Syrian humanitarian crisis in a ‘downward spiral,’ warns UN aid official

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Martin Griffiths. (Reuters)
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Updated 16 September 2021

Syrian humanitarian crisis in a ‘downward spiral,’ warns UN aid official

  • Up to 13.4 million people across Syria are now in need of emergency aid, 20 percent up on last year
  • Eight civilians have died in recent weeks as violence escalates in Idlib, threatening humanitarian workers

NEW YORK: The humanitarian situation in Syria is worsening rapidly and the needs of the Syrian people are greater than ever, the UN’s aid chief said on Wednesday.

Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, told a meeting of the UN Security Council’s 15 members that “humanitarian needs in Syria are greater than ever, even though we may read about it less on the front pages of newspapers.”

He told delegates, including Turkish, Iranian and Syrian representatives, that despite billions of dollars in donations by the international community, humanitarian needs “tragically outstrip available resources.”

Griffiths said that at least 13.4 million people across Syria are now in need of emergency aid — a jump of more than 20 percent from the same time last year, and the highest figure since 2017.

Among the most pressing issues is access to clean water.

“The lack of access to safe water is disproportionately affecting the general health and reproductive health of women and girls,” he added.

Access to education, food and other basic human needs was in serious decline across the country, Griffiths said.

“Syria is caught in a downward spiral. The country will continue to be a place of tragedy so long as the conflict continues. Need and suffering will continue to grow in the near term,” the UN official said.

UK representative Barbara Woodward placed the blame for this crisis squarely at the feet of the Syrian regime and its benefactors — but stopped short of naming Iran specifically.

“Airstrikes and artillery bombardment, which violate the cease-fire agreement, have become the new normal in southern Idlib, with around 10 to 20 airstrikes currently recorded every day — directly affecting civilians and humanitarian workers,” she said.

“In recent weeks, eight civilians, including two women and one child, have been killed, including in heavy artillery shelling on residential areas of Idlib city by the regime and its allies.”

Woodward also highlighted the heavy price that humanitarian aid workers have paid for their attempts to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

“Since March 2021, 19 humanitarian workers have been killed and 36 injured in the violence. We urge all parties to respect the cease-fire agreement and comply with the obligations to protect civilians and humanitarian workers.”

Amany Qaddour, regional director for Syria Relief and Development, told the Security Council meeting that aid workers in Syria had been providing lifesaving services in “a context akin to hell.”

As hostilities in the northwest of the country, one of the last remaining rebel strongholds, have escalated, so too has the humanitarian crisis, she said.

“In terms of some of the most vulnerable groups, what we’re seeing is increased violence — for women, for example, in terms of intimate partner violence. We’ve also seen an increase in rape cases, and other forms of sexual violence, in children and adolescents, in particular,” Qaddour said.

Children also have been forced into work, including heavy labor such as mining, to help their families survive.

Qaddour said that there has also been a recorded increase in suicides among children and young people. “The atmosphere is palpable with helplessness and despair,” she said.

In a powerful speech to delegates, she explained that the global pandemic has only served to exacerbate the suffering of the Syrian people.

Less than 1.5 percent of the population is vaccinated against the virus, and in some areas nobody has been inoculated. Instead, the government has relied on localized lockdowns to prevent the spread.

But in a context where the economy has crumbled, food is scarce and people rely on a daily wage, “lockdowns are essentially a death sentence,” Qaddour said.


Israel gives legal status to 4K in gesture to Palestinians

Updated 58 min 13 sec ago

Israel gives legal status to 4K in gesture to Palestinians

  • It's one of a series of gestures announced after a rare high-level meeting in August between Israeli Defense Minister and Palestinian President aimed at strengthening the PA
  • Israel is trying to bolster the increasingly unpopular and autocratic PA in order to weaken its militant Hamas rivals

