The Middle East Channel

Israeli soldiers and Palestinians clash during Land Day protests

Land Day protests sparked clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians attempting to participate in a "Global march to Jerusalem." Israel tightened security measures ahead of the day during which Palestinians annually commemorate the deaths of six Arabs who were killed in 1976 when protesting land appropriation. Several protesters were killed last year, including Lebanese and Syrians as they tried to cross their borders into Israel. Israel closed checkpoints for 24 hours in anticipation of the march, and only men with Israeli identity cards are being allowed into Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers. Violence erupted also at the Qalandiya checkpoint in the outskirts of East Jerusalem where Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli soldiers who responded with stun grenades and tear gas. There were additional reports of violence in Bethlehem and the Gaza strip. Demonstrations are expected to gain strength after Friday prayers.

Syria

United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has demanded that the Syrian government implement a ceasefire and his peace plan immediately. President Bashar al-Assad accepted Annan's six-pronged peace plan on Tuesday, but according to activists, violence has continued across Syria, particularly with gunfights and shelling in the northwestern Idlib province and the city of Homs. According to Ahmed Fawzi, Annan's spokesman, Annan called for the regime to halt violence first in a "gesture of good faith" but also appealed to the opposition forces to "lay down their arms and start talking." Meanwhile, Iran is providing a vessel for Syria to ship oil to China helping to circumvent international sanctions. The Syrians plan to sell oil directly to China's state-owned Zhuhai Zhenroung Crop, which is a company also under U.S. sanctions. The crude oil is worth about $84 million and could provide a financial spark to Syria which has become increasingly isolated, especially after the European Union imposed further sanctions last week. At the same time, Britain has pledged to double its assistance for "non-lethal support" to the Syrian opposition. In further diplomatic efforts to end violence, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Saudi Arabia for discussions on Friday, the "Friends of Syria" coalition which includes U.S. and Arab governments will meet in Istanbul on Sunday, and Annan is planning for a trip to Iran.

Headlines  

  • France conducted raids on 19 suspected radical Islamists in a crackdown after last week's string of shootings by Mohammad Merah killed three children, a rabbi, and three paratroopers.
  • Hard line Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail is emerging as a frontrunner in the Egyptian presidential election race.
  • Palestinian detainee Hana Shalabi has ended a 43-day hunger strike protesting her imprisonment by Israelis who are holding her without formal charges after a deal for her exile to Gaza.

Argumens & Analysis

'A new season of Palestinian protest challenges both Israel and Abbas' (Tony Karon, Time)

"The Authority had been established in early 1994 to serve as an interim administrative structure of Palestinian self-governance, on the assumption that the Oslo Process would within six years create a Palestinian state. Two decades later, Palestinian statehood remains as elusive as ever, which makes the PA an institution of the status quo - it offers a form of (authoritarian) self-governance, largely funded by Western and Arab powers, whose day-to-day functioning is designed to maintain Israel's security, while Israel's sovereign control of the West Bank continues...PA security forces maintains intimate cooperation with their Israeli peers in order to protect Israel from Palestinian militants. Absent any movement towards Palestinian statehood, in other words, the PA can't avoid becoming seen as an extension of the occupation." 

'Among Syria's neighbors, the fear of destabilization is high' (Hamid Alkifaey, The Daily Star)

"The new Syria -- presumably Sunni-dominated -- will certainly host and nurture an Iraqi opposition, especially one with similar political and sectarian leanings. With Iran increasing its influence in Iraq, and Syria newly fighting back against Tehran's efforts to undermine its regime using Iran's influence in Iraq, the latter will be a certain loser since it is able neither to hold back Iran nor to counter a possible Saudi-backed fundamentalist Syrian regime that is also supporting an Iraqi fundamentalist and nationalist opposition. This is a recipe for long-term instability in Iraq. Is this scenario inevitable? Certainly not. But it's the nightmare scenario for Iraq and Iran, among others."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Explosions hit Baghdad as Arab leaders pass Syria resolution

