Ending Yemen’s never-ending war

“Some people say we are in a hurry,” says Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen. “I plead guilty to the charge.”

“The people of Yemen have suffered quite enough. It’s time.”

An air strike two weeks ago that took the lives of 44 schoolboys on a field trip, shocking even in a nation shattered by years of strife, has focused minds again on the urgent need to end a conflict that has led to the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.

Mr Griffiths has now sent formal invitations to the warring parties to attend a new round of consultations in Geneva on 6 September. They will be the first talks in two years, after two failed rounds.

“The good news is, the government of Yemen wants to do this. And the Ansar Allah leadership does too,” he says, using the official name of the rebel Houthi movement that took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014 and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad the following year.

Yemen’s government has been backed militarily since March 2015 by a coalition of Arab states assembled by neighbouring Saudi Arabia to oust the Houthis, who are aligned to its arch-rival Iran.

This punishing proxy war in the region’s poorest nation has ground on, dragging Yemen to the brink of collapse.

The deadly Saudi-led coalition air strike on the bus in the rebel-held northern village of Dahyan on 9 August has threatened to derail a fragile political process fraught with risk.

Mr Griffiths, who took on his new role in March, is the third UN special envoy since 2011, when an Arab Spring uprising forced long-time leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to Mr Hadi.

“There’s anger and defiance,” explains one official closely involved in the UN’s new effort to find a negotiated solution to Yemen’s appalling plight. “The Houthis have been threatening not to attend because they fear the investigation into this attack will not be credible.”

Images of bloodied schoolboys, bright blue Unicef schoolbags still on their backs, sparked an international outcry and a call by the UN Security Council for a “credible and transparent” investigation.

Fifty-five people were killed in all, and many more injured, when a bomb struck the school bus as its driver stopped to buy snacks at a bustling market.

A coalition military spokesman initially said its forces attacked a “legitimate military target” after debris from a Houthi missile intercepted over southern Saudi Arabia killed one person and injured 11 others.

Now, the coalition has said it is investigating the reports of “collateral damage” and will compensate victims if necessary.

This latest tragedy has also reignited public criticism over the role of Western countries, including the UK and US, which are backing the coalition through billions of dollars in arms sales and operational support.

The bomb deployed in the latest devastating attack which pulverised the school bus was reportedly provided by a US arms manufacturer.

“The bus attack will certainly add to pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to move toward a negotiated end to the war,” assesses Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “But I’m not convinced that this will be decisive.”

Earlier this year, Mr Griffiths’ sustained shuttle diplomacy and the anguished appeals of aid agencies averted an all-out assault by pro-government forces on the vital Red Sea port of Hudaydah, and the adjacent city, currently in Houthi hands.

Most of the humanitarian aid on which 80% of Yemenis rely for survival comes through Hudaydah.

But it also convinced the UAE, which took the lead on the Hudaydah offensive, that only a ratcheting up of military pressure would bring Houthi leaders to the negotiating table, ready to do a deal.

Under greater threat, Houthi leaders had told Mr Griffiths they were prepared to hand over Hudaydah port to UN administration, a move they had resisted for years. Then the coalition shifted the goalposts. They demanded rebels withdraw from the city too.

“We think more military pressure still needs to be exerted on the Houthis,” insists an Arab official in the coalition, underlining that victory in Hudaydah would be a game-changer that would bring a swift end to this war.

But the assault against such a large city, where well-trained Houthi fighters are now entrenched, has also proven to be far more daunting than the first coalition military plans envisaged.

“The UAE and its allies have come to realise just how much it will cost them in blood and treasure, as well as in how they’ll be viewed,” comments one observer.

A diplomatic source says that, in June, as the first onslaught on Hudaydah loomed, then UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called UAE diplomats to urge them to give Mr Griffiths more time to come up with a negotiated solution. Mr Johnson is said to have warned of another Stalingrad – an allusion to shocking images of destruction in World War Two.

Ever since the UN envoy first announced his plan to launch a new political process, all sides have expressed support for his efforts. But they have voiced pessimism too.

And while the US and UK governments are known to raise concerns about coalition military tactics in private with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in public they defend their long-standing allies.

“There’s a strong impression that they support the man, but not the plan,” is how a Western Yemen expert puts their approach to Mr Griffith’s mission.

“That’s them having their cake and eating it too,” he explained. “They say: ‘We totally want Martin to create peace, but if his plan upsets our partners, we’re not going to push.'”

Iran’s role is also a factor. But the extent of its military support, and its sway over the Houthis, is disputed.

“The Iranians play a role in allowing the Houthis to believe they can hold out,” says Mr Hiltermann. “But the Houthis have shown in the past that the Iranians don’t have that much influence over them.”

The bar has deliberately been set low for this next round of talks in Geneva. But some observers see rare glimmers of hope.

“There’s fatigue,” points out one analyst following the process closely. “Yemenis are exhausted by this conflict.”

And the arrival of the experienced, plain-speaking UN mediator has translated into enhanced access in all capitals, including meetings with senior Houthi leaders.

“The Houthis are now willing, and not afraid, to make concessions they weren’t a year ago including on Hudaydah,” a Yemen expert added.

Sources say the rebel leaders have made new offers, including a proposal to freeze the fighting, as well as alternative arrangements for Hudaydah city.

Geneva will only be talks about talks, an informal discussion only among Yemenis.

