Mideast Weekly Roundup

By Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Islamic State has taken control of the ancient city of Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old city located in the middle of the Syrian desert. This capture threatens yet another historic location, as Palmyra is one of UNESCO’s listed World Heritage sites. With ISIS’s occupation of Palmyra, the terrorist organization is now said to have control of half of Syria’s territory.

ISIS militants have also captured former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. The Islamic State swept into the home city of the late Gaddafi in the midst of infighting between two rival Libyan governments. Sirte is located halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi.

Added to the list of ISIS-captured cities is Ramadi, a key Iraqi city. Although President Barack Obama referred to the incident as a “tactical setback,” a senior U.S. State Department spokesperson called the loss of that city “a very serious situation.” Iraqi Security Forces fought ISIS over Ramadi for 18 months before the ISF leader made “what appears to be a unilateral decision to move to what he perceived to be a more defensible position” last weekend. ISIS ransacked its way through Ramadi and killed hundreds of people, including many who were loyal to the government.

Hours before Ramadi’s fall, a Syrian raid ordered by Obama led to the death of a senior Islamic State leader. Abu Sayyaf, the ISIS commander who was responsible for bringing in funding via black-market sales of gas and oil, died during a special forces overnight operation that ended with the death of at least 12 militants and the capture of Sayyaf’s wife. No U.S. forces were killed during the mission.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told military commanders that he will not allow inspections of Iran’s military sites or provide access to the country’s scientists. The latest nuclear proposal between Iran and the P5+1 does include the requirement that Iran allow international inspections of “suspicious sites,” but Khamenei accused the “impudent and brazen enemy” of increasing the “coercion and excessive demands” placed upon his country.

The trial of Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, 39, whose charges include espionage, will begin next week. The Iranian government will also try Rezaian’s wife and another suspect, who were all arrested in July. The U.S. State Department called the charges against the Washington Post reported “absurd.” Boxer Mohammad Ali, who is also an American Muslim, pleaded with the Iranian government to release Rezaian, whom he called “a man of peace and great faith.”

A senior Israeli official has accused the United States of allowing Iran to violate international sanctions. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that the United States was alerted to Iran’s purchase of 15 used commercial planes during the past three months, but “the deal still went through and there was no success in preventing it.” Existing sanctions restrict the sale of planes to Iran.

Iranian cargo ship “Iran Shahed” bound for Yemen heeded a request from the United States and Saudi Arabia to change course and land in Djibouti. Although Iran claimed that the vessel was carrying humanitarian aid and not weapons, Saudi Arabia, which controls the waters around Yemen, asked that the ship travel instead to the Djibouti port where the United Nations is coordinating humanitarian efforts.

U.S. State Department official Thomas Countryman traveled to Israel this week to continue discussions about a nuclear weapon-free Middle East. Egypt and other Arab countries have asked the United Nations to ban all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, with or without Israel’s cooperation, but the U.S. is hesitant about further alienating Israel. A U.S. spokesperson said that Israel supports a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and is working with the U.S. to accomplish this end.

Ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi was sentenced to death for breaking out of prison in 2011 and participating in the overthrow of the previous president. The Egyptian court handed down the death sentence to Morsi and more than 100 other people who were also involved in the prison break. The former president is already serving a 20-year sentence for his role in the 2012 killing of protestors outside a Cairo presidential palace. The capital punishment verdict was referred to Egypt’s top Muslim theologian for his opinion.

The Kuwait Supreme Court upheld an earlier court’s decision to sentence opposition leader Musallam al-Barrack to two years in prison for insulting the country’s leader. Al-Barrack has already served 50 days of the prison term, and had been released on bail while the appeal went to the supreme court. The charges stem from a 2012 address he gave that challenged the Kuwait emir.

Florida State University student Briana McHam, 20, of South Florida, died during an excursion in Jerusalem this week. McHam and a few of her friends had been hiking in 104-degree heat in Masada when the student fell more than 25 feet. She suffered heat stroke and dehydration and when she was finally found, could not be revived. McHam was a criminal justice major at FSU and had been studying abroad in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called off plans to ban Palestinian workers from riding the same public buses as Israelis. An investigation had been launched into Jewish passengers’ claims that Palestinians were harassing female Jewish bus riders. The resulting Israeli Defense Ministry project that would have required Palestinians workers to take separate transportation back to the West Bank was nixed after Netanyahu called it “unacceptable” and many criticized it for being racist.

Following the Vatican’s official recognition of a Palestinian state, Pope Francis canonized the first Palestinian saints this week. Four nuns – including Arab sisters Mariam Baouardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas from 19th century Palestine – were made saints during Mass in St. Peter’s Square on May 17. Catholic Church officials said that they hope the canonization brings hope to Christians all across the Middle East.

Haya Shahar, 65, became the oldest woman in Israel to give birth after she delivered a healthy baby boy by cesarean section on May 18. She had been unable to conceive naturally during her 46-year-marriage, but then underwent successful in-vitro fertilization. It is illegal to perform IVF on women older than 54 in Israel, and a doctor at Shahar’s hospital stressed the complications that could result from giving birth at an advanced age.

Activists in Gaza kicked off the Karama Gaza Film Festival featuring local documentary and moviemakers in the rubble-filled Gazan district of Shijaiyah, which was heavily damaged during last year’s war between Israel and Hamas. The event planners unrolled a 70-meter-long red carpet throughout the war-torn district as a nod to the recent bloodshed in the region. Participant Said Aburamadan said, “Red is first and foremost the color of so much blood that was spilled here this summer. The blood of women, men and children.”

Israel has qualified for the Eurovision finals for the first time in five years. Nadav Guedj, 16, sang his pop song “Golden Boy” to earn a spot in Sunday’s final Eurovision event. He also won the second season of Israel’s reality TV show “The Next Star.”

Jessie Owen Payne

Jessie Owen Payne is the Media Director of The Philos Project. Jessie graduated from Bob Jones University in 2008 with a BA in Radio and Television Broadcasting and a minor in Public Relations Journalism. She interned with Entercom Communications while in college, did freelance writing for The Greenville News in South Carolina, and worked as a staff reporter and editor for The Springville Journal and, later, The Sun News outside Buffalo, NY. Jessie’s passions include fashion, photography and travel. She currently lives with her husband Drew and two children, Logan and Ashtyn, in Greenville, S.C.