December 24/14

Bible Quotation for today/The Parables of the Mustard Seed, the Yeast,The Narrow Door
Luke 13/18-30: " Jesus asked, “What is the Kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it with?  It is like this. A man takes a mustard seed and plants it in his field. The plant grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make their nests in its branches.” Again Jesus asked, “What shall I compare the Kingdom of God with?  It is like this. A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.”Jesus went through towns and villages, teaching the people and making his way toward Jerusalem.  Someone asked him, “Sir, will just a few people be saved?”Jesus answered them,  “Do your best to go in through the narrow door; because many people will surely try to go in but will not be able.  The master of the house will get up and close the door; then when you stand outside and begin to knock on the door and say, ‘Open the door for us, sir!’ he will answer you, ‘I don't know where you come from!’  Then you will answer, ‘We ate and drank with you; you taught in our town!’  But he will say again, ‘I don't know where you come from. Get away from me, all you wicked people!’  How you will cry and gnash your teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, while you are thrown out!  People will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down at the feast in the Kingdom of God. Then those who are now last will be first, and those who are now first will be last.”

Latest analysis, editorials from miscellaneous sources published on December 24/14
Heading for a Jew-Free Turkey/Burak Bekdil/The Gatestone Institute/December 24/14

Terror, vacuum, refugees top 2015 challenges/Hussein Dakroub &Samya Kullab/December 24/14

Lebanese Related News published on December 23-24/14
Ain al-Tineh talks off to positive start
Arsal’s Fliti: an optimist with his work cut out
Militants make offer on Lebanon hostages
Kahwagi signs off on Saudi-French aid deal
Terror, vacuum, refugees top 2015 challenges
Cabinet fails to agree on waste treatment plan
Hale says may help resolve Lebanon-Israel oil row
Health minister: Airport food is stored in a ‘dump’
Cannabis farmers support calls to legalize crop
Lebanese banks abiding by all laws: Torbey
Beirut epicenter of regional developments
Youth and unemployment in Lebanon
Amal Clooney to represent Armenia in European Court

Miscellaneous Reports And News published on December 23-24/14
Iraqi draft budget envisions $19B deficit
ISIS makes gains in eastern Syria, Iraq
Palestinian UN statehood resolution to be amended: sources
ISIS uncovers even more “extremist” cells within group
Up to 300 extra soldiers deployed in France after attacks
Official: Afghan forces kill 150 Taliban fighters in 12-day fight
Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush hospitalized
Lawyer: Sudan investigates detained opposition figures
Ten more strikes hit ISIS in Syria and Iraq
National Guard project cannot easily be disavowed: Iraqi Deputy PM
Iraq: Allawi proposes “roadmap” to defeat sectarianism
Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr off air amid Cairo–Doha reconciliaiton
Veteran El-Sebsi wins Tunisia’s presidential vote

Jihad Watch Site Latest Posts
Egypt: Churches burned by Muslim mobs last year still in ruins
PA jihadi tries to murder IDF soldier at checkpoint
Pakistan: 11 Christians, including a pastor, accused of blasphemy
Robert Spencer in FP: The NYPD Cop-Killing: The Chickens Come Home to Roost
NYPD cop killer worked for Hamas-linked Islamic Society of North America
Robert Spencer in FrontPage: Obama: Against Free Speech Before He Was For It
Another Muslim from Minnesota killed fighting for the Islamic State
France: Another Muslim screaming “Allahu akbar” plows truck into pedestrians, injuring a dozen people
Nigeria: Islamic jihadists massacre civilians, say they’re being killed because they’re infidels
Islamic State: “Our expansion will be perpetual…Those who do not convert to Islam or pay the Islamic tax will be killed”
Nigeria: Islamic jihadists bomb bus station, murder at least 20 people
France: Muslim driver ramming pedestrians while screaming “Allahu akbar” was “absolutely not an act of terrorism”

Hale says may help resolve Lebanon-Israel oil dispute
The Daily Star/Dec. 24, 2014/BEIRUT: U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said his country wanted to help Lebanon transform into an oil and gas producing country and assist in resolving its territorial dispute with Israel. “I ... reiterate that the United States remains committed to supporting Lebanon’s efforts to make the transformation to an oil and gas producing country,” Hale said after meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri, according to an embassy statement. Berri used the meeting to raise his complaints over Israel siphoning off Lebanon’s oil, the National News Agency said in a separate statement. Hale responded by pledging to follow up on the matter, saying the U.S. official responsible for the matter would return to the region soon and deal with the dispute. The envoy said his country had always been willing to listen to the opinions of Lebanon’s officials on the issue, and that the decision on how to use the natural resources remains that of the Lebanese. He said the U.S. aspires to help resolve the oil dispute by offering proposals to both the Lebanese and Israeli sides, as long as they both wish to find a solution. Hale explained that he had met with former President Michel Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun earlier in the day, as well as Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea Monday. He said the meetings were to listen “carefully to their views and analysis, and asked how the United States could be of most help.”“The Lebanese, alone, can, should, and must elect a president, urgently,” Hale said. “Doing so, of course, alone, won’t solve all of the many problems challenging this country; but it will enable Lebanon to face those challenges in accordance with the Constitution and the National Pact.”