The ambition is to move gradually towards more substantive negotiations in a broad process that draws on dialogue in backchannels, shuttling between capitals, and engagement with Yemenis across civil society.

Mr Griffiths describes the goal as a “transitional political operation under a national unity government… and security arrangements for the withdrawal of all armed groups.”

“Baby steps, just baby steps,” is the phrase used by Bashraheel Hisham Bashraheel, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ayam newspaper in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, which is under government control.

Like baby steps, there’s a great risk this new process will falter – just like the last two rounds.

“Geneva will be a beginning,” says Mr Griffiths. “Even a beginning is good.”

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After Airbnb, Booking.com asked to remove West Bank listings

ADEI AD, PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES (AFP) – Rights activists on Tuesday (Nov 20) urged Booking.com to follow the example of Airbnb and withdraw listings for rentals in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, even as Israel called the move “disgusting” and threatened legal action.

Airbnb said on Monday that it would remove such listings, just ahead of the release of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report criticising the inclusion of settlements.

Israel strongly denounced Airbnb’s decision and threatened legal action against the company, while Palestinian officials welcomed it.

The United States-based rights group HRW issued its report on Tuesday and called on Booking.com to follow Airbnb’s “positive step”.

“By ending its brokering of rentals in illegal settlements on land off-limits to Palestinians, Airbnb has taken a stand against discrimination and land confiscation and theft,” Mr Omar Shakir, HRW’s director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, told AFP.

“It is an important and welcome step and we encourage other companies like Booking.com to follow their lead and stop listing in settlements.”

HRW issued the report on the online reservations firms, entitled “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land”, along with Israeli non-governmental organisation Kerem Navot.

It says Airbnb, based in the US, listed at least 139 properties in West Bank settlements between March and July.

“Israelis and foreigners may rent properties in settlements, but Palestinian ID holders are effectively barred,” HRW said.

That is “the only example in the world the organisations found in which Airbnb hosts have no choice but to discriminate against guests based on national or ethnic origin”, it said.

According to HRW, Booking.com, based in the Netherlands, had 26 properties in West Bank settlements as of July, 17 which were on land Israel acknowledges is privately owned by Palestinians.

Booking.com did not indicate it would be changing its policy, telling AFP it permits “all accommodation providers worldwide to list on our platform as long as they are in compliance with applicable laws”.

“Everything we do in terms of how we display information is always in accordance with local laws to provide transparency to anybody looking for accommodation on our site,” a statement from Booking.com said.

‘Defy peace’

Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin on Tuesday threatened legal action against Airbnb in the US and Israel over its move, branding it “hypocritical and disgusting”.

In contrast, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat has welcomed Airbnb’s decision as “an initial positive step”.

“Israeli settlements are not just an obstacle to peace, but defy the very definition of peace,” he said in a statement.

Ms Moria Shapira, an Israeli settler who had been offering an apartment for rent through Airbnb, said she was “in shock” over the company’s move.

Ms Shapira lives in the Adei Ad wildcat settlement outpost deep in the West Bank. She said she did not understand why nearby Palestinian communities could post rentals on Airbnb but she could not.

“Part of the surprise was that here next to us, in Ramallah and in Rawabi, there are advertised Airbnb apartments and it is fine,” she told AFP at her hilltop home.

Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law and major roadblocks to peace, as they are built on land Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Around 400,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, which range in size from tiny hamlets to large towns. A further 200,000 live in settlements in occupied east Jerusalem.

Mr Nati Rom, a resident of the Esh Kodesh wildcat settlement and a lawyer with the Lev Ha’Olam organisation which fights boycott campaigns against Israel, protested over what he termed “anti-Semitic pressures”.

“It’s regretful to see Israeli organisations that harm us, and it’s more regretful to see Airbnb surrendering to these pressures – anti-Semitic pressures that harm the Jewish sector,” he said, referring to the group that worked with HRW.

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Saudi King Stands by Crown Prince as Outrage Over Khashoggi Killing Spreads

BEIRUT, Lebanon — King Salman of Saudi Arabia stood by his son and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, on Monday, avoiding any mention of the international outrage toward the kingdom in his first public remarks since Saudi agents killed the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month.

The echoes of that killing continued to spread, with Germany sanctioning 18 Saudis suspected of involvement and freezing arms exports to Saudi Arabia on Monday. And the Turkish defense minister suggested that Mr. Khashoggi’s killers could have left the country with his body.

Mr. Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has become a lightning rod for Western criticism of Saudi Arabia, its human rights record and the leadership of Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler. A growing chorus of current and former Western officials have concluded that an operation as elaborate as the one to kill Mr. Khashoggi could not have been carried out without the prince’s knowledge, and American officials told The New York Times and other publications last week that the C.I.A. had concluded that the prince had ordered the killing.

Saudi officials have vehemently denied that the crown prince had any involvement in the death of Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia resident who wrote columns for The Washington Post that were critical of some Saudi policies. They have portrayed the killing as a result of a rogue operation to return Mr. Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia.

The heightened scrutiny of Prince Mohammed, 33, has caused speculation in some quarters that he could be pushed aside. But in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, only his father has the authority to do so, and in Monday’s remarks, he showed no intention to sideline his son.

In his annual address to the Shura Council, the kingdom’s advisory assembly, the 82-year-old monarch stuck to general statements on official Saudi policy, calling on the world to stop Iran’s nuclear program, press for political solutions to the wars in Syria and Yemen and keep up the fight against terrorism.

