I will name a Golan town after Trump, says Israel’s Netanyahu

Netanyahu praises Trump for recognising Israel control of Golan
Netanyahu praises Trump for recognising Israel control of Golan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he intends to name a new settlement in the Golan Heights after US President Donald Trump.

Mr Netanyahu said the move would honour Mr Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan in March.

Israel seized the Golan from Syria in 1967 and annexed the territory in 1981. The move has not been recognised internationally.

Syria said Mr Trump’s decision was “a blatant attack on its sovereignty”.

Mr Netanyahu, who has secured a fifth term in office in the recent Israeli elections, has been on a trip to the region with his family for the week-long Passover holiday.

All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“I intend to bring to the government a resolution calling for a new community on the Golan Heights named after President Donald J Trump”, he said in a video message.

For decades, Washington did not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, but Mr Trump announced his plan to overturn US policy in a tweet on 21 March.

What are the Golan Heights?

The region is located about 60km (40 miles) south-west of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and covers about 1,200 sq km (400 sq miles).

Israel seized most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Middle East war, and thwarted a Syrian attempt to retake the region during the 1973 war.

The two countries agreed a disengagement plan the following year that involved the creation of a 70km-long (44-mile) demilitarised zone patrolled by a United Nations observer force. But they remained technically in a state of war.

In 1981, Israel’s parliament passed legislation applying Israeli “law, jurisdiction, and administration” to the Golan, in effect annexing the territory. But the international community did not recognise the move and maintained that the Golan was occupied Syrian territory. UN Security Council Resolution 497 declared the Israeli decision “null and void and without international legal effect”.

Three years ago, when former US President Barack Obama was in office, the US voted in favour of a Security Council statement expressing deep concern that Mr Netanyahu had declared Israel would never relinquish the Golan.

Syria has always insisted that it will not agree a peace deal with Israel unless it withdraws from the whole of the Golan. The last US-brokered direct peace talks broke down in 2000, while Turkey mediated in indirect talks in 2008.

There are more than 30 Israeli settlements in the Golan, which are home to an estimated 20,000 people. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this. The settlers live alongside some 20,000 Syrians, most of them Druze Arabs, who did not flee when the Golan was captured.

UAE woman wakes up after 27 years in a coma

A woman from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who was seriously injured in a traffic accident in 1991 has made a seemingly miraculous recovery after emerging from a 27-year-long coma.

Prolonged disorders of consciousness are usually caused by a sudden brain injury.

Munira Abdulla, who was aged 32 at the time of the accident, suffered a severe brain injury after the car she was travelling in collided with a bus on the way to pick up her son from school.

Omar Webair, who was then four, was sitting in the back of the vehicle with her, but was left unscathed as his mother cradled him in her arms just before the accident.

Ms Abdulla – who was being driven by her brother-in-law – was left seriously injured, but last year regained consciousness in a German hospital.

Omar has opened up about the accident and about his mother’s progress following years of treatment in an interview with the UAE-based newspaper The National.

She hugged me to protect me’

I never gave up on her because I always had a feeling that one day she would wake up,” Omar told the newspaper on Monday.

“The reason I shared her story is to tell people not to lose hope on their loved ones; don’t consider them dead when they are in such a state,” he added.

“My mother was sitting with me in the back seat. When she saw the crash coming, she hugged me to protect me from the blow.”

He was unharmed, suffering just a bruise to the head, but his mother was left untreated for hours.

Years of treatment

Ms Abdulla was eventually taken to hospital, and later transferred to London. There, she was declared to be in a vegetative state – unresponsive, but able to sense pain – The National reports.

She was then returned to Al Ain, a city in the UAE on the border with Oman where she lived, and moved to various medical facilities according to insurance requirements.

She remained there for a few years, fed through a tube and kept alive. She underwent physiotherapy to ensure her muscles would not weaken through lack of movement.

In 2017, the family was offered a grant by the Crown Prince Court, a government body in Abu Dhabi, for Ms Abdulla to be transferred to Germany.

There, she underwent a number of surgeries to correct her severely shortened arm and leg muscles, and she was given medication to improve her state, including her wakefulness.

Hospital row

A year later, her son was involved in an argument in her hospital room, which seemed to prompt his mother to stir.

“There was a misunderstanding in the hospital room and she sensed I was at risk, which caused her a shock,” Omar said.

“She was making strange sounds and I kept calling the doctors to examine her, they said everything was normal.

“Then, three days later, I woke up to the sound of someone calling my name.

“It was her! She was calling my name, I was flying with joy; for years I have dreamt of this moment, and my name was the first word she said.”

She became more responsive, and can now feel pain and have some conversations.

She has returned to Abu Dhabi, where she is undergoing physiotherapy and further rehabilitation – mainly to improve her posture when sitting and prevent muscles from contracting.

Cases like Abdulla’s are rare

There are only a few cases of people recovering consciousness after several years – and even then, recovery can be protracted.

It is impossible to predict the chances of someone in a state of impaired consciousness improving, says the UK’s National Health Service.

People who do regain consciousness often have severe disabilities caused by damage to their brain.

One notable recovery case is that of Terry Wallis, an American man who was involved in a car accident when he was 19, and made a dramatic recovery after spending 19 years in a near-vegetative state. It was thought he had been able to re-grow brain tissue.

Michael Schumacher
Former F1 world champion Michael Schumacher was placed in an induced coma after a skiing accident

Former Formula 1 racing world champion Michael Schumacher suffered a head injury in a skiing accident in France in 2013. He was placed in a medically induced coma for six months before being transferred to his home in Switzerland to continue his treatment.

US to end sanctions exemptions for major Iranian oil importers

The sanctions on Iran’s oil industry have led to a sharp downturn in the country’s economy

US President Donald Trump has decided to end exemptions from sanctions for countries that buy oil from Iran.

The White House said waivers for China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey would expire in May, after which they could face US sanctions themselves.

This decision is intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero, denying the government its main source of revenue.

Iran insisted the sanctions were illegal and that it had attached “no value or credibility” to the waivers.

Mr Trump reinstated the sanctions last year after abandoning a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for sanctions relief.

The Trump administration hopes to compel Iran to negotiate a “new deal” that would cover not only its nuclear activities, but also its ballistic missile programme and what officials call its “malign behaviour” across the Middle East.

The sanctions have led to a sharp downturn in Iran’s economy, pushing the value of its currency to record lows, quadrupling its annual inflation rate, driving away foreign investors, and triggering protests.

Why aren’t the waivers being renewed?

In November, the US reimposed sanctions on Iran’s energy, ship building, shipping, and banking sectors, which officials called “the core areas” of its economy.

However, six-month waivers from economic penalties were granted to the eight main buyers of Iranian crude – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece – to give them time to find alternative sources and avoid causing a shock to global oil markets.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters in Washington (22 April 2019)
Mike Pompeo said the US was “dramatically accelerating” its pressure campaign

Three of the eight buyers – Greece, Italy and Taiwan – have stopped importing Iranian oil. But the others had reportedly asked for their waivers to be extended.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Mr Trump’s decision not to renew the waivers showed his administration was “dramatically accelerating our pressure campaign in a calibrated way that meets our national security objectives while maintaining well supplied global oil markets”.

“We stand by our allies and partners as they transition away from Iranian crude to other alternatives,” he added.

We have had extensive and productive discussions with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other major producers to ease this transition and ensure sufficient supply. This, in addition to increasing US production, underscores our confidence that energy markets will remain well supplied.”


Oil pressure adds to US friction

In recent weeks, Japan and South Korea have either halted or sharply decreased Iranian oil imports. Both are heavily dependent on foreign oil and Mr Pompeo said the administration had been trying to find alternatives. But Monday’s move could strain relations – already tested over issues of trade and US policy towards North Korea – with these close allies.

