Middle East Ticker

Brouhaha over Israeli Settlement Resolution, Two Libyans Hijack Plane to Flee Conflict, and Syrian War in Lull

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, December 27, 2016, 10:30 AM

Israeli Government Outraged by U.N. Security Council Resolution Restating Standing Policy

The United States abstained in a Friday vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution that states the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution.” Daniel Serwer writes at Peacefare, “This is blunt language by diplomatic standards, but it is not unfair. What it essentially does is to try to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution by preventing unilateral Israeli occupation of territory that is vital to the formation of a Palestinian state.” As the resolution itself notes, this is established policy and the resolution considered Friday only “reaffirms” the position previously taken by the United Nations -- it did not specify actions or consequences for violating international law -- but the United States has often used its veto to block similar resolutions from being passed. With the United States refraining from voting, the resolution passed 14-0.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been publicly outraged and claimed that “the Obama administration initiated [the resolution], stood behind it, coordinated on the wording and demanded that it be passed”—as if U.N. member states needed convincing to pass a resolution that previously only the United States has blocked. Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s acting foreign minister, summoned U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro and the representatives of 10 of the countries that voted in favor of the resolution to condemn their support. He said Sunday that he will do “all it takes” to ensure Israel will not be harmed by the resolution, and that the Israeli cabinet is considering a “plan of action” against the United Nations. He also instructed Israeli diplomats to curtail communications with the countries that supported the resolution and canceled a visit from Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman; the Ukrainian government has summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest the move.

The resolution is the first to pass since 1980 on the specific issue of Israeli settlements, but the United States has previously supported other resolutions critical of Israel. “To be sure, all of this is not new,” Elena Chachko notes in her assessment for Lawfare. In fact, standing U.S. policy is largely in agreement with the resolution, though the United States abstained rather than voting for its passage. “People shouldn't confuse UNSCR for US policy,” Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East Security Director at the Center for a New American Security, tweeted on Friday. “If it was, we would have voted yes.”

 

Two Libyan Men Hijack Plane to Seek Asylum, Conflict Escalates Near Benghazi

Two Libyan men, Moussa Saha and Ahmed Ali, hijacked a domestic Afriqiyah Airways flight on Friday; the flight took off from Sabha, deep in the Libyan interior, and was en route to Tripoli when it was diverted to Malta by the men, who were carrying fake handguns and grenades. After a standoff on the runway, the two men surrendered peacefully and are facing charges for the hijacking as well as “possession of imitation weapons, using violence against a person on a flight, holding people against their will, making threats of violence and attempting to cause financial or economic instability to a government.” Saha and Ali reportedly were trying to reach Rome to seek political asylum. None of the 111 other passengers and six crew members on the flight were injured, and returned to Libya on Saturday.

The exact reasons for the men’s attempt to leave the country have not been reported, but Libya remains deeply riven by conflict. One of those frontlines escalated again on Monday: forces from the Libyan National Army, under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, attacked an area controlled by the Benghazi Defence Brigades near the town of Houn. In recent months, Haftar’s military, which is allied with the Tobruk-based government and the House of Representatives, has worked to prevent advances by Islamist forces from Benghazi in Libya’s oil producing region. A spokesman for the Libyan National Army said that the attack was “a pre-emptive strike against militias that are mobilising for an attack against the Libyan army,” but it has raised concerns about increased conflict.

 

Syrian War Slows after Aleppo, Russian Military Flight Crashes

A Russian military plane crashed while carrying 60 members of the prestigious Red Army Choir and nine journalists traveling to Syria to entertain troops for Christmas. The flight fell into the Black Sea two minutes after taking off from Sochi, where it had stopped to refuel; all ninety-two people were killed. Though Russian officials initially said that terrorism was being considered, Russian media have since reported that investigators now suspect a technical malfunction or pilot error.

The civil war in Syria has entered a relative lull after the conclusion of the Russian-backed regime offensive to retake Aleppo. Russian and Assad regime forces are clearing neighborhoods evacuated by rebels at the end of the siege. A spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry said that troops have encountered mines and booby traps, and found mass graves of people executed by rebel forces. Russian diplomats have pivoted toward renewing peace talks, a move that has the support of Turkey. Turkish diplomats met with Russian and Iranian officials in Moscow last week, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke again with President Vladimir Putin on Sunday. “Our aim here is to make sure the ceasefire is reached and systematically enforced in all of Syria,” Erdoğan said on Monday. “Our ultimate aim is to reach a political transition process.”