If the king made any reference to the aftermath of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, it was done obliquely.

He praised the country’s public prosecutor, whose office is handling the official Saudi investigation into the killing. Last week, the prosecutor’s office said it had filed criminal charges against 11 Saudis for suspected involvement in the killing and that it was seeking the death penalty against five of them, usually carried out in Saudi Arabia by beheading.

“We affirm that this country will never deviate from the application of Allah’s law without any distinction or delay,” the king said.

He also made a vague reference to governmental reforms to ensure that instructions are properly followed to “avoid any violations or mistakes.”

Saudi Arabia has said that the operation that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s death was carried out outside the chain of command. Last month, King Salman announced the formation of a committee charged with restructuring the intelligence apparatus to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

Heading that committee is Prince Mohammed.

Those steps have done little to cast doubt on the narrative laid out by Turkish officials that Mr. Khashoggi was suffocated soon after entering the consulate and then dismembered by a team of 15 Saudi agents who had flown in to do the job. Nor have the kingdom’s frequently shifting explanations stemmed the outrage in Western countries over the death.

Germany on Monday froze the delivery of previously approved arms exports to Saudi Arabia over the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. It also banned 18 Saudis from entering Europe’s border-free Schengen zone because of their suspected involvement.

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, told reporters in Brussels that his country had issued the ban for the 26-nation zone in close coordination with France, which is part of the Schengen area, and Britain, which is not.

“As before, there are more questions than answers in this case, with the crime itself and who is behind it,” Mr. Mass said.

Over the weekend, the United States announced sanctions on 17 Saudis suspected of involvement in the killing. The German list included the same names, plus that of Gen. Ahmed Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi intelligence, who was fired after Mr. Khashoggi was killed.

Mr. Khashoggi, 59, went to the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain papers that would allow him to marry his fiancée, who is Turkish.

Over the past few weeks, the Turks have leaked evidence of the plot, including the names and photographs of the Saudi team members and surveillance footage of them arriving at the airport and moving around in Istanbul.

The Turkish defense minister provided further information over the weekend, pressing the case that the team had set out to kill Mr. Khashoggi, rather than deciding to do so only after an effort to bring him home had failed, as Saudi officials have contended.

“The most important issue is this crime was premeditated, it did not happen in a second,” the minister, Hulusi Akar, said at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on Saturday. “It was premeditated. Those people were sent to Istanbul and they did their work.”

Mr. Akar also provided a new possible answer to one of the killing’s enduring mysteries — the location of Mr. Khashoggi’s remains — suggesting that the Saudi agents could have carried Mr. Khashoggi’s dismembered body out of the country in their luggage under the cover of diplomatic immunity.

“Possibly, possibly they committed the murder and then after that, within three or four hours, they left Turkey,” said Mr. Akar, a retired general who left his post as chief of staff in the summer to take up the civilian post of defense minister.

“And because of the diplomatic immunity they left very easily, without having any problem with the luggage. Possibly in the luggage they carried the dismembered body of Khashoggi,” he added.

The killers had several hours between Mr. Khashoggi’s arrival at the consulate and the time when his fiancée and friends alerted the Turkish authorities that he had not emerged, Mr. Akar noted. By then, Mr. Khashoggi’s body had probably already been removed from the consulate, he said.

“Possibly, Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered and after that dismembered. And they removed the body parts from the consulate,” he said. “Turkish teams did some work in the consulate but they could find nothing.”

Turkish officials have said that most of the 15 Saudis who arrived in Istanbul in the hours before the murder by commercial and private planes did not have diplomatic status. When they left, their luggage passed through airport security machines. Security officers also hand-searched some of the luggage on the second plane.

At least nine of the Saudis were government and security officials. One, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, was a frequent companion of Prince Mohammed.

A diplomat who left shortly after the killing was an intelligence officer and the deputy head of the Saudi consulate, Ahmad Abdullah al-Muzaini. Mr. Muzaini made a quick trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, after Mr. Khashoggi first visited the consulate on Sept. 28. He returned to Istanbul the day before the murder and was photographed passing through Ataturk Airport, which serves the city, with heavy luggage.

He left the country again at 9:35 p.m. on the evening of the murder, flying direct to Riyadh from Sabiha Gokcen Airport on Istanbul’s Asian side, according to security camera footage released to Turkish news media. The Saudi consul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, who was also at the consulate during the murder, left the country two weeks later.

Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul. Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Berlin.

Follow Ben Hubbard on Twitter: @NYTBen.

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Khashoggi killers may have taken his body out of Turkey in luggage

The killers of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have smuggled his dismembered body out of Turkey in luggage, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has claimed.

Mr Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, sparking global outrage against the kingdom and de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Riyadh had offered numerous contradictory explanations for his disappearance, before saying Mr Khashoggi was killed after “negotiations” to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.

Speaking at a conference in Canada, Mr Akar said Mr Khashoggi’s killers may have taken the journalist’s body parts out of Turkey in luggage.

“One probability is that they left the country three to four hours after committing the murder. They may have taken out Khashoggi’s dismembered corpse inside luggage without facing problems due to their diplomatic immunity,” Mr Akar told CNN Turk.

Turkey has said a group of 15 individuals, including a two-man “clean-up team”, was involved, and Mr Khashoggi’s body had been dismembered. Turkish officials have also called for an investigation into whether the body was dissolved in acid.

