Pakistan: No Plans to Recognize Israel

Pakistan reiterated Tuesday it will not establish relations with Israel until there is “a viable, independent and contiguous” Palestinian state acceptable to the Palestinians.
The statement came in response to persistent speculative media reports and commentaries that the South Asian majority-Muslim nation might be reconsidering its rejection of recognizing Israel. 
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry refuted the media debate as baseless speculation and stressed that Islamabad “steadfastly supports the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination.” 
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent statement has been “clear and unequivocal” on the issue, underlined the ministry spokesman.
“The prime minister has made it clear that unless a just settlement of the Palestine issue, satisfactory to the Palestinian people, is found, Pakistan cannot recognize Israel,” the spokesman noted.
“For just and lasting peace, it is imperative to have a two-state solution in accordance with the relevant United Nations and OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) resolutions, with the pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as the capital of a viable, independent and contiguous Palestinian State,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Pakistan has denounced Israel since its inception in 1947. Pakistanis cannot visit the Jewish state because the country’s passport states that it is “valid for all countries of the world except Israel.”A combination picture shows Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Feb. 9, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported “secret” visit to Saudi Arabia this past Sunday for talks with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has fueled speculations Riyadh was moving toward recognizing Israel. 
Those speculations stemmed from the historic United States-brokered deal the United Arab Emirates reached with Israel in August establishing ties between the two countries. 
Saudi officials, however, denied the reported visit by Netanyahu.
But the alleged trip has also intensified rumors about Pakistan following suit and recognizing Israel under Saudi pressure.
Pakistan has a traditionally close partnership with Saudi Arabia, which is seen in Islamabad receiving crucial Saudi financial assistance and oil supplies on deferred payments, as the South Asian nation faces economic challenges.
Speaking to a private Pakistani television channel earlier this month, Prime Minister Khan admitted his government was under diplomatic pressure to recognize Israel. But he was evasive when asked to say if “brotherly Muslim countries” were also among those exerting the pressure on Pakistan in the wake of the UAE-Israel deal.
“Leave it, let’s move on,” Khan replied. “There are certain things that we cannot discuss in public because of our good relations with (Muslim countries). We wouldn’t want to upset them. Let our country stand up on its feet, then ask me such questions.”

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Russian Influence Peddlers Carving Out New Audiences on Fringes

After four years of warnings and preparations, the 2020 presidential election did not see a repeat of 2016, when intelligence officials concluded Russia meddled using a combination of cyberattacks and influence operations.  
 
But according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, as well as analysts, the good news ends there.   
 
The Russians, they warn, have been busy laying the foundation for future success.
 
Instead of relying on troll farms and fake social media accounts to try to sway the thoughts and opinions of American voters, they warn the Kremlin’s influence peddlers have instead gained a new foothold, establishing themselves as part of the United States’s news and social media ecosystem, ingratiating themselves to U.S. audiences on the far right and the far left.
 
“A lot of these campaigns are getting engagement in the millions,” Evanna Hu, chief executive officer of Omelas, told VOA. “They are pretty good at inducing the type of sentiment, a negative sentiment or a positive sentiment in the audience, from their posts.”
 
Omelas, a Washington-based firm that tracks online extremism for defense contractors, has been studying Russian content across 11 social media platforms and hundreds of RSS feeds in multiple languages, collecting 1.2 million posts in a 90-day period surrounding the November 3 election.
 
It found the most prolific Russian outlets included state-backed media outlets like RT, Sputnik, TASS and Izvestia TV.FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on the screen of a camera viewfinder in a studio of Russia’s RT television channel in Moscow, Russia, June 11, 2013.“We only look at active engagements, so you have to physically click on something or retweet it,” said Hu, admitting that the estimate for the millions of engagements is still “pretty rough.”
 
