Lebanon Hezbollah chief says attacks on Jerusalem mean regional war

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Tuesday any aggression against Jerusalem or its holy sites would mean regional war.

Nasrallah’s comments, in a televised speech, were his first since a ceasefire ended the fiercest fighting in years between Israel and Gaza-based Islamist militant group Hamas.

The Israel-Hamas hostilities were set off on May 10 in part by Israeli police raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City and clashes with Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“When holy sites face serious threats there are no red lines,” Nasrallah said. “All the resistance movements can’t sit back and watch if holy sites are in danger.”

The Iranian-backed Lebanese group is a staunch opponent of Israel and Nasrallah’s speech marked the commemoration of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Nasrallah also said that the fighting showed Hamas had greatly advanced its rocket capabilities, which he said was a big military achievement.

“They had the ability to launch rockets for 11 days and they could continue,” he said.

(Reporting By Laila Bassam and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

One man’s mission offers Beirut neighborhood a vision of hope after blast

By Ayat Basma and Issam Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) -The sheer scale of the destruction in Beirut’s Karantina district after the massive explosion at the port last August made rebuilding a daunting feat. That was where Marc Torbey El Helou, a charity worker, came in.

The low-income neighborhood was one of the closest to the blast that killed 200 people. It stands across from the giant, mutilated grain silo that has become a symbol of the tragedy.

Helou decided a day after the explosion to dedicate himself, and the aid group he runs, to rebuilding the neighborhood.

Just removing the rubble required 300 truckloads. Some buildings needed immediate help to stop them collapsing. Helou says the same of Karantina’s residents. “There were children here who would not laugh or play for months.”

The neighborhood is home to Lebanese, Syrian and other residents, a fire brigade and dozens of stores selling everything from car parts to clay pots. All were hit hard.

Helou’s charity, Offre Joie (Joy of Giving), has repaired Lebanese districts hit by war and violence since 1985.

“Unfortunately, it means we have the experience for this,” said Helou, 33, who has used a wheelchair since a diving accident in 2016.

With the Lebanese state hollowed out by decades of corruption and failure, it fell to aid groups and volunteers like Helou to rebuild the city.

Offre Joie took on six blocks in Karantina and nearby. That includes the homes of about 350 families.

More than seven months after the explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear detonations on record, many residents have yet to return. But the streets are bustling with life again, and the buildings never looked so good.

IN THE RUBBLE

“We never dreamed we’d have a neighborhood like this. I have called it the French neighborhood because it looks like the elegant streets in France,” said Vera Yaghelian, 75, pointing from her balcony to facades painted in bright pastel colors.

“Look, there’s nothing more beautiful.”

Born in Karantina, the mother of four never left, even during the massacres of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

When she sees Helou with teams of volunteers and engineers, she often sends over coffee.

As Helou roams the streets on his electric wheelchair, construction crews get to work and residents stop to say hello.

One woman asks about government compensation promised but not received. Another asks about the renovation of her kitchen cabinets, and a third about the roof of her patio.

“Without you, we would still be living in the rubble,” she tells him.

Helou said that after the blast, he was determined not to let his spinal cord injury stop him. “I understood that I had a mission now and I’m on it.”

The charity’s budget was trapped in the bank thanks to controls imposed during Lebanon’s financial crisis. But donations poured in from abroad: up to three million dollars in cash, construction material and containers full of food. Thousands of volunteers also came, including engineers and psychologists.

Particularly devastating was the death of a number of young firemen and women who had rushed to put out a fire at the port just before the explosion. Their fire brigade building still needs repairs but is operational again.

Another blow was the destruction of a decades-old local church, which was damaged during the civil war and renovated in the 1990s. The explosion brought down its ceiling and façade.

Volunteers have rebuilt it and worshippers gathered there for mass on Christmas Eve.

Yaghelian, who recalls walking down the staircase to find each one of her neighbors wounded and bloodied last August, said she could not contain her emotions days later when she saw the neighborhood teeming with helpers.

“They were the only ones who asked us: What do you need?”

(Writing by Ayat BasmaEditing by Ellen Francis and Giles Elgood)

Brawls in shops as Lebanon’s financial meltdown hits supply of food

By Maha El Dahan and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The collapse of Lebanon’s currency has forced many grocery shops to temporarily shut within the last 24 hours, raising fears that a country reliant on imports could soon face shortages of food.