It’s an even bigger problem for India, which is also under American pressure to cut oil purchases from Venezuela. Iran is one of Delhi’s main oil suppliers. But India also has deep cultural and political ties with Tehran, which make it difficult to join US efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic.

China is Iran’s other big customer: it has slammed the US decision, saying its trade is perfectly legal, and the US has no jurisdiction to interfere. The question is whether Beijing will try to skirt sanctions through companies not tied to the US financial system.

Turkey was most outspoken in lobbying for a waiver extension. Ankara argues that it badly needs the oil, that as a neighbour it can’t cut ties with Iran, and that the pressure campaign won’t work anyway.


Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said his country would co-ordinate with fellow oil producers to ensure “the global oil market does not go out of balance”.

Iranian exports are currently estimated to be below 1 million barrels per day (bpd), compared to more than 2.5 million bpd before Mr Trump abandoned the nuclear deal last May.

What has been the impact on oil prices?

The price of global benchmark Brent crude rose by 3.33% to $74.37 a barrel in trading on Monday – the highest since 1 November.

US oil – known as West Texas Intermediate – was meanwhile up 2.90% at $65.93.

In recent months, the price of oil has risen due to an agreement between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) cartel and its allies, including Russia, to cut their output by 1.2 million bpd.

How have the countries affected reacted?

A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry dismissed Mr Trump’s decision, saying the country “did not and does not attach any value or credibility to the waivers”.

But Abbas Mousavi added that because of the sanctions’ negative effects, Iran was in “constant contact” with its international partners and would act accordingly.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted that the US move would “not serve regional peace and stability, yet will harm Iranian people”.

“Turkey rejects unilateral sanctions and impositions on how to conduct relations with neighbours,” he added.

China said earlier that it opposed unilateral US sanctions.

“China-Iran co-operation is open, transparent and in accordance with law. It should be respected,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying there should be no “negative effect on the operations of Japanese companies”. Its refineries reportedly halted Iranian imports in March.

India’s government was studying the implications of the US announcement, the PTI news agency cited sources as saying. The country had reportedly hoped to be allowed to continue to reduce its Iranian oil imports gradually.

South Korea stopped buying Iranian oil for four months in response, but resumed in January. In March, it imported 284,600 bpd.

Syria war: IS ‘kills 35’ government troops in desert attacks

Fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard next to a yellow flag in Baghuz
Baghuz, the group’s last territorial stronghold, was captured last month

Islamic State militants have killed 35 Syrian pro-government forces in desert attacks in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

The UK-based monitoring group says the militants attacked in Homs and Deir al-Zour provinces.

IS media has spoken about the alleged attacks, but Syrian officials have not confirmed them.

It comes weeks after reports some IS militants had fled into the desert from Baghuz – their last stronghold.

The area was declared “freed” by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 23 March.

Although the declaration marked the last territorial victory over the group’s caliphate, experts warn it does not mean the end of IS or its ideology.

Thousands of fighters and their families captured from Baghuz, including foreign nationals, remain in camps nearby.

Arabic’s Feras Kilani says that losing their last stronghold is unlikely to be the end of Islamic State.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say IS militants have killed 27 government troops and allied militia in the desert in the east of Homs province since Thursday.

Another eight were killed in the province of Deir al-Zour on Thursday night, the monitor reports.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman described it as the “biggest attack and the highest death toll among regime forces since the caliphate was declared defeated”.

At least six IS militants were also killed in the clashes, the monitor says.

The IS group’s news outlet, Amaq, allege its militants were able to seize army weapons during the Homs clashes, including a number of armoured vehicles and machine guns.

Timeline: Islamic State

How the jihadist group rose and fell

October 2006
The jihadist group announces the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and in April 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi becomes its leader.
January 2013
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) begins seizing control of territory in Syria, including the city of Raqqa. In April that year, al-Baghdadi changes his group’s name to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil or Isis).
June 2014
Isis conquers over a dozen Iraqi cities and towns like Mosul and Tikrit, and seizes Syria’s largest oilfield in the Homs province. On 29 June, the jihadist group formally declares the creation of a caliphate and becomes known as Islamic State (IS).
August 2014
IS fighters begin killing and enslaving thousands from the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq and release the first of several videos of Western hostages – journalists and aid workers – being beheaded.
September 2014
The US begins air strikes, starting with attacks on the de-facto IS capital of Raqqa.
January 2015
IS is at the height of its control, ruling over almost eight million people across 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) from western Syria to eastern Iraq. It is also generating billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.
March 2016
The Syrian government recaptures the ancient city of Palmyra, but loses it again in December 2016 and then finally recaptures the destroyed Unesco World Heritage site in March 2017.
July 2017
Iraqi forces liberate Mosul, but the 10-month battle leaves thousands of civilians dead, more than 800,000 displaced and much of Iraq’s second city destroyed.
October 2017
IS loses control of Raqqa to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, ending three years of rule.
December 2017
Iraq’s government declares victory over IS after retaking full control of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
February 2019
US President Donald Trump says the jihadist group is close to being defeated after a battle for the final IS-held territory on the Syrian-Iraqi border lasted weeks.
March 2019
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces says the Islamic State’s five-year “caliphate” is over after the militants were defeated in Syria. Despite the loss of territory, the group is still seen as a major security threat capable of mounting attacks in the region and worldwide.

Egypt referendum: Voters urged to back extended Sisi term

A man walks in front of a banner reading, "Yes to the constitutional amendments, for a better future", with a photo of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the approaching referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo, Egypt on 16 April 2019.
Banner in central Cairo urging Egyptians to “say yes to the constitutional amendments”

Walking across Cairo, you can’t miss the huge banners calling on Egyptians to support constitutional amendments that would keep President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in power until 2030.

they were approved by a sweeping Egyptians began voting on Saturday in a three-day referendum on the proposed changes, a few days after  majority inside parliament.

“Say yes to stability and security,” reads one banner in central Cairo. The new amendments will extend the presidential term from four to six years, and the president can only be re-elected once.

But Mr Sisi is being given special treatment.

Not only will his current term be extended to six years, but he will be allowed to run for a third term as an exception.

The military-backed president, who took office in 2014, was originally meant to leave in 2022 after his second term expires.

We are rebuilding through these so-called amendments the state of the single ruler,” says Khaled Dawood, a liberal opposition figure. He believes Egypt will go back to “square one, the same autocratic rule it experienced before the 2011 revolution”.

The changes will give President Sisi tight control over the judiciary, with powers to appoint the prosecutor general and all high level judges.

“This ends the hopes of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in January 2011, wishing to have a rotation of power and a president who can be held accountable,” Mr Khaled adds.

Growing apathy?

Mr Sisi has not issued any statements regarding the amendments or the referendum.

The speaker of the parliament has made it clear the proposals have been put forward by the majority bloc. But the parliament is full of the president’s loyalists, and it has been repeatedly criticised for being a rubber stamp.

The president’s supporters argue he should remain in power to carry on with his economic reforms.

MP Mohamed Abu Hamed believes it’s the people who have the final say.

He says the amendments will not annul any future elections, adding: “If President Sisi decides to run again, he might be challenged by another candidate who is more appealing to voters.”

Egyptian lawmakers attend a session to vote on a constitutional reform, in Cairo, Egypt, 16 April 2019.
Egypt’s parliament, packed with Sisi supporters, approved the constitutional changes last week

Following the 2011 revolution, Egyptians were politically very active.

