In shift, Trump says Israeli settlements 'not helpful' for peace

| WH calls military raid in Yemen a 'success', despite civilian & US casualties

WASHINGTON -  US President Donald Trump has warned Israel that constructing new settlements “may not be helpful” to Middle East peace efforts despite-before taking office- criticizing the Obama administration for not vetoing a United Nations Security Council measure condemning settlements.

"While we don't believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement on Thursday.

The statement was a departure from Trump’s full-throated defence of the Israeli settlement constructions on the occupied Palestinian territories, which are considered illegal under international law. Before taking office, Trump slammed the administration of former president Barack Obama for not vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.

Trump’s first foreign call as president was to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to visit the White House on February 15. “The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month,” Spicer said. Since Trump took the oath of office on January 20, Israel has approved a slew of new settlements, in a move that some US officials said would further jeopardize the prospect of a “two-state solution.”

On Tuesday, Israel announced plans for 3,000 new settler units in the occupied West Bank, the fourth such announcement in the less than two weeks.

The Obama administration had steadily grown more frustrated with Israeli settlement constructions, culminating in a decision in December to abstain, and not veto, Security Council Resolution 2334, which demanded Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

The resolution also stated that settlement building by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

Trump was quick to denounce the UN measure, and vowed to be a better partner for Israel than Obama, whom he characterized as weak on the Middle East ally. “As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region,” Spicer said. The statement came hours after Netanyahu vowed to establish a new settlement in the West Bank “as soon as possible,” following the court-ordered demolition of the Amona outpost.

Over half a million Israelis live in more than 230 illegal settlements built since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem al-Quds.

Meanwhile, the White House insisted that the first ground raid personally approved by President Donald Trump against al Qaeda targets in Yemen was a “successful operation,” despite the death of a US Navy commando and the Pentagon’s conclusion that civilians, including children, were “likely” killed in the operation.

“This was a very, very well thought out and executed effort,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed at the daily briefing. He called it “a successful operation by all standards.”

Casualties may include children, according to media reports, citing US Central Command statement.

Spicer stressed that while the operation the first counterterrorism raid approved by Trump, planning had occurred on President Barack Obama’s watch. He said the Defence Department had approved the raid on Dec. 19 and set it to proceed on the next moonless night, which did not happen until after Trump’s inauguration. But some US military officials reportedly were disputing the Trump administration’s claims, saying that “almost everything went wrong” in a botched covert mission that President Trump gave the green light to without sufficient intelligence or ground support.

According to Reuters, US military officials said that the operation was approved without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup operations.  Former Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Colin Kahl tweeted on Thursday that the Trump administration’s claim that Obama cleared the operation was “false,” adding that it was “deferred to Trump so he could run a deliberate process.”

The Pentagon says the January 28 operation in Yemen’s Baida province against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) killed 14 militants and seized “valuable and actionable intelligence,” including documents and computers.

But what was supposed to be a lightning raid led to the death of a Navy SEAL, identified as 36-year-old William “Ryan” Owens, in a nearly hour-long firefight. Three more service members were injured when an MV-22 Osprey, sent in to evacuate the wounded, crash-landed after losing power. The damaged $70 million aircraft was later destroyed by a US airstrike so it would not fall into the hands of the militants, according to the Pentagon.

Late on Wednesday, the US Central Command said in a statement that it had concluded that civilians “were likely killed” in the midst of the “ferocious firefight,” and that “casualties may include children.” The statement said the military was looking into whether there “were any still-undetected civilian casualties.”

Medics in the region and local media reported  30 casualties, including at least 10 women and children. The London-based human rights group Reprieve, which monitors civilian casualties of drone strikes, on Thursday said it had obtained evidence of 23 civilian casualties, including a newborn and 10 children.

One of the civilian casualties was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior US-born al Qaida leader who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011, according to posts by her family on social media. Nawar al-Awlaki, who was known as Nora, also was a US citizen. Her brother, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also died in a drone strike authorized by Obama.

The Pentagon initially denied that there had been civilian casualties. Later, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis acknowledged that unspecified number of women could have been killed because “there were a lot of female combatants who were part of this.”

International monitoring groups have expressed concern that the death of civilians, especially children, is likely to be used for propaganda, with photos spread on social media in the aftermath of a raid.

“The first military actions by the Trump administration in Yemen bode poorly for the prospect of smartly and effectively countering AQAP,” the International Crisis Group, an independent Brussels-based crisis research center, said in a report on Thursday.

“The use of US soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics . . . plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-US sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits,” the group said.

When he was running for president, Trump said he backed killing family members of terrorist suspects.

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” the presidential candidate said on Fox News in 2015.

The operation was the first US-led ground raid in Yemen since 2014, although US forces have conducted airstrikes against al Qaeda in the country. Since a Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes in Yemen in 2015, more than 10,000 people have died and 40,000 have been wounded, according to the United Nations.

Human Rights Watch said the United States should compensate the families of those "wrongfully" killed or wounded in the raid.

The New York Times and Reuters reported Thursday that the Navy SEALs learned that their mission had been compromised after intercepting a transmission that showed the militants were preparing for their arrival.

AQAP has taken advantage of the chaos and breakdown of security in Yemen to tighten its grip on the southern and southeastern parts of the Arab country.

The US carries out drone attacks in Yemen and several other countries, claiming to be targeting al-Qaeda elements; but, local sources say civilians have been the main victims of the attacks.

The drone strikes in Yemen continue alongside the Saudi military aggression against the impoverished conflict-ridden country.


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