TIME

How a Marvel Comic Hero Became the Icon of the Fight Against ISIS

The Punisher skull logo seen painted on the helmet of an Iraqi army soldier patrolling in Baghdad in 2007.
Patrick Baz—AFP/Getty Images The Punisher skull logo seen painted on the helmet of an Iraqi army soldier patrolling in Baghdad in 2007.

The creator of The Punisher says he is 'flabbergasted' by the appropriation of his image by Iraqi fighters

The stencils of skulls on the vests of Iraqi fighters entering Tikrit last week may look familiar to many Americans. The long fanged, wincing face is that of the Punisher, a Marvel comic character whose mission is to fight evil employing all means necessary.

The Punisher’s journey from the mind of a Californian comic-book writer to the battle for Tikrit has been a long one. He was created 40 years ago as an anti-hero cameo for a Feb. 1974 edition of The Amazing Spider-Man.

“The Punisher was originally conceived as a secondary, one-issue, throw-away character,” says Gerry Conway who created the Punisher along with artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru. “But readers really responded to him. He was sort of like an anti-villain, as opposed to an anti-hero.”

In his regular life the Punisher is Frank Castle, a veteran of the Vietnam War whose family was killed in the crossfire of a mob dispute. Angry that the police fail to bring his family’s killers to justice, Castle takes the law into his own hands as the Punisher, using torture, murder and kidnapping in his anti-crime crusade. For the Punisher the ends justify the means in fighting evil.

“That is paralleling the Shi’ite militia,” says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum.

As a poorly-guided vigilante the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Italian journalist Daniele Raineri documented the popularity of the Punisher image throughout Iraq in a series of tweets last week.

“I think they forget the American association and just think, ‘oh, look how cool we are with these death skulls’,” says Tamimi. He points out that Iraqis appropriate “American symbols, despite of course the rampant anti-Americanism particularly with the Shi’ite militias. It’s an interesting discord.”

These Iraqi fighters are not the first Middle East militants to appropriate American insignia. Tamimi points to the example of the Iraqi Shiite militia Faylaq al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq, which uses the famous image of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II on their logo—despite its association with the U.S.

Faylaq al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq “is about as anti-American has you can get. It was a proxy group set up to attack U.S. forces in the days of the Iraq war,” says Tamimi. “‘I think they come to the point where they forget about the American connection and they just see these as general symbols of military might and strength.”

In the case of the Punisher, it was actually U.S. soldiers that first brought him to the battlefield in Iraq. The unit of Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, called themselves the Punishers, labeling their gear with the four-fang skull and painting it on walls of Iraqi homes and buildings to mark their territory.

“He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him,” wrote Kyle in his autobiography, which details his life as the U.S.’s most deadly sniper. “We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. We spray-painted it on every building or wall we could, We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to f**k with you.”

For Conway, the appropriation of his comic character by gun-toting soldiers and militiamen is uncomfortable, if not depressing.

MarvelPunisher Vol 6 #9

“I was an anti-war person. I argued against it and certainly wrote against it,” says Conway who was 21-years-old when he invented the character. At the time he filed for conscious objector status before being excused from the draft for the Vietnam War on medical grounds. “We’d probably be considered the weak-kneed hippies they’d want to punch out.”

Perhaps the strangest thing for Conway is how popular the Punisher has become despite the character’s moral ambiguity and violent actions. People wearing t-shirts with the skull emblem regularly approach Conway at comic-book conventions, proclaiming the Punisher is their favorite character.

“In my mind he’s not a good guy,” say Conway.

However, Conway says he can understand how the Punisher may appeal to soldiers and militiamen who risk their lives for a cause in sometimes morally difficult situations.

“Here’s a guy that never questions himself. He never asks, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ say Conway. “I think there is something really attractive about that to people.”

It was so attractive, that in Kyle’s memoir he notes that his unit’s sister platoon had wanted to use the Punisher also.

“We told them we are the Punishers. They had to get their own symbol,” wrote Kyle. But while they might have stopped their American comrades from adopting the Punisher, they clearly had no control over the Iraqi fighters of today. And Conway has no control at all over who uses his character.

“I’m flabbergasted by the whole thing,” says Conway. “It’s very strange for me as creator to see this. Nobody asked my permission.”

