UN: Gaza could be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020 if trends continue

The Associated Press reports: A new United Nations report says Gaza could be “uninhabitable” in less than five years if current economic trends continue.

The report released Tuesday by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development points to the eight years of economic blockade of Gaza as well as the three wars between Israel and the Palestinians there over the past six years.

Last year’s war displaced half a million people and left parts of Gaza destroyed.

The war “has effectively eliminated what was left of the middle class, sending almost all of the population into destitution and dependence on international humanitarian aid,” the new report says. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Wolfgang Muthspiel and Brian Blade — ‘Heavy Song’

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Even as it worked for peace, the PKK prepared for war with Turkey

Aliza Marcus writes: In February, Kurdish politicians held a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan to announce a new plan for the rebel group to renounce its armed struggle while the government made democratic reforms. Erdogan quickly disavowed any deal.

“The cease-fire didn’t end in July; Turkey ended it long before,” [Cemil] Bayik [the de facto commander of PKK forces] said. “We are in favor of negotiations, but until that happens, we will continue the war if that’s what Turkey wants.”

Bayik’s reputation wasn’t built in combat — in the past, he was primarily responsible for running the group’s training academy in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and then its rearguard bases in northern Iraq — but he has a reputation for having a keen grasp of what it takes to maintain the group’s unity and focus on its twin goals of freedom for [PKK leader, Abdullah] Ocalan and self-rule for the Kurds. As his armed guards patrolled just out of sight, he laid out PKK demands for resuming the cease-fire.

“A cease-fire needs to be agreed on by both sides, and we need a public statement from Turkey that they are ready for dialogue,” added Bayik.

In other words, there won’t be any more unilateral cease-fires — even with de facto government agreement, as was the case in 2013. The PKK also wants a monitoring committee to ensure both sides are doing what they need to under any new cease-fire plan, and the group wants to be able to meet with Ocalan, who is held on Imrali island prison, in the Sea of Marmara, with access tightly controlled by the state.

Bayik, who wore a small pin with Ocalan’s image on his shirt, insisted that the PKK leader’s imprisonment shouldn’t be a barrier to direct talks with senior PKK officials. “These are technical issues,” Bayik said, “let them first accept that Ocalan can meet with the PKK’s leadership and then we can work out how.”

Bayik has reason to be confident. The PKK spent the past two years preparing for war, even as it was working for peace.The PKK spent the past two years preparing for war, even as it was working for peace. The group’s planned withdrawal from Turkey, which was promised by Ocalan as part of the 2013 cease-fire, was halted when rebels saw that Turkish soldiers were taking over the abandoned positions and building new, heavily fortified mountain outposts. The PKK sent its forces and weapons back in, and worked to expand its political dominance over the region through local, pro-PKK institutions. A quasi-civilian youth militia was organized and armed.

The PKK’s situation has also improved internationally, despite being labeled by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. Its Syrian affiliate, known as the YPG, is working closely with the U.S. military in the battle against the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria. In northern Iraq, Kurdistan government officials say they want the PKK to leave their mountain camps, but rebels were key in helping Iraqi Kurds push back the jihadi assaults last year in Makhmour and around Mount Sinjar. In some areas, like Kirkuk, PKK rebels are still stationed in case of attacks by the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey arrests 3 Vice News journalists on terrorism charges

The New York Times reports: Three journalists for Vice News have been formally arrested in southeast Turkey and charged with aiding a terrorist organization, four days after they were detained while covering the conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish state.

News media rights groups denounced a ruling on Monday by a Turkish court, which said that Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, both British citizens, and their Iraqi news assistant had “knowingly and willingly helped an armed terrorist organization” without being a part of its “hierarchical structure,” the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency reported.

Although the court did not name the terrorist organization, Tahir Elci, the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association in southeast Turkey, who is representing the journalists, said that the three had been accused of having links to the Islamic State and the YDG-H, a group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The Kurdish group, which is often referred to by its Turkish initials, P.K.K., is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

“They were accused of meeting and siding with both the Islamic State and the P.K.K.-affiliated group,” Mr. Elci said in a telephone interview from Diyarbakir. “The accusations are based on video footage, documents and photographs seized from the journalists.”

