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The Middle East, explained

Why Gaza's exports don't mean an end to the blockade

Israel allowed Gaza to export snack bars to the West Bank, but it's unlikely it means the territory will see a resurgence in economic activity.

CAIRO, Egypt – Israel announced it allowed goods from Gaza to be exported to the West Bank for the first time in five years yesterday. But if the history of Israel's blockade on the territory is any lesson, it hardly means an end to the economic siege. (Israel's spokesman for the movement of goods in and out of Gaza has said as such). 

For years, Israel has closely and oppressively regulated Gaza's borders, including its coastline, in a bid to keep both militant attacks and indigenous economic activity to a minimum. 

While many speak of Israel's current blockade – loosened following its deadly raid on a Turkish humanitarian flotilla in 2010 – as having kicked-off when Hamas seized power and Israel declared Gaza a "hostile entity" in 2007, in reality the tiny enclave has suffered under a series of largely intensifying restrictions on travelers and goods since the Oslo Accords of 1995. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Israel allows Gaza-West Bank exports for first time in five years

Gaza was also used as a launching pad for suicide bombers and other deadly attacks by Palestinian fighters on Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Only recently were the territory's borders sealed entirely to commercial imports and exports, strangling the economy and giving birth to an illicit and – quite literally – underground trade fostered by the Gaza-Egypt tunnels. 

Israel justified its blockade by saying Hamas and other militant groups could use construction materials like cement and steel to build weapons and bunkers. It has since approved the import of a number of household goods to Gaza. But its motivations for the wholesale ban on exports from Gaza appeared to be less grounded in reasons of safety. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Why are the lights out in Gaza? An explainer.

On several occasions, Israel allowed the export of flowers and strawberries to European countries, normally as a goodwill gesture around Valentine's Day (Gaza's roses and carnations fetch high prices in European markets, and it was once a vibrant export hub for textiles, produce, furniture and even ice cream). 

But until yesterday, Israel prohibited exports from Gaza to the West Bank, its sister Palestinian territory and where many Gaza businessmen still maintain natural economic ties. 

Thirteen truckloads of date bars hardly constitutes a resurgence in economic activity between the two territories, separated geographically by Israel and politically divided between rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah. The snack bars are actually destined for distribution by the World Food Program (WFP), a United Nations agency. 

With Gaza's Hamas rulers growing increasingly closer to Egypt – with promises Egypt will hook the power-starved territory up to the regional power grid – it seems unlikely Israel would give the Gazan economy cause to grow closer to its Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. 

In order to truly revive economically, Gaza's businessmen, factories and farms need access to export markets not only in the West Bank, but in Israel, Europe and Egypt as well. 

And while concerns over Israel's security are certainly not unfounded, it remains to be seen just what type of threat Gazan exports pose to Israel other than helping forge a bustling Palestinian economy on its southern border. 

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Massive death toll in Al Qaeda in Yemen attack begs question: what the hell is happening over there?

At least 185 Yemeni government troops were killed by Al Qaeda forces yesterday.

That's an excellent question, and not sure one I can answer without calling on some Yemen tweeps to help navigate the chaos. 

In addition to its myriad political problems (the new president just "won" 99.8 percent in February elections), separatist insurgents, US drones and the like, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) killed 185 Yemeni soldiers in a remote province the country's restive south yesterday. 

One hundred and eighty five soldiers. 

Some of whom were beheaded and their corpses mutilated, the Associated Press is reporting

Read more from GlobalPost: Southern Yemen steeped in conflict

That is a massive number but Yemen, unless it's the origin of a failed attack on the US, normally doesn't command too much media attention. 

Here are a few foreign journalists and analysts either based in or with exceptional knowledge of Yemen that you should be following on Twitter for daily coverage of the often overlooked but fascinating and complex Arab country, including our own Jeb Boone

  • Jeb Boone – freelance journalist and analyst focusing on Yemen, gaming, and tech. Blogger for GlobalPost's The Grid. Former managing editor of the Yemen Times.
  • Tom Finn – freelance journalist based in Yemen.
  • Laura Kasinof – freelance journalist. New York Times stringer.
  • Iona Craig – freelance journalist and The Times of London Yemen correspondent since 2010.
  • Jeremy Scahill – national security correspondent for The Nation, author of Blackwater. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Drone Wars: Attacks fuel anger in Yemen

And for a bit of much-needed satire, the spoof account of Yemen's new president, Abd Rabo Hadi.