Read next: The New Spider-Man Will Be a Teenage Peter Parker, Again

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TIME Middle East

U.N. Warns of ‘Slaughter’ in ISIS-Held Refugee Camp

Palestinian refugees demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp, overrun by Islamic State militants last week, in the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, Lebanon, on Apr. 10, 2015.
Mohammed Zaatari—AP Palestinian refugees demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp, overrun by Islamic State militants last week, in the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, Lebanon, on Apr. 10, 2015.

ISIS controls roughly half of the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria

The United Nations warned Friday of a “potential massacre” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria that was partially seized by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

ISIS now controls roughly half of the Yarmouk camp, which is home to some 18,000 people, according to the U.N.

“Today, this hour, we are looking at nothing short of the potential massacre of the innocents,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said in a call with journalists on Friday.

“We have called for a cease-fire,” Gunness said. “We have called for humanitarian access so that people can have aid administered to them where they are.”

The camp is located in the outskirts of the capital Damascus, which is mostly controlled by government forces.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon warned that the refugee camp “is beginning to resemble a death camp.”

TIME

Banksy Mural Seized by Gaza Police Amid Ownership Dispute

Banksy mural in Gaza that Palestinian police have seized from Gaza artist who bought the artwork
Mohammed Saber—EPA A Palestinian woman looks at a graffiti artwork reportedly done by British artist Banksy as it appears in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip on Feb. 28, 2015.

Banksy's representative had reportedly contacted the family to say the street artist believed the mural ought to be returned to Dardouna

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Police in Gaza say they have seized a door bearing a drawing by British graffiti artist Bansky after the door’s owner said he was tricked into selling it for less than $200.

The popular street artist is believed to have entered Gaza earlier this year, leaving behind four murals, including one of a Greek goddess drawn on a metal door. The door was the last remaining part of the Dardouna family’s house, which was destroyed in last year’s war.

MORE: Gaza man tricked into selling Banksy mural for $175

Police spokesman Ayman Batniji says the door was seized Thursday following a court order and a complaint by Rabie Dardouna. Claiming to be unaware of its potential worth, Dardouna sold the door to a local artist.

The court is expected to decide the door’s rightful owner.

TIME Middle East

Inside the Village Caught in the Crossfire Between Israel, Syria and Lebanon

Smoke rises next to the village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border, as a result of the fire exchange between the Israeli and Hezbollah militant group on Jan. 28, 2015.
Atef Safadi—EPA Smoke rises next to the village of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border, as a result of the fire exchange between the Israeli and Hizballah militant group on Jan. 28, 2015.

When loud explosions rocked the small hilltop village of Ghajar — partly located in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights — a few months ago, a sense of terror that a long dreaded conflict had finally arrived rippled through the local residents.

As the locals dove to the ground, five anti-tank missiles whizzed past their windows aimed at IDF (Israeli Defence Force) vehicles on a road two miles away. Two Israeli soldiers were killed on the spot. The sixth missile, which had possibly gone astray, struck a house in Ghajar, piercing through the roof and setting it on fire.

“Amazingly, there was no one inside — the mother and two children left only 10 minutes previously”, says Najib Khatib, Ghajar’s spokesman, shaking his head.

The incident may seem a freak event in this picturesque community of 2,450 people, with pastel-hued houses and friendly residents who, when asked for directions, unhesitatingly wave you inside their living rooms for coffee and cakes.

But the tidy homes are pock-marked by bullets — testament to the many times the community has found itself caught in the fighting between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Ghajar is Israel’s only Alawite village. Residents vote for Israeli politicians and also support President Bashar al-Assad. They also fear a new war between Israel and Hizballah, the Lebanese Shiite militia.

The name ‘Ghajar’ means ‘Gypsy’ in Arabic and holds more than a grain of truth in describing the tri-border existence of its residents, in a region where nationalist identities have been as fluid as the village’s borders.

In 1967, Israel conquered the Golan Heights from Syria and those Ghajar residents who remained later chose to accept Israeli citizenship when the territory was annexed in 1981. In 1982, when Israel occupied southern Lebanon, the village expanded into Lebanese territory. When Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, the residents in northern Ghajar suddenly found themselves living in Lebanon, whilst their relatives and neighbours who previously lived just across the street now lived in a separate country — and an enemy state.

“You know, when I was a child at school, I simply couldn’t believe that the Earth was spinning around like a ball”, Najib Khatib explains, standing a few metres beyond the United Nations Blue Line which in theory separates the Israeli side of the village from the Lebanese.

