Recent developments in the region until Dec. 22

Bahrain government reinstates dismissed employees

Palestinian officials urge Europe to impose sanctions against Israel

Egyptian forces evacuates Tahrir Square of protesters days after clashes

Caution prevails as Syria signs protocol to allow Arab League observers in

Crisis escalates in Iraq as Maliki issues ultimatum to Kurds

BAHRAIN:

Bahrain's official news agency says 79 education ministry employees who were dismissed from their jobs during months of protests will get their jobs back.

The Bahrain News Agency said Thursday the employees would be back on the job by January 1.

The move comes two days after the Gulf kingdom said it would reinstate 180 other civil servants in the new year.

More than 1,600 suspected opposition supporters have been pushed out of their jobs since March, when Bahrain's Sunni rulers started cracking down on Shiite-led protesters campaigning for more rights.

Bahraini labor groups say up to 2,500 people were purged from public and private sector jobs during the unrest. The government puts the number at 1,623.

PALESTINE:

Israel released the detainees on Sunday in line with the second phase of a prisoner exchange deal with the Palestinian resistance movement of Hamas.

The prisoners were freed from Israel's Ofer Prison in the West Bank. They were then transported to a crossing near Beitunia, a Palestinian town in the center of the Tel Aviv-occupied territory.

Six women were among the freed inmates.

Hamas has declared Monday a national holiday to honor the occasion.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum in Gaza said on Sunday, "We are proud of this great achievement."

On October 18, 477 Palestinian prisoners were freed from Israeli jails as the first part of the deal to release 1,027 Palestinian inmates in exchange for Hamas-captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit was captured in June 2006 by Palestinian resistance fighters after he infiltrated into the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, in a letter issued Tuesday, the four European member states of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Britain, France, Germany and Portugal, condemned the recent Israeli announcement that the Israeli government had approved the construction of 1,000 new settlement units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In addition, South Africa, India and Brazil condemned the expansion.

The four European countries reiterated the fact that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories are considered illegal under international law, and said the Israeli decision to expand the settlements was a “wholly negative development," and will hinder a return to the negotiating table.

In their letter, the representatives wrote, "The viability of the Palestinian state that we want to see and the two-state solution that is essential for Israel's long-term security are threatened by the systematic and deliberate expansion of settlements," adding, “We condemn the disturbing escalation of violence by settlers, including the burning of mosques in the West Bank and Jerusalem....It is clear that these deliberately provocative attacks on places of worship were designed to aggravate tensions.”

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant read the statement in a press conference in which he called on Israel to halt settlement expansion and prosecute any settlers found to have engaged in criminal activity.

The South African Ambassador, Baso Sangqu, read a statement signed by the 120-nation bloc of non-aligned countries in the UN General Assembly saying that Israeli settlements are “the main impediment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

These sentiments were echoed in a statement submitted by Brazil, South Africa and India, all of which are currently members of the UNSC. In total, nine members of the Security Council condemned the Israeli settlement expansion and recent violence.

In response, a spokesperson for the Israeli mission at the United Nations stated that the main impediment to peace is not Israeli settlement expansion, but “the Palestinians’ claim to the so-called right of return and its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

EGYPT:

The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) expressed "great regret" for reported attacks on protesting women by the country's soldiers in recent clashes, and promised to punish the assailants.

The army was criticized after some websites and TV channels showed footage of soldiers dragging women by the hair, beating them and stripping one half-naked on the street, during recent clashes in downtown Cairo.

In the SCAF's statement, it reaffirmed respect and appreciation for Egyptian women and their right to protest, and their active participation in the political life on the road to democratic transition.

''It promised it was taking legal measures to punish those responsible for violations," the statement added.

Different classes of the society, men and women marched in Tahrir Square, the epicenter for the massive demonstrations that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, carrying pictures of the soldiers attacking a female and stamping on her breast, Nile TV reported Tuesday.

