Palestinians flee as Israeli artillery pounds northern Gaza

Israel has massed troops along the border and called up 9,000 reservists as fighting intensifies with the Islamic militant group Hamas. (AFP)
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Updated 14 May 2021

Palestinians flee as Israeli artillery pounds northern Gaza

  • Israel has massed troops along the border and called up 9,000 reservists as fighting intensifies with the Islamic militant group Hamas
  • As Israel and Hamas plunged closer to all-out war despite international efforts at a cease-fire, communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Palestinians grabbed their children and belongings and fled neighborhoods on the outskirts of Gaza City on Friday as Israel unleashed a heavy barrage of artillery fire and airstrikes, killing a family of 6 in their home. Israel said it was clearing a network of militant tunnels ahead of a possible ground invasion.
Israel has massed troops along the border and called up 9,000 reservists as fighting intensifies with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.
As Israel and Hamas plunged closer to all-out war despite international efforts at a cease-fire, communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night. Jewish and Arab mobs clashed in the flashpoint town of Lod, even after Israel dispatched additional security forces.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
Palestinians living outside Gaza City, near the northern and eastern frontiers with Israel, fled the intense artillery bombardment Friday. Families arrived at the UN-run schools in the city in pick-up trucks, on donkeys and by foot, hauling pillows and pans, blankets and bread.
“We were planning to leave our homes at night, but Israeli jets bombarded us so we had to wait until the morning,” said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children. “We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking.”
In the northern Gaza Strip, Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, aged 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble, residents said. Four strikes hit the building at 11 p.m., just before the family was going to sleep, Rafat’s brother Fadi said. The building’s owner and his wife were also killed.
“It was a massacre,” said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. “My feelings are indescribable.”
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said tanks stationed near the border fired 50 rounds. It was part of a large operation that also involved airstrikes and was aimed at destroying tunnels beneath Gaza City used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes that the military refers to as “the Metro.”
“As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,” he said. “Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”
The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were leading the truce efforts.
The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against the policing of a flashpoint holy site and efforts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes.
Since then, Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza, causing earth-shaking explosions in densely populated areas. Of the 1,800 rockets Gaza militants have fired, more than 400 fell short or misfired, according to the military.
The rockets have brought life in parts of southern Israel to a standstill, and several barrages have targeted the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the operation, saying in a video statement that Israel would “extract a very heavy price from Hamas.”
In Washington, US President Joe Biden said he spoke with Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction.”
He said the goal now is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.” He called the effort “a work in progress.”
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. It says Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by placing military infrastructure in civilian areas and launching rockets from them.
Hamas showed no signs of backing down. It fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) into southern Israel on Thursday. The rocket landed in the open desert but briefly disrupted flight traffic at the southern Ramon airport. Hamas has also launched two drones that Israel said it quickly shot down.
Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance “to increase our catch” of Israeli soldiers.
The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem. A focal point of clashes was Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.
The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel has added a new layer of volatility to the conflict not seen in more than two decades.
The violence continued overnight into Friday. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded in Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was shot. In the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and hospitalized in serious condition.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 750 suspects have been arrested since the communal violence began earlier this week. He said police had clashed overnight with individuals in Lod and Tel Aviv who hurled rocks and firebombs at them.
The fighting deepened a political crisis that has sent Israel careening through four inconclusive elections in just two years. After March elections, Netanyahu failed to form a government coalition. Now his political rivals have three weeks to try to do so.
Those efforts have been greatly complicated by the fighting. His opponents include a broad range of parties that have little in common. They would need the support of an Arab party, whose leader has said he cannot negotiate while Israel is fighting in Gaza.


UK MPs debate Palestinian statehood, sanctions against Israel

Updated 14 June 2021

UK MPs debate Palestinian statehood, sanctions against Israel

  • Labour’s Katherine McKinnell: Palestinians’ ‘aspiration for self-determination is one that we should wholeheartedly support’
  • MENA minister: ‘We’re firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions against Israel’

LONDON: British MPs on Monday debated implementing two petitions that call for economic sanctions against Israel and for the UK government to recognize the state of Palestine.