“But later, I realised that the proof was beneath my feet: once this [village] was Syria, then Israel and now they say it’s Lebanon!”

The division of the village — one half in Israel, the other in Lebanon — lasted until 2006 when Israel invaded north Ghajar during the Second Lebanon War.

Earlier, in November 2005, Hezbollah launched an assault on the village, firing mortars and Katyusha rockets on IDF positions and civilian houses. Nine months later, an all-out war erupted, triggered by a cross-border kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers not far from Ghajar. The second Lebanon war resulted in the deaths of over 1,400 Lebanese and 163 Israelis.

The U.N.-brokered truce which ended the war did not prevent Hizballah from re-arming and continuing to threaten Israel.

“We have weapons that can bring us a victory against any type of Israeli aggression”, boasted Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a recent televised address.

When asked about the threat of war, Samira, a sharp-witted housewife in her 30s who has lived in the village all her life, appears relaxed. “We are used to it. Every year, year and a half, they make us a little ‘party’ ”, she says, referring to the clashes between Israel and Hizballah that have been going on for decades.

In January 2015, Israel attacked a joint Hizballah-Iranian military convoy on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, killing an Iranian commander and six Hizballah operatives. When Hizballah retaliated, Ghajar found itself, once again, at the centre of the action.

“In January, there was a loud explosion and lots of smoke”, Samira says. “What did we do? We lay on the floor and we cried”.

Hizballah has also been taking part in the war in Syria, committing as much as a quarter of its fighting force to battles raging across the Lebanese border.

Ghajar residents also worry about the possible spillover of the conflict in Syria, with the border located only a few miles away.

The Alawites are a Shiite sect that includes the Assad clan and its supporters. The civil war pits Assad against mostly Sunni rebels. The villagers are terrified that, if the rebels succeed in taking over the Israel-Syria border, Ghajar will be the next target.

“I’m really afraid of them. I’ve been hearing the stories about them. They’re awful, they’re animals”, Mohammad, a local dentist says of the rebels. “Even animals do not do what they do.” “[…] They don’t stop, they just carry on murdering people.”

As such, in Ghajar support for Assad remains strong among many of the residents. “President Assad is doing what the terrorists are deserving”, Mohammad says. “If a guy walks into your home and tries to terrorise your family, what would you do?”

But while the residents of Ghajar have endured wars and terrorism, their concern is the future of the village. The U.N. and Beirut insist that the northern half of the village will be given back to Lebanon, despite the fact that the Blue Line border runs directly through Ghajar’s centre and several nearby houses. In 2010, the Israeli cabinet came close to an agreement to withdraw but the matter remains to be settled

The residents are opposed to the division. “We are not Lebanese, we don’t have any links to Lebanon”, says Khatib. If the village was transferred into Lebanon’s hands, the locals, he says, would become “refugees”.

For years, Khatib and others have been holding protests and demonstrations against any change to the village boundaries. Khatib says he has lobbied everyone from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to successive Israeli Prime Ministers on this, delivering “stacks of plans , maps and building permits all to show that Ghajar is not Lebanese”. So far, little has changed.

“As citizens, we feel we have no say in this. We feel we have no control over our future”, he says. “We are peaceful people but we will become Lebanese only over our dead bodies”.

TIME Middle East

Iran Deploys Warships Near Yemen Amid Saudi-led Airstrikes

Smoke billows from a Saudi-led airstrike on Sanaa, Yemen, April 8, 2015.
Hani Mohammed—AP Smoke billows from a Saudi-led airstrike on Sanaa, Yemen, April 8, 2015.

The maneuver comes amid an intense Saudi-led Gulf Arab air campaign targeting the Yemeni rebels

(SANAA, Yemen) — Iran dispatched a naval destroyer and another vessel Wednesday to waters near Yemen as the United States quickened weapons supply to the Saudi-led coalition striking rebels there, underlining how foreign powers are deepening their involvement in the conflict.

Iran’s English-language state broadcaster Press TV quoted Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari as saying the ships would be part of an anti-piracy campaign “safeguarding naval routes for vessels in the region.”

The maneuver comes amid an intense Saudi-led Gulf Arab air campaign targeting the Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, who come from a Shiite sect. Critics say Shiite power Iran backs the Houthis, though both the Islamic Republic and the rebels deny any direct military assistance.

