MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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D.S.M Special Report – The Middle East and North Africa (July 2019)

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Iran – the war of tankers. An EU naval mission in the Persian Gulf? II. Lebanon – Palestinian refugees intensify protests against the limitation of the right to work. Economic or political reasons? III. Libya – Air raid on a refugee and immigrant centre. Error or premeditation?

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Iran – the war of tankers. An EU naval mission in the Persian Gulf?

The United Kingdom requested Tehran (Monday, July 22) to “immediately” free the “Stena Impero” tanker and its crew, deeming its detaining by Iranian forces illegal. “We are not seeking a confrontation with Iran, but the act of retaining a ship engaged in legitimate business, on an international transport route, is unacceptable and has an extreme potential to escalate the situation,” said the spokesman to British PM Theresa May.

The British tanker was detained on Friday (July 19) by the Revolutionary Guard naval forces, after it was supposedly involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat and ignored the latter’s emergency call.

Iran published a video recording of the ship being detained, which shows several smaller Revolutionary Guard ships which encircled the tanker while the latter was traversing the strait. A military helicopter positioned itself above the ship and some men wearing black masks were prepared to deploy on the deck.

The “Stena Impero” was directed towards the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on Friday evening, and the accident’s investigation started on Saturday. “The crew’s 23 members will stay on the ship until the investigation is finalized”, the chief of Maritime and Ports Organization of the southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, told Iranian news agency Fars. He added that the crew is made out of 18 Indian citizens and five others from Russia, the Philippines, Lithuania and other countries.

The UK Department for Transport raised the level of the security alert for ships under British flag to three and continues to recommend avoiding passage through the Strait of Hormuz. At the same time, a second British military ship, the “HMS Duncan” is on track for the Gulf, where it will arrive on July 29, with the aim to protect UK civil ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

The detainment of the “Stena Impero” tanker took place following a similar action of the British navy, which captured the Iranian tanker Grace I in Gibraltar, on July 4, under the suspicion of oil contraband towards Syria, which is a violation of EU sanctions. The Revolutionary Guard detained the ship several hours after the Gibraltar Supreme Court decided to grant a 30-day extension for the sequestration of “Grace I”.

Another tanker detained on Friday by Iran in the Gulf, “Mesdar”, under Liberian flag, has been freed.

While Iran’s rhetoric officially claims that the British tanker was detained for violating international sea laws, Tehran did little to hide the fact that it was a repressive measure. The tactics used to seize the ship – with masked forces rappelling from the helicopter onto the ship’s deck – was the same as the one used by the UK two weeks earlier, in Gibraltar.

Parliament President Ali Larijani said on Sunday, in a Parliament session, that “the Revolutionary Guard responded to the diversion of Iranian oil by the UK”.

Even if at statement level none of the sides wants a war, this kind of approach to the Gulf situation is very dangerous due to its potential to escalate. Following the additional tightening of US sanctions on Iran in May 2019, the Gulf is nearing its boiling point; the situation has become very tense, especially following the latest incidents with Tehran as a main actor.

What is characteristic to these last events? Iran is acting openly, trying to motivate its approach by protecting national interests and respecting international law. If the authors of prior incidents (the attacks on tankers) are still sough after, in the case of the US drone shot down over Iranian territory and of the detainment of the UK tanker, the author is clear, and only the validity of his reasons can be called into question.

A change of approach which probably aims to victimize Tehran and send a message to the international community, especially Europeans, that the situation has become very serious, and Iran is running out of patience.

Iranian authorities repeatedly threatened that they could block oil transports through the Strait of Hormuz. Although this is difficult to enact and very dangerous as far as consequences are concerned, closing the Strait is one of the most powerful leverages the Tehran regime has available (between 20 and 40% of the world’s oil transits the Strait of Hormuz, according to various statistics).

 The United States announced that they will organize, together with their allies, a coalition to protect the Gulf sea routs by supervising all the ships transiting the area. But this initiative was not supported by the Europeans…

But the detainment of the British tanker seems to change the equation… London will try to obtain a European protection mission in the Gulf, according UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Hunt talked on Sunday with German and French counterparts, with which he convened that “the security of ships travelling the Strait of Hormuz is an absolute priority for European states,” according to the Foreign Office. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Washington and Trump advisor John Bolton of attracting the UK into the conflict.

As military deployments grow in the area, especially in the midst of current tensions, so does the risk to produce a minor incident and escalate it become bigger… We must not forget that Iran cannot survive without oil… The interdiction of exporting this resource could be Tehran’s breaking point. If it will give leeway in the end or make us of hostile acts, it remains to be seen, but the current situation cannot last for much longer… And Trump does not seem to want to make a step back!


II. Lebanon – Palestinian refugees intensify protests against the limitation of the right to work. Economic or political reasons?

