Week of July 30

On Monday, the Syrian government regained control of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights border for the first time in seven years after an ISIS-linked group retreated from their last area of territory. Although there are still pockets of ISIS-held territory scattered along the border of southern Syria, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 1,200 Khaled bin Al-Waleed Army militiamen agreed to give up their territory. The breakthrough against the militants capped a six-week-long campaign to retake the southwest corner of the country. The Islamic State also abducted several members of the minority Druze community — primarily women and children — in the nearby province of Sweida in a wave of attacks that resulted in over 200 deaths. Photos and videos of the hostages released by IS indicated they would be freed if the government halted its offensive against the militants and released IS detainees; there have been reports of some executions. 

Participants at a “hackathon” in Jeddah on July 31, 2018, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. (AFP)

On Tuesday, over 3,000 developers and programmers from across the world gathered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the inauguration of the “Hajj Hackathon.” Participants were tasked with creating technology and applications that would help make the Hajj experience easier and more enjoyable for pilgrims. The event was also a platform for Saudi women to showcase their education and technical expertise in programming. The three-day program began with technological experts from the kingdom, the UAE, the U.S., Algeria, Egypt, India, Japan, Tunisia, Turkey and Pakistan meeting each other, forming teams and sharing ideas. Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple with the late Steve Jobs, said: “Thousands of people are participating here trying to be useful and productive. One of the most powerful points of being here is to help the community … as the country has one of the greatest missions: Hajj.”

On Wednesday, a report came out by The Intercept that former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly stopped Saudi Arabia and the UAE from conducting a military operation against Qatar at the beginning of the diplomatic crisis last June. The thwarted plan apparently involved Saudi ground troops crossing into Qatar with military support from the UAE, with the ultimate goal of seizing Doha. However, when Tillerson was notified of the plan by Qatari intelligence, he repeatedly urged Saudi Arabian King Salman not to carry out the attack. Pressure from Tillerson caused Salman to back down over concern that this invasion would damage Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic and trade links with Qatar over a year ago, accusing Doha of supporting “extremism and terrorism” and being too friendly with regional rival, Iran. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Saudi Arabia in April that it was time to end the blockade.   

Also on Wednesday, the United States Treasury Department announced that is imposing sanctions on Turkey’s minister of justice and minister of interior in response to the detainment of American pastor Andrew Craig Brunson. Brunson faces charges of acting on behalf of two groups deemed terrorist organizations by the Turkish government, and he could face up to 35 years prison. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government won’t back down and may “go its own way” if the U.S. decides to impose sanctions. Furthermore, the Turkish foreign ministry said in response to the sanctions that the United States was trying to interfere in the Turkish judicial process. The decision “will seriously damage the constructive efforts made in order to resolve problems between the two countries,” the ministry said in a statement. “An equivalent response to this aggressive attitude will be given without delay.”

Image from a Gaza exhibition of items that have been prohibited by Israel from entering the enclave. Credit: Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera 

On Thursday, an exhibition in the Gaza Strip highlighted more than 1,000 “basic commodities” that have been banned from entering the coastal enclave due to Israel’s 12-year-old blockade. Egypt also participates in the blockade but occasionally opens the Rafah border crossing for humanitarian purposes such as during Ramadan. The event coincided with an Israeli decision to block the supply of fuel and gas. “We wanted to highlight the suffering of the people in Gaza,” said Jamal al-Khoudary, a Palestinian MP and the head of the Popular Committee to End Gaza’s Siege, the group organizing the showcase. Baby bottles, diapers, wedding dresses, school supplies, power generators, medical equipment and children’s bicycles were some of the items on display. Such items have been prohibited from entering Gaza since the sealing off of the Karem Abu Salem commercial border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the shutting down of the crossing and the recent ban on fuel and gas shipments was in retaliation over Palestinians’ ongoing use of incendiary kites and balloons which have led to damaging fires in Israeli territory. The devices have become popular during the recent Great March of Return protests against the naval, air, and land blockade in Gaza. 

The Justice Department is investigating claims that major drug and medical device companies doing business in Iraq knew that the free medicines and supplies they gave the government to win business there would be used to underwrite terrorist attacks on American troops. In a regulatory filing last week, AstraZeneca, a drugmaker based in Britain, disclosed that it had “received an inquiry from the U.S. Department of Justice in connection with an anti-corruption investigation relating to activities in Iraq.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of members of the American military who were injured or killed in attacks from 2005 to 2009. At that time, Iraq’s health ministry was controlled by followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a cleric and the leader of the Mahdi Army, whose death squads against Iraqi Sunnis brought the country to the brink of civil war. The lawsuit claims that lieutenants of Sadr sold the samples on Iraq’s black market to fund their attacks on American forces.at the height of the Iraq war.

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