Speaking a day earlier in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed the violence in Yemen on the Houthis, and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, saying that the U.S. is committed to defending Saudi Arabia.

“We have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination and planning cell in the Saudi operations center,” he said in a statement to reporters after meeting with Saudi royals and Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled his country amid rebel advances.

Intelligence sharing includes making available raw aerial imagery the coalition could use to better strike anti-Hadi forces, said a U.S. defense official who was not authorized to comment publicly. Blinken said the U.S. and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council must coordinate closely and press all parties to seek a political solution.

The Gulf Arab-backed air campaign supporting Hadi, which began on March 26, has so far failed to stop the Houthis’ advance on Aden, Yemen’s second-largest city, which was declared the provisional capital by Hadi before he fled.

The U.S. says that the chaos has allowed the local al-Qaida branch, which it considers the world’s most dangerous wing of the group, to make “great gains” on the ground, causing Washington to rethink how it prevents it from launching attacks in the West.

Speaking from Tokyo, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the collapse of the central government in Yemen makes it harder to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida, which has ambitions to strike Western targets, including the United States. Regarding the weapons deliveries, he said it involved “some resupply of equipment and munitions” to Saudi Arabia.

The World Health Organization warned Tuesday of an unfolding humanitarian crisis, saying at least 560 people, including dozens of children, have been killed, mostly in the air campaign and ground battles. The aid group said that over 1,700 people have been wounded and another 100,000 have fled their homes as fighting has intensified over the past three weeks.

The first boat carrying medical aid to Yemen since the coalition began bombing arrived in the southern port city of Aden on Wednesday, international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said.

The group’s head of mission in Yemen, Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, said the ship carried some 2.5 tons of supplies from Djibouti for its hospital in Aden.

The group is concerned about how it will transport the supplies and wounded people given the chaos in Aden’s streets, where the situation continues to deteriorate and combat intensified overnight.

“We have street fighting, snipers, tanks in the street, roads cut and areas not accessible, and electricity, water and fuel cuts,” she said. “Last night the different groups were fighting around the hospital. It lasted all night into the morning and continues now, so all our employees were forced to sleep at the hospital.”

Tons of desperately needed aid awaits clearance to be flown into Yemen, including a Red Cross shipment with 17 tons of medical supplies from Jordan which emergency workers hope can be flown into the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Wednesday. Another 35 tons of supplies were also ready for shipment.

Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch cited witnesses as saying that Houthi forces fired into crowds of demonstrators in the cities of Taiz and Torba the day before the bombing campaign began, killing at least 7 people and wounding over 80 others. The New York-based group called on Houthi authorities to investigate the incidents.

“Yemen’s spiraling conflict is causing a calamitous breakdown in law and order,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces in control, whatever side they are on, have responsibilities to uphold and protect people’s rights and to take action against their members who commit abuses.”

___

Rohan reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

TIME Middle East

ISIS Floats Idea of Truce With West After Military Setbacks

A member of the Iraqi security forces runs to plant the national flag as they surround Tikrit during clashes to regain the city from Islamic State militants, 80 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, March 30, 2015.
Khalid Mohammed—AP A member of the Iraqi security forces runs to plant the national flag as they surround Tikrit during clashes to regain the city from Islamic State militants, 80 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, March 30, 2015.

The group used its English-language magazine and its English hostage to raise the issue

After a series of battlefield setbacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) this week raised the prospect of an eventual truce with Western states that have joined the struggle to defeat it.

The idea emerged in Tuesday’s latest edition of Dabiq, the militants’ glossy English-language online magazine, in an article purportedly written by John Cantlie, a British war photographer the group has held hostage since November 2012.

ISIS has previously disseminated videos of Cantlie from various locations that the group controls in Syria and Iraq in which he was seen countering Western accounts of life under its rule.

The author of the Dabiq article, titled “Paradigm Shift”, claims to detect a change in the Western view of ISIS from seeing it as a terrorist organization to accepting it is a country in its own right.

“Although the West might never admit such a thing, there are Western politicians who are beginning to realize this fact,” it reads, “and thus, little by little, we’re seeing a changing of vernacular, a paradigm shift in how those leaders talk about the State, because if it is a country – whether recognized by anyone or not (and the Islamic State doesn’t care either way) – then that changes things, dramatically.”