The clashes that started Friday between the security forces and protestors have left at least 12 dead and more than 800 injured.

It asserted the importance to complete the democratic process and finish the third phase of the parliamentary elections.

The SCAF said it is ready to discuss any initiative from the political movements that could participate in stability and security of Egypt.

SCAF head Hussein Tantawi Tuesday asserted at a meeting with members of the Advisory Council the importance to end all forms of violence, adding "We are committed to protect the public facilities and institutions".

Tantawi said that the armed forces were responsible for renovating the Egyptian Scientific Building, which was set ablaze on Saturday during the protests. The institute was established in 1798 and stored about 200,000 books.

Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister on Thursday called for national dialogue to resolve the country’s political crisis and pleaded for a two-month calm to restore security after weeks of protests and bloodshed.

Kamal el-Ganzouri also told a news conference that the ruling military, which took over from longtime leader Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago, was eager to relinquish power and deliver the country to civilian rule, as demanded by some activists and those still staging protesters in the streets around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“They want to leave today, not tomorrow,” he said without elaborating.

Few, if any, of the activists demanding an immediate end to military rule are likely to take up the offer of dialogue. Instead, they are focused on finding ways to persuade and pressure the generals to quickly step aside, such as offering them immunity from prosecution over the deaths of protesters killed in recent clashes with soldiers and police or calling for presidential elections by next month.

At least 100 people have been killed in such confrontations and in sectarian violence since the military took power in February.

The deaths, coupled with the brutality shown by army troops against protesters, including women, have prompted some activists to consider suing the generals in local courts or try to have them put on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

The death toll from the past week’s violence near Tahrir Square reached 17 on Thursday, after two wounded protesters died of their injuries, according to the Health Ministry.

About 3,000 students from Ain Shams University in Cairo marched Thursday after a prayer service for an engineering student killed in the recent clashes. He died Wednesday from a bullet wound sustained earlier. Students carried a symbolic coffin, Egyptian flags and a large picture of Mubarak in a noose.

A Cairo protest rally is scheduled for Friday, called “Regaining honor and defending the revolution.”

Ziad el-Oleimi, a newly elected lawmaker who was among the leading figures during the uprising, said for calm to be restored, the culprits behind the recent violence must be brought to trial and held accountable.

“This is just an attempt to gain time, and to make people hate the revolution even more,” he said. “The prime minister never admitted a mistake. He is responsible for those killed.”

For months, activists have criticized the generals’ handling of the country during the tumultuous transition, taking aim in particular at their human rights record and their failure to revive the economy or restore security.

Under the military’s own timetable for stepping aside, it has pledged to hold presidential elections before the end of June 2012. Staggered parliamentary elections are already under way, with two rounds of voting held. A third and final round is slated for early next month.

Turnout was light in the second day of voting in run-off elections on Thursday. More than 100 candidates are competing for 59 seats in the parliament, already clearly dominated by Islamist parties. A third round of voting will begin on Jan. 3.

The 78-year-old el-Ganzouri, who was appointed by the military last month in a failed attempt to quiet protests, is a veteran of the Mubarak regime. He served in several Cabinet posts for more than a decade before a previous stint as prime minister that began in 1996.

The military’s choice of a Mubarak-era figure angered the revolutionaries who saw it as fresh evidence of the military’s loyalty to the toppled regime.

“I say to everyone that we must forget the past and move forward in a dialogue with all shades so that Egypt can live in peace,” el-Ganzouri said in his appeal Thursday.

“This is a salvation government that came to save the revolution,” he said, offering a nod to the revolutionaries behind the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak’s 29-year rule.

In a possible sign that the military could end its rule earlier than planned, a member of a civilian advisory panel appointed by the military said the generals were prepared to look into proposals to speed up the transition of power.

“The military council wants to reaffirm that it is not interested in power and it wants to hand it over to civilian institutions,” panel member Hassan Nafaa said.

