Lebanon aims to resolve pain over 17,000 missing since civil war

Thousands of families hope landmark law to probe the fate of those missing will provide some closure.

    Beirut, Lebanon – “Do you see the empty chair with a guitar next to it? Only the musician is missing.”

    In the middle of her living room surrounded by dozens of paintings in her apartment in Haret Hreik, a suburb in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, Mariam Saidi describes her art, which is dedicated to her son.

    “This one shows the Last Supper, but everything is broken,” she says. 

    On June 17, 1982, her 15-year-old son Maher Kassir left the house to go to school but never came back. It was the day Israeli troops reached Beirut, where a massive student protest was under way.

    “I knew he was a communist sympathiser, but I was not aware he was also fighting with them,” Saidi says.

    “When I asked the communist fighters where he was, they asked me to look for him. It’s been 36 years and I am still looking for my son.”

    Landmark law

    On Monday, following a divisive debate, the Lebanese parliament passed a landmark law to investigate the fate of thousands of people who have been missing since its 1975-1990 civil war, in which some 150,000 people died, and to hold those responsible to account.

    The law sets up a national commission to find out what happened to those who were never found – an estimated 17,000 people, including collecting DNA samples from living family members and exhuming mass graves.

    There are no public databases or exact numbers of people who went missing during the war, in which Muslims and Christians, who had lived side by side for centuries, retreated into separate enclaves controlled by sectarian militias.

    Justine Di Mayo, co-president of the Act for the Disappeared NGO, called the law “a real turning point”.

    Her organisation documents testimonies from former fighters and witnesses to the war to identify where mass graves could be located.

    “For decades, politicians said we should not disturb the peace, or [said] bringing up the past would be a mistake. They were only convenient excuses for them,” she told Al Jazeera.

    An amnesty law was issued by the government in 1991 for crimes perpetrated before March 28, 1991.

    “Several mass graves were destroyed because they were located on construction sites and there was no legal framework available on the issue,” said Di Mayo.

    Another group, Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and the Disappeared, was launched in 1982 by activist Wadad Halawani.

    “We asked the families of those disappeared to meet and organise in order to put pressure on the politicians,” said Saidi, who is vice president of the group. 

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called the passage of the latest law “a positive step for thousands of families to find closure”.

    “So far, we have documented nearly 3,000 disappeared people,” said Jerome Thuet, who works for the Missing Project at the ICRC.

    The ICRC is also collecting DNA samples of families with missing relatives.

    “Once the commission will prove its transparency and show it is not discriminatory towards any particular group, we will share the samples with it,” Thuet told Al Jazeera.

    Political rifts

    There was no indication of when the commission would be formed, but Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister, said the country was entering a “genuine reconciliation phase” that would heal the families’ wounds.

    Lebanon voted in May for its first new parliament in nine years.

    With a long-entrenched political elite including local dynasties and former warlords, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has yet to form a national unity government.

    For families of the disappeared, there is still a long wait for closure.

    “It is necessary to build a stable society which does not fall back to a cycle of violence,” said Di Mayo.


    People & Power

    The State of Lebanon

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    Israel's Defence Minister resigns over 'capitulation to terror' in Gaza ceasefire

    Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation on Wednesday in protest at a Gaza ceasefire that he called a “capitulation to terror”, weakening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government.

    “Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman said, referring to Israelis subjected to a surge in Palestinian rocket attacks before Tuesday’s truce took hold.

    Lieberman said his resignation, which will go into effect 48 hours after he submits a formal letter to Netanyahu, also withdraws his far-right Israel Beitenu party from the coalition.

    That would leave Netanyahu with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament a year before Israel’s next election.

    Israeli political commentators had speculated that Netanyahu, who despite his approval ratings has been dogged by multiple corruption investigations, might bring forward the ballot.

    But a spokesman for his rightist Likud party played down that option, saying Netanyahu would assume the defence post.

    “There is no need to go to an election during what is a sensitive period for national security. This government can see out its days,” the spokesman, Jonatan Urich, said on Twitter.