Also, Omelas determined that only about 20% of the posts pumped out by Russia’s propaganda and influence machine are in English. Forty percent of the content is in Russian, with the rest going out in Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and a handful of other languages.
 Russian-backed media
 
U.S. officials have been reluctant to speak publicly about the impact these efforts have had on American citizens, in part because there is no easy way to measure the effect.   
 
After the 2016 election, for example, intelligence officials repeatedly said while they were able to conclude Russian efforts expressed a preference for then-candidate Donald Trump, they could not say whether any Americans voted differently as a result.
 
Still, multiple officials speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject said it was unlikely that Russia would continue to spend money on these media ventures if the influence operations were not producing results.
 
An August 2020 report by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, while not sharing a figure, concluded Moscow “invests massively in its propaganda channels, its intelligence services and its proxies.”
 
U.S. election security officials have likewise repeatedly voiced concerns about Russia’s efforts to stake out space in the news and social media ecosystem.
 
“I’m telling you right now, if it comes from something tied back to the Kremlin, like RT or Sputnik or Ruptly, question the intent,” Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told a cybersecurity summit in September. “What are they trying to get you to do? Odds are, it’s not a good thing.”FILE – The main newsroom of Russia’s Sputnik news is seen in Moscow, April 27, 2018.Senior CISA officials again called out Russian-backed media while briefing reporters on Election Day (November 3), begging Americans to treat any information coming from Russian-linked sources with a “hefty, hefty, hefty dose of skepticism.”  
 Disinformation payoff
 
To some extent, the repeated warnings about Russian-supported outlets like RT and Sputnik have paid off, at least when it comes to this month’s presidential election.
 
“They (RT and Sputnik) aren’t prominent domains in any of the analyses that we’ve done on false narratives of voter fraud,” Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor and lead researcher with the Election Integrity Partnership, told VOA via email.
 
“They do sometimes amplify disinformation that is already spreading,” she added. “But they typically come in late and rarely change the trajectory of that disinformation.”
 
Some intelligence officials and researchers warn, though, that for now, that could very well be enough.
 
“You still see people sharing their (Russian) content in America,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent who has been studying Russian disinformation efforts for years. “The reach of Russian news inside the U.S. … is exponentially higher than in other countries. So, they can see a return on it.”
 Redfish red herring
 
To help grow that return even more, and to avoid labels that identify the content as Russian, outlets like RT and Sputnik have also begun pushing content through the social media accounts of some of their most popular hosts, added Watts, currently a non-resident fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Then there is the Redfish channel on Instagram, which Watts said has allowed Russia to gain “significant traction.”“They put up a heavy rotation on George Floyd protests, and that is now where you see Americans sharing it routinely, millions and millions of shares,” Watts told VOA. “They dramatically raised their profile, particularly with the political left in the United States and African Americans, who I’m convinced have no idea that Redfish is a Russian outfit.”
 Far-right appeal
 
Russia is also finding ways to resonate with the far right.
 
According to the August report by the Global Engagement Center, Russian proxy websites like Canada’s Global Research website or the Russian-run Strategic Culture Foundation amplify conspiracy theories about subjects like the coronavirus.
 
Researchers like Watts say that propaganda then sometimes finds its way onto far-right websites such as ZeroHedge or The Duran, where it gets amplified again.
 
Another researcher warned that Russian efforts are also resonating with far-right conspiracy theorists, some of whom will pick up propaganda from proxy sites, or more mainstream sources like RT.
 
“All of these Q(Anon)-driven accounts — they love the Russian stuff,” the researcher told VOA on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the work.
 Into the mainstream
 
Not all Russian propaganda efforts circulate on the fringes of American politics. Some of the narratives hang around and are repeated often enough that they become difficult to ignore.
 
“So then, they can get somebody else from the American far right or far left to pick up on that story and then eventually snowball that so mainstream picks up on it … coopting the American media in a sense,” said Omelas’s CEO, Hu.  
 
Other times, Russia’s influence peddlers have found their contributors thrust into the spotlight.
 