The petitions garnered over 100,000 signatures each, which according to British law means they must be considered for debate in Parliament.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle urged the government to push forward the two-state solution by recognizing the state of Palestine, but the majority of MPs that took part in the debate rejected the idea of sanctions against Israel.

Chairing the debate, Labour’s Katherine McKinnell said: “I share the deeply held concerns for the plight of the Palestinian people. Colleagues who have visited the region will know that the desire of the Palestinians to live in dignity and in peace in a state of their own is unmistakable. 

“Their aspiration for self-determination is one that we should wholeheartedly support. It’s right for the Palestinian people, and it’s right for the Israeli people.”

She added: “However, I don’t believe that sweeping sanctions of the kind proposed by the second petition would bring the prospect of a two-state solution any closer.”

That petition, which currently has over 386,000 signatures, said: “The government should introduce sanctions against Israel, including blocking all trade, and in particular arms.”

It added that Israel’s “disproportionate treatment of Palestinians and settlements that are regarded by the international community as illegal are an affront to civilised society.”

James Cleverly, the UK’s minister for the Middle East and North Africa, reiterated the government’s position on economic sanctions against Israel, saying: “While we don’t hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it necessary, we’re firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions against Israel.”

Cleverly also rejected the second petition’s demand — that Britain immediately recognize a sovereign Palestinian state.

“There have, of course, been many calls over the years for recognition of Palestinian statehood,” he said.

“The UK government position is clear: The UK will recognize a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the object of peace. Bilateral recognition in itself cannot and will not end the occupation,” he added.

“The UK government continues to believe that without a negotiated peace agreement, the occupation and the problems that come with it will continue.”

Cleverly did, however, criticize Israel’s continued assaults on Palestinian homes in the occupied territories.

“The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is longstanding, is public, and has been communicated directly to the government of Israel. That is: We oppose these actions,” he said.

Steve Baker, a Conservative MP, said he had made a “mistake” by deprioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian issue during a period of relative calm.

“The problem, of course, is that the conflict hadn’t gone away and has since returned with a ferocity,” he added.

Baker urged the government to actively pursue a two-state solution, a policy that he and other MPs pointed out has been endorsed by the government without ever being actively pursued. 

“I voted to recognize the state of Palestine,” he said. “I think if we’re serious about a two-state solution, it’s important that this Parliament and parliaments elsewhere, governments elsewhere, recognize the state of Palestine.”

Labour’s Naz Shah said she had a message for Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett: “Those who support you in the Knesset (Parliament), the mood music is changing, the world is waking up to Israel’s actions, and all those who want to see lasting peace in the region know that to achieve such peace we must end the occupation, injustice and oppression. This starts with recognizing a viable Palestinian state.”

She warned Bennett: “We won’t be silent in pushing for Israel to be tried in the International Criminal Court for war crimes if any more Palestinian blood is unjustly spilled under a perverted interpretation of a right to self-defense.”


At NATO, Turkey hails its revival of dialogue with Greece

Updated 14 June 2021

At NATO, Turkey hails its revival of dialogue with Greece

  • Turkish President is holding a series of one-on-one meetings with NATO leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden
  • Erdogan recently toned down his anti-Western rhetoric as he seeks foreign investments for his country

