Kushner launches group to promote Arab states’ new ties with Israel

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jared Kushner is forming a group to promote relations between four Arab states and Israel, normalized under agreements he helped broker as a top adviser to his father-in-law former President Donald Trump, the group said on Wednesday.

Kushner is founding the “Abraham Accords Institute for Peace,” to work on deepening agreements Israel reached last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, is writing a book about his experience in helping broker the deals. He will be joined in the new group by former U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz and ambassadors to the United States from Bahrain, the UAE and Israel.

Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a contributor to Democratic causes, was also listed as part of the effort in a statement by the group, which described itself as non-partisan. The founders “intend to add additional Democrats to the group as well as international advisers from the region”, it said.

The Arab countries’ agreements with Israel were opposed by the Palestinians, who say they violate pledges from Arabs not to make peace until Israel withdraws from occupied lands.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who defeated the Republican Trump in an election in November, has said he aims to strengthen and expand the agreements, a position he repeated on Tuesday in a phone call with the UAE’s powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Graff)

Morocco hosts Israeli envoys, Kushner to hammer out new ties

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israeli envoys arrived in Morocco on Tuesday to meet its king and hammer out an upgrade of ties that was forged by the White House in a foreign policy push by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Israeli delegation was accompanied by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of pan-Arab rapprochement with Israel.

They took El Al Israel Airlines in the first direct flight by a commercial plane from Tel Aviv to Rabat. Both countries anticipate a surge in tourism aboard such connections, mainly among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

Morocco followed the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in moving toward normal relations with Israel. Palestinians have censured the U.S.-brokered deals, seeing a betrayal of a long-standing demand that Israel first meet their statehood goals.

As the Trump administration has sought to isolate Iran, the deals have been sweetened with promises of business opportunities or economic aid. Israel’s new partners have also enjoyed bilateral benefits from Washington – in Rabat’s case, U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

“This type of agreement (with Israel) will help have a better interaction between communities and people,” Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui told I24 television.

During the visit, Ben-Shabbat and Kushner will see Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials said. Moroccan and Israeli officials are also scheduled to sign accords on linking up aviation and financial systems, on visas and water management.

The delegates’ plane, painted with the Hebrew, Arabic and English words for “peace” and a Maghreb good-luck talisman, had a low-key reception at Rabat airport. Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.

Israel and Morocco now plan to reopen mutual “liaison offices.” Israel hopes these will be upgraded to embassies.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)

Kushner to lead U.S. delegation to Israel, Morocco

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will lead a U.S. delegation to Israel and Morocco next week for discussions on the normalization deal the two Middle East countries reached last week, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation and an Israeli team will join together and take the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat as a sign of progress after the Israel-Morocco deal that Kushner helped broker, the official told Reuters.

Kushner, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will leave for Israel on Monday.

While in Jerusalem, Kushner, who is U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official.

El Al is expected to be the airliner for the first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat that the Kushner team and a delegation led by Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will take, the official said.

The Israel-Morocco deal was the fourth that the United States helped broker, following similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Kushner and his team are still holding talks with other countries from the Arab and Muslim world.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)

Aid coming to north Ethiopia, refugees recount war suffering

ADDIS ABABA/HAMDAYET, Sudan (Reuters) – Relief agencies in Ethiopia prepared convoys on Thursday to truck aid into Tigray region, where a month of war is feared to have killed thousands of people and has forced refugees to flee along corpse-strewn roads.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after federal forces captured the northern region’s capital Mekelle at the weekend.

However, TPLF leaders have dug into surrounding mountains in an emerging guerrilla strategy. “The war is a people’s war and will not end easily,” its spokesman Gebre Gebretsadkan said on Tigray TV, adding that fighting had continued round Mekelle.

One aid worker in touch with Tigray said clashes had been taking place to the north, south and west of the city. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diplomats in touch with sources on all sides say thousands of combatants and civilians appear to have died since Abiy’s offensive began on Nov. 4, after a TPLF attack on a military base was the last straw in their feud.

More than 45,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan, while many more have been displaced within Tigray.

One refugee, who gave his name only as Abraham, saw corpses in civilian clothes as he fled the Tigrayan town of Humera towards the border with Sudan.

“Nobody can bury them, they were outside on the road,” he recounted from Hamdayet, a Sudanese border transit point.

WAR CHILD

Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF have both accused each other of – and both denied – targeting civilians.

The TPLF said it had destroyed government tanks and accused Eritrea of deploying troops to back Abiy. Eritrea’s government could not be reached for comment but has previously denied that.

Claims from all sides have been hard to verify while access to Tigray region was blocked and communications largely down, though internet and phone services were returning this week.

