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Lebanon’s Aoun demits office leaving power vacuum

Aoun departed the palace despite the failure of political parties to reach a consensus on the appointment of a new president for the republic…reports Asian Lite News

Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Sunday departed the presidential palace a day before the end of his term, leaving the country in a presidential vacuum amid a steep financial crisis.

Hundreds of supporters gathered at Baabda Palace to bid farewell to Aoun by chanting slogans and carrying portraits of the president.

Aoun departed the palace despite the failure of political parties to reach a consensus on the appointment of a new president for the republic.

A caretaker cabinet currently governs Lebanon as Prime Minister Najib Mikati failed to form a government for the past six months.

Lebanon needs a new president who can negotiate with parliament members on appointing a new prime minister to form a cabinet capable of implementing necessary reforms to save the country from its multiple crises.

Lebanon has been suffering from a protracted financial crisis amid ongoing political uncertainties.

Cholera in Lebanon

Lebanese caretaker Health Minister Firass Abiad warned on Sunday that cholera could become “endemic” in Lebanon if the country fails to curb the spread of its infection, the National News Agency reported.

Making the remarks during a visit to public hospitals in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, Abiad urged Lebanon to grasp the “golden opportunity” to stop the transmission, as “the epidemic is still in its infancy and can be stopped.”

The health ministry has been monitoring preparedness work in securing enough hospital beds for a possible surge in cholera inpatients, Abia added.

He warned that the epidemic would not only impact Lebanon’s health sector but also agri-products exports and tourism.

Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated, and the supply of safe water and sanitation is critical to the prevention and control of its transmission, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO published a fact sheet on cholera in March, saying a cholera-endemic area is an area where confirmed cholera cases were detected during the last three years with evidence of local transmission, meaning the cases are not imported from elsewhere.

The ministry’s updated Cholera Surveillance Report on Saturday shows that the country logged 10 new confirmed cases and one new death, bringing the respective totals to 381 and 17.

The WHO said in its report that on Oct. 6, the Lebanese Health Ministry notified it of two lab culture-confirmed cholera cases reported from the northern part of the country, which represents the first cholera outbreak in Lebanon since 1993. 

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A rare maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon

For Lebanese government it may prove to be a shot in the arm to bolster its flailing economy and workout a package, which puts the nation back on the tracks for economic recovery and attracting potential investors, writes Asad Mirza

After decades of enmity, Israel and Lebanon last week signed a historic agreement agreeing to demarcate their maritime boundaries and also demarcating the disputed area in Qanaa prospect, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves.

Further, it has in a de-facto manner, forced Lebanon to accept Israel as a sovereign nation, which it has refused to do so till now, as it maintains no diplomatic relations with Israel.

The disputed 860 sq.km area of the Mediterranean Sea potentially holds billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas. Tensions between Israel and Lebanon worsened earlier this year when, in June, a London-based vessel arrived to develop a gas field for Israel.

Though at present the deal seems to be a win for both sides, future security threats can’t be ruled out after this maritime agreement.

Welcome by Lebanon

Lebanese Deputy Speaker Elias Bou Saab has described the maritime border agreement as a “game changer” with hope that “People will start talking to Lebanon again,” adding that the deal will give Lebanon’s youth “hope”.

For Lebanese government it may prove to be a shot in the arm to bolster its flailing economy and workout a package, which puts the nation back on the tracks for economic recovery and attracting potential investors.

Under the US-brokered deal, Lebanon would be able to begin gas exploration in the Qanaa prospect, which lies within Lebanon’s exploration block but crosses over into Israeli waters. The Qanaa gas field is yet to be explored, but Lebanon believes it is rich with resources. It is currently estimated to be worth around $3 billion altogether. That could bring Lebanon between $100 and $200 million a year.

US negotiator Amos Hochstein meets with Lebanese President Michel Aoun. (Photo Twitter@StateDept_NEA)

However, the immediate economic benefits from Qanaa for Lebanon, seems to be too far fetched, as its current infrastructure is in poor or at nascent stage and it’ll not be able to start extracting natural gas and oil immediately. At the earliest it may take another four to five years.

If TotalEnergies does indeed begin exploration for the Lebanese, it could also offer incentives for other companies to get involved, with these prospects in mind, it is yet to be seen what the direct economic impacts will be.

For Israel also, the potential earnings may start after four to five years, once it signs agreements with France’s TotalEnergies to explore the whole block.

