Jerusalem, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Israel said Thursday that it will bar two Democratic congresswomen from entering the country ahead of a planned visit over their support for a Palestinian-led boycott movement, a decision announced shortly after President Donald Trump tweeted that it would "show great weakness" to allow them in.
The move to bar Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from visiting the close American ally appeared to be unprecedented, and marked a deep foray by Israel into America's bitterly polarized politics. It is also a sharp escalation of Israel's campaign against the international boycott movement.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri issued a statement saying that after consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials he decided not to allow Tlaib and Omar to enter because of "their boycott activities against Israel."
The two newly-elected Muslim members of Congress are outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tlaib's family immigrated to the United States from the West Bank. Deri said Israel would consider any request from Tlaib to visit relatives on humanitarian grounds.
Shortly before the decision was announced, Trump had tweeted that "it would show great weakness" if Israel allowed them to visit. "They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds." He went on to call the two congresswomen "a disgrace."
Israel has sought to combat the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions. The country passed a law permitting a ban on entry to any activist who "knowingly issues a call for boycotting Israel."
Last month, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer had said Israel would not deny entry to any member of Congress.
The interior minister's statement said "the state of Israel respects the American Congress, in the framework of the close alliance between the two countries, but it's unacceptable to allow the entrance to the country of those who wish to harm the state of Israel, especially during their visit."
Supporters of the boycott movement say it is a non-violent way to protest Israeli policies and call for Palestinian rights. Critics say the movement aims to delegitimize Israel and ultimately erase it from the map, replacing it with a binational state.
Israel often hosts delegations of U.S. representatives and senators, who usually meet with senior Israeli officials as well as Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank.
MIFTAH, the Palestinian organization that was set to host Tlaib and Omar in the West Bank, issued a statement saying that Israel's decision was "an affront to the American people and their representatives" and "an assault on the Palestinian people's right to reach out to decision-makers and other actors from around the world."
It was not immediately clear if the two congresswomen had planned on meeting with Israeli officials during their visit. Their spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The decision to ban the congresswomen could further sharpen divisions among U.S. Democrats over Israel ahead of the 2020 elections. Republicans have amplified the views of left-wing Democrats like Tlaib and Omar to present the party as deeply divided and at odds with Israel. Democratic leaders have pushed back, reiterating the party's strong support for Israel, in part to protect representatives from more conservative districts.
In July, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution against the BDS movement.
Tlaib and Omar have also been the target of repeated attacks by President Donald Trump in recent months, including a series of racist tweets on July 14 in which he said they should "go back" to the "broken" countries they came from. Both are U.S. citizens and Tlaib was born in the United States. The two are members of the so-called "Squad" of newly-elected left-wing Democrats, along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
American Jewish organizations had objected to barring the two Democrats from entering the country. The American Jewish Congress said that despite Omar and Tlaib's planned "propaganda exercise," it believed that "the costs in the U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative."
Politicians and former diplomats also spoke out against barring the congresswomen from visiting.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote on Twitter that the decision to bar their entry "harms Israel's standing in the U.S., boosts BDS."
Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, criticized the move, writing that "Israel has always banned Palestinians from their land and separated us from other Palestinians, but this time the Palestinian is a U.S. Congresswoman."
Arthur Lenk, formerly Israel's ambassador to South Africa, said barring Omar and Tlaib "would be sinking us deeper into U.S. domestic political quagmire."
Sanaa, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of Yemenis rallied Thursday in the port city of Aden in support of southern separatists who seized the city from the country's internationally recognized government amid diplomatic efforts aimed at reinstating forces loyal to the Saudi-backed president.
Yemeni military officials said a Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates commission arrived Thursday in Aden to monitor the withdrawal of separatist forces from government headquarters and military camps seized last week from President Abel Rabbo Mansour Hadi's presidential guards after four days of fighting that left more than 70 people dead, including civilians.
Officials in Hadi's camp said that forces loyal to the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which represents the separatists, had withdrawn from the presidential palace. Yet, they still remain in key positions in Aden, which has served as the seat of Hadi's interim government since 2014.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the media.
Both the separatists and Hadi's government are allies within a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting northern Yemen-based rebels, known as Houthis, since 2015.
The UAE is a key member of the coalition. However, it never threw its full support behind Hadi because of his ties to Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood group, a pan-Arab movement that many Arab countries, including UAE, consider to be a terrorist organization.
After the UAE-backed separatists seized control of Aden and kicked Hadi's forces out of their camps, the Saudi-led coalition ordered an immediate cease-fire and threatened to bomb the separatists if they did not return to positions they held before the fighting.
It also called for the separatist movement and Hadi's government to attend talks in Saudi Arabia without offering a date. The separatists said they would attend but they did not withdraw from the city and called on their supporters to take part in the protests Thursday.
Thousands of Yemenis had been bussed or driven by car from rural areas in southern Yemen to the rally in downtown Aden. They chanted "Oh Revolution of the South" and waved flags of the old state of South Yemen.