BRUSSELS: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that a revival of dialogue with fellow NATO member Greece to resolve long-standing disputes will serve “stability and prosperity” in the region.
Speaking on the sidelines of a NATO summit, Erdogan also lamented what he said was a lack of support by Turkey’s NATO allies in its fight against terrorism.
It was a veiled reference to Turkey’s disappointment with US military support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, who Ankara argues are inextricably linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
Erdogan, who is vying to mend Turkey’s battered relations with its Western partners, is holding a series of one-on-one meetings with NATO leaders, including US President Joe Biden.
The Turkish strongman has recently toned down his anti-Western rhetoric as he seeks foreign investments for his country, which has been troubled by a currency crisis and an economic downturn made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Turkey is on the frontline in the fight against terrorism in all relevant international platforms, especially NATO,” Erdogan said, adding that some 4,000 Daesh group fighters were “neutralized” in Turkish cross border operations.
“Turkey is the only NATO ally which has fought face-to-face and gave its young sons as martyrs for this cause,” Erdogan said. “Unfortunately, we did not receive the support and solidarity we expected from our allies and partners in our fight against all forms of terrorism.”
Last summer, a long-standing dispute between Turkey and Greece over boundaries and rights to natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean flared anew after Ankara sent research vessels into waters where Greece asserts jurisdiction.
Diplomats from the two countries have held two rounds of talks in recent months for the first time in five years, while the foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey also held reciprocal visits.
“I believe that reviving the channels of dialogue between (Turkey) and our neighbor and ally, Greece, and the resolution of bilateral issues will ... serve the stability and prosperity of our region,” Erdogan said, in a video address to a think tank event on the sidelines of the summit.
Erdogan’s talks with Biden are expected to focus on US support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, as well as a dispute over Ankara’s acquisition of a Russian air defense system, which led to Turkey being removed from the F-35 fighter program and sanctions on defense industry officials.
Washington says the S-400 missiles, which Turkey purchased in 2019, pose a threat to NATO’s integrated air defense and has demanded that Ankara abandons the $2.5 billion system.
In April, Biden infuriated Ankara by declaring that the Ottoman-era mass killing and deportations of Armenians was “genocide.” Turkey denies that the deportations and massacres that began in 1915 and killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians amounted to genocide.
In Brussels, Erdogan met with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
After his meeting with Erdogan, Macron tweeted that he wants to “move forward” with Turkey.
It was their first meeting since a dispute between the two countries reached its peak in October, after Erdogan questioned Macron’s mental health.
Both men discussed Libya and Syria issues, the Elysee said. Macron has accused Turkey of flouting its commitments by ramping up its military presence in Libya and bringing in jihadi fighters from Syria.
During the discussion with Johnson, the two leaders agreed to “work toward the resumption of travel between the UK and Turkey,” according to a Downing Street statement. Turkey has been pushing for a relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions to allow British tourists to come to Turkey this summer.


Macron says Turkey’s Erdogan wants foreign mercenaries out of Libya

Updated 14 June 2021

Macron says Turkey’s Erdogan wants foreign mercenaries out of Libya

  • Macron was speaking after his first face-to-face with Erdogan in more than a year

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday said he had received assurances from Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan that he wanted foreign mercenaries to leave Libyan territory as soon as possible.
“We agreed to work on this withdrawal (of foreign mercenaries). It doesn’t just depend on the two of us. But I can tell you President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference at the end of a summit of NATO leaders in Brussels.
Macron was speaking after his first face-to-face with Erdogan in more than a year as tensions between the two NATO allies worsened especially over the conflict in Libya.
Turkey deployed troops to Libya under an accord on military cooperation signed with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), helping it repel an assault by forces from eastern Libya. It also sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya.


New Israeli government approves nationalist march in Jerusalem

Updated 14 June 2021

New Israeli government approves nationalist march in Jerusalem

  • Jerusalem march by Jewish nationalists poses immediate challenge to the new coalition
  • March comes just weeks after devastating Israeli bombardment of Gaza