Israeli response

As for the Israeli politicians, they have started hailing it as a decisive victory against Iran-backed and Lebanon-based Hezbollah. These politicians led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid seem to be in a hurry to get the agreement approved by the government and thus be able to mobilise the votes in their favour in the upcoming general elections in the country on November 1.

But the right-wing elements in Israel, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have described the agreement as a failure of the centrist-Lapid government and describe this as conceding ground to Hezbollah, which may get further bolstered after this agreement.

But the US negotiator Amos Hochstein dismissed Netanyahu’s criticisms as campaign rhetoric, saying the fact that two enemy countries managed to reach agreement on maritime border is ‘enormously significant’. Overall a regional security crisis seems to have been averted due to economic interests of both sides.

Following the deal’s approval by the cabinet, the agreement was presented to the Knesset for a review over the next two weeks, but not asking for the parliament’s approval. Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, has opined that the current government is legally entitled to sign the maritime border agreement, and did not need to hold a referendum on the issue and suggested it would be preferable for the government to allow a Knesset vote on the issue, though it’s under no legal obligation to do so.

Members of the Likud and other right-wing parties approached Knesset speaker Mickey Levy, demanding that the agreement be put to a parliamentary vote.

Countering Netanyahu’s criticism Defence Minister Benny Gantz has said the talks started under his leadership, and if he were prime minister, he would probably “rush to sign the deal right now”. Gantz also said that the deal also “has the potential to reduce Iran’s influence on Lebanon”.

Meanwhile discounting allegations of Lebanon gaining an upper hand in the agreement, Israel’s National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata said though Lebanon received almost all of the waters under dispute with Israel, it did not receive what it was really after.

Tel Aviv city hall lit in the colors of the Lebanese flag after the 2020 Beirut explosion. (By Oren Rozen – Own work)

Behind the scene negotiators

This brings out into the open the real negotiators behind the deal. The negotiations started months before at the US insistence and brokered by France. French diplomats helped US negotiator Amos Hochstein to stitch the deal together.

Thus, apart from political gains for the ruling coalition in Israel, the agreement also brings political benefits for the US President Joe Biden, who also faces mid-term elections for both the houses, next month.

US mediation efforts were key to achieving the deal and it may bolster the Biden administration ahead of the mid-term elections next month. He might use this agreement to assuage the rising resentment amongst American public due to constantly increasing prices of oil and gas in America.

Meanwhile, Europe’s gas crisis is increasing day by day. European governments are doing all they can to shield consumers from price shocks, but the crisis took a further dip after explosions damaged Nord Stream 1 and 2 last month. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline was Europe’s main source of Russian gas.

Israel has said that, once the maritime deal is signed and delivered, it can begin extracting oil and gas from its Karish field and export it to Europe within weeks.

Lapid has repeatedly spoken about the role Israel can play to help Europe as Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian energy.

This development comes in the background of worsening US-Saudi relations, which hit a new low last week when the OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, defied the US with the largest output cut since the pandemic, bringing added pressure for Biden Administration.

But, it is also a regional victory for the Biden administration, which lately has seen diplomatic tensions rise with some of its Middle Eastern allies. With the possibility of much needed gas from the Mediterranean and averting a potential security crisis between historic enemies, the US notched an important win in a region where its influence has seemingly diminished.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on Indian Muslims, educational, international affairs, interfaith and current affairs)

ALSO READ: Israel, Lebanon strike maritime border deal

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EU pledges more financial support to Lebanon  

Aoun urged the EU Commissioner to help Lebanon implement its strategy to ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland…reports Asian Lite News

The EU will increase its financial assistance to Lebanon by 75 million euros ($73.83 million) in 2022 to support the country in light of its difficult social and economic situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Beirut port explosions.

“We will increase the amount of our assistance for Lebanon to establish good governance and strengthen state institutions and the various parties involved in this process,” Oliver Varhelyi, EU Commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the Lebanese Presidency after his meeting at Baabda Palace with Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Wednesday.

Europe is grateful for the tremendous effort that Lebanon has made in hosting refugees, and it notices that Lebanon’s hosting of Syrian refugees exceeds the country’s capabilities, Varhelyi said, adding “this is why the EU has allocated 154 million euros this year to help Lebanon adapt to this reality”.

For his part, Aoun urged the EU Commissioner to help Lebanon implement its strategy to ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.

