‘Sex-for-judgeships’ scandal rocks Israel

Police in Israel have arrested a top lawyer as part of an investigation into claims that judicial appointments were traded for sexual favours.

The lawyer has not been named and a gag order covers most details of the case.

But police said it concerned the appointment of a female magistrates’ court judge and an attempt to promote a male judge to a district court.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has reportedly recused himself because he is a friend of the main suspect.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, who are members of the Judicial Appointments Committee, are meanwhile expected to be summoned to give testimony.

Israeli police said in a statement that the force’s Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit had launched an investigation two weeks ago after receiving information about judicial appointments.

On Wednesday morning, one male lawyer was arrested as part of the inquiry.

Two other suspects – a female magistrates’ court judge and a female lawyer – had already been questioned, the police added.

Officers have also conducted searches and seized documents.

The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reports that the Jerusalem office of the Israel Bar Association was raided on Wednesday.

Ms Shaked and Justice Hayut later issued a joint statement saying they felt “confident that the law enforcement system will complete the investigation and reach the truth”. They also rejected any allegations of widespread corruption in the judicial appointment system.

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Winter storm sweeps across the Levant

Sandstorm, rain, snow and frost – it now feels like winter in the Middle East.

    A winter storm travelling through the eastern Mediterranean has brought a sandstorm, then rain and snow from Turkey across the Levant to Iran.

    Visibility dropped dramatically on Friday in southeast Turkey, including over camps hosting refugees, as the sky turned yellow with sand.

    Southeasterly winds on Thursday night gusted to over 70 kilometres per hour in Diyarbakir, bringing fine sand up from the deserts to the south. Sandstorms like this come ahead of cold fronts, and this one brought heavy rain with it. Gaziantep recorded 50mm in the 24 hours until dawn on Friday.

    The system swept across Gaza, bringing crashing waves onto the shore, taking out a watchtower. Power cuts followed after winds downed trees and power lines in Israel. Gusts were reported as being over 120km/h in Tel Aviv. Fifteen centimetres of snow fell on Mount Hermon and the Judean Desert saw wadis and waterfalls spring into life, draining the torrents into the Dead Sea.

    Friday in Iraq was a day of sandstorm from Basrah to the capital, Baghdad, and beyond to Tikrit. Throughout Kuwait, winds full of fine sand gusted to over 60km/h, sometimes 85 km/h. There was even a little rain.

    The temperature in Syria’s capital, Damascus, fell to -0.2 degrees Celsius as the winds dropped on Saturday morning. It was a similar story in Baghdad. In northwest Iran, 10cm of snow sat on the ground in Zanjan.

    The next winter storm looks like blowing in from the Mediterranean on Tuesday although it does not appear to be as strong.

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    Deadly twin blasts rock central Baghdad

    Scores also wounded as two suicide bombers detonate belts among a crowd of workers, officials say.

      Twin explosions in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad have killed at least 38 people and wounded more than 100, police and medical sources said. 

      Monday’s attacks were carried out by two suicide bombers, who detonated their belts in a crowd of workers at the Al Tayaran Square in central Baghdad, Iraq’s interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan said.

      The interior ministry put the death toll at at least 16 with 65 wounded. 

      Medical sources say the death toll is expected to rise, with many critically injuried.

      Al Tayaran is a major intersection in eastern Baghdad between Sadr city and al-Jumariyah bridge over the Euphrates river. All roads into the square have now been closed. 

      Video footage posted on Twitter by the Kurdish Rudaw news agency showed the extent of the damage.

      No group has claimed responsibility for the attack as yet.

      A wave of deadly bombings have gripped the capital in the past 48 hours. 

      On Saturday, a number of people were killed and others, including police, wounded when a suicide bomber targeted a security checkpoint near Aden Square, north of Baghdad.

      No group claimed responsibility for that attack.

      Eight people were also killed in a suicide bombing on Sunday in the al-Tarmiyah area in northern Baghdad.

      In December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), marking the end of a three-year war to drive the armed group out of Iraq.

      Ahmed Rushdi, director of the House of Iraqi Expertise Foundation, said the recent attacks show “huge errors” in the intelligence network of the capital city. 

      “This shows to the people that even Haider al-Abadi’s major victories against Daesh (ISIL’s Arabic acronym) cannot control Baghdad,” the security analyst told Al Jazeera.

      “It’s a huge problem because people thought that Daesh [ISIL] is over now, but it is sending messages that no, actually they are still there,” Rushdi said from Baghdad. 

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      Saudis 'ban family' of arrested scholar from travelling

      Seventeen relatives of Salman al-Awda have been banned from leaving the kingdom, family member says.

        Saudi Arabian authorities have imposed a travel ban on 17 relatives of prominent scholar Salman al-Awda, who has been held for nearly four months, Human Rights Watch reported.

        A member of the Awda family said in a statement on Sunday that a relative discovered the ban when he tried to leave the kingdom.

        The customs officer reportedly confirmed to the family member that the royal palace had imposed the ban for unspecified reasons.