"(Hadi's forces) won't be able to come back again to the southern streets because we have suffered from them and their actions for many years. God willing, we will achieve victory," said Youssef al-Kaeity, a pro-Southern Transitional Council activist present at the rally.
Yemen was split into two countries during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1994.
Ahmed Omar Bin Farid, a senior STC leader, hailed the rally as "a new beginning" for the people in the south and an opportunity to restart U.N.- brokered negotiations to address their political grievances.
"This is a spontaneous outpouring by the people," Bin Farid wrote on Twitter. "These voices calling for inclusion in a political process and the legitimate demand of self-determination must be listened to."
Bin Farid also stressed the separatists' commitment to fight the Houthis alongside the Saudi-led coalition.
"We have been and will remain a close ally of (the Saudi-led) coalition and we always believe in the mission of thwarting the Iranian-Houthi project," Bin Farid wrote.
Madrid, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Gibraltar on Thursday allowed a detained Iranian supertanker to leave the British overseas territory after a last-minute U.S. attempt to seize the vessel, potentially defusing tensions between London and Tehran as a British-flagged tanker remains held by the Islamic Republic.
The release of the Grace 1 comes after the U.S. under President Donald Trump pulled out of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago, setting in motion a growing confrontation between Tehran and the West over its atomic program. In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. has blamed on Iran and the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran has denied being behind the tanker attacks, though it has seized other tankers.
The Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported there was no U.S. application before the court when a hearing on the Grace 1 resumed Thursday afternoon, quoting the court's chief justice, Anthony Dudley. That allowed the ship to be freed.
That's a stark change from a morning hearing, which saw Gibraltar say the Justice Department sought to seize the vessel "on a number of allegations."
Dudley said that were it not for the U.S. move, "the ship would have sailed," the Chronicle reported.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement that the "investigations conducted around the Grace 1 are a matter for the government of Gibraltar" and that it couldn't comment further.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office said Iran was discussed during the U.K. leader's meeting with Trump's national security adviser John Bolton earlier in the week, though no details were released on the talks.
The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude, was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on Syria, namely its Banyas refinery, where the Grace 1's cargo was allegedly headed, according to authorities in Gibraltar. Iran called the seizure an "act of piracy."
Shortly after the detention of the Grace 1, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had said the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar could see the Stena Impero similarly released.
Signaling preparations for the expected release of the ship, the captain, an Indian national, and three officers of the Grace 1 were released from detention Thursday, the government said.
The whereabouts of the released crew, none of whom are Iranian, were not immediately known. The crew of the Grace 1 includes sailors from India, Pakistan and Ukraine, according to Iranian state television.
Beyond a few Gibraltar-flagged patrol boats, an Associated Press crew saw little security around the tanker on Thursday as speculation mounted over its impending release. A handful of men could be seen from a distance on the deck, some of them carrying binoculars and looking into the horizon.
This is the second time the Trump administration has moved to seize a ship in recent months. In May, the Justice Department announced that it had seized a North Korean cargo ship used to supply coal to the isolated nation in violation of international sanctions.
Tensions have escalated in the Persian Gulf region since Trump over a year ago unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The decision stopped billions of dollars' worth of business deals, largely halted the sale of Iran's crude oil internationally and sharply depreciated Iran's currency, the rial.
In recent weeks, Iran has begun to step away from the nuclear deal by increasing its production and enrichment of uranium. It has threatened to take further steps in early September if Europe can't help it sell its oil abroad.
Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said the U.S. request on the Grace 1 was based on its own imposed sanctions on Iran, and not the EU's sanctions on oil exports to Syria.
"Although the U.S. expects its European allies to abide by these sanctions, it is up to the Gibraltar authorities to assess the allegations presented by the U.S.," Khatib said.
Resolving the tanker dispute would help Prime Minister Johnson focus on domestic issues as he works to complete Britain's exit from the European Union and prepare for anticipated national elections over the next few months.
The U.S. has been asking its allies to take part in a naval mission to protect shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, at the Mouth of the Persian Gulf, though European nations have been reluctant.
Britain has so far been the only one to express willingness to join a maritime security mission. It has also been giving U.K.-flagged vessels a naval escort since the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's seizure of the Stena Impero.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London, Eric Tucker in Washington and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
Gaza Strip, Aug 11 (AP/UNB) — Israeli troops killed four Palestinian militants who attempted to cross through the perimeter fence from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, and in the West Bank arrested members of a Palestinian cell suspected in the killing of an off-duty soldier this week.
The army said in a statement that militants who killed Dvir Sorek, 18, outside a settlement near Hebron were arrested and the car they used in the attack was seized.
Israel's Channel 13 TV reported that the suspects included two brothers from Hebron.
There was no immediate Palestinian comment.
The body of Sorek was found with stab wounds near his seminary, where he studied Talmud as part of a program combining military conscription with religious classes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised intelligence and security forces for locating and arresting the suspects.
"We will continue to fight terrorism intensely on all fronts," he wrote on his Twitter account.
