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Israel and Hamas agree Gaza truce, Biden pledges assistance

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(Last Updated On: May 21, 2021)

Israel and Hamas will cease-fire across the Gaza Strip border as of Friday, the United States said, bringing a potentially tenuous halt to the fiercest fighting in years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said his security cabinet had voted unanimously in favour of a “mutual and unconditional” Gaza truce proposed by Egypt, but added that the hour of implementation had yet to be agreed.

Hamas and Egypt said the truce would begin at 2 a.m. (2300 GMT Thursday), after 11 days of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.

In a televised address at 2200 GMT, U.S. President Joe Biden said both sides agreed the truce would begin “in less than two hours”.

The sides traded blows again in the countdown.

Sirens warned of incoming rockets in Israeli border communities, and a Reuters reporter heard an air strike in Gaza. A man in his 50s was lightly hurt in a direct hit on an Israeli factory, medics said.

Amid growing global alarm at the bloodshed, Biden had urged Netanyahu to seek de-escalation, while Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations sought to mediate.

Extending condolences to bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, Biden said Washington would work with the United Nations “and other international stakeholders to provide rapid humanitarian assistance” for the reconstruction of Hamas-controlled Gaza.

He said aid would be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority – run by Hamas’ rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal”.

The United States was also committed to replenishing Iron Dome interceptors that helped Israel fend off the more than 4,300 rockets fired at it from Gaza during the this month’s conflict.

Hamas said the ceasefire would be “mutual and simultaneous”.

“The Palestinian resistance will abide by this agreement as long as the Occupation (Israel) does the same,” Taher Al-Nono, media adviser to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, told Reuters.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had ordered two security delegations into Israel and the Palestinian Territories to work towards upholding the ceasefire, Egyptian state TV reported.

In a televised speech Abu Ubaida, spokesman of the Hamas armed wing, said: “With the help of God, we were able to humiliate the enemy, its fragile entity and its savage army.”

He threatened Hamas rocket fire that would reach throughout Israel if it violated the truce or struck Gaza before the hour of implementation.

Rocket attacks by Hamas and the allied Islamic Jihad had resumed after an eight-hour pause earlier on Thursday, as Israel pursued shelling that it said aimed to destroy the factions’ military capabilities and deter them from future confrontations after the current conflict.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said on Twitter that the Gaza offensive had yielded “unprecedented military gains”.

Speaking to his U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin, Gantz said Israel’s defence establishment would “continue to work closely and in full cooperation with the Pentagon and the U.S. administration to stabilise the region,” Gantz’s office said.

Since the fighting began on May 10, health officials in Gaza said 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, had been killed and more than 1,900 wounded in aerial bombardments. Israel said it had killed at least 160 combatants in Gaza.

Authorities put the death toll in Israel at 12, with hundreds of people treated for injuries in rocket attacks that caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters.

The violence was triggered by Palestinian anger at what they viewed as Israeli curbs on their rights in Jerusalem, including during police confrontations with protesters at Al-Aqsa mosque.

Hamas previously demanded that any halt to the Gaza fighting be accompanied by Israeli drawdowns in Jerusalem. An Israeli official told Reuters there was no such condition in the truce.

“The only way there’ll be a Hamas-Jerusalem linkage is if they agree to us drowning them on ‘Jerusalem Beach’ in Tel Aviv,” security cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel’s top-rated Channel 12 TV earlier on Thursday.

Hamas is deemed a terrorist group in the West and by Israel, which it refuses to recognise.

The United Nations said its Middle East envoy, Tor Wennesland, was in Qatar on Thursday as part of truce efforts.

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UN chief Guterres appointed for second term

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(Last Updated On: June 18, 2021)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was appointed for a second-five year-term on Friday by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly.

“I will give it my all to ensure the blossoming of trust between and among nations large and small, to build bridges, and to engage relentlessly in confidence building,” Guterres told the General Assembly after taking the oath of office.

The 15-member Security Council earlier this month recommended the General Assembly re-appoint Guterres. His second term starts on beginning on Jan. 1, 2022.