He added that there was no consensus yet among the panel’s members on any proposals being studied.

The generals have yet to directly comment on such a possibility.

One proposal is for the next parliament to name a temporary consensus president next month to take over the running of the country until presidential elections are held.

The country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which has led the Islamists’ domination of the voting, has shied away from backing these proposals, saying they should wait until after the elections are completed next month.

The Brotherhood has criticized protesters, weakening the campaign against military rule.

SYRIA:

Syria signed an Arab League initiative Monday that will allow Arab observers into the country, on a day when activists said more than 100 people were killed, making it one of the bloodiest days in the nine-month uprising.

Activists reported up to 70 army defectors were killed by security forces who fired at them as they were deserting their military posts near the Turkish border. At least 30 other people died in other incidents across the country, the activists said.

Syria has placed severe restrictions on journalists, and the reports by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist group could not be independently confirmed.

The signing at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo followed increasing world pressure on Syria alongside a wave of armed clashes between Syria's military and defectors from the army, raising fears of an imminent civil war.

The regime's acceptance of observers after weeks of delays came after a warning from Arab leaders that they would turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end President Bashar Assad's crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people.

The U.N. General Assembly on Monday condemned human rights violations by Assad's government, calling for an immediate end to violence and implementation of the Arab League plan "without further delay." The vote on the nonbinding resolution was 133-11 with 43 abstentions.

By signing, the Syrian regime stands to gain more time and to avert — for now at least — the possibility of wider international involvement in the crisis. But critics were skeptic the regime would actually allow the observers full, unrestricted access to trouble spots and said it was likely a delaying tactic.

Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of Syria's main opposition group the Syrian National Council, accused the Assad regime of lying and said the signing was "worthless" in light of the brutal crackdown under way daily in Syria.

"The Syrian regime is maneuvering and wants to buy time," he said in Tunisia, where the group has been holding a three-day conference aimed at unifying Syria's fragmented opposition.

Ghalioun called for Arab military intervention to protect Syrian civilians and the creation of humanitarian corridors to deliver aid.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem rejected accusations of Syrian stalling tactics and said the delay was caused by the Arab League's refusal until now to accept amendments Syria requested. He did not say what they were.

"The signing of the protocol is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the Arab League observers," he told reporters in Damascus.

He said that the observers will have a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month if both sides agree. The observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," he said, but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.

The Arab League's plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country, along with Arab League observers. Despite agreeing last month to the initiative, Syria then posed conditions that the Arab League said made implementation impossible.

A Syrian-based anti-regime activist who identifies himself as Abu Hamza said the Syrian regime "has signed something it cannot implement." He said if the government withdraws the military from the streets, mass demonstrations will take pace throughout the country.

"This will automatically lead to the downfall of the regime," Abu Hamza said, declining to give his real name for fear of retribution.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said a mission headed by one of his assistants will head to Syria "within a day or two." He said it will include legal, administrative, financial and human rights experts to discuss the makeup of the observer teams.

"Each group of observers will contain 10 or more people and will go to different places," said Elaraby. He said Syrian opposition groups will outline their views at the Arab League soon, and then the Syrian government will be invited to give its input about reforms.

As the agreement was signed, security forces shot and killed at least 20 people in the southern province of Daraa, in central Syria's Homs region and in the country's north. One person was killed when security forces opened fire on thousands of mourners in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan. The mourners were attending the funeral of a child who was gunned down by security forces a day earlier, according to the British-based Observatory.

Another activist group said Monday's death toll throughout Syria was 31.

Also Monday, Syrian authorities released U.S.-born blogger and press freedom campaigner Razan Ghazzawi, who was arrested at the border while on her way to attend a conference in Jordan on Dec. 4.

Ghazzawi, who was born in Miami, Florida, is among dozens of Syrian bloggers and activists who have been arrested since the start of the uprising.