They queued for hours in front of the polling stations in the first presidential elections staged a year after the revolution. These elections brought Mohamed Morsi to power, the country’s first civilian president.

A year later, he was overthrown by Mr Sisi, the defence minister at the time, following mass protests.

Many Egyptians, today, seem to have lost a lot of their enthusiasm.

“What kind of a difference would my vote make? Whether or not I take part in the referendum, these amendments will pass,” a young man, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells me.

Other priorities

Some people are concerned about their livelihoods, more than anything else.

“I haven’t heard much about these changes, but I am certain they are made for the powerful not the people,” says a middle aged lady, who also did not want to be identified.

She has decided not to vote because “everything is going wrong. Prices are high and our living conditions are dire”.

An Egyptian woman walks in front of a polling station covered from outside by Egyptian flags, during the preparations for the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo, Egypt on 18 April 2019
Rights groups have questioned the haste at which the vote was organised – in just a few days

For a considerable number of voters, stability remains an important priority.

“Look at what’s happening in the region. At least we feel safe here,” Mohamed, a man in his 50s tell me. He believes the president is investing in infrastructure by building “new bridges, tunnels and roads”.

“If he leaves no-one can continue what he started,” he adds.

The Sisi government takes pride in bringing back a long-missed stability.

Tourism, for example, a lifeline for the economy, has benefited from the stable status quo. Official statistics show that visitors are coming back and growth rates in this vital sector are on the rise.

Militarising the state?

The amendments will boost female parliamentary representation, allocating a quota of 25 per cent of seats to women. They will also introduce a second chamber to parliament, in addition to appointing one or more deputies to the president.

One significant change is related to adding extra powers to the army.

For decades, the military institution has been a key player in Egyptian politics, and economy. Now it has been appointed as “the guardian of the constitution and civil state”.

Critics say this will open the doors wide for militarising the Egyptian state.

But MP Abu Hamed says the army had sided with the people to unseat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and to oust Mr Morsi in 2013.

He believes this change is “not inventing a new reality, it is just legitimising it. The army always acts upon people’s wishes”.

Opposition cyber campaign ‘stifled’

Opponents say the authorities are leaving them no room to hold any public campaign against the amendments. “Members of our parties are arrested, and we are banned from all local media,” Khaled Dawood says.

Meanwhile, Netblock – an NGO that monitors cyber security – says internet providers in Egypt are blocking access to an estimated 34,000 internet domains “in an apparent bid to stamp out an opposition campaign under the slogan Void”.

The monitoring group says the campaign’s website was blocked after it had reportedly gathered 60,000 signatures in a few hours.

Hundreds of news websites, which the authorities accuse of supporting terrorism, have been already blocked in Egypt over the past year.

“There is no press, no media, nothing but the government voice,” says Mokhtar Mounir, a human rights lawyer, who paints a very grim picture of Mr Sisi’s rule.

“We have a huge number of political prisoners, people dying of medical neglect behind bars, and women sent to prison for trivial charges,” he adds.

The president has repeatedly said there are no prisoners of conscience in Egypt, insisting on the independence of the judiciary.

For now, things are apparently calm and it’s up to the Egyptian voters to decide.

But the concern is if President Sisi tightens his grip on power further, public anger could erupt as it did less than a decade ago.

Sadaf Khadem (R) beat the French boxer Anne Chauvin (L) on Saturday

Sadaf Khadem (R) beat the French boxer Anne Chauvin (L) on Saturday

An Iranian who became the first woman from her country to contest an official boxing match says she has cancelled her return home from France after hearing a warrant had been issued for her arrest.

Sadaf Khadem beat the French boxer Anne Chauvin in an amateur bout on Saturday.

She had planned to fly to Tehran with her French-Iranian trainer this week.

Khadem was quoted by a sports newspaper as saying she believed she was accused of violating Iran’s compulsory dress code by boxing in a vest and shorts.

Iranian officials have not commented, but the head of Iran’s boxing federation denied that Khadem would be arrested if she came home.

“Ms Khadem is not a member of [Iran’s] organised athletes for boxing, and from the boxing federation’s perspective all her activities are personal,” Hossein Soori was quoted as saying by an Iranian news agency.

Khadem fought in a green vest and red shorts with a white waistband – the colours of Iran’s national flag – in Saturday’s bout in the western French town of Royan.

The 24-year-old had to fight abroad as, despite having the blessing of Iranian sporting authorities, it proved too complicated to fulfil their requirement that the bout be refereed and judged by women.

Khadem had been expecting a hero’s welcome when she returned to Iran.

Iranian boxer Sadaf Khadem (R) with her trainer, Mahyar Monshipour (L)
Khadem was trained by Mahyar Monshipour, a French-Iranian former world boxing champion

But while she travelled to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport with her trainer Mahyar Monshipour – an Iranian-born former World Boxing Association champion who also serves as an adviser to the French sports minister – she said they were told that warrants had been issued for their arrest.

“I was fighting in a legally approved match, in France. But as I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, which is completely normal in the eyes of the entire world, I confounded the rules of my country,” she told the L’Equipe newspaper.

“I wasn’t wearing a hijab, I was coached by a man – some people take a dim view of this.”

A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Paris told Reuters news agency on Wednesday that he could not comment on whether Khadem faced arrest in Iran or on her decision not to return to Iran.

Sadaf Khadem (R) beat the French boxer Anne Chauvin (L) on Saturday
100 Women: Iranian trailblazer who removed her headscarf

Under Iranian law, women and girls as young as nine years old who are seen in public without a headscarf can be punished with a prison sentence of between 10 days and two months, or a cash fine.

Iranian sportswomen are required to cover their hair, neck, arms and legs when competing.

Until recently, Khadem would not have been permitted to take part in an official boxing match wearing a hijab or a full body form fitting uniform for religious regions. But the International Boxing Association (AIBA), amateur boxing’s governing body, changed its uniform rules at the end of February.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping to become Israel's longest-serving PM

Israel election: Netanyahu set for record fifth term

PM Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to secure a record fifth term after almost complete results from Israel’s election suggest a new right-wing coalition.

His Likud party is expected to finish with a similar number of seats as ex-military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance.

But Likud and right-wing allies are set to be the largest bloc with 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, local media said.

The 69-year-old premier is facing corruption allegations.

However, the election result means he could become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister later this year, overtaking Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Exit polls had predicted a tight race with no clear winner, prompting both Mr Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to claim victory on Tuesday night.

“It will be a right-wing government, but I will be prime minister for all,” Mr Netanyahu told cheering supporters.

“I’m very touched that the people of Israel gave me their vote of confidence for the fifth time, and an even bigger vote of confidence than previous elections.

“I intend to be the prime minister of all citizens of Israel. Right, left, Jews, non-Jews. All of Israel’s citizens.”

No party has ever won a majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament and it has always had coalition governments.

What’s the background?

Mr Netanyahu, 69, put forward tough messages on security ahead of the vote and it soon became one of the election’s key issues.

He also made a significant announcement in the final days of the campaign, suggesting a new government would annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Mr Netanyahu denied the allegations of corruption against him, saying he was a victim of a political “witch hunt” designed to influence the election.

In a separate controversy on Tuesday, Israeli Arab politicians condemned his Likud party for sending 1,200 observers equipped with hidden body cameras to polling stations in Arab communities.

The Arab alliance, Hadash-Taal, said it was an “illegal” action that sought to intimidate Arabs. Likud said it wanted to ensure only “valid votes” were cast.

Mr Netanyahu’s main challenger, Mr Gantz, is a retired lieutenant-general who formed the Blue and White in February, promising to unite a country that had “lost its way”.

