Arab League head warns no Mideast peace deal without Palestinian state

FILE PHOTO - Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit attends the Arab League's foreign ministers meeting to discuss unannounced U.S. blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace, in Cairo, Egypt April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – The head of the Arab League warned on Monday that attempts to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be in vain without the establishment of a Palestinian state on all territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s comments appeared directed at a still unpublished peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump has dubbed the “deal of the century”. As part of the plan, a U.S.-led conference will be held next week in Bahrain on proposals for the Palestinian economy.

The Palestinian leadership is boycotting the conference, saying Trump’s peace plan is likely to be heavily weighted in favor of Israel and to quash their aspirations for statehood in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While the precise outlines of the draft plan have yet to be revealed, Palestinian and Arab sources who have been briefed on it say it jettisons the two-state solution.

“Whatever is rejected by the Palestinian or the Arab side is unacceptable,” Aboul Gheit said during an event at the Arab League.

“What is acceptable from our side as Arabs as a solution is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital,” he added.

Based in Egypt, the Arab League is often seen as a talking shop rendered ineffective by regional rivalries, but it remains the main forum for Arab opinion on international matters.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are its most influential members.

Aboul Gheit said that Israel’s acceptance of an Arab Peace Initiative drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, which offers Israel normal ties in return for withdrawal from territory captured in 1967, was the only acceptable solution for Arab states.

“If (Israel) chooses the only reasonable and accepted way from our side as Arabs, which is the establishment of a Palestinian state … it will be accepted in the region as a normal regional partner,” he said.

Last week, a White House official said Egypt, Jordan and Morocco planned to attend the Bahrain conference.

Palestinians urged Egypt and Jordan to reconsider their attendance at the U.S.-led conference in Bahrain, voicing concern it would weaken any Arab opposition to Washington’s coming peace plan.

(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Ahmed Tolba, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Toby Chopra)

Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

East Libyan troops close on Tripoli, clashes at airport

Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, Libya April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan troops commanded by Khalifa Haftar said on Friday they had advanced into the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli in a dangerous thrust against the internationally-recognized government.

Fighting was going on near the former international airport.

The moves by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, which is allied to a parallel administration based in the east, escalated a power struggle that has splintered the nation since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

It came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres departed after meeting Haftar to try and avert civil war.

“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.

Haftar, 75, who casts himself as an opponent of Islamist extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new Gaddafi, was quoted by Al-Arabiya TV as telling Guterres the operation would continue until terrorism was defeated.

The coastal capital Tripoli is the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government.

In 2014, he assembled former Gaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi.

This year, he took the south with its oilfields.

As well as visiting Haftar in Benghazi, U.N. boss Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later this month.

But that plan looked in jeopardy on Thursday as LNA forces took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based, U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

From there, Haftar’s forces moved north, first taking the village of Suq al-Khamis, about 40 km from Tripoli, after some fighting, a resident and an eastern military source said.

Then on Friday, the LNA said it took the areas of Qasr ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabie on the southern outskirts of the capital, seizing the former Tripoli International Airport, which has been abandoned since a 2014 battle.

SETBACK TO MEDIATION PLAN

There was no independent confirmation of that, but a video posted online purportedly showed LNA fighters inside Qasr ben Ghashir suburb, which includes the airport.

However, the Tripoli interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, later told Ahrar TV his forces had retaken the old airport while there were clashes in the Qasr ben Ghashir area.

The LNA said it had lost five soldiers since Thursday.

While the advance has looked fast, so far Haftar’s force has mainly crossed sparsely-populated areas after taking Gharyan, the last town in the mountains before the road descends to a coastal plain.

In 2014 battles for Tripoli, it took advancing fighters weeks to reach the city center from the old airport as snipers bogged them down.

Forces from Misrata, a city east of Tripoli, sent more reinforcements to defend Serraj, residents said.

Major ministries are still 20 km away.

Despite their gains, Haftar’s forces failed to take a checkpoint about 30 km west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia. An LNA-allied armed group withdrew overnight from so-called Gate 27, leaving it abandoned in the morning, a Reuters reporter said.

And in another setback, forces allied to Tripoli took 145 LNA fighters prisoner in Zawiya, west of the capital, a western commander, Mohamed Alhudair, told Reuters.

An LNA source confirmed 128 had been captured.