Kahwagi signs off on Saudi-French military aid deal for Army
The Daily Star/Dec. 24, 2014
BEIRUT: Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi inked Tuesday the final Lebanese-French agreement under which Paris will provide $3 billion worth of weapons to the military thanks to a grant from Saudi Arabia, an Army source said. “Today Gen. Kahwagi signed the final arms agreement which includes all the details,” the source told The Daily Star, requesting anonymity. “From now on, we will be receiving the weapons from the French company and Saudi Arabia will pay.” The source explained that last week Kahwagi signed the initial agreement, which was sent to Saudi Arabia and inked by the Saudi finance minister and by France. The source said he expected Lebanon to receive the first arms shipment within the first two months of 2015. The $3 billion Saudi grant was announced in December 2013 by then-President Michel Sleiman. Prime Minister Tammam Salam said Sunday that during his visit to Paris earlier this month, French President Francois Hollande promised to expedite the delivery of specific weapons, which the Army badly needs to combat the rising threat of terrorism. In the summer, Saudi Arabia provided the Lebanese security services with another grant worth $1 billion. Lebanon faced a number of terrorism threats in 2014. The Army is still confronting militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front stationed on its northeastern borders. Gunmen from both groups briefly invaded the northeastern town of Arsal in August and are still holding 25 servicemen hostage after they seized them during the battles there.

Cannabis farmers support calls to legalize lucrative crop
Kareem Shaheen/The Daily Star/Dec. 24, 2014
BAALBEK, Lebanon: The warehouse was swirling with cannabis dust, workers with covered faces sorting the harvest that was piled in mounds. They had their hands full at the mini-factory outside Baalbek sorting through one of the largest fall harvests in recent years, one that many farmers in the Bekaa Valley see as a lifeline amid a stagnant economy. “We decided here that we do not want people to go hungry,” Ali Nasri, a prominent cannabis farmer in the Bekaa Valley, told The Daily Star. “Instead of stealing, plant hashish and confront the state.”“If the state provides a substitute or lowers the cost of food staples nobody will plant it,” he added. “It’s planted openly,” Nasri said. “People do not plant it in secret: the state sees it and the people see it.”With the war in Syria stifling the economy and bringing in a flood of refugees in the Bekaa Valley, as well as the closure of smuggling roads and persistent state neglect, many of the farmers in the towns and villages near Baalbek have turned to planting cannabis, a lucrative crop. But growing production and tighter border controls have also caused a glut of cannabis in Lebanon, driving down prices. Calls to legalize the drug are also gaining traction. Earlier this month, MP Walid Jumblatt renewed his calls for the legalization of the cultivation and sale of marijuana and the end of the state’s prosecution of its sellers.Jumblatt had also said in May that legalizing the drug would help struggling farmers in the Bekaa Valley.Once a thriving multibillion-dollar business, cannabis cultivation was targeted by the Lebanese government in the early 1990s due to international pressure, but crop substitution schemes have failed at limiting it. Nasri praised Jumblatt’s call for legalizing cannabis, saying the Druze leader felt the “pain of the Bekaa” and the “hunger” of its people.
“Hashish would bring in a lot of money to the government and is less damaging to health, and will create economic stimulus,” he said. “Poor people will benefit.”
Individuals involved with the hashish trade here say it is necessary for the prosperity of local farmers and communities, creating jobs during the labor-intensive harvest, empowering local merchants and farmers at the expense of politicians, and creating capital for the Shiite community. It also costs a lot less, one former smuggler said. He estimated that irrigating a dunam, roughly 1,000 square meters, of hashish crops costs about $300, and yields about four kuntars of hashish, or roughly 180 kg, earning them a tidy profit.
Meanwhile, “those who plant potatoes have lost money,” he said.Those involved with the trade here said it was necessary because the Bekaa Valley region has long been abandoned by the state and its ostensible political patrons, like Hezbollah, from an economic and social point of view.Much of the development money in the party’s coffers went to developing the war-struck south instead. The lack of development, inadequate schooling and poor health care have led local farmers to increasingly adopt hashish as a money-making crop. They also insist that growing and selling it is not morally problematic because it is less harmful than other drugs – they refuse to plant opium, for instance. But the glut of new production, combined with border restrictions, has caused prices to take a nosedive.
A single “ho’a” of hashish, a unit of measurement that corresponds to roughly 1.2 kg, used to cost up to $1,200 in 2012. Now it costs between $300-400, Nasri said. Farmers are also squeezed because much of the hashish produced in the Bekaa Valley was never primarily targeted to customers in Lebanon. The vast majority was exported to Syria, and then on to Jordan, the Gulf states and Europe, as well as by boat to Egypt. Lebanese consumers generally prefer pills like ecstasy, Nasri said. But many of the old smuggling routes have been closed off to traffic amid the ongoing war in Syria. One old, popular smuggling route in the mountainous outskirts of the town of Brital is now manned by Hezbollah and Lebanese Army checkpoints.
As a result, some believe the smuggling of the hashish across the border is done by carrying quantities of it along with legitimate cargo in trucks. Still, despite suffering some delays, Nasri said many traders still somehow manage to smuggle significant quantities through Syrian territory. Though it is widely deployed along the border with Syria, the ex-smuggler said Hezbollah is aware of the hashish trade and is not involved in it, but said the party does not have the power to crack down on the farmers in the fiercely independent and clannish region.
“It’s not in Hezbollah’s hands,” he said. “If it was they would fight it because it is irreligious, but people are planting it because they do not have social assistance.”

