Cementing ties with France, UAE places $19 billion order for warplanes, helicopters

By John Irish

DUBAI (Reuters) -The United Arab Emirates ordered 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 military helicopters on Friday, deepening economic and political ties with France through an arms contract worth 17 billion euros ($19.20 billion).

The largest ever overseas sale of the French warplane was sealed as French President Emmanuel Macron began a two-day trip to the Gulf, during which he will also visit Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“These contracts are important for the economy and create jobs in France. What is good for French men and women, I defend ardently,” Macron told reporters, dismissing concerns by activists that French arms sales in the Gulf were fuelling conflicts in the region.

The French presidency said the deal, signed at a ceremony between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ) and Macron on the sidelines of the Dubai Expo 2020, is worth $19 billion.

The first French warplanes will be delivered from 2027, officials, and would create some 7,000 jobs.

Macron’s visit comes at a time when Gulf Arab states have voiced uncertainty about the United States’ focus on the region even as they seek more weapons from their key security ally.

The French leader has forged a good relationship with MBZ with investments flowing between the two countries. Paris has a permanent military base in the Emirati capital.

Shares in Dassault Aviation SA , the Rafale’s maker, rose more than 9%.

It is the biggest bulk purchase of the Dassault-made Rafale, other than by the French army, and comes after deals in Greece, Egypt and Croatia this year.

Abu Dhabi also ordered 12 Caracal helicopters. It is the French code name for the H225M, the multirole military version of the Super Puma.

The on-off negotiations for the Rafale fighter jets took more than a decade with Abu Dhabi publicly rebuffing France’s offer to supply 60 Rafale jets in 2011 as “uncompetitive and unworkable”. Abu Dhabi already has French-built Mirage 2000 warplanes.

“This French commitment in the region, this active cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the clear positions we have taken mean that we have increased our proximity to the UAE,” Macron said.

“And at a time when they undoubtedly asked themselves more questions about other historical partners … I think that this strengthens France’s position,” he said referring to the United States.

Defense sources said the Rafale would replace the Mirage 2000 fleet but is unlikely to displace the American-built F-35 as the UAE continues to hedge its security with two major suppliers, France and the United States.

The deal could nonetheless be seen as a signal of impatience as the U.S. Congress hesitates on approving an F-35 deal amid concerns about the UAE’s relationship with China, including the prevalence of Huawei 5G technology in the country.

“That says a lot about the extraordinary aura that Abu Dhabi has acquired over Paris’ ideological and strategic thinking — It is the first time that a close U.S. partner in the Arab world will rely more on French technology than American technology,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Paris is one of the UAE’s main arms’ suppliers, but it has faced increasing pressure to review its sales because of the conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

“France is going ahead with these sales despite the UAE playing a leading role in the atrocity-marred military operations led by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The French president should denounce the human rights violations in these three counties.

($1 = 0.8856 euros)

(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Tim Hepher, Karishma Singh, Simon Cameron-Moore and David Evans)

 

Blinken: U.S. will help foster further Israeli ties with Arab states

By Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on Friday to encourage more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel as he hosted a virtual meeting with Israeli and Arab counterparts to mark the first anniversary of a set of landmark diplomatic agreements.

The event – held with Blinken’s counterparts from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – was the Biden administration’s highest-profile embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were widely seen as a diplomatic success for Republican former President Donald Trump.

Democratic President Joe Biden has backed the deals since taking office in January, and senior aides have said they want more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel after decades of enmity. But the administration until now had been cool to the idea of commemorating the anniversary of the accords.

On Friday, however, Blinken hailed their diplomatic and economic benefits, saying: “This administration will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward.”

He said the Biden administration would help foster Israel’s growing ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – as well as Sudan, which also reached a breakthrough with Israel last year – and would work to deepen Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan, which have long-standing peace deals.

And Blinken said Washington would encourage more countries to follow their lead. “We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed, saying: “This Abraham Accords club is open to new members as well.”

The leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed the accords at the White House last September. Israel and Sudan announced in the following month that they would normalize relations, and Morocco established diplomatic ties with Israel in December, after Biden defeated Trump in the U.S. election.

Palestinian officials said they felt betrayed by their Arab brethren for reaching deals with Israel without first demanding progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some critics said Trump had promoted Arab rapprochement with Israel while ignoring Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

But Blinken, who has sought to repair ties with the Palestinians badly damaged under Trump, said: “We all must build on these relationships and growing normalization to make tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians, and to make progress toward the long-standing goal of advancing negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Gulf Arabs jittery about Taliban takeover but may seek pragmatic ties

By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Alexander Cornwell and Marwa Rashad

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among the few who recognized the Taliban’s radical 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan, will likely take a pragmatic approach to its return to power despite fears it could embolden militant Islam abroad.