The Lebanese President also gave an overview to Varhelyi about the impact of hosting Syrian refugees on Lebanon’s infrastructure and various aspects of life in the country.

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India, Lebanon identifies key areas of bilateral cooperation

According to the MEA, both sides identified key areas of bilateral cooperation during the meeting, including trade, people to people contact, and vocational training…reports Asian Lite News

India and Lebanon have identified key areas of bilateral cooperation, including trade, during a two-day visit by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Secretary Ausaf Sayeed.

The Secretary (Consular, Passport, Visa, and Overseas Indian Affairs) in the MEA visited Lebanon on Monday and Tuesday. He had visited Syria on Sunday.

Sayeed called on Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon Abdallah Bou Habib and discussed a range of bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest. He also met with Secretary General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrant Hani Chemaitelly.

According to the MEA, both sides identified key areas of bilateral cooperation during the meeting, including trade, people to people contact, and vocational training.

Made-In-India motorbikes for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants and Beirut Governorate were handed over by the Secretary (CPV & OIA) as part of India’s bilateral assistance. He also announced that an artificial limb fitment camp (Jaipur Foot) will be organized in Lebanon soon.

During the visit, Secretary (CPV & OIA) participated in a high-level Business Seminar which was attended by Minister of Industry George Bouchekian. A number of areas for enhancing trade were identified including food and agro business, pharmaceuticals, gems and jewelry, electronics, solar batteries, and small vehicles, the MEA said.

The Lebanese side was also appreciative of the positive role played by the Indian Battalion at United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL).The visit of Secretary (CPV & OIA) to Lebanon has renewed the bilateral relations and will pave the way for stronger relations in future, the MEA noted.

ALSO READ-Lebanon seeks common market to boost Arab food security

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Lebanese cancer patients struggle to find medicines amid crisis

For those who are unable to pay for their medicines, they have to stop their treatment, which could have a detrimental effect on their health…writes Dana Halawi

Abbas Nasreddine, a Lebanese citizen in his 60s, has been battling lymphatic cancer for more than two years. But four months ago, he was forced to stop treatment temporarily due to a lack of cancer medicines in Lebanon.

Nasreddine, who was prescribed Imbruvica for life, was finally able to purchase his medicines from the local market recently. Still, he is not sure if he could buy it in future as Lebanon’s lingering financial crisis has made it increasingly difficult to obtain such medicines.

“I am very worried, because I do not know if my treatment could continue or not,” he said.

Since Lebanon was hit by a financial crisis in 2019, the value of the Lebanese currency against the U.S. dollar has decreased by more than 90 percent. Lebanon’s central bank has steadily reduced subsidies for a variety of commodities that were pegged to a fixed exchange rate, Xinhua reported.

Lebanon still subsidizes patients suffering from a number of chronic diseases, such as cancer. However, due to a lack of medicines, wealthier patients have to buy medicines either on the black market or from other countries through family or friends at higher prices.

For those who are unable to pay for their medicines, they have to stop their treatment, which could have a detrimental effect on their health.

Mohamed Jaber, a pharmacist and secretary-general of the Order of Pharmacists of Lebanon, blamed the drawn-out procedure of Banque Du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank, for the medicine shortage.

Due to the financial crisis, the BDL asks medicine importers to obtain prior authorization. Such authorization is necessary for BDL to open letters of credit, which is required to import subsidized medicines, said Jaber.

The procedure usually takes a long time and delays the delivery of new shipments, sometimes making it difficult for patients to receive what they need, he said.

The shortage of cancer medicines has forced a big number of patients to stop their treatment, which has led to the deterioration of their health, said Nizar Bitar, a hematology and oncology medicine professor at the Sahel hospital in Beirut.

“Cancer patients have to take their medicines regularly, on time and in accordance with specific guidance. Because of a lack of medicines, we were sometimes obliged to provide outdated or less effective treatments to patients rather than new ones that would have improved their quality of life,” Bitar said.

Bitar said that some treatments involve the prescription of several medicines, but when one of them is unavailable, the doctor is compelled to change the treatment without being able to evaluate its consequences properly.

Some cancer patients in Lebanon have expressed their worry and concerns over the country’s failure to ensure necessary treatments for patients with cancers and other chronic diseases.

Fawzia Fayad, a woman who failed to survive cancer under the medicine shortage, was among one of a few outspoken Lebanese to voice concern about the country’s medicine shortage. She passed away on March 3 at 24, after failing to get proper medication.

