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Media Summary

UAE asked Hedges to become double agent

The BBC, Reuters and the Times report on Tuesday’s meeting of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations where CIA director Gina Haspel briefed lawmakers about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The BBC reports that US Senator Lindsey Graham said that he has “high confidence” Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was complicit in the killing of Khashoggi. The South Carolina Republican described the Saudi royal as “a wrecking ball,” “crazy” and “dangerous”. Members of the committee did not mince words after the briefing. “There is not a smoking gun – there is a smoking saw,” Graham said, referring to Khashoggi’s alleged dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. The senator said he could not support Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war in Yemen or arms sales to the Saudi Government as long as the Crown Prince remained in power. The Senate is planning to vote on a proposal to end US military support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, after members of both parties advanced the resolution last week. The Times reports that after yesterday’s briefing, senators vowed to punish Saudi Arabia with further sanctions, convinced that the country’s Crown Prince had ordered the murder of Khashoggi. Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Foreign Relations Committee, said: “I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince ordered the killing [of Khashoggi]. If he was in front of a jury he would be convicted in 30 minutes: guilty.”

The Guardian and the Times report on Matthew Hedges account of his imprisonment in the UAE. In an exclusive interview with the Times, Hedges recounted the psychological games he faced at the hands of interrogators. The Durham University PhD student had suffered seizures, been forced to falsely confess to being an MI6 spy, was constrained in ankle cuffs and had suicidal thoughts. Sitting in the London office of his barrister’s chambers yesterday, flanked by his wife, Daniela Tejada, he spoke about his harrowing experience. Hedges is considering his legal options, which include submitting claims in national jurisdictions as well as before the UN. The Guardian reports that Hedges said Emirati officials had offered to be lenient if he agreed to spy on the UK for them, while also threatening to take him to a military base to be tortured. Hedges said he was asked repeatedly about his PhD thesis, which focused on the UAE security structure in the wake of the Arab spring. He asked for a lawyer, but was refused one.

The Financial Times reports that ISIS is carrying out a rising number of kidnappings, killings and bombings in Iraq and fighting fiercely in Syria as the extremist group returns to its insurgent roots having been driven out of almost all the territory it once controlled. A recent US Department of Defense report said an “effective clandestine ISIS organisation appears to be taking hold” four years after the group controlled swaths of Syria, as much as a third of Iraq, and declared a caliphate.

The Telegraph  and Reuters report on the Yemen conflict. The Telegraph reports that the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis agreed to a mass prisoner swap on Monday, in a boost to UN peace talks which are expected to begin on Wednesday. Between 1,500 and 2,000 members of pro-government forces and between 1,000 and 1,500 Houthis would be released after the talks in Stockholm. Thousands of prisoners have been captured by both sides in the grinding war of attrition that has devastated Yemen. On the government side, they include former Defence Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who has been held by the Houthis ever since they overran the capital Sana’a in late 2014, and President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s brother Nasser, a general and former senior intelligence official. Reuters reports that a delegation from Yemen’s government left for Sweden on Wednesday to hold peace talks with representatives of the Iranian-aligned Houthi group, in a renewed UN push to end a war that has brought economic ruin and famine to the country. The team representing the internationally-recognised government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi left from the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh for the consultations, the first since 2016, a Yemeni official said.

The BBC reports that a public prosecutor in Rome has placed five Egyptian security officials under investigation over the disappearance of an Italian postgraduate student. Giulio Regeni, who was studying at Cambridge University, had been researching for his doctorate in Cairo when he went missing in January 2016. His mutilated body was discovered nine days later on the city’s outskirts. The topic he was looking into – independent trade unions – is politically controversial within Egypt. Italian investigators have been co-operating with Egyptian authorities on the case, but the two have come into conflict over allegations of police involvement. Four of the five named are senior members of Egypt’s National Security Agency, including a general, two colonels and a major.

The Guardian reports that SBS Eurovision has refused to bow to demands from protesters to boycott the event in Israel next year and has threatened to sue them for appropriating the broadcaster’s branding. A pro-Palestinian activist group, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Australia, has joined protesters and artists worldwide in calling for a boycott of the event. It used a red leaflet featuring the SBS name and logo to promote its cause. It said: “Boycott Eurovision 2019; Don’t Celebrate Israel’s Apartheid Crimes”. SBS sent a legal letter saying they must “immediately remove SBS’s trademark from any of your websites, social media pages and any other marketing and promotional material”. “As is common practice for organisations managing and protecting their brand, SBS is in contact with this organisation about their unauthorised use of the SBS logo,” a spokeswoman told the newspaper. The legal dispute remains unresolved. BDS Australia has petitioned SBS not to broadcast Eurovision 2019 because of what they say is “Israel’s ongoing oppression of Palestinians and the theft of their lands and the discrimination they face inside Israel”. The petition has 2,000 signatures.

The Independent reports that Democratic Congresswoman-elect Rashida Tlaib of Michigan has announced she will be leading a congressional delegation to the West Bank, an unprecedented move given that most new congress members join a visit to Israel organised by the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Tlaib — the first Palestinian-American woman elected into US Congress — said she hopes to “draw on her roots” in the Middle East to allow her colleagues a different introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the one offered from pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC. She said her delegation will emphasise on subject areas involving education, clean water access and poverty. She also hopes to take her group to Beit Ur al-Foqa, a village in northern West Bank, where her mother lives.

