Israeli gunfire wounds 40 Palestinians in renewed Gaza border protest: medics

A Palestinian passes burning tires during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli forces shot and wounded at least 40 Palestinian protesters on Friday, Palestinian medics said, as thousands converged on Gaza’s border with Israel and set fire to mounds of tires to launch a second week of demonstrations.

Twenty Palestinians have died since the demonstrations near the heavily guarded Gaza border fence began on March 30, the latest a man who died in a Gaza hospital on Friday of gunshot wounds suffered on the first day of protests.

Five of Friday’s 40 wounded were in critical condition, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Palestinian tent encampments have sprung up a few hundred meters (yards) back from the 65-km (40-mile) frontier but groups of youths have ventured much closer, rolling tyres and throwing stones towards Israeli troops.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return to what is now Israel for refugees – and their descendants – from the 1948 war surrounding the country’s creation. Refugees comprise most of the 2 million population of Israeli-blockaded Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist militant movement Hamas.

“I, like everyone around here, am coming to liberate their land,” Hekam Kuhail, 60, told Reuters, flashing a v-for-victory sign and having her photograph taken near the border.

With black tyre smoke and Israeli tear gas rising into the air, Palestinian youths used T-shirts, cheap medical masks and perfume to try and protect themselves. Israel was also trying to douse burning tyres with fire hoses from its side of the border.

The Israeli military has stationed sharpshooters on its side of the frontier to deter Palestinians from trying to break through the fence into Israeli territory. Many of those killed were militants, according to Israel.

A Palestinian protects himself from inhaling tear gas at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian protects himself from inhaling tear gas at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa


Seventeen of the 20 Palestinian dead were killed by Israeli gunfire on the first day of protests a week ago, medics said. The deaths drew international criticism of Israel’s response, which human rights groups said involved live fire against demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life.

The United Nations human rights office urged Israel to exercise restraint.

“We are saying that Israel has obligations to ensure that excessive force is not employed. And that if there is unjustified and unlawful recourse to firearms, resulting in death, that may amount to a wilful killing. And that’s a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell said in Geneva.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border and that its troops have been responding with riot dispersal means and fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

An Israeli military spokesman said on Friday that the army “will not allow any breach of the security infrastructure and fence, which protects Israeli civilians”.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem urged protesters to keep rallies peaceful. “Maintaining the peaceful nature of the protests will strike all fragile Zionist propaganda,” he said.

The Israeli government has ruled out any right of return for Palestinian refugees, fearing that the country would lose its Jewish majority.

The United States has criticised protest organisers. “We condemn leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters – including children – to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed,” President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said on Thursday.

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbours.

(Additional reporting by Eli Berlzon and Amir Cohen on the Gaza border, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Stephen Farrell and Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli troops kill Palestinian in West Bank clashes

An Israeli border policeman takes up position during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators at a protest against Trump's decision on Jerusalem, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man during clashes in the occupied West Bank on Friday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

An Israeli military spokesman said the man had been about to throw a fire-bomb at the troops, who were responding to an immediate threat when they shot him. He added that the incident in the city of Hebron would be reviewed.

U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2014 and a new push by President Donald Trump’s administration to restart negotiations has shown little progress so far.

Tensions between the sides have risen since Trump declared on Dec. 6 that he recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Outraged Palestinian leaders said Washington could no longer take the lead in peace efforts but Israel has said the United States should remain peace-broker.

Trump’s announcement and the planned move in May of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians – reversed decades of U.S. policy on the city. Its status is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a peace agreement.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Israel says the entire city is its indivisible, and eternal capital.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Maayan Lubell; editing by David Stamp)

Trump-Netanyahu meeting is chance to project common front vs. Iran

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Ba

By Matt Spetalnick and Jeffrey Heller

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold talks on Monday that offer a chance to project a common front against Iran but are expected to do little to advance seemingly stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects.

Mired in corruption investigations threatening his political survival, Netanyahu was confronted, only hours before the White House meeting, by news back home that a former spokesman had turned state’s witness in one of the probes. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.

U.S. and Israeli officials said the agenda of Netanyahu’s talks with Trump would be topped by the president’s push to change or scrap Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and concerns over Tehran’s foothold in Syria.

Both leaders have railed against the deal, citing its limited duration and the fact it does not cover Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for anti-Israel militants in the region.

Trump has threatened to quit the agreement unless European allies help “fix” it with a follow-up accord. An Israeli official said Netanyahu and Trump were likely to talk about how to overcome European resistance on the matter.