Armed groups allied to the Tripoli government have moved more machinegun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar’s forces.

The offensive is a setback for the United Nations and Western nations trying to mediate between Serraj, 59, who comes from a wealthy business family, and military veteran Haftar.

They met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss power-sharing.

The United Nations wants to find agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

The UAE, however, joined Western countries in expressing its deep concern about the fighting.

Germany called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council due to the military escalation. Russia said it was not helping Haftar’s forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

Tunisia has tightened control on its border with Libya in response to the renewed conflict, the defense ministry said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean and has been a destination for migrants, was very worried, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

“We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, are not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating,” Salvini said.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)

Special Report: Egypt kills hundreds of suspected militants in disputed gun battles

The gravestone of Mohamed Abu Amer is seen near his family home in Al-Khanka, Egypt, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Staff

By Reuters staff

CAIRO (Reuters) – Mohamed Abu Amer, a landscape gardener from Egypt was working in downtown Cairo when national security agents took him away on Feb. 6, 2018, his family said.

For almost six months Amer’s family waited for news of the 37-year-old father of two. Their messages to the Public Prosecutor and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and the national security agency, went unanswered.

Then on July 31, the ministry announced on its Facebook page that Amer was among five terrorists killed in a shootout earlier that day when police approached their hideout 40 km north of Cairo. Amer was wanted for the murder of a national security agent, the statement said.

It’s a version of events his family doesn’t buy. Amer was no terrorist and he died in the custody of the state, not in a gun battle, his relatives insist. “I know that what they are saying is untrue,” said a relative. “He was with them for six months.”

Amer was one of 465 men killed in what the Interior Ministry said were shootouts with its forces over a period of three and a half years, a Reuters analysis of Interior Ministry statements has found. The announcements reviewed by Reuters appeared on the ministry’s social media or were published by the state news agency.

The killings began in the summer of 2015. In June that year, Islamist militants had assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, an ally of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi responded with a sweeping anti-terrorism law that shielded the police and military from prosecution for the proportionate use of force. Human rights groups say it was the start of a brutal crackdown. A researcher at an Egyptian organization that documents human rights abuses said police embarked on a spate of “extra judicial killings knowing that no one will hold them accountable.”

In 108 incidents involving 471 men, only six suspects survived, according to Interior Ministry statements from July 1, 2015 to the end of 2018. That represents a kill ratio of 98.7 percent. Five members of the security forces were killed, the statements said. Thirty seven were injured.

The Interior Ministry issued crime scene photographs with some of the statements. They showed bloodied bodies with assault rifles or shotguns on the ground beside them. Almost all of the statements said arms and ammunition were recovered at the scene. Some said Islamic State flyers were found.

But in interviews with Reuters, the relatives of 11 of the dead men contradicted the official accounts. Their sons, brothers or husbands had been plucked by police or national security agents from the streets or their homes and disappeared, they said, in some cases for several months. Then came news of their deaths in an Interior Ministry Facebook post or statement.

The families said none of the young men carried arms. But some were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed in 2013 after Sisi led the military in toppling Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi.

Reuters showed three forensic experts mortuary images of two of the 11 dead men. These specialists cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account of the two men’s deaths.

Three witnesses to one deadly encounter – the shooting of two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Kamal and Yasser Shehata, in a Cairo apartment block in 2016 – disputed the Interior Ministry’s report of a gun battle with its forces. There was no exchange of fire or gun fight, these witnesses said.

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on human rights in Egypt, released in March, said abuses included arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents, forced disappearances and torture. The United States, nevertheless, has unfrozen $195 million in military aid to Egypt which it had previously withheld in part because of concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. U.S. officials reason that security cooperation with Egypt is important to U.S. national security.

Kate Vigneswaran, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists’ Middle East and North Africa program, said the killings described by Reuters could “constitute extrajudicial executions, a serious crime under international law.” Evidence that victims were shot at close range would “indicate that the use of lethal force was not a response to a legitimate threat, but rather premeditated and deliberate conduct by the security forces to execute individuals outside the protection of the law.”

Kevin Jon Heller, associate professor of public international law at Amsterdam University, said if the victims were civilians, “this would be the classic crime against humanity of murder: killing civilians as part of a widespread or systematic attack.”

