Dozens killed by Israeli forces in Gaza as US opens new Jerusalem embassy

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew, Jerusalem 
Over 60 Palestinians were killed and 2,700 injured when Israeli forces opened fire on protesters yesterday as the United States broke with decades of diplomatic precedent and opened an embassy in Jerusalem.

President Trump hailed the opening as a great day for Israel as clashes erupted between Palestinians and security forces on the Gaza border.

The Palestinian government accused Israel of carrying out a “terrible massacre” but the army insisted that Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, had been leading a “terrorist operation under the cover of masses of people”.

The Palestinian health ministry said that nine of the dead killed at the border fence were children and included a baby who died from inhaling tear gas. The demonstrators, some armed with catapults, hurled stones at Israeli security forces, who responded with volleys of tear gas, some dropped by drones, and bullets. Israel also launched air strikes inside Gaza at Hamas military targets.

A ceremony took place in Jerusalem to open the new embassy on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. The move has been highly contentious because the Palestinian authorities claim east Jerusalem as their capital. Most countries, including European allies of the US, have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. Britain, France and Germany boycotted the ceremony.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, thanked Mr Trump, whose daughter Ivanka was at the event, for “having the courage” to move the embassy. Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, who was also in Jerusalem, accused the protesters of provoking the violence.

Binyamin and Sara Netanyahu join Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner at the embassy opening
Binyamin and Sara Netanyahu join Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner at the embassy openingGETTY IMAGES

Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said: “The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response.”

In London, President Erdogan of Turkey accused Israel of state terrorism and genocide. Turkey recalled its ambassadors from Israel and the US.

Israel’s gas and gunfire stop Palestinians storming border
The deadliest day for Gaza in four years began with tens of thousands of people marching towards the Israeli border. Angered by the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, many of them set out to breach the border fence, despite grim warnings from the Israeli military to steer clear. In a matter of hours dozens were dead.

White tendrils from a barrage of tear gas canisters, some dropped from drones, pierced the plumes of black smoke from tyres set alight by Palestinians. Protesters gathering at five points along Gaza’s borders hurled stones at the Israeli troops. Some sent burning kites at the line of soldiers. Three Palestinians were reported to have been shot while planting a bomb.

“It felt like your lungs were being torn apart. They were using drones to drop the gas in the middle of the crowds. Each round would contain ten to 12 gas canisters,” said Ahmed Rezeq, 26, who was injured in the leg. “The shooting was direct, it was mostly live ammunition targeting limbs, legs, and knees. Many were hit by explosive bullets, so needed amputations.”

According to the health ministry in Gaza at least 59 people, nine of them under the age of 16 and including a baby, were killed and more than 2,700 injured, the worst day of violence since 2014. The ministry said 130 of the wounded were in a serious condition. Rallies also erupted throughout the Gaza strip, the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

Gaza’s hospitals put out urgent pleas for fresh supplies as doctors struggled to cope with waves of injured protesters being brought in. Human rights groups including Amnesty International condemned the excessive use of lethal weaponry as “abhorrent”. The Palestinians said 1,360 people had been injured by gunfire.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, declared three days of mourning. “The US is no longer a mediator in the Middle East,” he said. The new US embassy in Jerusalem was tantamount to “a new American settler outpost”, he added…


Click to read full article:



Egypt election: Threats, bribes and bullying at polls to bolster Sisi’s legitimacy

Bel Trew, The Times

Bel Trew
The final day of voting in Egypt’s presidential elections was marred by accusations of widespread intimidation by the authorities, some of whom offered incentives to try to boost the turnout.

President Sisi needs a high turnout to bolster the credibility of his inevitable win in what most believe is a ballot heavily rigged in his favour. Voting is compulsory and failure to do so can result in a fine of about £20, but despite the election commission’s claim that participation had been “heavy”, many polling stations have appeared largely deserted. Last week Mr Sisi urged all Egyptians to vote, saying the “entire world” needed to see them in the streets.

Across several southern governorates, including Assiut, Sohag and Minya, witnesses said police had been going door to door to urge people to get out to the polls. In Dakhaliya, in the Nile Delta, a worker at a state hospital said the management had used ambulances to ferry people to polling stations. Elsewhere health ministry officials had scolded and threatened staff who did not have ink on their fingers to show they had cast a ballot. “They said the names of people without ink would be sent to the ministry and they would be relocated to hospital postings even further away from their villages,” the woman said.

An Egyptian voter’s finger is inked after voting
An Egyptian voter’s finger is inked after votingKHALED ELFIQI/EPA

There have been widespread accounts of regional governors, clerics, businessmen reliant on the government and state workers being cajoled to vote, through rewards, bullying or threats. There were reports of cash handouts of about £5 for those turning out to vote as well as offers of food boxes in some poorer areas.