“I intend to discuss a series of issues with (Trump), but foremost Iran, its aggression, nuclear ambitions and aggressive actions in the Middle East, including along our very border,” Netanyahu told reporters on his departure from Israel.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military presence in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war.

Netanyahu has cautioned that Israel could act against Iran itself after an Iranian drone flew into Israel last month and an Israeli warplane was downed while bombing air defenses in Syria. He accuses Iran of planning to build precision-guided missile factories in Lebanon, amid tensions on that border.

“We want to know and we must know, what the U.S. position will be if we do enter into some wider confrontation with Iran,” Michael Oren, a deputy Israeli cabinet minister and former ambassador to Washington, said on Israel’s Channel 13 TV.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on Iran to withdraw its military and militia from Syria. But with Russia the dominant international player in Syria, it is unclear what practical steps Washington could take to ease Israeli concerns.

Trump and Netanyahu will also discuss efforts led by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to develop an Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, which the president has said could lead to the “deal of the century.”

The process has gone nowhere, however, since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and announcement of the move of the U.S. embassy to the city in May, shortly after Israel’s 70th anniversary.

Kushner is on the defensive amid investigations into alleged meddling by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign. It is a case that has bedeviled Trump, who – like Netanyahu – has accused law enforcement officials of conducting a “witchhunt”.

Palestinian leaders have reacted to the change in decades-old U.S. policy on Jerusalem by rejecting Washington’s traditional leadership of peace efforts.


No major announcements or breakthroughs are expected from Trump’s talks with Netanyahu, whose relationship with the president has been among the closest of any other world leader.

“This is a routine check-in meeting,” one U.S. official said of Netanyahu’s second visit to the Trump White House.

For Netanyahu, the Oval Office meeting and an address to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC on Tuesday offered little respite from his legal troubles in Israel.

His former spokesman, Nir Hefetz, is one of the suspects in a case revolving around allegations that regulatory favors were granted to Israel’s biggest telecoms company and that in return, its owners provided favorable coverage for Netanyahu on a news site they controlled.

Netanyahu awaits a decision by Israel’s attorney general on whether to indict him, as police have recommended in two other bribery cases.

U.S. officials have said the investigations in Israel are not expected to affect Netanyahu’s talks.

The Trump administration remains hopeful the Palestinians can be drawn back into negotiations after a “cooling-off” period, one U.S. official said, while conceding there had been no sign that would happen any time soon.

Some analysts believe Kushner’s ability to run the Middle East initiative has been further handicapped by his loss of access to certain valued U.S. intelligence because of a recent White House clampdown on access to such secrets for those without full security clearance.

The Trump administration has no plans to use Netanyahu’s visit to roll out peace proposals Kushner’s team is crafting, a second U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We are as committed to peace as ever,” the official said. “We will release the plan when it is done and the time is right.”

U.S. officials have told Reuters it would deal with all major issues, including Jerusalem, borders, security and the future of Jewish settlements on occupied land and Palestinian refugees, and would also urge Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to provide significant financial support to the Palestinians.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Jeffrey Heller in Jersusalem; Editing by Daniel Wallis, William Maclean)

Israel says it destroyed Gaza attack tunnel under Egyptian border

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard near the border between Egypt and Gaza, in the southern Gaza Strip January 14, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it had destroyed a cross-border attack tunnel that ran from Gaza into Israel and Egypt dug by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave, and that it would destroy all attack tunnels by the year’s end.

Residents in Gaza said Israeli jets bombed an area east of the southern town of Rafah, by the Egyptian and Israeli borders, late on Saturday night. Israel confirmed the attack immediately after, but gave no details until Sunday.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas or Egypt, or any reports of casualties.

Israel says it has developed new means which it has declined to disclose, to find tunnels. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman lauded the breakthrough in an interview on commercial television news, saying they would all be destroyed by the end of the year.

“By the end of 2018, we will eliminate all the Hamas attack tunnels … we may even manage to do this sooner, but the task is to destroy them all by the end of the year,” Lieberman said.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Gaza militants have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortar bombs, causing no fatalities or serious injuries in Israel, and 15 protesters and two gunmen have been killed by Israeli fire.

The attacks from Gaza, which Israel has blamed on groups not affiliated with Hamas, have drawn Israeli air strikes, usually on targets that have been evacuated.

“There are those who say the Israeli military attacks sand dunes – that is incorrect,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing criticism from lawmakers who have called for a stronger armed response, told reporters after the tunnel was targeted.