    Lieberman has spoken in favour of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, even as the government authorised a Qatari cash infusion to the impoverished enclave last week and limited itself to air strikes rather than a wider campaigns during this week’s fighting.

    Born in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman’s voter base is made up of fellow Russian-speaking immigrants, and rightists and secularists who share his hostility to Israel’s Arab minority and the religious authority wielded by ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

    The former foreign minister, received the defence portfolio in May 2016.

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    Israel defence minister resigns over Gaza

    Israel’s defence minister has resigned over the cabinet’s decision to accept a ceasefire ending two days of fighting with Palestinian militants in Gaza.

    Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, denounced the move as “surrendering to terror”.

    He also criticised attempts to broker a long-term truce with the Hamas group.

    Eight people were killed on Monday and Tuesday as militants fired 460 rockets towards Israel and Israeli forces bombed 160 targets in Gaza.

    Hamas, which dominates Gaza, and other Palestinian militant groups announced on Tuesday afternoon that they had accepted an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire and would abide by it if Israel did too.

    Israel’s security cabinet initially said only that it was ordering the military to continue its operations as required, but Mr Lieberman and another minister appeared to confirm it had agreed to accept a ceasefire when they denied supporting it.

    The ceasefire was largely holding on Wednesday and schools and businesses in southern Israel reopened after no rocket attacks were reported overnight.

    However, Israel’s military said it had shot at and captured a Palestinian man who tried to breach the Israel-Gaza border fence while hurling grenades.

    Dozens of residents of Israeli border communities meanwhile blocked roads in protest at what they called the “lack of action by the Israeli government” to deal with the threat of Palestinian rocket attacks.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the ceasefire decision, saying that “in times of emergency, when making decisions crucial to security, the public can’t always be privy to the considerations that must be hidden from the enemy”.

    In Gaza, people celebrated the ceasefire, which Hamas portrayed as a victory.

    “The resistance has defended itself and defended its people against Israeli aggression,” the group’s overall leader Ismail Haniya said.

    The latest violence began after an Israeli special forces undercover operation in Gaza was exposed on Sunday, triggering clashes that left seven Palestinian militants and one Israeli soldier dead.

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    Italy's Libya talks end with commitments but no joint statement

    UN envoy Ghassan Salame says renegade General Khalifa Haftar ‘committed to support’ elections in the spring of 2019.

      Palermo, Italy  An international conference on Libya has ended in the Italian city of Palermo with commitments but no binding agreement by warring factions to a United Nations-led road map envisaging elections next year.

      In a joint press conference on Tuesday, UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described the two-day summit as a “success” and a “first step in the right direction” – but walked away with no more than verbal pledges.

      “Palermo was a milestone for Libyans to set a common framework,” Salame said, referring to the plan for a national conference and subsequent elections to be held in the first months of 2019.

      The UN envoy said renegade General Khalifa Haftar, the most reluctant to engage in the UN-led process, was “committed to support” the proposed road map.

      However, the summit ended without a written agreement and with no clear timetable either for the national conference or the election process.

      It was also unclear whether the parties found any common ground with regards to the additional economic and security measures needed to stabilise war-wracked Libya and give respite to its languishing economy in view of the upcoming consultations.

      You don’t change a horse in midstream’

      More than seven years since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains deeply fragmented along tribal and ethnic lines and caught up in a spiral of violence at the hands of rival militias.

      In addition, the difficulties to enact reforms is exacerbated by the existence of two rival parliaments – the internationally recognised Government of National Accord in the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR).

      The UN and most of the international community support Fayez al-Serraj, the head of GNA. Al-Serraj, whose administration has been grappling with a prolonged security and economic crisis, has attempted to broaden the base of his political consensus in a bid to salvage his executive.

      The other front, led by HOR and Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army controls much of eastern Libya, perceives al-Sarraj as incapable of bringing back security to Tripoli as well as to the rest of the country, where rival militias and criminal gangs continue to rule undisturbed.