In Qadarif, also in Sudan, the mother of a newborn baby recounted how she had fled Tigray at eight months pregnant.

“While I was frightened and running away, that’s when the pain started,” said Atikilti Salem, breastfeeding her 22-day-old baby Abeyam.

“I found a small village and gave birth in the hospital … I wanted to call her Africa, but I instead named her after the doctor who delivered her … When the war is over … I’m going to tell her the story of how she was born.”

Ethiopian authorities and the United Nations agreed to move humanitarian aid into federal government-controlled areas of Tigray. Some 600,000 people relied on food handouts even before the fighting.

Food stocks are nearly empty for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, aid agencies say, while medics in Mekelle are short of painkillers, gloves and body bags.

“There’s an acute shortage of food, medicine and other relief,” tweeted Norwegian Refugee Council head Jan Egeland, saying relief convoys were ready to go.

Tigray’s new government-appointed leader Mulu Nega said help was on its way to areas of west Tigray including Humera.

REFORM SETBACK?

The first video from Mekelle since its capture on Saturday, from state-run ETV, showed people shopping and sitting on stools.

“Life is getting back to normal … Everything is, as you can see, very peaceful,” one man said in the footage which Reuters could not independently verify.

Tigrayans have strongly supported the TPLF and seen them as war heroes from the 1991 overthrow of a Marxist dictatorship.

Analysts fear that Abiy’s political reforms, after he took office in 2018, could be set back by the conflict, and his tougher line against foes including jailing opposition figures this year.

He became prime minister after nearly three decades of TPLF-led government that had become increasingly repressive.

Abiy, who comes from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethnic groups, reduced Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for a group making up 6% of the population.

The TPLF accuses their ex-military comrade and government coalition partner of trying to increase his personal power over Ethiopia’s 10 regions. Abiy denies that, calling them criminals who mutinied against federal authority.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis and Nazanine Moshiri in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul, Seham Eloraby and Baz Ratner in Ahmdayet, Sudan; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

In Sudan camp, a Tigray farmer once displaced by famine now shelters from war

By Seham Eloraby and Baz Ratner

UM RAKUBA CAMP, Sudan (Reuters) – Ethiopian farmer Berhan Halie came to Sudan 35 years ago to escape hunger.

Now 65 and walking with a stick, he is back again, this time to escape the bullets and bombs of the conflict in Tigray, fleeing from his village as neighbors lay dead on the ground.

Berhan and his family spent days walking to the border crossing with Sudan, among more than 45,000 who have fled from fighting between the Ethiopian government and rebellious Tigray forces.

After crossing two weeks ago, he was brought by bus to the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan’s Qadarif state — the same site he came to when fleeing the famine that had ravaged northern Ethiopia in 1985.

“The first time I came was because of famine but now it’s because of war, that’s why I feel really sad and I feel so much pain,” said Berhan, sitting in the shade against some foam matting as he rested an old leg injury.

He recounted how dead bodies were strewn behind him as he fled amid heavy fire. He had no chance to identify them, but is sure they were from his village, Rayan.

“I could not manage to look back because I was thinking about my family and how to escape and how to get out of the country,” he said.

“I wasn’t the only one walking. So many people were walking alongside me, and mothers carrying their children on their backs, and others the same age as me.”

Like other mainly Tigrayan refugees who have fled to Sudan, Berhan blamed the violence on government forces and allied militia. Reuters was unable to verify his claims.

The government denies it has killed civilians in the conflict. Both sides have accused the other of ethnic-based killings, while denying responsibility for carrying them out.

Thousands of people are believed to have been killed since fighting broke out in Tigray, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been trying to quell a rebellion by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Assertions from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to Tigray have been down and access tightly controlled since the conflict began on Nov. 4.

“This is inhumane, slaughtering people, stealing all their belongings, I feel the world has betrayed Tigray because people are doing nothing while people are being killed,” said Berhan.

Conditions at Um Rakuba are harsh. New arrivals have been sheltering under trees and tents made from sticks and plastic sheeting. Those not yet registered as refugees get two rations of sorghum porridge a day, which some complain is making them sick.

Some teenagers pass the time playing volleyball next to a row of white tents, while others queue for food or try to sleep.

The war in Tigray region has heightened frictions between Ethiopia’s myriad ethnic groups.

Ethiopian authorities said on Saturday that the military operation in Tigray was over, they controlled the regional capital Mekelle, and a hunt for the rebel leaders was under way.

For Berhan, speaking on Sunday, the Ethiopian government had already won.

“They made a plan on how to destroy Tigray and the plan is about to happen. The attack is about to be accomplished,” he said.