Government receives fresh offer from militants on hostages
Dec. 24, 2014/The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Families of 25 Lebanese servicemen being held hostage by Islamist militants announced Tuesday that they have reopened a critical road in Downtown Beirut, as jihadis pitched a fresh offer to the Lebanese government, ministerial sources said. Speaking after a meeting with Health Minister Wael Abu Faour and Prime Minister Tammam Salam in the Grand Serail Tuesday, the families’ spokesperson said the decision came after the families sensed the government was beginning to take the issue of freeing the captives seriously. But the families said they would remain camped outside the Grand Serail at Riad al-Solh Square.
“This is a Christmas gift for the prime minister to thank him for his efforts,” and a gift for the Lebanese people, the spokesperson said during a televised news conference.Abu Faour, who joined the news conference, said the decision to open the road came after the families put their trust in the government.The spokesperson announced that the families have entered a “phase of silence” over developments in negotiations, noting that they have been asked to keep all information away from the media.
The families have set up a number of tents in Riad al-Solh square, where they have been protesting for more than two months against what they perceived as a lack of effort on the part of the government to free their sons.
Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that the unexpected move to reopen the road came after the mediator appointed by Abu Faour, Arsal deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti, came back with a proposal to resolve the crisis following a visit to the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal for talks with ISIS militants. Abu Faour relayed the offer – whose details are classified – to Salam and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. Salam, according to the sources, said the government would respond to the offer on the condition that the families’ camp is dismantled. Abu Faour was only able to convince the families to reopen the vital road near the Grand Serail, the sources said, adding that Fliti would now convey the government’s response to the militants’ offer.
At least 25 soldiers and policemen are being held hostage by jihadis from ISIS and the Nusra Front on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal. The captives were abducted during the clashes in Arsal in August.
Also Tuesday, Hezbollah’s deputy chief said the party would start taking action to secure the release of the Lebanese servicemen, but would not disclose any details to the media.
“We will follow up on this matter and our actions will be, as usual, away from media,” Sheikh Naim Qassem said after meeting the families of the servicemen. “This case requires secret, meticulous and wise follow-up.”
“The method that has been used so far has led to the fall of many honorable martyrs,” he said. “This should teach us about dealing with secrecy and through a unified channel.”In his speech, Qassem also implied that Hezbollah supported a swap deal to end the hostage crisis.
“We have announced since the first day at the Cabinet, that Hezbollah supports direct or indirect negotiations,” he said. “We understand that there is no bargaining without a price to pay.”After the meeting, the families headed to Bkirki, where they met with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.Rai expressed “full solidarity” with the families, and promised to do his best in contributing to the release of their sons.“There are talks about a swap deal, so be it,” Rai said in a news conference after the meeting. “Let the Cabinet find the suitable swap deal formula. The servicemen’s lives [are too precious].”

Beirut epicenter of regional developments
Misbah al-Ali/The Daily Star/Dec. 24, 2014
The decision by Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and, before that, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to visit Beirut reflects a growing interest in the Lebanese capital as the epicenter of regional developments.
The aim of the two visits is to follow up with developments in the region, according to a diplomatic source. “Larijani’s visit to Beirut is normal and is in the context of Iran’s growing influence in the region,” the sources said. The source said that the visit came in the context of Iran’s belief that Lebanon should be kept as detached as possible from the complications of the Syrian crisis. Iran also intends to continue negotiations with the United States concerning its nuclear program, potentially paving the way for a political breakthrough in Lebanon and alleviating the intensity of internal tensions. A deal would also help mitigate the effects of the Sunni-Shiite strife that is shaking the Arab world. The bottom line for Iran during Larijani’s meetings was that “the role and power of Hezbollah are bigger than some of the region’s countries,” according to the source, a fact that has a profound significance, especially given the dialogue between the Future Movement and Hezbollah that kicked off Tuesday. Regardless of the correctness of the Iranian position today, the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia remain very cold, especially in light of information that shows the kingdom’s lack of enthusiasm for another round of talks with Iran. Some observers found a minor improvement in the two countries’ relations following the election of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, to power 18 months ago, but the Syrian crisis, the intervention of Hezbollah and Iran’s alleged ambitions in the Gulf have contributed to cold ties. Both Larijani and Bogdanov mentioned the necessity of electing a president in Lebanon as soon as possible. The Russian minister had long talks with members of the March 8 alliance, particularly Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, aimed at clarifying the reasons behind the presidential vacancy.  Larijani, on the other hand, left the issue completely in the hands of Hezbollah. In the context of active diplomacy in Beirut, the Syrian crisis continues to overshadow all visits. Bogdanov spoke about the Moscow conference, the dialogue between Syria’s internal factions to reach solutions for the intractable crisis and Russia’s fight against extremist groups that are coming near their borders through Dagestan, Chechnya and other Islamic regions.
Larijani, meanwhile, put counterterrorism at the top of his priorities during his talks with various Lebanese political factions. The subject is one of the most obvious areas in which Hezbollah holds an advantage ahead of its dialogue with the Future Movement.
Hezbollah has been able to neutralize the subject of its military intervention in Syria, as well as to exclude the dilemma of its large cache of weapons from any discussion with the Future Movement, instead limiting the debate to counterterrorism and ways to stop Sunni-Shiite strife. Ahead of the dialogue, Hezbollah held discussions with Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun concerning the presidential quagmire. The Saudi attempt to find a solution for the vacuum in the country’s top Christian post, such as receiving Lebanese Forces’ chief Samir Geagea, has bothered France, prompting French President Francois Hollande to make several statements regarding the presidential file. “France’s viewpoint is that it’s unacceptable for capitals of Islamic countries like Riyadh and Tehran to determine the fate of the only Christian president in the Arab world,” said a major country’s ambassador to Lebanon. Thus, France, the U.S. and the Vatican rejected the idea in order to create a kind of balance, despite an atmosphere that shows how the presidential election in Lebanon is far from being concluded, according to the ambassador.