Guterres succeeded Ban Ki-moon in January 2017, just weeks before Donald Trump became U.S. president. Much of Guterres‘ first term was focused on placating Trump, who questioned the value of the United Nations and multilateralism.

The United States is the largest U.N. financial contributor, responsible for 22% of the regular budget and around a quarter of the peacekeeping budget. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has started restoring funding cuts made by Trump to U.N. agencies and re-engaged with the world body.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the United Nations faced historic challenges, but she hoped that with Guterres at the helm “the next five years will see more peace, more security, and more prosperity than the last.”

“It will require hard work, political will, and accountability from all U.N. member states,” she said in a statement, adding every member states should have “an impassioned commitment” to human rights.

Guterres, 72, was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and head of the U.N. refugee agency from 2005 to 2015. As secretary-general, he has been a cheerleader for climate action, COVID-19 vaccines for all and digital cooperation.

When he took the reins as U.N. chief, the world body was struggling to end wars and deal with humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen. Those conflicts are still unresolved, and Guterres is also now faced with emergencies in Myanmar and the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

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Iran urges voters to take part in Friday’s presidential election

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Photo credit Reuters
(Last Updated On: June 17, 2021)

Iran’s president appealed to voters to set aside their grievances and take part in a presidential election on Friday that record numbers of people are expected to boycott due to economic hardship and frustration with hardline rule.

Hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and moderate former Central Bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati are the main contenders after the hardline Guardian Council disqualified several prominent candidates from running and others quit.

President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, urged Iranians on Thursday, as campaigning ended, not to let the “shortcomings of an institution or a group” keep them from voting, an apparent reference to the Guardian Council.

“For the time being, let’s not think about grievances tomorrow,” Rouhani said in televised remarks.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already urged people to turn out in large numbers, saying that would help avert foreign pressures on the Islamic Republic.

Official opinion polls suggest turnout could be as low as 41%, significantly lower than in past elections.

In addition to anger over the disqualification of prominent moderates, grievances include economic hardship exacerbated by U.S. sanctions as well as official corruption, mismanagement and a crackdown on protests in 2019 triggered by rising fuel prices.

The accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian plane in Iran in January last year which killed 176 people also undermined public trust.

“Voting would be an insult to my intelligence,” 55-year-old Fatemeh said, declining to give her second name for fear of reprisals. “Raisi has already been selected by the government regardless who we vote for.”

Prominent dissidents inside and outside the country have called on fellow Iranians to snub the election, including exiled former crown prince Reza Pahlavi and opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2011.

On the other hand, many leading reformists have rallied behind Hemmati, including former President Mohammad Khatami, arguing that a massive boycott would guarantee a Raisi win.

Under the Iranian Constitution, the supreme leader, elected for life and responsible for choosing six of the 12-member Guardian Council, holds most of the powers of the state.

Khamenei has the final say on all matters of state and sets Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.

The vote would have no impact on indirect talks between Tehran and Washington on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the top Iranian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Al Jazeera on Thursday.

Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 2 a.m. on Saturday. The interior minister told state TV that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, voting will take place outside at 67,000 sites across the country, with social distancing and the donning of face masks. Voters are asked to bring their own pens.

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Erdogan says after Biden talks no Turkey-U.S. problems unsolvable

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Reuters
(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sounded upbeat after his first face-to-face talks with Joe Biden, though he announced no major breakthroughs in the awkward relationship between the two allies, at odds over Russian weapons, Syria, Libya and other issues.

Erdogan characterised his talks with the new U.S. president on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels as “productive and sincere”.

“We think that there are no issues within U.S.-Turkey ties, and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems,” he said.

Turkey, with the alliance’s second-largest military, has angered its allies in the Western military alliance by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in wars in Syria and Libya. It is also in a stand-off with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As president, Biden has adopted a cooler tone than predecessor Donald Trump towards Erdogan. Biden quickly recognised the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide — a position that angers Turkey — and stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record.

Washington has already removed Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program and imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

One area where Erdogan hoped to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport after U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in coming weeks. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey would play a key role but no decision was made at the Monday summit.

At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.

Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.

Erdogan also met French President Emmanuel Macron. Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya, and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.

“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterwards.

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