Lebanese, Egyptian premiers discuss regional developments, bilateral cooperation

Hariri says Israel caused peace freeze

Nazif: Rafah crossing to remain open indefinitely

Heated debates in Lebanon over Hezbollah arms, Palestinian refugees’ civil rights

Hariri in response to Barak’s threats: Israel has to stop lying to world

Lebanon and Egypt inked 18 bilateral agreements last week in the sectors of economy, trade, transport, environment, youth and sports and society.

“Egypt considers Lebanon a strong partner, but let’s face it; our cooperation did not fulfill all its ends,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Nazif during the 7th edition of the Higher Lebanese-Egyptian Committee held at the Grand Serail.

He highlighted the importance of bilateral cooperation in the economic field, in light of the global financial crisis. Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Nazif discussed means to protect Arab economies and promote Arab institutions.

Nazif and the accompanying delegation arrived in Beirut.

During a joint news conference, Hariri said talks touched upon regional developments and the stalled peace process.

Both Hariri and Nazif slammed Israel’s siege on the Gaza strip and the building of settlements in the West Bank.

They also hoped that Palestinian factions would reconcile.

Hariri told reporters that the meeting discussed the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war with Israel.

“We also tackled Lebanon’s role at the UN Security Council and our role in communicating Arab interests to the international community,” he said.

Lebanon is one of 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council. In May, Lebanon abstained from voting on new sanctions against Iran, stirring a heated domestic debate.

Lebanese and Egyptian ministers met at the Grand Serail to discuss bilateral ties as well as areas of cooperation between the two countries. The delegation of Egyptian ministers was headed by International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul-Naga, while the Lebanese one was headed by acting Economy and Trade Minister Adnan Qassar.

One of the main items on the agenda of this week’s meetings of the Higher Lebanese-Egyptian Committee was the follow-up on a project to supply Lebanon with natural gas.

Nazif said the project was put into effect last November.

“Since then we have supplied the Deir Ammar power plant with 30 million cubic foot of gas on a daily basis,” Nazif said.

Other items on the agenda included increasing the number of bilateral investments and trade. Hariri said the meeting also discussed means to bolster tourism in both countries.

Hariri held a dinner banquet for Nazif that was attended by an array of political and social figures at the Grand Serail.

Nazif discussed with top Lebanese officials the latest regional developments and the promotion of inter-Arab ties.

Following a meeting with President Michel Sleiman, Nazif told reporters at the Baabda presidential palace that Cairo supported Sleiman’s initiative to hold National Dialogue, which reflected positively on the domestic level.

The National Dialogue is aimed at discussing a national defense strategy which incorporates Hezbollah’s weapons. Political leaders agreed during dialogue talks at Baabda to postpone discussions until August 19 after failing to make any progress.

Nazif, who also met with Speaker Nabih Berri, said from Ain al-Tineh that Egypt was open to all Lebanese parties and supported dialogue among local political groups.

“We are very interested in a successful dialogue that leads to stability and we stressed the need for ongoing dialogue with all Lebanese parties in the interest of the Lebanese cause and the country’s stability and unity,” Nazif said.

Last April, an Egyptian court handed down jail sentences to 26 defendants it convicted of working for Hezbollah in a trial that highlighted difficult relations with the Lebanese group.

The 22 accused who were in the dock received jail terms of between six months and 15 years, despite calls from prosecutors for the death penalty.

They were convicted of plotting attacks against ships in the Suez Canal and on tourist sites, among other charges. Most were detained between late 2008 and January 2009.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said earlier this month that diplomatic contacts were under way to find a resolution to the issue.

Tackling Israeli threats on Lebanon, Nazif stressed that Egypt stood by Lebanon’s side.

“We consider Lebanon’s security and stability of great importance to Lebanon and we do not accept that they are tampered with,” Nazif said.

As for Egypt’s role in lifting the blockade on Gaza, Nazif called on the international community to pressure Israel to lift Gaza siege.

“Egypt is calling on the international community to bear responsibility and pressure Israel to lift the siege of Gaza,” Nazif said, adding that “Egypt made its decision to open Rafah border crossing for indefinite timing to allow humanitarian aid in from Egypt.”

Asked whether the opening of Rafah came late, Nazif said “the border crossing was being opened in the past for certain periods to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza but after the latest incident we decided to open it indefinitely.”

Egypt and Lebanon inked 18 bilateral agreements.

The Lebanese and Egyptian premiers have condemned a new Israeli threat against Beirut, saying it "might have dire consequences” for Tel Aviv.

Hariri and Nazif took the stance after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned the Beirut government against allowing an aid ship to depart Lebanon for the besieged Gaza Strip.

"The Israeli government continues to threaten Lebanon," Hariri said at a news briefing with the visiting Nazif in Beirut.