The 59-year-old former chief of staff of the Israeli military rivalled Mr Netanyahu’s tough stance on security and promised cleaner politics.

Mr Gantz’s campaign platform referred to “separation” from the Palestinians but did not specifically mention them having an independent state. It also called for continued control over the Jordan Valley and retaining West Bank settlement blocs.

Benny Gantz (L) is seeking to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu (R) winning a fifth term in office

Israeli election: No clear winner, exit polls indicate

Exit polls in Israel suggest there will be no clear winner in the closely fought general election.

The centrist Blue and White alliance of former military chief Benny Gantz was projected to win 36 or 37 seats, with the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 33 to 36.

Both men have claimed victory.

Two exit polls predicted that right-wing parties allied to Mr Netanyahu were more likely to be able to form a governing coalition.

But a third exit poll predicted that the bloc would be tied with centre-left parties allied to Mr Gantz.

“We won! The Israeli public has had its say!” Blue and White said in a statement. “These elections have a clear winner and a clear loser.”

Mr Netanyahu tweeted: “The right-ring bloc led by Likud triumphed conclusively. I thank the citizens of Israel for the vote of confidence. I will begin the task of forming a right-wing government with our natural partners tonight.”

No party has ever won a majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, and the country has always had coalition governments.

What are the exit polls predicting?

Three Israeli television networks carried out separate exit polls:

  • Public broadcaster Kan projected that Blue and White would win 37 seats and Likud 36. It said the right-wing bloc was expected to control 64 seats in parliament and the centre-left bloc 56
  • Channel 13 predicted both parties with end up with 36 seats, but that right-wing parties would control 66 seats to the centre-left’s 54
  • Channel 12 News projected that Blue and White would win 37 seats and Likud 33 seats. But it had the centre-left and right-wing blocs both controlling 60 seats

The three predicted that the left-wing Labour party would win between six and eight seats, and the left-wing Meretz party between four and five seats.

It was not clear how many of the more than 40 smaller parties contesting the election would win at least 3.25% of the national vote – the threshold for entering parliament with four seats.

Two exit polls suggested outgoing Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s New Right party and Moshe Feiglin’s ultra-nationalist Zehut party had not passed the threshold.

Graphic showing Israeli election exit poll projections

At the election night event for Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, a huge cheer went up as the first exit poll was released.

His supporters expressed confidence that Israel could be on the brink of a new centre-ground government.

“Change is on the way,” one activist told me above the roars of celebration.

But the outcome is far from clear. At the last election, the exit polls were dramatically wrong.

And the real politics start now if there is a close result – as both main parties canvas Israel’s president for the right to start talks to assemble a coalition.

Israel election: PM Netanyahu seeks record fifth term

Israelis are voting in the country’s most closely-fought general election in years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, is seeking a fifth term in office.

But he is facing corruption allegations and a strong challenge from retired general Benny Gantz.

Mr Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White alliance, is challenging Mr Netanyahu on the key issue of security and is promising cleaner politics.

Israel’s Labour Party, which sealed a breakthrough peace deal with the Palestinians in the 1990s, has lost favour with voters.

What is forecast?

No party has ever won a majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, and the country has always had coalition governments.

As soon as the results start coming in at 22:00 (19:00 GMT) on Tuesday, negotiations start on the formation of a governing coalition.

Final pre-election polls suggested the two main contenders were neck-and-neck, with both set to win 30 seats.

In Israel’s fragmented party system the advantage remains with Mr Netanyahu, who still looks most likely to be able to form a new coalition government, says the BBC’s Michael Johnson Bateman in Jerusalem.

In a widely criticised move to lock down extra right-wing seats, Mr Netanyahu brokered a deal in February making it easier for candidates from an extreme-right wing party that many view as racist to enter parliament.

Israeli Arabs make up almost a fifth of the population, but surveys suggest that fewer than half of those eligible to vote plan to do so.

What was Netanyahu’s pitch to voters?

At a rally in Jerusalem on Monday, Mr Netanyahu told Likud supporters not to be “complacent” and urged them to turn out at polling stations.

He warned that his “leftist” rivals could still win.

An Israeli national flag and an Islamic crescent seen on top of a mosque

GettyIsrael elections in numbers

  • 6.3mregistered voters
  • 3months of campaigning

  • 47parties taking part
  • 120seats in parliament up for grabs

Our correspondent says Mr Netanyahu has appealed to Israel’s increasingly right-wing voter base with tough messages on security and a significant announcement in the final days suggesting a new government would annex Jewish settlements, in the occupied West Bank.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Our correspondent says Mr Netanyahu has faced an uncomfortable election race, dogged by looming corruption charges, and a flare-up in the conflict with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The prime minister denies the corruption allegations, and says he is a victim of a political “witch hunt” aimed at influencing the election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-R) and MPs take part in a Knesset(parliament) session in Jerusalem on 26 December 2108
The party that wins the most seats in the Knesset may not be able to form a governing coalition

And Benny Gantz’s?

The former chief of staff for the Israeli military, a newcomer to politics, can rival Mr Netanyahu on security – one of the election’s key issues.

He has also promised “cleaner” politics.

Mr Gantz told Blue and White supporters in Tel Aviv that the prime minister wanted to change the law to protect himself from prosecution.

“The whole purpose is to create a legal fortress to guarantee his legal immunity in front of the serious charges he is facing,” he said.

Iran floods: Thousands evacuate homes as heavy rain forecast

Flood-hit Iran is evacuating more towns and villages as forecasts show further rain is expected on Saturday.

Heavy downpours are set to strike south western provinces and officials say they will release water from key river dams that are dangerously full.

Women and children are being moved to safer areas while men are asked to stay and assist with relief efforts.

In recent weeks, much of the country has been submerged and the death toll currently stands at 70.

Towns such as Susangerd, with a population of 50,000, will be left at risk, officials say. It is to be evacuated on Saturday, along with about five other communities in the province of Khuzestan.

A family wade through the water outside destroyed buildings carrying blankets and bottles
Families tried to rescued their possessions as floods swamped homes in Khuzestan

Around 70 villages in the province have already been evacuated in the past week.

Energy companies in the oil-rich region have helped the relief effort by using pumps to remove water.

Extremely heavy rain began on 19 March, affecting about 1,900 cities, towns and villages. Thousands of roads, bridges and buildings have been destroyed.

A map showing the extent of the floods on March 29 and 4 April

So far, 86,000 people are living in emergency shelters, of which about 1,000 were airlifted to safety.

Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the scale of the crisis and Iran’s state budget is under pressure due to US sanctions on energy and banking.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the sanctions – reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year,  – had impeded aid efforts and caused a shortage of rescue helicopters.

“This isn’t just economic warfare, it’s economic terrorism,” Mr Zarif tweeted on 1 April.

The government has promised that those affected, especially farmers, will be compensated for their losses.

The head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the armed forces were “using all their power” to minimise damage.


Are floods linked to deforestation?

By BBC Johnson Michael

Environmental experts believe that deforestation has been one of the major causes of flooding in recent years in the country.

According to Iran’s Natural Resources and Forestry Organization, widespread and unregulated deforestation has destroyed around half of Iran’s northern forests, areas where major floods have occurred.

According to the organisation, the northern forests area has been reduced from 3.6 million to 1.8 million hectares during the past 40 years.


Iran floods: Thousands evacuate homes as heavy rain forecast
There is flooding across the country

Saudi Arabia ‘arrests seven including US citizens’

Saudi Arabia has detained at least seven people, including two dual US-Saudi citizens and a pregnant woman, a London-based rights group says.

Those arrested are not said to be frontline activists, but writers and bloggers who have discussed reform.

They had already been under a travel ban since February, rights group ALQST says.