Arsal’s Fliti: an optimist with his work cut out in hostage crisis
Rakan al-Fakih/The Daily Star/Dec. 24, 2014
ARSAL, Lebanon: The man that is rumored to be the new Lebanese mediator for the tricky file of the Arsal hostage crisis is a man with a reputation for calmness, rationality and sobriety. Although the Lebanese government has yet to appoint him officially, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour’s appointment of Ahmad Fliti did not come as a surprise to some – Arsal’s deputy mayor has become well known in the northeastern town.
Fliti, who holds a master’s in informatics from Beirut’s Bir Hassan Vocational and Technical Education Institute, is described by those who know him as a man who truly understands the considerations and interests of his community, something that can be attributed to his early career as a minimarket owner in downtown Arsal. Working in a down-to-earth retail business job won Fliti the support of his fellow citizens, with whom he has managed to establish a strong relationship thanks to his negotiation skills.
All of these attributes led Fliti, who is now in his mid-40s, to holding a leadership position in the Fliti family, the second-biggest in Arsal.
When Fliti eventually decided to run for membership on the municipality council, he allied himself with Ali Hujeiri. Like Fliti, Hujeiri is the most prominent member of his family, but his family is the largest and the most powerful in Arsal.
The combination was a winning one, and both managed to succeed in the elections, leading to Fliti becoming deputy mayor and Hujeiri the mayor. So when news got around that Fliti would be appointed to hold talks with militants, not everyone was on board with the decision. Fliti the “zaim” (leader), as he is called by some in the town, has largely been acting in the shadows of Hujeiri and wasn’t very well known on a national level. Over the past years, Hujeiri has been the one in the media spotlight and has consistently taken the lead on following up on Arsal-related issues, especially following the Syrian crisis and the huge influx of refugees to the town that accompanied it.  The mayor has also been working on defusing security tensions and problems both inside the town and in the neighboring areas, mainly the Shiite towns of Labweh, Nabi Othman and Maqneh. But some of Hujeiri’s moves seem to have been poorly calculated.
Sometimes he took positions seen as ad-hoc and controversial, particularly by Arsal’s Shiite neighbors, and has been accused of supporting the Syrian rebels.As a result, Fliti became the natural next candidate for consideration, a fact bolstered by the work he has been doing in various fields.Primarily, he has been keeping up with the Syrian refugees file by communicating with international aid organizations, communities representing Syrian refugees and concerned political factions.
His work with refugees was aimed at putting an end to the security tensions between his hometown and the neighboring areas, which have pointed to the presence of an extra 40,000 people, mostly Sunni, as a huge security threat.
In addition, the limited media frenzy that Fliti was subjected to compared to his boss worked in his favor, gaining him more respect and an untarnished reputation. All this culminated in the decision earlier this week by Abou Faour – under the command of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and with the backing of Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi – to commission Fliti to become a mediator in hostage talks with ISIS and Nusra Front.
Militants from the two groups captured at least 37 servicemen in Arsal when they briefly overran the northeastern town in early August. They have since released eight and killed four, with 25 policemen and soldiers now remaining. The issue has become a major source of unrest in Lebanon, with the hostages’ families regularly protesting in central Beirut and blocking roads across the country to demand faster government action.
A number of actors have been involved in the mediations to date, including General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, a mediator appointed by Qatar, the Muslim Scholars Committee and Sheikh Moustafa Hujeiri. But the Lebanese government has so far been unable to resolve the crisis. It recently reportedly agreed on a swap deal between the hostages and the release of Islamists from Roumieh prison, but has not yet settled on the details of the process. Fliti told The Daily Star the decision came as part of a call made by Abu Faour, but he believed it was not finished as he had yet to be officially appointed by the government. He met with ISIS on the outskirts of Arsal Sunday, and although he has not yet made face-to-face contact with the Nusra Front, he said he was open to anything they suggested.
The deputy mayor also expressed his optimism over the possibility of a positive outcome, adding that he sensed good intentions from ISIS to find a solution for this problem but that the course the file takes will lie with the government.
Fliti is now stuck between a government that has not reached a consensus about how to deal with the file, and extremist militants whose agenda is vague and unknown.
He will need his optimism in the months to come.

