Mideast Weekly Roundup

By Saturday, July 15, 2017

A historic water deal between Israel and Palestine was brokered this week with support from Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy. In what Greenblatt hailed as an “important step forward,” Israel will provide Palestinian territories with millions of cubic meters of water per year and give water to the West Bank and Gaza at a reduced rate. The water will eventually be supplied via a preexisting World Bank-sponsored plan to link the Dead Sea and the Red Sea by pipelines and a desalination plant in Jordan. “Water is a precious commodity in the Middle East,” Greenblatt said. “The United States welcomes the agreement reached by the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel, which will allow for the sale of up to 33 million cubic meters of water from Israel to the PA. I am proud of the role that the United States and our international partners have played in helping the parties reach this deal, and I hope it is a harbinger of things to come.”

The Pentagon has confirmed that Abu Sayed, the Islamic State’s leader in Afghanistan, died in an airstrike earlier this week. In a statement, Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Dana White said that the attack was carried out on the Islamic State’s headquarters in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on July 11. “ISIS leaders chose Abu Sayed to lead the group after Afghan and U.S. forces killed the previous [ISIS-Khorasan] leaders … in late July 2016,” she added. Sayed was considered the emir of the Afghan branch of the militant group. “It’s obviously a victory on our side in terms of setting them back,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “It’s the right direction.” According to Gen. John Nicholson of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Sayed was the third emir killed in Afghanistan this year. “We will continue until they are annihilated,” he said. “There is no safe haven for ISIS-K in Afghanistan.”

Saudi Arabia announced this week that it will finally lift the nationwide ban on allowing schoolgirls to participate in sports. For the first time, females in Saudi public schools will be taught physical education in a move praised by the international community. The Saudi Education Ministry, which announced the change, did not specify which types of physical activities would be covered, but said that they will be introduced gradually and will be “in accordance with the rules of Sharia.” Female students will still not be permitted to participate in driver’s education. Calling the move “overdue reform,” Human Rights Watch Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden added, “This important step forward can advance human rights and health for women despite the daunting legal hurdles that remain in the country.”

Nicholas Alan Warden (left) and Robert Grodt

Two U.S. volunteers have died fighting against the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. Robert Grodt, 28, of Santa Cruz, Calif. was one of the two Americans killed early this month after taking up arms alongside the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Grodt was a former Occupy Wall Street protestor and volunteer medic. This week, the YPG announced that Buffalo, N.Y. resident Nicholas Alan Warden, 29, was also killed in northern Syria. Grodt had earlier explained that he joined the YPG “to help the Kurdish people and their struggle for autonomy within Syria and elsewhere.” Warden, a U.S. Army combat veteran, said he was inspired to join the fight against ISIS following recent terrorist attacks in California, Florida and Paris.

The United Nations is calling on Bahrain to release a prominent activist that was sentenced to two years in prison for disseminating “fake news.” Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested for undermining the “prestige” of the kingdom after he was interviewed by TV reporters about the situation inside Bahrain in 2015. “Imprisoning Nabeel Rajab simply for sharing his opinion is a flagrant violation of human rights and an alarming sign that the Bahraini authorities will go to any length to silence criticism,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general. AI later called the 52-year-old’s sentencing “the latest shocking display of zero tolerance for freedom of expression by the Bahraini authorities.”

Rumors continue to abound that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed, with a top U.S. commander saying there is no evidence the ISIS leader is still alive. Following reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that it has “confirmed information” about Baghdadi’s death, U.S. Central Command said in a statement, “We cannot confirm this report, but hope it is true. We strongly advise ISIS to implement a strong line of succession. It will be needed.” Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top American commander in Operation Inherent Resolve, said, “I don’t have reason to believe [Baghdadi] is alive. I don’t have proof of life.”

Staff Sgt. Maj. Hayil Satawi and Staff Sgt. Kamil Shnaan

Two Israeli police officers were killed this week and one was wounded in a shooting attack near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Three Israeli Arabs between the ages of 19 and 29 reportedly opened fire at the site in the Old City of Jerusalem, killing Staff Sgt. Maj. Hayil Satawi, 30, and Staff Sgt. Kamil Shnaan, 22. The attackers were later killed by security forces. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that it was “a sad day in which our Druze brothers pay the heaviest price in our joint mission to protect the security of our country. I salute them and their heroism.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, “We cannot allow for agents of murder who desecrate the name of God to drag us into a bloody war, and we will deal with a heavy hand against all the arms of terror and its perpetrators. The State of Israel will defend its sovereignty and its citizens with a strong hand, and will not allow anyone to provoke the region into a bloody war.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly condemned the murders in a phone call with Netanyahu.

An Iranian cancer researcher detained at Logan International Airport in Boston has been sent back to Iran. Mohsen Dehnavi, his wife and their three children were denied entry into the United States and were put on a plane to return to Iran, even though they held J-1 visas for visiting scholars. Dehnavi, 31, had been hired at Boston Children’s Hospital but was “deemed inadmissible to the U.S. based on information discovered during the CPB inspection.” He and his family were detained for 30 hours and he was interrogated for 12 hours before being deported. “Based on what we know, it’s not travel ban-related,” said Susan Church, chairperson of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s probably something much more stupid than that.”

Political newcomer and self-made millionaire Avi Gabbay was elected the party leader of Israel’s Labor Party this week in a surprise upset. The 50-year-old beat party veteran Amir Peretz this week in a runoff, creating what influential Israeli political blogger Tal Schneider called a “dramatic change” for the Labor Party. After the election results were announced, Gabbay told his supporters, “To all those who rushed to eulogize the Labor Party as an alternative for the government, and to all those who thought the Israeli citizens had lost hope in change … tonight is the answer.” Gabbay added that his campaign to oppose Netanyahu and “replace the government in Israel” will begin immediately.

A ceasefire in part of Syria was brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan last week, and Trump has said that a second cessation of hostilities is in the works. The first agreement, which covered an unspecified part of the southern portion of the country, went into effect on July 9 following weeks of negotiations in Amman, Jordan. According to Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy for the Syrian peace talks, de-escalation in Syria will “reassure the Syrian people that while we are talking, the people are not going to die because of bombs.” Following the announcement of a ceasefire, Trump tweeted, “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Ikaika Kang has been arrested for pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and for planning to commit a mass shooting. The FBI – which investigated the soldier for a year before detaining him – announced that Kang, 34, is currently being held without bail and was on active duty in Hawaii at the time of his arrest. The soldier had completed two tours, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, and had been awarded the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. Kang’s attorney said he believes his client is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues, but photos have surfaced of Kang kissing the Islamic State flag. He was also in possession of classified documents that he’d planned to turn over to the militant group.

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.