The latest arrests come amid concern at the fate of activists already in prison after pushing for women’s rights.

Ten women’s rights campaigners were put on trial last month following a crackdown beginning in 2018. Three were released last week on bail.

That case has drawn international criticism, with 36 states demanding their release at the UN Human Rights Council.

Who has been arrested?

Saudi authorities have not commented on the latest arrests.

They include at least six men and one woman, according to ALQST. Some reports speak of eight arrests.

Among them is Khadijah al-Harbi, a pregnant feminist writer, and US-Saudi citizen Salah al-Haidar, whose mother was one of the activists recently freed.

Al-Haidar has a family home in Virginia but lives with his wife and child in Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press reports.

The other US-Saudi national arrested was reportedly Badr al-Ibrahim – a writer and doctor.

Scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has intensified since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.

Turkish investigators and others have pointed the finger at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as the real power behind the throne, alleging he orchestrated the murder.

But the Saudi authorities deny he was involved and blame a “rogue” operation. Eleven people went on trial in January.

The arrests of activists and writers are seen as an attempt to shut down criticism of the crown prince, who has himself enacted some reforms.

Asylum Seeker Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, along with Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland
The case of teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (centre) also renewed criticism

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been an enduring focus of international concern, despite some public overtures toward reform from within the kingdom.

The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia number 141 out of 149 countries around the world for gender equality in 2018.

Saudi women still cannot travel, get married or open a bank account without a male guardian’s permission.

Earlier this year, the case of a Saudi woman fleeing her family abroad gained high-profile attention.

Rahaf al-Qunun, 18, barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room after immigration officials tried to return her.

The teenager eventually received UN help and has since been granted asylum in Canada.

Tense scenes unfold at the Gaza-Israel border fence area

Gaza protests: Thousands mark ‘Great Return’ anniversary

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have demonstrated in Gaza to mark the anniversary of the start of weekly protests on the boundary with Israel.

Demonstrators threw stones and burned tyres, with Israeli troops using tear-gas and live rounds in response.

Two protesters died in the clashes, Palestinian officials say, with a third killed overnight.

The protests back the declared right of Palestinian refugees to return to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.

At least 189 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed between March and December 2018, the UN says.

A UN inquiry says Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes during the protest marches – a charge Israel rejects.

This day of protests is a serious test of the fragile calm between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, says the BBC’s Yolande Knell in Jerusalem.

What has happened so far?

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimated the number of protesters at about 40,000 and several thousand Israeli troops were deployed along the border.

The IDF said explosive devices had been thrown over the border fence and Israeli forces had responded with “riot dispersal means” and live bullets.

Protesters in Gaza
The protests come after a tense week in Gaza

At least two Palestinian protesters, both 17-year-old boys, have been killed and dozens more have been wounded, Palestinian health officials say.

The health officials say another man was shot dead by Israeli troops close to the fence overnight.

Hamas had said it would try to keep the crowds a safe distance from the fence, with Egyptian and UN mediators trying to prevent further escalation.

The clashes were limited in scope and fears of a large number of deaths have not materialised. The protests quietened in the evening.

They came after a tense week in which Palestinian militants fired rockets at Israel and Israel’s air force struck dozens of sites in Gaza.

But Palestinian sources say Egyptian mediators have made some progress in reaching a new ceasefire agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.

What happened during earlier protests?

Palestinians have been taking part in protests along the border since 30 March 2018 as part of a campaign dubbed “the Great March of Return”.

A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest on the Gaza-Israel border fence in the southern Gaza Strip on 15 February 2019
Palestinian health officials say thousands of protesters have been hit by live rounds

The Israeli government designates Hamas a terrorist group which it says has been seeking to use the protests as a cover to cross into its territory and carry out attacks.

It deployed soldiers along the border fence, who it said were ordered to resort to live fire only when absolutely necessary and when there was an imminent threat.

A commission of inquiry was set up by the UN Human Rights Council.

Thirty-five of the 189 Palestinian fatalities were children, three were clearly marked paramedics and two were clearly marked journalists, the commission found.

The inquiry found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers had shot at children, medics and journalists, even though they were clearly recognisable as such.

The BBC’s Paul Adams on the issues at the root of the conflict in Gaza

Four Israeli soldiers were injured at the demonstrations. One Israeli soldier was killed on a protest day but outside the protest sites, the commission said.

Unless undertaken lawfully in self-defence, intentionally shooting a civilian not directly participating in hostilities is a war crime.

Israel’s acting foreign minister said it rejected the findings outright.

“The Human Rights Council’s Theatre of the Absurd has once again produced a report that is hostile, mendacious and biased against Israel,” Israel Katz said.

“No-one can deny Israel the right to self-defence and the obligation to protect its citizens and its borders against violent attacks.”

Gaza protests: Thousands mark 'Great Return' anniversary
How kites and balloons became militant weapons

The Philippines has seen an uptick in IS attacks in recent years

Where is the Islamic State group still active around the world?

After months of fighting, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has finally lost Baghuz, a village in eastern Syria that came to represent the final chapter in its self-styled caliphate.

While this is a major blow, the loss of the small enclave near the Iraqi border does not spell the end of IS as a militant group capable of mounting deadly attacks worldwide.

IS and its affiliates continue to be active in various countries, claiming attacks on a daily basis through the group’s online propaganda outlets.

Data collected by BBC Monitoring shows that despite having lost most of its territory in Syria and Iraq at the end of 2017, IS said it was behind 3,670 attacks worldwide last year – an average of 11 attacks per day – and 502 attacks in the first two months of 2019, while Baghuz was under siege.

Chart showing number of worldwide attacks by IS per month

There was a peak in IS attack claims in September 2018. This was likely to have been linked to the start that month of an operation by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance to take the IS stronghold of Hajin, north of Baghuz.

The jihadist group commonly steps up its attacks in response to offensives against it, either in the area under siege or elsewhere to divert attention or resources away from there.

Although Iraq and Syria continue to account for the lion’s share of IS attack claims, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula also feature regularly.

Map showing number of attacks per country since January 2018

In a recent message, the IS leadership mocked US President Donald Trump’s claim in December to have defeated the group, and insisted that it was far from over.

Nevertheless, IS’s caliphate model has been over since late 2017, when it lost its strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. After that, the group struggled to project the image of a functioning and flourishing state – which had formed the basis of its claim to have revived the caliphates of early Islam.

How data on IS activity was gathered

The data is based exclusively on what the group itself has claimed through its official “Nashir News Agency” media outlets on the messaging app Telegram. The dates reflect when IS said the attacks took place, rather than when the claim was published.

The data includes every claim of attack, no matter how small or inconsequential. Most attacks that IS claimed solely through its weekly newspaper al-Naba without issuing a separate statement were not reflected in the data.

It is worth noting that IS, like any jihadist group, has a tendency to exaggerate the scale of its attacks and their impact.

Presentational grey line

IS has officially declared that it has a presence in the following countries and regions: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, “Khorasan” (the Afghanistan-Pakistan region), “the Caucasus”, “East Asia” (mostly active in the Philippines), Somalia, and “West Africa” (mostly active in Nigeria).

Some of these branches, such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia, have barely claimed any activity, and others like “the Caucasus” rarely claim attacks.

The group recently signalled through its propaganda an intention to step up its activity in Tunisia, a country where it has so far failed to make inroads following the 2015 attacks on a museum and beach resort that it claimed. IS also announced for the first time a presence in Burkina Faso.

The announcements about Tunisia and Burkina Faso suggest that at least in terms of propaganda, IS is keen to indicate that its trademark slogan “Remaining and Expanding” still applies.