The article quotes comments from a number of current and retired U.S. officials to back its claim. It refers, for example, to retired U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cowan telling Fox News in October 2014: “ISIS will have taken more towns, more territory, consolidated more gains and really become, unfortunately, the kind of country we don’t want to see over there.”

Neither this or other quoted comments are very recent, raising the question of why the claim of a “paradigm shift” or a possible truce has been raised now. If not an oblique signal of the group’s present relative weakness, it might be an effort to drive a wedge between those who support and oppose further Western involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign.

The article insists Western bombing raids in support of badly-trained local forces will not work. And then comes the truce pitch: “At some stage, you’re going to have to face the Islamic State as a country, and even consider a truce.”

There is no way of establishing independently whether the article was written by Cantlie. A former hostage of ISIS, journalist Javier Espinosa, has said that Cantlie tried to escape twice with fellow photojournalist James Foley, who was beheaded by the militants last year. The attempts earned them weeks of harsh punishment.

In any event, the truce idea — floated in IS’s main English-language propaganda vehicle — must have the group’s approval.

The idea is raised in familiar triumphalist tones: “Is a truce even realistic?” the article asks. “Right now, it’s too early. The scene is just being set for a big operation against the Islamic State to be executed by Iranian militias (AKA the Iraqi army) backed by the US.

“But when that fails because Shiite militiamen are afraid of being burnt alive, when special forces operations skyrocket in an effort to make up for what the Iraqi army cannot achieve, and when the mujahedin start beheading Western troops, then every option is going to be on the table, and fast. A truce will be one of those options.” It insists that at some stage a truce will be the only option open to America and the West and “the sensible one”.

The article comes with an editor’s note that a halt of war between Muslims and the kuffar [infidels] can never be permanent, “as war against the kuffar is the default obligation upon the Muslims.” The note also demonstrates that as fundamentalist as ISIS claim to be, they are also permitted to be pragmatic as the point of the truce is to allow them to better achieve their strategic aims in future.

The confident predictions on behalf of ISIS are at odds with the current situation on the ground, where the militants have been mostly expelled from the Iraqi city of Tikrit in the face of an Iraqi army and militia advance. Elsewhere in Iraq, local forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, have pushed back the ISIS front line with the support of U.S. and other allied air strikes.

In Syria, ISIS militants were ousted from the Kurdish border town of Kobane after a lengthy siege last year. The Dabiq article even tries to portray that defeat as a victory by suggesting that the fighting left the town totally destroyed.

The “truce” article appears in the eighth edition of Dabiq, a glossily illustrated web magazine, designed to appeal to would-be recruits in the English-speaking world. Dabiq 8 continues a familiar pattern of glorifying ISIS’s violent acts and predicting the inevitability of its victory.

The current edition lauds the recruitment of child soldiers — the Lion Cubs of the Khalifah — and their role in the murder of hostages. It also praises the killers of more than 20 people, including foreign tourists, at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on 18 March. “The operation succeeded in bringing anguish to a number of the nations involved in the crusader coalition (Italy, France, Britain, Japan, Poland, Australia, Spain, and Belgium), after some of their own citizens became prey for the soldiers of the Islamic State,” one article boasts.

TIME conflict

Iraq Declares Victory Over ISIS in Tikrit

IRAQ-CONFLICT-IS
Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units walk past murals depicting the emblem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria group outside one of the presidential palaces in Tikrit, on April 1, 2015.

The U.S. launched airstrikes last week in support of Iraqi ground forces

(TIKRIT, Iraq) — Iraq declared a “magnificent victory” Wednesday over the Islamic State group in Tikrit, a key step in driving the militants out of their biggest strongholds.

Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi made the pronouncement, saying security forces have “accomplished their mission” in the monthlong offensive to rid Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the broader Salahuddin province of the militant group.

“We have the pleasure, with all our pride, to announce the good news of a magnificent victory,” Obeidi said in a video statement. “Here we come to you, Anbar! Here we come to you, Nineveh, and we say it with full resolution, confidence, and persistence,” naming other provinces under the sway of the extremists.

Extremists from the Islamic State group seized Tikrit last summer during its advance across northern and western Iraq. The battle for Tikrit is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the provincial capital of Nineveh.

Iraqi forces, including soldiers, police officers, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, launched a large-scale operation to recapture Tikrit on March 2. Last week, the United States launched airstrikes on the embattled city at the request of the Iraqi government.