Hale says may help resolve Lebanon-Israel oil dispute
The Daily Star/Dec. 24, 2014/BEIRUT: U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said his country wanted to help Lebanon transform into an oil and gas producing country and assist in resolving its territorial dispute with Israel.
“I ... reiterate that the United States remains committed to supporting Lebanon’s efforts to make the transformation to an oil and gas producing country,” Hale said after meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri, according to an embassy statement. Berri used the meeting to raise his complaints over Israel siphoning off Lebanon’s oil, the National News Agency said in a separate statement. Hale responded by pledging to follow up on the matter, saying the U.S. official responsible for the matter would return to the region soon and deal with the dispute.
The envoy said his country had always been willing to listen to the opinions of Lebanon’s officials on the issue, and that the decision on how to use the natural resources remains that of the Lebanese.
He said the U.S. aspires to help resolve the oil dispute by offering proposals to both the Lebanese and Israeli sides, as long as they both wish to find a solution. Hale explained that he had met with former President Michel Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun earlier in the day, as well as Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea Monday. He said the meetings were to listen “carefully to their views and analysis, and asked how the United States could be of most help.”“The Lebanese, alone, can, should, and must elect a president, urgently,” Hale said. “Doing so, of course, alone, won’t solve all of the many problems challenging this country; but it will enable Lebanon to face those challenges in accordance with the Constitution and the National Pact.”

Ain al-Tineh talks off to positive start
Dec. 24, 2014/Wassim Mroueh| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Hezbollah and the Future Movement agreed during an ice-breaking meeting Tuesday to start a “serious and responsible” dialogue with the aim of easing political tensions in the country and paving the way for energizing state institutions. “Both sides stressed their eagerness and readiness to start a serious and responsible dialogue over various issues, with each group understanding the stance of the other from some disputed topics,” said a statement after the meeting. The first session of talks, which lasted for three-and-a-half hours, was hosted by Speaker Nabih Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence amid a total media blackout. Hezbollah and the Future Movement also voiced their readiness “to continue this dialogue in a positive manner that will help reduce disagreements that are affecting ties between the Lebanese.” The two rivals also agreed to organize their differences and open the door for talks and cooperation to energize the work of stagnant state institutions and help in solving problems getting in the way of normal political life. Hezbollah and the Future Movement said their dialogue “is not aimed at forming a new political alliance in the country or confronting any political group, hijacking the decision of another or pressuring parties to take certain stances on constitutional events.”Attending the talks on behalf of Hezbollah were Hussein Khalil, the political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan and MP Hasan Fadlallah. Representing the Future Movement were Nader Hariri, chief of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s staff, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and MP Samir Jisr. Also present was Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, Berri’s political aide. The statement said that at the start of the session, Berri outlined the dangers Lebanon and the region were facing which required the highest levels of attention and responsibility. The speaker added that these issues required all political parties to work to strengthen ties between local factions in order to protect Lebanon’s stability, civil peace and unity, especially given the rising sectarian rhetoric in the region.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said both groups agreed to hold a second session in the new year. The dialogue between the rival parties aims at defusing rising Sunni-Shiite tensions in the country, facilitating the election of a president, bolstering counterterrorism efforts, helping in reaching an agreement on a new electoral law and energizing state institutions. Earlier Tuesday, the Future parliamentary bloc rejected remarks by Iranian Speaker Ali Larijani during his visit Monday in which he said that Hezbollah was more effective than some states.
“This stance undermines the idea of the one Lebanese state which unites the Lebanese people ... and that’s why it [the bloc] categorically rejects it because the Lebanese state has the exclusive right to sovereignty on all its land and institutions,” the bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting.