Turkey’s broad antiterror laws have created an increasingly difficult environment for journalists, according to news media advocates. For several years, Turkey had jailed more journalists than any other country, and this year, it ranked 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders news media freedom index. [Continue reading…]

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How Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri became the leader of ISIS

William McCants writes: Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri was born in 1971 in Samarra, an ancient Iraqi city on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. The son of a pious man who taught Quranic recitation in a local mosque, Ibrahim himself was withdrawn, taciturn, and, when he spoke, barely audible. Neighbors who knew him as a teenager remember him as shy and retiring. Even when people crashed into him during friendly soccer matches, his favorite sport, he remained stoic. But photos of him from those years capture another quality: a glowering intensity in the dark eyes beneath his thick, furrowed brow.

Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law.

Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam. [Continue reading…]

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Icelanders call on government to take in more Syrian refugees

The Guardian reports: Thousands of Icelanders have called on their government to take in more Syrian refugees – with many offering to accomodate them in their own homes and give them language lessons.

Iceland, which has a population of just over 300,000, has currently capped the number of refugees it accepts at 50.

Author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir put out a call on Facebook on Sunday asking for Icelanders to speak out if they wanted the government to do more to help those fleeing Syria. More than 12,000 people have responded to her Facebook group “Syria is calling” to sign an open letter to their welfare minister, Eygló Harðar. [Continue reading…]

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Under the strain of refugees, which Germany will prevail? The dark or the bright?

Der Spiegel reports: Anger is in the air. Angela Merkel has come to Heidenau and the locals are lined up to see her. But it is anything but a friendly welcome: It is a crowd full of hate. Some call out: “Traitor to Your People!” Others yell “We Are the Pack,” a reference to Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s strong condemnation of right-wing, anti-refugee demonstrators.

It is the pride of idiots. After the chancellor disappears into the former building supplies store, where 400 refugees have found shelter, the residents of the small Saxony town begin talking about the outsiders who have become their temporary neighbors.

“Did you see the young men? Full of hormones and with nothing sensible to do. They can’t help but get dumb ideas,” says one tanned pensioner wearing a bike helmet. A woman nods and says she no longer allows her granddaughter to walk past the building supplies store alone.

A policeman with foreign features is standing in front of the villagers wearing a firearm and a baton, but his face is friendly. Eventually, he joins the discussion. “I was born in Germany in 1980, but my parents are from Afghanistan,” he says. “They came to escape the war with the Russians.” His German is flawless. The emblem of the Lower Saxony police force is displayed prominently on his breast. The Saxons around him listen closely. And are amazed.

“My father was a teacher in Afghanistan and my mother worked in the technical field,” the policeman says. “But of course they could no longer practice their professions here.” The young man speaks calmly, but insistently, looking at the people behind the police barricade directly in the eyes. He declines to give his name — not out of fear, but because he doesn’t want to speak of his political viewpoints while in uniform. The man with the Afghan parents has completely internalized Germany’s civil servant principles.

The Heidenau residents say nothing; their enmity goes silent for a short moment. For the first time all day. [Continue reading…]

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The refugee crisis requires much more than crisis management

Christopher Dickey writes: Ad hoc measures will be taken here and there, as we have seen, but they will do little more than displace the flood, not stop it:

The boats pushing into the Med from North Africa were never very seaworthy, but now they have to be completely expendable, ready to be seized, and to be written off, or to sink and be written off, by the gangs that launched them leaking and overloaded in the first place.

Close the borders with the Balkan states, and refugees climb into sealed trucks like that putrid 18-wheeler in Austria.

The only medium- and long-term solution for this horrific global problem is to build peace in the war zones of Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, — the three countries that account for more than half of the world’s refugees; impose order on the chaos of Libya; deliver some modicum of freedom and prosperity in West and East Africa; and greater social and economic justice in Latin America.