JERUSALEM: Israel’s new government on Monday approved a Jewish nationalist march in Jerusalem, a step that risks inflaming tensions with Palestinians hours after veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu handed over power to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
In the flag-waving procession, planned for Tuesday, far-right groups will march in and around East Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where tensions have remained high since 11 days of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants in May.
Palestinian factions have called for a “day of rage” against the Jerusalem march, with memories of clashes with Israeli police still fresh from last month in the contested city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and in a neighborhood where Palestinians face eviction in a court dispute with Jewish settlers.
“This is a provocation of our people and an aggression against our Jerusalem and our holy sites,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said of the march.
After meeting with Israel’s police chief and other security officials, newly sworn-in Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev approved the march and said police were well-prepared, according to a statement carried by Israeli media.
“(Great) efforts are being undertaken to preserve the delicate fabric of life and public security,” Barlev was quoted as saying.
It was not clear whether participants would be allowed to enter the Old City’s Muslim quarter, on a route that Israeli police had previously barred. A police spokesman did not immediately provide comment.
An original march on May 10 was re-routed at the last minute as tensions in Jerusalem led Hamas to fire rockets toward the holy city and Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza. Right-wing Israeli groups accused their government of caving into Hamas and rescheduled the march after a truce took hold.
Hamas has warned of renewed hostilities if it goes ahead, and Israeli media reported the military had made preparations for a possible escalation.
The US Embassy in Jerusalem prohibited its personnel and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday “due to calls for a Jerusalem Flag March and possible counter-demonstrations.”
The march poses an immediate challenge for Bennett’s government, which was approved on Sunday by a 60-59 vote in parliament.
A route change or cancelation of the procession could expose the Israeli government to accusations from Netanyahu, now in the opposition, and his right-wing allies of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.
Suggesting that a route adjustment could be in store, Yoav Segalovitz, a deputy internal security minister, said past governments had stopped nationalists visiting Muslim sites in times of tension.
“The main thing is to consider what’s the right thing to do at this time,” he told Israel’s Kan radio.
Formation of Bennett’s alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties, with little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, capped coalition-building efforts after a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth poll in two years.
Minutes after meeting Bennett, 49, on his first full day in office, Netanyahu repeated a pledge to topple his government.
“It will happen sooner than you think,” Netanyahu, 71, who spent a record 12 straight years in office, said in public remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party.
With any discord among its members a potential threat to its stability, Israel’s new government hopes to focus on domestic reforms and the economy and avoid hot-button issues such as policy toward the Palestinians.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition after capturing the area in a 1967 war, regards the entire city as its capital.
A key test for the new government and its stability will be how quickly it moves to pass a budget, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“If within 3-4 months this government will pass the 2021-22 budget then we can expect this government to serve for at least two or three years. Otherwise, the instability will continue,” he said.
Palestinians held out scant hope of a breakthrough in a peace process leading to a state of their own. Talks with Israel collapsed in 2014.
“We don’t see the new government as less bad than the previous ones,” Shtayyeh told the Palestinian cabinet.
Under the coalition deal, Bennett, an Orthodox Jew and tech multi-millionaire who advocates annexing parts of the West Bank, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a former television host.
Lapid, widely regarded as the architect of the coalition that brought down Netanyahu, is now foreign minister.


Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam

Updated 14 June 2021

Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam

  • Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
  • Sudan and Egypt agreed last week to coordinate efforts to push Ethiopia to negotiate "seriously"

KHARTOUM: Sudan is open to a partial interim agreement on Ethiopia’s multi-billion-dollar dam on the Blue Nile, with specific conditions, Irrigation Minister Yasir Abbas said on Monday.
While Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt fears it will imperil its water supply and Sudan is concerned about the impact on its own water flows.
Sudan and Egypt agreed last week to coordinate efforts to push Ethiopia to negotiate “seriously” on an agreement on filling and operating the GERD.
Cairo and Khartoum had been aligned on the need for any agreement to be comprehensive, but Abbas’s comments mark a potential shift in Sudan’s position.
” conditions include the signing-off of everything that has already been agreed on in negotiations, ... provisions to ensure that the talks continue even after the filling scheduled for July, and the negotiations adhering to a definite timetable,” Abbas told a news conference, citing a time crunch.
Ethiopia has said it will begin a second filling of the reservoir behind the dam during the rainy season this summer.
Talks overseen by the African Union, aimed at reaching a binding agreement, have repeatedly stalled.