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Middle East round-up: Turkey, Sweden, NATO and the Quran

Turkey breaks off NATO talks with Sweden, the showdown between Lebanon’s chief prosecutor and the judge trying to charge him, and one of the West Bank’s deadliest days in years. Here’s this week’s round-up, written by Abubakr Al-Shamahi, Al Jazeera Digital’s Middle East and North Africa editor.

Since May of last year, Sweden has been trying, and so far failing, to convince Turkey to back its bid for NATO membership. But it feels like every time there’s one step forward, there are two misplaced steps back. Turkey was already angry over recent protests held in Sweden that included flying the flag of the PKK, a Kurdish group that has fought the Turkish state since 1984 – not to mention the hanging of Erdogan in effigy.

Still, in public, Turkey maintained that it remained open to talking. Sweden and its fellow prospective NATO member, Finland, were supposed to hold meetings with Turkey to overcome their differences, and hopefully avoid Ankara exercising its veto on memberships – a veto every NATO member holds. One step forward.

But then, on Saturday, not one but two protests were held in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. In one of them, demonstrators waved the PKK flag again. In the other, a Danish anti-Islam activist burned a copy of the Quran. Turkey immediately cancelled a planned visit by the Swedish defence minister, and indefinitely postponed those scheduled talks with Sweden and Finland. Protests were also staged in front of the Swedish consulate in Istanbul. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Sweden to forget about Ankara’s support for their NATO bid. Two steps back. More than two, actually. It’s a real mess.

And in the middle of all of that noise, Erdogan announced that parliamentary and presidential elections would be brought forward to May 14. With growing domestic opposition, and ongoing economic problems, Erdogan has to rally his base, so don’t expect any leeway when it comes to Sweden any time soon.

Judicial Infighting, Lebanese style

Lebanon has resumed its investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion, which killed at least 218 people. Or has it? The judge in charge of the investigation, Tarek Bitar, has spent 13 months unable to move the proceedings forward, blocked by a legal ruling that many see as an attempt by political elites to prevent the investigation from identifying the guilty. For many Lebanese, the explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate broke the social contract between themselves and a state many feel no longer works on their behalf. The pause in the investigation only confirmed that impression.

But on Monday, Bitar didn’t just resume his investigation, he also charged several high-ranking officials, including the former prime minister, Hassan Diab, and the public prosecutor, Ghassan Oweidat. The latter hasn’t taken kindly to Bitar’s efforts, and has pushed back. Oweidat told Bitar he has no authority to restart the investigation, and then promptly summoned Bitar himself for questioning. “Instead of me appearing before him, he’ll be appearing before me,” Oweidat told a reporter.

Ultimately, if Bitar is unable to get the backing of Lebanon’s security forces, he won’t be able to continue his work. In Lebanon, you usually need muscle to get things done. For the family members of the victims of the port tragedy, and millions of other Lebanese, one can imagine that they see all this as just further evidence that the state will always protect its own.

Israeli Raid Worst in Years

Thursday was one of the worst days in years in the occupied West Bank, after an Israeli raid killed at least nine Palestinians, at the time of writing. Among the dead is an elderly woman. That means that almost 30 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank in January, on top of the more than 170 in 2022. Israel’s new far-right government seems intent on ramping up its crackdown on Palestinian armed groups operating in the West Bank – and with each death, it feels like the possibility of a new Palestinian uprising increases.

In Israel itself, more than 100,000 people turned out for protests in Tel Aviv on Saturday, the latest opposition rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They’ve been angered by Netanyahu’s attempts to overhaul the judiciary by imposing government controls. The opposition can claim some success. One of Netanyahu’s chief allies, Aryeh Deri, was sacked after the Supreme Court ruled against his appointment due, in part, to his previous criminal convictions. You can read more about the protests, and what’s behind them, here.

Unlike the mass protests against Netanyahu’s plans for the judiciary, the backlash over the far-right government’s policies towards Palestinians – arguably a continuation of previous administrations’ policies – has been relatively muted. In addition to the aforementioned raids, the government is now planning to bulldoze Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village with 180 people or so on the outskirts of occupied East Jerusalem, to better link Israeli settlements, which are widely considered illegal under international law. And who greenlit the displacement of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents, back in 2018? The Israeli Supreme Court.

Now for Something Different

It’s William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a local twist, on stage in Yemen. The arts have been unable to thrive in Yemen in recent years because of war. But the Khaleej Aden Theatre Troupe banked on there being a receptive audience in the city, and there was. Ten sold out shows later, and director Amr Gamal is now planning a second run.

Basra Stampede

The Arabian Gulf Cup was supposed to be a moment of positivity for Iraq, the first international tournament held in the country for decades. And the national team came out as winners, to cap it off. But the final was marred when at least four people were killed in a stampede ahead of the match, as fans crowded around the outside of the stadium. The family of one of the victims blamed both ticketless supporters and the authorities. In this opinion piece, Ahmed Twaij, an Iraqi journalist, calls the tragedy a metaphor for the “gross ineptitude of the Iraqi government, and burst the bubble of the two-week high” of the otherwise successful tournament.

Quote of the Week

“We skipped fruit for almost 17 days, and our kids felt unhappy about that. When they ask us about fruit today, we say we will buy them tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, they ask the same question – and get the same answer.” – Abdulla Ali, a Yemeni day labourer, explaining the difficulty of providing for his family as prices skyrocket in the war-torn country. Abdulla, along with his wife Arwa, broke down their family’s financial struggles in the latest edition of Al Jazeera’s series, What’s Your Money Worth?, examining cost-of-living crises around the world.

Source : Al Jazeera