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Weapons from Libya pour into Egypt

Security officials say weapons from Libya's civil war are streaming back across the border into Egypt.

CAIRO, Egypt – Weapons used in the Libyan civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi are now streaming back across the border into Egypt, Egyptian security officials told the Associated Press today:

The number of weapons smuggled into Egypt across the Libyan border is on the increase, with thousands of weapons flooding into the country, security officials said on Monday. They said residents of southern Egypt, where extended families often accumulate large arsenals to protect property and settle feuds, are the main buyers.

It's a natural but worrying development for a country already witnessing a rising tide of insecurity, where security forces are either unwilling or unable to police effectively and thousands of criminals who escaped from prison during the revolt were never re-arrested.

Read more from GlobalPost: Aboul Fotouh, Egyptian presidential candidate, attacked

Automatic gunfire can be heard in the capital city, Cairo, on a nightly basis – something unthinkable prior to the uprising last year (although it's not always clear if the weapons are being used in violent crime). 

Stockpiles of weapons have for years traversed Egypt's deserts to the Sinai Peninsula for transport to Gaza, but a negligible amount was left behind in Egypt. Disaffected Bedouin tribes on the Gaza border armed themselves for battles with police and other clans. The most intense weapon used was a rocket-propelled grenade. 

Read more from GlobalPost: In Egypt, the police force is up for grabs

Security officials told AP that hundreds of "modern sniper rifles" were seized, but did not elaborate beyond that. 

Egypt is no Iraq or Syria, but a proliferation in unregulated, black market arms can mean nothing but bad things for a nation where the future is all but certain.

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YouTube dancing sensation booted from Tahrir Square (VIDEO)

Matt Harding, known for dancing his happy, YouTube-famous jig around the world, was told to leave Tahrir Square.
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Egyptian protesters shout slogans as they gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square last September during a mass rally to reclaim the revolution amid anger over the military rulers' handling of the transition. YouTube sensation, Matt Harding, was met with anger from protestors when he turned up in Tahrir Square on Sunday. (MOHAMMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – Matt Harding is known for the wide, Cheshire cat-style grin he wears while he dances his trademark elbow-intensive jig in some of the world's most beautiful destinations. 

Edited into short video clips, Harding's jumpy dance steps are a YouTube phenonmenon. But when he turned up in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday, locals were less than impressed. 

According to Egyptian news website, Ahram Online, locals who lost family members during Egypt's uprising were camped out at the square when Harding arrived. Harding got a taste of the xenophobic tensions on the rise since Egypt's military rulers began blaming foreigners for the country's unrest.

From Ahram Online:

A group of a few men appeared around him, yelling for him to leave the square.

"You're dancing while our [slain] children have not rested in their graves. People have died here, what are you dancing for? Get out now," shouted the man, who turned out to be a one of the father’s of a January 25 Revolution martyr. The families have been staging a protest on the square for months.

Another group of men talked about how a dancing video in Tahrir Square could be misused by the media to spoil the image of Egyptian protesters. ‘Adams’, the self-proclaimed manager of Tahrir’s sit-in, then brought a couple of his cronies, who threatened to take the equipment.

Harding didn't get to dance in Tahrir Square as planned, but instead moved the recital over to the nearby Egyptian museum. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt's Unfinished Revolution: Revisiting Tahrir Square

Check out the video

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Egypt: Did an Islamist lawmaker really get a nose job?

An ultraconservative Islamist member of parliament has been suspended from his party after reportedly lying about a nose job.
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(KHALED ELFIQI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – Cosmetic surgery normally isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists. But in the bizarre world of Egyptian politics, yes, the two do in fact mix. 

Leaders of the Salafist Al-Nour party revealed this week that one of their elected parliament members, Anwar Al Balkimy, lied about being robbed and assaulted by a group of masked gunmen. Instead, Al Balkimy's face injuries were the result of a nose job he reportedly underwent at a local hospital, Al Nour says.

They've suspended him from the party, whose "moral capital" has been tarnished by the incident, Al Nour spokesman, Nadar Bakkar, told local media. They're also petitioning the speaker of parliament to have him removed from his position in the People's Assembly. 

Read more from GlobalPost: In Egypt, Islamists shut down TV production

Cosmetic surgery is forbidden by fundamentalists with a strict interpretation of Islamic law. It was unclear if Al Bulkimy, who had said he was relieved of 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($16,600) when the armed men attack, used the money to pay for the surgery. 