The Egyptian government didn’t respond to questions for this article. Reuters provided officials with a detailed account of its analysis of the Interior Ministry statements and other findings of this article. They had no comment.

A ROAD TRIP

Cousins Souhail Ahmed and Zakaria Mahmoud had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood or any political organization, their family said. In July 2017 the men, both in their twenties, set off from their homes in the Nile city of Damietta for a holiday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

The 600 km road trip would take them southwards from Damietta, close to the Mediterranean, along the Suez Canal and then the Gulf of Suez. For Ahmed, a student, it was a rare adventure. Hurt in a car crash a few years earlier, he still walked with a limp and stayed at home much of the time, a relative said.

Ahmed called home a few hours into the trip and told his mother that they had stopped to get sugarcane juice as they headed for a checkpoint in Ismailia province, on the Suez Canal. It was the last time the family heard from them.

Five days later, the Interior Ministry announced in a Facebook post that the cousins were among four Islamist militants killed in a shootout when security forces approached their hideout in an Ismailia village on July 15. Relatives found the bodies of the men at a mortuary in the town of Ismailia the next day.

The families of the two young men say the government’s version of events makes no sense.

“They are not Brotherhood supporters at all,” said the relative. They “were not supporters of anyone.” Ahmed “was like all young men, he dreamed to marry at a young age and have a family.” Mahmoud was a carpenter.

Reuters showed photographs and video of the bodies to three forensic experts; Professor Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations, and two other international experts who declined to be identified. All three cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account that the deaths were the result of a shootout.

Mahmoud had three gunshot wounds to the head. One bullet entered beside his right nostril and exited just below his lower lip. “That would place the shooter overlooking, above and to the right of the victim if the victim was standing, which would seem unlikely in an exchange of gunfire,” Pounder said. “A more likely scenario is that the victim was kneeling with the shooter standing close on the right side.”

The two other gunshot wounds were to Mahmoud’s forehead, almost symmetrically placed just below the hairline to the left and right, which suggested final “coup de grace shots,” according to Pounder.

Authorities said in the statement the cousins were part of a “group of fugitive terrorists” and died in a single incident. “As soon as security forces approached them, they were surprised by gunshots in their direction which they dealt with, resulting in the killing of four terrorist elements,” the Interior Ministry said.

Yet the cousins’ bodies exhibited different stages of decomposition. Mahmoud’s death appeared to have been very recent, the experts said, but Ahmed had died 36 to 48 hours before the images were taken. There were no obvious ante mortem injuries or gunshot wounds to Ahmed’s body and no obvious cause of death, Pounder said.

“THERE WAS NO SHOOTOUT”

From July 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2018, the Interior Ministry issued statements reporting the deaths of 465 men, almost all of them suspected militants, in gun battles with its forces. That compared with just five such deaths in the first half of 2015, before the murder of Barakat, the chief prosecutor.

The Interior Ministry statements were strikingly similar. In every instance, the ministry said its forces approached or raided the hideout of the terrorists or criminals having secured an arrest warrant or taken “all legal measures.” The terrorists or criminals opened fire, and security forces responded.

Most of the dead men were in their 20s; the youngest was 16, the oldest was 61. The Interior Ministry classified 320 of the slain men as terrorists and 28 as criminals or drug dealers.

It said 117 were members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood spread its political activism and charity work across the Middle East in the decades that followed. But in recent years countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have cracked down on its activities, declaring it a terrorist group. The Brotherhood, which insists it is a peaceful movement, has largely gone underground.

Around a quarter of the deaths reported by the Interior Ministry, 104, were in the North Sinai region that borders Israel and Gaza, and where Egypt is battling an insurgency by Islamist militants.

The Interior Ministry statements didn’t name 302 of the dead men, nor did they give precise locations for many of the shootings. Many were in remote desert or mountain areas. Reuters managed to speak to three witnesses to one incident in a Cairo apartment in 2016.

The Interior Ministry announced on Oct. 3, 2016, that its forces had killed a Muslim Brotherhood leader and his aide in a raid on the apartment. The ministry said Mohamed Kamal, 61, a member of the group’s leadership council, and Yasser Shehata, 47, shot at police and died when officers returned fire.

Reuters asked three neighbors about the events of that evening. None of them had seen or heard a gun fight. A woman living nearby said the only shots came several hours after police had entered the apartment. A person who was in the apartment block was adamant: “There was no shootout.”