Thousands of Palestinian refugees protested again on Friday (July 19) within and around the camps they live in, requesting the Lebanese Government to give up its request for Palestinians who want to work to obtain a work permit. Protests have intensified after two businesses owned by Palestinians were shut down last week, with demonstrators urging the government to reconsider its repressive measures against non-Lebanese workers who do not have ID.

Some local opinion currents claim that the recent Labour Ministry measures are actually part of a campaign which has a main target of forcing Syrian refugees to return to their country of origin. But Lebanese Labour Minister Camille Abu Sleiman said on national TV on Thursday that the ministry has done nothing else but apply the law which regulates the status of foreign workers in the country, denying that scenario.

The Palestinians, who are already blocked by authorities from practicing tens of jobs as part of long-term policy to discourage them from staying in Lebanon, are afraid that his measure will further diminish their employment possibilities. ”The Palestinian worker is not a foreign traveller, but more of a refugee forcingly living in Lebanon,” Palestinian Authority (PA) Embassy official Fathi Abu Ardat said last week.

PA and Hamas representatives met in Beirut with Lebanese PM Saad Hariri. Some of the Palestinian officials who took part in the talks stated, on condition of anonymity, that Hariri assured them that the political status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will not be changed, they will not be treated as foreign labourers, and the government will take decisions to rectify the current situations.

The Lebanses PM, however, did not make any official statement following the meeting.

Hassan Mneimneh, a former Lebanese education minister ad the chairman of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, said that “minister Abu Sleiman had the right to request the enforcement of Lebanese laws, but was probably not aware of the Palestinian’s complicated situation”. The object of the Palestinian’s request, according to Mneimneh, is to ensure that government regulation managing their presence or employment in Lebanon must be decided by the Council of Ministers, and not by the ministers individually, as the latter could be influenced in their decisions by political affiliation.

As refugees, the Palestinians continue to benefit from assistance in education and medical assistance through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). But one of the main points of Palestinian discontent from the past couple of weeks was the lack of a clear categorization of Palestinian presence by the Lebanese government.

The legislative system in Lebanon mostly refers to Palestinian workers as “foreign workers”, but recognizes their special situation, because they cannot return to the Palestinian Territories as foreign workers. Therefore, there are neither fully considered “foreign workers”, nor “refugees”, a situation which allows Lebanese ministers to each arbitrarily take measures regarding them.

In each category, Palestinians would benefit from a different set of rights and benefits. As foreign workers, Palestinians would have the right to live anywhere in Lebanon, have legal rights and complete social security benefits, including medical assistance.

But they are forbidden from working in numerous fields which are associated, including medicine, law and engineering, as well as from getting jobs as taxi drivers or hairdressers. Unemployment within the Palestinian workforces is estimated to be at approximately 20%. Most Palestinians end up taking low-pay jobs in agriculture and constructions, which are avoided by most Lebanese workers.

Palestinian workers claim that the government’s request to obtain a work permit is not realistic and ignores the actual situation in Lebanon. To obtain that permit, they must first have a work contract, which implies registering and paying taxes for the government social security program. But Palestinians are forbidden from immediately taking advantage of medical care, days off and other rights stated in the program.

On the other hand, this request opens the door for more exploitation of their rights as workers by employers, who must pay a 23% social security tax on their behalf.

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are stuck in a grey area by the country’s complicated religions-based political system (Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians).  The three highest-ranked offices – the president, the prime minister and the president of the parliament – are respectively allotted to a Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslims. The brusque imposition of this work permit probably results somewhat from the competition between the Lebanese Christian right parties, especially between the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Gebran Bassil, the country’s foreign minister and the son-in-law of president Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea.

Geageam a former Christian militias chief during the civil war, which had a historical animosity towards the Palestinians, is acting within the Christian community in an attempt to undermine Bassil, his main rival for the presidency of Lebanon. Therefore, according to some Palestinian and Lebanese analysts, the recent measures making a work permit mandatory were instated only because current Labour Minister Abu Sleiman is a member of the Lebanese Forces, with the observation that the problem never appeared during the terms of previous labour ministers from other political parties.

Another interpretation starts from Beirut’s problematic economic situation. The Lebanese Parliament adopted on Friday (July 19) a “reforming” state budget for 2019, according to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, in an attempt to bring public debt back under control. The budget is considered a critical test for Lebanon’s capability to approach years of defective economic management and corruption which led to one of the world’s biggest public debts, equal to approximately 150% of the GDP. “This is a reform budget and was very difficult to pass,” Hariri said following three days of Parliamentary debate on the budget.

Despite all this, the details of the final version of the budget, including its deficit target, have yet to been made public. Will limiting the right to work of Palestinians lead to support for this budget? Or is there rather a goal to limit Palestinian presence on Lebanese territory for economic reasons…

And we cannot exclude ties with the peace plan considered by Washington… “Lebanon will not be coaxed by the United States’ investments plan and will not grant Palestinians the status of immigrants,” the president of the Parliament in Beirut, Nabih Berri, said at the end of last month (Sunday, June 23). US President Donald Trump’s plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict includes USD50 billion investments into the Palestinian economy and those of Arab countries neighbouring Israel.