Food shops around the country were locking their doors, halting online deliveries or restricting customers’ orders. Others stayed open, but could not say for how long.

“There’s a big possibility we will close if it stays like this. I don’t know where will we get supplies, and no one is helping us,” said Beirut grocer Mohieldin Fayed, who has kept his shop open.

The pound tumbled to 15,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, losing a third of its value in the last two weeks. It has now sunk by 90% since late 2019.

“If this persists, things will start to disappear, traders will prioritize what to get,” said Hani Bohsali, head of the foodstuffs importers syndicate. “We’ll have to buy less, in variety and quantity, because we can’t find the money.”

He estimated the country has roughly two months of supplies, while it was getting more and more difficult for importers to obtain the dollars they need to keep buying.

The economy’s collapse has pushed much of the population into poverty and poses the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Social media users have been sharing videos of supermarket brawls, such as a fight between a man and a woman trying to buy powdered milk. Prices of many consumer goods such as diapers or cereals have nearly tripled during the crisis.

Nabil Fahed, head of the syndicate of supermarket owners, said some of the shops that had shut on Tuesday reopened on Wednesday after replenishing stocks. But he said permanent closures would happen if no exchange stability was reached.

“What we’re afraid of is that these eventually turn from temporary closures … that it becomes final because it is a dire situation, their capital is being eroded and they don’t have money to pay for goods.”

The vice president of Lebanon’s bakeries’ syndicate said bakeries were supplying the country with bread for now, but could not do so indefinitely without a solution. Lebanon imports almost all of its wheat.

“If we continue at this pace, in the end we will reach a forced closure until the exchange rate stabilizes,” Ali Ibrahim, who tried to resign from his position two weeks ago because of the dire situation, said in a statement.

LOOMING SUBSIDY REMOVAL

Many shops in Lebanon were already shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, and streets have also been closed by roadblocks during anti-government demonstrations. But until this week, groceries had mostly stayed open. Many have been offering deliveries online.

On Tuesday, a number of online grocery shops disappeared from apps. Others refused to accept orders.

Lebanon’s central bank has drawn on already critical foreign reserves to subsidize three key commodities – wheat, fuel and medicine – and a basket of other basic goods, as dollars inflows dried up. It has provided hard currency to importers at the old peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

But the state, fast running out of cash, has signaled multiple times that the subsidies would soon be lifted, although it has yet to give a timeline or announce a plan.

Supermarket syndicate head Fahed said the central bank was often slow to release dollars to food importers, causing shortages which in turn provoke consumers to hoard goods. In one example, he said a supermarket had sold a typical month’s stock of 5,000 gallons of subsidized cooking oil in only five hours.

The looming removal of subsidies has triggered fears of shortages, said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former cabinet minister.

“As soon as you announce that subsidies might be lifted or reduced…automatically consumers hoard goods,” he said.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan, Ellen Francis, Imad Creidi and Alaa Kanaan; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Peter Graff)

World Bank threatens to cut Lebanon’s vaccine aid over line-jumping

By Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The World Bank threatened on Tuesday to suspend its multi-million dollar financing for Lebanon’s COVID-19 vaccination drive over politicians jumping the line.

The controversy, which echoed favoritism by elites in other countries as the world rushes to inoculate against the coronavirus, added to frustration among Lebanese over delays and violations in the vaccination campaign.

Local media and politicians said that some lawmakers got shots in parliament on Tuesday – despite not necessarily being in priority groups.

“Upon confirmation of violation, World Bank may suspend financing for vaccines and support for COVID19 response across Lebanon!!” the World Bank’s regional director Saroj Kumar Jha tweeted, saying it would be a breach of the national plan.

“I appeal to all, I mean all, regardless of your position, to please register and wait for your turn.”

The World Bank’s reallocation of $34 million has enabled Lebanon to receive its first two batches of about 60,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses this month. The bank had said it would monitor the vaccine rollout and warned against favoritism in Lebanon, where decades of waste and corruption brought a financial meltdown and protests.

‘SELFISH’

One lawmaker, who asked not to be named, told Reuters that some older current and former lawmakers, as well as administrative staff, were vaccinated in the parliament hall.

