- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.