To do that requires reliable long-term policies to promote development and good governance, not just the tossing of a few millions of dollars or euros here or there, or preaching about a system of globalized free trade that has made the rich so much richer and the poor, by comparison, so much poorer. [Continue reading…]

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Khaled al-Asaad, the martyr of Palmyra

By Pierre Leriche, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris

A second ancient temple at Palmyra has been razed, with a satellite image appearing to confirm the destruction of the Temple of Bel, previously one of the best-preserved parts of the ancient city.

The revelation follows the release of images by Islamic State last week showing the Baalshamin temple had been blown up.

IS militants seized control of Palmyra in May, sparking fears for the 2,000-year-old World Heritage site. Ancient ruins are not all that has been lost.

Khaled al-Asaad, the 81-year old former director of the world-renowned archaeological site at Palmyra in Syria, was beheaded in August. His body was hung on a street corner by Islamic State for everyone to see.

Prior to his death, al-Asaad and his son Walid, the current director of antiquities, had been detained for a month. They had been tortured as their captors tried to extract information about where treasures were to be found.

Walid’s fate remains unknown.

[Read more…]

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Tolerant and multicultural, Palmyra stood for everything ISIS hates

Tim Whitmarsh writes: In May 2015, Islamic State captured the modern city of Palmyra. The adjoining Unesco world heritage site is a breathtaking archaeological complex like no other. In the 2nd century AD this oasis city in the Syrian desert was one of the grandest and wealthiest places in the world, with a total population about the size of modern Cardiff. Much of the ancient civic and sacred architecture still survives. Perhaps most evocative is the colonnaded street more than 1km in length: in antiquity, caravan traders from all over the Middle East would have processed along this road with their spices and silks towards the city’s religious heart, the magnificent temple of Bel, eyed from above by hundreds of statues of Palmyrene benefactors.

The future of this extraordinary site is precarious. At the time of the initial occupation, an anti-Assad Syrian radio station carried an interview with Abu Laith al-Saoudi, an Isis commander, who vouched that only the idolatrous statues would be destroyed; “concerning the historical city we will preserve it and it will not undergo damages inshallah (‘if God wills it’)”. Whatever deity reigns in Isis fantasy firmament, however, must have been in a capricious and malign mood.

On 23 August 2015 it was reported that the temple of Baal Shamin, one of the best-preserved and most unique buildings on the site, had been levelled by explosives. [Continue reading…]

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The fallacy of the two-state solution

In an interview, the British-Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, said: What lies behind the idea of a two-state solution is: if the Jewish national movement and the Palestinian national movement arrive more or less at the same time to the same place, and were unable to settle the question of to whom the land belongs, and were unable to reconcile, and what was needed was kind of a grown-up in the form of the United States and Britain that would help these two sides to reconcile on the basis of a kind-of American, business-like approach, where you divide the land, you divide the responsibility, and so on. And that is a very wrong way of reading the whole history of Palestine since the arrival of the Zionist movement there in the late nineteenth century until today.

This is not a conflict between two national movements fighting over the same piece of land. This is a struggle between a settler-colonialist movement which arrived in the late nineteenth century in Palestine and still tries today to colonize Palestine by having most of the land with as few of the native people on it as possible. And the struggle of the native people is an anti-colonialist struggle. You have to come back to any historical case studies you remember of an anti-colonialist movement fighting a colonialist power and ask yourself, at any given moment was the idea of partitioning the land between the colonizer and the colonized portrayed as a reasonable solution? Especially by people who were on the left or saw themselves as conscientious members of the society? And the answer is a resounding no, of course you would not support the division of Algeria between the French settlers and the native Algerians. And even in places where you had settler colonialism, namely where you had white people who had nowhere to go in a way, like in South Africa, if you would suggest today as a progressive person that you should divide South Africa between the white population and the African population, you would be regarded at best as insane, and at worst as someone who is insincere and a fascist. [Continue reading…]

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Wind power sets records as countries seek climate fixes

National Geographic reports: As global climate efforts intensify this year, a renewable power source is setting new records. Wind’s costs are plummeting in the United States, and offshore farms are soaring in Europe — at least for now.