Unsurprisingly, IS’s biggest battleground continues to be in Iraq and Syria, where it clearly has its best resources.

Out of a total of 3,670 attacks IS claimed worldwide in 2018, 1,767 were in Iraq (48%) and 1,124 were in Syria (31%).

Soldiers and policemen walk past burnt house on 4 February 2016 during a visit to the village of Dalori village, Borno state, after Boko Haram attack
Nigeria’s army has increasingly come under attack by a branch of IS in recent months

But last year also saw a notable increase in claimed activity by other IS branches. It was as if the group wanted to compensate for its losses in Iraq and Syria and to remind people that it also operated outside the Middle East.

In 2018, IS claimed 316 attacks in Afghanistan, 181 in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, 73 in Somalia, 44 in Nigeria, 41 in Yemen and 27 in the Philippines.

The number of attack claims by IS West Africa Province in Nigeria has notably risen in recent months. The army has been the primary target, possibly because the group is attempting to seize weaponry and in turn boost its capability.

IS has claimed 44 attacks in Nigeria in the first three months of 2019, matching the total number of attacks it claimed in a whole year in 2018.

In a propaganda video released in January, IS West Africa Province called on Muslims to migrate to the region and join its branch, signalling that it was ready to receive foreign recruits.

On 22 March, IS West Africa Province announced for the first time that it had a presence in Burkina Faso – a country where its rival al-Qaeda has already carried out several attacks.

Chart showing number of attacks per country per month

There has also been an uptick in the number of attack claims in the Philippines.

IS operates in the country through local affiliates, most of which have been fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in the south for decades. But their attacks, mostly against the army, are still sporadic.

And despite repeated calls to its supporters, IS did not claim any major attacks in the West during 2018.

The previous year, it claimed four attacks in the UK, including the Manchester Arena bombing; the Barcelona attacks in Spain; and the Las Vegas shootings in the US. However, some of those claims appeared to have been opportunistic, as the group failed to provide evidence.

In 2018, IS claimed seven, mostly low-profile attacks in the West that appeared to have been inspired by the group. They comprised four knife or gun attacks in France, and one attack each in Belgium, Canada and Australia.

Cars have been swept away and homes damaged by the floodwaters

Flash floods kill at least 19 in southern Iran

Flash floods in southern Iran have killed at least 19 people and injured at least 100 more, officials say.

Dramatic footage on social media showed torrents of muddy water surging through the city of Shiraz where most of the deaths occurred.

People were seen clinging to lamp posts and the tops of cars. Hundreds of buildings were reported damaged.

Iran’s judiciary said the government’s handling of the disaster was being investigated.

The floods struck during the Persian New Year holiday when many government offices were closed.

“Any shortcomings regarding the handling of the floods, failure to provide relief and aid to the survivors will be investigated,” judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi was quoted as saying by the Mizan news agency.

Vehicles are stacked one against another after a flash flooding In Shiraz, Iran, March 25, 2019
Streets in Shiraz were devastated by the floods

The governor of Fars province, Enayatollah Rahimi, said the flooding was now under control and rescue teams had been deployed to the worst-hit areas.

He added: “I am urging people to stay inside their homes in order to remain unharmed.”

Further torrential rain has been forecast for the north and east of the country in the coming hours and days.

Flood warnings have been issued in almost all provinces, including the capital Tehran.

Damaged vehicles are seen after a flash flooding In Shiraz, Iran, March 25, 2019
A clean-up operation swung into action, but more bad weather is forecast

Israel strikes Hamas targets in Gaza after rocket hits house

Israel has carried out strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, hours after a rocket hit a house north of Tel Aviv.

The Israel Defense Forces said the office of Hamas’s political leader and the group’s military intelligence headquarters were among the targets.

Gaza’s health ministry said seven people were injured in the strikes.

The IDF earlier blamed Hamas, which controls Gaza, for the launch of the rocket that hit the Israeli community of Mishmeret, injuring seven people.

“Israel will not tolerate this, I will not tolerate this,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters during a ceremony in Washington at which US President Donald Trump formally recognised Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression,” Mr Netanyahu added.

Mr Trump denounced the attack as “despicable” and said the US “recognises Israel’s absolute right to defend itself”.

So far no Palestinian militant group has said it fired the rocket. One unnamed Hamas official said it had “no interest” in doing so.

What happened on Monday morning?

A rocket launched from the Rafah area in southern Gaza hit a house in Mishmeret, about 120km (75 miles) to the north, causing severe damage to the building and setting it on fire.

The Israeli ambulance service treated two women who were moderately wounded and five other people, including an infant, a three-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, who had minor wounds.

Gaza rocket: Two children and an infant were among the injured

The house belonged to Robert and Susan Wolf, two British-Israeli dual nationals, who had been at home with their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

“I nearly lost my family. If we had not got to the bomb shelter in time I would now be burying all my family,” Mr Wolf told reporters.

The blast also caused damage to at least one nearby home and several vehicles.

It was the furthest a rocket has reached in Israel since the 2014 conflict in Gaza.

IDF spokeswoman Major Mika Lifshitz said Hamas – which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US, EU and UK – was to blame for the launch.

“It’s a Hamas rocket, itself made by Hamas,” she said. “It has an ability to reach more than 120km.”

“We see Hamas as responsible for all that happens in the Gaza Strip,” she added.

What has Israel struck in response?

Palestinian security sources, media outlets and witnesses said there were strikes across Gaza on Monday evening.

The IDF and Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV said the office of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniya in Gaza City’s Rimal district was bombed. It was not clear whether he was inside at the time.

The IDF also said its fighter jets targeted the offices of Hamas’ Internal Security Service, as well as a three-storey building in the Sabra district in eastern Gaza City that served as the “secret headquarters” of Hamas’s General Security Forces, and its General Intelligence and Military Intelligence agencies.

The official Palestinian news agency meanwhile reported that Israeli jets fired missiles at two locations in central Gaza City and in the eastern Shujaiya district.

At 21:00 local time (19:00 GMT), the IDF reported “air-raid sirens sounding across southern Israel”, while a reporter for news agency AFP said they saw “around 10 rockets” fire in quick succession.

But by 22:00 local time (20:00 GMT), Hamas officials were telling news agency a ceasefire had been reached with the help of Egyptian mediators. Israel is yet to comment on these claims.

A spokesman for the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, Ashraf al-Qudra, said on Twitter that seven people were injured, including three in northern Gaza.

Before launching the strikes, the IDF deployed two additional brigades to southern Israel and began what it called a “very limited” call-up of reservists.

Israeli authorities also closed roads near the boundary fence with Gaza, suspended agricultural work in the area, postponed major events in the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, and opened bomb shelters.

Israeli officials say the house in Mishmeret caught fire after being hit by the rocket

Seven injured as Gaza rocket hits home in central Israel

Seven people have been injured after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in central Israel, police say.

The rocket came down at 05:25 local time (03:25 GMT) in Mishmeret, 20km (12 miles) north of the city of Tel Aviv.

This is the furthest a Palestinian rocket has reached in Israel since the 2014 conflict with militants in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is cutting short a trip to the US over the incident, has vowed to respond with force.

So far no-one has said they carried out the attack. But an Israeli military spokeswoman has accused the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza.

A week and a half ago, two rockets were launched towards Tel Aviv and nobody was hurt. The Israeli military responded with dozens of air strikes across Gaza, which injured four people.

Hamas and Israeli officials later said those rockets had been fired “by mistake”.

Map showing Israel and Gaza

What happened on Monday?

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said the rocket that hit the house in Mishmeret was launched from Rafah in southern Gaza, about 120km (75 miles) away.

