Middle East Ticker

Temple Mount Protests Wind Down, New Ceasefire in Libya Complicates Peace Effort, Hajj Gets Caught in Gulf Crisis, and Lebanon’s PM Makes Pitch in DC

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, August 1, 2017, 11:00 AM

Relative Calm Returns to Temple Mount

After another week of unrest on the Temple Mount, Israeli police raided homes in East Jerusalem on Sunday night and 33 people they believe organized the recent protests. Today has been relatively calm despite record numbers of Jewish visitors to the area observing Tisha B’Av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Temples. Four people—three Jewish visitors and a Muslim man—were after a fight broke out, but it seemed mostly unrelated to the recent protests.

The situation appears to be settling back into the previous status quo after two weeks of clashes. Last Thursday, violence as Israeli officials removed the last railings and metal detector equipment from the entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque complex and Muslim worshippers returned to the area. Israeli police said they were responding to people throwing stones from the Temple Mount at Jews praying at the Western Wall; Palestinian officials said 46 Palestinians were wounded in the fighting. That night, police also several Palestinians who locked themselves in the mosque and refused to leave. Larger protests were anticipated on Friday, but they never materialized. As a precaution, Israeli officials entry to al-Aqsa for men under 50 attending the mid-day prayer, but all restrictions had been lifted by the end of the day.

Some Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem see the past couple weeks as a demonstration of their ability to organize quickly and independent of major political organizations.

The relative calm returning to Jerusalem’s Old City is always tenuous, and as Israelis belonging to the Temple Movement increasingly pressure the government to open up the Temple Mount to Jewish worshippers, more clashes are likely. Some Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem see the past couple weeks as a demonstration of their ability to organize quickly and independent of major political organizations. "This is just Round 1, and there's much more to come,” Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the PLO’s negotiating team, CBC.

 

French Diplomacy Reaches Ceasefire Agreement for Libya but May Make Peace More Difficult

Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, and Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, to a national ceasefire and new elections in a joint statement following talks in France last week. The announcement is the most substantive step towards reconciliation between Libya’s feuding factions to date and the culmination of a concerted push towards a peace agreement driven by French President Emmanuel Macron. In addition to talks on political reconciliation, the summit also included a discussion of the refugee crisis, and France to set up “hot spots” in Libya where European officials can do forward processing of applicants in an effort to deter ineligible refugees from risking the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean.

The announcement is the most substantive step towards reconciliation between Libya’s feuding factions to date...

While the joint statement seems like a promising step, neither side seems very committed to implementing the policies laid out in it. That was evident from the handshake at the end of the summit, with Macron seeming to physically push Sarraj and Haftar together. Within hours, Reuters , Haftar was telling reporters that the ceasefire is limited to “just with moderate parties and youths who have some misdemeanors” and that the promised elections might never occur. “I do not care about elections. I care about the future of Libya as a stable and civil state,” he told France24 Arabic.

Some experts are warning that the French initiative will make a sustainable peace even more difficult to achieve. The French talks, though the U.N. envoy participated, circumvented a parallel, Italian-led initiative, and granted more legitimacy to Haftar than most international observers would have preferred. “The likely outcome will be Haftar’s international legitimisation without him actually having to give up anything. In this sense, it will make Italy’s goal of stabilising Libya even harder,” the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Mattia Toaldo Financial Times. The Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said he was skeptical of France’s diplomacy. “There are too many open formats in Libya, too many mediators, too many initiatives,” he told La Stampa. “The French one won’t be the first and I fear it won’t be the last.

 

Hajj Season Gets Caught in Gulf Crisis Politics

The for a breakthrough in the Gulf crisis last week proved fleeting. Over the past week, the rhetoric on both sides has escalated still further. As journalist Joyce Karam on Twitter, both Qatari and Saudi media this past week have accused the other of actions tantamount to a “declaration of war.”

Qatar, for its part, cited the ongoing Saudi-led embargo and closure of the Saudi-Qatar border as a “declaration of war.” Saudi Arabia’s accusation is more complicated and a response to both sides politicizing the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s a particularly sensitive subject for the Saudi monarchy, which considers its governance of Mecca and management of the hajj as a cornerstone of its legitimacy; the phrase “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina) is the choice honorific for the king. Saudi Arabia is accused of politicizing the hajj just about every year, and Qatari officials made a complaint to the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion this past weekend, but Saudi officials are saying that Qatar went further and called for internationalizing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That’s “a declaration of war on the kingdom,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir Sunday. "We reserve the right to respond to anyone who is working on the internationalization of the holy sites.”

