This Week in Middle Eastern Conflict… December 10th-17th, 2011.

  • The Atlantic published an article highlighting the 10 biggest Middle East Stories of 2011.
  • American Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich again spoke out against Palestine this week, calling them “terrorists” who teach terrorism in schools during a candidate debate, a move that Palestinian leaders said was inviting more conflict in the Middle East. A senior official at the Arab League called the statement racist and a cheap stunt to get votes. Over the weekend a Palestinian protester died after being struck in the face by a tear-gas canister launched from mere meters away by an Israeli soldier, with further clashes taking place between mourners at his funeral and soldiers on Sunday. On Sunday, Israel closed a wooden walkway to Jerusalem’s holiest site Haram al-Sharif over fears of a fire or collapse risk, sparking Palestinian anger with Hamas calling the move a declaration of religious war (it was later reopened); while the Israeli settlement council gave final approval for the building of 40 new houses in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli Cabinet also voted unanimously to finance a $160 million program to stop the flow of illegal African migrants by stepping up construction of a border fence and detention centre. On Tuesday, dozens of extremist Jewish settlers broke into an army base in the West Bank and lit fires, damaged vehicles and threw stones at a senior officer; just hours after another group took over an abandoned building in a closed military zone on the Jordanian border; the Palestinian flag was raised for the first time at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris while President Abbas attended a ceremony; while a new report by Defence for Children International claimed that Israel had shot at children on at least 28 occasions while gathering building materials like gravel or working by the fence between March 26, 2010 and October 3, 2011. On Wednesday, Iceland formally recognized Palestine as an independent state and established diplomatic relations with it; the UN and its diplomatic partners underlined their appeal to Israel and Palestine to create an atmosphere conducive to the resumption of stalled peace talks; tens of thousands of Gazans took to the street for an anniversary rally for the ruling Hamas; while a Palestinian mosque near Ramallah was set on fire by people thought to be Jewish settlers, after Israeli forces tore down structures in a settler outpost built without government approval.  The PM vowed to take action to halt the growing number of extremist incidents. On Thursday, the American Congress proposed a new legislation that would allow economic aid to Palestine to continue next year only as long as the country is not admitted as a state into any more UN organizations; while Israel said it was unifying its special forces under one command to help it strike countries like Iran. Amnesty International issued a joint press release announcing that there have been a record number of unlawful demolitions by the Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank over the past year, displacing a record number of Palestinian families.
  • On Saturday, the new national unity government was sworn-in in Yemen and will lead the country for a three-month transitional period, after which President Saleh is expected to formally step down after 33 years in power. On Monday, at least 16 prisoners, including al-Qaeda members escaped from a prison in the south. A day later, the interior minister announced that hundreds of protesters detained by authorities would be released. On Friday, the UN special envoy to the country announced that the government has taken new measures to restore peace and stability including instructions that roadblocks be removed, soldiers return to their barracks and militias go back to their villages.
  • On Sunday, at least 10 people (some say at least 20) were reportedly killed in clashes across Syria as opposition activists called a general strike; while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he holds President al-Assad responsible for all that has happened in the country and the UN human rights chief warned that the country was moving close to a full civil war, appealing for observers to be allowed to enter. On Monday, fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors spread to new areas killing some 13 on the day of local elections, amid fears the conflict was now spiraling towards civil war. On Tuesday, a reported 35 people were killed by security forces; some eight soldiers died in an ambush outside of Hama; while the UN human rights chief estimates the death toll for the past nine months of protest has now surpassed 5,000. On Wednesday, rebels claimed to have killed 27 members of the security forces in clashes that killed some 12 civilians, including a seven year old; clashes across the country killed a reported 26 civilians; while Human Rights Watch named 74 senior officials and commanders for investigation for crimes against humanity, alleging that army commanders ordered troops to halt protests “by all means necessary” and often gave explicit instructions to fire on demonstrators. On Thursday, Russia surprised all after it circulated a UN Security Council resolution condemning violence by both the government and the opposition, but stop short of mentioning sanctions, which France said it considered “unacceptable”. On Friday, potentially hundreds of thousands protested to demand action by the Arab League, who indefinitely postponed a meeting on the crisis because of divisions over how to stop the bloodshed. Security forces are said to have opened fire, killing at least 17 people.