A senior official in the street vendors’ union in Cairo said they had been told to get their members to vote to avoid raids and confiscation of goods.

In Qalyubiyah province, clerics in al-Azhar, the oldest seat of Sunni learning, instructed heads of departments to escort students and staff to the polls “and monitor them”.

A worker at the country’s railway authority near Mansoura, north of Cairo, said that employees were threatened with legal action if they did not vote for Mr Sisi. “They told me I have to vote or I’ll be referred to the legal affairs department. I was worried they would slash my salary,” the woman said.

A teacher in a state school in a nearby area relayed a similar story. “They allocated buses to take teachers to their polling stations to vote for Sisi. Nobody dares say no,” she added…

For full story:



I adore Egypt but I can’t go back and no one can say why

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew, London 
The taxi had just pulled away from the café in central Cairo when a minibus of plain-clothes police officers cut us off. Five men jumped out and took me to a nearby police station.

Egypt is suspicious of foreign reporters and intolerant of negative news. Journalists have become used to being pulled aside to explain themselves.

With a presidential election in flow and a counterterrorism operation under way in Sinai and the Nile delta, the security forces were on alert and the country on edge.

However, as a precaution, I sent colleagues the name of the police station.

My business in the café had been unremarkable: an interview with a penniless man whose nephew, a teenage migrant, had probably drowned at sea trying to get to Italy. He had been on board a migrant boat that vanished two years ago. For some months, I had been trying to piece together its story.

Yet inside the police station, the questions were taking a sinister turn. An informer in the café had apparently told police that I was discussing the Egyptian state’s involvement in the sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of Rosetta in 2016 — an entirely different boat from the one we were discussing.

By the time word reached the interior ministry, it had included a rumour that I was investigating forced disappearances of dissidents. This has been a contentious subject in Egypt since the murder in 2016 of Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge student from Italy, in Cairo. Italian officials have accused the Egyptian police of kidnapping and torturing him to death while he was researching his PhD. Egypt denies this and all accusations of forced disappearances.

Fortunately, I had recorded all my exchanges in the café. The government, the state, the military, the elections — none was mentioned. I had the audio to prove it. The police confiscated it. Unfortunately, this offered no immediate help. After seven hours of detention, I was threatened with a military trial, a legal process often used against terrorism suspects or dissidents. Those accused are often given long sentences or even the death penalty after short trials with next to no legal representation.

I was refused access to a lawyer or my embassy. I only met a British consular official later, at the airport. There, I learnt that another official who had tried to find me had been told that I had been moved from the police station when I was still upstairs.

The charges were never revealed to me. At about 6pm the police told me my embassy wanted to deport me, which made no legal sense. I was bundled into a police van without knowing if anyone knew where I was, or if I was going to the airport or somewhere more sinister. Officers mocked me for being scared and began filming me on a mobile phone.

I was not physically harmed, but it is common knowledge that detainees in these circumstances risk being hurt. Less than 24 hours after I was first detained, I was marched on to a plane with nothing but the clothes I was standing up in. The choice before me — stay for a military trial or leave — was no kind of choice.

Such an apparent misunderstanding was surely easily cleared up. I was an accredited journalist with a valid working visa who had been in Egypt for years and never in trouble before. The Times and I sought to explain to the authorities their mistake. There were encouraging signs: I was contacted to be told I had been accredited to cover the elections.

If any doubts lingered about my reporting mission that day, all would be explained by the interview audio, which the police had. It was either ignored and not listened to — or listened to and ignored.

It was made clear this week that as far as the Cairo authorities are concerned, I am on a list of “undesirable people” and if I attempt to return I will be re-arrested. I can’t go back to my home of seven years. Nobody can explain why.

Journalists enjoy the ultimate privilege: we choose to be somewhere and we can ultimately leave. So writing in such personal terms is uncomfortable. But this has happened at a very particular time for Egypt, when freedoms are under assault.

Egyptian media have largely become aligned with the state line. Even pro-regime TV hosts have been hauled in for questioning. It is banned to report any death toll of security forces that contradicts official figures. In an atmosphere of fear, many have been practising self-censorship.

There have been unreported instances of correspondents expelled or refused entry to Egypt. Many, like me, are still confused about why. Local reporters have also been targeted and jailed.

In the end I am leaving behind seven years of my life, my friends, my flat and two rescue cats. I am cauterising bits of my heart to dull the searing pain of losing Egypt, a country that was my home and a place I deeply love.