A lawyer speaking on behalf of the two men’s families told Reuters an official autopsy showed the two men were shot in the head. Reuters was not able to independently verify the autopsy conclusion.

Some Interior Ministry statements were accompanied by crime scene photographs. These included the aftermath of a shooting in November 2018. The Interior Ministry said security forces killed 19 men in a shootout in the desert, west of Minya, Upper Egypt. The ministry said the dead were members of a cell responsible for a deadly attack on Christians two days earlier.

Forensic expert Pounder reviewed 20 of the photographs. He said 11 of the bodies appeared to have been moved after death. He pointed to blood and drag marks in the sand. Depressions in the sand suggested two of the men were shot while in a kneeling position, he added. Photos of other bodies were inconclusive.

An Egyptian judicial source said some police felt the courts were too slow, which led some officers to take justice into their own hands. “They call it ‘prompt justice,'” he said. Police often moved weapons and other objects at the crime scene to cover up executions, the source said. “The police are the ones who gather the information, and there is no way they will cooperate in collecting evidence that would incriminate their colleagues.”

Reuters analysis of the Interior Ministry statements showed that deadly shootouts often followed an attack by Islamist militants. For example, in December 2018, a day after the deadly bombing of a Vietnamese tourist bus in Giza, the ministry announced that its forces had killed 40 people in three separate incidents.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said Egypt was trapped in a lethal cycle of extrajudicial killings and revenge attacks. “The more extrajudicial killings take place, the more there will be desire for revenge,” he said.

A member of the state-funded National Council of Human Rights, George Ishak, said: “There is a state of panic because of terrorism, but it shouldn’t be like this. This fear has to stop.”

A VERDICT OVERTURNED

In 2013, Khaled Emam, a 37-year-old weightlifting trainer, was sentenced in absentia to one year in jail for taking part in anti-government protests, his family said. To avoid arrest, he moved with his wife and two sons into an apartment in Cairo’s southeastern Mokattam district, away from the family home.

Emam was snatched from the street in June, 2017, his family said, when he was fetching medicine for one of his sons. Witnesses told his family that masked men leaped from a minibus and grabbed him.

The family filed a complaint with the local police and wrote to the authorities asking for information. They got no response.

Then, on Oct. 2, 2017, the Interior Ministry issued a statement that its forces had killed three men in a shootout in a graveyard. It named two of them – both friends of Emam. Two security sources confirmed to Reuters that Emam was also killed.

At Cairo’s Zeinhom mortuary, a relative found his body. It was bruised and showed signs of torture, the relative said. “There were injuries around his joints, his arms were detached from his shoulders. Half of his lower jaw was missing along with several of his upper teeth.”

One week after Emam’s death, an appeals court overturned the guilty verdict and his one-year jail term, the relative said. The family hasn’t filed a complaint about Emam’s death for fear of reprisal. “I know that I will not get justice,” the relative said.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Edmund Blair in London and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Janet McBride and Richard Woods)

Eight years after uprising, Egyptians say freedoms have eroded

FILE PHOTO: Anti-government protesters celebrate next to soldiers inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih/File Photo

By Mohamed Abdellah and Mahmoud Mourad

CAIRO (Reuters) – Everyday at sunset, Ahmed Maher, one of Egypt’s best known activists, says good night to his family and heads to a Cairo police station to spend the night under police watch.

While what he describes as ‘half an imprisonment’ has disrupted his family life, career, education and freedoms, Maher considers himself luckier than other activists of the 2011 uprising that ended autocratic president Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

Like many young Egyptians who camped out for days at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the 38-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee expected Mubarak’s downfall to pave the way for more freedoms to allow the country to flourish.

Instead, Maher and other activists say things have gotten worse.

“No one imagined that the situation would be this bad,” Maher, an engineer who is also studying for a degree in political science, told Reuters. “Even the right to gather in a crowd or to express an opinion is not available.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood after a year in office that saw the economy suffer, has also targeted secular activists, including many prominent figures of the January 25 uprising.

Many have fled the country, others are in prison while a third group have been cowed into silence.

Maher, freed from a three-year-prison sentence in early 2017 for breaking anti-protest laws, immediately began a three-year-probation period under which he must spend the night, from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., at a police station.

