Week of April 30th

The purpose of this weekly news digest is to give readers a window into the complexity of the Middle East by taking a look at everyday events as well as major conflicts in which regional and international players are involved. With more knowledge of the region, we hope educators and others can begin to ask, and answer, questions about U.S. interest and involvement there. What informs American policymakers’ positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example? In how many countries is the United States military fighting the war on terror (one account says 76)? What effect does conflict have on youth development and education? Who are the people beyond the dramatic headlines – what do their lives look like and what might they have to say about their governments’ behavior?

Critical thinking about these issues requires active digging into multiple sources – news, social media, blogs, official government or organization statements, and academic and historical accounts. There are multiple sides to every story. Take, for instance, the seemingly benign example of Morocco’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup competition – that’s the Olympics of soccer (or football, as the rest of the world knows it), if you’re not a sports enthusiast. Sports, whether you’re a fan or not, is never just about a game, but like other social enterprises is deeply intertwined with race, economics, politics, gender, geography and environment, and even religion. NFL player Colin Kapernick’s decision to not stand for the national anthem in 2016 set off a firestorm of controversy surrounding issues of race, patriotism, professional sports and discrimination that continues to this day. Morocco’s bid is an ostensibly simple David and Goliath case in which the developing North African country stands nary a chance against its better funded, connected, and organized joint United States-Canada-Mexico opponent. Yet, below the surface are a flurry of fascinating details, not unlike when kids lift up rocks embeeded in the ground and discover an assortment of critters, delightful and grotesque. Behind the Morocco World Cup bid story are discussions of the kingdom’s “homosexuality ban;” concerns about unbuilt but future, vacant “white elephant” stadiums; the controversy of spending billions to host the event; threats and plots to undermine the bid; and emerging blocs of either supporters or opponents of Morocco’s effort. It is not just about soccer!

This Week in the Mideast brings stories that encourage you to investigate what’s beneath those rocks even if the initial findings aren’t so appealing. We look at the previous week to give you a digestible overview but daily life and global developments are ongoing. We use Twitter to recognize important events in real time because certain developments have profound and far-reaching implications. One such case is Trump’s announcement yesterday of his decision to violate the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) by withdrawing the United States from the pact. This announcement is receiving deserved attention across the spectrum of news and information providers and TeachMideast is working on its own synopsis in the coming days. In the meantime, here are the stories that grabbed our attention over the past week:  

A rendering of the finished velodrome, located next to the Yarkon Park.

On Tuesday, Tel Aviv dedicated the Middle East’s first velodrome indoor cycling racetrack on as part of the celebrations surrounding the Giro D’Italia opening leg in Israel over weekend. A velodrome is an indoor arena for track cycling, a special type of bicycle race with steeply banked walls. The bicycles do not have brakes and racers utilize the angle of the walls to maneuver around opponents. The $19 million project will be completed in September. Almost 200 cyclists will have raced along Israel’s highways over the weekend as the country hosts the start of the Giro D’Italia from May 4 to 6. The Giro D’Italia is the second-most prestigious cycling race after the Tour de France. It is the first time in the 101-year history of the race that will have started outside of Europe, though it has started in neighboring European countries during different years.

On Thursday, there were reports that the U.S. State Department has reportedly frozen funding to the Syrian White Helmets search and rescue group, whose fighters have received international acclaim for risking their lives to save civilians in the midst of the country’s raging civil war. Raed Saleh, leader of the White Helmets (officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense), told CBS News he had no idea why it stopped receiving American contributions. About a third of the White Helmets’ funding comes from the U.S., but the State Department has now placed its support “under active review.” Saleh said meetings with department officials in March were “very positive. There were even remarks from senior officials about long-term commitments even into 2020. There were no suggestions whatsoever about stopping support.”

On Thursday, the United Arab Emirates deployed troops to the Yemeni island of Socotra, a UNESCO heritage site located in the Indian Ocean. Yemen’s formal alliance with the UAE may be coming to an end since the latter deployed over 300 soldiers along with tanks and artillery, to the island over a number of days, without prior consultation with Yemen’s exiled government, a senior Yemeni official said Saturday. “The government had no idea whatsoever,” the official said. The UAE is a major pillar in a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, under the banner of restoring the authority of self-exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.  The Emiratis, however, have carved out a zone of influence in southern Yemen over the past two years, setting up prisons and militias: residents and activists said that the UAE is building a factory and a prison, recruiting the island’s residents, and creating a new militia. It has also been buying land and clearing it for construction. Some residents and activists fear damage to the island’s environment, which has previously seen only limited development. View images of the island’s unique ecosystem here: Yemen’s Socotra Island, the ‘Jewel of Arabia’

Also on Thursday, a big day in the region, an Israeli court convicted an Arab poet of online incitement to terrorism for using a poem as the soundtrack to images of Palestinians in violent confrontations with Israeli troops. Dareen Tatour, 36, posted to Facebook and YouTube a video of herself reading out her poem “Resist, My People, Resist,” in October 2015 during a wave of deadly Palestinian street attacks on Israelis. The Israeli-Arab poet was arrested a few days later, and prosecutors said her post was a call for violence. The case became a cause celebre for freedom of speech advocates in Israel. It has also drawn attention to the advanced technology used by Israeli security agencies to trawl through social media to identify and arrest users suspected of incitement to violence, or of planning attacks. Indictments for online incitement have tripled in Israel since 2014.  

Official election results on Sunday showed that Hezbollah and its political allies made significant gains in Lebanon’s parliament, boosting the Iranian-backed movement that is fiercely opposed to Israel. The gains also underscore how much regional clout Tehran continues to wield, not only in Lebanon but also in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. The leader of Shiite Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called the result a “a very big political, parliamentary and moral victory for the choice of resistance”.  Branded a terrorist group by the United States, heavily armed Shiite Hezbollah has grown in strength since joining the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2012. Reuters reported that “the strong showing by parties and politicians who support Hezbollah’s possession of weapons risk complicating Western policy in Lebanon, which is banking on foreign aid and loans to revive its stagnant economy and receives U.S. military support.”

People walk past electoral posters in l’Ariana, outside Tunis, Friday, May 4 2018. Tunisia is hoping to break through barriers with its first local elections since its Arab Spring revolution: They could bring the first woman mayor of the capital, the first Jewish official with an Islamist party and new flock of mayors with greater powers. (Hassene Dridi/Associated Press)

Tunisians also voted Sunday in their first local elections since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, a crucial step toward consolidating the country’s exceptional democracy. The Washington Post reported that,“Turnout appeared low, with just 13 percent taking part by midday, according to electoral authorities — a marked contrast from the long lines of voters at post-revolution presidential and parliamentary elections. Voter apathy is widespread, despite anger at the country’s 15 percent unemployment and 7 percent inflation. It’s an especially big problem for Tunisia’s youth, who drove the 2011 uprising but haven’t seen their opportunities improve in the years since.”

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