All the Israeli media report the ongoing operation to destroy Hezbollah tunnels. Kan Radio reports on comments by security officials who say they do not believe Hezbollah will retaliate against Israel’s new operation at this stage. The security officials have not ruled out the possibility that the operation may escalate into violence, although it seems that neither side wants to go to war. Kan Radio also reports that the Security Cabinet did not agree on a suitable date for action during the meeting when they authorised the operation. An officer from the military’s intelligence branch said during the meeting that conditions were not yet ripe for an operation in the north, and former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said he believed that the Gaza Strip should be dealt with first and that Hamas should be dealt a serious blow. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other officials reportedly demanded that the tunnel threat in the north be dealt with first and managed to persuade the Security Cabinet to authorise the operation.

Maariv reports that members of the Opposition have lent their support to ‘Operation Northern Shield’ but have questioned the timing and asked whether it might not be more aptly named “Operation Netanyahu Shield”. The Opposition has asserted that the operation in the north was designed to excuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to capitulate to Hamas in the south. Zionist Union Faction Chairman Yoel Hasson wrote a letter to Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Chairman Avi Dichter (Likud), saying: “The opposition demands answers. Is this Operation Northern Shield or Operation Netanyahu Shield? Yesh Atid Faction Chairman Ofer Shelah said: “Precisely in light of the exposure of the tunnels and the justified decision to neutralise them, one can understand just how overblown and political Netanyahu’s statements about ‘one of the most complex security periods in the history of the country’ were. Netanyahu is sowing fear to create a distraction. The IDF and the public are far more sober and level-headed than he is.”

Commenting on this claim in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer argues that “whatever Netanyahu does now, with three police recommendations for indictments on bribery looming, will legitimately be questioned. Operation Northern Shield is no exception, especially as its media fanfare is so exaggerated”.

Discussing the operation itself, Yediot Ahronot’s Nahum Barnea writes that “the IDF has been working for two years on the operation to destroy Hezbollah’s tunnels”. However, Barnea argues that the operation “was sold to the public in a way that painted it in overly-dramatic colours. This is neither the Entebbe operation nor the operation to seize the Karine A [arms ship].  It is a justified and necessary operation, and while it is known how it began, no one — not even the chief of staff — knows how it will end”. Barnea adds that: “One factor that is liable to change Nasrallah’s decision is the question of sovereignty. If the IDF operates against the tunnels in areas that Hezbollah’s claims belong to Lebanon, he is liable to respond by opening fire.”

Ben Caspit in Maariv agrees with Barnea’s judgement, stating that: “No, Operation Northern Shield isn’t the new Entebbe, nor is it a security mega-incident that is liable to rock the Middle East or the Galilee … [but it is] important, volatile and significant. True, the bigger problem on the northern front is Nasrallah’s precision-guided missiles, but that doesn’t mean that tunnels that penetrate deep into Israel are a trifling matter.”

Yediot Ahronot’s military affairs commentator, Alex Fishman, believes the operation could go on for months. He says the number of tunnels the IDF expects to find and neutralise is believed to be smaller than the number of tunnels along the border with the Gaza Strip. Fishman adds: “The biggest unknown is what Hezbollah will do while Israel destroys tunnel after tunnel. Will it try to disrupt that work, as Hamas did along the Gaza Strip border? If so, how will Israel react? If the Lebanese border appeared to be less volatile than the Gaza border up until yesterday, we are now talking about two volatile borders that are liable to erupt in violence at any moment.”

The Jerusalem Post reports that several Palestinian factions have rejected a US resolution condemning Hamas for firing rockets at Israel. The UN General Assembly is expected to vote on Thursday on the resolution, which condemns Hamas for “repeatedly firing rockets into Israel and for inciting violence”.

The Times of Israel reports that Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon predicted that a US-sponsored resolution condemning Hamas for launching rockets into Israel will be approved by the General Assembly. It was amended to gain the support of the 28-member European Union, adding a reference to “relevant UN resolutions,” though not specific ones. Kuwait’s UN Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi said Arab nations will seek to have the resolution approved by a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority. The draft resolution “demands that Hamas and other militant actors, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, cease activity, including by using airborne incendiary devices”.

Maariv, Haaretz and Israel Hayom report that tens of thousands of people went on strike yesterday and demonstrated to protest violence against women.

The Times of Israel reports that a Palestinian was killed during a an overnight raid in the West Bank on Tuesday. Mohammad Habali, aged-22, was shot when Israeli forces carried out the raid in the city of Tulkarem in the West Bank, official Palestinian news agency Wafa said. The Israeli army said it is investigating the incident.

Israel Hayom reports that the US has given Russia 60 days to comply with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty or it will no longer abide by the agreement and could produce, test and deploy new missiles, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has warned. Pompeo said that “the US today declares it has found Russia in material breach of the treaty and will suspend our obligations as a remedy effective in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance”.