US Senate approves bill to end support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen
The Guardian reports that the US has dropped its description of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled” in a State Department report, in what it terms the latest sign of approval towards Israel’s disputed claim to land it captured from Syria. World powers have long called on Israel to rescind its authority of the strategic region and labelled the occupation as illegal under international law. However, Israel has been lobbying hard for the Trump administration to recognise sovereignty over the volcanic plateau it occupied more than half a century ago and later annexed.
Reuters reports that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will visit Israel at the end of the month but that he may not be able to deliver on a promise to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem, a move opposed by military officers in his cabinet. A government official told Reuters on Wednesday that no decision has been taken on the embassy move, which could give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing a boost a week before Israel’s elections. “Something will have to be said about the embassy during the trip,” said the official with knowledge of the matter but who spoke on condition of anonymity. He added, however, that a formal announcement might not be made during the March 31 to April 2 visit as the Israeli government had hoped for.
In the Guardian, Oliver Holmes writes that a one-state solution is gaining ground as Palestinians battle for equal rights. Holmes says that foreign governments have held tight to the two-state ideal despite drastic changes on the ground. Even as they privately acknowledge it as a fading prospect, diplomats still talk of “working towards” two states. When polled, he adds, a majority of Palestinians do not see that as a possibility. Roughly 600,000 Israeli settlers now live on occupied land with no intention of leaving. Meanwhile, Israeli politicians in cabinet talk about annexing vast swathes of the West Bank
Reuters reports that according to Israeli officials on Wednesday, the country is carrying out criminal investigations into the killing of 11 Palestinians by Israeli forces at border protests in Gaza last year. A United Nations human rights panel said two weeks ago that Israeli troops had killed 189 Palestinians and wounded more than 6,100 at protests from March 30 to December 31. Their actions may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, it said. Senior Israeli officials, speaking to reporters in Geneva on Wednesday, rejected the finding that its forces may have committed war crimes. The UN report also said Israel had opened criminal investigations in only five cases, including the death of four children. But a senior Israeli official said an inquiry was held into each and every death. Israel had opened about 300 initial inquiries, and criminal investigations were underway related to 11 individuals, he said.
The BBC, Financial Times, Independent and Guardian report that the US Republican-led Senate has approved a bill to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen. The BBC reports that the bipartisan vote was 54 to 46, and is a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s support of Saudi Arabia and its leader despite recent tensions. Trump has vowed to veto the resolution should it pass through the Democrat-led House. The war in Yemen escalated in 2015 and has left thousands of Yemenis dead and millions more on the brink of famine. The US sells weapons used by the Saudis and its military provides logistical and intelligence support to the coalition for air strikes. The Senate resolution, an unprecedented attempt to curtail presidential powers, seeks to end US military involvement in the conflict within 30 days.
The BBC and Financial Times report that ten women’s rights activists have gone on trial in Saudi Arabia in a case that has raised questions about the kingdom’s human rights record. The BBC reports that those who appeared included Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent figure in the campaign to win Saudi women the right to drive. She was detained last May. A UK-based Saudi rights organisation, ALQST, said they were charged under the country’s cyber-crimes law. Demands for the women’s release have come from around the world. Last week more than 30 countries at the UN Human Rights Council criticised Saudi Arabia for detaining the women.
The Times reports that two desperate counter-attacks by suicide bombers from the last jihadist enclave in eastern Syria failed to reverse a final assault on Islamic State yesterday. Another night of bombardment of the few hundred square metres of the “caliphate” in the village of Baghuz was followed by a move before dawn on the remaining Isis-held houses and surrounding tents. Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the western-backed militia, said that jihadists launched a suicide mission under cover of the smoke set off by the bombardment. A second, more concerted, attack came in the afternoon. SDF officials said that the Isis raids were repelled. “There were suicide-vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces,” Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman, said. “Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions.” The fighting showed the difficulty of taking the final pocket, which has been under siege for more than a month. The assault resumed on Sunday after two lengthy pauses since early last month to allow fighters to surrender and women and children to be escorted to safety. It became clear on Tuesday that yet more people were giving up.
In the Financial Times, David Gardner writes that ISIS is defeated but the jihadism the west has engendered is not. Gardner argues that: “Now that the territorial caliphate that menaced the region is at an end, there is urgent need for reflection on how to change the western foreign policy that has reliably engendered jihadism. It is only a matter of time before a more virulent strain emerges if the west keeps blundering about in the Middle East”.
The BBC’s Jewan Abdi reports on the Syrian civil war, writing that, as the battle against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria enters its final stages, the mood amongst many of the jihadists’ supporters who have left the area, including many women, remains defiant.
In the Guardian, Oliver Holmes and Quique Kierszenbaum write on the fall of the Israeli peace movement and “why leftists continue to fight”. They write: “Peacenik’ is widely used as a slur in Israel. Here four campaigners explain their demise and why they hold on”.
Head of humanitarian policy at Cafod, Anne Street has penned a letter in the Guardian today, arguing: “While there is no clear picture of what next for the situation inside of Syria, donors should not write blank cheques for reconstruction”.