For example, on November 20, U.S. President Trump repeatedly retweeted Wayne Dupree, who regularly writes opinion pieces for RT.We have great support on the Election Hoax! https://t.co/ChpkuZvc4s— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2020 
Just days earlier in a RT opinion piece, Dupree slammed what he described as “the fraudulent and brazen behavior of these Democrats to destroy the election’s integrity.”“They are all going to fall hard, along with the major news networks that have sought to brainwash the American people,” Dupree added. “The entire system is coming down, folks. Get ready.”
 
A number of researchers and U.S. counterintelligence officials say the incident falls into what has become an all-too familiar pattern.It’s actually quite a bit worse than that, the whole convergence of Kremlin media and conservative media…. https://t.co/dlJsUeeZOo— Clint Watts (@selectedwisdom) November 20, 2020In June, U.S. officials and lawmakers warned that RT purposefully courted outspoken, local U.S. police officers and union officials, attempting to use their reactions to protests sweeping across the country to further inflame tensions.
 
“They know they no longer need to do their own work,” National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina told Hearst Television in October.  
 
“They’re now taking U.S. citizens’ information, and they are taking it and amplifying it,” he said. “Whether it be conspiracy theorists or legitimate folks who have wrong information, they get amplified consistently.” 

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Former NATO Commander Expects Biden Administration to Keep Troops in Afghanistan

In an interview Monday with VOA, James Stavridis, retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, said the U.S. and its allies should keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban into a peace agreement with the Afghan government. Stavridis told Breshna Omarkhel of VOA’s Afghan Service he was confident President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will maintain a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, testifies before a Senate Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing, March 26, 2015.How long will Afghanistan depend on international help, and how long will the international community be willing to help Afghanistan? My sense is the international community will in fact continue to support Afghanistan, really, for the indefinite future. I certainly believe the United States, in particular, with a Biden administration coming in, will be very likely to want to conclude a successful peace agreement. I think the entire international community wants that. So, the level of aid may be reduced a bit, but I think as a general proposition, the support will continue, frankly, because we are getting closer and closer to a peace agreement, inshallah (God willing). Last weekend when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was talking to the Taliban in Doha, insurgents fired rockets on Kabul, killing eight civilians and injuring dozens more. What message did the insurgents give to the U.S. through such a brazen attack? Well, first of all, we need to try and differentiate between different factions of insurgents in Afghanistan. The Islamic State is active. Al-Qaida is active. Neither of them had any interest in a peace agreement. Even within the Taliban, there is division. … So, we don’t know certainly who launched those particular attacks. But I will say this: All of them are unhelpful in concluding this agreement. … My advice, if I were advising the insurgents, is, ‘You would be smart to look beyond the Trump administration and focus on the incoming Biden administration.’ My belief is the Biden administration will maintain U.S. troop presence for the foreseeable future [and] will support the Afghan government. And I don’t see a sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan. If that is your hope, launching rockets is not going to get you there. President Donald Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan before Biden takes charge in January. What kind of difficulties might the new administration face if things do not go well in Afghanistan? I think the new administration will look very seriously at bringing back some additional number of troops, whether President Trump gets all 2,500 of them home by the inauguration or not. My own belief is that a Biden administration will take a zero-based review of the situation. That is their style, their policy points. Recall that this is a team, the Biden administration, all of whom are deeply experienced in Afghanistan. I worked with all of the senior members during those years when I was supreme allied commander. They have a good feel for Afghanistan. I think the minimum level of troops to sustain a peace agreement dialogue is probably around 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. troops and about the same number of allied troops. I think you’ll see a Biden administration look hard at returning to that baseline that keeps the pressure on the Taliban at the negotiating table. That is the best path forward for a peace agreement. Will reversing Trump’s Afghan policy be an option for the Biden administration? Every administration comes in, looks at the global scene and makes decisions. ‘Do we send a new carrier battle group to the Arabian Gulf? Do we pull one back from the Caribbean Sea? Are we going to close bases in Europe? Are we going to open new bases in Poland? Are we going to continue to have 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, or are we going to go with reductions put in place by the Trump administration?’ This administration will look at all its options globally, and I’m confident that the mission in Afghanistan will become more conditions-based than it appears to have been over the last year with the Trump administration. I think that’s good news for Afghanistan. The Taliban have increased attacks across Afghanistan. Targeted killings are also at all-time high, resulting in the loss of trust of the government among citizens. Do you see any risks of the fall of the system in Afghanistan in the absence of U.S. troops? There is always the possibility of a sudden reversal of events. My own view would be, so long as the U.S. and allies, the NATO mission, continue at some minimal level — even if we continue with the Trump troop cuts, but you still keep 3,000 U.S. (and) 3,000 NATO troops there — and … you continue to financially support the Afghan National Security Forces, then I think they will be able to hold off the Taliban indefinitely. …  So, let’s continue to watch the money, as the saying goes, and let’s hope. My hope and my advice to a Biden administration would be, ‘We have come too far. We’ve invested too much. This is the wrong time to simply walk away from this Afghan mission that we have conducted with our allies, partners and friends, and, above all, with the people of Afghanistan.’ We can continue to support them with a minimal troop presence, and we can continue with relatively small amounts of funding. Those are both well within the capacity of the U.S. and its allies. And I would firmly advocate for them if we can. I don’t think the future is bright for the Taliban. Roshan Noorzai of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk contributed to this report. 

