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War Weary Afghan Students Flock to Doha For Model UN

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Afghan Students. Reuters

Siar Khan Khankhail sat on a plane and travelled outside of his country for the first time on Sunday. The 19-year-old from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province was selected as a delegate to attend a global conference in Doha.

But when Khankhail reached the Qatari capital, all thoughts turned to Nesar, his brother. Nesar used to sell used metal, steel and rubber from his wheelbarrow in Quetta, the Pakistani city in Balochistan.  When his father lost his job, he became the 10-member family’s sole breadwinner.

Nesar made sure Siar and his other siblings went to school. They lived in Quetta from 2007 until 2011 as refugees and when Siar’s father found a job in Afghanistan, they returned.

“I grew up looking at my brother and how he tirelessly worked and earned to provide us with an education. He is my inspiration, which is why I now want to help the Afghan youth to build this country because ongoing war and conflict has destroyed it,” Khankhail tells Al Jazeera.

By educating young people and raising awareness about women’s and children’s rights in Afghanistan, positive change will follow, he says.

“If I am here today, it is because of my brother. All thanks to him.”

Khankhail is one of the 12 Afghans – six boys and six girls – participating in a Model United Nations (MUN) event, bringing together students from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East in an effort to discuss and solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Hope for Education and Leadership in Afghanistan (HELA), a non-profit organisation, selected and trained the Afghan cohort.

“We want to give hope to them. I know that our Afghan youth is very competent in every field, but they lack opportunities in this country because of the war,” says Rahmatullah Hamdard, a 22-year-old HELA cofounder.

“We always make an effort to explain to young Afghan girls and boys that we are not less than anyone in the world, and that if anyone treats us less, we should know that we are worth much more.”

Budget concerns have added to the group’s challenges; the Saudi-led blockade against Doha, for instance, had tripled flight prices, making the recent journey almost impossible.

“Their biggest challenge was and is adequate funding,” says Lisa Martin, who runs the event. “HELA has limped along on small donations for a couple of years, but their commitment to student-run, gender-parity programmes has never wavered.

“In the the midst of challenging circumstances and the security threats that they lived with daily, I kept hearing words like ‘excited’ and phrases such as ‘this is really great’ and ‘I love doing this!’ I thought, if young people in this environment can feel excited and hopeful about their future, then MUN must be an even more powerful tool than I realised.

“If we want them to care about their communities, then we have to provide them opportunities to engage with their communities.”

The American School of Doha (ASD) has raised $19,500 for the students.

“We started organising student-led workshops and conferences and contacted corporations, airlines, parent-groups and private donors in hopes of raising sufficient funds,” says Nada, an ASD student, adding that the money raised would be used to help Afghan students attend the same conference next year.

Neil, president of ASD’s MUN club, says helping HELA is an opportunity to assume his role as an activist rather than passively advocating for empowerment through debate and discussion.

“I understood the capacity of the HELA members to create change, so I felt it was my chance of being part of something really big. It’s everything we as MUN club advocate for,” Neil said. “They will be the future leaders of Afghanistan.”

In the local Afghan language, Pashto, “hela” means “hope” – something Hamdard believes that the young people of Afghanistan need in abundance.

“We are going to fight the war through empowering the youth,” he says. “We will do bigger things in life and reach our goal to make sure young Afghans dream big and of a better future. We want them to have hope in the country.”

As Khankhail prepared for the debates and discussions ahead, he again remembers his brother’s hard work and the difficulties his family have faced.

“When I remember the old times, it makes me cry,” he says, reciting an Afghan poem. “When I think of hardship, it makes me cry. I have been waiting for happiness my entire life. When I think of my past, it makes me cry.”

The three-day THIMUN Qatar conference, a joint project between Qatar Foundation and The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN) Foundation, begins January 24. (Al Jazeera)

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Why Israel Is Going Into a Second COVID-19 Lockdown

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People, wearing protective masks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, walk in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 12, 2020. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Israel was one of the earliest adopters of stringent measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, forcing all foreign arrivals to self-isolate on March 9, just before the World Health Organization announced a global pandemic. This week, as cases rise, it is set to become the world’s first country to enter a second nationwide shutdown.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the new three-week-long shutdown in a televised message to Israelis on Sunday evening. Returning Israel to shutdown, he said, would “exact a heavy price on us all.” That address came shortly before the Prime Minister flew to Washington D.C., where on Tuesday he is set to sign a historic normalization agreement with foreign ministers from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—only the third and fourth Arab countries respectively, to make peace with Israel since its founding.

Polls show that Israelis welcome that development in foreign policy but it contrasts with serious discontent at home. Since June, thousands of protesters have gathered at weekly demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence and elsewhere in Israel, calling for Netanyahu to resign over his serial corruption indictments, his mismanagement of the country’s COVID-ravaged economy, and his role in Israel’s ongoing constitutional crisis. The new measures, which are set to come into force hours before the start of Jewish New Year this Friday, have drawn further backlash from small businesses, and religious communities.