Foreign diplomats and analysts said while Taliban ideology clashed with the Saudi-UAE campaign against militancy and with Riyadh’s recent relaxation of Islamic strictures, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would adapt to realities after the Taliban’s shockingly swift reconquest of Afghanistan as U.S.-led forces withdrew.

Gulf powers severed ties with the Taliban in September 2001 for “harboring terrorists” after airplanes hijacked by al Qaeda militants, mostly Saudi nationals, crashed into New York’s World Trade Center and Washington’s Pentagon, killing thousands.

Riyadh had already frozen ties with the Taliban in 1998 over its refusal to hand over then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who made his name fighting Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for attacks in the kingdom and activities against the royal family.

“The Saudis have a historical relationship with Afghanistan and will eventually have to accept the Taliban (again)…They have no other option,” said a foreign diplomat in Riyadh, who like others asked not to be further identified.

Whether pragmatism will extend to a re-establishment of diplomatic relations is unknown: Saudi and UAE authorities did not respond to Reuters requests for comment regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have limited their response to the Taliban takeover to saying they would respect the choice of Afghans and urging the group to foster security and stability after a protracted insurgency against U.S.-backed rule.

“Both countries are pragmatic and have proven they can work with different regimes around the world,” a diplomat based in Qatar said.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE tried to facilitate inter-Afghan peace talks after the fall of the Taliban 20 years ago, but were not involved in the main negotiations hosted by Qatar that failed to yield a political settlement.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, a Qatari ruling family member and former premier, said countries will have to deal directly with the Taliban.

“The world should respect the current situation in Afghanistan and not take measures to restrict them (Taliban),” he tweeted on Wednesday. “The international community should give them hope that it will accept them and cooperate with them in return for their commitment to international norms.”

Two diplomats in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a representative office, said Gulf states were likely to take their cue from top security ally the United States. Washington has not said whether it would recognize a Taliban government.

UNIQUE SAUDI SWAY?

Saudi Arabia could try to exert a moderating influence on the Taliban with its status as custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, said Umar Karim, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also acted to ease restrictions on daily life in the conservative kingdom – the birthplace of Islam, including curbing the powers of religious police, permitting women to drive and allowing public entertainment.

“Saudi Arabia still has a strong religious card vis-à-vis the Taliban,” Karim said, suggesting that Riyadh could also open channels with the group via Pakistan.

Afghanistan has a long border with Pakistan, which long sheltered Taliban leaders and has long-standing ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Pakistan was the only other country to formally recognize the previous Taliban regime.

The Saudis and UAE could also use their financial clout as leverage as they have in the past, with the Taliban likely to be critically short of cash to govern the country given that Kabul’s foreign currency reserves are parked in the United States, out of reach.

TALIBAN 2.0?

Three foreign diplomats in Abu Dhabi said the UAE had privately voiced concern that Afghanistan under the Taliban could once again become a safe haven and breeding ground for extremists.

“Terrorist groups may use (Afghanistan) as a base if global powers cannot negotiate with the Taliban on (the transition of power) quickly,” columnist Yousef al-Sharif wrote in UAE newspaper Al Bayan.

“The international community must contain the situation and learn from the catastrophic failure of the American experience.”

The Taliban have sought to present a more conciliatory face since taking control, saying they will not allow Afghanistan to be used to launch attacks on other nations and will respect rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.

Initial international reaction has been deeply skeptical.

“The arrival of the Taliban in Kabul means extremism is in the seat of power,” Saudi commentator Faheem Al Hamid wrote in Okaz newspaper. He said any new civil war in Afghanistan would draw in foreign players including neighboring Shi’ite Muslim Iran, long at odds with the Sunni Taliban.

“Much is required from the Taliban. Not only backing up words with action, but also changing the extremist thought rooted in their ideology…towards tolerance and moderation.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long strived to contain political Islamists they deem a threat to Gulf dynastic rule, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in Libya, Sudan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Alexander Cornwell and Marwa Rashad; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Mark Heinrich)

Tanker seized by suspected Iran-backed forces in Arabian Sea, say maritime sources

By Lisa Barrington and Jonathan Saul

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) -Iranian-backed forces are believed to have seized an oil tanker in the Gulf off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, three maritime security sources said, after Britain’s maritime trade agency reported a “potential hijack” in the area on Tuesday.