In the past few months, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has on many occasions called on international bodies and donor countries to support Lebanon’s cancer-fighting patients amid the current economic crisis.

At a parliamentary health committee meeting on Monday, he promised to allocate more funds for cancer medication.

However, Jaber believed that the Lebanese government wouldn’t be able to resolve this problem anytime soon because of the severe financial crisis.

The best solution now is to allow importers to bring in non-subsidized cancer medicines to ensure they are available on the local market, even if at higher prices, he added.

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Lebanon seeks common market to boost Arab food security

The Lebanese President’s remarks came during his meeting with Agriculture Ministers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, who attended the Arab Agricultural Ministerial Conference in Beirut, reports Asian lite News

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has called for launching a common market to address the food shortage in the Arab region in light of the global crisis caused by the Ukraine-Russia war.

“Arab countries must cooperate to secure food and agricultural products for our people amid the current crisis,” Aoun was quoted as saying in a statement released by the Presidency.

The President’s remarks came during his meeting with Agriculture Ministers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, who attended the Arab Agricultural Ministerial Conference in Beirut to discuss the potential of cooperation among regional countries to achieve food security, reports Xinhua news agency.

Aoun emphasised the need to launch a joint calendar for agricultural production and distribution in the region, which would allow Arab countries to better export their products.

Lebanese Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan said that this country, Syria, Jordan and Iraq agreed to sign a quartet agreement to achieve agricultural integration by removing trade obstacles, which would encourage other countries in the region to follow suit.

Arab Agricultural Ministerial Conference

Meanwhile, Syrian Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform Mohammed Hassan Qatana said that the four countries agreed to unify standard specifications and various technical and administrative procedures to facilitate agricultural trade among these countries.

Qatana said that “our ambition is to include the largest number of Arab countries in this alliance and to strengthen relations at the agricultural level”.

Jordanian Minister of Agriculture Khaled Hneifat stressed the importance of the Arab countries tackling the challenges in the agricultural sector as well as climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic in a collective manner.

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Israel warns Lebanon over Hezbollah actions

Gantz warned that Israel is “prepared in all areas — land, sea, air and cyber,” if attempts by Iran or its allies will continue…reports Asian Lite News

Israel has warned Lebanon that actions by Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based armed group and party, can spark a regional escalation.

“Israel is prepared to act against any threat,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said during a tour at the Lebanese border on Tuesday, Xinhua news agency reported, citing a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office.

Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz took the tour a day after the Israeli army intercepted what it said was a drone sent by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group that crossed into the country from Lebanon.

“We do not seek confrontation but whoever tries to attack our sovereignty or Israeli citizens — will learn very quickly that they have made a serious mistake,” Lapid said.

Gantz warned that Israel is “prepared in all areas — land, sea, air and cyber,” if attempts by Iran or its allies will continue.

“We see the crisis in Lebanon, which is hurting its citizens,” he said. “Lebanon and its leaders know very well that if they choose the path of confrontation — they will be hurt and get burned severely. If they choose the path of stability — they will be helping the Lebanese people,” he said.

Hezbollah has sporadically sent drones into Israeli airspace, defining them as reconnaissance missions.

Hezbollah earlier said it launched three unarmed drones on July 2 on a reconnaissance mission toward the Karish gas field in Eastern Mediterranean, which were all downed by the IDF.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday on an occasion to mark the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war that his party will take the necessary military measures to prevent Israel from infringing on Lebanon’s rights.

Recently, Lebanese President Michel Aoun urged the US to activate its mediation in the indirect border demarcation negotiations between Lebanon and Israel.

“It is not acceptable to delay the process of demarcating the southern maritime borders,” Aoun was quoted as saying in a statement on Monday released by Lebanon’s Presidency.

He stressed the need to activate the American mediation carried out by US Energy Envoy, Amos Hochstein to reach a quick conclusion, which he believed would “enable Lebanon to benefit from oil and gas in its water while maintaining stability on its borders”.

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Lebanon seeks FAO’s help in exporting agri products

Aoun and Ourabah also discussed the management of Lebanon’s natural resources in order to ensure food security and the sustainability of the country’s food system…reports Asian Lite News

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has urged the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to help promote and export Lebanon’s agricultural products to mitigate the impact of the country’s deep financial crisis.

