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M!ddleEasterners News Blog 23-30 April

08/05/2013

Egypt

A Cairo appeals court decided that the retrial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his two sons, his interior minister and six of his security aids will start on May 11th. The retrial was scheduled to start last weekend, but was postponed when the judge removed himself from the case. Mubarak, who has spent the last few months living in a military hospital, was sent back to jail. This came after the public prosecutor reviewed a report of Mubarak’s health and determined that he was for fit to return to prison.

Egypt walked out of a round of global nuclear talks on the grounds that the negotiations were failing to implement the 1995 resolution that called for the Middle East to be free of nuclear weapons. According to Egypt’s Foreign Minister they ended their participation out of frustration that the nuclear weapon free zone had yet to be created, “we can’t wait forever for the implementation of this decision.” The US and Israel although, have said that a nuclear arms free zone could not be created until there was broad Arab- Israeli peace and Iran abandons their nuclear programme. The global nuclear talks which are being held in Geneva have thus far not resulted in a negotiation regarding the zone. They are instead being seen as a way to prepare the global community for the upcoming review of the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 2015, which is held every five years. The US Assistant Secretary for International Security, Thomas Countrymen, commented that, “we regret the Egyptian decision to leave the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting. It does not affect the US commitment to convening a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.”

Israel

Israeli military shot down an unmanned aircraft off the coast of Haifa after it entered into Israeli airspace. The Israeli Defence Minister blamed Hezbollah, which sent a similar drone into Israel last October. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu commented on the incident, “I see this attempt to breach our boarders as extremely grave…We will continue to do whatever we must to protect the security of Israel’s citizens.”

Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets on five hundred Palestinian protesters who were marching towards an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. This march was the largest Palestinian protest in the West Bank in several years. Political gatherings and marches are rare around Deir Jareer.  The march started after villagers reported that Israeli settlers had torched ten Palestinian, as well as planting an Israeli flag on church grounds. The Israeli military have said they are investigating the events and incidents leading up to the march.

The Israeli air force carried out three strikes in the Gaza Strip, two strikes hit the southern town of Khan Yunis and the third hit the town of Rafah, near the Egyptian boarder. The attack killed one Palestinian man and wounded another. Israel confirmed the attack, saying the target was a fighter involved in the  rocket attack on Eilat a few weeks ago. The strike hit a motorcycle travelling northeast out of the Gaza city, killing the driver and wounding the passenger. Hamas commented on the Israeli attack, but also signalled that they wanted to preserve the truce between the two states, “we call on Egypt to put pressure on the Israeli occupation to stop these crimes and to force them to honour the truce and stop the aggression.”

A Palestinian man stabbed and shot a Israeli settler in the West Bank at a bus stop. According to Israeli media, the settler was standing at a bus stop used by settlers at a junction near the Palestinian city of Nablus when he was stabbed by the Palestinian and then shot with his own gun. The attacker then began to shoot at Israeli security forces who arrived on the scene. The victim was later identified as Eviatar Borovsky, 31 years old. He was a Jewish settler living in the West Bank settlement of Itzar, a community known to foster hard-core Jewish believers, who often times clash with their Palestinian neighbours. The police reported that the Palestinian attacker had just been recently released from jail, where he was serving a sentence for stone throwing.

Syria

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi was a victim in a car bomb attack that targeted his motorcade in central Damascus. He escaped the attack unharmed but several casualties were reported. Syrian state TV showed footage of heavily damaged cars and wreckage in the area of the bomb. According to state TV an improvised bomb was planted under a parked car and detonated as the convoy passed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that there were five civilian casualties in addition to al-Halqi’s bodyguard. Another bodyguard and the driver of the car are in critical condition. No one as of yet has taken responsibility for the attack.

At least thirteen people have been killed and over seventy injured by a car bomb that went off in the central Damascus district of Marjeh. Gunfire broke out near the location of the attack, which was very close to the old Interior Ministry. The combination of gunfire and car bomb suggests an “al-Qaeda” style attack, typical of rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.  This explosion, as well as the bomb that almost killed the Prime Minster a day before underlines severe government security loopholes in the capital.

Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon have reported that Hezbollah fighters are now involved in the conflict. The accounts by refugees in Lebanon claim that Hezbollah is working alongside the Syrian government fighting the rebels. The Syrian opposition has denounced any “threats” from the head of Hezbollah and warned the group against any intervention in Syria. The Syrian National Coalition’s statement came after Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said that Syrian rebels would not defeat the Assad regime militarily, “the battle is long …We tell you (Syrian rebels) that you will not be able to bring down this regime through military means.” The Syrian opposition has accused Hezbollah in the past of backing Syrian regime fighters in Shia villages near the Syrian boarder, but not yet accused them of intervening directly in Syria.

Suspicion has been steadily growing in the last few weeks on whether the Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against rebel forces. The US has come forward and said that the Syrian army has probably used chemical warfare but on a “small scale”, emphasising that intelligence services were still not 100% positive. Catlin Hayden, US National Security Council spokesperson said that the US assessment of the situation was based on “physiological samples.” She also pointed to the possibility that Assad’s forces have used sarin, a man made nerve agent that can cause respiratory failure. The US although, cannot confirm that any such chemical weapon has been used based on the fact that chain of custody of the weapons is not known.  US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is “serious business” and not something that US is going to rush to confirm, “I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions (and) draw any conclusions based on real intelligence. That’s not at all questioning other nations intelligence. But the United States relies on it’s own intelligence.” Hagel is referring to claims made by several other countries including, Israel, Britain and France as well as the UN.

US President Barack Obama has warned Damascus repeatedly that any use of chemical weapons would be see as crossing the “red line.” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has also referred to chemical weapon use in Syria as crossing a “red line”, but he was referring to Syrian rebels not the Syrian army. Salehi also called for the UN to investigate the assertions by the Syrian government that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, “we have requested that in accordance with Syrian government, which emphasises that the opposition has used these weapons, the United Nations…identify the main culprit in this regard, which is the opposition.” Both the Syrian government and the opposition blame each other for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in March and in Homs in December.

The Syrian government has denied any allegations that they have used chemical weapons, saying they do not trust accusations made by the international community. Syrian Information Minister, Omran al-Zohbi said in an interview on Saturday with Russia Today that, “statements by the US Secretary of State and British government are inconsistent with reality and a barefaced lie.” Zohbi went further in defending the Assad regime saying, “I want to stress one more time that Syria would never use it – not only because of its adherence to the international law and rules of leading war, but because of humanitarian and moral issues.” Zohbi insists that Syria would not be able to trust any information coming from UN inspectors from the US or Britain. He commented that Syria welcomed any Russian investigations on chemical warfare claims, saying that he was “sure in their high qualification and ability to see into such matters.”

The bodies of at least 566 people who were killed over the span of six days were found according to local coordination committees in Syria. Since March of 2011 this is the highest total number of bodies uncovered in a single day. At least 450 of the bodies were discovered in the Damascus suburb of Jadidat al-Fadel. According to a local activist Raff Jouejati, in the last six days over 3,000 security forces stormed Jadidat al-Fadel, the dead included at least 300 civilians and around 150 members of the Free Syrian Army.

Written by ICSR Research Intern Mildred Conroy