Two of the sources identified the vessel as the Panama-flagged asphalt/bitumen tanker Asphalt Princess in an area in the Arabian Sea leading to the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil seaborne oil exports flow.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry had earlier said reports of security incidents involving several ships near the UAE coast on Tuesday were “suspicious,” and it warned of any effort to create a “false atmosphere” against the Islamic Republic.

Tensions have simmered in the region after an attack last week on an Israeli-managed tanker off the Omani coast killed two crew members and was blamed on Iran by the United States, Israel and Britain. Iran denied responsibility.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and UAE authorities did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment about Tuesday’s incident.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), in a warning notice based on a third party source, had earlier reported a “potential hijack” and advised ships to exercise extreme caution due to an incident around 60 nautical miles east of the UAE’s Fujairah emirate.

Britain’s Times newspaper also reported that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked, citing British sources as saying they were “working on the assumption Iranian military or proxies boarded the vessel”.

On Tuesday afternoon at least five ships in the sea between the UAE and Iran updated their AIS tracking status to “Not Under Command,” according to Refinitiv ship tracking data. Such a status generally indicates a ship is unable to maneuver due to exceptional circumstances.

Reuters could not confirm this Refinitiv data had any connection to the reported incident.

The United States and Britain said on Sunday they would work with their allies to respond to last week’s attack on the Mercer Street, a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned petroleum product tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime.

Iran denied involvement in that suspected drone attack and said on Monday it would respond promptly to any threat against its security.

Longtime adversaries Iran and Israel have exchanged accusations of carrying out attacks on each other’s vessels in recent months.

Tensions have risen in Gulf waters and between Iran and Israel since 2018, when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled its economy.

(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom and Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Mark Heinrich)

Inaugurating embassy in UAE, Israel tells region: “We’re here to stay”

By Lisa Barrington

DUBAI (Reuters) -Israel’s new foreign minister inaugurated its embassy in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and offered an olive branch to other former adversaries, saying: “We’re here to stay.”

Yair Lapid’s two-day visit is the first to the Gulf state by an Israeli cabinet minister since the countries established ties last year. He was due to sign a bilateral agreement on economic cooperation and open an Israeli consulate in Dubai on Wednesday.

The trip is also an opportunity for the two-week-old Israeli government of Naftali Bennett, a nationalist who heads an improbable cross-partisan coalition, to make diplomatic inroads despite long-stymied talks with the Palestinians.

“Israel wants peace with its neighbors – with all its neighbors. We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home,” Lapid said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Abu Dhabi high-rise office serving as a temporary embassy.

“We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognize that and to come to talk to us,” he said.

Brought together by shared worries about Iran and hopes for commercial boons, the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last year under so-called “Abraham Accords” crafted by the administration of then U.S.-President Donald Trump. Sudan and Morocco have since also moved to establish ties with Israel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, welcoming Lapid’s visit, said Washington “will continue to work with Israel and the UAE as we strengthen all aspects of our partnerships and work to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all the peoples of the Middle East”, the State Department said.

The regional rapprochement was deplored by the Palestinians, who want their demands for statehood free of Israeli occupation addressed first.

President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the accords as “an illusion” and asserted that colonial powers had “implant(ed) Israel as a foreign body in this region in order to fragment it and keep it weak,” according to a report on Tuesday by the official Palestinian news service WAFA.

Tuesday’s agreement will be the 12th between Israel and the UAE, Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said. Lapid is also set to visit the site of Expo 2020 Dubai, a world fair opening in October where Israel has built a pavilion.

Lapid’s plane transited through Saudi airspace. Riyadh, although not having normalized relations with Israel, last year opened its skies to Israel-UAE flights.

The UAE formally opened its embassy in Israel, temporarily located in the Tel Aviv stock exchange, this month.

Israel’s Abu Dhabi embassy still has only three diplomats and a head of mission, Eitan Na’eh, who has yet to be confirmed as full ambassador. The consulate in Dubai is similarly located in temporary premises.

Lapid was conciliatory toward former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose attempts to organize a trip to the UAE while in office were scotched by COVID-19 restrictions and who has sought to cast his ouster by Bennett as illegitimate.

Thanking Netanyahu as “the architect of the Abraham Accords,” Lapid said: “This moment is his, no less than it is ours.”