Saudi public prosecutor Shalaan al-Shalaan said last week Mr Khashoggi’s body was dismembered, removed from the building and handed to an unidentified “local co-operator”.

More than a month after the murder, Turkey is trying to maintain pressure on Prince Mohammed, releasing a stream of evidence that undermined Riyadh’s early denials.

US President Donald Trump has described a CIA assessment blaming Prince Mohammed for the killing as “very premature” and said he would receive a complete report on the case tomorrow.

Mr Trump said he did not want to listen to an audio recording of the murder, despite facing mounting pressure to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing. Mr Trump said he would not listen to it “because it’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape. I don’t want to hear the tape, no reason for me to hear the tape.

“I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it … It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

Turkish officials who heard the recordings, which include Mr Khashoggi’s killing and conversations leading up to the operation, were horrified by the contents.

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Saudi media ignore US reports on Khashoggi

Saudi mainstream media have completely ignored reports that the CIA has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, ordered the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi was murdered in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate early last month.

The reports about the CIA conclusions emerged in US media in the late hours of 16 November.

Saudi Arabia insists the crown prince knew nothing about the killing.

In its morning news bulletins and coverage on 17 November, the state-run, news-oriented Saudi Al-Ikhbariya TV led with news that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent cables of congratulations to King Mohammed VI of Morocco on the occasion of his country’s independence.

Although the TV station then reported that the Russian foreign ministry had rejected the politicising of the Khashoggi case, it failed to make any reference to the Khashoggi-related CIA conclusions. The channel’s coverage was mostly focused on developments in Yemen.

Saudi denial emphasised

Likewise, the Dubai-based, Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya TV has ignored the CIA story in its morning coverage and news bulletins.

Although it reported the denial by the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Khalid bin Salman, that he encouraged Khashoggi to go to Istanbul, the pan-Arab broadcaster also failed to make any reference to the widely-reported CIA conclusions.

The channel’s coverage was focused on developments in Yemen, Syria, Israel and Iraq.

The London-based, Saudi-funded pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat also completely ignored the news. But it featured Prince Khalid’s denial prominently on its website under the headline: “Khalid bin Salman underlines the falsehood of The Washington Post’s allegations.”

Al-Hayat daily, another Saudi-funded paper based in London, also turned a blind eye to the CIA reports, and instead highlighted Moscow’s comments about Khashoggi.

“Russia rejects politicisation, and questioning Saudi Arabia’s ability to investigate,” read the top headline on the paper’s website.

The top two headlines of Okaz, a Saudi-based pro-government daily, read: “Khalid bin Salman denies the allegations of The Washington Post about his contact with Khashoggi” and “The kingdom of justice…the rights of its citizens are never wasted.”

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

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Families Sue Jordan Over 2016 Deaths of 3 U.S. Green Berets

WASHINGTON — The families of three Army Special Forces soldiers who were fatally shot by a Jordanian base guard in 2016 said on Friday that they had sued the kingdom over false accusations that the Green Berets provoked the killings — accounts disputed by a video of the attack.

The three soldiers — Staff Sgts. Matthew C. Lewellen, Kevin J. McEnroe and James F. Moriarty — were stationed in Jordan as part of a C.I.A.-run program to train Syrian rebels. They were shot at close range by First Sgt. Maarik al-Tawayha, a guard in the Jordanian Air Force, when their convoy was stopped at the gate of the King Faisal air base after a training mission on Nov. 4, 2016.

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Washington, seeks unspecified monetary damages from the Jordanian government.

“For life to work, we have to be willing to hold the powerful accountable,” James Moriarty, the father of Sergeant Moriarty, said at an emotional news conference on Friday. He also urged the United States to re-examine its longstanding alliance with Jordan.

Sergeant Tawayha was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in July 2017. During the trial, he offered no explanation for the attack, and he said after a hearing that “I was doing my job.”

On Friday, Mr. Moriarty and the fathers of Sergeants Lewellen and McEnroe said that the Jordanian government had made false leaks to the news media asserting that the Green Berets had been drinking before they returned to the base, and had accidentally fired one of their pistols at the gate.

A six-minute video of the shootings, taken from a security camera and released after Sergeant Tawayha’s sentencing, appears to show a different sequence of events at the gate. In it, Sergeant Moriarty is seen trying to defuse the situation by raising his hands after Sergeants McEnroe and Lewellen were shot.

The lawsuit said the Kingdom of Jordan had “aided and abetted this terrorist act,” and it accused Sergeant Tawayha of having “hunted down and brutally murdered their loved ones.” It said the kingdom had initially defended Sergeant Tawayha by asserting that he had acted “within internationally accepted rules of engagement.”

Neither the F.B.I. nor Jordanian officials have linked Sergeant Tawayha to any extremist groups.

In a statement, the Jordanian Embassy in Washington did not directly comment on the lawsuit but said that “Jordan successfully prosecuted the perpetrator, and he is now serving a life sentence.”

“Jordan deeply regrets the tragedy, and has done its best to achieve justice,” the statement said.

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Cosmetic surgery fans in Iran face flogging

Iran could imprison and flog those who opt for “un-Islamic” plastic cosmetic surgery as part of a crackdown on people altering their appearance, a senior MP has said.

Hassan Norowzi, a spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s judicial committee, said surgeons offering procedures including “cats eyes” and “donkey ears” could also be stripped of their licences.