Sisi supporters, who now celebrate the anniversary of the June 30, 2013 uprising that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, argue tough action was needed to rescue the economy and get rid of Islamists they accused of trying to take steps to retain power.

Egypt’s economy has begun to turn around since Sisi came to office in 2014, but reforms adopted under a 2016 IMF loan that included devaluing the Egyptian pound and a gradual lifting of state fuel subsidies have also deepened poverty in Egypt.

WORST CRACKDOWN IN MODERN HISTORY

Rights activists say that Sisi has presided over the worst crackdown on freedoms in Egypt’s modern history.

Thousands of activists, most of them Islamists but also includes dozens of liberals and leftists, have been jailed under strict regulations imposed since 2013.

Rights activists say that intellectuals, government critics and human rights campaigners have been rounded up on charges of belonging to “terrorist organizations” or publishing false news or disturbing public order.

They include Wael Abbas, an award-winning journalist, Hazem Abdelazim, a well-known Sisi supporter turned critic, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger jailed for five years.

Ahmed Douma, another figurehead of the 2011 uprising, was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this month after he was convicted of rioting and attacking security forces in 2011.

“Every time a human being is tortured, disappeared, extra-judicially killed, executed or arbitrarily arrested, Egypt’s authorities convey a clear message to their people, the change they demanded will not come,” EuroMed Rights, a Copenhagen-based network seeking to bolster ties between NGOs on both sides of the Mediterranean, said in a statement.

Egypt, which denies holding political prisoners, rejects abuse allegations. But Sisi’s admirers say firmness has been necessary to end years of lawlessness and militants behind attacks that have killed hundreds.

“The whole world had thought that the youths of the revolution would play a role in running the country, like in any country that looks for qualified youths would,” said Maher, who founded the April 6 Movement, a grassroots group founded in 2008 that had campaigned against Mubarak’s rule. “Sadly, there is a big hostility towards the youths,” he added.

Last September, 17 U.N. human rights experts criticized Egypt for its use of anti-terrorism laws to detain activists fighting for women’s rights and against graft, torture and extra-judicial killings.

Israa Abdel Fattah, another member of the April 6 Movement, said that Egypt was worse off now than it was before the January 25 uprising. “Egypt can change and everything will be good if it possessed one thing, and that’s justice,” said Abdel Fattah, who like many other activists is barred from traveling abroad.

Activists say the only positive result of the revolution, a two-term limit on presidential terms, could also soon be lost if Sisi supporters pursue plans to amend the constitution.

At a ceremony to mark Police Day, Sisi paid tribute to the January 25 uprising but stayed silent when a speaker asked him to agree to remain in office for two additional four-year terms.

Anwar al-Hawary, former editor of the privately-owned al-Masri al-Youm newspaper, said Sisi appears to favor staying in power beyond a second term, warning that any such move would be “illogical”.

“The country cannot cope with another uprising or a coup,” he said.

(Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean)

Severe sandstorm hits Egyptian cities, ports

A couple covers their faces with masks during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s capital Cairo and some of its port cities were hit by a severe sandstorm, with strong winds and heavy dust forcing the closure of several ports.

Pedestrians ducked into buildings for cover as a dark orange cloud descended on Cairo, with many using surgical masks to shield themselves against the sand blowing in the wind.

Motorists complained of reduced visibility on the highways leading in and out of the city.

A woman covers her face as she walks on the 6th October Bridge during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

A woman covers her face as she walks on the 6th October Bridge during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

“The color of the air is changing. There is some kind of fog. No one can see. So I hope God will get us through this, given that we’re riding motorcycles,” said Mahmoud, a motorcycle driver.

Sources at Cairo airport said the storm had caused some delays.

The Red Sea Ports Authority closed the ports of Suez and Zeitiyat at 2 pm (1200 GMT) due to bad weather, wind and high waves.

In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Reda El Ghandour, a spokesman for the Alexandria Port Authority, said that the maritime traffic remained suspended for the fourth consecutive day in the ports of Alexandria and Dekheila.

The health ministry has advised people suffering from respiratory problems to avoid leaving their homes amidst the storm.