      However, Haftar on Tuesday apparently expressed his intention to wait for the national conference and elections to take place, before seeking a forcible change in Tripoli.

      “You don’t change a horse in midstream,” he was reported as saying to his rival al-Serraj at an informal meeting on the sidelines of the conference.

      If confirmed, Haftar’s decision may buy time for GNA and the UN mission to improve security measures in Tripoli and across Libya in view of the proposed elections in the spring. 

      “We need to support the current ceasefire and extend it if we are to move the political process forward,” Salame said in Tuesday’s press conference. In September, the envoy brokered a ceasefire after weeks of clashes between militias in and outside of the capital.

      Turkey delegation walks out

      For his part, Conte said he regretted that some of the delegates decided to walk out of the the conference, referring to Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay’s withdrawal from the plenary meeting.

      The Turkish delegation was apparently disappointed at not being invited to join the informal meeting between Haftar and al-Serraj.

      While the Turkish delegation was reportedly excluded from the session, French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and various others were in the room.

      “I am sorry the Turkish delegation decided to leave,” said Conte.

      “Bringing together 30 countries with a direct or indirect involvement in Libya, means exposing the meeting to different sensitivities. This doesn’t change the positive atmosphere we registered overall.”

      Sources close to Haftar – believed to be backed by Russia, Egypt and France – had expressed his disappointment at the presence of Turkish and Qatari officials at the conference.

      Conte said his government is ready to assist the stabilisation process both financially and with capacity-building initiatives like the training of security and police forces. He added that Rome Italy had already pledged 1.5m euros ($1.7m) for elections.


      The Big Picture

      The Lust for Libya: How a Nation was Torn Apart

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      Khashoggi killing: Demand for justice at Istanbul memorial

      The killing of the Saudi journalist condemned at a gathering joined by his fiancee, friends and activists in Istanbul.

        About 200 people gathered in Istanbul to honour the memory of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, demanding justice over the killing.   

        Supporters met on Sunday to talk and watch videos of eulogies for the Washington Post contributor, who was killed on October 2 inside Istanbul’s Saudi consulate, where he went to handle paperwork for his upcoming marriage. His fiancee was among the participants of the memorial.

        Turan Kislakci, head of the Turkish-Arab Media Association (TAM), to which Khashoggi belonged, called for justice to be done “so that these barbaric tyrants can never do the same thing again”.

        Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman, who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her participation in the Arab Spring uprisings, said the killing was reminiscent of crimes committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

        Saudi Arabia has changed its narrative about the murder several times amid international outcry and intensifying scepticism over its account.

        After insisting for more than two weeks that Khashoggi had left the consulate, it then admitted the journalist had died in a fistfight inside the building. Later, Riyadh conceded Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated murder, but that the murder was an unplanned “rogue operation”.

        Erdogan’s accusations

        However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the “highest levels” of the Saudi government of ordering the hit, while some officials have pointed the finger at the crown prince – a charge Riyadh denies.

        Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey shared recordings related to the killing of Khashoggi with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Germany, France and Britain.

        The Turkish leader discussed the issue with US President Donald Trump during a dinner marking the end of the first world war in Paris, according to White House officials.

        Sources told Al Jazeera on Saturday that Turkish police ended the search for Khashoggi’s body, but that the criminal investigation into the 59-year-old’s murder would continue.

        Al Jazeera also learned through sources that traces of acid were found at the Saudi consul-general’s residence in Istanbul, where the body was believed to be disposed of with the use of chemicals. The residence is at walking distance from the Saudi consulate.


        Inside Story

        Will Saudi Arabia ever reveal who ordered Khashoggi’s killing?

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        149 killed in 24 hours in Yemen's Hodeidah

        HODEIDAH, YEMEN (AFP) – At least 149 people, including civilians, have been killed in 24 hours of clashes between government loyalists and rebels in Yemen’s flashpoint city of Hodeidah, medics and military sources said on Monday (Nov 12).

        A military official in Hodeidah confirmed seven civilians had died, without giving further details.

        The Red Sea port city, controlled by Yemen’s Houthi rebels since 2014, is a vital entry point for aid into the impoverished country.