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Nigerian Men’s Involvement Key to Stopping Gender-Based-Violence

As COVID-19 lockdowns have seen increasing cases of gender-based-violence, Nigeria’s traditional and religious leaders are urging men to protect the rights of women and girls.  The campaign coincides with the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Nov 25), as Timothy Obiezu reports from Abuja.Camera: Emeka Gibson       Produced by: Jon Spier 

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Donors Tie Future Afghanistan Aid to Strict Conditions

Donor countries have tied Afghanistan’s future civilian financial aid of $3 billion a year for four years to strict conditions, including maintaining human rights, improving governance and reducing corruption.“Afghanistan and the international community have entered a new and very disciplined phase of their long-standing partnership,” said Deborah Lyons, the United Nations secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, at a two-day donor conference that ended Tuesday in Geneva.The new cooperation, she added, will be underlined by conditionality and a tough, yearly, review mechanism.Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Special Representative of the Secretary General of the U.N. for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons wear masks prior to the plenary session of the 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva, Nov. 24, 2020.The conference, attended by more than 90 delegations representing countries and international aid agencies, also adopted a unanimous political communique which “calls first and foremost for an immediate, permanent, and comprehensive cease-fire,” Lyons said.Similar calls for a cease-fire have been ignored by the Taliban for months. The U.N., NATO, and others say the Taliban has raised the level of violence to a 10-year high since it signed a deal with the United States in February.Calls to maintain human rights, in particular the rights of women, and to tackle corruption were repeated throughout the plenary session.“The EU (European Union) support will be maintained or reviewed depending on Afghanistan’s continued commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality,” said Jutta Urpilainen, the EU commissioner for international partnerships. For now, the EU has maintained its current level of assistance by pledging $1.4 billion over the next four year.The EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, also warned against trying to impose a 1990s-style Taliban rule at a time when an Afghan government team is negotiating with the militant group to end decades of conflict through a political settlement.“As the United Nations Security Council said, any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement,” Borrell said.While promising $270 million over the next three years, Canada also linked its aid to maintaining gains made in the last 19 years.“Canada will monitor developments at the negotiating table with great interest and calibrate our contributions accordingly,” said Karina Gould, the Canadian minister of international development.Many activists in Afghanistan say they fear that a Taliban return to power, even through a political settlement, might erode many of the rights Afghans have come to enjoy since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Many in Afghanistan remember the Taliban rule in the 1990s as brutal, when women were denied the right to education, minorities suffered discrimination and violence, and harsh punishments like public flogging were common.The Netherlands said its contribution of up to $237 million in the next four years was not a “carte blanche” and that it expected corruption to be tackled “efficiently” and women’s rights to be upheld.Denmark said its support comes with “clear expectations” of tackling corruption, making women part of decision-making processes, and upholding human rights and the rule of law.“Progress made must be maintained and further advanced,” said Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s minister of foreign affairs.The quadrennial conference, the sixth of its kind, is the last one of what was labeled Afghanistan’s Transformation Decade. The 10-year period from 2015 to the end of 2024 was supposed to end in a self-reliant country.Instead, three-fourths of the country’s public spending still depends on foreign aid. According to the World Bank, the Afghan economy is expected to contract by more than 5 percent in 2020 due to the global pandemic fueled by the novel coronavirus.The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, along with Finland and Afghanistan, co-hosted the conference. The coronavirus pandemic forced most of the activity online, with only representatives of the hosts present in the conference hall in person. Most statements were made virtually.The last donor conference was held in 2016 in Brussels and before that in Tokyo in 2012.Although the amount pledged this year was much less than the $15.2 billion pledged in Brussels, it was still far higher than many expected.Lyons called it “beyond our expectations” and a “global hug” to the war-torn country but added, “Even a hug has conditions and consequences.”