Heading for a Jew-Free Turkey
Burak Bekdil/The Gatestone Institute
December 23, 2014
"We face threats, attacks and harassment every day," writes Turkish Jewish columnist Mois Gabay.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 200,000 Jews in Turkish lands – when the entire population was barely 10 million. Today, the Turkish population has reached 77 million – and there are fewer than 17,000 Jews.
Mois Gabay, a Turkish Jewish writer for Salom, the Istanbul Jewish newspaper, recently wrote in his column, "Are Turkish Jews Leaving?": "We face threats, attacks and harassment every day. Hope is fading. Is it necessary for a 'Hrant among us' to be shot in order for the government, the opposition, civil society, our neighbors and jurists to see this?" The 'Hrant' to whom he referred is Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian journalist who was shot dead in 2007 by a gang of nationalist Turks.
On Dec. 15, the Turkish liberal daily Radikal interviewed Gabay, who started by showing Radikal's reporter dozens of threats and hate messages he has received through Twitter, Facebook and mail messages. "This is almost daily," he said.
According to Gabay, only this year 37% of high-school graduates in Istanbul's Jewish community left Turkey to study abroad, twice as many as in previous years. "We don't know how many of them will return," he says. "But the idea to leave Turkey (for good) is also in the minds of my generation."
The reason is simple: "The circle is closing in," according to Gabay. "In an atmosphere like this, especially if you are a trader, you tend to change your name. Mois's tends to become "Musa's," "Cefi's," become "Cem's" and "Meri's" become "Peri's" (all the latter are Turkish names.) His Jewish friends tell Gabay that they are elaborating on the idea of leaving Turkey and settling in far-away countries such as Canada, Panama and Australia. Two Jewish friends of his who have shops in Istanbul's busy Unkapani district recently complained to him that "The imam in the neighbourhood has the habit of preaching to his congregation 'not to make friends with Jews and Christians.'"
According to Gabay,
the Turkish government's [anti-Israeli/anti-Jewish] rhetoric paves the way for this, provokes Turks and spreads [hatred] to even larger masses. But there is more. "Thanks to the spread of social media, the previously 'invisible Jew' is reachable now. There are laws against hate speech. But not a single person has ever been prosecuted [let alone sentenced] for threatening and insulting [Jews].
According to a prominent Turkish Armenian, part of the blame is on Turkey's tiny non-Muslim minorities.
But according to a prominent Turkish Armenian, part of the blame is on Turkey's tiny non-Muslim minorities.
Etyen Mahcupyan is a leading Turkish Armenian intellectual, writer and columnist. He has published more than 15 books and has written regular columns in Turkey's leading liberal newspapers. Last October, Mahcupyan, one of a dwindling number of liberals keenly supporting Turkey's Islamist government, was appointed as "chief advisor" to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In a recent interview with Turkey's leading daily, Hurriyet, Mahcupyan said,
Whatever has been a [political] asset for Turkey's Armenian community (they number around 60,000) is an asset for the Jewish community too. But... there is Israel... As long as the psychology of the Israel issue continues to influence politics in Turkey and relations between the two countries do not normalize...
The line Mahcupyan shyly did not finish probably would have gone on like this: "Turkey's Jews will keep on paying the price."
Turkish Armenian intellectual Etyen Mahcupyan thinks that daily attacks on Turkey's Jews and other non-Muslims happen because they are better-educated then Muslims and have a "superiority complex."
In a recent article, Mahcupyan, a former editor of Agos, where the slain Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink wrote, argued that Turkey's [secularist] Jews harboured an allergy against Muslims. Mahcupyan apparently deserves his new position as "his master's voice."
He admits that it is the government's responsibility to do something if Turkey's Jews felt awfully alienated. But he thinks "there is the other side of the story."
Mahcupyan said: "All of this [anti-Semitism in Turkey] is related to the Jewish community's perception of Islam and the region. This is a perception that powerfully produced politics and positions. If the Armenians do not behave like them [the Jews] we can understand the historical difference between the two [Jewish and Armenian] communities."
Apparently, Mahcupyan, the prime minister's chief advisor, tends to blame the victim, not the criminal. "I have lived through this personally for the past 60 years," he explains. "Among Turkey's non-Muslim minorities, including Jews and Armenians, there is an [established] opinion about humiliating Muslims." So, did your poor friend Dink deserve to be murdered because he humiliated Muslims?
Secondly, Mahcupyan continues, "Both Jews and Armenians are better-educated [than Muslim Turks] and more open to the West. And this brings in a feeling of superiority complex."
To sum up, the Turkish Armenian liberal intellectual, who also happens to be advising the Turkish prime minister, thinks that daily attacks on Turkey's Jews and other non-Muslims, including the murder of his "friend" Dink, happen because: Jews and Armenians humiliate Muslims; they are better-educated then Muslims and hence their superiority complex. Lovely!
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman state machinery produced several non-Muslim converts (the devshirme) who enjoyed higher echelons of the palace bureaucracy and finer things of life because their pragmatism earned them excellent relations with the ruling Muslim elite. It looks like the devshirme system is still alive in post-Ottoman Turkey.
***Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a columnist for the Turkish daily Hürriyet and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Terror, vacuum, refugees top 2015 challenges
Dec. 24, 2014
Hussein DakroubSamya Kullab| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The year 2014 will without a doubt go down in the annals of Lebanese history as the year that saw Lebanon getting sucked further into the Syrian war amid an escalation of sectarian and political tensions linked to the conflict next door.
Perhaps the biggest security challenge that faced Lebanon in the outgoing year was a growing threat from Islamist militants who briefly overran the northeastern town of Arsal in August after deadly fighting with the Lebanese Army, in the most serious spillover of the Syrian war into Lebanese territory.
To date, the Lebanese Army is locked in an open battle against ISIS and Nusra Front militants who are still holding 25 soldiers and policemen hostage after capturing them during the Arsal clashes. The militants are holed up along with the servicemen in the rugged mountains of Arsal near the border with Syria.