Netanyahu cautioned Hamas that Israel “will respond with even greater force” if rocket strikes continue. Israel has said Hamas, as the dominant force in Gaza, bears overall responsibility for any attacks from the enclave.

But Yoav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said on Army Radio that Israel is “not looking for confrontation with Hamas”. Nonetheless, he said Israel “could not abide by a situation in which Israelis are harmed by fire (from Gaza)”.

Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, described the target hit on Saturday as 1.5 km (one mile)-lone “terror tunnel” running the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Israel, and into Egypt.

“It could also have served to transfer terrorists from the Gaza Strip into Egypt in order to attack Israeli targets from Egypt,” he said.

Kerem Shalom, the main passage point for goods entering Gaza, was shut down on Saturday before the Israeli attack.

Underground tunnels are used to smuggle in all manner of commercial goods to Gaza, and to bring in weapons for militants from Hamas and other groups. They have also been used by Hamas to launch attacks inside Israel.

During the last Gaza war, in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces.

The Israeli military said it has destroyed three tunnels in the past two months.

Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky and David Evans)

Palestinians protesting U.S Jerusalem move clash with Israeli troops

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes, near the border with Israel in the east of Gaza City January 12, 2018.

GAZA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank on Friday in what they said was a protest against U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Such clashes occur weekly, but tensions have risen following U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on Dec. 6, which stirred anger across the Arab and Muslim world and concern among Washington’s European allies as well as Russia.

The move was welcomed by Israel.

“There is almost nothing left for the United States to do before it clearly declares a state of war against the Palestinian people, its authority and leadership,” wrote commentator Rajab Abu Serreya in the widely-circulated Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam.

A total of 17 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed in the flare-up since Trump’s announcement, though analysts say neither Israel nor the Palestinians are interested in a major escalation.

A few hundred Gazans approached the border fence with Israel, throwing stones at soldiers who tried to disperse them by firing canisters of tear gas, according to Reuters video. Smaller crowds gathered in a couple of West Bank cities where protesters threw stones and burned tyres. Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and threw stun grenades.

East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want for the capital of a Palestinian state, was captured by Israel in the 1967 war and later annexed, though that action has not been internationally recognised.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have collapsed, partly due to Israeli settlement building on occupied land and to Israeli concerns over contact between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas which Israel considers a terrorist organisation.

Palestinian medical officials said 14 Palestinians were wounded by live ammunition in Friday’s clash. An Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking the reports.

“We want the Americans to know that the bloodshed here of unarmed people is on the hands of their president,” said Ali, a 20-year-old university student in Gaza who did not want to give his family name.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament passed an amendment on Tuesday that would make it harder for it to cede control over parts of Jerusalem in any peace deal with the Palestinians, who condemned the move as undermining any chance to revive talks on statehood.

The legislation, sponsored by the far-right Jewish Home coalition party, raises to 80 from 61 the number of votes required in the 120-seat Knesset to approve any proposal to hand over part of the city to “a foreign party”.

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump angered the Palestinians, Middle East leaders and world powers by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

As home to major Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites, Jerusalem’s status is one of the most sensitive issues in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s Dec. 6 decision sparked regional protests and prompted the Palestinians to rule out Washington as a peace broker in any future talks.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem and the passage of the amendment as “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people”.

“The vote clearly shows that the Israeli side has officially declared an end to the so-called political process,” Abu Rdainah said, referring to U.S.-sponsored talks on Palestinian statehood that collapsed in 2014.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its “eternal and indivisible” capital.

Palestinians seek to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

The amendment, long in the legislative pipeline, was passed with 64 lawmakers voting in favor and 52 against.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog said Jewish Home was leading Israel “toward a terrible disaster”. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, said the vote showed that Israel would keep control of all of Jerusalem forever.

“There will be no more political skulduggery that will allow our capital to be torn apart,” Bennett said on Twitter.

A bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led by the president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has so far shown no progress.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party unanimously urged legislators in a non-binding resolution to effectively annex Israeli settlements built in the West Bank.

Political commentators said Likud’s decision might bolster right-wing support for Netanyahu, who could seek a public mandate in an early election while he awaits possible criminal indictments against him on corruption suspicions. He denies wrongdoing.

Parliamentary elections are not due until November 2019 but the police investigations in two cases of alleged corruption against Netanyahu and tensions among coalition partners in his government could hasten a poll.

Some commentators, pointing to an existing law that already sets a similar high threshold for handing over territory in a land-for-peace deal, have said Jewish Home was essentially competing with Likud for support among the right-wing base.