        A source in Yemen’s pro-government military coalition, which is backed by a Saudi-led military alliance, said the Houthis had pushed back a large-scale offensive aimed at moving towards Hodeidah port.

        Medics in hospitals across the city reported 110 rebels and 32 loyalist fighters killed overnight.

        Sources at the Al-Alfi military hospital, seized by the rebels during their 2014 takeover, said charred body parts had been delivered there overnight.

        Military sources confirmed that the Saudi-led alliance had targeted the rebels with multiple air strikes.

        Nearly 600 people have been killed since clashes erupted on November 1 in Hodeidah, one of Yemen’s most densely populated cities.

        Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the Yemeni government’s fight against the Iran-backed Houthis in 2015, triggering what the UN now calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

        The Hodeidah port is a vital lifeline for aid deliveries to Yemenis across the war-torn country, where 14 million people face imminent famine.

        The port has been under blockade by the Saudi-led coalition for a year.

        The alliance accuses Iran of smuggling arms to the Houthis through the Hodeidah port.

        Tehran denies the charges.

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        Israeli fire kills 6 during Gaza raid targeting Hamas commander

        GAZA (REUTERS) – Israeli forces killed at least six Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Sunday (Nov 11) in an undercover raid targeting a Hamas commander and air strikes that provided cover for the troops to escape back into Israel by car, Hamas said.

        The Israeli incursion and air attacks drew rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled enclave, with sirens sounding in Israeli communities along the border.

        The military said its defences intercepted two launches. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage on the Israeli side of the frontier.

        The violence prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a visit to Paris, where he had been gathering with world leaders for a World War One commemoration.

        Hamas said the incident began when assailants in a passing car opened fire on a group of its armed men, killing one of its commanders.

        Hamas gunmen gave chase as the car sped back towards the border with Israel, Hamas said in a statement.

        During the pursuit, Israeli aircraft fired more than 40 missiles in the area, according to witnesses.

        Medics and Hamas officials said at least six people were killed, including commander Nour Baraka and another member of the group. It was unclear if the other fatalities included gunmen.

        The Israeli military said in a brief statement that: “During IDF (Israel Defence Forces) operational activity in the Gaza Strip, an exchange of fire evolved.”

        A return by Israel to a policy of targeting individual Hamas commanders – tactics largely abandoned in recent years – could significantly raise tensions along the border.

        Violence has flared frequently on the frontier since Palestinians began weekly protests on March 30.

        Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire.

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        'I'm suffocating': Khashoggi's last words, says Turkish reporter

        Senior Turkish journalist tells Al Jazeera what Khashoggi’s last words were, according to unpublished audio recording.

          The head of investigations at the Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper has told Al Jazeera that Jamal Khashoggi’s last words were “I’m suffocating … Take this bag off my head, I’m claustrophobic”, according to an audio recording from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

          Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, suffocated to death while a plastic bag covered his head, Nazif Karaman told Al Jazeera. 

          Karaman said the murder lasted for about seven minutes, according to the recordings.

          Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogansaid on Saturday that audio related to Khashoggi’s murder was shared with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Germany, France and Britain.

          He said Saudi Arabia knows Khashoggi’s killer is among a group of 15 people who flew into Istanbul hours before the October 2 incident.

          According to Karaman, the Saudi entourage covered the floor with plastic bags before dismembering Khashoggi’s body – a 15-minute process that was led by Salah al-Tubaigy, head of the Saudi Scientific Council of Forensics.

          Karaman’s remarks come as Turkish police are ending the search for the body, but the criminal investigation into Khashoggi’s murder will continue, sources told Al Jazeera on Saturday.

          Traces of acid were found at the Saudi consul general’s residence in Istanbul, where the body was believed to be disposed of with the use of chemicals.

          Karaman said that Daily Sabah would soon publish images of the tools that were brought into the country and used by the Saudi group.

          He added the Turkish newspaper would also publish some of the recordings that document the last moments of Khashoggi’s life.