The bizarre trends are among a number of cosmetic procedures targeted in a new law drafted by the committee in the Majles, Iran’s parliament, said Mr Norowzi.

Iran has one of the world’s highest rates of rhinoplasty and an estimated 40,000 people – mostly women – go under the knife every year.

In recent years an increasing number of Iranian men have also sought cosmetic surgery, mostly to change their noses, remove stomach fat or reshape their eyebrows.

But the country has been rocked by a number of horror stories about surgeries gone wrong, including several involving teenagers.

The new regulation will require potential customers to seek permission from a judge before going under the knife.

“Otherwise they will be committing a criminal act and offence to the public and will be prosecuted. The fines will vary from 10 days to two months of imprisonment and/or 74 lashes,” Mr Norowzi added.

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‘We are real’: Saudi feminists launch online radio

Operating out of a small room in an unknown country, a new internet radio station broadcasts a programme aimed at campaigning for greater women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

With melancholy music playing in the background, the presenter of Nsawya FM (Feminism FM) addresses the issue of domestic violence in the Gulf kingdom.

The presenter’s voice shakes with emotion as she discusses the fate of Sara, a woman she says was killed by a male relative.

She was a 33-year-old university graduate with a job who lived with her parents – and who wanted to marry a man with a different nationality, that of Yemen.

“Sara’s dream was ended with five bullets shot by her 22-year-old brother, even though she had been officially engaged with the consent of her parents,” Ashtar, a 27 year old who uses a pseudonym inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, later told BBC Arabic by phone.

The case was reported by the media and discussed by people who knew her, Ashtar said.

The presenter also told the story of Hanan Shahri, who is reported to have killed herself in 2013 after her brother and uncle allegedly beat her and refused to allow her to marry her fiancé.

Such cases, Ashtar said, were “only the tip of the iceberg”.

‘Silent majority’

Three weeks ago, Nsawya FM set up a Twitter account and announced it would broadcast a weekly programme that would be the “voice of the silent majority”.

It also called for volunteers who wanted to get involved in production or contribute material.

In the past two weeks, the station has broadcast two one-hour programmes using only a microphone, a laptop with editing software and the live audio streaming website Mixlr.

The poor quality of the sound and the whole production, in general, reflects the non-professional nature of this project.

Ashtar said they did not expect a massive audience initially, and were instead aiming for “gradual growth” as the programme spread awareness on women’s rights.

“We started this project to archive this phase for history, so that people would know we were real, we did exist,” explained Ashtar, who did not want so share any details about her own identity despite living outside the kingdom because she feared reprisals.

“The Saudi authorities could ban Twitter at any moment and we would lose the archive of our thoughts. Whereas the radio gives us the opportunity to record programmes and broadcast them on other platforms,” she added.

At least 17 human rights defenders and women’s rights activists critical of the Saudi government have been arrested or detained since mid-May, according to the UN. Several of them have been accused of serious crimes, including “suspicious contact with foreign parties”, and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

‘Confrontational’ thoughts

Nsawya FM has two presenters and nine women producing content. All but two of the women are Saudi nationals, and some of the women live in Saudi Arabia.

The women say communication between them is difficult because they live in different time zones and some have other demands on their time, including studies or work.

Ashtar described herself as “an activist who uses the media to express her ideas”.

She said she had sent articles to a number of leading Lebanese publications in recent years but that none of them had ended up being used. She believed that the rejections were the result of her “confrontational” ideas about society, religion and politics.

Ashtar expressed admiration for the “the Matriarchal era” – an apparent reference to a period in pre-Islamic Arabia when women were the leaders of their tribes.

“I believe that women are better than men. If women were to hold power again, especially in certain sectors like the judiciary, this world would be a better place,” she explained.

Ashtar said she did not hide her beliefs from her family and took the opportunity to debate them with relatives at gatherings for Eid al-Fitr and other festivals.

But her family rejected them. “The West has brainwashed you,” they used to tell her.

‘One signature’

Now that the ban on women driving has been lifted by King Salman, activists like Ashtar are campaigning to for an end to the male guardianship system, which they say is discriminatory.

Under the system, men are given the authority to make a range of critical decisions on behalf of their female relatives.

The activists have taken their campaign to Twitter, the most popular social media platform in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women are very active there.

However, many people in the kingdom frown on women using the site to push for reforms.

Some have denounced the activists as “spies” and “not Saudis”, or described them as “electronic flies” in an attempt to play down their significance.

Others have urged them to wait and give the king a chance to enact further reforms.

“This is a mere propaganda. We are Saudis and we know it,” Ashtar said.

“Had he wanted to, the king could have abolished the guardianship system. This does not need decades of discussions and consultations. All it takes is one signature.”

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Behind a Saudi Prince’s Rise, Two Loyal Enforcers

BEIRUT, Lebanon — When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia convened an outdoor banquet this spring for his fellow Arab rulers, seated among the kings, princes and presidents were two friends with few qualifications other than their closeness to the young prince himself: a poet who has become known for orchestrating ferocious social media campaigns, and a former security guard who runs the Saudi sports commission.

The two men had each played pivotal roles in many of the brazen power plays that have marked Prince Mohammed’s sprint to dominance of the kingdom — the ouster of the previous crown prince, the detentions of royals and businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, and the kingdom’s diplomatic spats with Qatar and Canada. Even Saudi royals have come to fear the prince’s two friends — Saud el-Qahtani, 40, and Turki al-Sheikh, 37 — and the Arab potentates around the table could scarcely object to their presence.