(This version of the story refiles to remove extraneous word in paragraph 14.)

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)

After Syria fall-out, Hamas ties with Iran restored: Hamas chief

Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Hamas Gaza leader Yehya Al-Sinwar (L) attend a news conference as the wife of slain senior Hamas militant Mazen Fuqaha gestures, in Gaza City May 11, 2017.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Hamas and Iran have patched up relations, the Palestinian militant group’s new leader in Gaza said on Monday, and Tehran is again its biggest backer after years of tension over the civil war in Syria.

“Relations with Iran are excellent and Iran is the largest supporter of the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades with money and arms,” Yehya al-Sinwar, referring to Hamas’s armed wing, told reporters.

Neither Hamas nor Iran have disclosed the full scale of Tehran’s backing. But regional diplomats have said Iran’s financial aid for the Islamist movement was dramatically reduced in recent years and directed to the Qassam Brigades rather than to Hamas’s political institutions.

Hamas angered Iran by refusing to support Iran’s ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year-old civil war.

“The relationship today is developing and returning to what it was in the old days,” Sinwar, who was elected in February, said in his first briefing session with reporters.

“This will be reflected in the resistance (against Israel) and in (Hamas’s) agenda to achieve the liberation,” he said.

Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction. It has fought three wars with Israel since seizing the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

Sinwar, a former Hamas security chief who had spent 20 years in Israeli jails, said the group is always preparing for a possible war with Israel. But he said such a conflict was not in Hamas’s strategic interests at the moment.

“We are not interested in a war, we do not want war and we want to push it backward as much as we could so that our people will relax and take their breath and in the same time we are building our power,” he said. “We do not fear war and we are fully ready for it.”

Hamas and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, are locked in political dispute over the issue of Palestinian unity.

Abbas’s slashing of PA funding for Israeli-supplied electricity to Gaza has led to prolonged daily blackouts in the coastal enclave.

Sinwar, in his remarks, invited Abbas’s Fatah movement for talks on forming a new national unity government to administer both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

There was no immediate response from PA officials. Abbas has called on Hamas to first relinqish control of Gaza before he removes economic sanctions and to prepare for the formation of a new unity government that will be tasked with holding presidential and parliament elections.





(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Richard Balmforth)


Jordan’s King Abdullah discusses holy site tensions in Ramallah

Jordan's King Abdullah II walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a reception ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 7, 2017.

By Ali Sawafta

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Jordan’s King Abdullah met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday for the first time in five years to discuss tensions at a Jerusalem holy site and wider political developments.

While the two leaders meet fairly frequently in Amman and other regional capitals, Abdullah has not visited Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, since December 2012.

The king flew in by helicopter, with the visit coordinated with Israeli authorities which control all entrance and exit points to the West Bank, including its 150 km (93 mile) border with Jordan and the air space above.

The visit comes two weeks since a surge in violence in Jerusalem after Israel installed metal detectors at Muslim entrances to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, following the killing of two Israeli policemen.

The change in security led to days of protests and clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli security forces before Israel, after consultations with Jordan, decided to remove the metal detectors and other measures.

Jordan has been the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites since the 1920s. The compound, which sits on a tree-lined plateau in the Old City, is also revered by Jews, who call it Temple Mount, the site of two destroyed ancient Jewish temples.

“We discussed all issues of mutual interest and we agreed to form a crisis committee that will continue contacts to evaluate what has happened, the lessons to be learned and the challenges we may face at Al Aqsa mosque,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Reyad Al-Maliki told reporters after the meeting.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has growing, if little discussed, economic ties with its neighbor, often plays a mediating role in the region.

With a large percentage of Jordan’s population made up of Palestinians, and Jordan sharing a border with the West Bank, which the Palestinians want for their own state together with East Jerusalem and Gaza, its position is sensitive.

Maliki said Abbas and Abdullah also discussed U.S.-led efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have been suspended for the past three years, and stated that Israel must “recognize the principle of a two-state solution and end provocative settlement activity that is designed to prevent the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.”

President Donald Trump’s regional envoy, Jason Greenblatt, has made several trips to Amman, Ramallah and Jerusalem this year to try to find common ground and Maliki said U.S. envoys were expected to visit again in the coming days but there is little sign of enthusiasm on anyone’s part to restart talks.

Abdullah is also playing a role in liaising with Egypt and others to see if long-standing differences between Abbas’s Western-backed Fatah party and the rival Hamas Islamist movement can be resolved and Maliki said the issue was discussed.

