M!ddleEasterners Newsblog 1-7 April
Five Egyptians were killed and eight wounded last week after clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims outside Cairo. Four Christians and one Muslim were killed after violence broke out in the form of gunfire from both sides. Residents of the town said that a group of Christian children drawing on the walls of a Muslim religious institute was the cause of the outbreak. The incident escalated after someone drew a gun and fired it into the air, killing one boy with a stray bullet. A Reuters reporter saw what looked like a swastika drawn on the wall, Muslim residents said it had offended them because it looked like a cross. Angry crowds attacked Christian businesses and an apartment inhabited by Muslims was reportedly burned. Police detained 15 people after the incident.
One person was killed and more than 80 wounded after clashes broke out Sunday at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Mourners of the three Christians killed on Friday clashed with local residents after leaving the Cathedral. Police fired tear gas to break up the violence, but one Christian man was reported dead. Mourners inside the Cathedral were reportedly chanting anti President Morsi chants. According to local residents, the violence started after a mob of people attacked the mourners exiting the cathedral, pelting them with stones and petrol bombs. The Christians retaliated by throwing stones back, until police arrived to break up the violence. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi denounced Sundays attack on the Cathedral in a phone call to Coptic Christian Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, “any attack against the cathedral is like an attack against me personally.” President Morsi has promised to protect the rights of Copts, who make up around 10% of Egypt’s population.
On Saturday hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets in protest of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Protests erupted in several Egyptian cities, eight people were reportedly injured. The rallies took place in correspondence to the fifth anniversary of the April 6th 2008 deadly police crackdown on a labour strike in the town of Mahalla. Around 500 people reportedly marched in Cairo, specifically chanting, “the people want to topple the regime”. Police responded to the protesters with heavy distribution of tear gas.
Israeli police fired tear gas on protesting Palestinian inmates after the death of a prisoner from cancer. Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, who was serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail, died of throat cancer on early last week. The protesting inmates blame the Israeli jail for his death, citing a late diagnosis and lack of proper medical treatment. The inmates threw objects at the guards, who retaliated with tear gas, three prisoners and six guards were treated for inhalation. In Hamdiyeh’s hometown of Hebron, 300 protesters threw stones at Israeli soldiers near the entrance to the city. The soldiers responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas.
Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian boys in the West Bank as a result of these riots. The two boys, Naji Balbisi, 17 and his cousin Amer Nassar, 16 were shot during a clash at a military roadblock at Tulkarem. According to Israeli troops, they fired after Palestinians threw fire bombs at a guard post area after dark, the bodies of the two boys were not discovered until Thursday morning. Thousands of mourners turned out on Thursday for the funerals of the three Palestinians, the two teenagers and Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that nine Palestinians in total have been killed so far this year by Israeli forces. After the funeral, dozens of Palestinians police prevented youths from throwing rocks and patrol bombs at a nearby Israeli watchtower.
On Wednesday, Palestinian fighters launched several rockets into a southern Israeli town after Israeli aircraft strikes hit targets in the Gaza Strip. The incidents were the heaviest exchange of violence between the two states since they agreed to an internationally brokered ceasefire last November. There were no casualties reported in either strike, but Israel’s new defence minister has warned the Palestinians that Israel will not sit back if these attacks continue to occur.
The United Nations has suspended all of their food distribution centres in the Gaza Strip after protesters angered by recent aid cutbacks stormed one of its compounds. The UN has said that the aid centres would remain closed until it could assure the safety of its property and staff. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency provides aid for an estimated 800,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Correspondents say that the suspension of aid will cause more hardships for Palestinians in Gaza who already suffer from controls by both the Egyptian and Israeli borders.
Last Monday Hamas re-elected Khaled Meshaal as leader in an election in Cairo supported by Qatar, Egypt and Turkey. Officials said that the majority of the group’s council voted in favour of Meshaal. Meshaal has been the leader of the Palestinian movement since 1996 when the movement came out of exile. His election could possibly revive failed reconciliation efforts between Hamas in Gaza and the Western backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Gaza hard-liners have made reconciliation difficult because they fear unity will take away Hamas’s regional power in Gaza. Talks of an interim government of technocrats in the West Bank and Gaza has been suggested, but no meeting has been scheduled between the two leaders as of yet.
Last Tuesday, the Gaza Strip Parliament controlled by Hamas passed a law requiring separate classrooms for boys and girls in public schools. The law which was approved February 10th was put in effect on Sunday. Article 46 of the law says, it will “ban the mixing of students from the two sexes in educational establishments after the age of nine, and work to ‘feminise girls’ in schools.” Hamas in the past has been known to enforce religious laws in schools, including telling girls in the Gaza strip to wear traditional length robes and head scarves.
This weekend a cyber attack has targeted Israeli government websites. According to the head of the governments National Cyber Bureau, Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, the hackers failed to shutdown major sites, “so far it is as expected, there is hardly any real damage…Anonymous doesn’t have the skills to damage the country’s vital infrastructure. And if there was intention, then it wouldn’t have announced the time of the attack. It wants to create noise in the media about issues that are close to its heart.” Anonymous responded in a video saying, “you have shown that you do not respect international law.”
A Syrian government airstrike hit a neighbourhood of Aleppo on Saturday, killing 15 people. Both sides are eager to control the Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, as it is on the northern edge of Aleppo overlooking much of the city. Of the fifteen people killed in the government attack, nine of them were children.
A Syrian helicopter flew 20km into Lebanon on Thursday and fired on the outskirts of Arsal, residents say. There were no reported casualties in the attack, just damage to a few homes. Arsal is a major Sunni town in northwest Lebanon, many of the residents are firm supporters of the revolt against Syrian President Assad. In the recent weeks the area that borders Syria has increasingly been under fire. Arsal itself hosts more then 20,000 Syrian refugees from the war, almost half the population of the town. Damascus denied having anything to do with the attack.
On Saturday in an interview with a Turkish television agency, President Assad warned that if rebels overthrow his government then they could destabilise the Middle East for decades, “ if the unrest in Syria leads to the partitioning of the country, or if the terrorist forces take control…the situation will inevitably spill over into neighbouring countries and create a domino effect throughout the Middle East and beyond.” He also accused opponents of the regime of using “sectarian slogans”, and that the essence of the battle was between, “forces and states seeking to take their people back into historic times, and states wanting to take their peoples into a prosperous future.” He appeared to be targeting Saudi Arabia and Qatar in these comments, fierce supporters of the rebels. He also asserts that he is not hiding out in a bunker, nor is he on a Russian warship, but living normally in Syria.
March has been the bloodiest month yet in Syria’s two year old conflict, with a recorded 6,000 deaths, 2,000 of them reported as civilian. The number reported is estimated although to be low, both the opposition and the government underreport deaths. The United Nations reported Friday that they will soon have to cut off lifesaving aid to people fleeing the civil war because funds from international donors are beginning to dry up. More than 70,000 people have been reported dead according to the UN and the humanitarian impact has shocked all predictions, continuing to put a strain on not just the UN but most international aid groups. The Red Cross issued a warning on Thursday, putting the crisis relief into perspective, “what we were able to achieve is not enough. The needs are growing exponentially while our ability to react is growing linearly.”
On Saturday, prominent Sunni politician Tamam Salam was nominated as Lebanon’s next Prime Minister. The Presidents office announced his nomination which has been backed across the political spectrum, including by Hezbollah. Lebanon’s previous Prime Minister, Najib Mikati resigned two weeks ago after disagreements on how elections should be run in June. The new nominee now has the challenge of unifying his broad political support in order to form his cabinet.
Written by ICSR Research Intern Mildred Conroy