“What’s the big deal? … They’re registered,” he said, referring to an online platform for vaccines. He added that doses were also sent last week to the Baabda palace for President Michel Aoun and about 16 others.

Aoun’s office said it would issue a statement.

Deputy parliament speaker Elie Ferzli, who at 71 is not in the first phase priority group, tweeted that he got a shot.

The doctor who heads Lebanon’s COVID-19 vaccination committee, Abdul Rahman Bizri, said it was unaware vaccines would be sent to parliament. “What happened today is unacceptable,” he told reporters.

Around the nation, outrage spread.

“My grandfather is an 85-year-old decent man suffering from heart and cardiovascular problems. My grandfather is a priority and he still did not get the vaccine,” tweeted Jad al-Hamawi.

“What are you? Bunch of hypocrites. Selfish. Criminals.”

Jonathan Dagher added on Facebook: “As our loved ones gasp for oxygen in COVID-19 wards, MPs cut the line today to take the vaccine.”

The health ministry did not immediately comment.

A surge in infections since January has brought Lebanon’s death toll over 4,300.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Prominent Hezbollah critic killed in Lebanon

By Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A prominent Lebanese Shi’ite publisher who criticized the armed Hezbollah movement was shot dead in a car in southern Lebanon on Thursday, the first such killing of a high-profile activist in years.

A judge following the case said the body of Lokman Slim had four bullets in the head and one in the back. A security source said his phone was found on the side of a road.

They said the motive remained unclear.

Slim, who was in his late 50s, ran a research center, made documentaries with his wife and led efforts to build an archive on Lebanon’s 1975-1990 sectarian civil war.

He spoke against what he described as the Iranian-backed, Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s intimidation tactics and attempts to monopolies Lebanese politics.

His sister suggested Slim was murdered because of this. He was last seen after visiting a poet friend. His wife said he went missing overnight and did not answer his phone.

Hezbollah did not respond to a request for comment on his death, which the French ambassador and Lebanese officials, including the president, called “an assassination.”

Amnesty International, a top U.N. diplomat in Lebanon and the EU ambassador to the country, Ralph Tarraf, all demanded an investigation. “We deplore the prevailing culture of impunity,” Tarraf wrote in a tweet.

A Lebanese press freedom center, SKeyes, said it feared a cover-up of the crime and more attempts to eliminate “symbols of free political thought.”

The center was founded after a car bomb killed journalist Samir Kassir in 2005, at a time when a series of assassinations hit Lebanon targeting critics of Syria’s 15-year domination.

At Slim’s family home in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hezbollah holds sway, family members sat in shock. Some wept in silence. A relative said they found out about his death from a news alert while at a police station.

“What a big loss. And they lost a noble enemy too … It’s rare for someone to argue with them and live among them with respect,” his sister Rasha told reporters, without naming Hezbollah.

She said he had not mentioned any threats. “Killing is the only language they are fluent in,” she added. “I don’t know how we will go on with our work … It will be hard.”

‘A BIG LOSS’

In an interview last month on Saudi’s al-Hadath TV, Slim said he believed Damascus and its ally Hezbollah had a role in the port blast that ripped through Beirut in August, killing 200 people and injuring thousands.

Hezbollah has denied any links to the explosion.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, said he had ordered an investigation into the crime.

Slim’s criticism of Hezbollah faced rebuke from its supporters, who called him “an embassy Shi’ite,” accusing him of being a tool of the United States.

Washington, which classifies Hezbollah as terrorists, has ramped up sanctions against it to pressure Tehran.

Slim founded a nonprofit to promote civil liberties which received a grant under the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative and worked with an American think tank, leaked WikiLeaks diplomatic cables said in 2008.

In late 2019, Slim said people had gathered in his garden, chanting slurs and threats. His statement held Hezbollah’s leader responsible.

At the time, Slim also said he had received death threats after speaking in a debate at a Beirut camp that activists set up when protests against all the country’s political leaders swept Lebanon.

“His murder is a very big loss for Lebanon, for culture,” said Hazem Saghieh, a well-known Lebanese journalist. “He was one of a few who only knew how to speak his mind.”

(Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan, Alaa Kanaan and Beirut TV; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by William Maclean, Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood)

Lebanon tightens lockdown, imposes 24-hour curfew, as hospitals buckle

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon announced a tightening of its lockdown on Monday, introducing a 24-hour curfew from Thursday as COVID-19 infections overwhelm its medical system.