A number of explosions hit the center of Baghdad as the Arab League summit meeting began on Thursday morning, despite increased security measures. Two of the bombings were near the Iranian embassy according to witnesses, and there are unconfirmed reports of a third blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) near the secure Green Zone. Only 10 of the 22 Arab League leaders are in attendance, with the emir of Kuwait being the sole head of state from a Gulf Arab country, reflecting Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions. According to Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem bin Jabr Al Thani, his country had low representation in order to send a "message" to Iraq's majority Shiite population to stop marginalization of the country's Sunni minority. During resumed discussions Thursday, meanwhile, the Arab League representatives agreed on a draft resolution on Syria calling for implementation of United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan's peace plan. After considerable debate, the final resolution did not include any threat of the use of force or a call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Also during the meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed to the Arab League for financial assistance for the Palestinians "because the PA [Palestinian Authority] is in a difficult financial situation."

Syria

While the Arab League discussed actions on Syria, violence continued in several regions throughout the country. There were two accounts of attacks by opposition gunmen on Syrian forces. In Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, two army colonels were killed. In Hama, two government soldiers were killed in an attack on an army truck. Syrian state media has blamed armed terrorists for both attacks, but no one has claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, reports from Syrian refugees in Lebanon's Bekaa valley have given accounts of a greater sectarian element in the conflict than previously reported. According to Sunni Muslim refugees, government troops have been giving arms to Alawite villagers to spark violence between civilians of the Allawiite and Sunni sects. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke at the Arab League summit in Iraq calling for President Bashar al-Assad to implement the peace plan the government agreed to earlier this week to prevent the country from taking a "dangerous trajectory" that could have negative implications for the whole region.

Headlines  

  • U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials said Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to air bases along the northern border with Iran, heightening concerns over risk of a strike.
  • At least 70 people have been killed and 150 wounded in the Libyan town of Sabha during clashes that began Sunday between former rebel fighters and ethnic Toubou militiamen.
  • Sweden's Defense Minister Sten Tolgfors resigned after backlash following a media leak over discussions about building a weapons plant in Saudi Arabia.
  • Turkish riot police cracked down on 1,000 demonstrators protesting education reform criticized for undermining the education of girls, allowing child labor, and including early religious education.

Arguments & Analysis

'Ousting Syria's Assad through a soft landing' (David Ignatius, Washington Post)

"We should learn from recent Middle East history and seek a non-military solution in Syria - even with the inevitable fuzziness and need for compromise with unpleasant people. A Syria peace deal will also give a starring role to Russia and China, two countries that don't deserve the good press. That's okay with me: Vladimir Putin gets a ticker-tape parade if he can help broker a relatively peaceful departure for Assad. The case for this cautious, managed transition can be summarized with a four-letter word: Iraq."

'Arab Spring brings steep rise in U.S. attacks in Yemen' (Chris Woods & Emma Slater, Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

"Covert US strikes against alleged militants in Yemen have risen steeply during the Arab spring, and are currently at the same level as the CIA's controversial drone campaign in Pakistan, a new study by the Bureau reveals. At least 26 US military and CIA strikes involving cruise missiles, aircraft, drones or naval bombardments have taken place in the volatile Gulf nation to date, killing hundreds of alleged militants linked to the regional al Qaeda franchise. But at least 54 civilians have died too, the study found. In the latest attack, US drones struck three areas of the rebel-held city of Zinjibar on March 22, killing up to 30 al Qaeda-linked militants, according to Yemen intelligence officials. Naval vessels - possibly American - also bombarded the city."

'Iran keeps compromise option open' (Mehdi Khalaji, WINEP)

"Clearly, if anyone in the Iranian regime is going to publicly open negotiations with the West, it will not be Khamenei. Even if the Supreme Leader decides to compromise in the coming months or is forced to do so by influential commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he would need people like Rafsanjani and Rouhani to step in and be the public face of any such process. These men have more reliable diplomatic reputations in the West than current chief nuclear negotiator Said Jalili or other officials close to Khamenei." 

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images