(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Aidan Lewis, William Maclean)

Qatar FM: Normalization with Israel undermines Palestinian statehood efforts

DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister said on Monday Arab states that establish ties with Israel undermine efforts for Palestinian statehood, but it was in their own sovereign right to do so.

Three Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – set aside hostilities with Israel in recent months to agree to formal relations in deals brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Palestinian leaders have accused them of betrayal, while U.S. and Israeli officials have said more Arab states could soon follow.

“I think it’s better to have a united (Arab) front to put the interests of the Palestinians (first) to end the (Israeli) occupation,” Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the online Global Security Forum.

He said division was not in the interest of concerted Arab efforts to get the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians and resolve the decades-long conflict between the sides.

However, for the states who established ties, “it is up to them at the end of the day to decide what is best for their countries”, he said.

The UAE, Bahrain and Sudan broke with decades of Arab policy that had demanded Israel first cede land to the Palestinians to form their own state before establishing relations.

UAE officials have said the Gulf state remains committed to Palestinian statehood, and that its deal with Israel had stopped further annexation of lands Palestinians seek for a state.

Until this year, Israel had only current formal relations with just two Arab states – its neighbors Egypt and Jordan – established under peace deals reached decades ago.

Qatar has been tipped by Israeli officials as among Arab and other Muslim-majority countries that could establish formal ties with Israel.

Sheikh Mohammed said Doha maintains some relations with Israel, though only on matters concerning the Palestinians such as humanitarian needs or development projects.

Qatar, which also has relations with two of Israel’s bitter enemies, Iran and Palestinian militant group Hamas, supports a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a stance the foreign minister reiterated.

(Writing by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Sudan confirms ‘contacts’ with Israel, says UAE move is ‘brave’

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 Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan on Tuesday confirmed having contacts with Israel, saying the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize relations with Israel is “a brave and bold step”, according to its foreign ministry spokesman.

Under the U.S.-brokered deal announced last week, the UAE becomes just the third Arab country to forge full relations with Israel in more than 70 years. The pact could reshape Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to the fight against Iran.

In February, Israeli officials said Israel and Sudan had agreed to move towards forging normal relations for the first time during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military-led, transitional sovereign council, in Uganda.

“The Emirates’ move is a brave and bold step and contributes to putting the Arab world on the right track to build peace in the region and to build sustainable peace,” Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Haydar Sadig told Reuters by phone on Tuesday, confirming remarks made earlier to regional media.

“I cannot deny that there are contacts between Sudan and Israel,” he added.

Netanyahu welcomed the remarks, saying on Twitter: “Israel, Sudan and the entire region will benefit from the peace agreement (with the UAE), and together can build a better future for all people in the region. We will do whatever is necessary to turn this vision into a reality.”

Back in February, Burhan confirmed the meeting with Netanyahu but cast doubt on any rapid normalization of ties, saying Sudan’s stance on the Palestinian issue remains unchanged, and that relations between the two countries was the responsibility of the civilian cabinet in Khartoum.

Scores of Sudanese protesters condemned Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu in February. Under the long rule of Islamist strongman Omar al-Bashir until his fall in a popular uprising in 2019, Khartoum counted among hardline Muslim foes of Israel.

Sadig said any normalization of relations with Israel would not be at the expense of “Sudan’s moral values and independence” and be “according to Sudan’s interests”.

“We will not accept unequal relations with Israel.”

Israel says it expects other Gulf Arab countries and Muslim nations in Africa to follow in normalizing ties after its breakthrough with the UAE.

(Aditional reporting Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Fragile’ Africa prepares for high risk of coronavirus spread

By Juliette Jabkhiro and Kate Kelland

DAKAR/LONDON (Reuters) – An isolation ward stands ready at a hospital in Khartoum, Sudan. Laboratories in Senegal and Madagascar have the testing equipment they need. Passengers arriving at airports in Gambia, Cameroon and Guinea are being screened for fever and other viral symptoms.

Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says it has activated its emergency operation centre in the face of what global health officials say is a high risk the coronavirus disease epidemic that began in China will spread to its borders.

On a poor continent where healthcare capacity is limited, early detection of any outbreak will be crucial.

The fear is great that a spreading epidemic of coronavirus infections will be hard to contain in countries where health systems are already overburdened with cases of Ebola, measles, malaria and other deadly infectious diseases.

“The key point is to limit transmission from affected countries and the second point is to ensure that we have the capacity to isolate and also to provide appropriate treatment to people that may be infected,” said Michel Yao, emergency operations program manager at the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa in Brazzaville, Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is barring its citizens from flying to China. Burkina Faso has asked Chinese citizens to delay travelling to Burkina, and is warning that they face quarantine if they do. Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda have all suspended flights to China.