Now the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents has focused attention on their roles as enablers of the crown prince’s impulsiveness and aggression, and Saudi watchers consider the men’s fate a bellwether of the royal court’s direction as it grapples with the international outrage over the killing.

“They are the closest people to the crown prince,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They are his political enforcers and the face of the brash new ‘Saudi first’ posture at home and abroad, and those opposed to the hypernationalist, thuggish direction in Saudi foreign policy would be happy to see them cut down to size.”

Neither man is among the 18 people Saudi Arabia says it has arrested in the course of its investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

But the kingdom has already assigned some blame for the killing to Mr. Qahtani, the social-media czar. He lost his title as an adviser to the royal court because he contributed to the vitriolic rhetoric toward the kingdom’s critics that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s death, a Saudi official said. It is unclear which of his many duties Mr. Qahtani has relinquished.

Mr. Sheikh, the sports commissioner, was in New York for medical treatment during the killing, according to Saudis who know him, and has since avoided the spotlight.

Mr. Khashoggi, who was a Saudi insider before fleeing the kingdom last year to live in Virginia and write columns for The Washington Post, had said the two men exemplified what was dangerous about Prince Mohammed.

The crown prince “does not have political advisers except Turki al-Sheikh and Saud al-Qahtani,” Mr. Khashoggi said in private comments published by Newsweek after his death. They are very thuggish. People fear them. You challenge them, you might end up in prison.”

Mr. Qahtani did not respond to messages seeking comment. Mr. Turki did not respond to a request for comment sent to the sports commission.

Both men run portfolios — social media and sports — that resonate with the large population of young Saudis whom Prince Mohammed has courted as his base. Both have sought to fire up the fierce nationalism that the prince has encouraged by pouring money into battles against rivals in stadiums or on the internet.

Although neither portfolio relates to foreign affairs, foreign envoys often seek out the two men because of their influence, said Dennis Horak, the former Canadian ambassador to Riyadh who was expelled in August after other Canadian diplomats called for the release of detained rights activists.

Mr. Sheikh was approachable while Mr. Qahtani “had a much fiercer reputation,” Mr. Horak said. The pair, he said, was “not so much good cop-bad cop, more bad cop and lesser-bad cop.”

Like Prince Mohammed, neither was well known before the prince’s father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015. Both were educated inside the kingdom with scant experience abroad.

Critics in the kingdom say that they sometimes failed to understand the dynamics of Western politics and culture, like when Mr. Qahtani orchestrated the plastering of billboards and trucks in London with his boss’s photo during the crown prince’s visit there last spring — to the derision of Londoners unaccustomed to foreign personality cults.

But each man had skills the prince treasured.

Mr. Qahtani, who held an undergraduate law degree and wrote poetry, had been recruited to work in the royal court more than a decade ago. He gained a deep understanding of the royal family’s secrets that members and associates of the royal family say he later exploited to help Prince Mohammed plot his rise and eliminate his rivals.

He also appears to have developed an interest in hacking. As early as 2009, someone using credentials associated with Mr. Qahtani was trawling amateur hacking forums to learn about surveillance software, according to images of the posts captured by other forum members.

In 2012, someone using Mr. Qahtani’s government email address solicited services from the Italian spyware company Hacking Team, according emails later released by WikiLeaks. In one email, the writer sought a visit by people with “high technical knowledge” to “explain the solutions you offer and training and costs.”

“Will bear all the costs of the trip from A-Z,” the author of the email added.

Mr. Qahtani has become Prince Mohammed’s chief propagandist. With a Twitter following of 1.36 million users, he solicited names for a blacklist of enemies of the kingdom and then marshaled mass social media attacks against them, commanding followers his critics have called “electronic flies.” His work has earned him the nicknames Lord of the Flies, Mr. Hashtag and “Saudi Arabia’s Steve Bannon.”

Mr. Sheikh was a bodyguard in Prince Mohammed’s security detail who charmed the prince with his sense of humor and intense loyalty, said associates of the royal family who know both men. Roughly the same age, they developed a personal rapport, and the prince rewarded Mr. Sheikh with a seemingly limitless budget to make the kingdom an international contender in tennis, boxing, soccer and other sports. He has welcomed wrestling legend Hulk Hogan to Riyadh and last April, he joked in the ring about keeping for himself the championship belt for the WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble.

In an extension of his royally financed campaign to build a sports empire, Mr. Sheikh became the honorary president of one of the most successful and popular soccer teams in Egypt, an honor widely believed to reflect heavy investments of money from the crown prince. But Mr. Sheikh resigned in a dispute with the board after just a few months and instead bankrolled his own rival franchise, Pyramid. He recruited three star Brazilian players and launched a sports channel dedicated to his team, reportedly pouring in as much as $33 million.

But he complained publicly that Egyptian referees, fans and commentators were failing to appreciate his investments, and said he had asked Egypt’s president to intervene. In September, a stadium of Egyptian soccer fans broke out in vulgar chants denouncing Mr. Sheikh and the Saudis, and he responded by abandoning the team.

“Strange attacks from everywhere, and a new story every day,” he wrote on Facebook. “Why the headache?”