Last week a group of female Lebanese activists announced a plan to send an aid ship loaded with medical supplies to Gaza.

The organizers of the aid convoy say 50 Lebanese and foreign activists would be aboard the ship.

"There are fleets coming from Europe," said Hariri, asking that "will the Israeli defense minister attack Europe or other countries sending aid to Gaza?"

"Enough lies ... Israel's actions are not humanitarian and rejected by all human rights treaties," AFP quoted the Lebanese prime minister as saying.

Israeli forces on May 31 attacked the multinational Freedom Flotilla relief mission, which had set sail to break Tel Aviv's siege of the Gaza Strip. The assault in international waters left at least 20 human rights campaigners dead and over 40 other injured.

Nazif, for his part, warned Israel against consequences of a similar assault on the women activists' aid ship.

The Egyptian premier said that an Israeli attack on the ship "might have dire consequences as we saw with the Turkish Freedom flotilla."

"The region is facing a crossroads between the will for peace, which all Arab states voice and the international community supports, and Israel's reluctance and intransigence," Nazif said.

The attack on the Freedom Flotilla has provoked ferocious international condemnation of Israel.

Meanwhile, in the wake of a row between Israel and Lebanon over recently discovered natural gas fields in the Mediterranean, a senior Lebanese politician says Hezbollah weapons are essential for defending the country.

Speaking in a meeting with Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel Karim Ali, Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt stressed the need for preserving the arms of the resistance movement of Hezbollah for protecting Lebanon.

"Resistance weapons are important to defend the oil in the Sea of Lebanon and national resources in the country," Jumblatt was quoted as saying by a Lebanese daily last week.

Earlier last week, Hezbollah cautioned Israel that the movement would not allow Tel Aviv to loot Lebanese gas resources.

The warning came as Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said Israel was getting ready to start exploring at the newly discovered fields off the northern port of Haifa.

According to Berri, the maps indicate that "the deposit extends into Lebanese waters."

Hezbollah countered Israel's offensive on Lebanon in 2000. It also fought a 33-day war against Israelis in 2006, as a result of which about 1,200 Lebanese -- most of them civilians -- were killed.

The Lebanese government says the Hezbollah resistance movement's military capability is part of Lebanon's national defense power.

A heated parliamentary debate over enhancing the civil rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continued to trigger reactions among Lebanese politicians.

Last week, the Parliament saw fiery discussions over the amendment of labor, social security and foreign property ownership laws, to the benefit of Palestinian refugees.

The proposal was forwarded by MP Walid Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering bloc.

MPs from the Free Patriotic Movement, Phalange and Lebanese Forces expressed their fears that rushing the amendments would serve as a prelude for the naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon.

MPs from the Democratic Gathering, Hezbollah, Amal and the Future Movement called for approving the amendments.

Speaker Nabih Berri referred the proposal to the Administration and Justice parliamentary committee, which should finalize studying it during a one-month period before forwarding it to Parliament’s general assembly.

Metn MP and Phalange official Sami Gemayel said that a matter that has created a number of crises for more than 60 years could not be tackled within three days. He said the amendment proposal was forwarded to MPs four days before last week’s session.

While endorsing free health care and education for Palestinian refugees, Gemayel said the Lebanese treasury could not afford delivering such services.

“We intend to propose the formation of an independent fund to meet the humanitarian and economic needs of the Palestinian refugees to be funded by the UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] and the Arab League,” said Gemayel.

The MP made his remarks during a news conference he held at the Phalange party headquarters in the Saifi district of Beirut.

The lawmaker voiced his belief that helping Palestinian refugees was an Arab and international responsibility before being Lebanese “because the Lebanese state is a host state and is not responsible for what happened to the Palestinians.”

Over 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon in refugee camps all across the Lebanese territories. Palestinians in Lebanon are denied major civil rights, including ownership of property, access to employment and social security services.

Gemayel stressed that integrating the Palestinians in the Lebanese society would undermine their right of return and fulfill an Israeli demand.

Meanwhile, MP Bahia Hariri announced that a Lebanese-Palestinian civil workshop would kick off soon in parallel with parliamentary discussions tackling Palestinian civil rights.

According to Hariri, the workshop aimed at creating a Lebanese-Palestinian public opinion that would cement principles such as Lebanese civil peace, the right of Palestinians to establish their independent state with Jerusalem as a capital, the right of Palestinian refugees to enjoy their human rights until they return back to Palestine and the rejection of naturalizing Palestinian refugees.

Hariri made her announcement after chairing a meeting at her residence in Majdalyoun near Sidon for the follow-up committee composed of Palestinian and Islamic factions from Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon.

The attendants touched on the debates of the parliamentary session.

Also, Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Abdullah said he did not have “in principle any objection against enhancing the civil rights of Palestinians in Lebanon.”

He made his remarks during a visit he paid to Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.