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For Egypt, little to celebrate after foreign NGO workers are freed

With the US out of the picture, what comes next for Egyptian civil society?
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US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (center) is greeted by Egyptian Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Roueini (2nd from left), military commander for the Cairo area upon his arrival in Cairo last spring. Fifteen foreign NGO workers apparently left Egypt in a US military plane from Cairo airport. (CHARLES DHARAPAK/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – It's official. Fifteen foreign NGO workers, including eight Americans, charged with receiving illegal funds, have left Egypt after a travel ban on the group was lifted. 

The foreign pro-democracy activists flew out of Cairo International Airport Thursday evening local time, in a move that will likely temper tensions between Egypt's military government and the United States, which had threatened to cut aid if the charges were not dropped.

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Are Egypt's judges independent?

In the midst of a highly-politicized trial of foreign and Egyptian NGO workers, are Egypt's judges free from political meddling?
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Picture showing Faruq Sultan, Chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, the highest judicial court in Egypt. Whether or not Egypt's judiciary is independent from the executive branch is still a matter of debate. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – It’s a crucial question for post-Mubarak Egypt, where an uprising was meant to remake the system as one rooted in the rule of law – and a high-profile case against US-funded NGOs is being touted by ruling military figures as the work of autonomous judiciary.

The level of judicial independence in Egypt has fluctuated over the years, rising enough at some points to spook the Mubarak regime, and dipping so low as to uphold the state’s right to torture.

It’s difficult to argue that any judiciary could maintain its sovereignty when a military junta is at the helm – whether in ruling for or against oppressive practices.

Those at the forefront of the recent campaign to try pro-democracy NGOs like Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republic Institute, have maintained that the public prosecutor is acting on its own, free from political meddling.

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: Americans could face jail time... for having maps

But the reported lifting yesterday of a travel ban on the foreigners charged for their involvement with these NGOs by a Cairo appeals court suggests otherwise.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had hinted Tuesday that the US was “moving toward a resolution” of the NGO crisis, which may have included a political and diplomatic deal with Egypt’s ruling generals.

Three of the case’s presiding judges recused themselves from the trial also Tuesday, without giving explanation but amid speculation the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) intervened to halt the prosecution of Americans in an Egyptian court.

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: NGO trial judges recuse themselves from case

It’s still unclear whether the judges were unsure of the legal merits of the case or if they objected to political interference on principle. 

One judge not involved in the case, deputy head of the appeals court in Egypt's Ismailia governorate, Ashraf Zahran, said the judges stepped aside because of "the intervention of the authorities in the work of judges." He was speaking on a local popular television program "The Truth." 

Mahmoud Al Sherif, spokesman for the Judges Club, a judicial advocacy group, said the withdrawl of the judges from the case was a "positive" step because "it means that Egypt's judiciary is still independent and resolute on being separate from the executive branch."

But in the prominent Arabist blog, Moroccan-American commentator, Issandr El Amrani, writes:

“…there are signs that Egyptians' reaction will be to think (no matter what they think of the merits of the case) that all the talk about their judicial system being above political influence being total bullshit.”

Nathan Brown of the DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently gave an excellent run-down of the Egyptian judiciary’s battle for independence.

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It's a hard life for a mistaken Al Qaeda militant

On the run for more than a decade, why did Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi return to Egypt?
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Saif Al-Adel, a suspected terrorist wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies Tanzania and Kenya, is shown in a photo released by the FBI October 10, 2001 in Washington, DC. Courtesy FBI/Getty Images. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – On the run for more than a decade, why would Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi return to Egypt, where he's wanted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism? 

Because living a life where you're constantly mistaken for an even more hardline jihadist – Al Qaeda's Adel Al Saif, also Egyptian – is apparently worse than potentially spending the rest of your years in Egyptian prison. 

Makkawi, who was once a member of Egypt's Islamic Jihad and whose name was mistakenly published by the FBI as one of Al Saif's aliases, for years suffered harassment from authorities – even after denouncing Al Qaeda and living as a political refugee in Pakistan. 

Fed up with the trouble, and somehow managing to secure travel documents from the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, according to CNN, Makkawi decided to hop on a plane to Egypt to clear his name once and for all. 