Recapturing Tikrit would be the biggest win so far for Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The city is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad and lies on the road connecting the capital to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation against Mosul.

Earlier Wednesday, Iraqi security forces fired on snipers and searched homes for remaining militants. Soldiers fanned out in circles from the charred skeletal remains of the Salahuddin provincial government complex, captured the day before.

Militant mortar fire, which had been intense over previous days, fell silent Wednesday, with commanders saying only a few militant snipers remained in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.

The objective, Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban said Wednesday, is now to restore normalcy as quickly as possible.

“After clearing the area from roadside bombs and car bombs, we will reopen police stations to restore normalcy in the city, and we will form committees to supervise the return of people displaced from their homes,” al-Ghabban said. He said the government will help displaced residents return and that a civil defense unit will be combing the city for roadside bombs and car bombs.

“Daesh is completely defeated,” he added, using an Arabic name for the group.

During a visit to Tikrit, Iraqi Prime Minsiter Haider al-Abadi said that military engineering units still need more time to clear the city from booby traps. He also waved an Iraqi flag in photos posted on his social media accounts.

“God’s willing, there will be a fund to rebuild areas destroyed by Daesh and the war. Tikrit and Salahuddin areas will be covered by this fund,” al-Abadi said.

A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the United Nations, showed at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were completely destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The current offensive also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the south where clashes have been the most intense in recent days.

Iraq’s parliament speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, called on the government to find the means to resettle residents from damaged Tikrit buildings. He said this “requires effort and support by the central government in order to financially support the people in rebuilding their houses.”

Meanwhile, the U.N. mission to Iraq said Wednesday that violence claimed the lives of at least 997 people in March, a slight drop from the February death toll.

UNAMI said in a statement that among them were 729 civilians while the rest were security forces. It said at least 2,172 people were wounded, including 1,785 civilians.

The new U.N. envoy to Iraq, Jan Kubis, said he is shocked to see that Iraqis continue to “bear the brunt” of the ongoing violence in the country.

Kubis also said Wednesday that the offensive in Tikrit is “a victory for all the Iraqi people,” and that the U.N. was ready to assist the provincial and national authorities.

___

Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

TIME Middle East

Gaza Man Tricked Into Selling Banksy Mural for $175

Mideast Palestinians Banksy
Adel Hana—AP A metal door that depicted a Greek goddess, presumably painted by British street graffiti artist Banksy, was standing on the rubble of a destroyed building damaged in last summer's Israel-Hamas war, east of Jebaliya, March 31, 2015.

The painting is likely to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars

A Gazan man says he was tricked into selling a valuable artwork by British artist Banksy to a local man for $175.

Banksy’s artworks have sold for up to $600,000 and Rabie Darduna claims he is a victim of fraud.

Banksy secretly visited the Gaza Strip in February for an undercover documentary depicting the lives of Palestinians. He left behind four murals, including one drawn on the only remaining door of Darduna’s home in northern Gaza, which was among the thousands destroyed in last summer’s conflict with Israel. The painting depicts the Greek goddess Niobe weeping (In ancient mythology, Niobe is typically portrayed as a bereaved mother, weeping for the loss of her 14 children).

#Banksy #Gaza

A photo posted by Banksy (@banksy.co.uk) on

Darduna told the BBC that the buyer tricked him into selling the piece by pretending to work for Banksy. “It’s a matter of fraud,” said Darduna, adding that his family was extremely upset over the loss of the piece.

The buyer said his purchase of the painting for less than $175 was legal, despite the fact that Banksy’s artworks can sell for up to $600,000. The street artist’s representative has reportedly contacted the family to say Banksy believes the mural ought to be returned.

Watch Banksy’s mock-travel advert for Gaza below.

[BBC]

TIME Middle East

Palestinians Want Leverage on Israel in International Court

Netherlands International Court Palestinians
Mike Corder—AP Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki holds up a copy of the International Criminal Court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, after a ceremony welcoming the Palestinians as the court's newest member in The Hague, Netherlands, April 1, 2015.

The Palestinians became the 123rd member of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday

(RAMALLAH) — The Palestinians formally joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, as part of a broader effort to put international pressure on Israel and exact a higher price for its occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state.

