Week of May 7th

Freedom of speech is not a given right in every corner of the globe, usually constrained under oppressive regimes or dictatorships, and seems to be limited even under states labeled as democracies. On Monday, the Israeli interior ministry decided to not renew the work permit of Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir, giving him two weeks to leave the country. Israel claims that Shakir has been involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which uses economic measures to demand an end to the oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Human Rights Watch (HRW) denies Shakir’s involvement with the movement and condemned Israel’s decision, accusing them of stifling criticism. HRW has written several critical reports about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Amendment No. 27 to the Entry Into Israel Law (No. 5712-1952), passed in 2017, prohibits the entry into Israel of any foreigner who makes a “public call for boycotting Israel” or “any area under its control.” 

On Tuesday, the annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab youth survey was released.  Among the findings, the survey revealed that 55 percent of young Arabs believe their region has moved in the wrong direction, compared to 40 percent that felt it had gone in the right direction. The survey is conducted with 3,500 face-to-face interviews with young Arabs between 18 and 24 with an equal amount of men and women interviewed from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, North African countries, the Levant and Palestinian territories. The Arab youth interviewed said that militant group Islamic State and the Arab Spring (of late 2010/2011) had had the biggest impact on the region in the last decade and both were seen as being a negative. While 88 percent of those surveyed said the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, had had a negative impact, 56 percent said the Arab Spring had been negative, an interesting statistic given that the regional uprisings were largely driven by young people.

Cactus nursery in the Gaza Strip [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]
An 18-year-old college student has established Gaza’s largest cactus nursery. The founder of the project Sabara (cactus) is Afaf Massoud, a first-year interior design student at Al-Aqsa University. She started the project eight months ago after finishing high school in order to bear the cost of her higher academic studies.  Afaf relied on the experience of her father, an agricultural engineer, who helped her establish this nursery. She launched the project having only ten cacti, some of which she nurtured herself. That number has increased to around 400 to 500 cacti representing about 40 species. The young entrepreneur uses Facebook to promote her products and participates in exhibitions, in addition to displaying her cacti in commercial centers. Her cacti prices start at $2; older cacti are generally more valuable.

In another example of the limits of free speech in the region, protests by Iranian teachers demanding increased educational funding, free schooling and higher wages on Thursday were broken up violently by security forces outside the government budget & planning office in Tehran. Security officers beat demonstrators including retired teachers and women and arrested at least six demonstrators. According to the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA), however, 15 were detained. In Iran, public rallies are perceived as disruptive behavior of the public order and a crime against the security of the nation. Activists who oppose the regime are regularly detained. On Friday, HRANA also reported that three student activists was sentenced to imprisonment for 2-8 years on charges of gathering and collusion intended illegal gatherings.

A dozen artists from around the world descended on the community of Shtula on Israel’s northern border to paint the security fence with Lebanon. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Several artists from around the world flocked to the community of Shtula on Israel’s northern border to paint the security fence with Lebanon. The eight artists, members of the group, Artists4Israel, came to paint a 200 meter stretch of the fence near the location where IDF reservists Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were killed and their bodies abducted by Hezbollah in 2006. Artists4Israel consists of 1,000 artists from 21 countries who have painted over 800 murals worldwide, including on bomb shelters and orphanages. “These murals transform the grim reminders of war and terrorism into outdoor art galleries, beautify areas in need of renewal, add color to communities darkened by poverty and show that people in need are supported by Israel, artists and the creative communities of the world,” reads the Artists4Israel website. After over half a year of planning, the artists — who came from France, South Africa, Japan and the United States — arrived in Israel on May 1 and stayed as guests of the local community until the end of the painting project on May 9th. The artists and participants were constantly guarded by IDF soldiers throughout their time on the border.

In other academic news, also on Thursday, Turkey suspended the opening of any new French studies departments at its universities, an education official said, amid a growing row with France over a call there for some passages to be removed from the Koran. An official of Turkey’s Higher Education Board said Turkish universities would not open any new French departments and that 16 existing departments without enrolled students would not be allowed to admit any new students. The 19 departments which currently have students enrolled will be allowed to admit new students and continue the academic year normally, the official said. Relations between Ankara and Paris — already tense over differences on Syria — have been further strained after an open letter was published in France in which 300 people called for certain verses to be removed from the Muslim holy book. The signatories, who included former President Nicolas Sarkozy, argued the verses “spread violent and antisemitic ideas.” In response, Turkish President Erdogan said in a speech, “Is it your place to make such remarks? We see this only as a reflection of your ignorance. You are no different than Daesh (Islamic State) … No matter how much you attack what’s sacred to us, we will not do the same. We are not despicable.”

On Sunday, Saudi military joined Emirati forces on the Yemeni world heritage site, island of Socotra. This follows last week’s protest of the UAE presence on the island which Yemeni residents called an interference in the country’s internal affairs by seeking influence beyond its borders. According to a Saudi military spokesman, the Saudi forces were there on a joint training and support mission alongside Emirati and Yemeni forces, in coordination with the Yemeni government. Last week however, President Hadi condemned the deployment of UAE troops on the island and according to government sources, the UAE deployed to the island without Yemeni approval. The dispute was wrapped up quickly and later on Sunday, an agreement between UAE and Saudi Arabia was signed to withdraw all of their troops from the island. The next day, Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher announced that “the crisis on the island is over.” The motive behind the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s deployment remains rather uncertain.

Also on Sunday, one of Israel’s most famous soccer clubs renamed itself Beitar ‘Trump’ Jerusalem in honor of US President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In an announcement made on Facebook, a day before the official opening of the new embassy, Beitar Jerusalem said it wanted to pay tribute to Trump’s “courageous move.” The statement said, “For 70 years has Jerusalem been awaiting international recognition until President Donald Trump, in a courageous move, recognized Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. President Trump has shown courage and true love of the Israeli people and their capital. The football club Beitar Jerusalem, one of the most prominent symbols of the city, are happy to honor the President for his love and support with a gesture of our own.”

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