Of course, he was immediately nabbed at the airport as Al Saif – but Egyptian police quickly changed their tune and confirmed it was in fact Makkawi, a case of mistaken identity. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Al Qaeda "appoints Saif al-Adel" as interim leader

An Egyptian ministry official told GlobalPost he would be referred to the state security prosecutor's office for any legal charges he may face. According to CNN, he is still charged with terrorism and conspiracy to topple the regime. Makkawi fled Egypt to Pakistan in the late 1980s.

But following decades of persecution under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – although many of them did commit violent crimes – the Islamists are experiencing a new era in Egyptian politics.

Following the ouster of Mubarak last year, hundreds of Islamist prisoners, violent and non-violent, were released from Egyptian prison (some also escaped). 

Many who had participated in assassinations or attempted assasinations were set free, having rejected the armed struggle. Political Islamist parties just swept Egypt's parliamentary elections and now hold a majority in the people's assembly. 

"I came to Tahrir to lead the way to a good Islamic life," one former Islamic Jihad prisoner, Sheikh Adel Shehato, told me at a protest in Nov. 2011. He was held for 20 years. "We are fighting for bin Laden. There is no armed struggle, but our fight against the Pharonic regimes is on a mental level."

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: Policemen use Facebook to protest ban on beards

Makkawi may have been a high-profile arrest, and his militant activities go back to the 1980s. 

But in Egypt's new political climate, with Islamists in the parliament and jihadists in Tahrir, I wouldn't be surprised if the charges are dropped and he's free to go. 

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Egypt: NGO trial judges recuse themselves from case

More controversy in the case against employees of US-funded NGOs as trial judges recuse themselves.
Ngo trial judges resign egyptEnlarge
Egypt started the trial of dozens of democracy activists including Americans on charges of receiving illegal foreign funding, despite Washington's insistence that the charges be dropped. Three of the trial judges resigned on Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – In yet another twist in the already convoluted criminal saga surrounding US NGOs in Egypt, the three judges presiding over the trial of 43 NGO employees recused themselves from the case Tuesday night.

Chief judge, Mohammed Shoukry, said they felt "uneasiness" about the case, the Associated Press reports. Their reported skepticism over the merits of the case lends credence to NGO and US government claims that the trial, which began on Feb. 26, 2012 but was abruptly adjourned until Apr. 26, 2012, is legally dubious and political posturing on the part of the current regime. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Cairo court postpones high-profile US NGO trial

The employees and their organizations – including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) – are charged with receiving illegal foreign funds to carry out political activities. 

In the prosecution's dossier, according to the New York Times, the infamous Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, is said to have tesified that the groups "worked in coordination with the CIA" with the goal of "bringing down the ruling regime in Egypt, no matter what it is." 

The groups and the defendants have denied the charges. 

Also on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Egypt and the US were "moving toward a resolution" of the NGO debacle. The case has hurt ties between the two countries and put into question over $1 billion in US aid to Egypt. 

Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo (AUC), penned an in-depth piece on the all the forces at work here in local English-language, daily Egypt Independent. 

Here's an excerpt: 

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights.

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More death in Syria: What can be done?

The death toll is rising fast in Syria. Analysts weigh in on the web.
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The mother of Mohammed Shawi, 15, reacts next to her son's body at a hospital after he was shot by a sniper in Idlib in northwestern Syria earlier this month. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO – More than 120 people have been killed today across Syria, including 62 civilians trying to flee a weeks-long assault in Homs, anti-government activists said today

It marks one of the highest daily death tolls so far, and the alleged massacre outside Homs, if true, would mark a grim milestone in the nearly year-long uprising that has taken thousands of lives. 

I must stress that right now, the alleged massacre is still unverified and details remain sketchy – as the level of violence keeping most foreign journalists away – but anti-government activists are saying the victims were males stopped on a bus at a checkpoint outside the Baba Amr area of Homs. They were separated from the women and children, before being killed, the activists said. 

The descriptions conjure up images of the kind of targeted ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s. 

So what to make of Syria, at the heart of the Middle East and where conflict threatens to draw in its already volatile and fragile neighbors? (Think: Israel, Iraq, Lebanon). 

This week, where the US met with regional leaders in the Tunisian capital to discuss options for Syria, incuding arming the rebel Free Syria Army, produced a series of excellent pieces on the embattled nation. They don't put forth a magic solution to the Arab Spring's darkest and most foreboding uprising, but they do cut through the clutter.

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