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Mideast Weekly Roundup

By Saturday, September 9, 2017

Israel has pledged $1 million in aid to a Jewish community in Houston, Texas following the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. The donation will benefit more than 60,000 residents in the community and will help repair and rebuild schools, businesses and synagogues in the area. “For years the Jewish communities stood by Israel when it needed their help,” Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said. “Now it is our turn to stand by Houston’s Jewish community.” Hurricane Harvey struck on August 25, causing millions of dollars in damages to the city. According to reports, 71 percent of the Jewish population in Houston lived in the areas that were severely flooded.

A convoy of Islamic State fighters was stranded near Syria’s border after being surrounded by United States and Syrian forces. More than 300 retreating militants were cut off and looked to evacuate by boarding buses back to ISIS-controlled territories. Bombing hasn’t taken place because the group of fighters includes women and children who are held by the extremists. The buses are now stranded in an area under Syrian government control. Several fighters are said to have escaped across the border to Iraq after the convoy split up. U.S. envoy to the coalition Brett McGurk said that the militants “should be killed in the battlefield, not bused across Syria to Iraq without Iraq’s consent.”

U.S. President Donald Trump met with the emir of Kuwait on Thursday, praising the leader for his work in mediating the Arab crisis involving Qatar and its neighboring countries. Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has been leading the charge to end the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Trump said that these countries are “essential partners” with the United States, and offered to help in the mediation process between the involved nations. The crisis ensued when Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut ties with Qatar following allegations the country had funded extremists groups in Iran.

Sara Netanyahu

The wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may face indictment for the misuse of public funds and falsifying documents. Sara Netanyahu is suspected of diverting more than $100,000 in public funds to hire private chefs and host lavish dinners. No date for a possible hearing has been set as of yet. The announcement this week is the procedural first step ahead of formal charges being filed against the prime minister’s wife.

Despite war and devastation, the country of Syria has a glimmer of hope as the Syrian national soccer team has a chance to make history by qualifying for the country’s first World Cup Final appearance. After a draw with Iran last week, the Syrian team finished third in its group and will now face Australia in a home and away series next month. Should Syria win the series, its team would enter in an intercontinental playoff in November. Qualification for the tournament would be a striking achievement for the country. Syria hasn’t played a home match due to the war and conflict in the country, and its team has played its games in Malaysia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been attempting to portray normalcy in government-controlled regions of Syria, and the soccer team is vetted by the government to feature only government-approved players.

Syrian government forces made gains against the Islamic State in eastern Syria in what is being called a major advance in the battle against ISIS. The breakthrough ended a three-year siege by ISIS in the region and sparked a much-needed boost for Assad’s army. The fighting lasted several weeks before Syrian forces were able to gain access into the besieged base known as Brigade 137. As they advanced through the neighborhoods, the soldiers were met with cheers from civilians held captive there. Coupled with advancements from U.S. forces in the desert province, this victory continues to signal strong conquests in liberating the region from ISIS control.

Three jailed Americans have lost their appeal in court in Iran and will serve their sentence after being imprisoned on charges of spying. Chinese-American student Xiyue Wang and Iranian-American businessman Nizar Zakka and his father were each imprisoned in separate cases of spying. Wang was accused of collaborating with foreign governments to steal highly confidential articles. He was arrested while doing research in Iran for his university dissertation. Zakka, an advocate for Internet freedom who has done work for the U.S. government, was arrested on espionage-related charges. The decision comes in the wake of rising tension between the United States and Iran. Trump has warned Iran that it will face serious consequences if imprisoned Americans are not immediately released.

According to an investigative report, Islamic State agents attempted to recruit a BBC reporter to carry out an attack on the London Bridge a year before eight were killed and dozens were injured on the bridge earlier this year. A special report by BCC Inside Out London revealed that one of its journalists was encouraged by the suspect to carry out the attack, whether alone or in a group. The report went on to state that the militant agent also sent tutorials over the web, including how to attack a victim with a knife, and step-by-step instructions on how to make a bomb. On June 3, police at the scene shot Rachid Redouane, Youssef Zaghba and Khuram Butt after the trio drove a vehicle into a crowd near the London Bridge.

U.S. officials have charged four Turks – including the former Turkish economy minister – for participating in a conspiracy to violate sanctions against Iran. Prosecutors charged the accused with conspiring to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of transactions on behalf of the government of Iran and other Iranian entities. U.S. officials have said that these actions are direct violations of existing American sanctions. The indictment has strained ties between the U.S. government and Ankara, and is part of an ongoing case stemming from the arrest of Reza Zarrab, a wealthy gold trader who was detained last year on charges of evasion.

A mother of two was sentenced in Philadelphia on Wednesday to eight years in prison after conspiring to join ISIS. Keonna Thomas spent hours learning about the militant organization and communicating with known terrorists online. “I’m not a evil or malicious person,” Thomas said during her testimony in the trial. “I am just someone who, I guess, at one point, was impressionable.” Thomas was arrested in 2015 and pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS. She became enthralled with the idea of marrying a devout Muslim man, and after making the connection with a member of the Islamic State, made arrangements to join him in the Middle East.

Qatar has announced the addition of a new $7.4 billion port along its coast to provide a regional transport hub to the region. The new port will help shield the nation’s economy against sanctions being enforced by neighboring states. The country has been receiving large amounts of food and building materials in advance of its role as host of the 2022 World Cup. Concerns have arisen in recent months that the plans for the World Cup would be delayed due to the sanctions imposed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Officials say the new port would allow Qatar to get around sanctions by importing goods directly from outside countries instead of through a hub in Dubai.

United Nations investigators have accused the Syrian government of using a banned chemical substance in a deadly strike last April that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry said that a Syrian Air Force plane carried out the attack on April 4, and has placed the blame solely at the feet of Assad’s government. The panel’s findings are the first to unequivocally pin responsibility on the Syrian government. In response to the attack in April, the United States sent dozens of cruise missile strikes on the airfield from which the Syrian fighters launched their attack.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley laid out a plan on Tuesday that would allow the United States to step back from the Iran nuclear deal. She argued that Iran’s technical compliance alone isn’t enough for the United States to stick with the agreement, considering the country’s open hostility to the U.S. in its history. Trump will decide in October whether to certify if Iran is abiding by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That agreement – which was signed in 2015 and enacted in 2016 – eased nuclear-related sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. What I am saying is should he decide to certify, he has grounds to stand on,” Haley clarified.

Israeli airstrikes targeted several Syrian military sites said to be producing chemical weapons. The Syrian military said that the airstrikes killed two people near the town of Masyaf in western Syria and caused material damage. The response comes just days after the United Nations formally accused Syria of using chemical weapons in airstrikes against civilians. Israel has previously struck weapons convoys suspected of supporting Hezbollah and other militant groups as they seek to eliminate access for their enemies to obtain chemical weapons. 

Twelve female students were killed in a road accident in Iran on Friday when their bus overturned near the town of Darab. The bus was carrying 45 girls to participate in a national conference of talented students. Thirty-three other students, mostly junior high school-aged, were taken to the local hospital for treatment. With more than 17,000 traffic deaths reported each year, Iran has one of the world’s worst traffic safety records. These tragedies often are a result of disregard for traffic laws, unsafe vehicles and slow emergency response times.

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Jonny Gamet

Jonny Gamet serves as a youth pastor in Greenville, S.C. He has master’s degrees in broadcast management and in Biblical studies. A self-proclaimed coffee and theology addict, he enjoys studying and writing about sports, religion and entertainment. Jonny and his wife Kathryn have three children.

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