The explosion from the rocket severely damaged the house and set it on fire.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said it had treated two women who were moderately wounded and five other people, including an infant, a three-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, who had minor wounds.

The blast also caused damage to at least one nearby home and several vehicles.

“We heard the siren and we didn’t think it was anything, but my daughter made us go into the reinforced room,” Smadar Castelnovo, who lives opposite the house that was hit by the rocket, told Reuters news agency.

“My daughter was upset because we had left the dog out. We went out to get the dog and as soon as we went back in there was a very loud boom.”

Although the rocket triggered sirens in the Sharon and Emek Hefer regions, Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system did not appear to have been activated.

Who was behind the attack?

IDF spokeswoman Major Mika Lifshitz blamed Hamas.

“It’s a Hamas rocket, itself made by Hamas,” she said. “It has an ability to reach more than 120km.”

“We see Hamas as responsible for all that happens in the Gaza Strip,” she added.

Car damaged by rocket shrapnel in the community of Mishmeret, central Israel (25 March 2019)
Cars parked near the house were damaged by shrapnel from the rocket

Maj Lifshitz said the IDF was deploying two additional brigades to the area surrounding Gaza, and that there was a “very limited” calling up of reservists.

The Israeli authorities have also closed the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings with Gaza.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a statement: “There was a criminal attack on the State of Israel, and we will respond forcefully.”

Hamas has so far not commented, but its leader Yehiya Sinwar reportedly cancelled a public meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon.

But Islamic Jihad, another militant group, said: “We warn the Zionist enemy from committing an aggression against the Gaza Strip.”

The timing of this rocket launch comes at a very sensitive time.

The Israeli prime minister is fighting a close election campaign in which he is brandishing his security credentials. He had just arrived in Washington, where he was due to meet President Trump twice and give a speech.

He will now go once to the White House and then says he will return home “to manage our actions from close at hand”.

Already fears of an escalation were high with this week’s anniversary of the start of protests at Gaza’s boundary fence with Israel.

Egyptian security officials – who’ve been trying to broker a longer-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas – were due in Gaza this morning. Now, their efforts to bring quiet are in jeopardy.

Kurdish TV showed the SDF raising a yellow flag on top of buildings seized from IS in Baghuz

Islamic State group defeated as final territory lost, US-backed forces say

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) says the Islamic State group’s five-year “caliphate” is over after the militants’ defeat in Syria.

SDF fighters have been raising victory flags in Baghuz, the last stronghold of the jihadist group.

US President Donald Trump praised the “liberation” of Syria, but added: “We will remain vigilant against [IS].”

The jihadists retain a presence in the region and are active in countries from Nigeria to the Philippines.

At its height, IS controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of land stretching across Syria and Iraq.

After five years of fierce battles, though, local forces backed by world powers left IS with all but a few hundred square metres near Syria’s border with Iraq.

On Saturday, the White House released a statement in which President Trump described IS’s loss of territory as “evidence of its false narrative”, adding: “They have lost all prestige and power.”

How did the final battle unfold?

The SDF alliance began its final assault on IS at the start of March, with the remaining militants holed up in the village of Baghuz in eastern Syria.

The alliance was forced to slow its offensive after it emerged that a large number of civilians were also there, sheltering in buildings, tents and tunnels.

A map showing the shrinking IS territory in Syria

Thousands of women and children, foreign nationals among them, fled the fighting and severe shortages to make their way to SDF-run camps for displaced persons.

Many IS fighters have also abandoned Baghuz, but those who stayed put up fierce resistance, deploying suicide bombers and car bombs.

“Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100% territorial defeat of Isis [the IS group],” Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office, tweeted on Saturday.

Is this the end for Islamic State?

Confirming the victory, SDF General Mazloum Kobani said the forces would continue operations against IS sleeper cells, which he said were “a great threat to our region and the whole world”.

He called on the Syrian government, which has vowed to retake all of the country, to recognise autonomous areas under SDF control.

The US envoy to the coalition to defeat IS, William Roebuck, said the news was a “critical milestone”, but added that IS remains a threat “in the region, to the United States and our allies”.

IS ‘remains a threat’, US envoy warns

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the SDF’s announcement, saying a “major danger for our country has been eliminated”.

Why are there still concerns about IS?

IS grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It joined the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. By 2014 it had seized swathes of land in both countries and proclaimed a “caliphate”.

IS once imposed its rule on almost eight million people, and generated billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping, using its territory as a platform to launch foreign attacks.

The fall of Baghuz is a major moment in the campaign against IS. The Iraqi government declared victory against the militants in 2017.

But the group is far from defeated. US officials believe IS may have 15,000 to 20,000 armed adherents active in the region, many of them in sleeper cells, and that it will return to its insurgent roots while attempting to rebuild.

Even as its defeat in Baghuz was imminent, IS released a defiant audio recording purportedly from its spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, asserting that the caliphate was not finished.

The location of the group’s overall leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not known. But he has avoided being captured or killed, despite having fewer places to hide.

How the jihadist group rose and fell

Islamic State group defeated as final territory lost, US-backed forces say
October 2006
The jihadist group announces the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and in April 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi becomes its leader.

January 2013
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) begins seizing control of territory in Syria, including the city of Raqqa. In April that year, al-Baghdadi changes his group’s name to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil or Isis).

June 2014
Isis conquers over a dozen Iraqi cities and towns like Mosul and Tikrit, and seizes Syria’s largest oilfield in the Homs province. On 29 June, the jihadist group formally declares the creation of a caliphate and becomes known as Islamic State (IS).

August 2014
IS fighters begin killing and enslaving thousands from the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq and release the first of several videos of Western hostages – journalists and aid workers – being beheaded.

September 2014
The US begins air strikes, starting with attacks on the de-facto IS capital of Raqqa.

January 2015
IS is at the height of its control, ruling over almost eight million people across 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) from western Syria to eastern Iraq. It is also generating billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

March 2016
The Syrian government recaptures the ancient city of Palmyra, but loses it again in December 2016 and then finally recaptures the destroyed Unesco World Heritage site in March 2017.

July 2017
Iraqi forces liberate Mosul, but the 10-month battle leaves thousands of civilians dead, more than 800,000 displaced and much of Iraq’s second city destroyed.

October 2017
IS loses control of Raqqa to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, ending three years of rule.

December 2017
Iraq’s government declares victory over IS after retaking full control of the Iraqi-Syrian border.

February 2019
US President Donald Trump says the jihadist group is close to being defeated after a battle for the final IS-held territory on the Syrian-Iraqi border lasted weeks.

March 2019
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces says the Islamic State’s five-year “caliphate” is over after the militants were defeated in Syria.

Trump hails fall of Islamic State ‘caliphate’ in Syria

US President Donald Trump welcomed the fall of the Islamic State group’s five-year “caliphate”, but warned that the terror group remained a threat.

Mr Trump’s remarks came after Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) raised victory flags in the Syrian town of Baghuz, IS’s last stronghold.

He said the US would “remain vigilant until [IS] is finally defeated”.

Despite losing territory in Syria and Iraq, IS remains active in countries from Nigeria to the Philippines.

At its height, the group controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) across Syria and Iraq.

After five years of fierce battle, though, local forces backed by world powers left IS with all but a few hundred square metres near Syria’s border with Iraq.

On Saturday, the long-awaited announcement came from the SDF that it had seized that last IS territory. Western leaders hailed the announcement but emphasised that IS was still a danger.

“We will remain vigilant… until it is finally defeated wherever it operates,” Mr Trump said in a statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron said “the threat remains and the fight against terrorist groups must continue”.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the “historic milestone” but said her government remained “committed to eradicating [IS’s] poisonous ideology”.