Refugee teenager Hennessy dreams of Europe after brutal 6,000-mile odyssey

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew, Cairo

His journey began eighteen months ago and took him 6,000 miles across Africa. It is not, however, the distance covered in his quest to reach Europe that is the most remarkable aspect of Hennessy’s odyssey but the horrors he survived along the way.

Hennessy, aged 19, has endured death threats in Juba, torture in Tripoli and crippling poverty in Cairo.

He fled his home in Juba, South Sudan in June 2016 after his family discovered that he was gay and threatened to kill him. He headed for Egypt in search of safety and a new life but quickly found himself penniless, begging in the streets of Cairo among other refugees. They convinced him that his dreams lay in Europe, that he should try to reach Libya and chance the treacherous sea crossing to Italy.

It was a risk that almost cost him his life, a life that began, improbably, in Chingford, Essex and Hackney, east London where his father had practised as a dentist before returning home to South Sudan in 2011. “I was kidnapped and tortured twice in Libya by militias,” he said from Cairo, where he is now camping on sofas.

“The first was immediately after I was smuggled in a jeep to east Libya. I had to be rescued by the smuggler who paid my ransom. When I flew to Tripoli to try to get to Italy I was taken at the airport and held in an underground prison,” he said.

Every morning his kidnappers lined the migrants up on the ground and whipped them with pipes until their families paid a ransom. He was eventually saved by the Libyan security forces and taken to the filthy Tariq al-Siqqa migrant centre under Tripoli airport, which he said was almost worse. It was there that The Times first met Hennessy, crammed in with 1,300 migrants.

Read full story:

Laura Plummer convicted over painkillers is sent to notorious Egyptian jail

The TimesBel Trew, Beirut

A British woman sentenced to three years in jail for taking painkillers into Egypt has been moved to the tough Qena prison, where her family fear that she will not survive.

Laura Plummer, 33, was arrested at Hurghada airport in October when she was found with 290 tramadol tablets, a prescription drug in Britain. The shop assistant from Hull said that she did not know they were banned in Egypt.

Qena prison is 100 miles from the court where Laura Plummer was sentenced. Her family fears that she will not survive her stay there
Qena prison is 100 miles from the court where Laura Plummer was sentenced. Her family fears that she will not survive her stay there

She claimed that she was bringing them in for Omar Caboo, her 31-year-old Egyptian boyfriend who suffers from back pain.

On Boxing Day a court in Safaga, a Red Sea town 300 miles from Cairo, sentenced Ms Plummer to three years in jail for possession of an illegal substance.

Her family tried to visit her yesterday morning at Safaga prison. However, officials had already moved her to Qena, 100 miles to the west, without telling them.

Ms Plummer’s sister, Rachel, said: “The conditions [in Qena] are disgusting. We are so worried about her. Who will feed her? We don’t even know how to get food to her now. We’ve been told nothing.”

She said that their mother, Roberta Synclair, tried to deliver supplies to her daughter at Qena prison but was not allowed to enter. Inmates of Egypt’s prisons have to rely on family visits for clothes, food and medicines because jail supplies are scarce.


Read full article:

Coptic Christians forced to flee from Isis’ river of blood

The Times
Bel Trew, Ismailia

William had just returned home to north Sinai when masked militants came for him at his corner shop at dusk. They shot him in the head, dragged his body outside and, screaming “apostate”, beat his corpse in the street.

The Christian shopkeeper had fled the town of Arish months earlier after seven Copts had been shot by jihadists. Yet despite death threats from Islamic State, the authorities told him to return to the city to collect his sons’ school certificates, so they could sit their exams.

William, 43, is one of at least 115 Coptic Christians killed in Egypt by suspected Isis militants in a year. Isis has warned the estimated nine million Christians living in Egypt that they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons”.

Isis militants have stormed Christian homes, businesses, churches and cathedrals and have fired on buses of Coptic pilgrims. More than 300 Christian families fled north Sinai in February after jihadists drew up a hit-list of 40 and started working through it. William was murdered in May.

His widow Mariam, 35, said: “The situation in Arish is getting harder. After William was killed Christians there realised they would never be safe.” She was speaking from Ismailia beside the Suez Canal, where she is living with her two sons, aged ten and 12. “Some families go back to check on their homes but it’s usually only women. They have to be extra careful, they always take supplies with them so they don’t risk going to the shops. They keep their doors and windows bolted. Some just stay in the church there.”

Last month Isis militants stormed a Sufi mosque near Arish killing more than 300 people, the single largest terrorist attack in Egyptian history. President Sisi vowed to crush Isis in Sinai within three months. “You can use all brute force necessary,” he told his security forces.