        Saudi authorities arrested Salman al-Awda, a prominent figure of the Awakening movement, on September 7.

        The family member told HRW that Awda was being held over his refusal to comply with an order by Saudi authorities to tweet a specific text to support the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.

        Instead, Awda posted a tweet on September 9, saying: “May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people” – an apparent call for reconciliation between the Gulf countries, HRW said.

        Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a boycott against Qatar on June 5, accusing Doha of aiding “terrorists” and having close ties with Iran. Qatar denies the allegations.

        The Awda family member cited by HRW said that authorities permitted Salman al-Awda only one phone call in October.

        “Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to reform the Saudi economy and society are bound to fail if his justice system scorns the rule of law by ordering arbitrary arrests and punishments,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

        “There’s no justification for punishing family members of a detainee without showing even the slightest evidence or accusation of wrongdoing on their part.”

        According to HRW, Awda was among the first of dozens of people arrested in mid-September as part of a crackdown against what Saudi authorities said were those acting “for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests”.

        Saudi Arabia carried out another wave of arrests in November against people they accused of corruption and held many at five-star hotels until they agree to turn over assets to the state.

        Awda’s brother, Khaled, was also held after he tweeted about his brother’s detention, media reported. He remains in detention, according to HRW.

        “If Mohammad bin Salman wants to show that a new era has begun in Saudi Arabia, a refreshing first step would be the release of activists and dissidents who have never been charged with a recognisable crime and should never have gone to jail in the first place,” Whitson said.

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        Turkey's troops cross over into Syria's Afrin

        Turkey’s prime minister says part of the operation is to establish a 30km ‘safe zone’ in Syrian enclave of Afrin.

          Turkey’s prime minister says ground troops have crossed into the Syrian enclave of Afrin as part of an operation against Syrian Kurdish armed group YPG.

          In a press conference in Istanbul on Sunday, Binali Yildirim said Turkish forces crossed into the YPG-controlled region in Syria at 08:05 GMT from the Turkish village of Gulbaba.

          He said Turkey plans to establish a 30km “safe zone” in Afrin.

          Turkey considers Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, “terrorist groups” with ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long fight inside Turkey.

          It fears the establishment of a Kurdish corridor along its border.

          Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that the Turkish forces were backed by armoured vehicles, special forces and infantry regiments.

          They have reportedly advanced 5km inside Afrin.

          ‘In a very short time’

          Confirming the Afrin operation, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday he hopes it will be completed “in a very short time”.

          But Erdogan also warned pro-Kurdish opposition supporters in Turkey not to protest against the military’s operation.

          “Know that if you go out on the streets, authorities are on your necks,” he told thousands of supporters in Bursa.

          Earlier, Anadolu reported that Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters had advanced towards Afrin in the early hours of Sunday.

          The YPG confirmed the advance, saying two villages in Afrin’s Bilbil district near the Turkish border came under attack.

          About 25,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were joining the Turkish military operation in northern Syria with the goal of recapturing Arab towns and villages held by the YPG, a Syrian rebel commander told Reuters news agency on Sunday.

          Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, who is also the commander of Failaq al-Sham, a main FSA rebel group in the operations room of the campaign, said the rebels did not seek to enter the mainly Kurdish city of Afrin but encircle it and expel the YPG.

          “We have no interest in entering the city only the military targets inside the city and the villages around it. We aim to encircle the city and ensure the militias are evicted. We won’t fight in the city as we have no problem with civilians,” he said.

          A main goal of the military operation was to recapture Tel Rifaat, a town southeast of Afrin, and a string of Arab villages the YPG captured from rebels in February 2016, driving out tens of thousands of inhabitants, Abdul Rahim said.

          “The task of the Free Syrian Army is first to regain sixteen Arab towns and villages occupied by the foreign militias [YPG] with the help of the Russian air force,” Abdul Rahim told Reuters in a phone interview from inside Syria.

          The fighting Abdul Rahim was referring to forced at least 150,000 residents of these villages to flee to Azaz.

          They are sheltering in camps at the Turkish border and rebels say they have not been allowed to go back to their homes.

          Rebels mobilised

          As early as Friday, thousands of FSA fighters had already been mobilised in Turkey’s Hatay province and Syrian locations east of Afrin.

          Turkey’s military said on Sunday it targeted at least 153 “shelters, hideouts and ammunition depots” of the Kurdish armed groups, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group  in several areas.

          But the YPG said that civilian areas were also hit, including Afrin’s city centre.

          Meanwhile, three rockets have been reportedly fired from Syria, hitting four locations in two neighbourhoods in the Turkish province of Kilis.

          Anadolu quoted Mehmet Tekinarslan, governor of Kilis, as saying that three people were injured in the attack.

          Turkey’s military has been hard-pressed to emphasise that “only terrorists” are being targeted in its latest operation.

          On Saturday, Erdogan said the operation in Afrin would be followed by a push in the northern town of Manbij, which the US-backed Kurdish forces captured from ISIL in 2016.