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nidal Al-Mughrabi’Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, John Stonestreet, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Analysis-Biden poised to pivot U.S. arms deals toward security, human rights

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ninety minutes before President Joe Biden took office on January 20th, the United States signed a $23 billion dollar deal to sell F-35 jets, drones and advanced missiles to the United Arab Emirates.

It was part of flurry of last minute deals President Donald Trump had told Congress were coming in his last two months in office, forcing the Biden administration to make quick decisions on whether or not to stick with the geopolitically sensitive weapons sales.

To the surprise of some Democratic allies, Biden has so far kept the lion’s share of Trump’s more controversial agreements. Executives at five large defense contractors who requested anonymity to speak freely were also surprised by the speed of the Biden administration’s deliberations.

Longer-term, however, those executives and five more people in and around the administration told Reuters that Biden’s policy will shift to emphasize human rights over Trump’s more commercial approach to exporting military equipment.

Biden’s posture towards arms exports – specifically around reducing weapons used to attack others – could shift sales at Boeing Co, Raytheon Technologies Corp and Lockheed Martin Corp. That means fewer bullets, bombs and missiles, while security products like radars, surveillance equipment and defenses against attacks get the green light.

In an interview last week, Raytheon’s CFO Neil Mitchill said that offensive munitions exports, “going forward, the kinds of sales that we were talking about have been declining,” adding there has been a multi-year downward trend of offensive weapon sales to foreign customers.

Boeing and Lockheed declined to comment.

In the early days of the Biden administration, officials paused weapons sales to Middle East allies, including sales of Raytheon’s and Boeing-made precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Eventually a determination was made to only sell the Kingdom “defensive” arms, while limiting weapons that could be used to attack out of concern over casualties in Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen.

Biden’s team ultimately decided to stick with the massive UAE deal. The move spurred criticism from the human rights group Amnesty International which immediately bashed the decision and drew complaints from lawmaker Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

One former U.S. official familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking noted that many aspects of the F-35 sale still need to be negotiated, giving them leverage as the Abraham Accords between UAE and Israel are implemented. The F-35 sale was a side deal to the accords.

PIVOT TO DEFENSE

But arms deals like Trump’s UAE agreement, and others with governments that have poor records on human rights records look far less likely from the Biden White House.

“While economic security will remain a factor” when reviewing weapons sales, the Biden Administration will “reprioritize” other factors including U.S. national security, human rights and nonproliferation, a U.S. official has told Reuters.

“I’m hopeful that as we hear statements that support human rights as being front and center in arms transfer deliberations, we’ll see that play out through actual decisions, and not just words,” Rachel Stohl, vice president at the Stimson Center in Washington said.

During the transition period from election day in November to Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s team sent notification of $31 billion of foreign arms sales to Congress. Congressional notifications occur for most foreign military sales before a contract can be signed to sell a weapon.

On average, foreign military sales under Trump amounted to $57.5 billion per year, versus an average of $53.9 billion per year for the eight years under his predecessor Barack Obama, in 2020 dollars, according to Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy think tank.

Biden’s approval of several late-Trump deals will ease the political and diplomatic transition from one administration to another, according to a State Department official. In the case of the UAE deal, the official said, it helps the two nations “meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partnership.”

As Lockheed’s CEO Jim Taiclet put it to Reuters late last year, “alliances are really important… Foreign Military Sales are part and parcel of that.”

The Biden administration inherited a backlog of more than 500 weapons export deals teed up by the Trump administration, one person briefed on the State Department’s backlog said.

Going forward, the Stimson Center’s Rachel Stohl said Biden’s State Department team is “looking at countries, at individual weapons systems, as well as individual sales.” But as more appointees take their posts at the State Department she said there could be a “paradigm shift on the way in which arms sales are considered as part of holistic efforts to develop and build partnerships and capacity.”

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin)

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)

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID spikes during Ramadan

By Rami Ayyub and Mohammed Salem

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.

Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the Muslim holy month on April 13.

Gaza health officials said around 70% of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37% at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43% over the week before.

“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.

Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43% this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.

Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.

‘NO TRUCE’

Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammad al-Haresh told Reuters he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.

“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”

Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.

Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.

Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.

The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53% of Israelis being fully vaccinated.

RAMADAN LOCKDOWN

Amid growing concern, Hamas will on Thursday begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.

But with around 49% of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.

“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.

Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.

Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans – 54.2% – said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5% who said they would and 15.3% who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX program.

“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.

One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.

“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mike Collett-White)

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)