News Roundup: Palestinian Authority faces financial collapse, new report alleges 1,600 civilian casualties in 2017 battle for Raqqa, and Saudi Arabia executes 37 on terror charges
Algerian Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal was questioned on April 29th in a probe into alleged corruption as part of a wider crackdown following the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The former central bank governor is the first government official to appear before prosecutors since mass protests erupted in February against Bouteflika’s two-decade rule. Loukal was appointed finance minister at the end of March when Bouteflika formed an interim government. Former police chief Abdelghani Hamel was also questioned separately by a prosecutor as part of a judicial inquiry into alleged bribery, according to state television.
Major opposition and activist figures who were stripped of Bahraini citizenship are not among hundreds of people whose nationality will be restored under an amnesty announced in late April. On April 27th, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued a list of 551 people who will regain citizenship under a decree from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, which a government spokesperson said aimed to give them “an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.” The spokesperson said the government has begun the process of reinstatement for those on the list, adding that “court decisions to revoke citizenship are taken to ensure safety and security throughout Bahrain.”
Egyptians voted on April 20th – 22nd to amend the country’s constitution to bolster President Abdel Fattah Sisi’s power and pave the way for the former general to stay in office until 2030. Some 23.4 million Egyptians, 89 percent of those who voted in a three-day referendum, opted to give Sisi greater control over the judiciary, Egypt’s National Election Authority (NEA) announced. The NEA said official turnout was about 44 percent. The constitutional amendments extend Sisi’s current four-year term, which was supposed to be his final term ending in 2022, by two years, and allow him to run for an additional six-year term that would end in 2030. They also add a new 25 percent quota for women in parliament and a second chamber in parliament, an upper house that will have one-third of its members appointed by the president.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared on Fox News on April 28th in separate interviews to address the United States’ policies towards Iran. Zarif accused Bolton, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates of attempting to push President Trump into a conflict with Iran. Bolton dismissed the claims.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s April 22nd announcement that the United States would end the waivers for countries importing Iranian oil rattled global energy markets. Nations that import Iranian crude oil, including India, China, Turkey, and South Korea, must end the practice by May 2nd or face American sanctions. The announcement came two weeks after the US designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. The Iranian parliament responded April 23rd by designating the US Central Command as a terrorist organization.
Turkey’s foreign minister visited Iraq on April 28th to discuss trade, border security, and water resources. The visit includes stops in the autonomous Kurdish region and Basra, Iraq’s main oil hub. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Iraqi counterpart, Mohamed Alhakim, in Baghdad on April 28th. Alhakim said Iraq would facilitate trade with Turkey and called on Turkish firms to invest in Iraq.
On April 26th, thousands of people demonstrated against the “Deal of the Century,” a backchannel US-negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, in the Sweimeh area of the Dead Sea region. The protests were organized by the Islamic Movement, which is a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. This group has made a number of electoral wins in the country’s professional unions and syndicates this month.
On April 27th, the Litani River Authority (LRA) dispatched bulldozers to demolish an informal settlement of Syrian refugees along the Litani river because the LRA claimed that they were polluting the already-contaminated river. The river provides irrigation water for a segment of Lebanon’s agricultural sector.
Nabih Berry, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker, announced that Lebanon is prepared to demarcate its maritime border with Israel, deploying the same procedure used to draw the Blue Line under the supervision of the United Nations. The Blue Line is the land border between Israel and Lebanon that was drawn in 2000.
As of April 28th, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces have yet to breach the southern front surrounding the capital city of Tripoli, with government-backed forces appearing to have regain territory. This marks the third week of Haftar’s offensive against the internationally recognized government based in Tripoli. LNA airstrikes on the capital have continued throughout the week, although it is still unconfirmed whether these strikes have been carried out by manned or unmanned aircraft.
The Libyan National Oil Company (NOC) has remained neutral in the current conflict, but has confirmed that oil revenues have been increasing since LNA forces took control of several oil ports in the country’s south. On April 27th, the NOC chairman still called for an end to the conflict, emphasizing that continued violence could threaten future production.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) stood firm in its refusal to accept tax payments collected by Israel and scheduled for disbursement to the PA. Israel levies the taxes on the import of goods bound for Palestine, and forwards the money to the PA. The PA, however, refused to receive the payments after Israel began deducting $10 million per month from each delivery in February in retaliation for the PA’s policy of delivering payments to the families of those imprisoned by Israel and to their families. Israel attempted to quietly send the payments, in the hope that the PA would simply accept them, but Ramallah returned the funds intact on April 29th. PA President Mahmoud Abbas said the PA will not accept funds as long as Israel continues deducting from them unilaterally. Israel and the UN worry that the PA is on the brink of financial collapse. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on April 29th to discuss a plan to keep the PA afloat if it faces insolvency.