BBC Arabic’s Feras Kilani says that losing their last stronghold is unlikely to be the end of Islamic State.

Trump statement

In a statement released by the White House on Saturday, Mr Trump said the US would “continue to work with our partners and allies… to fight [IS] until it is finally defeated.”

“The United States will defend American interests whenever and wherever necessary,” the statement read.

Mr Trump described IS’s loss of territory as “evidence of its false narrative”, adding: “They have lost all prestige and power.”

He also appealed to “all of the young people on the internet believing in [IS] propaganda”, saying: “Think instead about having a great life.”

IS ‘remains a threat’, US envoy warns

How did the final battle unfold?

The SDF alliance began its final assault on IS at the start of March, with the remaining militants holed up in the village of Baghuz in eastern Syria.

The alliance was forced to slow its offensive after it emerged that a large number of civilians were also there, sheltering in buildings, tents and tunnels.

A map showing the shrinking IS territory in Syria

Thousands of women and children, foreign nationals among them, fled the fighting and severe shortages to make their way to SDF-run camps for displaced persons.

Many IS fighters have also abandoned Baghuz, but those who stayed put up fierce resistance, deploying suicide bombers and car bombs.

Why are there still concerns about IS?

IS grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It joined the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. By 2014 it had seized swathes of land in both countries and proclaimed a “caliphate”.

IS once imposed its rule on almost eight million people, and generated billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping, using its territory as a platform to launch foreign attacks.

The fall of Baghuz is a major moment in the campaign against IS. The Iraqi government declared victory against the militants in 2017.

But the group is far from defeated. US officials believe IS may have 15,000 to 20,000 armed adherents active in the region, many of them in sleeper cells, and that it will return to its insurgent roots while attempting to rebuild.

Even as its defeat in Baghuz was imminent, IS released a defiant audio recording purportedly from its spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, asserting that the caliphate was not finished.

The location of the group’s overall leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not known. But he has avoided being captured or killed, despite having fewer places to hide.

How the jihadist group rose and fell

October 2006
The jihadist group announces the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and in April 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi becomes its leader.

January 2013
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) begins seizing control of territory in Syria, including the city of Raqqa. In April that year, al-Baghdadi changes his group’s name to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil or Isis).

June 2014
Isis conquers over a dozen Iraqi cities and towns like Mosul and Tikrit, and seizes Syria’s largest oilfield in the Homs province. On 29 June, the jihadist group formally declares the creation of a caliphate and becomes known as Islamic State (IS).

August 2014
IS fighters begin killing and enslaving thousands from the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq and release the first of several videos of Western hostages – journalists and aid workers – being beheaded.

September 2014
The US begins air strikes, starting with attacks on the de-facto IS capital of Raqqa.

January 2015
IS is at the height of its control, ruling over almost eight million people across 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) from western Syria to eastern Iraq. It is also generating billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

March 2016
The Syrian government recaptures the ancient city of Palmyra, but loses it again in December 2016 and then finally recaptures the destroyed Unesco World Heritage site in March 2017.

July 2017
Iraqi forces liberate Mosul, but the 10-month battle leaves thousands of civilians dead, more than 800,000 displaced and much of Iraq’s second city destroyed.

October 2017
IS loses control of Raqqa to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, ending three years of rule.

Trump hails fall of Islamic State 'caliphate' in Syria
December 2017
Iraq’s government declares victory over IS after retaking full control of the Iraqi-Syrian border.

February 2019
US President Donald Trump says the jihadist group is close to being defeated after a battle for the final IS-held territory on the Syrian-Iraqi border lasted weeks.

March 2019
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces says the Islamic State’s five-year “caliphate” is over after the militants were defeated in Syria. Despite the loss of territory, the group is still seen as a major security threat capable of mounting attacks in the region and worldwide.

The ferry was reportedly en route to this tourist island upstream from the city centre

Iraq ferry sinking: ‘More than 80 dead’ in Tigris river

More than 80 people are reported to have died after a ferry sank in the Tigris river in Iraq’s city of Mosul.

Most of the passengers on board could not swim, the head of Mosul’s civil defence agency said. Reports suggest nearly 200 people were on board.

The ferry was said to be heading towards a tourist island as part of new year celebrations.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has ordered an investigation “to determine responsibilities”.

In a statement Mr Mahdi said he was following the story “with pain and sadness”, and had ordered “all state efforts” to find survivors and treat victims.

The prime minister later toured a hospital and a morgue in the city, and declared three days of national mourning.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the special representative for Iraq of the United Nations secretary general, said it was a “terrible tragedy”.

“Our hearts go out to the families and relatives of the victims,” she said in a statement.

Authorities had reportedly warned people about rising water levels as the gates of the Mosul dam had been opened, and some are accusing the ship operator of ignoring the advice.

Iraq’s justice ministry reportedly ordered the arrest of nine ferry company workers, and barred the ship’s owners and the owners of the tourist site from leaving Iraq.

Images on social media showed the upturned vessel and people floating in the fast-flowing river.

Ambulances and helicopters arrived to help survivors and search for the bodies of those who died.

However, local information account Mosul Eye reports that security forces are trying to arrest journalists reporting on the ferry sinking.

Aftermath of Mosul ferry sinking
Iraqi soldiers helped join the search for survivors

Aftermath of Mosul ferry sinking
So far dozens of people have been saved from the waters

Tourist island near Mosul
People are celebrating Nowruz, the Kurdish new year festival

The vessel was said to be on its way to Umm Rabaen island, a tourist area about 4km (2.5 miles) upstream and north of the city centre. People across the region are celebrating Nowruz, the new year festival.

Mosul was captured by the Islamic State group in June 2014 and became its de-facto capital.

It was not liberated until July 2017 after a nine-month battle that left large parts of the city in ruins.

Iraq and Kurds hold 1,500 IS child suspects – HRW report:”

About 1,500 children are held in detention in Iraq and the country’s Kurdish-run areas for alleged links to Islamic State, Human Rights Watch says.

In a report, it says the suspects are often arbitrarily arrested and tortured to force confessions.

HRW urges the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to amend anti-terror laws to end such detentions, saying they violate international law.

Iraq and the Kurdish authorities have so far made no comment.

The Kurdish government has previously rejected an HWR report which alleged that children were being tortured to confess to IS links.

In January, an official said the local authorities’ policy was to “rehabilitate” such children; torture was prohibited; and children were afforded the same rights as other prisoners.

What did the HRW report say?

The 53-page report says that at the end of 2018 the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities were holding about 1,500 children for alleged IS links.

At least 185 foreign children have been convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to jail terms, HRW is quotes the Iraqi government as saying.

The HRW document alleges that the local authorities:

  • Often arrest and prosecute children with any perceived connection to IS
  • Use torture to coerce confessions and
  • Sentence suspects in hasty and unfair trials

“This sweeping, punitive approach is not justice, and will create lifelong negative consequences for many of these children,” said Joe Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for HRW.

What cases does HRW cite?

Last November, the report says, HRW interviewed 29 children held for alleged IS affiliation.

It says that 19 of the suspects reported that they had been tortured, including beatings with plastic pipes, electric cables or rods.

One of the children, a 17-year-old boy in Iraqi detention, said he was repeatedly suspended by his wrists for 10 minutes at a time, according to the report.

It also points out that most of those interviewed said they had joined IS because of economic need, peer or family pressure.

Some cited family problems or a desire to gain social status.

HRW says that those Iraqi children who have been released are afraid to return home because of the stigma of IS membership and a threat of revenge attacks.

The human rights group stresses that international law recognises children recruited by armed groups primarily as victims who should be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.