February meaning that they have to face more days in captivity on what most observers consider to be trumped out charges without no evidence. The charges potentially carry long prison sentences of up to 15 years. In total there are 20 journalists facing charges, of whom nine are from Al Jazeera.
The Islamist insurgency in Sinai continues. Most recently gunmen attacked a gas pipeline in central Sinai. In February a tourist bus was attacked near Taba and four people were killed.
The interim government considers both these insurgents and the Muslim Brotherhood to be ‘terrorists’. The Egyptian army has deployed around 10 brigades into the Sinai, after gaining Israeli approval for such a military deployment.
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