Aoun made the remarks on Monday in a meeting at Baabda Palace with Nora Ourabah Haddad, the newly appointed FAO Representative in Lebanon, to discuss cooperation between Lebanon and FAO, Xinhua news agency reported.

“Lebanon attaches great importance to the agricultural sector because it is an essential part of the productive economy. We were dependent for years on the rentier economy, this must change today considering that the land is the most important thing for man, and that stability in life comes from the land,” the President was quoted as saying in a statement released by Lebanon’s Presidency.

Ourabah emphasised the need to formulate an emergency plan to support the country in achieving food security while focusing on increasing the country’s production, especially wheat, which could generate a high return for the country.

Aoun and Ourabah also discussed the management of Lebanon’s natural resources in order to ensure food security and the sustainability of the country’s food system.

After an unprecedented financial crisis hit Lebanon, the President encouraged the expansion of several sectors, including manufacturing and agriculture, in a bid to increase the country’s revenue.

Earlier this month, President Aoun had urged Arab leaders to unite in order to tackle the various challenges now facing the Arab world.

“We must work together to address different challenges, including defending the Palestinian cause and rights of Palestinian people, putting an end to wars in our countries, and not sparing efforts to fight against terrorism in addition to dealing with the biggest waves of displacement in modern history,” Aoun said.

The President made the remarks during his meeting at Baabda Palace with Arab Foreign Ministers who had arrived in Beirut for the consultative ministerial meeting of the Arab League (AL).

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Lebanese state media employees strike over worsening conditions

The employees from Lebanon’s two state-run media outlets have launched a two-day strike in protest against the deteriorating working and living conditions…reports Asian Lite News

The employees of the National News Agency (NNA) and Radio Lebanon, both affiliated to the Ministry of Information, were joined by some staff members of the Ministry in the strike which was observed on Thursday.

They declared in a statement that the strike would continue and the rest of the Ministry’s employees would also join them on July 22, if those concerned failed to take positive steps to solve their problems, Xinhua news agency reported.

A general assembly was called on Thursday to discuss the worsening living conditions and find solutions that would allow state media employees to fulfill their duties in light of their straitened economic conditions, the NNA reported.

The assembly was held in the presence of caretaker Information Minister Ziad Al-Makary, and Heads of the Ministry’s units, departments and directorates.

Al-Makary advised that a committee be established to represent all of the employees and meet with the concerned officials to find solutions.

ALSO READ:Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon

Since 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from an unprecedented financial crisis that resulted in the collapse of the local currency. Hit by intertwined political, economic and health crises, Lebanon’s poverty rate now has risen to more than 74 per cent, according to the World Bank.

Earlier this month, United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Najat Rochdi said in Beirut that Lebanon’s crisis was affecting everyone, everywhere across the country.

She said that almost one-third of Lebanon’s labour force is unemployed, and that the minimum monthly wage in the country has currently become less than $25, resulting in a significant decline in income and purchasing power.

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Lebanese PM opposes unofficial actions to settle maritime border dispute with Israel

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati expressed his opposition in taking unofficial actions to deal with the maritime border demarcation issue with Israel…reports Asian Lite News

“Lebanon considers that any action outside the diplomatic context pursued by the government to settle maritime border demarcation with Israel is unacceptable and exposes the country to unnecessary risks,” a statement issued by the Council of Ministers quoted Mikati as saying during a meeting on Monday with Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib.

The Prime Minister-designate made the remarks after Hezbollah launched three unarmed drones on July 2 on a reconnaissance mission toward the Karish gas field in the eastern Mediterranean, which Israel claims is within its economic zone while Beirut says it is located in disputed waters.

The Lebanon-based militant group said it sent the drones to convey a message that the Shia group has the “military and logistical capacity” to prevent Israel from extracting gas from the gas field.

In his remarks on Monday, Mikati called on all parties to “show a spirit of great national responsibility and abide by the state’s negotiation procedure”.

He also reaffirmed Lebanon’s support for US Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein’s efforts to reach a solution on maritime border demarcation with Israel that protects his nation’s full rights.

ALSO READ:Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon

Lebanon and Israel are embroiled in a maritime border dispute that has lately intensified after Israel sent a vessel operated by Energean, a London-based oil and gas production company, to the Karish field on June 5.

Lebanese authorities are currently seeking to revive indirect talks with Israel on maritime border demarcation, which were halted after Beirut expanded its claim in territorial waters to include at least a part of the Karish oil field.