Week of October 1

Books hang from a palm tree in Kuwait City on September 29th to protest government censorship. Credit: Yasser Al-Zayyat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Monday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides basic services for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, pulled most of its international staff from the Gaza Strip out of concern for their safety. As a result of reduced funding, primarily because of the United States’ decision to stop aid to Palestinian refugees, the agency has cut many local jobs. Protesters angry about this decision have been harassing international staff. Hani al-Omari, a local employee, told Reuters, “We wanted to send a message to them that they will not be comfortable while they plan to execute us by cutting our jobs.” According to a Gazan source, 13 international staff members left Gaza and 6 remain. In August, the United States announced a halt in its aid to UNRWA, calling it an “irredeemably flawed operation,” prompting the organization to appeal to donors for help.

Later in the week, in a related development, Jerusalem’s outgoing mayor called on the international community to consider his proposal to end the city’s operations of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, saying there is “no such thing” as a refugee in Jerusalem. In an interview, Nir Barkat, who is leaving office after elections later this month, said Sunday he was inspired to make his proposal after the U.S. cut off $300 million in funding to the agency last month. As mentioned above and in previous weekly digest reports, the U.S. budget cuts have sent the agency into a financial crisis and drawn Palestinian accusations that Israel and the U.S. are trying to erase the refugee issue from the international agenda. Barkat accused UNRWA schools of using textbooks that promote anti-Israel incitement, and said Israel can provide much better education and health care services to Palestinians who rely on the agency. Barkat’s plan faces significant obstacles: for starters, he does not appear to have the legal authority to shut down an international agency that was created by the U.N. General Assembly decades ago and continues to have wide international backing. Moreover, taking on the responsibility of providing services to Jerusalem’s more than 12,000 Palestinians who rely on UNRWA will be an additional burden for the cash-strapped municipality.

Also on Monday, in response to mounting international pressure, the Saudi government said it was striving to prevent the accidental deaths of Yemeni civilians, including children, after Saudi Arabia and its allies admitted they had made some mistakes in their military targets. For the past three and a half years, the Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the rebel Houthi movement in Yemen. Exact death tolls are unknown because accurate data is difficult to ascertain in the conflict-ridden country. Osaiker Alotaibi, from the Saudi defense ministry, told a UN committee that the Saudi government was determined to uphold international humanitarian law and explained that the government maintained lists of off-limits targets, such as schools and hospitals. 

As conservative politicians have gained more power recently in Kuwait, the government has been banning an increasing number of books. Targets of the government’s literary censors have included an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David, Maya Angelou’s memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” and several Arabic language works. The increasing level of censorship does not extend to theatre, dance, and music, all of which are under royal patronage. In part because many Kuwaitis pride themselves on their country’s perceived position as a regional cultural and literary hub, there has been pushback and protests, as seen in the photo above, directed against the new policies. Furthermore, many booksellers have found ways to circumvent the restrictions such as using Instagram to advertise their wares or hiding banned books in secret compartments in bookstores, or simply ignoring the ban altogether and openly displaying the offending works. 

On Wednesday, the United Nations’ highest court ordered the United States to remove any restrictions on the export of humanitarian goods and services to Iran, granting Tehran a diplomatic victory after it challenged new U.S. sanctions in July. The interim ruling by the International Court of Justice comes as the United States has sought to pressure Iran over what it says are “malign activities” in the Middle East, including support for militant proxies and its ballistic missile program. In response, the Trump administration said it was terminating the 1955 Treaty of Amity affirming friendly relations between the two countries. The largely symbolic gesture highlights deteriorating relations between Washington and Tehran.

Nadia Murad speaking in Washington after winning the Nobel Peace prize last week. (AFP)

On Friday, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi rights activist and survivor of sexual slavery by Islamic State, along with Denis Mukwege, a doctor who helps victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Murad is an advocate for the Yazidi minority in Iraq and for refugee and women’s rights in general. Murad was 21-years-old in 2014 when Islamic State militants attacked the village where she had grown up in northern Iraq. The militants killed those who refused to convert to Islam, including six of her brothers and her mother. Along with many of the other young women in her village, she was taken into captivity by the militants, and sold repeatedly for sex as part of Islamic State’s slave trade. Murad said she shared the award “with all Yazidis with all the Iraqis, Kurds and all the minorities and all survivors of sexual violence around the world.” At a news conference after the award announcement, she urged the world to do more to end genocide.

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