Lebanon also faced a tough political challenge in 2014 when former President Michel Sleiman’s six-year tenure ended on May 25 and Parliament has since been unable to choose a successor due to a lack of quorum, thus plunging the country into a presidential vacuum, now in its seventh month.
The vacancy in the country’s top Christian post has paralyzed Parliament legislation and threatened to cripple the work of the government, which, in addition to its executive powers, is also exercising the president’s prerogatives until a new head of state is elected.
In what was seen as a major blow to Lebanon’s democratic system, the country failed twice to hold parliamentary elections on time, with lawmakers citing security concerns and the failure to agree on a new electoral law as a main reason.
Instead, lawmakers extended Parliament’s mandate in November for two years and seven months, making it a full four-year mandate after the first extension of 17 months in May last year.
On the economic front, Lebanon’s struggling economy, already burdened by a soaring public debt, was further sapped by the flow of an estimated 1.5 Syrian refugees, causing a severe strain on the country’s public services, including health, education, electricity and water, in addition to posing security problems.
According to the Finance Ministry, Lebanon’s public debt reached $66 billion in December, or 148 percent of the country’s GDP.
Economists are projecting a 2.5 percent GDP growth in 2015, compared to 1.8 percent growth in 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund.
TERRORIST THREAT However, analysts and experts said that the militants’ growing threat to Lebanon’s security and prevention of much-feared Sunni-Shiite strife are the toughest challenge facing the country in the New Year.
“The biggest challenge facing Lebanon in 2015 is how to cope with the repercussions of the Syrian war, which has spread to Lebanon, and prevent the outbreak of Sunni-Shiite strife in the country,” Samir Frangieh, a political writer and a former March 14 lawmaker, told The Daily Star.
“Priority should be given to preventing the Sunni-Shiite strife that is raging in the Arab world from spreading to Lebanon. Should this strife flare up, it will destroy Lebanon,” warned Frangieh, a member of the March 14 coalition.
He added that the threat of sectarian strife existed in Lebanon amid the “political divisions and the absence of a powerful state.”
According to Frangieh, the threat of strife can be thwarted by closing the border with Syria and the deployment of U.N. troops on the joint frontier “to prevent the flow of arms and gunmen in both [directions], along with the withdrawal of Hezbollah from the war in Syria.”
“ISIS and Nusra Front pose a great threat to Lebanon’s security and stability. Therefore, the border with Syria should be closed,” he said.
Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite St. Joseph, concurred, saying the ISIS threat, along with fears of Sunni-Shiite strife and the election of a new president, are the biggest challenge facing Lebanon in the New Year.
“The main security challenge is the ISIS fire reaching Lebanon. There are enough reasons for this,” Nader told The Daily Star.
Referring to recent clashes between ISIS and rival Syrian rebel groups in Syria’s Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon, Nader said: “If Daesh [ISIS] took control of the Qalamoun region, this would pose a direct threat to Lebanon and heighten fears of Sunni-Shiite strife.”
Citing the long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions fueled by the sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria, Nader, also the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut-based think tank, said: “In essence, nothing has been resolved between the Sunnis and Shiites and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian revolution, which is killing more people and displacing others every day, has not been resolved.”
Nader said the estimated 8 million Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, are “a time bomb” that could be used by ISIS to enlarge its recruitment base.
“There are 1.5 Syrian refugees in Lebanon who constitute an ideal recruitment base for both ISIS and the Nusra Front,” Nader said. “They are an easy target for ISIS.”
Referring to the jihadis’ recent military advances in Iraq and Syria despite the U.S.-led international coalition’s airstrikes on the militant group’s bases in both countries, Nader said: “ISIS is gaining military momentum in both Iraq and Syria. This poses a real threat to Lebanon’s security. ISIS is expanding its recruitment base, sphere of influence and control in Iraq, Syria, the Qalamoun region and Qunaitra [near the border with Lebanon].”
Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Fayyad, whose party’s military intervention in Syria has raised sectarian stakes, said the takfiri groups’ threat is the most serious challenge facing Lebanon in 2015.
“Protection of security and stability from the takfiri threat and from Al-Qaeda’s affiliates, such as Daesh and the Nusra Front, is the biggest challenge facing Lebanon,” Fayyad told The Daily Star.
He dismissed fears of Sunni-Shiite sedition.
“Although the core of the takfiri scheme, backed by regional powers, is to deepen Sunni-Shiite schism and incite strife, the threat of strife does not exist,” Fayyad said.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have claimed responsibility for a spate of suicide and bomb attacks targeting areas where Hezbollah enjoys wide support in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa region in response to the party’s military involvement in Syria.
POLITICAL STALEMATE Mouna Fayyad, a writer and a psychology professor at the state-run Lebanese University, said she expected the state of stagnation to continue in Lebanon and the region in the New Year pending the results of negotiations between Iran and Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program.
“In Lebanon, political stagnation along with a social breakdown will be the norm in 2015,” Fayyad told The Daily Star.
An outspoken Shiite critic of Hezbollah, Fayyad said Lebanon has entered the “Syrian melee after Hezbollah joined the war in Syria.”
“Hezbollah wants to involve Lebanon more in the war in Syria in order to cover up its own involvement,” she said.
Linking the presidential election to addressing Iran’s interests, Fayyad said: “The election of a new president will not change anything in Lebanon.”
Shafik Masri, a professor of international law at the Lebanese University and the American University of Beirut, said the ISIS threat was one of three dangers facing Lebanon in 2015.
“The first danger is the deteriorating economic situation and the absence of serious opportunities to rescue and revitalize Lebanon’s economy,” Masri told The Daily Star. “There are no prospects for Arab and foreign investment in Lebanon due to security fears.”
The second danger, he added, “is that the region’s crisis, including the war in Syria, will drag on with no solution in sight. The Daesh problem will stay with us for a long time.”