A big part of the Arab world rejected, however, the US project, and the Lebanese believe that one of Washington’s objectives is to gain the permanent settling in the country of Palestinian refugees.

Lebanese parties have rejected for a long time the idea to accept Palestinians as immigrants. “Those who think that they can trick Lebanon by waving billions of dollars, while it is supporting the burden of a suffocating economic crisis, into giving up or negotiate its principles are making a mistake,” Berris said in a statement issued by his chancellery.

He stated that rejecting the Palestinian refugees, which must have the right to return to their territory, is one of the most important principles.

The number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is estimated by the UN to approximately 470,000, while an official census in 2017 approximated only 175,000. The US plan has more than half of the USD50 billion to be spent in the next decade in Palestinian territories, while Egypt will receive 9 billion, Jordan 7.5 billion and Lebanon 6 billion. The lack of a political solution – an issue delayed by Washington – caused the plan’s rejection not only by the Palestinians, but also by the Arab states with which Israel wishes to have normal relations. Lebanon did not attend the meeting in Bahrein, and Berri warned that any investment “to the detriment of the Palestinian cause” will not be supported by his country.

Making the stay of Palestinians – who are mostly Sunni Muslims – permanent is a very sensitive problem in the multi-confessional balance maintained following the war between religious communities in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and in which Palestinian factions also became involved.

III. Libya – Air raid on a refugee and immigrant centre. Error or premeditation?

Tens of people were killed (on the night of July 2/3) in an air raid carried out on a detention centre for refugees and immigrants, situated on the outskirts of Tripoli (55 dead and more than 130 injured, according to the World Health Organization / WMO).

The centre, which is near a military bases in the eastern borough of Tajoura, hosted more than 600 individuals, but the facilities directly hit in the attack sheltered approximately 150 refugees and migrants from several African countries: Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. It seems that some of the victims were also shot by the guards, who tried to stop the inmates from escaping. Later, the refugees and migrants were liberated.

The Government of National Accord (GNA), recognized by the international community, accused that the air raid was carried out by the forces led by Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan National Army (LNA), which hold control over Libya’s east and who launched an offensive on the capital in April.

“These attacks cam after statements made by the commander of LNA Air Forces, Muhammad al-Manfour, and he therefore bears the judicial and mora responsibi9lity,” said GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga. Manfour had stated two days before the raid that air bombings will be intensified as the traditional means to “liberate” Tripoli have been exhausted, advising residents to avoid the areas of fighting.

Tajoura, which is situated east of downtown Tripoli, also host several camps of military forces allied with the GNA. One LNA official denied that Haftar’s forces targeted the detention centre, specifying that the GNA’s allies would be the authors, following a precision attack carried out by the LNA on a military camp in the area.

Libya is a key starting point for migrants and refugees from Africa and Arab countries who try to reach Italy with various ships, but many are caught by the Libyan coast guard, supported by the European Union. Thousands are kept in detention centres run by the government in inhuman conditions, according to human rights organizations.

The total number of migrants and refugees in Libya’s detention centres Is approximately 6,000, according the Libyan Department for Combatting Illegal Migration. At least 3,000 of them are held in or around Tripoli, which has been under siege by Haftar’s forces since April.

The migrants transiting Libya have faced arrest and detention for tens of years, but the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, supported by NATO in 2011, and the country’s spiral into intra-militia violence increased the risks they were facing.  Moreover, an actual economy has developed around refugees and migrants, which leads to them being exploited and abused. Migrants are a rich source of income. Detention centres are part of a trafficking chain from which everyone takes a tax: government officials, traffickers and members of the military, with their roles usually hard to distinguish.

The air raids took place one week after GNA forces reconquered the city of Gharyan, situated in a strategical position south of the capital. Gharyan was the main forward base of Haftar’s forces and, at the same time, the main command centre and an important logistical base which had makeshift hospitals and technique and munitions deposits which supplied all of the LNA forces assaulting the capital. Therefore, the announcement made by ANL air forces commanders makes sense. But why target a centre for refugees and immigrants?

It is possible, of course, that it was an error… But, beyond this possibility, each of the two sides would have been interested in such an action… After almost four months intense fighting, without shifting the balance towards one side or the two sides accepting a negotiated solution, the “rapid” offensive promised by Haftar to take over Tripoli transformed into a lengthy, resource-consuming affair.

And the problem of the refugees and immigrants in Libya generates concern also in European capitals, especially in Roma and Paris. Even if they support different sides in the Libyan crisis, the two countries are interested in managing immigrants from Africa.

So, an alarm signal for their “mobilization” could be considered as a reason for the raid…

Translated by Ionut Preda