Worldwide, wind power expanded more last year than ever before, and new reports show it’s continuing to gain ground. Since it emits no heat-trapping carbon dioxide, wind will be a key tool for countries crafting a new UN-led climate accord this December in Paris.

Europe’s offshore wind farms are producing record amounts of power. They tripled capacity in the first six months of this year compared to the same period of 2014, owing largely to “explosive growth in Germany and the use of higher capacity wind turbines,” according to a recent report by European Wind Energy Association, an industry group.

In the U.S., wind now provides 5 percent of the nation’s electricity, the Department of Energy reported this week. It can produce 66 gigawatts (a gigawatt is a billion watts), enough to power 17.5 million homes. American companies are also joining the move off land. This year, near the coast of Rhode Island, the first U.S. offshore wind farm broke ground. [Continue reading…]

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Nine out of ten seabirds have plastic waste trapped in their guts

The New York Times reports: Seabirds like albatross, petrels and penguins face a growing threat from plastic waste in parts of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans, according to a new study published on Monday.

Brightly colored floating bits – debris that includes items such as discarded flip-flops, water bottles and popped balloons – often attract seabirds, which confuse them for food like krill or shrimp. Many die from swallowing the plastic.

The problem received some national attention in 2013 with the documentary “Midway,” which showed a remote island in the Pacific covered in corpses of baby albatross. Their exposed innards revealed lighters, bottle caps and toothbrushes mistakenly fed to them by their parents.

The number of incidents like these is rapidly increasing, according to the new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers from Australia and Britain analyzed a number of papers from 1962 to 2012 that had surveyed 135 seabirds. The team found that fewer than 10 percent of seabirds had traces of plastic in their stomachs during the 1970s and 1980s. They estimated that today that number has increased to about 90 percent of seabirds. And they predict that 99 percent of all seabirds will swallow plastic in 2050. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Alif Tree — ‘Belle’

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As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: While the world’s attention is fixed on the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees swarming into Europe, a potentially far more profound crisis is unfolding in the countries of the Middle East that have borne the brunt of the world’s failure to resolve the Syrian war.

Those reaching Europe represent a small percentage of the 4 million Syrians who have fled into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, making Syria the biggest single source of refugees in the world and the worst humanitarian emergency in more than four decades.

As the fighting grinds into a fifth year, the realization is dawning on aid agencies, the countries hosting the refugees and the Syrians themselves that most won’t be going home anytime soon, presenting the international community with a long-term crisis that it is ill-equipped to address and that could prove deeply destabilizing, for the region and the wider world.

The failure is first and foremost one of diplomacy, said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The conflict has left at least 250,000 people dead in the strategic heart of the Middle East and displaced more than 11 million overall, yet there is still no peace process, no discernible solution and no end in sight.

Now, the humanitarian effort is failing, too, ground down by dwindling interest, falling donations and spiraling needs. The United Nations has received less than half the amount it said was needed to care for the refugees over the past four years. Aid is being cut and programs are being suspended at the very moment when those who left Syria in haste, expecting they soon would go home, are running out of savings and wearing out the welcome they initially received.

“It is a tragedy without parallel in the recent past,” Guterres said in an interview, warning that millions could eventually end up without the help they need to stay alive.

“There are many battles being won,” he added. “Unfortunately, the number of battles being lost is more.”

It is a crisis whose true cost has yet to be realized. [Continue reading…]

A Syrian refugee, having reached Europe — where she hopes to find a doctor who can treat her two-year old daughter’s heart condition — told the New York Times: “I want to find somewhere where there are no Arabs. Europeans are better people. The Arabs hurt us a lot.”

Jenan Moussa, who reports for Al Aan TV, highlights the conflicted views on governance that are stifling the region’s political development.

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Smugglers who drove migrants to their deaths were part of a vast web

The Washington Post reports: The smugglers responsible for driving 71 migrants to their deaths in the back of a cramped, unventilated truck in Austria were part of a vast international syndicate that has been a subject of multiple criminal investigations, a leading European law enforcement official said Saturday.