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Sudan Humanitarian Groups: Refugees Could Reach 200,000

Humanitarian organizations are ramping up efforts to assist refugees who continue streaming into Sudan to escape fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.Jense Hesemann, emergency coordinator for the U.N. refugee agency in Sudan, said thousands of new Ethiopian refugees are arriving in Sudan every day.“The emergency refugee registration teams at UNHCR and the government’s commission for refugees here in Sudan by now have registered over 40,000 new arrivals from Ethiopian since the 7th of November this year,” Hesemann told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.The refugees enter Sudan through the Hamdayet border point in Kassala state, the Lugdi border point in Gadaref state and a new location further south at the Aderafi border point where about 700 Ethiopian refugees crossed into Sudan’s Blue Nile state over the weekend.The number of Ethiopian refugees entering Sudan could soon reach 200,000 if fighting between Ethiopian federal government troops and Tigray regional forces continues, said Hesemann.A Tigray refugee girl who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, sits on aid she received from the UNHCR and WFP at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Nov. 24, 2020.U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday urged government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to give clear orders to their forces to spare and protect the civilian population from ongoing clashes.”The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for [Tigray’s regional capital of] Mekelle is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger,” Bachelet said.”I fear such rhetoric will lead to further violations of international humanitarian law,” she added, expressing alarm at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around Mekelle.Artis Noor, Sudan country director for U.S.-based Mercy Corps, recently visited Gadaref state’s Um Raquba camp where his agency set up a health clinic and has treated thousands of Ethiopian refugees.“In Um Raquba as of yesterday we had more than 6,500 individuals who have been living in that camp,” Noor told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus. “Mercy Corps is providing critical health services, urgently needed health services through a health clinic which is basically a primary health center and we are providing outdoor consultations.”Noor said Mercy Corps also established a referral facility with an ambulance to treat “seriously ill refugees” who require the “next level of care.”“On average we are seeing between 90 to 120 patients each day, most of them are women and children and the most common illnesses we are seeing are upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhea and malaria,” Noor told VOA.A humanitarian worker from UNHCR, documents Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, at the Um-Rakoba camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in the Al-Qadarif state, Sudan, Nov. 23, 2020.On top of the large influx of refugees from Ethiopia, Noor said Sudan is still coping with the effects of devastating floods, a second wave of COVID-19 cases, and a deteriorating economy.“The government was already struggling to meet the humanitarian needs in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the floods and now it has to deal with the refugee situation as well, so this is going to stretch the already meager resources the government of Sudan has,” added Noor.Hesemann and Noor are calling on international donors to increase their support so that the UNHCR and Mercy Corps can assist the growing numbers of Ethiopian refugees.

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