The Middle East Channel

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally Against Israeli Draft Bill

At least 300,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken to the streets in Jerusalem protesting a government plan to conscript more of them for military service. The rally, which has been described by ultra-Orthodox leaders as a mass prayer gathering, shut down the main entrance to the city and brought much of Jerusalem to a standstill on Sunday. The ultra-Orthodox, Haredim, have been exempted from military service as long as they were enrolled at a religious seminary, yeshiva. However, in 2012 Israel's Supreme Court overturned a law that allowed conscription exemptions for yeshiva students. In February, a government committee put forward a bill, expected to be passed into law in March, that would establish annual quotas for drafting yeshiva students for military or national service. The bill would not call for the draft of all Haredi young men, but proposes a gradual increase in conscription, calling for criminal sanctions, including prison terms, for those who evade the draft. The Haredim say that military service would stop them from being able to devote themselves to religious study. Some secular Jews came out in protest of the rally saying the Haredim should serve in the army or do national service. One woman said, "Why shouldn't they contribute to the public good?" continuing, "they're scared to take any responsibility for the land they live in." 

Syria

Fighting and shelling in the Palestinian Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus ended a week-long truce Sunday. The clashes have disrupted aid distribution to Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, where an estimated 20,000 people have been trapped for months, according to the United Nations. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes broke out between fighters from the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and al-Nusra Front. The parties traded blame for breaking the cease-fire that was agreed on February 10 in the district. The truce had allowed for limited aid deliveries by UNRWA, the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, Mokhtar Lamani, Damascus representative of U.N. and Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, has submitted a request to the United Nations to leave his post. An explanation hasn't been released, however Lamani had expressed disappointment with the failure of peace talks in Geneva in January and February.

Headlines  

  • Libyan authorities have vowed to stick to a democratic transition process after two members of parliament were shot and injured when protesters stormed the parliament in the capital of Tripoli Sunday. 
  • An Egyptian court sentenced two policemen to 10 years in prison for the 2010 torture and killing of activist and blogger Khaled Said.
  • Iran has reduced its stockpile of highly enriched uranium by 50 percent, implementing as planned a deal with world powers, though the IAEA says much work remains to be done.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to "stand steadfast" in meeting with President Obama Monday, who has signaled that time is running out for Israeli-Palestinian peace.   

Arguments and Analysis

'Two years after Yemen's 'statue' came to life, will Hadi ever leave?' (Adam Baron, The National

"Mr Hadi may have confounded many Yemenis' expectations, and he certainly retains a great degree of popular support. But the many challenges he inherited remain unresolved, and the ultimate fate of Mr Hadi's presidency remains unclear.

Standing next to Mr Saleh on February 27, 2012, Mr Hadi stated that he aimed to similarly transfer power to his successor in two years time, during parliamentary and presidential elections this year 

This, perhaps, provides the key irony of Mr Hadi's presidency. When he came to office, the question was whether he'd survive. Today, the uncertainty centres around when he will eventually leave."

'Rojava and Kurdish Political Parties in Syria' (Nader Atassi, Jadaliyya)

"While the Syrian regime and opposition talk of theoretical transitional governments at Geneva II, the PYD is establishing facts on the ground. In November 2013, the PYD announced its intention to formalize the political autonomy of Rojava by dividing it into three self-governing cantons: Afrin, Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab), and al-Hasake. The PYD will overcome all the obstacles to their newfound autonomy in the short-run. They have succeeded thus far in repelling the jihadist offensive against their towns. The regime is too busy fighting the opposition elsewhere in the country to pose a threat at the moment. The PKK is enjoying warmer relations with Ankara, which will stave off the Turkish threat for the time being (Ocalan, the head of the PKK, even publicly backed Erdogan in the latest power struggle with the Gulenists). Although the international community is unanimous in its condemnation of this plan -- including Barzani who heads his own autonomous parcel of Kurdistan -- the PYD have gone ahead with it and seem to be succeeding in the short-run due to a combination of military success and political cunning. 