The interior ministry cancelled annual leave for its employees and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect more than 2,900 religious buildings over Christmas, but Mariam has seen little change.


Read full article here:

The Flight Into Egypt: Jesus, Mary, Joseph—and ISIS


WADI NATRUN, Egypt—Egyptian security forces wielding assault rifles peer warily into the cars at each of the three checkpoints visitors must go through before reaching the ancient monasteries here about 60 miles west of Cairo. At the biggest checkpoint, on an exposed crossroads, young officers in bullet-proof vests are burning an upturned tree trunk to try to keep warm and to make some tea while waiting, and watching for threats.

During each stop, cars are searched meticulously, identity papers are collected, and visitors gently interrogated. The authorities don’t want to take any chances near a holy site that will soon be the focal point of a major Christian pilgrimage at high risk of attacks by the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State. It could be the target of other groups as well, like the mob that just stormed a church in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, on Friday.

Coptic Christians believe the Holy family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph—rested here in Wadi Natrun more than 2,000 years ago as they fled the persecution of King Herod shortly after Jesus was born. Now Christians are facing violent persecution by terrorists from the affiliates in Egypt of the so-called Islamic State, and sometimes violent friction with other groups as well.

Although it appears nobody was killed in the Giza incident, an established church that never won official government authorization for services was attacked, ransacked, and some of the parishioners beaten.

This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes. It is one of the highest death tolls recorded in a single year, according to rights workers.

The Egyptian interior ministry said last week it had cancelled the annual leave for its security forces and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect over 2,000 religious buildings nationwide during the holiday period, which culminates in Egypt on January 7, the Coptic and Orthodox Christmas.

Here in Wadi Natrun the Syrian Monastery, as it is called, is especially important because of its direct association with the story of Christ. The details of the trip to Egypt made by Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not included in the Bible, which has only one reference to “the flight into Egypt” in Matthew 2:13-2:15. But according to Coptic beliefs the family fled Bethlehem through North Sinai, down to what is modern day Cairo, before crossing to the Delta, hiding in Wadi Natrun, and eventually fleeing south to Upper Egypt

“This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes.”

And it is precisely that journey that the government in Cairo and, indeed, the Vatican now want to promote, despite threats by ISIS to launch further attacks on Egypt’s largest minority.

Copts may represent as much as 10 to 15 percent of the population and they trace their roots back to pre-Islamic times. They are not Roman Catholics, but in a historic move last October, Pope Francis blessed and ratified  the “Holy Family Trail,” which means it becomes an official pilgrimage not just for the several million Christians in Egypt but the 1.2 billion Catholics  worldwide.

Francis first mentioned the plan when he visited Cairo in April, and he has declared Egypt “a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: a land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries.”

A delegation from the Egyptian tourism ministry travelled to the  Vatican two months ago to finalize the process. And last week a Vatican delegation, including officials who manage the Catholic Church’s pilgrimages, toured the country assessing the suitability of the historical sites where baby Jesus and his family allegedly rested.

The Egyptians hope the trail will be up and running by May and draw in a slew of foreign visitors who have stayed away in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising  and the 2013 military take over led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is now president.

Father Angelos, who is part of the team organizing the pilgrimage route, told The Daily Beast it sends an important message at a difficult time for Christians. He is the priest at the 4th century AD Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Cairo, which is is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The Copts believe it was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid for several months, and so is regarded as the most important stop on the holy family trail.

“We are spreading the word that Christ has not visited anywhere else but Egypt which makes Egypt like the Holy Land itself,”  said Father Angelos. “It is a message of defiance from the whole of Egypt that it is combating terrorism. It also tells Christians here that they are not marginalized.”

The priest said there were a total of 25 sites along the pilgrimage route, eight of which were ready to be properly opened to visitors next year.

The project is split into two initial stages. The first will see the authorities complete work within the coming year on Wadi Natrun and sites in Cairo, including the ancient Tree of the Virgin Mary in Cairo’s Matariya suburb, where she is supposed to have rested and bathed the baby Jesus. The second stage, which will take a little longer, includes the Muharraq Monastery in the south of the country, Egypt’s oldest working monastery.

The rest of the pilgrimage, which goes through ISIS strongholds in North Sinai, may well have to wait. But plowing ahead with the Holy Family Trail anywhere in the country is a brave move. ISIS has threatened Christians repeately, saying in April they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons.”

ISIS has also targeted foreign tourists, most notably claiming to have taken down a Russian plane full of holiday goers over Sinai in the autumn of 2015. All 224 crew and passengers aboard the Metrojet flight died in the explosion.

Read the full article here: