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How anti-Zionists fueled a far-right victory

NEW YORK (JTA) — Last month, New York’s Center for Jewish History was the target of a right-wing campaign seeking to oust its new president, David Myers, over his dovish views on Israel. The campaign drew an appropriately outraged response from leading Jewish scholars, who rallied around Myers, a highly regarded historian who has publicly opposed the anti-Israel BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — movement.

Now, one of the five independent historical organizations housed at the center, the American Jewish Historical Society, is also coming under attack. This time, however, the most consequential attacks are coming not from the far right but the far left. Anti-Zionist BDS supporters are masquerading as champions of free expression after their hijacking of the august and heretofore largely apolitical AJHS was foiled.

The latest controversy erupted into public view last week when AJHS’s board canceled two events that the society had been scheduled to host: a play by the anti-Zionist playwright Dan Fishback on intrafamilial disagreements about Israel and a discussion on the Balfour Declaration that was co-sponsored with the BDS-backing Jewish Voice for Peace. The cancellation came the same day as an article criticizing AJHS for hosting the events appeared in the far-right FrontPage Magazine.

Fishback and JVP immediately cried foul. Fishback, a JVP and BDS supporter, complained of “silencing and censorship.” JVP’s executive director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, decried what she called AJHS’s “shameful caving to rightwing pressure.” The New York Times picked up on the ensuing “backlash” from various cultural figures angered by what they saw as AJHS embracing censorship.

Critics focused on the cancellation of the play, “Rubble Rubble,” casting Fishback as a superficially sympathetic-seeming party in the drama. But the play’s cancellation cannot be understood in isolation.

For starters: Why was AJHS hosting a discussion with Jewish Voice for Peace on the Balfour Declaration — with a panel consisting of a Palestinian activist in dialogue with a JVP activist, neither of whom is even a historian? Would AJHS also host a panel discussion on the Oslo Accords sponsored by a far-right pro-settler group like Women in Green? I doubt it.

AJHS, consistent with its focus on American Jewish history, does little Israel-related programming. But the planned Balfour Declaration panel was not even the only event in partnership with JVP. Earlier in the year, AJHS partnered with JVP to host an event with an anti-Zionist Ethiopian Israeli activist. AJHS also was publicly offering discounted tickets to JVP members for Fishback’s play about Israel.

These three events, it’s worth noting, seem to be the only Israel-related programs hosted by AJHS in 2017. It’s simply not as if AJHS was hosting tons of Israel programs — or even many plays — and then singling out Fishback’s performance for cancellation because some people complained about his views on Israel.

Here’s the real question: How is it that American Jewry’s leading historical society came to select a fringe anti-Zionist group as its sole interlocutor on Israel-related programming?

AJHS’s director of programming, Shirly Bahar — who publicly supports the boycott of Israeli academic institutions — announced the society’s fall schedule with the declaration that she had worked to foster “critical, edgy, and politically challenging cultural and academic programs where difficult conversations about Mizrahim, Jews of Color, Palestine, cross-cultural solidarity, and anti-racism are highlighted rather than censored.”

The result, at least as far as Israel programming, seems to have been a schedule that reflected only one very particular strand of thinking on Israel — one that is far removed from the views of the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

The AJHS board officers did not seem to be aware of this sudden slant in the society’s programming until quite recently, as a source confirmed to the Forward. Ultimately, members of the AJHS board decided to cancel the events, with AJHS stating that “they do not align with the mission of the AJHS.”

The Jewish community does have genuine problems with campaigns to stigmatize and shut down people based on their views on Israel. Too often those who criticize Israel — liberal Zionists and anti-Zionists alike — are subjected to campaigns of invective and incitement. The right-wing campaign against David Myers is a prime example.

That’s not what happened at AJHS. Rather, an anti-Zionist fringe coopted the programming of a mainstream Jewish institution, then cried “censorship” when the institution’s board realized what was going on and put a stop to it.

Moreover, JVP and Fishback don’t exactly have the strongest standing to complain about shutting down or stigmatizing others. This is the same JVP that tried to shame LGBT supporters of Israel who marched in this past summer’s Celebrate Israel parade in New York by disrupting their contingent. This is the same Fishback who defended pro-Palestinian activists who shut down an event by a pro-Israel LGBT group at a conference hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Activists like these appear all too happy to see those with whom they disagree shut down or shouted down. And they seem equally happy to aggressively try to coopt the Jewish institutions to which they can gain entry. When they are denied, they kvetch about being silenced.

AJHS was the collateral damage. Now it faces the wrath of those who were wrongly led to believe that AJHS “caved” to right-wing censors. And AJHS has alarmed constituents who wonder why a preeminent communal historical institution would subcontract its Israel programming to a widely loathed anti-Zionist group.

But if AJHS came out as a loser, there were also winners. The incident gave new ammunition to those on the far right who are now trying to smear David Myers and the Center for Jewish History for the programming decisions of AJHS, an independent organization. And JVP gets to resume its favorite posture: righteous “silenced” victim.

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GERMAN LEFT PARTY LEADER CALLS MP A ‘SNEAKY JEW’

 

The head of the German Left Party in the city of Saarlouis, situated in the state of Saarland, used an antisemitic phrase on his Facebook page to denigrate an MP in his party, according to a Monday report in the regional paper Saarbrücker Zeitung.

Mekan Kolasinac, the chairman of the Left Party in Saarlouis, called the party’s federal head, Bernd Riexinger, a “sneaky Jew.”

Kolasinac told the paper he wrote the anti-Jewish entry but regrets it. He said it was a mistake and he intended to write “Judas” instead of “Jew.” Kolasinac said he apologized on his Facebook page and apologized to “my Jewish friends.”

Birgit Huonker, a spokeswoman for the Left Party in Saarland, said: “Antisemitism in one’s party. Bad.”

The Saarbrücker Zeitung said the background to Kolasinac’s verbal attack on Riexinger is a BILD paper article, in which Riexinger allegedly sought to oust the party’s parliamentary head Sahra Wagenknecht. Riexinger is co-chair of the federal Left Party.

The Left Party has been plagued over the years by allegations of antisemitism and anti-Israel scandals, according to critics.

The Left Party in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia attempted last week to pass a Boycott, Divestment,Sanctions (BDS) motion against Israel.

Wagenknecht refused to participate in the standing ovation for Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Israeli President Shimon Peres during his 2010 Holocaust remembrance speech in the Bundestag. Her action along with other Left MPs was praised by Germany’s NPD neo-Nazi party.

Wagenknecht defended her party’s lawmakers Inge Höger and Annette Groth who traveled aboard the Mavi Marmara vessel in 2010 in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Groth is no longer an member of parliament. Left Party MP Christine Buchhloz supports the “legitimate resistance” of Hamas and Hezbollah. Left Party MPs are also known to have hosted BDS activists in the Bundestag in 2014.

LEBANON GRANTS OIL, GAS EXPLORATION LICENSE FOR WATERS BORDERING ISRAEL

 

The Petroleum Administration in the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water has announced that an international consortium won two licenses for exploration for oil and gas, one of which borders on Israel’s exclusive economic zone.

Israel has not yet decided how to respond to this development, against the background of the border dispute between the two countries that has continued since Israel withdrew from its security zone in Lebanon in 2000.

According to the Lebanese Petroleum Administration announcement, two bids were accepted in an auction of oil and gas exploration licenses in Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone. Both bids were submitted by a consortium comprising French company Total S.A, Italian company Eni unit International BV, and JSC Novatek from Russia. The consortium will receive blocks 4 and 9. Ten blocks were offered in the auction, but only the two bids from this consortium were received, which represents partial failure for the Lebanese government.

The southern perimeter of block 9 borders the line separating Israel and Lebanon’s exclusive economic zones. The two countries are in dispute over where precisely the line should be drawn. As a result, a disputed area exists forming a triangle of which the apex is at Rosh Hanikra (on the Israeli side of the Lebanon-Israel border) and of which the base borders the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus. Attempts have been made to mediate between the sides, among other things through a US envoy to the region, but, according to Israel, a compromise proposed four years ago was rejected by Lebanon.

The potential of block 9 is still unclear, as seismic tests and exploratory drillings have not yet been carried out, but preliminary estimates are that there is a geological structure in the block that could hold gas in similar quantities to those in the Tamar reservoir in Israeli waters.