Here’s what to know about the new shutdown, how Israelis are reacting, and what lessons it could have for other parts of the world where cases are rising.

Why is Israel locking down for a second time?

The shutdown comes on the recommendation of Israel’s Health Ministry and Netanyahu’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu. Shortly after Gamzu took up the post in July, he told local television networks that the “socioeconomic trauma” inflicted by COVID restrictions was greater than its health impact. With Israel still in recession and the unemployment rate above 25% Gamzu said he had no plans to reimpose lockdown measures.

Those plans have changed in light of Israel’s soaring infection rate. In recent days, Israel has registered between 3,000 and 4,000 new cases daily and there are currently more than 40,000 active cases in a country of just 9-million people. Ahead of religious holidays that traditionally see Israelis gather with relatives at home, or attend prayers in synagogues, hospital directors have warned Israel’s parliament that the healthcare system risks collapse if cases keep rising. On Monday, one overburdened hospital in northern Israel announced it would not be accepting any more coronavirus patients because of overcrowding.

What does the shutdown actually entail?

The official regulations are still being debated in parliament and are subject to change. But the most stringent measure appears to be an order for Israelis to stay within 500 meters of their homes, with fines imposed on those who venture further for non-essential reasons.

The lockdown period is slated to begin hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, this Friday and last for three weeks. The period also encompasses Simchat Torah and on Sept. 27 Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. While complicated rules govern how many people are permitted to congregate for prayers at synagogues—with the number varying according to local infection rates—traveling to meet relatives is unlikely to be permitted, reports Israel’s Haaretz. “This is not the kind of holiday we are used to,” Netanyahu told Israelis, “And we certainly won’t be able to celebrate with our extended families.”

The new measures will shutter shopping malls and other non-essential stores, and nix in-restaurant dining—pharmacies and supermarkets are allowed to remain open. Schools, which Israel reopened after its first lockdown in May, are set to close for the entire period. Israel’s finance ministry has estimated the cost of the second lockdown at $1.88billion.

What’s the situation like in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

In March, the U.N. Security Council commended joint efforts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the occupied territories, but said in July that a breakdown in co-operation had put lives at risk. Deteriorating relations “significantly compounded” the health sector’s ability to respond to a surge in cases in the West Bank, and improve prevention efforts in Gaza, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said in a statement at the time. There are now more than 39,000 people with COVID in the West Bank, with a further 2,000 in Gaza, according to UNOCHA.

A 12-year-long Israeli–Egyptian air, land, and sea blockade restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, which is administered by Hamas. NGOs have warned of “catastrophic” consequences should the disease spread among Gaza’s 2-million population, but until recently the blockade had shielded the 25-mile-long coastal enclave from the worst of the pandemic. Until late last month, Hamas had recorded no infections outside of quarantine centers set up at Gaza’s border crossings.

This bought time for authorities to build capacity in the healthcare system and prepare for the worst, says Salam Khashan, a family doctor who works at Gaza hospitals dealing with the COVID crisis. Preparation included developing Gaza’s tele-healthcare infrastructure and setting up non-hospital quarantine centers in schools and other buildings. Attendance is mandatory for asymptomatic positive cases, in one of the world’s most densely populated territories, where self-isolating at home is virtually impossible.

After Gaza’s first community case was discovered on Aug 24, Hamas instigated a 48-hour curfew. On Monday, Khashan tells TIME, authorities recorded an additional 108 new infections in the past 24 hours. “We are able to deal with about 280 new positive cases per day,” she says. “If numbers are above this level, we will be out of control.”

Who is opposing the new measures in Israel?

Netanyahu enjoyed a bump in popularity for his initial response to the global pandemic and urged Israelis to “go out and celebrate” when the first lockdown ended in May. This time, he is facing far more resistance.

One lawmaker has already quit the government. In a resignation letter submitted Monday, Israel’s housing minister Yaakov Litzman—who is ultra-Orthodox—criticized the impact of the new rules on religious festivals, which he said “wrongs and scorns hundreds of thousands of citizens.” That echoes ultra-Orthodox criticism of Israel’s initial lockdown, during which a prominent rabbi argued that suspending religious students’ Torah study was more dangerous to Israel than the coronavirus.

But opposition to the second shutdown extends far beyond religious quarters. Hard right lawmaker Naftali Bennett called the new measures a “hammer blow” to small businesses, while centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said the need to reimpose a lockdown evidenced the Prime Minister’s failure to deal with the crisis. Some shopkeepers have vowed to remain open in spite of the new rules and a hundreds-strong restaurateurs’ association told Israel’s Haaretz the new restrictions would “crush the economy.”