“Therefore, Lebanon will continue to reel under this complicated situation in the region, including the Daesh problem,” Masri said.
He added that the continued flow of Syrian refugees and the international community’s failure to honor its pledges to help Lebanon to cope with this problem posed another challenge for the Lebanese.
“The country is collapsing as a result of coping with the repercussions of the ISIS crisis and the Syrian conflict and the absence of a Saudi-Iranian understanding on regional conflicts,” Masri said.
In a TV interview Sunday, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said that during his official visit to France earlier this month, he had asked French President Francois Hollande to expedite the delivery to the Lebanese Army of French weapons paid for by a $3 billion Saudi grant to help the military face Islamist militants threatening the country’s security and stability.
For his part, Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has vowed to crush terrorism, declaring an open-ended war against jihadi militants who have killed several soldiers in ambushes near Arsal.
Army Intelligence has arrested several leading members of ISIS and Nusra Front in recent weeks as part of its preemptive crackdown on terror groups.
“Our battle with terrorism and terrorists is an open-ended war, and we expect it to be a war of attrition, especially after we penetrated deep into the outskirts and remote zones,” Kahwagi said in comments published An-Nahar newspaper earlier this month.
He accused the militants of planning to establish an Islamic emirate from the country’s eastern border to the sea.
In addition to fighting ISIS and Nusra Front gunmen in Arsal, the Lebanese Army also crushed Islamist militants in the northern city of Tripoli in October.
Despite the gloomy security and economic outlook for the next year, the launching of dialogue between the Future Movement and Hezbollah raised hopes for defusing sectarian tensions and setting the stage for the election of a consensus president. The first round of talks between officials from the two rival factions was held under the sponsorship of Speaker Nabih Berri at Ain al-Tineh Tuesday.
“The Future-Hezbollah dialogue is primarily aimed at preventing Sunni-Shiite strife,” said Frangieh, the former March 14 lawmaker. “The election of a president should reflect [a Future-Hezbollah] agreement to ward off strife.”
Masri concurred. “The Future-Hezbollah dialogue is bound to reduce sectarian tensions and address the presidential election issue and a new electoral law,” he said.
Nader, the USJ professor, said the presidential vacuum presented Lebanon with a tough political challenge in 2015.
“The Future-Hezbollah dialogue has won support from both Iran and Saudi Arabia with the aim of defusing Sunni-Shiite tensions which benefit ISIS,” he said.
“There is a Saudi green light for the dialogue with Hezbollah in an attempt to test the real intentions of the Iranians and Hezbollah.”
Nader stressed that breaking the presidential deadlock depended on whether the Iranians would facilitate the election of a president. “Serious efforts are underway to set the stage for the election of a consensus president,” he said.
Referring to French envoy Jean-Francois Girault’s visit to Lebanon earlier this month, Nader added that “the French activity, which is backed by America, is aimed at facilitating the election of a consensus president. However, this activity will bear fruit only if Iran complies with the French moves.”
Girault was reported to be planning to visit Iran and Saudi Arabia as part of a French initiative aimed at breaking the presidential deadlock
REFUGEE CRISIS Collecting enough funds to keep the Syrian refugee response going amid a deteriorating security situation will be a challenge for aid organizations in 2015.
Those at the front lines of the Syrian refugee response told The Daily Star all forms of aid, from food, shelter, health and education depended on the generosity of donor funding.
With last year’s donor appeal of $1.89 billion only 46-percent funded, next year’s ambitious goal of $2.14 billion will require the Lebanese government and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to approach a broader range of donors.
Lack of funding meant many refugees were left out; a targeted assistance program launched late this year scaled back aid programs, coverage of secondary health care was limited to severe cases and though 90,000 Syrian children were incorporated into formal schooling, nearly twice that were excluded.
In the most striking example, the World Food Program announced in November it did not have sufficient funding to continue its program, affecting 900,000 refugees in Lebanon. A global campaign managed to secure funding to provide assistance until the end of December, but Sandy Maroun, WFP’s spokesperson, said beyond that point little was certain.
“We are working on a hand to mouth operation,” she said.
“We get money and we use it to provide assistance.”
The campaign raised $88.5 million, she added, of which $64 million was needed to provide assistance in December. Whether WFP can continue its program in January remains unclear.
Under the program, each refugee household is given an e-card replenished every fifth of the month with $30 per family member, enabling them to purchase food at participating shops across the country.
“It’s always a challenge to secure funds,” Maroun said.
In October the Cabinet approved a set of policy decisions effectively seeking to limit the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The policy, which led to heightened measures along official border crossings, will compound other legal issues faced by refugees.
Lebanon is not signatory to the U.N. convention recognizing refugees. Syrians arriving to Lebanon are given an automatic six month residency and must pay $200 to renew, a sum too large for many refugee families.
“We plan to expect that, in general, more [entry and exit] restrictions will be implemented,” said Layal Abou Daher, technical coordinator at the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Heavy restrictions were implemented along official border crossings starting in the summer of 2013 affecting Palestinian Refugees from Syria. Beginning September 2014 restrictions were placed on Syrians as well, with “no clear criteria for selection” shared publicly, Abou Daher said.
Regulating legal status was another pertinent issue that will follow refugees into 2015. “The high cost of renewal [$200] remains a challenge,” she says. The inability to legalize stay impedes Syrians from registering their marriages and newborns in Lebanon.
For George Ghali of ALEF, human rights NGO, the future for Syrian refugees in the region is gloomy.
Internally, the security situation and pressure on Lebanon’s infrastructure has fueled resentment against the refugee population, he said. “This will serve as a challenge to finding durable solutions,” he added.
Resettling refugees elsewhere, in Europe and Australia, too seems to have had limited success and political will. Even in countries that have agreed to resettle Syrians “Integration has been difficult,” he added.