Beyond seeking war crimes charges against Israel at the court, the Palestinians want the U.N. Security Council to set a deadline for an Israeli troop withdrawal and hope for new momentum of a Palestinian-led international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The atmosphere seems ripe for international intervention after recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu startled the world with a pledge to voters, since withdrawn, that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be established.

But a legal and diplomatic showdown isn’t inevitable as aides say Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t interested in an all-out confrontation with Israel. War crimes charges against Israel could be years away and Washington likely will soften any Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood.

Here is a look at what’s expected:

THE COURT
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki was meeting with court officials Wednesday, but it’s largely ceremonial.

Attempting to lower expectations among Palestinians of speedy court action, Malki told the Voice of Palestine radio Wednesday: “I don’t want to disappoint our people, but the ICC procedures are slow and long and might face lots of obstacles and challenges and might take years.”

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda already launched a preliminary review to determine if there are grounds for an investigation of possible war crimes in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands captured by Israel in 1967 and recognized by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 as the “state of Palestine.”

A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians will wait for the outcome of that review — which can take months or years — before considering further action. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Palestinian strategy.

Earlier this year, the Palestinians accepted the court’s jurisdiction dating back to June 2014, to ensure that last summer’s Gaza war between Israel and the militant group Hamas will be included in any review.

The Palestinians suffered heavy civilian casualties in the war, prompting allegations by some rights groups that Israel committed war crimes. Hamas, which rules Gaza, is also exposed to war crimes charges because it fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas.

Israel’s settlement construction, deemed illegal by much of the world, is also bound to be examined by the prosecutor. Since 1967, Israel has moved more than 550,000 of its civilians to occupied lands.

Palestine’s court membership could help shift focus to settlements as a legal and not just a political issue, said Alex Whiting, a former official in the international prosecutor’s office.

Israel and Palestine also will have to show that they are looking into possible war crimes on their own — a shield against ICC involvement if deemed credible. Israel says it’s investigating alleged violations by its troops in Gaza. Hamas is not investigating its actions, claiming rocket attacks were self-defense.

Israel vehemently opposes Palestinians joining the court. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said unilateral Palestinian moves are “absolutely counterproductive” and will make it harder to resume negotiations.

THE U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL

France is working on a Security Council resolution that would set the parameters for a Palestinian statehood deal. The draft would define the pre-1967 frontier as a reference point for border talks, designate Jerusalem as a capital of two states and call for a fair solution for Palestinian refugees.

Last year, the council rejected a Palestinian resolution demanding an end to Israeli occupation within three years. The U.S. opposed that draft, saying Palestinian statehood can only be achieved through negotiations, but didn’t have to use its veto.

French diplomats now say they are working on a new draft with their allies, including the U.S., to ensure broad support. A resolution could be introduced later this month.

The U.S. said after Netanyahu’s comments on Palestinian statehood that it would re-evaluate its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a possible sign that Washington would no longer shield Israel in the Security Council.

Israel opposes imposed parameters for negotiations, but Palestinians are also skeptical.

They want internationally backed ground rules, after Netanyahu rejected the pre-1967 lines as a starting point. However, they also fear they’ll get a resolution that lacks enforceable deadlines and instead introduces the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas opposes such wording as a threat to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.

BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT AND SANCTIONS

Organizers said they expect Netanyahu’s re-election will galvanize support for the 10-year-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

BDS activists promote different objectives, with some focusing on a boycott of the settlements and others saying everything Israeli must be shunned until Israel withdraws from occupied lands.

The movement has scored recent successes, including some European businesses and pension funds cutting investments or trade with Israeli firms connected to West Bank settlements.

Nahshon, the Israeli official, dismissed BDS campaigners as a small group driven by anti-Semitism and “a wish to destroy” Israel.

THE WAY FORWARD

Instead of a dramatic Israeli-Palestinian showdown, continued paralysis appears more likely.

Netanyahu and Abbas have signaled that they don’t want strained relations to break down.

Israel initially punished Abbas for seeking court membership, freezing monthly transfers of more than $100 million it collects for the Palestinians. Israel resumed the transfers after three months amid warnings that a continued freeze could bring down Abbas’ government.

Abbas has indicated he won’t end security coordination between his forces and Israeli troops in the West Bank that is aimed at shared foe Hamas.

Abbas also told senior PLO officials in March he remains committed to negotiations and would go along with the idea of an international peace conference, proposed by France, “despite low expectations.”

Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Mike Corder at The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.

 

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