Mr. Sheikh also splurged last September on a $4.8 million limited edition Bugatti Chiron sports car, according to a sales contract obtained by The New York Times. The seller, the Emirati businessman Saeed Mohammed Butti Alqubaisi, declined to comment.

When an entertainment program on the Saudi-owned satellite network MBC last year seemed to hint at a rumored affair between Mr. Sheikh and an Egyptian singer, Mr. Sheikh ordered the network to fire the production team, according to industry executives familiar with the case. The show remains off the air.

Both men played signal roles in Prince Mohammed’s rise. In June 2017, Mr. Sheikh and Mr. Qahtani were among a handful of Prince Mohammed’s loyalists who forcibly detained the previous crown prince and interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, holding him overnight and threatening him until he agreed to give up his claim to the throne, according to members and associates of the royal family.

In a video made the next day, Mr. Shiekh can be seen hovering behind the ousted prince as he pledges allegiance to Mohammed bin Salman. A social media campaign spread rumors that a cocaine addiction had made the ousted prince unfit to rule, and people close to the royal family said Mr. Qahtani fueled the rumors.

Both men sprang into action again when Saudi Arabia led a blockade of its tiny neighbor Qatar in June 2017, over its support for political Islam. They unleashed insults and promoted hashtags bashing Qatar, and Mr. Qahtani forced MBC to stop airing Turkish soap operas because of Turkey’s support for Qatar, costing the network millions in losses, according to industry executives.

He also persuaded Prince Mohammed to spend more than $100,000 on American television commercials denouncing Qatar, evidently unaware of how few Americans were following the Gulf dispute.

A Qatari-owned network, BeIN Sports, had acquired the exclusive rights to broadcast this year’s World Cup in the Arab world. So Mr. Qahtani helped promote BeoutQ, a bootleg operation beamed from Riyadh-based Arabsat. BeoutQ ripped live events from BeIN’s feed and broadcast the games without paying for rights, spurring international lawsuits. The Saudi government has denied any relationship to the pirate network.

Both men also played key roles again last fall when Crown Prince Mohammed arbitrarily detained hundreds of the kingdom’s richest businessmen and several of his royal cousins in a Ritz-Carlton hotel in what was billed as a crackdown on corruption — just a few weeks after Mr. Sheikh had picked up his $4.8 million Bugatti.

Both men acted as interrogators, demanding that the captives confess to corrupt self-enrichment and pledge to surrender vast sums, according to relatives and close associates of several detainees. Although blindfolded during some interrogations, detainees told relatives that they saw the two men or recognized their voices from broadcast interviews. Others said that through hotel room windows, they saw Mr. Sheikh coming and going surrounded by armed guards.

Several former detainees have reported physical mistreatment during the interrogations, including beatings, electrical shocks and suspension upside down for long periods.

Some have shown their family members lasting scars from the beatings and shocks, and in one case photographs of the bruises and scars have been shared with The New York Times; some of the pictures included the electronic monitoring bracelet that released the government has forced detainees to wear to track their movements. One was forced to make his consent to a forced confession with only a thumb print because he was too incapacitated to write out his signature, according to a relative informed by the detainee.

Although no evidence has emerged that either man directly abused the captives, both questioned detainees who had been abused.

The government of Saudi Arabia has called the allegations of physical abuse “absolutely untrue.”

A few weeks after his release from the Ritz, Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, once the kingdom’s wealthiest investor, made a donation of more than a half-million dollars to a Saudi soccer club, writing on Twitter that he was “responding to the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh.”

Neither Mr. Qahtani nor Mr. Sheikh have commented publicly on the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. But Mr. Qahtani, who lost his title as a royal court adviser, appears to believe his days of serving the prince are not over.

After his dismissal, he tweeted his thanks to the king and crown prince for “this great opportunity to have the honor to serve the homeland.”

“I will remain a loyal servant of my country forever,” he added.

Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and David D. Kirkpatrick from London. Tariq Panja contributed reporting from London, and Karam Shoumali from Berlin.

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Cost of botched Gaza spy mission? Israel is back at brink of war

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) – On Sunday (Nov 11), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured Israelis weary of conflict with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that he was “doing everything I can in order to avoid an unnecessary war”.

Twenty-four hours later, Israel appeared to be on the brink of just that.

After a botched intelligence mission by undercover commandos left seven Palestinian fighters dead, the militant group Hamas and other armed factions mounted an intense and escalating rocket and mortar barrage across much of southern Israel.

With air-raid sirens wailing from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, and after a Palestinian anti-tank missile blew up an Israeli bus, seriously wounding a 19-year-old soldier, Israel retaliated with airstrikes and tank fire that grew steadily more destructive as the night wore on.

Israel hit scores of military posts and weapons caches across Gaza, but also levelled a Hamas television station, radio station and office building, and the group’s military intelligence headquarters.

It was the heaviest fighting between Israel and Gaza since their war in 2014.

The fighting threatened to scuttle months of multilateral talks aimed at calming the Israel-Gaza border, where protests since March have been met with a lethal Israeli response.

Some 170 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more wounded.

The talks, mediated by Egypt, had already produced concrete steps to ease tensions in Gaza, including increased electrical power and the influx of millions of dollars in aid.

So why, some Israelis were asking Monday, with the Israeli government under pressure to ease tensions in Gaza and the talks showing progress, would the government risk it all for what officials described as a fairly routine surveillance mission?

The answer, analysts said, may be that it was so routine. No one expected the Israeli commando squad to be exposed.