(This story has been refiled to fix headline typo)

(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Ahmed Fahmy; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after botched Israeli operation

Palestinians inspect the remains of a vehicle that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Monday after a botched Israeli undercover operation in the Gaza Strip led to fighting that killed a Hamas commander, six other Palestinian militants and an Israeli colonel.

Palestinians fired 17 rockets into southern Israel late on Sunday in response to the incursion and air strikes, which Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, said were intended to cover the retreat of a car used by the Israeli troops.

There were no reports of injuries or damage in Israel, but the military said a lieutenant-colonel, identified only as “M”, had been killed in the raid and another officer wounded.

Hamas said the Israeli actions dealt a blow to Egyptian, Qatari, and U.N. efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire between the Palestinian group and Israel and ease an Israeli blockade that has deepened economic hardship in Gaza.

But neither side appeared eager to pursue broader conflict.

Hamas received $15 million in Qatari-donated cash via Israel on Friday to pay for civil servants’ salaries and fuel to address Gaza’s energy crisis.

No new rocket launches were reported on Monday morning.

Violence has flared regularly along the Israel-Gaza border since Palestinians began protests there on March 30 to demand rights to land lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its creation.

Israeli gunfire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the start of the demonstrations, which have included breaches of Israel’s border fence.

Hamas said that during Sunday’s fighting, assailants in a passing vehicle opened fire on a group of its armed men, killing one of its local commanders, Nour Baraka.

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Sal

A Palestinian man sits on the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

A pursuit ensued and witnesses said Israeli aircraft fired more than 40 missiles into the area. Palestinian officials said that in addition to Baraka, five other Hamas men and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees were killed.

In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions, Israel’s chief military spokesman said the special forces had not been dispatched to assassinate Hamas commanders, a tactic that led to wider conflict in the past and which has largely been abandoned.

The spokesman, Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis, told Army Radio that covert missions were mounted frequently, comments that suggested the Israeli force may have been gathering intelligence.

“During the operation, it found itself in a very complex situation, faced by enemy forces. The (Israeli) force, including Lieutenant-Colonel M., kept its cool, returned fire and evacuated itself together with the (help of the) air force back into Israel,” Manelis said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris, where he attended World War One commemorations with other world leaders. He returned home early on Monday.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli city draws Gaza air strikes

Israeli sappers work on a house that the Israeli military said was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Beersheba, southern Israel October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the largest city in southern Israel early on Wednesday, prompting Israeli air strikes that killed a militant in the Palestinian enclave.

Egypt, which sent a delegation to Gaza on Tuesday for the latest round of talks on a long-term ceasefire, postponed a visit there by its intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, following Wednesday’s surge in violence, Palestinian officials said.

The rocket hit a two-story house in Beersheba before dawn, the Israeli military said. It gutted most of the home, blowing out concrete walls and its stone facade, showering its yard and an adjacent street with rubble.

The family living there managed to take shelter in a reinforced room after alert sirens sounded, said officials in the city about 40 km (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

Another rocket launched from Gaza and aimed at central Israel fell into the Mediterranean Sea, the military said.

After the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with his defense minister and top generals at military headquarters near the Gaza border, which has seen more than six months of sometimes violent Palestinian protests.

Netanyahu said that in a statement that unless attacks from Gaza ceased, “Israel will act with great force” to stop them.

With a nod to the Egyptian talks, Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists and other major militant groups took the unusual step of denying responsibility for Wednesday’s launchings, saying they rejected “all irresponsible attempts to sabotage the Egyptian effort, including the firing of the rockets”.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility from any of the other smaller groups that operate in Gaza, and by mid-afternoon the area was quiet.

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio there was evidence to back up the Hamas statement. But he said Israeli policy dictated an “immediate and forceful retaliation” against Hamas because the groups controls Gaza.

The European Union, in a statement from Brussels, said indiscriminate attacks against civilians were completely unacceptable and mortar and rocket fire by Palestinian militants must stop immediately.

EXPLOSIONS

Israel’s military said it struck armed training camps in Gaza and also targeted a squad about to launch a rocket.

Health officials in Gaza said a 25-year-old Palestinian man, identified by Al-Mujahedeen Brigades, a small militant faction, as one of its members, was killed. Five other Palestinians were wounded in separate attacks.

Many people in Gaza awoke to the sounds of explosions. Families crowded into a nearby hospital where the dead man’s mother collapsed over his body.

