Week of April 2nd

Last week’s headlines covered the usual issues and personalities in the Middle East. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia continued his VIP tour across the U.S. with stops in Hollywood and Apple’s headquarters as part of his mission to improve U.S. public opinion of the kingdom. In the midst of the tour, the Saudi government announced that it will open its first movie theater — other than its current scientific IMAX theater at a private museum — on April 18th in capital city Riyadh; its first film will be the American blockbuster hit, “Black Panther.” Meanwhile, nascent MBS ally, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, seems uncertain about just how to handle the country’s African immigrant population, which poses a threat to the tenuous Jewish majority upon which Israeli national identity is based, while also not alienating coalition partners and the general public. He had announced a deal with the United Nations on Monday to resettle tens of thousands of African migrants in undetermined Western countries, while allowing smaller numbers to stay in Israel, but hours later he backtracked on the agreement after criticism from partners who hadn’t been informed of the arrangement. The New York Times said that “the agreement to let many stay in Israel drew harsh criticism from some of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition allies, who were taken by surprise. Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, said the deal would ‘turn Israel into an infiltrator’s paradise.'” The reversal was the latest twist in a policy that has gone from detentions to deportations of the migrants, some of whom have been waiting for years on asylum applications. Opponents of the deportation and detention policies have claimed they contradict Jewish values. The fate of the country’s 35,000 African migrants, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea, rests on the government’s next decree.

People take part in a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv on March 24th, 2018. (Reuters/Corinna Kern)

Other stories, big and small, that we found interesting included:

  • On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal demanding that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority pay $656 million to American victims of terror attacks. The court chose to leave in place an earlier verdict by a lower court, which said that the PLO and the PA lack a sufficient connection to the United States in order to be sued under American anti-terrorism laws. Lead plaintiff Mark Sokolow, his wife and their two daughters were injured in a 2002 suicide bombing in Jerusalem. If the Supreme Court had made the opposite decision, the PA and PLO could have plunged into an economic crisis, which would come on top of the recent legislation approved by the U.S. Congress to severely cut the budget being given the PA because of its financial support for convicted terrorists who are sitting in Israeli prisons. Fear of such a crisis is one of the reasons that previous U.S. administrations did not, over the years, support similar lawsuits to the one rejected on Monday.
  • In Tunisia, activists launched a campaign to demand that French is renounced as the second language in the country and replaced with English. Activists who launched the Hashtag #NotoFrenchyestoEnglish believe English is more widely used in science, technological development and research. The campaign was launched in Morocco in March before moving to Tunisia. Proponents of the measure, popular across North Africa in recent years, have stressed the necessity of giving greater importance to the English language in their school system as a way to combat the residue of French colonialism.
  • North African state Algeria also received additional rare attention when members of the ruling party, the National Liberation Front, called on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth consecutive term, according to local media reports. Speaking at a party meeting on Saturday, the party secretary-general confirmed earlier reports about party and government officials pushing for the ailing president’s re-election in next year’s vote. 81-year-old Bouteflika suffered from a stroke in 2013 and is unable to speak but he was a key actor in Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle and civil war reconciliation efforts; his continued leadership will maintain the status quo while other issues surrounding economic reforms and social unrest are addressed.
  • On Thursday, another legal case — this one regarding a New York Police Department surveillance program targeting American Muslims — was resolved. Muslim leaders and their lawyers said the settlement of legal claims that the New York City Police Department illegally spied on Muslims empowers them to prevent future abuse.  The agreement resolved a 2012 suit in Newark, New Jersey, after the Associated Press revealed how the NYPD infiltrated Muslim student groups and put informants in mosques to try to prevent terrorist attacks. The AP reported that the effort crossed into New Jersey, where the department collected intelligence on ordinary people at mosques, restaurants and schools starting in 2002. The surveillance extended across at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 shops, two schools and two Muslim student groups in New Jersey alone. By the NYPD’s own admission the blanket surveillance failed to produce a single intelligence lead. Under the terms of the settlement, the NYPD confirmed that it has dismantled the surveillance unit formerly known as the “demographics unit” that carried out the spying on Muslim communities. The department also agreed that it would not engage in religious-based surveillance in the future in New Jersey, as it had already accepted for New York
  • The most compelling, and ongoing, development of last week stems from reports of what seemed like a relatively commonplace attack in Syria that has since led to significant uncertainty, speculation and threats of confrontation. On Saturday, a suspected chemical attack was reported to have struck Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus in Syria, killing dozens of people. However, there is until now no concrete evidence of who is responsible or confirmation of the use or type of any chemical weapons. Nonetheless, Western governments and media outlets quickly condemned the attacks, blaming the Syrian government. Images and videos of suffering women and children are circulating the internet, leading to calls for action from the international community. President Trump has expressed his outrage over President Bashar al-Assad and his partners, Russia and Iran. Trump, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is reportedly preparing for military intervention. The Syrian regime and its supporters, on the other hand, are denying the use of chemical agents and are blaming Syrian opposition forces. Syrian state news outlets are accusing the radical Islamist groups controlling the attacked area, Army of Islam, of fabricating the evidence to gain opposition support in order to take down the regime. Since international journalists are not allowed into the rebel-held area, itself surrounded by the Syrian government forces, the only source of information in Western media and official reports are from unidentified “aid groups and others” such as the White Helmets, also referred to as the Syrian Civil Defense. The White Helmets receive funding from the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan; they have been the targets of disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories associating them with terrorist organisations. There is no possibility of an independent investigation into the reported attacks. 
  • On Sunday (Monday morning local time), there was a missile strike on a Syrian regime airbase near Homs, killing 14 people. Syrian state news first blamed the U.S., as the strike was conducted just a few hours after President Trump warned of a “big price” in a response to the reported chemical weapon attack. This appeared to be a replay of the American airstrikes on a Syrian airbase in April last year, which was also in response to the still-not-confirmed use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime at that time. The Pentagon denied the accusations of the recent airstrike and Russia then pointed blame at Israel for the early morning attack. Israel’s alleged attack on Syria has resulted in a further increase in tensions between Israel and Iran since the attacked airbase is the headquarters of Iranian-backed militias. The series of events, with a conflicting variety of narratives and versions of truth, has given rise to worrisome and belligerent statements — or tweets, in some cases — from the leaders involved, none of whom seem too concerned with determining an objective, fact-based account of the weekend.  
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