Just four relatively low-level operatives have been arrested in connection with the deaths, which were discovered Thursday when authorities pried open the door to an abandoned truck emitting a noxious odor on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna.

But Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, said in an interview that his organization and national law enforcement agencies were “working urgently” to catch the ringleaders of an operation that epitomizes the rapid expansion and increasing sophistication of human smuggling networks across the continent.

“It was a direct hit in our systems,” said Wainwright, whose agency serves as the law enforcement arm of the 28-member European Union. “We were able to make intelligence connections with many other cases that we’re currently working on across Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Message to the West from ISIS suicide-bombing mastermind: ‘Islam is coming’

Martin Chulov in Baghdad interviews Abu Abdullah, known to his ISIS commanders as “the planner” – the man responsible for dispatching suicide bombers to attack mosques, universities, checkpoints and market places across the Iraqi capital: Throughout the past decade, Iraq’s prisons have been condemned by human rights groups as places where torture is routinely used on security prisoners. Abdullah winced when the guards approached him, and a block and chain sat in a plastic crate near the cell door. He bore no visible physical scars, though, and appeared well nourished – a legacy of what a senior officer said was an order from the government to keep all prisoners fed and in cells with constant electricity and air conditioning.

“Can you imagine that,” the officer sneered. “They have a better life than most people in Baghdad.”

When the guards left the room Abdullah appeared far more at ease, quickly switching from submission to defiance. “What is your message to the west?” he was asked. Abdullah paused briefly, then looked towards the door to see if we were alone. His eyes flashed: “Islam is coming. What the Islamic State has achieved in the past year cannot be undone. The caliphate is a reality.”

Abdullah, whose real name is Ibrahim Ammar Ali al-Khazali, claimed to have been a member of Isis and all of its earlier incarnations since 2004. His path to violent jihad was unorthodox: he was born a Shia Muslim and practised the faith until the late 1990s, when he converted to Sunni Islam and disavowed the teachings of the rival sect.

He said he had been active in the organisation’s earlier years until 2007 when he was shot in the head during a clash with Iraqi forces. Entry and exit scars were obvious near his left ear and he moved slowly, even taking into account the shackles and chains, as if he had lost some of his motor skills.

Whatever his injury, his resolve appeared to harden in recent years. “It was after 2011 that I got busy again,” he said. “I wanted to live in an Islamic state ruled by sharia. I want every thing that [Isis] wants. Their goals are my goals, there is no difference.” [Continue reading…]

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Growth of the new pragmatism in Iran depends on durable sanctions relief

Seyed Hossein Mousavian writes: With the ongoing domestic in-fighting in the United States and Iran over the nuclear deal — which has already become legally binding by way of a U.N. Security Council resolution — it has become clear that Congress poses the biggest risk for the deal falling through. Congress’s ability to play a spoiler role comes not only from the power it has to scuttle the deal altogether but also from its efforts at fostering an uncertain atmosphere regarding the removal of sanctions on Iran.

The effectiveness of the nuclear deal will rely largely on the P5+1 instilling confidence in the global business community that sanctions have been removed and the country is open for business. Truly removing sanctions in a way that would have tangible benefits for Iran would require shaping expectations in such a way that businesses do not feel their investments are precarious and susceptible to the political machinations of Congress or a future U.S. president.

For the deal to be successful, it is critical for Iran to derive real and substantial benefits from sanctions relief. President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has hedged its legacy, and by extension that of pragmatism in Iran, on being able to deliver economic prosperity to Iranians. The nuclear deal and normalizing Iran’s relations with the West have been viewed as the critical ingredient to accomplishing this goal.

Indeed, the successful conclusion of the nuclear talks has led to the development of a new pragmatism in Iran, personified by prominent decision-makers who have more sober and practical views on foreign and domestic policy. This phenomenon has seen the joining of political figures who hail from historically opposing camps, namely the moderate Rouhani and the principalist speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani. This heretofore unseen alliance is a significant development in Iran’s political landscape and has positioned pragmatism as a palpable political force in Iran. [Continue reading…]

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