Pillars of smoke rose from the sites bombed by Israel, including a port Hamas is constructing in the southern Gaza Strip and a naval police position.

Cairo has been holding talks with Hamas on a truce with Israel and ways to end 11 years of division with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in the occupied West Bank. A Palestinian source said Egyptian officials in Gaza have been in touch with Israel to try to avoid further escalation.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in JerusalemWriting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Israel reinforces troops outside Gaza as border protests enter seventh month

FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian protester covers his head with a model of the Dome of the Rock during clashes with Israeli troops near the border between Israel and Central Gaza Strip August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said it was reinforcing troops around the Gaza Strip on Thursday as a precaution against incursions by Palestinians during violent protests along the border that have often been met by lethal Israeli fire.

The language of the Israeli military statement did not appear to herald any imminent offensive in Gaza but seemed to suggest stronger action at the frontier to foil any further Palestinian attempts to breach Israel’s security fence during the demonstrations, which began in March.

Israel accuses Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamist group of inciting violence at the border, an allegation it denies. Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, during which time it has fought three wars with Israel, most recently in 2014.

Since the protests began in March at least 193 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, Gaza medics say. One Israeli soldier has been killed by a Palestinian sniper.

The protesters demand the easing of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory and rights to lands Palestinian families fled or were driven from on Israel’s founding in 1948.

The Israeli military said it “decided on wide-scale reinforcements in the southern command in the coming days and the continuation of a determined policy to thwart terror activity and prevent infiltrations into Israel from the Gaza Strip”.

Commenting on the deployment, Tzachi Hanegbi, a non-voting member of Israel’s security cabinet, told Israel Radio: “Our wish is to prevent escalation. I hope that the other side has a similar desire.”

In an interview published on Thursday in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily and Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, Hamas’s Gaza-based leader Yehya Al-Sinwar was quoted as saying that “a new war was not in anyone’s interest” but “an explosion was unavoidable” unless Gaza’s “siege” was lifted.

Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods along their borders with Gaza, a policy that the World Bank says has brought the enclave of 2 million people to economic collapse.

Hanegbi said Hamas, which is engaged with Egypt in efforts to achieve a long-term ceasefire with Israel, had “gone back to its old ways” in recent weeks by encouraging “bombs, shooting and attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on the fence”.

“Therefore a mobilization of troops is really required,” he said.

(This story corrects border reference in paragraph 9)

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce

Fishing boats are seen at the seaport of Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel allowed commercial goods back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, in a sign of an easing of tensions as neighboring Egypt pursued a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian enclave’s dominant armed faction.

But the prospect of an agreement between Israel and the Islamist group prompted concern within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that Hamas would take advantage of any respite from fighting to build up its rocket arsenal.

At Israel’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza, consignments of fruits and vegetables, fuel and construction material moved into the territory of two million people on Wednesday morning, a Reuters camera crew said.

Israel announced on Tuesday it would lift the commercial goods ban it imposed on July 9 in response to the launching by Palestinians of incendiary balloons across the frontier.

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

There have been fewer reports in recent days of such incidents, which have burned large tracts of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel.

Israel also expanded Gaza’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from 3 to 9 nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union said.

The Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s set a 20 nautical mile limit, which was never implemented. Since then the zone has ranged in size between 3 and 6 nautical miles.

“We are hoping for a big catch at nine miles now,” said Khader Baker, 25, who owns two fishing boats. “There had been almost no fish within three miles. We nearly starved.”

Prior restrictions on the import of commercial goods that Israel says could also be used for military purposes remained in effect, a Palestinian border official said. He said they included balloons and tires.

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

COMPREHENSIVE TRUCE

Egypt and the United Nations have been trying to broker a comprehensive truce to prevent more fighting and to ease the deep economic hardship in Gaza.

Hamas officials said Palestinian factions were in Cairo to discuss terms for a ceasefire with Israel, whose security cabinet convened on Wednesday to consider the issue.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in the governing coalition, put Netanyahu on notice that his faction would vote against an agreement with Hamas.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity so that it can rearm itself with tens of thousands of rockets,” Bennett said in a statement.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by Hamas and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has wrecked its economy, creating what the World Bank has described as a humanitarian crisis with shortages of water, electricity, and medicine.

Israel says it has no choice but to enforce its blockade to defend itself against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)