In the past, Israel suspended the Alon D license, which borders block 9 on its northern edge, but two months ago Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources Yuval Steinitz decided to return the license to its original holders, Delek Group Ltd. (TASE: DLEKG) and Noble Energy, for a further 32 months.

LEBANESE PRIME MINISTER JOINS COALITION GOVERNMENT WITH HEZBOLLAH

 

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri will join a coalition government with Hezbollah, conceding defeat and handing the terrorist organization more political power than it ever had before.

Hariri, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica while on a visit to Rome to meet with his Italian counterpart, Paolo Gentiloni, said that he and the Shi’ite jihadist group have “put aside” their differences to serve the country.

“The prime minister only thinks of the good of Lebanon, of finding the formulas and making the agreements that allow us to handle the problems of the country,” he was quoted as saying.

Thousands of Lebanese Shia rely on Hezbollah – deeply embedded into politics and society – for social, medical and financial support. According to the Italian newspaper, Hariri said that as premier, he seeks to find a national formula that preserves Lebanese unity.

Hariri succeeded his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was murdered in a 2005 car bombing blamed on Hezbollah. When asked about being in a government with the party accused of murdering his father, he responded by saying that he trusts that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will find those responsible and “condemn the criminals.”

Formed in the 1980s with the help of Iran as a “resistance” group against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has since morphed into a semi-military organization with thousands of battle-hardened fighters and weaponry spread across the Middle East.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun in February defended Hezbollah’s massive arsenal in an interview with an Egyptian TV channel, calling it “an essential component” of the country’s efforts to defend itself.

“Hezbollah weapons are not contradictory to the state, but are an essential part in defending the country,” Aoun told the Egyptian TV network CBC Satellite Channel. “As long as a part of the territory is occupied by Israel, and as long as the army is not powerful enough to fight Israel, we feel the need to maintain the weapons of the resistance to complement the army.”
Lebanon claims that Mount Dov (Shaba Farms), part of the Golan Heights, belongs to Lebanon.

Hezbollah fighters “are originally from the south and whose land was occupied” by Israel, Aoun added.

When Hezbollah-friendly Aoun was elected in November, he vowed to “release what is left of our lands from the Israeli occupation.”
Last week Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman accused the Lebanese Army of coming under Hezbollah’s control.

“We’re talking about Hezbollah and about the Lebanese military, and unfortunately this is the reality,” Liberman said, adding that the “Lebanese Army has lost its independence and has become an integral part of Hezbollah’s network.”

In August, the Lebanese Army, along with Hezbollah, recaptured an Islamic State enclave in the Qalamoun mountains on the Syrian border. The Lebanese Army said that it was not coordinating Syrian or Hezbollah photos being posted on social media, which show armored personnel carriers carrying a Hezbollah flag alongside a tank with a flag of Lebanon.

Turning to Syria, Hariri said that despite Iran’s mobilization there, it was Moscow that saved the Assad regime.

“Russia is now pushing for a political solution, and as Putin says, their work is in the interest of the entire country, not just one person,” he said, adding that he met with President Vladimir Putin, who has “committed himself to the stability of the region. Putin’s words on Syria count, for Iran and the region, and at this moment the unity of the Arab world is decisive.”

But according to Hariri, allowing Bashar Assad to remain the leader of Syria would be a major mistake.

“In Syria, everything started with the people demanding reform [and] democracy. The regime began killing their own citizens and a civil war began.”

As for the increased tensions between the United States and Iran, Hariri said that Lebanon “wants good relations with all countries in the region, and we hope that in the midst of the confrontation between the United States and Iran, we will avoid any negative repercussions on our country.

“However,” he continued, “I also say that interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries is absolutely unacceptable, and Iran should play a positive role that will help in economic development and security, and not contribute to destabilization.”

Israel and Hezbollah fought a deadly 33-day war in 2006, which came to an end after UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for the disarmament of Hezbollah, the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon, and the deployment of the Lebanese Army and an enlarged UN force in the south.

Far right jockeys for power in new Austrian government

VIENNA (AFP) — Austria’s far right looked set Monday for a possible return to power in a coalition with conservative Sebastian Kurz, the world’s youngest leader-in-waiting, in a fresh triumph for European populists.

Such a rightward shift in the wealthy European Union member state would pose a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Brexit and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

The People’s Party (OeVP) — rebooted by Kurz as a more hardline “movement” — was projected to have won 31.7 percent of Sunday’s vote, with final results expected later this week.

In second place were the Social Democrats (SPOe) of incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern at 26.9 percent, closely followed by the eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPOe) at 26.0 percent.

Founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, the FPOe’s result is close to its all-time record of 26.8 percent in 1999 under then-leader Joerg Haider, and twice that of their allies the Alternative for Germany (AfD) last month.

Kurz, 31, forced the snap vote after becoming OeVP chief in May and ending the acrimonious decade-long coalition with the SPOe.

He attracted supporters in droves by depicting himself as a breath of fresh air, talking tough on immigration and vowing to slash taxes and red tape.

“With Kurz we have a new start for the country,” said Werner Schwab, 64, a gardener. “Although he is 31, he is an experienced, calm and disciplined person.”

President’s refusal right

Given Kurz’s thinly concealed dislike for Kern, another “grand coalition” of the two centrist parties that have long dominated is seen as unlikely — but not impossible.

This leaves the populist FPOe of Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, as Kurz’s most probable partner.

Media reports said the two parties were already engaged in intensive behind-the-scene talks, with the FPOe demanding key ministerial positions.

Another possibility, albeit remote, is a tie-up between the FPOe and the SPOe, whose campaign suffered a string of mishaps.

Kern said Monday he was open to talks but that the most likely government was between Kurz and Strache, given the “enormous overlaps in the programs.”

The ex-Greens leader, 73, said Sunday he could refuse certain ministers.Any new cabinet needs to be approved by President Alexander Van der Bellen who in December narrowly beat far-right candidate Norbert Hofer to the largely ceremonial post.

“It’s the right of the president to do so if he doesn’t trust a person for certain reasons,” Van der Bellen said.

Far-right ‘normalization’

The OeVP — in power nonstop for 30 years — and FPOe already governed together between 2000 and 2007, turning Austria into a pariah.

But there would not be the same backlash now owing to what experts say is the “normalization” of Europe’s far-right.

France’s National Front (FN) called Austria’s election “another welcome defeat” of the EU, in a statement Monday.

Like the FN, AfD, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the FPOe has stoked concerns about a record influx of migrants into Europe.

The party topped opinion polls until Kurz stole some of Strache’s thunder with his radical OeVP makeover.

As foreign minister, the rosy-cheeked Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016 that saw hundreds of thousands of refugees trek into western Europe.

“I promise I will fight for great change in this country,” Kurz told his supporters Sunday.

More EU tensions

Despite Kurz’s pro-EU pledge, observers say a right-wing alliance risks driving a wedge between Vienna and Brussels.

Vienna will hold the EU’s presidency in the second half of 2018, just when Brussels wants to conclude Brexit talks.

Kurz and his views on immigration and economic policy are “diametrically opposed” to those of France and Germany, according to Paris-based Austria expert Patrick Moreau.

The FPOe meanwhile wants EU sanctions on Moscow lifted and pushes for closer ties with eastern and central European countries.

But for EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, an Austrian from Kurz’s party, the ballot “does not mean Austria is moving to the right.”

“It’s clear any government will have a very pro-European agenda because the main political parties are very much committed to the European Union,” he told reporters in Luxembourg.

Israel launches new plan to ‘defend Jerusalem’ in international arena

The Israeli government is launching a new plan to “defend Jerusalem in the international arena,” Jerusalem and Heritage Minister Ze’ev Elkin announced Monday.

Addressing a conference for Christian journalists in the capital, Elkin said Jerusalem was under “an unprecedented assault,” pointing to recent resolutions passed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that ignored the Jewish people’s link to the city.

Together with the Foreign Ministry, Elkin said his office was committed to “prepare, budget and lead” a project to defend Jerusalem from various historical distortions.

“The plan will include visits to Jerusalem of influencers from diverse fields and nations, who will be exposed directly to the past and present of this wondrous city, and will be able to take part in the holy task of defending its future,” he said.

“All who wander even a single day in the streets of ancient Jerusalem, in the City of David, in the Old City, on the Mount of Olives, who touch its stones and listen to what they have to say, will be incapable of taking part in that erasing of the history of this city.”