On April 25th, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) seized Palestinian lands from Beit Ummar and Halhul, both villages near Hebron, to construct a road to the Kiryat Arba settlement. Both villages have 60 days to appeal the confiscation order.
On April 23rd, Saudi Arabia beheaded 37 Saudi citizens citizens in a mass execution for alleged terrorism-related crimes. Most of the citizens were from the country’s minority Shia community. According to Amnesty International, 11 of those executed were convicted of spying for Iran and at least 14 others were convicted of offenses related to their participation in anti-government demonstrations in 2011 and 2012. A number of those executed were minors at the time of their arrest.
On April 24th, several high profile investors representing companies such as JP Morgan and HSBC appeared in Riyadh for a government sponsored financial conference held at the Ritz Carlton hotel.
A new study released April 25th by Amnesty International and conflict monitor Airwars asserted that US-led coalition airstrikes during the 2017 battle for Raqqa killed 1,600 civilians. The US-led coalition has acknowledged only 159 deaths in the operation.
Demonstrations among Arab residents of Deir ez-Zor continued this week, blocking off a highway used to transport oil from the energy-rich province. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) administer the area surrounding Deir ez-Zor, and sell oil extracted there. Ethnically Arab protesters accused Kurdish forces of failing to share oil revenues with Arab residents of the area, calling for an end to the “Kurdish occupation.” The protests escalated April 26th after four civilians were reportedly killed by gunfire due to a US-led coalition operation nearby. Calls for the SDF’s expulsion from Deir ez-Zor prompted the group to begin arresting demonstrators on April 28th, sparking confrontations with protesters.
Another round of Astana-track peace talks on Syria brought Turkish, Russian, and Iranian negotiators to Istanbul on April 25th – 26th. The participants reiterated the need to convene a constitutional committee, but broke up without concrete plans to hold a committee after the Russian negotiator said “several unclear issues” were delaying the process.
About 5,000 Tunisians protested on April 29th in the city of Sidi Bouzid against marginalization and deteriorating conditions, two days after the deaths of 12 female agricultural workers in a traffic accident on April 27th. Schools, hospitals, and public offices were closed under a regional strike called by unions in Sidi Bouzid. Protesters, including women and youths, repeated the slogans of the 2011 revolution: “The people want to overthrow the regime. We want justice and dignity. Streets and clashes until the regime falls.”
Meanwhile, following an attack on Tunisian soldiers earlier this month, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) branch in Tunisia, the Uqba bin Nafi Battalion (KUBN), claimed responsibility for another set of IEDs in Tunisia’s Mount Chaambi region on April 27th. The operation was reportedly in response to the killing of a KUBN militant, identified as Abu Musab al Tunisi, in Nebeur, Tunisia on April 23rd.
The United States and Turkey are negotiating a plan for their troops to jointly patrol a safe zone about 20 miles wide along Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey, according to officials from both countries. The proposed arrangement, including withdrawal from the zone of Syrian Kurds, marks a step back from initial Trump administration hopes that coalition allies or local security forces would secure the area.
Meanwhile, a man held by Turkey on suspicion of spying for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) committed suicide by hanging himself in prison, the Istanbul prosecutor’s office said on April 29th. According to the prosecutor’s office, the suspect, named as Zaki Y. M. Hasan, was found hanging from the bathroom door in his cell in Silivri prison, west of Istanbul, when guards arrived to give him food on Sunday morning. Hasan was one of two suspects charged with international, political, and military espionage. The pair were arrested on April 19th and had confessed to spying on Arab nationals, a senior Turkish official said at the time. Investigators are examining whether the arrival in Turkey of one of the detainees was related to the October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister blamed the Houthis for a stalled peace deal in Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah in a statement on April 24th, saying that the Iran-aligned group has ignored the kingdom’s call for a political solution to the war. The Houthis likewise accuse Riyadh and the Saudi-led coalition of obstructing the Hodeidah deal.
Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt hosted the Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers in London last week in an effort to push for progress on Yemen’s peace process.