What’s weird, though, is that there’s no evidence that Qatari officials actually called for internationalizing the cities. In fact, as Brian Whitaker in his summary of the crisis's latest chapter, both Qatar’s foreign minister and Ministry of Religious Endowments denied that Qatar had taken that position. The stance that Saudi Arabia is attributing to Qatar and which Qatari officials are denying seems to echo how the crisis began: with hackers, likely working for the United Arab Emirates, publishing fake news articles attributing provocative comments to Qatar’s emir. Despite it being a false report, the purported incident became the Saudis’ pretext for isolating Qatar. "We are tired of responding to false information and stories invented from nothing," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told Al-Jazeera when asked about the supposed call to internationalize Mecca.

The crisis will be—as Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash warned a couple weeks ago—a “long estrangement.”

It’s still unclear whether accusations of declarations of war are just a rhetorical escalation and more posturing or a foundation for more forceful policies. But it pushes any hope of a resolution to the crisis even further away. The crisis will be—as Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash a couple weeks ago—a “long estrangement.”

As the hajj becomes a flashpoint for the ongoing Gulf crisis, this year’s pilgrimage marks the end of a Saudi-Iran feud over access to Mecca. Iran blocked its citizens from attending the hajj last year after a deadly stampede in 2015 killed more than 1,000 people (the Associated Press 1,453 dead, approximately double the official figure released by the Saudi government), the plurality of whom were Iranians. The large number of Iranian dead led to accusations that they had been targeted or deliberately denied medical attention. But, while Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told hajj organizers this year that they will never forget the “catastrophic events” of 2015, Iranians will be back in force this year. Approximately 86,500 Iranian citizens are to make the pilgrimage in the next few weeks.

 

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Visits Washington

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri paid a visit to Washington, DC, last week for meetings with President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and members of Congress. At the top of Hariri’s agenda was securing U.S. aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—which the Trump administration has threatened to zero out because of the LAF’s pragmatic cooperation with Hezbollah—and averting further sanctions targeting Hezbollah.

Hariri is an interesting messenger: He campaigned against Hezbollah for years after the assassination of his father, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri; he previously served as prime minister from 2009 to 2011, until Hezbollah took down his government. Hariri then spent five years in the political wilderness and was dogged by reports of declining patronage from Saudi Arabia, including fewer for the Hariri family’s construction company. Just as it seemed like Hariri might be at the end of his political career, he negotiated his way back into office as part of a cut with his erstwhile enemies, Hezbollah, that ended a two-year political vacuum last November.

Hariri’s trip appears to have been fairly successful.

Trump seemed unaware of Hariri’s complicated history, in a joint press conference in the Rose Garden on Tuesday that “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah”—missing the fact that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. “We have an understanding with Hezbollah,” Hariri Foreign Policy later in the week. “The functioning of the government, parliament and everything—it’s important to have this consensus.”

Hariri’s trip appears to have been fairly successful. Trump committed to providing additional funding to Lebanon to assist with the influx of Syrian refugees that have flooded the country, and Hariri’s team was optimistic about protecting aid to the LAF after meetings with members of Congress. "Though these cuts have been proposed, we understand from our Washington meetings that they are not expected to happen in the case of assistance to the LAF,” a member of Hariri’s delegation Al Monitor. Blocking further sanctions with be more difficult—Congress is already new legislation targeting the group. “I believe that there are already enough sanctions on Lebanon and in the banking sector,” Hariri , when describing his message to U.S. legislators.

While Hariri was in Washington, Hezbollah reached a agreement with Sunni militants operating along the Lebanon-Syria border. Under the arrangement, militants and civilians will be granted safe passage from Arsal—a town that has been a hotbed for extremist groups, including the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, since the early days of the Syrian civil war—to Syria’s Idlib province. Nearly 9,000 people are to be bussed out of Lebanon in accordance with the deal; evacuations are slated to begin today.