JERUSALEM: Israel said Tuesday it would grant legal residency to 4,000 Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The move comes as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority that will allow people who have lived under severe restrictions for years to get official IDs.
It’s one of a series of gestures announced after a rare high-level meeting in August between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas aimed at strengthening the PA, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and coordinates with Israel on security.
Israel is trying to bolster the increasingly unpopular and autocratic PA in order to weaken its militant Hamas rivals, who rule the Gaza Strip. Other gestures include loaning some $155 million to the cash-strapped PA and authorizing an additional 15,000 permits for Palestinian laborers to work in Israel and its settlements.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and has shown no interest in reviving peace talks, which stalled out more than a decade ago. Israel is also continuing to build and expand settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories it captured in the 1967 war that the Palestinians want for their future state.
But Israeli officials have vowed to take steps to improve the Palestinian economy and daily life in order to reduce frictions.
“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Gantz was quoted as saying after his meeting with Abbas. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have and the less we’ll have to do.”
The Israeli defense body that oversees civilian affairs in the territories said it would approve the registration of 1,200 Palestinians who have been living in the West Bank for many years but are not listed in the Palestinian population registry. It will approve a change of address for 2,800 Palestinians who moved to the West Bank from Gaza prior to 2007, when Hamas seized power.
Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official who serves as the liaison with Israel for civilian affairs, confirmed that a “first batch” of 4,000 names had been approved and said the PA was working to secure more.
Israel, which controls all access to the occupied West Bank, must approve any changes to the Palestinian population registry, which is administered by the PA. When the second Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, Israel restricted new registrations to children under 16 with a resident parent.
That and other Israeli policies have left an estimated tens of thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza without legal status, severely limiting their freedom of movement. They include foreign nationals — mainly Palestinians from other countries — who married Palestinians in the territories and have families there.
Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank who are registered in Gaza are meanwhile at risk of deportation. Israel maintains dozens of checkpoints within and around the West Bank.
Human Rights Watch referred to Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian residency in a lengthy report earlier this year accusing it of the international crime of apartheid. The nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank have Israeli citizenship and face no similar restrictions.
Jessica Montell, the head of HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that assists Palestinians, said the latest move was welcome but did not go far enough.
Israel has previously approved tranches of applications for legal status as goodwill gestures to the PA. In 2008, it granted legal status to some 32,000 Palestinians following several petitions filed by HaMoked on behalf of families, Montell said.
“To my mind the real headline is tens of thousands of people are living with no status and Israel is not fulfilling its legal obligation to grant them status,” she said.


10,000 children killed or maimed in Yemen since 2015: UNICEF

Updated 19 October 2021

10,000 children killed or maimed in Yemen since 2015: UNICEF

  • Four out of every five children need humanitarian assistance in Yemen

GENEVA: Ten thousand Yemeni children have been killed after the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the government in 2015, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.
“The Yemen conflict has just hit another shameful milestone. We now have 10,000 children who have been killed or maimed since ... March 2015,” UNICEF spokesperson James Elder told a UN briefing in Geneva after returning from a visit to Yemen.
“That is the equivalent of four children every single day,” Elder said, adding that many more child deaths or injuries went unreported.
Four out of every five children — a total of 11 million — need humanitarian assistance in Yemen, while 400,000 are suffering from acute malnutrition and more than 2 million are out of school, Elder said.
UN-led efforts to engineer a nationwide cease-fire have stalled as the Houthis resist compromise to end more than six years of a war that has caused what the UN calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Hundreds of Yemenis are trapped by fierce fighting between government and Houthi forces in the northern Marib governorate, residents and a local official said last week, after battles for control of the gas-rich region displaced some 10,000 people.


Lebanese parliament confirms March polls amid efforts to secure IMF rescue

Updated 19 October 2021

Lebanese parliament confirms March polls amid efforts to secure IMF rescue

CAIRO: Lebanon's parliament voted on Tuesday to hold legislative elections on March 27, parliamentary sources said, giving Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government only a few months to try to secure an IMF recovery plan amid a deepening economic meltdown.
Lebanon's financial crisis, labelled by the World Bank as one of the deepest depressions of modern history, had been compounded by political deadlock for over a year before Mikati put together a cabinet alongside President Michel Aoun.
The currency has lost 90% of its value and three quarters of the population have been propelled into poverty. Shortages of basic goods such as fuel and medicines have made daily life a struggle.
Mikati, whose cabinet is focused on reviving talks with the International Monetary Fund, had vowed to make sure elections are held with no delay and Western governments urged the same.
But a row over the probe into last year's Beirut port blast that killed over 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the capital is threatening to veer his cabinet off course.
Some ministers, aligned with politicians that lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar is seeking to question over the explosion, last week demanded that the judge be removed from the probe.
Mikati has since said the cabinet will not convene another meeting until an agreement is reached on how to deal with the matter.
On Thursday, Beirut witnessed the worst street violence in over a decade with seven people killed in gunfire when protesters from the Hezbollah and Amal Shi'ite movements made their way to demonstrate against Judge Bitar.
The bloodshed, which stirred memories of the 1975-1990 civil war, added to fears for the stability of a country that is awash with weapons.
The early election date - elections were originally expected to be held in May - was chosen in order not to clash with the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Once a new parliament is elected, the Mikati cabinet will only act in a caretaker role until a new prime minister is given a vote of confidence and tasked with forming a new government. 


Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat

Updated 19 October 2021

Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat

  • Explosion of a huge stockpile of poorly stored fertilizer on the dockside on August 4, 2020 killed more than 210 people
  • ‘Lebanon’s ruling class may be political opponents but they are united in profiteering from the system’

BEIRUT: They may often squabble but Lebanon’s political parties seem united in rejecting an investigation into Beirut’s massive port explosion that they fear could threaten their survival, analysts say.
The explosion of a huge stockpile of poorly stored fertilizer on the dockside on August 4, 2020 killed more than 210 people, wounded thousands and ravaged half the capital.
In the aftermath of mass protests in late 2019 demanding the ouster of the traditional ruling class, many said the disaster was just the latest example of official incompetence and corruption.
But months into a domestic investigation, no one has been held accountable.
Politicians have repeatedly obstructed the work of judge Tarek Bitar by refusing to show up for questioning, filing legal complaints against him or calling for his dismissal, which last week sparked deadly violence in the heart of Beirut.
Analyst Lina Khatib said hopes were fading of holding those responsible for the port blast accountable.
“The ruling class in Lebanon is in agreement about wanting the port probe to be abandoned and they will use all available means to derail it,” said Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank.
The country’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah has spearheaded a campaign to remove Bitar, accusing him of political bias.
The debate over his future, which comes after the previous investigator was removed in February, has already triggered the postponement of one cabinet meeting despite the urgency of addressing Lebanon’s acute economic crisis.
Nadim Houry, executive director at the Arab Reform Initiative, said that the whole ruling class felt under threat in what he described as “an essential battle in Lebanon for rule of law.”
“A section of society has decided that they want to go all the way and ask for truth,” but they face “a political class that is willing to use threats, use violence, use even launching into another civil war to prevent that quest for truth from leading to a result,” he said.
It emerged after the port blast that officials had known that hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had for years been left to linger in a warehouse near residential neighborhoods.
Families of the victims see in Bitar the only hope for justice in a country where impunity has long been the norm.
After the 1975 to 1990 civil war, Lebanon issued a broad amnesty that benefited the country’s warlords, allowing many of them to become political leaders.
“Regardless of what Bitar finds, it’s the idea itself that any of them can somehow be held accountable that they are resisting,” Houry said.
Any success in the blast probe would set a precedent and unravel a “impunity regime” under which each party agrees not to pursue the other for its crimes, as long as it is not targeted itself.
Tensions came to a boil last week after a rally against Bitar organized by Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal descended into violence that killed seven of their supporters.
The sound of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades trapped residents indoors for hours, reviving memories of the civil war.
Hezbollah accused snipers of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, of causing the bloodshed, but the latter has denied this.
The army, meanwhile, is investigating a video circulated on social media that appears to show a soldier shooting at protesters.
“Hezbollah is increasingly acting as the praetorian guard of the regime that has come into place since the 1990s,” Houry said.
The Iran-backed movement, the only one not to have disarmed after the civil war, is at least partly blacklisted by most Western governments but holds seats in parliament.
While political parties have publicly supported an investigation, analysts say they ultimately wish to protect their own interests.
“Lebanon’s ruling class may be political opponents but they are united in profiteering from the system... and they therefore oppose any steps to reform it or to instil accountability within it,” Khatib said.
A spokesman for the families of blast victims quit on Saturday, after many feared he had been intimidated into toeing the Hezbollah line and calling for Bitar to step down.
Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the explosion, lives in a Shiite-majority neighborhood.
The following day, many refrained from taking part in a protest to mark the second anniversary of the now-defunct 2019 protest movement, fearing further violence.
“Ultimately, the ruling class want to push the Lebanese to conclude that the price of accountability is too high,” Khatib said.


Magnitude 6 quake hits eastern Mediterranean, quake felt in Egypt

Updated 19 October 2021

Magnitude 6 quake hits eastern Mediterranean, quake felt in Egypt

CAIRO: A quake shook Cairo and other cities in Egypt at 0535 GMT on Tuesday, according to Reuters witnesses and social media postings.
Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, and Assiut, in Upper Egypt, were among cities where people said on social media they felt their houses and buildings shaking.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the authorities.

The tremor, whose magnitude the US Geological Survey measured at 6.0 and depth at 37.8km (23.5 miles), was also felt on several other Greek islands including Crete and Santorini, state TV said,
It also shook the Cypriot capital Nicosia, Beirut, Cairo and other cities in Egypt, parts of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the region around southern Turkey’s Antalya, Reuters witnesses said.
Two powerful quakes rattled Crete in recent weeks, killing one person and damaging buildings.
A Greek seismologist said Tuesday's quake came from a different African fault and no aftershocks were expected.