Meanwhile, the demonstrations calling for Netanyahu’s resignation are set to continue. Guidelines issued by Israel’s Ministry of Health on Tuesday state that the new travel restrictions do not prevent Israelis from attending protests, but there remains a lack of clarity over what is and isn’t permitted.

“The situation here is completely chaotic. We don’t understand the rules,” says Emma Maghen Tokatly, a Tel Aviv-based cultural curator who for 12 successive weekends has joined demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. “I just saw a message saying up to 1,000 people can be in a Synagogue. But I can’t eat my Rosh Hashanah dinner with my parents?” Whatever the regulations turn out to be, Tokatly adds, continuing the protests is crucial, “to let the government know they’re failing us.”

Write to Joseph Hincks at [email protected].

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Iran polarized by young wrestler’s execution

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It has been a tumultuous and restive week in Iran. The country has been gripped by consternation, and social media were inundated with angry reactions to yet another execution ordered by the judiciary. This time, the convict was Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old wrestler in the southwestern city of Shiraz who was charged with murdering a security guard during the 2018 protests in Iran against economic hardships and inflation.

Pleas by global public figures such as celebrated artists, athletes and academicians, as well as international organizations, human-rights advocacy groups, sporting bodies and governments, to secure clemency for Afkari recast his case as a high-profile affair, grabbing the headlines of international media, and becoming a serious talking point among Iranians at home and abroad.

Death sentences are not a novelty in Iran; however, this time, the fact that the defendant was a wrestling champion who had incidentally taken part in anti-government protests had garnered a lot of sympathy for him, and many of those who advocated his freedom ignored his alleged role in a murder case, even going the extra mile to call him a political prisoner, while he actually had no background in political activism.

American wrestler and Olympic medal winner Brandon Slay, German Greco-Roman wrestler and world champion Frank Stäbler, US women’s wrestling champion Sally Roberts, Indian wrestling star Bajrang Punia, retired Australian soccer player Craig Foster and Canadian weightlifting Olympic champion Christine Girard were only some of the renowned athletes and luminaries who campaigned to spare the young Iranian wrestler’s life.

Even US President Donald Trump, who has displayed unmatched bellicosity toward the Iranian leadership during his tenure, courteously pleaded with authorities in Tehran to save Navid Afkari’s life and not execute him.

Sadly though, the hanging of Afkari is a fait accompli, as on September 12 judiciary officials informed his family that he had been executed in Adel Abad prison in his home city of Shiraz.

It is a daunting task to comment on the circumstances surrounding the young Iranian wrestler’s detention, his indictment and the course of events leading to his execution, considering the highly sensationalized, emotive climate generated by his trial and final fate.

On social media, he was eulogized as a hero, hashtags went viral that “his path will be remembered,” Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, called his execution a “murder,” and some Iranian media based overseas went so far as naming him a “martyr of freedom.”

Indisputably, these descriptions sound rather exaggerated. To put it bluntly, to qualify as a “freedom hero” and “martyr,” some sort of accomplishment and social impact is required, but the young wrestler was simply one of thousands of Iranians who had taken to the streets to protest their worsening living conditions and government mismanagement.

Therefore, sentimentalizing his story, however heart-wrenching, will only eclipse a sober and objective overview of what he did and lived through.

Yet there are important questions about the legal proceedings and Afkari’s ultimate execution that need to be answered, and the different branches of Iranian government should live up to their obligations in calming the communal rage of a nation that is now only demanding accountability.

A fair trial?

Navid Afkari claimed in audio files he clandestinely recorded in prison, circulated on Persian-language media days before his execution, that he was tortured while in custody and forced into making false confessions and admitting responsibility for the killing of Hassan Turkman, a security guard for a water-supply company in Shiraz, during the 2018 protests.

The judge presiding over his case refused to consider his claims of having been tortured on several occasions at the hands of prison guards and soldiers.

Amnesty International has reported that he was denied access to a lawyer and other fair-trial guarantees. The advocacy organization also said the court brushed off his appeals to the judge to bring another detainee who had witnessed his torture to testify to the physical and mental harassment he had been subjected to.

His execution also took place under questionable circumstances. CNN reported that a group of philanthropists in Shiraz had been raising money to appease the family of the victim Afkari is believed to have killed and pay them restitution, in return for which they would pardon him, thus annulling the death penalty.

Mehdi Mahmoudian, a civil-rights activist, tweeted that he had been on a plane from the capital Tehran along with Navid’s brother bound for Shiraz, where they were going to meet with Turkman’s family and win their consent to pardon the young wrestler. Only “a minute” prior to the plane’s departure, the brother received a call, informing him that Navid had been executed.