She was charged last week with fomenting sectarian strife and spreading false information through a secret organization — charges punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, where she worked, said she would still stand trial at a later, unspecified date.

The Syrian revolt began in mid-March as peaceful protesters emboldened by uprisings across the Arab world took to the streets to demand an end to the Assad family's more than 40-year rule. But there has been a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is slipping toward civil war.

The regime claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.

LEBANON:

The Lebanese foreign ministry has filed a formal complaint with the United Nations over Israel's espionage activities in the country, Press TV reports.

Beirut called the Israeli activities a blatant violation of its sovereignty and of UN resolution 1701, which brokered a ceasefire in the war of aggression Israel launched against Lebanon in 2006 and calls on Tel Aviv to respect Beirut's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In addition, Israeli activities were described as “a threat to international peace and security” in the complaint, a Press TV correspondent reported on Saturday.

The complaint was filed after Lebanon discovered Israeli spy devices in its southern towns of Deir Kifa and Sirfa earlier in the month.

On December 2, Lebanon's resistance movement of Hezbollah announced that it had uncovered an attempt by Tel Aviv to infiltrate its telecommunication network.

The Lebanese government, Hezbollah, and UNIFIL have repeatedly cited Israel's surveillance flights over Lebanon as clear violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and the country's sovereignty.

Hezbollah has on a number of occasions uncovered Israeli espionage devices in southern Lebanon.

IRAQ:

The Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demanded the Kurds hand over his Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued on charges of terrorism.

Maliki said ominously that Hashemi, who has taken refuge in Kurdistan, will receive as fair a trial as that of Saddam Hussein, who was executed in 2006.

Maliki is deliberately escalating the political crisis, which is seen by the Sunni minority as a bid by the Shiite-dominated government to marginalize them.

The Kurds, who have total political and military control of most of northern Iraq, are likely to refuse to hand over Hashemi and are seeking to act as mediators between him and the Prime Minister.

Hashemi said the accusations against him – that he ran death squads made up of his bodyguards against his opponents – are fabrications. The charges are based on confessions from his guards who said that he personally paid them for attacks, but these allegations may well have been extracted by torture or the threat of it.

Maliki had earlier claimed that an attempt to assassinate him with a remotely detonated bomb three weeks ago outside the parliament building inside the closely guarded Green Zone had been arranged by Hashemi's guards.

The details revealed about the alleged plot suggest that, if it was an assassination bid, it was a poorly organized one unlikely to succeed.

In his first comments on the arrest warrant, Maliki said that Iraq is a unitary state and that the Kurds must hand over Hashemi. "I do not allow myself and others to bargain over Iraqi blood," he said. "If they will not hand him over or let him flee or escape, this will lead to problems."

Maliki leads what is nominally a power-sharing government set up exactly a year ago under US pressure in which Shiite, Kurds and Sunni all have positions. But the government has always remained divided. Maliki has concentrated power on his own office and is acting as the Minister of Defense and Interior with total control over all security appointments. Top officials in both security ministries are reportedly over 90 per cent Shiites.

The Kurds complain that he has appointed all army divisional commanders as "acting commanders" and has ignored the Kurds' preferences. There has also been a recent purge of Sunni officers accused of being Baathists.

Maliki may be overplaying his hand by alienating Sunni and Kurdish leaders at the same time, since he probably does not have the political or military strength to rule Iraq by force alone. His accusations against Hashemi come just after the Prime Minister had called for a vote of no confidence in parliament against the Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who had accused him of establishing a dictatorship.

Hashemi's Iraqiya bloc, currently boycotting parliament, yesterday rejected a call by Maliki for talks to resolve the crisis, and in turn said it was considering a no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister.

Maliki's actions, within hours of the departure of the last US troops, will come as a blow to Barack Obama, who has sought to give the impression that US soldiers leave behind a stable Iraq.

The overthrow of Saddam ended Sunni hegemony and subsequent Sunni marginalization was increased by disbanding the army and the Baath party.