The United States and the Syrian National Coalition attempted to sideline the PYD from the diplomatic talks as much as they could by sowing divisions between them and the KNC, who had earlier agreed to appear at the talks as a united front. There was no PYD presence at Geneva II, with the Syrian National Coalition insisting that the KNC is the only legitimate representative of Syrian Kurds. Excluding the PYD, however, will only strengthen their resolve to consolidate their power in Rojava in order to ensure that any diplomatic deals struck regarding post-conflict Syria will not impose anything on them. Indeed, while representatives sit in Geneva, discussing and debating what the future of Syria will look like, the PYD and their allies are trying to create the future of Rojava today."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Attacks Kill Dozens in Baghdad and Target Iraqi Tribal Leader

An estimated 52 people were killed in attacks across Iraq Thursday, including a bombing at a second-hand motorcycle market in Baghdad's Sadr City. A motorcycle parked at the market was rigged with explosives and detonated Thursday afternoon, killing 31 people and injuring 51 others. Additionally, bombings on two minibuses in mainly Shiite areas of the capital killed up to nine people and a car bomb hit a checkpoint in the Sunni district of Mushaada in northern Baghdad killing three soldiers. In Haditha, in western Anbar province, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into the guesthouse of prominent pro-government tribal leader Sheikh Saeed Fleih al-Osman, killing Osman and six of his militiamen. Osman was a member of Haditha's municipal council and the leader of the town's anti-al Qaeda "Awakening Councils" militia forces, or Sahwa.

Syria

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have begun withdrawing from areas of northern Syria. The movement of forces has come four days after al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front issued an ultimatum to ISIL to agree to mediation over infighting in Syria, or face expulsion from the country. ISIL fighters have reportedly left the town of Azaz, three miles from the Turkish border, which it had seized from rival opposition groups about five months ago. According to Rami Abdulrahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIL "is heading to areas that neighbor Raqqa province where it has its main stronghold in the city of Raqqa." The Observatory says 3,300 people have been killed in clashes between rebel factions since the beginning of 2014. Meanwhile, the United States' annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" has condemned the Syrian government calling the country's civil war a tragedy that "stands apart in its scope and human cost." The report highlighted a chemical weapons attack it says killed 1,429 people as "one of the many horrors" of the war. In a report to the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons joint mission, the Syrian government said two attempted attacks on chemical weapons convoys on January 27 and ongoing military activities contributed to its failure to meet a February 5 deadline for the transport of all of its chemical arsenal out of the country. Syria has proposed a new timetable to remove its chemical weapons by the end of April.

Headlines

  • Media organizations across the world have staged protests joining Al Jazeera for a "global day of action" demanding the release of journalists imprisoned in Egypt.
  • Clashes between the Yemeni army and Houthi rebels over government offices in Jawf province's capital of Hizm killed at least 24 people Friday.
  • Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour has reshuffled the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which will for the first time be headed by the defense minister rather than the president.

Arguments and Analysis

'The Arab Exception' (Ahmed Benchemsi, Politico)

"In reality, the constitutional reform that garnered so much praise in Washington-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even called it a 'model' for other countries in the region -- confirmed and even strengthened autocracy in Morocco. The king tops the three branches of government more indisputably than ever, appointing ministers and magistrates, issuing laws in the form of royal decrees, commanding army and security services, and presiding over religious affairs. Which is pretty much the definition of an absolute ruler, with almost no checks and balances on his political powers -- not to mention the economy, over which Mohammed VI reigns through his privately owned super-holding that at times has generated as much as 8 percent of the country's GDP. Meanwhile, police abuses remain frequent and unpunished, and freedom of the press is severely constrained.

Not only does the United States put up with these abuses, but it has embraced Morocco tighter since 2011, with President Obama inviting King Mohammed to Washington in November for more pats on the back. After the visit, the White House issued a statement commending 'the action and the leadership of His Majesty the King in deepening democracy.' The flattery was consistent with a five-year $697.5 million U.S. economic aid package to Morocco that ended this past September -- on top of the annual $30 million or so it already receives in U.S. foreign assistance -- subject to the condition that the kingdom favors 'just and democratic governance,' as the aid program officially stipulates."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images