Moreover, in accordance with Iranian law, a convict condemned to death should have the chance to meet his family for the last time before the execution is carried out, and his lawyers should also be notified of the decision 48 hours beforehand. In the case of Navid Afkari, these conditions were not met.

And when the authorities handed over Navid’s body to his family, signs of severe bruises reportedly could be seen on his face, giving rise to speculations that he might have died under torture.

Many Iranians have been asking why the judicial authorities were in such a hurry to carry out the execution and did not give a chance for negotiations with the family of the victim to proceed. UN human-rights experts termed this case a “summary execution” that sends a disturbing message to protesters.

Moreover, many Iranians have been challenging the fairness of the trial procedure and deploring the torture allegations.

Thus far, no compelling answer has been given to these inquiries.

The best response

Over these turbulent days as the execution of Navid Afkari has been capturing global attention, many advocacy organizations, sports bodies and individuals have been calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which itself lamented the execution of the Iranian wrestler in a statement, and the world soccer governing body FIFA, to ban Iranian athletes and national teams from international events, including the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo, to warn the Iranian authorities that their policies have consequences.

The former vice-president of the International Football Federation, Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, has urged that Iran should be banned “from any international competitions until they adhere to basic human rights.” Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, has also suggested that Iran should be denied participation in the Olympics.

Global Athlete, an international athletic advocacy organization, has made a similar demand, calling on the IOC to expel Iran from the Olympic Games and sanction Iran’s sports.

But let’s be realistic. Iran’s sports community did not have any role in what happened to Afkari, and calling for a ban is outlandish. Iranian athletes, from budding amateurs to professionals competing in international events, are young and aspiring talents who wish to make progress in their fields, and view international arenas as opportunities for showcasing their capabilities and reaping the benefits of their efforts.

Many of them struggle with acute economic hardships and do not have a stable income, and many train while grappling with a debilitating lack of proper equipment and facilities.

Will expunging Iranian athletes from international events really have a bearing on the twists and turns of Iran’s judicial regime?

The bottom line is, Iran should be encouraged by the international community to ameliorate its human-rights record, and incentivizing the Islamic Republic to join, uphold and practice the terms of international human-rights treaties and covenants to which it is not a party, including the United Nations Convention against Torture, and those to which it subscribes, is the first step.

The European Union has long been involved in talks with Iran, encouraging it to revisit its human-rights policies. This collaboration should be bolstered, as experience has shown that efforts to insulate Iran or singling it out for its human-rights infringements, while countries in its neighborhood like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, owing to their Western nexus, never get reprimanded for their atrocities, will simply backfire.

It might even be the case that Iran’s rush to execute Navid Afkari was an attempt to exert its sovereignty and defy international pressures, putting the Islamic Republic in a catch-22 situation of making a bold decision to show it does not cave in in the face of foreign intervention or backing away and admitting publicly that its judiciary is susceptible to passing erroneous judgments.

Iran is not the only country that practices capital punishment. But it is certainly one of the most prolific executioners in the world. This is more troubling to know when considered against the backdrop of social fissures these executions create, particularly when the crimes associated with them have political undertones.

After Navid Afkari’s execution, the proponents and opponents of the death penalty have been fiercely clashing with each other on social media in recent days. Also, this verdict has become a battleground for the sympathizers of the Iranian government and its detractors to fight each other online and on the streets. This is simply counterproductive.

Navid Afkari’s death sentence was certainly one of the most divisive and polarizing in recent years in Iran. It should not be difficult for Iranian authorities to demonstrate some prudence in matters that involve the sensitivities of millions of people and refuse to ride roughshod over their citizens. They should wake up to the reality that injudicious decisions give ammunition to their enemies.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.

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Palestinians Set to Soften Stance on UAE-Israel Normalisation: Draft Statement

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, wearing a protective face mask and gloves, gestures during a tour as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions ease, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank Jun 15, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The Palestinian leadership has watered down its criticism of the normalisation deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates before an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday (Sep 9) at which the accord will be debated.

A draft resolution presented by the Palestinian envoy, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the US-brokered deal.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also issued instructions on Tuesday banning any offensive statements or actions towards Arab leaders, including UAE rulers.

Announced on Aug 13, the accord was the first such accommodation between an Arab country and Israel in more than 20 years, and was forged largely through shared fears of Iran.

The draft Palestinian resolution to be debated by Arab foreign ministers said the Israel-US-Emirates announcement “doesn’t diminish Arab consensus over the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian cause is the cause of the entire Arab nation”.

“The trilateral announcement doesn’t change the principal Arab vision based on the fact that the two-state solution on the 1967 borders is the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East,” the draft said.

The tone is markedly different from that of Abbas, whose office on Aug 13 called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause.”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump have described the accord as historic, and urged other Arab countries to follow suit.

Emirati leaders said the deal shelved Israeli plans to annex territory in the occupied West Bank. (Reuters)

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