“What we are emphasising to all countries is that they should at least have early detection,” Yao said.

“We know how fragile the health system is on the African continent and these systems are already overwhelmed by many ongoing disease outbreaks, so for us it is critical to detect earlier to that we can prevent the spread.”

John Nkengasong, Africa’s CDC director, told a briefing in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa this week that the activation of the emergency operation centre would create a single incident system to manage the outbreak across the continent.

The Africa CDC will also hold a training workshop in Senegal for 15 African countries on laboratory diagnosis, he said.

The continent has more than doubled the number of laboratories now equipped to diagnose the viral infection, this week adding facilities in Ghana, Madagascar and Nigeria and to established testing labs in South Africa and Sierra Leone.

“By the end of the week we expect that an additional 24 countries (in Africa) will receive the reagents needed to conduct the tests and will have the test running,” a spokeswoman for the WHO’s Africa Region told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Addis Ababa, Benoit Nyemba in Kinshasa, Thiam Ndiaga in Ouagadougou, Josiane Kouagheu in Douala, Pap Saine in Banjul and Saliou Samb in Conakry. Writing and reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Pravin Char)

Judge bars U.S. from ending protections for immigrants from four countries

Paint is seen on cars before members of the Teamsters Union participate in a tractor trailer caravan surrounding the LA Metro Detention Center in support of port truck drivers and others threatened by deportation if the courts or congress don't stop the termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge in California barred the Trump administration on Wednesday from implementing a plan to end temporary protections for more than 300,000 immigrants in the United States from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan.

U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen issued a preliminary injunction in a suit brought by a number of immigrants with temporary protected status, or TPS.

The TPS designation offers protection from deportation to immigrants already in the United States, including those who entered illegally, from countries affected by natural disasters, civil conflicts, and other problems.

The government has failed to establish any real harm if “the status quo (which has been in existence for as long as two decades) is maintained during the pendency of this litigation,” Chen wrote in the order.

“Indeed, if anything, Plaintiffs and amici have established without dispute that local and national economies will be hurt if hundreds of thousands of TPS beneficiaries are uprooted and removed,” he said.

There are more than 263,000 TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador, 58,000 from Haiti, 5,000 from Nicaragua and 1,000 from Sudan, according to court documents.

The Trump administration has shown a deep skepticism toward the temporary protected status program and has moved to revoke the special status afforded to thousands of immigrants from a number of countries, including the four named in the suit.

Salvadoran immigrants covered by TPS will lose their protected status in September 2019, those from Haiti in July 2019, Nicaraguan immigrants in January 2019 and Sudanese immigrants in November 2019.

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Paul Tait)

Israel says to send 16,000 African migrants to Western countries

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Monday it has scrapped a plan to deport African migrants to Africa and reached an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to send more than 16,000 to Western countries instead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Canada, Italy and Germany as some of the nations that will take in the migrants.

Other migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum, will be allowed to remain in Israel, which they entered illegally on foot through the border with Egypt, for at least the next five years.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government has been under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants.

But the planned mass deportation led to legal challenges in Israel, drew criticism from the United Nations and rights groups and triggered an emotional public debate among Israelis.

In February, Israeli authorities started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave for a third country in Africa or risk being put in jail indefinitely.

Teklit Michael, who came to Israel from Eritrea a decade ago, said he was delighted by the new deal.

“I saw in the past few years a lot of people lose their hopes because of that deportation to an unsafe place,” said Michael, 29.

MONEY AND AN AIR TICKET

The Israeli government has offered migrants, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination. At immigration hearings, migrants were told they could choose to go to Rwanda or Uganda.

But rights groups advocating on their behalf say that many fled abuse and war and that their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.

The groups had challenged the deportation plan in Israel’s High Court, which on March 15 issued a temporary order that froze its implementation.

Netanyahu said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had agreed to organize and fund the new plan that would take five years to implement.

“The joint commitment is that ‘You take out 16,250 and we will leave 16,250 as temporary residents’. That enables the departure of a very large number of people, 6,000 in the first 18 months,” Netanyahu said at a news conference in Jerusalem.

A UNHCR spokeswoman in Tel Aviv confirmed that an agreement had been reached but gave no details.

The U.N.’s refugee agency had urged Israel to reconsider its original plan, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even dying on the way.

The largest community of African migrants, about 15,000, lives in south Tel Aviv, in a poor neighborhood where shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages and abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches for the largely Christian Eritreans.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)