His ministry is planning to hold several “large conferences” in Jerusalem this year, he added. The list includes a gathering of jurists on how international law views the status of Jerusalem, a conference bringing together the Knesset with parliamentary friendship caucuses from around the world, and a new scientific gathering on the the city’s archaeology and history.

“This city knows how to defend its good name and its past. One only has to come to her, to open one’s heart and to listen to what she has to say,” Elkin said.

Elkin’s office also decided to establish a permanent international “Defender of Jerusalem” prize designated for individuals who “contributed in unique ways to the battle for Jerusalem’s international standing and against the warping of history,” he announced.

The committee selecting the honorees will include Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, former Hebrew University president Menachem Ben-Sasson, Jerusalem Foundation head Johanna Arbib and others.

Addressing the Government Press Office’s first-ever Christian Media Summit, Elkin hailed Jerusalem as the most important city in Judaism and “the birthplace of the Christian faith, in whose streets occurred the defining events of Christian history and consciousness, the Christian story.”

He then launched a bitter attack against UNESCO, arguing that resolutions on the status of the city attempted to erase Jewish and Christian history.

“Today, Jerusalem is at the eye of a storm, under an unprecedented assault born from malice and ignorance that attempts to rewrite her history and erase her deep link to the millennia-old history of the Jewish people,” he charged.

“This assault is directed not only at Jerusalem’s Jewish roots, but also at the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith,” Elkin — a former historian — went on.

“Anyone who attempts to erase from history the Jerusalem of King David and King Solomon, of the greatest of the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Jerusalem of Ezra and Nehemia, and of the Maccabees, and the Jerusalem of the last days of the Second Temple that served as a central arena for the greatest events the shaped Christian consciousness – that same rewriter of history denies the Bible in its entirety.”

He went on: “Recent UNESCO resolutions are politically motivated attempts to portray the city as holy only to Islam and the Arab nation. History will view these decisions as low points in the annals of international institutions.”

Last week, Israel announced it would follow the United States in quitting UNESCO due to what it said was the Paris-based organization’s anti-Israel bias.

UNESCO has become “a platform for delusional, anti-Israeli and – in effect – anti-Semitic decisions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday. “We hope that the organization will change its ways but we are not pinning hopes on this; therefore, my directive to leave the organization stands and we will move forward to carry it out.”

Amid jitters over far-right, Austria’s Kurz vows no anti-Semitism in coalition

Austria’s election winner Sebastian Kurz, who may form a coalition with the far right, vowed “zero tolerance” on anti-Semitism in any future government, in an interview published in Israel on Tuesday.

“The battle against anti-Semitism and our policy of zero tolerance against all anti-Semitic tendencies is very important to me,” Kurz told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper.

“It is a clear precondition for the formation of any coalition under my leadership,” the 31-year-old conservative told the paper, which is a firm backer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) won 31.5 percent of the vote on Sunday, near-complete results show, and his most likely coalition partner is seen as the populist Freedom Party (FPOe), third at 26%.

Media reports said the two parties were already engaged in intensive behind-the-scene talks, with the FPOe demanding key ministerial positions.

When the FPOe last entered government, in 2000 under former head Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler’s “orderly” employment policies and praised SS veterans, Israel suspended relations.

They were normalized in 2003 under prime minister Ariel Sharon and the FPOe’s party head since 2005, Heinz-Christian Strache, has moved to soften its image and improve relations with the Jewish state.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry stressed at the time that it was a “strictly private visit” that included no official meetings.Strache, 48, has visited Israel several times, the last time in April 2016 when he met members of Netanyahu’s government and laid a wreath at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

Anti-Semitic influence?

Before the election Strache wrote to Netanyahu that Israel “possesses the right to build wherever is required in the Land of Israel” and that Austria’s embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.

Kurz said in the interview that “it is not the time to talk about such a sensitive question” as moving Austria’s representation to the disputed city from Tel Aviv.

The FPOe was created by ex-Nazis in the 1950s and campaigners say that incidents of anti-Semitism and racism by party officials continue.

Austria’s Jewish Community (IKG) organisation warned Kurz on Tuesday that a coalition with the FPOe could see people with “anti-Semitic, racist and eurosceptic beliefs” influence the government.

“The FPOe behaved itself during the election campaign. But what the FPOe says and what the FPOe does are two different things,” IKG chief Oskar Deutsch said.

Netanyahu congratulated Kurz in a telephone call on Monday night while calling for the fight against anti-Semitism to continue.

An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said Tuesday it was “premature to take any position while the Austrian coalition is not yet formed.”

Kurz was due to meet on Tuesday afternoon Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, who is expected to give Kurz a mandate later in the week to form a government.

More Israelis satisfied with their democracy than Americans, survey finds

Israelis are more satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country than are voters in the United States, and less supportive of the notion of military rule than the general public in the US, Britain and France, according to a major survey released Monday.

The Pew Research Center survey on global attitudes to government also found that in general barely half of those polled in 38 countries trust their governments to do the right thing, and that Israelis (51%) and Americans (also 51%) trust their elected officials a little more than the British (49%) and significantly more than the French (just 20%).

Data from 41,953 respondents revealed that most citizens are unhappy with their democratic governments. The survey was conducted from February 16 to May 8, 2017. Overall, “a deepening anxiety about the future of democracy around the world has spread over the past few years,” the report said.

In Israel, 52 percent said they are satisfied with the way democracy is working while 47% are not. In the US, less than half (46%) are satisfied and a majority of 51% said they are not. Britain’s figures matched those of Israel while across the Channel in France, 65% said they are not satisfied with their democracy and just 34% said they are.

Canadians were top with 70% satisfied and just 30% unhappy with their democracy. Figures for Western European countries showed on average citizens split half-half on their satisfaction with their systems.

“In all countries, pro-democracy attitudes coexist, to varying degrees, with openness to nondemocratic forms of governance, including rule by experts, a strong leader or the military,” the report said.

A quarter of Israelis back the idea of autocracy with power in the hands of a single ruler, similar to the UK (26%) but more than in the US where only 22% support the idea. In France, only 12% of those surveyed support autocracy.

However, in France, and the US, some 17% said military rule is a good idea, compared to 15% in the UK and just 10% in Israel.

More than half of Israelis (60%) are in favor of citizens voting directly on important national issues instead of leaving the decision in the hands of their democratically elected officials, Pew also found. Significantly more Arab Israelis (83%) support holding referendums than Jewish Israelis (54%) the report noted.

“People in wealthier nations and in those that have more fully democratic systems tend to be more committed to representative democracy. And in many nations, people with less education, those who are on the ideological right and those who are dissatisfied with the way democracy is currently working in their country are more willing to consider nondemocratic alternatives,” Pew said.

After Kirkuk, Kurdish forces pull out of more areas in Iraq

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish forces lost more territory in Iraq on Tuesday, withdrawing from the town of Sinjar a day after Iraqi forces pushed them out of the disputed city of Kirkuk.

It was the second hasty withdrawal for the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, from territory they contest along with Iraq’s central government and following the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum last month.

The referendum, though not binding, reflected the Iraqi Kurds aspirations for independence for their autonomous northern region. The vote was rejected by the central government in Baghdad, as well as Turkey, Iran and the United States.

Masloum Shingali, commander of the local Yazidi militia in Sinjar, said the peshmerga left before dawn on Tuesday, allowing Iraqi militiamen to move in.

Yazidis were massacred by the Islamic State group when the jihadis seized the town in 2014. More than 2,000 were killed, and thousands of women and children were taken into slavery. Kurdish forces, supported by US airstrikes, liberated the town in 2015.

Town Mayor Mahma Khalil said the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of mostly Shiite militias, were securing Sinjar. The militias are recognized by Iraq’s government as a part of its armed forces but are viewed with deep suspicion by the country’s Kurdish authorities, which see them as an instrument of Tehran and its Shiite-first policies.

The Kurdish forces “left immediately, they didn’t want to fight,” Shingali said.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.

Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars.

The Iraqi forces’ retaking of Kirkuk came only two weeks after they had fought together with the peshmerga to neutralize the Islamic State group in Iraq, their common enemy.

Thousands of Kirkuk’s Kurdish residents, fearful of federal and Shiite militia rule, packed the roads north to Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous Kurdish region.

On Tuesday, they were going back.

Kurdish residents said they felt betrayed by the peshmerga’s hasty retreat after they had promised to fight to the last for the city.

“Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away. But now the situation has stabilized, and people are returning to their homes. Nothing will happen, God willing, and Kirkuk will return to how it was,” said Amir Aydn, 28.

When Iraq’s armed forces crumbled in the face of an advance by Islamic State group in 2014, peshmerga forces moved into Kirkuk to secure the city and its surrounding oil wells though it was 20 miles outside the Kurds’ autonomous region in northeast Iraq.

Baghdad has since insisted Kirkuk and its province be returned to the central government, but matters came to a head when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum last month to include Kirkuk. To the Iraqi central government, that looked like Kurdish expansionism.

The city of more than 1 million is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well as Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

By midday Monday, federal forces had moved into several major oil fields north of the city, as well as the Kirkuk airport and an important military base, according to Iraqi commanders. Kurdish party headquarters inside Kirkuk had been abandoned.

The peshmerga withdrew in the direction of their autonomous region in the northeast.

Catalonia braces for protests as separatist leaders held

BARCELONA, Spain (AFP) — Catalonia braced for protests Tuesday after a judge ordered the detention of two powerful separatist leaders, further inflaming tensions in the crisis over the Spanish region’s chaotic independence referendum.

The National Court in Madrid moved late Monday to keep Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez behind bars on sedition charges, prompting hundreds of their supporters to take to the streets of Barcelona overnight in protest.

“Unfortunately, we have political prisoners again,” tweeted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, whose standoff with the central government has shaken stock markets and sent ripples of anxiety through the European Union.

Cuixart and Sanchez are the leaders pro-independence citizens’ groups Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) respectively, both of which count tens of thousands of members in the wealthy northeastern region and have emerged as influential players in the crisis.

Omnium and the ANC called on workers across Catalonia to briefly down tools at noon in protest against the jailing of the pair nicknamed the “two Jordis,” with a candle-lit protest in central Barcelona due at 8:00 p.m.

Further protests were due in the afternoon in front of Spanish central government offices in four provincial Catalan capitals — Tarragona, Lleida, Gerona and Barcelona.

“If you’re watching this video, it’s because the state has decided to deny me my freedom,” Cuixart said in a message recorded before the court decision, adding that his organization would work “underground” if necessary.

He and Sanchez are accused of encouraging a major protest last month as Spanish police raided Catalan regional government offices in the run-up to the banned independence referendum on October 1.

Police officers were trapped for hours and their vehicles vandalized as protesters ringed the building, with Cuixart and Sanchez standing atop a police car calling for “permanent mobilization” against the Spanish state.

The crime of sedition can carry up to 15 years in prison.

Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero, charged with the same offense, has been allowed to walk free but is banned from leaving Spain.

Enric Millo, the government’s representative in Barcelona, insisted that the judge’s decision had been made independently.

“There is a separation of powers here,” he told Catalunya Radio.

Economy takes a hit

Tuesday’s protests come as the central government and Puigdemont’s separatist regional administration fail to break the deadlock in Spain’s worst political crisis since it returned to democracy in 1977 following the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

Madrid had ordered Puigdemont to clarify by Monday whether he was declaring independence following the referendum, which resulted in a 90 percent Yes vote — although turnout was only 43 percent as many supporters of Spanish unity stayed away.

Puigdemont, however, stopped short of giving a definitive response and instead repeated his call for talks with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — who gave the Catalan leader three days to “return to legality” or face the consequences.

Anything less than a full climb-down from Puigdemont is likely to prompt moves by the central government to impose unprecedented direct control over the semi-autonomous region — the so-called “nuclear option.”

Madrid and its EU partners are worried that the prolonged uncertainty is damaging Spain’s economy as it emerges from the financial crisis.

The government announced late Monday that it was cutting its growth forecast for next year from 2.6 percent to 2.3% — partly over the standoff in Catalonia, which makes up about a fifth of Spain’s economic output.

Nearly 700 companies have moved their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain since the referendum, according to official figures, while ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has warned of a recession in the wealthy region if the crisis drags on.

With its own language and culture, Catalonia is proud of its autonomy but its 7.5 million people are deeply divided over whether to break definitively from the rest of Spain.

Supporters of independence say the region pays more into Spanish coffers than it gets back and could prosper by going it alone, but their opponents say secession would spell political and economic disaster.