“The real assumption is that the operation will not be revealed,” said Mr Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former national security adviser. “It’s not 100 per cent, but it can be estimated that 99 per cent of these operations are not revealed, and 99 per cent is good enough to make a decision assuming that the force will enter, execute and go out without being detected.”

The cost of that tiny risk became evident on Monday. More than 400 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel, and the Israeli military said it had struck more than 70 military targets in Gaza belonging to Hamas, which governs the territory, and to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The authorities in Gaza said three Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli air strikes and nine others were wounded. One Israeli was killed and at least 16 were wounded on Monday.

Each side repeatedly warned the other to back down, but refused to itself. After Israel threatened on Monday night to begin levelling Gaza high-rises, and then did, Hamas warned that “millions” of Israelis would soon come under its rocket fire.

The Israeli military ordered all residents in the south, including in the cities of Ashdod and Beersheba, to remain in bomb shelters, some of which were opened as far as 40km from the Gaza perimeter. Air-raid sirens were heard as far away as Hebron, on the West Bank.

The United Nations envoy to the region, Mr Nickolay Mladenov, who has sought a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza, wrote on Twitter that both sides needed to step “back from the brink” of war.

“Rockets must stop, restraint must be shown by all!” he wrote.

But deep into the night, both sides were still ratcheting up the conflict.

Maj Gen Kamil Abu Rukun, Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the Palestinian territories, warned Gaza residents that Hamas had “crossed a red line”, and said that “Israel will dial up its response”.

In Gaza City, employees of the Hamas television station Al Aqsa were warned to evacuate its offices, and the building was soon destroyed by multiple missile blasts that were captured on video by onlookers.

A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, called the station’s destruction an act of “barbaric aggression”.

The Israeli military said the station was a legitimate target. “It contributes to Hamas’ military actions, including by providing operational messaging to militants, directing and explicitly calling for terror activities against Israel, and providing guidance on how to carry out such terror activities,” the military said in a statement.

Soon after, air strikes demolished the Al Aqsa radio station’s offices and Al Amal Hotel, a Hamas office building.

The fighting began hours after Palestinians and Israelis buried combatants who were killed on Sunday night, after an Israeli intelligence mission inside the Gaza Strip went awry when a team of covert operatives was challenged by Hamas fighters.

A gunfight erupted, and the team called in air strikes to cover their escape.

Six Hamas fighters, including a commander of forces in the Khan Younis area, and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees, another armed faction, were killed. An Israeli lieutenant colonel in the elite Maglan unit, a commando brigade, was also killed in the clash and was hailed as a national hero at his funeral.

According to a former Israeli official with knowledge of the operation, the mission’s goal was surveillance, not an assassination. Such missions, usually aimed at installing surveillance equipment, are extensively planned and are considered at a low risk of exposure and confrontation.

But they are perilous enough that the prime minister has to approve them personally, Mr Eiland said.

Israeli officials have not publicly explained the mission or what went wrong with it.

“The aim of the operation was not to abduct or to kill a Hamas operative,” Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israel military spokesman, said on Monday night.

He said that once the Israeli force met trouble, it “acted swiftly, professionally, was able to defend itself, exfiltrate in a very professional manner, making sure that all soldiers got back to Israel, that none were left behind”.

He said that the operation on Sunday had not been a deliberate provocation, but was a routine part of the Israeli military’s efforts to contend with terrorist threats across its borders.

“Just as terrorist organisations don’t stop to plan, and to harbour weapons and try to strike against Israeli civilians, neither do we in our preparations, in our collection efforts, and in our operations that we conduct in order to mitigate the capabilities of the different terror organisations around us,” he said.

Proponents of a ceasefire had warned for months that the military’s best efforts to keep a lid on tensions with Gaza could prove for naught because of the unpredictability of cross-border clashes.

The ceasefire talks had appeared to show meaningful progress in recent days before the turn of events that led to Monday’s fighting.

With both sides eager to address Gaza’s collapsing economy, electrical shortages and a deepening humanitarian crisis, Israel had agreed to let new shipments of diesel fuel be delivered to Gaza’s power plant, sharply increasing the availability of electrical power for residents of the beleaguered coastal enclave and allowing sewage treatment plants to resume operation.

Then, last week, Israel allowed a donation of US$15 million (S$20.74 million) in cash from Qatar to be driven into Gaza, where Hamas distributed it as back pay to thousands of its civil servants who have received only a fraction of their salaries for months.

On both sides of the Gaza border, civilians caught up in the fighting said they felt terrorised by it.

Mr Moatasem al-Aloul, a driver from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, said he was stuck in traffic when he suddenly saw people running away from the rocket launches, as explosions crackled overhead.

“The bombing is everywhere,” he said.

By nightfall, during a lull in the fighting, the streets in parts of Gaza City were almost empty, with many residents staying indoors. Few cars were on the road, and the loudest sound was that of Israeli drones hovering overhead.

In Kibbutz Alumim, less than 4km from the Gaza border, Ms Sara Mash, 32, a secretary, said her three children and husband had been in their safe room – their children’s bedroom – since 4.30pm, when they first heard an explosion and then an air-raid siren.

“We’ve had times like this, but you could at least step out of the safe room and breathe,” she said by phone.

“This is a situation where we could not, because every second there was a boom, non-stop – and you have no idea what is going on outside: Is it our side or theirs?”

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