The new all-day curfew starts at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday and ends at 5 a.m. on Jan. 25, a statement by the Supreme Defense Council said.

Lebanon last week ordered a three-week lockdown until Feb. 2 that included a nighttime curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.  But tighter measures were now necessary as hospitals run out of capacity to treat critically ill patients, President Michel Aoun said in the statement. “We have seen dreadful scenes of citizens waiting in front of hospitals for a chair or a bed,” he said.

The new measures also include stricter procedures at the airport for passengers arriving from Cairo, Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Istanbul and Adana. Travelers arriving from these destinations will have to quarantine for seven days at a hotel while all others will quarantine up to 72 hours. Overall air traffic at the airport will also be cut to 20% from normal operating levels and supermarkets will be limited to delivery services.

Anticipation of stricter measures on Monday had driven many Lebanese to wait in long queues in front of supermarkets and empty shelves.

Lebanon registered 3,743 new infections on Sunday, bringing its total to 219,296 cases and 1,606 deaths since Feb. 21.

Adherence to social distancing and other preventive measures has been lax prompting government fears of a significant rise in cases after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Daily infections reached an all time high of 5,440 on Friday.

“Sadly we are being faced with a frightening health situation,” Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said. “The corona pandemic is out of control because of the stubbornness of people and their rebellion against measures we take to protect them from its dangers.”

The lockdown faces resistance amid concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Lebanon is still dealing with a devastating financial crisis that has crashed the currency, paralyzed banks, and frozen savers out of their deposits.

Medical supplies have dwindled as dollars have grown scarce.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Laila Bassam; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S. ready to mediate discussions between Israel and Lebanon -Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said the United States is ready to keep working with Israel and Lebanon on negotiations for a maritime boundary, as the countries struggle to come to an agreement.

“Regrettably, despite goodwill on both sides, the parties remain far apart,” Pompeo said in a statement.  “The United States remains ready to mediate constructive discussions and urges both sides to negotiate based on the respective maritime claims both have previously deposited at the United Nations. ”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Alison Williams)

Lebanon sets starting point for sea border negotiations with Israel

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Michel Aoun on Thursday specified Lebanon’s starting point for demarcating its sea border with Israel under U.S.-mediated talks, in the first public confirmation of a stance sources say increases the size of the disputed area.

Israel and Lebanon launched the negotiations last month with delegations from the long-time foes convening at a U.N. base to try to agree on the border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area.

A presidency statement said Aoun instructed the Lebanese team that the demarcation line should start from the land point of Ras Naqoura as defined under a 1923 agreement and extend seaward in a trajectory that a security source said extends the disputed area to some 2,300 square km (888 sq. miles) from around 860 sq. km.

Israel’s energy minister, overseeing the talks with Lebanon, said Lebanon had now changed its position seven times and was contradicting its own assertions.

“Whoever wants prosperity in our region and seeks to safely develop natural resources must adhere to the principle of stability and settle the dispute along the lines that were submitted by Israel and Lebanon at the United Nations,” Yuval Steinitz said.

Any deviation, Steinitz said, would lead to a “dead end”.

Last month sources said the two sides presented contrasting maps for proposed borders. They said the Lebanese proposal extended farther south than the border Lebanon had years before presented to the United Nations and that of the Israeli team pushed the boundary farther north than Israel’s original position.

The talks, the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, are due to resume in December.

Israel pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Hundreds of disillusioned doctors leave Lebanon, in blow to healthcare

By Samia Nakhoul and Issam Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fouad Boulos returned to Beirut in 2007 from the United States having trained there in pathology and laboratory medicine. He was so confident that Lebanon was the right place to be that he gave up his American residence green card.

Fourteen years later he is leaving his homeland with his wife and five children and returning to the United States to try his luck starting from scratch.

In the past year, Lebanon has been through a popular uprising against its political leaders, the bankruptcy of the state and banking system, a COVID-19 pandemic and, in August, a huge explosion at the port that destroyed swathes of Beirut.

Some of those who can leave the country have done so, and an increasing number of them are doctors and surgeons, many at the top of their profession. With them goes Beirut’s proud reputation as the medical capital of the Middle East.