  • On Sunday, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran said that his country would not return the American surveillance drone captured last week, but indicated willingness to reach a deal. On Monday, state TV reported that local experts were in the final stages of recovering data from the drone that would be used in a lawsuit against the US and claimed that they had the capability to reproduce the drone through reverse engineering. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said that US President Obama should apologize for sending the drone into Iranian territory rather than asking for it back after it was seized; while Iran reportedly indicted 15 people on charges of spying for the US and Israel. On Wednesday, officials announced their plans to put a series of foreign spy drones it claims to have obtained, including four Israeli and three US unmanned craft on display for foreign ambassadors based in Tehran and local journalists. Many analysts are concerned about rising tensions between Iran and the West. On Saturday, the foreign minister told Turkey that threats by Iranian political figures to strike Turkish missile defenses in case of an attack do not represent the official policy.
  • On Saturday, gunmen attacked a police checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, killing one and wounding another; gunmen killed a taxi driver in Mosul; a roadside bomb wounded two policemen near their patrol in western Mosul; three rockets landed in or near the US military’s Kalsu base, wounding three; gunmen wearing police uniforms attacked the house of a construction worker, wounding him and his son north of Hilla; a sticky bomb attacked killed an employee of a state-run North Oil Company in eastern Kirkuk; another sticky bomb wounded an off-duty Iraqi army officer in southeastern Kirkuk; and gunmen kidnapped four government employees in Dhuluiya. On Sunday, a sticky bomb killed a Ministry of Education official in Baghdad; gunmen in a car killed the head doctor at Mosul’s central morgue near his house; a sticky bomb wounded a school teacher in Muqdadiya; two bombs exploded wounding three policemen and four Kurdish Asaish security officers in central Kirkuk; police found the body of a civil servant at a state-run medicine factory shot in the head and chest two hours after he was kidnapped in Mosul; and gunmen shot at the car of a private Iraqi security company, killing one security guard and wounding another in Tuz Khurmato. On Monday, Iraqi PM al-Maliki met with American President Obama at the White House to discuss the next phase of the relationship between their countries amid the withdrawal of all US troops by December 31st; two roadside bombs went off in succession wounding six people in Baghdad; and gunmen in a speeding car shot dead an off-duty traffic policeman in front of his house in Mosul. On Tuesday, a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol killed two officers and wounded three officers and two civilians in Baghdad; gunmen killed a man and his wife in their car in Mosul; a sticky bomb killed two car passengers and wounded three others in Ishaqi; gunmen using silenced weapons and a bomb attacked a minibus carrying judges near a police checkpoint, killing three, including two policemen and a civilian and wounding five others in Falluja; gunmen shot dead a police colonel in front of his house in Mosul; a sticky bomb killed a police officer in his car in Shirqat; and three bombs hit an oil pipeline from the southern oilfields to storage tanks in Basra. On Wednesday, the US ended its nearly nine year war in the country with an official ceremony at an airport in Baghdad and President Obama marking its “success”, leaving behind an estimated $353 million in military equipment; while thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in celebration. On Thursday, police say they found the bodies of three government employees after they were kidnapped three days ago in Dhuluiya; masked gunmen kidnapped a local mayor and his son, killing the father in Jurf al-Sakhar; two bombs attached to bicycles blew up near a school, killing two and wounding three in central Ramadi; while thousands of Shi’ites rallied in the streets of the mainly Sunni province of Diyala demanding the provincial council retract its declaration of autonomy.
  • Dozens of pro-government demonstrators marched on the offices of the main opposition party in Bahrain, but were quickly suppressed by security forces on Saturday. On Tuesday, the King said that Syria is training opposition figures in the country during an interview, and also denied systematic rights abuses during the crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters. On Thursday, hundreds of protesters confronted riot police who dispersed them with tear gas and stun grenades near a highway leading to the capital; while police reportedly arrested human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, daughter of a prominent opposition leader and several other women who were holding a sit-in in a roundabout. On Friday, protesters again attempted to block off several roads, including the main highway, amid intense crackdowns by security forces that reportedly injured dozens and arrested at least 13 teenagers for chanting anti-monarchy slogans in a northwestern village.
  • Riot police in Kuwait reportedly used tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of stateless protesters who were demanding citizenship and other basic rights on Friday in Jahra. Police arrested at least six of the stateless protesters, who under Kuwaiti law have no right to hold public gatherings.
  • On Sunday, France’s Foreign Minister said that they believed Hezbollah’s Syrian wing was behind the attacks on its troops in Lebanon early last week that wounded five French peacekeepers. On Monday, Syria rejected the French accusations, as did Hezbollah. On Wednesday, the UNIFIL Force Commander paid a visit to the Lebanese Parliament to discuss the situation, and expressed his condemnation and serious concern over the recent attack and a rocket firing from Lebanese territory.

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