          The US has previously armed the Syrian Kurdish YPG, viewing it as the most effective ground force in its fight against the ISIL armed group.

          According to estimates, there are between 8,000 to 10,000 Kurdish fighters in the Afrin area.

          Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting near the Syria-Turkey border, said the military and logistical build-up at the border continues.

          She also reported hearing intensive shellings, heaving machine gun fire and jets flying over.

          Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin, has withdrawn hundreds of its soldiers deployed near the city before Saturday’s operation.

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          Cairo turns orange as sandstorm hits

          An orange cloud has swept through Cairo, forcing people to take cover in buildings as strong winds brought thick dust to the Egyptian capital.

          Several ports were reportedly closed and officials at Cairo airport said the sandstorm had caused flight delays.

          Egypt’s health ministry advised people with respiratory problems to avoid leaving their homes until the storm on Wednesday had passed.

          Some took to social media to post images of the effects of the storm.

          Downtown #Cairo from the #sandstorm two hours ago… pic.twitter.com/prosL4y0W1

          End of Twitter post by @joey_shea

          Cairo , no filter btw. pic.twitter.com/5a72QxXpzs

          End of Twitter post by @Mohamed_Wells

          Sandstorm in Cairo today. Seriously no filter. 🌬🌬🌬 pic.twitter.com/aYuyW6DZEK

          End of Twitter post by @ibnubashir4

          In images: Cairo engulfed in a dust storm on Wednesday. Outside the capital, the storm has spread to Egypt's Mediterranean coast, the Delta and the north of Upper Egypt, which have experienced heavy showers and strong winds. pic.twitter.com/ZDTkUCNvc3

          End of Twitter post by @MadaMasr

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          UN: Syrian regime forcing demographic displacements

          The UN accuses the Syrian government of trying to forcibly displace the populations of opposition-held areas.

            UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock is visiting Syria this week to see how to improve the delivery of aid to people in besieged areas.

            One of these areas is Eastern Ghouta, one of the last rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus, which is under increasingly heavy bombardment.

            Critics accuse the Syrian government of forcing people to starve or surrender, as part of a policy of forced displacement of civilians from opposition-controlled areas.

            Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim has more.

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            Gaza's weavers: Sales slowing for handmade carpets

            The blockade on Gaza is taking a toll on the makers of traditional handicrafts.

              Weavers of traditional handmade carpets in Gaza say they’re struggling to keep their craft alive.

              Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the territory has badly affected business.

              Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb reports from Gaza.

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              Hanan Ashrawi to Trump: 'We will not be blackmailed'

              Hanan Ashrawi scolds US president after his threat to cut aid worth ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ to Palestinians.

                A senior Palestinian official has responded with defiance to Donald Trump’s threat via Twitter to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority.

                Hanan Ashrawi’s rebuke followed the US president’s tweet admitting that the Middle East peace process was in difficulty and warning Palestinians that they could lose US aid worth more than $300m a year.

                “We will not be blackmailed,” Ashrawi said in a statement on Wednesday.

                “President Trump has sabotaged our search for peace, freedom and justice. Now he dares to blame the Palestinians for the consequences of his own irresponsible actions!”

                In his tweet on Tuesday, Trump said: “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.

                “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

                Relations between his administration and the Palestinian Authority have deteriorated since Trump decided last month to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

                US aid to the Palestinian Authority stood at about $319 million in 2016, according to US government figures.

                Jerusalem controversy

                The US gives Israel annual military aid of $3.1bn. Next year, that figure will increase to $3.8bn under a 10-year deal agreed by Barack Obama shortly before his presidency ended.

                Palestinian officials had said they would “no longer accept” any peace plan put forward by the US following Trump’s unilateral declaration on December 6, when he also announced that the US would begin a process to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

                No country currently has its embassy in the city, which is home to holy religious sites and has particular significance for Muslims, Christians and Jews.

                Trump’s announcement touched off deadly protests in the occupied Palestinian territories and major rallies in support of the Palestinians across the Muslim world.

                A resounding majority of UN member states also defied threats by Trump to declare the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “null and void”.

                Trump has previously said he wants to relaunch frozen peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in search of the “ultimate deal”.

                Jerusalem’s status is an extremely sensitive aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

                Israel claims the city as its capital, following the occupation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and considers Jerusalem to be a “united” city.

                Palestinian leaders have long seen East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

                They fiercely oppose any changes that could be regarded as legitimising Israel’s occupation and annexation of the city’s eastern sector.

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                Syrian regime steps up offensive on Idlib

                Idlib is supposed to be a ‘de-escalation zone’ – set up last year with the backing of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

                  Government forces in Syria are stepping up their offensive against opposition fighters in their largest remaining stronghold.

                  Idlib is supposed to be a “de-escalation zone” – set up last year with the backing of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

                  But the deal appears to have crumbled: President Bashar al-Assad – backed by Russia – is bent on regaining control of the area, to cement his grip on power.

                  For civilians, the onslaught is causing misery in freezing winter conditions.

                  Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim reports.

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