          Last month, Istanbul’s chief prosecutor said that Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the consulate and that his body was dismembered, in the first official comments on the case.

          Saudi Arabia has said it arrested 18 people and dismissed five senior government officials as part of an investigation into Khashoggi’s killing. Ankara, meanwhile, seeks extradition of the suspects.

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          Iran women attend Asian football final

          Hundreds of Iranian women have been allowed to attend the Asia Champions League final in Tehran, Iran’s semi-official Isna news agency reports.

          The move is being seen as a possible end to more than 35 years of exclusion of women from top matches.

          Most were said to be relatives of players or members of women’s teams. The match is between local team Persepolis and Japan’s Kashima Antlers.

          Football’s world governing body Fifa is working with Iran to end the ban.

          Last month about 100 women were allowed to watch a friendly between Iran and Bolivia, but restrictions were quickly reinstated.

          In March this year 35 women were detained for trying to attend a match between Persepolis and fellow Tehran team Esteqlal.

          Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, was also in attendance at that match, along with Iranian Sport Minister Masoud Soltanifar.

          Iranian women and girls have rarely been allowed at men’s sporting events since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and have not been able to attend top football matches since 1981.

          Female fans from other countries have, however, been allowed to attend some games.

          Open Stadiums, a group which campaigns for access to venues for women in Iran, handed a petition to Fifa this week signed by more than 200,000 people, Reuters news agency reported.

          Ending the exclusion “has been our dream for decades”, a spokesperson for the group told the agency. “We are also excluded from public happiness and excitement.”

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          US ends Saudi-UAE midair refuelling support in Yemen war

          Saudi Arabia says it requested an end to US refuelling operations in Yemen because it can now handle it by itself.

            The Saudi-UAE-led coalition said it has “requested a cessation of inflight refuelling support” by the United States, bringing a key element of Washington’s involvement in the Yemen conflict to a halt. 

            In statements carried out by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on Saturday, Saudi Arabia said the decision to end aerial support for the coalition was made in consultation with the United States. 

            “Recently, the kingdom and the coalition has increased its capacity to independently conduct inflight refueling in Yemen,” the SPA said.

            “As a result, in consultation with the United States, the coalition has requested cessation of inflight refuelling support for its operations in Yemen.”

            US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis expressed his country’s support for the Saudi decision and suggested a continuing role for the US in Yemen with regard to helping coalition forces minimise civilian casualties and expanding humanitarian efforts. 

            “The US and the coalition are planning to collaborate on building up legitimate Yemeni forces to defend the Yemeni people, secure the country’s borders, and contribute to counter al-Qaeda and ISIS (also known as ISIL) efforts in Yemen and the region,” Mattis said.  

            In August, Mattis warned that US support for the coalition was “not unconditional,” urging it to do “everything humanly possible to avoid any innocent loss of life.”

            The implication of the decision is not clear as of yet but the Associated Press news agency reported that US officials said earlier that Saudi forces now handled about 80 percent of refuelling operations, a critical function that allows aircraft to fly longer sorties.

            Reviving peace talks

            The move to halt refuelling support comes amid new US efforts to force an end to the conflict described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

            The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country and home to an estimated 28 million people, began with the Houthis takeover of Sanaa and toppling of Hadi’s government.

            Concerned by the rise of the Houthis, the Saudi-led military coalition launched an intervention in 2015 in the form of a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling the deposed administration.

            According to the UN, at least 10,000 people have been killed since the coalition entered the conflict. The death toll has not been updated in years, however, and is likely to be far higher.

            The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an independent watchdog, recently said as many as 56,000 Yemenis had been killed since the war began.

            The Saudi statement on Saturday said the kingdom hoped the upcoming UN-sponsored talks “in a third country” – which have since been delayed till the end of the year – would help end the war.

            UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has said he is in consultations with Yemen’s warring parties to finalise details for a new round of peace talks.

            However, Griffiths’ effort to revive peace talks in September fell through after the Houthis failed to attend, arguing they didn’t have guarantees for their safe return.

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