Hamas, the militant group controlling the Gaza Strip, accused the Palestinian Authority, its rival in the West Bank, of cooperating with Israel to identify the militants behind the killing.
"We have always warned against the security liaison between the Authority's security in the West Bank and the occupation army," Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.
In Gaza, morning clashes along the frontier stoked fears of escalation after months of uneasy calm.
This was the highest number of Palestinians killed in a single day since May, when an unofficial cease-fire ended the worst bout of violence in years between Israel and Hamas.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, called it a "very significant attempt to attack Israel."
"We hold Hamas responsible and accountable for any acts of violence emanating from the Gaza Strip whether they were Hamas operatives or not," Conricus said at a briefing with reporters.
No Palestinian groups claimed responsibility.
Hamas, in a statement denying its involvement, stressed that it was an "individual act by angry youths."
"The occupation is responsible for the state of anger and pressure inflicted on our people due to the continued siege on Gaza," said Abdel-Latif al-Qanou, a Hamas spokesman.
Conricus said the four were armed with automatic rifles, hand grenades and rocket propelled grenade launchers. He said Israeli soldiers opened fire when the militants tried to climb the fence, and that the militants returned fire before being killed. No Israelis soldiers were hurt.
Early in August, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian militant who opened fire at forces behind the fence. Three soldiers sustained light to moderate wounds.
The Gaza-Israel frontier has remained tense despite the cease-fire.
Hamas has staged weekly demonstrations along the boundary since March 2018 to protest against the strip's dire conditions following 12 years of Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
The militant group canceled this Friday's protest because of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Mecca, Aug 10 (AP/UNB) — More than 2 million pilgrims were gathered in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Friday to perform initial rites of the hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage that takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
The hajj in Islam is meant to be a great equalizer and unifier among Muslims, with pilgrims shedding overt displays of wealth and materialism. All male pilgrims wear simple terry cloth white garments and women don conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume in an effort to draw closer to God and engage in intense worship for the five-day hajj.
On Friday, thousands of pilgrims circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's holiest site. They circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise, their hearts tilting toward the structure that's meant to symbolize the monotheistic principle of the oneness of God in Islam. Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba daily, using compasses to help them pray in its direction.
The hajj is one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world, drawing more than 1.8 million people from around the world this year, according to Saudi officials. Several hundred thousand more pilgrims are Saudi residents or citizens. Last year, 2.4 million people took part in the hajj, with similar numbers expected for 2019.
"I am very happy now. It is the first time I am here in Mecca. I am very excited," Siti Haslina Yousof, a Malaysian pilgrim in Mecca, said.
The U.S. consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia said some 20,000 U.S. citizens and residents were expected to take part in this year's hajj.
The pilgrimage this year takes place amid a backdrop of political and sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and as conflicts continue to flare in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Muslim minorities around the world also face increased threats, with Uighurs facing repression in China, Rohingya facing genocide in Myanmar and Kashmiris under a sweeping curfew and communication blackout in the Indian-administered territory.
"I cannot express my feelings. The atmosphere is spiritual, still and tranquil. We hope Yemen will be united for good," said Ali Ahmed Al-Sudani, a Yemeni pilgrim who said he was praying for unity in his war-torn country.
Saudi King Salman invited as his guests to the hajj this year 200 survivors and relatives of victims of a shooting spree in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a white gunman opened fire and killed 51 people in two mosques.
Those on the hajj view the pilgrimage as an opportunity to strengthen one's faith, erase past sins and start anew. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of all Muslims to perform once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able.
For the well-heeled, the pilgrimage includes a partial stay in towering five-star hotels with lavish buffets overlooking the Kaaba. But for most, it means sleeping in simple accommodations or even spending weeks sleeping on the ground around Mecca's Grand Mosque to perform daily prayers and rites near the Kaaba ahead of the hajj.
Many pilgrims will save for years to perform the hajj. Charities and wealthier Muslims often also help fund those unable to cover the costs.
In addition to being financially costly, the hajj is physically demanding, involving much walking and travel between various points along the route.
To ease the journey, the kingdom recently unveiled the first phase of a new high-speed train connecting pilgrims between holy sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina. The kingdom also has a new e-visa system in place for pilgrims.
Still, the hajj remains a precarious journey. In 2015, several thousand pilgrims died in a stampede and crush of pilgrims in Mina on a narrow pedestrian-only road leading to a site where Muslims take part in the symbolic stoning of the devil during the last three days of the hajj. The government never released a final death count.
To curb the potential for a viral outbreak of any kind, Saudi Arabia this year stopped issuing visas to people from Congo, citing the Ebola outbreak there.
By Friday evening, most pilgrims will be in Mina, where they will spend the night in air-conditioned tents, before heading to Mount Arafat early Saturday, an area about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Mecca. There, the more than 2 million pilgrims will stand shoulder to shoulder for an emotional day of repentance and supplication at the site where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon, calling for equality and unity among Muslims.
"We feel very excited and will pray for all people," said Malaysian pilgrim, Farida bin Abdulrahman, as she prepared to depart toward Mina for the evening.