“This is a mass exodus,” said Boulos, Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

“It will keep on going,” he told Reuters. “If I had hope I would have stayed but I have no hope – not in the near nor in the intermediate future – for Lebanon.”

As he spoke at his mountain residence in Beit Mery, a forested area with sweeping views over Beirut, his wife helped pack up their last possessions, ready to return to the United States.

Suitcases lined the hallway, and one of his daughters was online saying final farewells to school friends and her teacher.

“It breaks my heart. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, leaving everything behind,” Boulos added.

Many highly qualified physicians, who were in demand across the United States and Europe before they returned to Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, are throwing in the towel, having lost hope in its future.

They are not only seeing wages fall, but also face shortages of equipment, staff and even some basic supplies in their hospitals as Lebanon runs out of hard currency to pay for imports.

BLEEDING TALENT

Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the doctors’ syndicate, said the departure of 400 doctors so far this year creates a major problem, especially for university hospitals where they both practice and teach.

“This bleeding of talent does not bode well, especially if the situation lasts long and there are others who are preparing to leave,” he said.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan agreed.

“Their expertise was built over many years and is very hard to lose overnight. We will need many years to return the medical sector to its former glory,” he told Reuters.

Protests that erupted last year and brought down the government had raised hopes that politicians, selected by a system in which leaders of Christian and Muslim sects shared the top jobs, could be pushed aside.

Then came the Aug. 4 blast, when large amounts of poorly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 200 people, injuring 6,000, making 300,000 people homeless and destroying large parts of the capital Beirut including several hospitals.

“The explosion was the final nail in the coffin,” Boulos said.

“It crystallized all the fears, all the pain and all the difficulties that we were living through,” added the medic, who trained at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

‘CORRUPT TO THE CORE’

Boulos said he had lost faith in the country’s leadership, after years of instability caused by political bickering.

“Lebanon is corrupt to the core,” he said, echoing the chants of thousands of protesters who packed city streets during the last year.

The country has also had to deal with the influx of more than a million Syrians fleeing civil war, an economy that has buckled under the weight of debt, mass unemployment, poverty, and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Lebanon ordered a nationwide lockdown for around two weeks to stem the spread of the virus, as intensive care units reached critical capacity.

Hassan, the caretaker health minister, has said an agreement was reached with the central bank to allocate funds for private hospitals to set up COVID-19 wings and that the state would pay hospital dues for the first six months of 2020.

The government had for years owed hospitals arrears and their unpaid bills are mounting.

Ghazi Zaatari, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Chair of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at AUB, said he feared the exodus would accelerate.

“For the past 10 years we put a lot of effort into recruiting around 220 faculty members, and now it is very disheartening to see that many of those we hired are leaving again.”

Doctors in Lebanon, although relatively well paid, generally earn less than they did abroad.

Over the past year they have seen real incomes drop due to the 80% devaluation in the currency.

The caretaker health minister said the state was seeking international help to prop up depreciated salaries of doctors to slow the exodus.

But both Boulos and Zaatari said money was not the main problem.

“Money is an issue, but this lack of trust and confidence in the political leadership (for) a safe, secure and successful future is a huge factor,” Zaatari said.

“I am one of those who came back in the mid-90s believing that there was a promise of a better future and a reconstruction plan, only to find that 20 years later everything is collapsing and the promises were false promises. We were robbed big time.”

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam, Imad Creidi and Nancy Mahfouz; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Israel, Lebanon resume talks on disputed maritime border

NAQOURA, Lebanon (Reuters) – Israel and Lebanon resumed U.S.-mediated talks on Wednesday on a dispute about their Mediterranean Sea border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, the Israeli energy minister and Lebanon’s state news agency said.

The longtime foes held three rounds of talks last month hosted by the United Nations at a peacekeeper base in southern Lebanon which the world body and the United States have described as “productive”.

But sources had said that gaps between the sides remain large after they each presented contrasting maps outlining proposed borders that actually increased the size of the disputed area.

The next round of talks will be held in December, a joint statement from the United States and the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon said, as did Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in a separate communique. They did not provide further details about Wednesday’s discussions.

Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

The meetings are the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, and follow a series of deals under which three Arab nations – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – agreed to establish full relations with Israel.

Lebanon has said its talks are strictly limited to their disputed boundary.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Toby Chopra)