In the Israeli media all the newspapers report the State Comptroller report on public transport and road traffic. Yediot Ahronrot says the situation is “disgraceful” and a “Systemic failure.” According to the State Comptroller, every Israeli who relies on public transportat to get to work experiences long delays. The report can be seen as an indictment against the Transportation Ministry and Minister Yisrael Katz. Maariv calls it a “fiasco.” Both Israel Hayom and Haaretz highlight the assessment that traffic jams will double.
All the papers report the US State Department report that, for the first time, removed the term “occupied territories” from its description of the Golan Heights in its annual report about human rights around the world. According to Yediot Ahronot: “Last year President Trump removed the term ‘occupied territories’ from the chapter heading, but left it in the body of the text. This year, however, the definition of the territories in the document itself was changed as well, and treats the West Bank and Golan as ‘territories under Israeli control.’” Politicians on the Israeli right wing quickly interpreted the change in terminology as American recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, but an official US State Department official said there had been no change in the United States’ attitude towards the Palestinian territories. “The word occupied was not used since the report focuses on human rights and not on legal issues.” Israel Hayom suggests a cautious approach: “The semantic change that the American State Department inserted into an inner page of an unimportant report about the status of the Golan Heights is no coincidence, of course. In the diplomatic world, every nuance is significant and every word choice has ramifications. That also applies to the decision to remove the word ‘occupied’ in connection to the Golan Heights, and to replace it with the word ‘control.’ That said, we are also currently in the run-up to elections, which yesterday prompted several Israeli journalists and politicians to overstate the importance of that decision and to celebrate prematurely. Contrary to the interpretations of the American decision that were provided yesterday, the United States has not recognised the Golan Heights as Israeli. Not yet.”
Maariv highlights the exchange between the leader of the Blue and White Party Benny Gantz and New Right Chairman Naftali Bennett, describing the exchange as “verbal blows below the belt.” Bennett told Army Radio: “We want a New Right that defeats Hamas, that defeats the High Court of Justice.” Gantz in response said: “An education minister who equates Hamas with the High Court of Justice can’t remain in office for even a single minute more. They don’t even need to bring the Kahanists into the Knesset, they themselves are Kahanists. The extremism is already inside. We will send this entire government packing and restore the country to the responsible and sane place that it deserves.” Bennett responded quickly and was particularly ferocious: “Gantz is Hamas’s wet dream. If Hamas members had the right to vote, they would vote for Benny Gantz, the hesitating general.” Bennett added: “The state comptroller’s report emphatically said about this man that he failed utterly in handling the terrorist tunnels, he is the man who reached a tie with Hamas after 51 days of hesitating and foundering, this is the man who admitted that he knowingly risked the lives of Golani soldiers for the sake of some phony morality—this is the man who also formed a left wing party, who is trying to dupe Israel’s residents. And he has the gall to hand out grades to people who took action to repair the damage that he caused. Better he should keep silent again.”
MK Yair Lapid came to Gantz’s defence and tweeted: “Naftali, we were both in the security cabinet when Benny Gantz courageously and resolutely led the army, without flinching for a moment. Anyone who talks this way about a Chief of Staff insults the IDF and its commanders for the sake of petty political gain. You are the State of Israel’s education minister, grow up.” Labour Party Chairman Avi Gabbay also commented: “No, Naftali, Hamas’s wet dream is to receive millions of dollars in a suitcase every month. And this dream came true through your and Netanyahu’s right wing government. Look in the mirror before you sling mud.”
Maariv reports that Attorney General Mandelblit is opposed to the Central Elections Committee’s decision to disqualify Raam-Balad from running in the elections due to allegations of problematic statements and actions by the Balad MKs who served in the outgoing Knesset. In the opinion of the Attorney General, there is no critical evidentiary mass proving that the current Balad MKs either supported terrorism or denied Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. Mandelblit’s opinion was submitted to the Supreme Court, which yesterday began to hear, with an extended panel of nine judges, the various appeals against the Central Elections Committee’s decision to disqualify candidates and parties. It is believed that the court will overrule the Central Elections Committee’s committee and will allow Raam-Balad to run in the elections. This morning Kan radio news reports the Supreme Court will today discuss an appeal that was submitted by Meretz, the Reform movement, Tag Meir and MK Stav Shaffir against the Central Elections Committee’s decision not to disqualify the candidacies of Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir.
Haaretz reports that an 18 year old woman was shot dead inside her car in Lod yesterday, a day before her wedding. According to the paper her family had demanded that she cut ties with her fiancé. The woman, identified as Diana Abu Qatifan, was engaged to Bakr Abu Ghanem and that her family was against the marriage. Police arrested four of the woman’s relatives for questioning. The suspicion is that she was shot by an unknown assailant at close range while she was sitting in the car.
Kan news reports that, ahead of the scheduled visit of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro at the end of the month, a Brazilian government official said that no decision had yet been made on whether to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem and that the sides would discuss this during his visit. Some Brazilian administration officials are opposed to relocating the embassy because they fear threats from Muslim countries to reduce trade with Brazil.