Hamas, which won the last parliamentary elections held in the Palestinian territories in 2005, seized full control of Gaza after a struggle with Fatah in 2007.

Over the past several months, Abbas, as head of the Palestinian Authority, has stepped up pressure on Hamas, cutting off salaries for civil servants in Gaza, limiting payments for electricity imports and some medicines.

The aim appears to be to oust Hamas from power, but there is little sign of that happening and efforts are being made by regional powers to resolve the internal fighting.


(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Luke Baker and Ori Lewis, Editing by Robin Pomeroy)


Syrian child refugees taught to release stress and resist recruitment

Syrian refugee children queue as they head towards their classroom at a school in Mount Lebanon,

By Sally Hayden

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The screams of a dozen Syrian and Palestinian children pierce the air of a community center in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp.

Yet the children are not hurt. They are yelling to express the anger and fear they feel as victims of conflict in special “peace education” classes.

“We don’t hit each other. We don’t say bad things about each other. Boys don’t hit girls,” said 11-year-old Hala, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

Hala fled Deir el Zor in Syria and has been living in Lebanon for less than two years. She said one of her favorite activities is “playback”, where each child will tell a story or describe a situation that is bothering them and will have the other children act it out.

Organized by Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a local charity, the classes in a chaotic fifth floor room were set up to help children voice their opinions, release the stress caused by war and displacement and rediscover their imaginations, staff say.

They hope by providing children with activities such as painting, dram and storytelling, they will be less vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups preying on children and teenagers who may be out of school with little to occupy them.

“These kids have been through a lot. They’re traumatized in many different ways,” said “peace education” project manager Elio Gharios.

“They’re agitated, maybe introverted, aggressive at times,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, half of them children.

In 1949, it opened the Shatila camp in Beirut to host Palestinian refugees fleeing Israel’s founding in 1948.

As a new wave of Syrian refugees joined the ranks of the displaced, Shatila has grown upwards, with some buildings now six floors high. Houses are damp and overcrowded, and the tangled electricity wires that hang across the streets cause multiple deaths a year.

More of an urban slum than a traditional refugee camp, Shatila which covers one square kilometer is home to as many as 42,000 people, according to Rasha Shukr, the Beirut area manager for Basma and Zeitooneh.

Syrian refugee children play as volunteers entertain them inside a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon

Syrian refugee children play as volunteers entertain them inside a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho


Gharios, a charismatic 24-year-old Lebanese psychology graduate, said children aged between seven and 14 attend the classes with up to 20 children in each session.

Each class starts with the children deciding on rules for how they can and cannot treat each other.

“They need to know that finding peaceful ways to resolve conflicts is a very important matter … They are reminded every time that violence is not the solution, it’s not the way,” Gharios said.

“They’re young, it is the teenagers who are easiest to brainwash. Many children know how to roll a joint, say, and they’re 12 or 11. Many have witnessed things happen in here where someone would hold a gun against someone else’s head.”

Young Syrian refugees are at particular risk of being recruited by extremist groups in Lebanon and elsewhere because their recent displacement often fuels a sense of hopelessness, says UK-based charity International Alert, which funds projects in Shatila camp, including the classes.

Palestinian groups including Hamas militants and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement are active inside Shatila, according to charities working there.

Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, another extremist group, have also been known to target young refugees online, they say.

International Alert says these classes make children less vulnerable to recruitment because they provide them with a safe environment to discuss problems, learn conflict resolution skills and to rebuild a sense of purpose.


Caroline Brooks, Syria projects manager at International Alert, which supports similar programs throughout Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, said there were many reasons why children may join an extremist group.

Often there is a need for a sense of significance, purpose, and belonging, and sometimes there is a desire for revenge, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A lack of alternatives and the need to make a living are also strong pull factors, Brooks said.

Conflict and displacement tend to fuel the abuse and exploitation of children, refugee experts say.

For example, many children are forced to work or beg to feed themselves and their families, young girls face greater risk of being married off and domestic violence increases, they say.

“Peace education” classes, which started this year, have already had some impact, Brooks said citing a 17-year-old in the program who was approached by an Islamic State recruiter through Facebook.

The teenager immediately reported it to a member of staff involved in the classes.

For Hala, the classes which she has been attending for right months have made a huge difference to her and her younger siblings.

“My brothers changed. They became much happier,” she said.

(Reporting by Sally Hayden; Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit to see more stories.)

Rivals, regional powers grow uneasy with Palestinian leader

Palestinians take part in a rally in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah

By Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi

RAMALLAH/GAZA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states are piling pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resolve divisions in his Fatah party and with the rival Hamas movement, amid growing concerns about whether Palestinian democracy is under threat.

Neighboring states, diplomats and major funders fear the festering divisions could lead to conflict, and say the lack of a clear transition process raises questions about what would happen if the 81-year-old Abbas, in power since 2005 despite his mandate expiring, were to die in office.

In a non-binding paper circulated last month, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates made recommendations for tackling splits that have deepened over the past year, while strengthening Palestinian leadership and trying to keep the stalled peace process with Israel alive.

“Efforts to unite Fatah and empower it are aimed at balancing the Palestinian internal arena and this falls under the responsibilities of the head of the movement, Abu Mazen,” the two-page paper said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

Among the recommendations was the holding of “free and fair” elections for parliament and the presidency by July 2017, although there are no indications that will happen. They would be the first parliamentary elections since January 2006.

“The primary reasons are Abbas’s systematic mismanagement of such relationships, and a weakness of leadership that has opened greater opportunities for Arab and foreign interference in Palestinian internal affairs,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies.

In a clear signal of its growing frustration, Saudi Arabia, which normally provides around $20 million a month to the Palestinian budget, has not made any contributions since April, according to the Palestinian finance ministry’s website.

Palestinian officials say Riyadh is withholding the funds because it first wants to see progress on unity within Fatah and with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.

With the United States, the European Union and individual EU member states having already cut their contributions, the Palestinian budget faces a severe shortfall this year, which the World Bank puts at around $600 million.

Asked about the pressure from Arab states, Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah declined to comment directly but said the focus of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Abbas also chairs, has always been on Palestinian unity.

“Any attempt to intervene in the independence of Palestinian national decision-making will fail, just as it has failed throughout the past 40 years,” he said. Abbas himself has said nothing in public about the political process in months.


Rabbani said it was increasingly clear the race to succeed Abbas had begun, with a number of rivals positioning themselves for the day he is gone.

Abbas faces several challenges. Opinion polls show Palestinians have lost confidence in his leadership, and if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow, it is possible Hamas would win in both Gaza and in the West Bank, where Fatah and Abbas have traditionally been stronger.

At the same time, factions within Fatah are growing more agitated, with rival groups emerging ahead of a party congress set to take place next month, the first since 2009.

Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief who fell out with Abbas and now lives in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates, is a staunch Abbas critic who retains influence within Fatah’s revolutionary council and central committee.

Some senior Fatah figures want Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan, but the president shows no such inclination. At the party congress, Abbas is expected to push for the election of a new central committee and revolutionary council – the equivalent of Fatah’s parliament – that would be free of Dahlan loyalists.

Dahlan, 55, said that if Abbas did try to push such changes through, it would be “illegitimate”.

It “will represent the most dangerous split in the history of Fatah and will be regarded as a palace coup,” he told Reuters in written comments, adding that there were legitimate reasons to worry about a collapse in the democratic process.

“It is time to implement the will of the people and implement the law by electing a new leadership and not a new leader. There is a historical and national need to hold parliament and presidential elections,” he said.

In an analysis last week, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for more than 50 years, as “tearing itself apart”, with worrying implications for the future.

“It is likely that the split within Fatah will further widen if Dahlan is excluded from holding a leadership position,” it wrote. “Furthermore, the dispute between the Dahlan and Abbas factions could evolve into open warfare, which could mean instability or even violence – especially where Dahlan wields considerable power in the Gaza Strip, the northern West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.”

This week has already seen unrest in some West Bank refugee camps where Dahlan has a strong following.

Diplomats say Dahlan has good ties with Egypt as well as the Gulf states. Cairo sees him as a helpful interlocutor with Hamas in Gaza, where Dahlan is from, and as someone with the energy and strength to shake up Palestinian politics.

Others, though, see Dahlan as the power behind the throne. Officials who have met him think he may act as a kingmaker, rather than a future Palestinian president, throwing his support behind another senior Fatah figure as leader.

A number of names crop up in both Palestinian and Israeli assessments, including Nasser al-Qudwa, the nephew of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief who heads the Palestine Football Association, and Majid Faraj, the head of Palestinian intelligence.

Yet the most popular Palestinian politician, according to opinion polls, remains Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the first and second uprisings against Israel who was convicted of murder by an Israeli court in 2004 and is serving five life sentences.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Giles Elgood)