UN calls for urgent action to revive Syrian peace process

Geir Pedersen, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, highlighted the potential for a renewed diplomatic process to act as a “circuit breaker,” provided there is substantial engagement. (AP)
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Updated 25 July 2023
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UN calls for urgent action to revive Syrian peace process

  • Nothing is more important right now for the most vulnerable Syrians than allowing aid to flow through all channels, Special Envoy Geir Pedersen told the Security Council
  • The US ambassador to the UN accused Russian authorities of having little regard for suffering people, as she criticized them for blocking an extended mandate for aid crossings

NEW YORK CITY: The UN on Monday called for renewed diplomatic efforts to reignite the stalled Syrian peace process, emphasizing the critical need for substantive engagement and coordination among all stakeholders to address the humanitarian crisis in the country and move forward on the path outlined in Security Council Resolution 2254.

Geir Pedersen, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, highlighted the potential for a renewed diplomatic process to act as a “circuit breaker,” provided there is substantial engagement. He therefore called on all parties involved in the dispute to come to the negotiating table and “be ready to offer a genuine contribution.”

The primary goals, said Pedersen, are the resumption of the UN-facilitated intra-Syrian political process, in particular through the reconvening of the Constitutional Committee, and the implementation of confidence-building measures.

Addressing the “dire and worsening humanitarian situation is not only a humanitarian necessity but would give some confidence that progress on political issues is also possible,” he added.

His remarks came during a Security Council meeting on Syria, two weeks after council members failed to agree an extension of a major cross-border mechanism that for years allowed international humanitarian aid to enter northwestern Syria from Turkey and reach more 4 million people in need in opposition-held areas.

Pedersen expressed deep disappointment at the council’s failure to re-authorize the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, which he described as “a lifeline for millions of civilians.” He urged the international community to step up its efforts to ensure the humanitarian assistance continues to flow across borders.

“As the political envoy, I profoundly hope that all doors are kept open to resolve this issue and that the council and all stakeholders put the needs of the Syrians first,” he said.

“We must redouble efforts to find a solution that ensures the continued delivery of cross-border and cross-line humanitarian assistance. Nothing is more important right now for the most vulnerable Syrians than this.”

Cross-border aid is delivered directly to recipients after entering the country, whereas cross-line aid goes through the regime in Damascus first.

On the political front, Pedersen lamented the fact that “months of potentially significant diplomacy have not translated into concrete outcomes for Syrians on the ground — at home or abroad — or real moves in the political process. I hope they will soon because, if not, it will be another missed opportunity to help the Syrian conflict to come to a negotiated end, at a time when the impact of the crisis is deepening.”

One critical aspect of a renewed political process, he said, would be the reconvening of the Constitutional Committee. He called for political will to overcome disputes over details such as the venue, and urged all stakeholders to support the resumption of the committee in an effort to make credible progress. The constitutional-reform process is essential for determining the future of Syria and laying the groundwork for reconciliation and stability, Pedersen added.

Meanwhile, the council heard the humanitarian situation in northwestern Syria remains dire, with 4.1 million out of 4.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, nearly 80 percent of whom are women and children.

The UN has long stressed the urgent need to ensure humanitarian access to the country is available through all available routes, cross-border and cross-line, to help meet the escalating aid requirements.

Ramesh Rajasingham, the head and representative of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva, also expressed disappointment at the Council’s failure to extend the mandate for the Bab Al-Hawa as he called for the continuation of cross-border assistance.

“As has been said so many times in this chamber, cross-border aid is a matter of life and death for millions of people in northwestern Syria,” he told council members.

“The future of cross-border assistance should not be a political decision but a humanitarian one.”

Soon after Russia used its power of veto on July 11 to block a resolution that would have extended the mandate for operations at Bab Al-Hawa, the Syrian government sent a letter to the UN granting permission for aid to enter through the crossing anyway. However, the organization’s reaction to the letter was cautious, on the grounds that it included restrictions that it feared could hinder relief efforts and put humanitarian workers, including UN staff, at risk.

The letter also called on UN not to work with “terrorists” in the area, a term used by the regime of President Bashar Assad to describe its opponents.

The UK, which holds the rotating presidency of the council in July, was swift to rebuke the move by the Syrian government, warning that “without UN monitoring, control of this critical lifeline has been handed to the man responsible for the Syrian people’s suffering.”

Britain’s permanent representative to the UN, Barbara Woodward, who is president of the council this month, added: “We will not hesitate to bring this back to the Security Council.”

Rajasingham said that UN cross-border operations must be free to adhere to the humanitarian principles of “humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.”

This is in keeping with the wider UN emphasis on the importance of preserving the independence of aid operations and maintaining “whole of Syria” response architecture to ensure assistance can reach all those in need.

UN staff, relief supplies and protection assistance continue to enter northwestern Syria though the Bab Al-Salam and Al-Ra’ee border crossings, for which the Syrian gave temporary permission following the devastating earthquakes that hit parts of northern Syria and southern Turkey in February. However, Rajasingham said that the short duration of the permission for these cross-border operations, which is due to expire in mid-August, poses serious challenges to humanitarian efforts, including funding, logistics and procurement. He called for greater predictability when granting cross-border permissions to ensure effective humanitarian responses.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Representative to the UN, criticized Russia for blocking the council’s efforts to extend the mandate for cross-border relief operations, and accused Moscow of having little regard for the needs of vulnerable people.

She said Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s grain infrastructure and the effects they have had on the world’s food supplies have made the situation faced by Syrians and people in other areas a lot worse.

She also expressed reservations about the Assad regime’s offer to allow UN aid deliveries to continue through Bab Al-Hawa, citing the “unacceptable” restrictions that would hinder relief efforts and put humanitarians at risk.

The US joined other major donors in demanding key conditions for any cross-border access arrangement, including the preservation of the independence of operations, the maintenance of a “Whole of Syria” response architecture, and long-term and consistent assistance for deliveries based on humanitarian principles.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told his fellow council members that Syria’s return to the Arab fold has created an atmosphere in the Middle East conducive to a resolution of the Syrian crisis. He called on Western countries not to obstruct “these natural processes” and to refrain from politicizing humanitarian issues, such as early recovery and the return of refugees.

Regarding the cross-border mechanism, Polyanskiy said he had “nothing new to add.” Moscow is pleased that humanitarian operations will now be coordinated in the same way they are “in any other country” in the world, he added, through the consent of the country’s government.

He said the UN has “all the necessary tools” to do its work, and urged OCHA not to “do the bidding of Western states.”


Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says

Updated 8 min 24 sec ago
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Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says

  • The findings showed stark differences in poverty levels between different areas of the country
  • Among Lebanese surveyed, the poverty rate in 2022 was 33 percent, while among Syrians it reached 87 percent

BEIRUT: Poverty in Lebanon tripled over the course of a decade during which the small Mediterranean country slid into a protracted financial crisis, the World Bank said Thursday.
The percentage of people in Lebanon living below the poverty line rose from 12 percent in 2012 to 44 percent in 2022, the bank said in a report based on surveys conducted in five of the country’s eight governorates.
The data provided the most detailed snapshot to date on the economic circumstances of the country’s population since the crisis that began in late 2019, although World Bank officials acknowledged it was incomplete as surveyors were not given access to three governates in the south and east of the country.
The findings showed stark differences in poverty levels between different areas of the country and between Lebanese citizens and the country’s large population of Syrian refugees.
In the Beirut governate, in contrast to the rest of the country, poverty actually declined from 4 percent to 2 percent of the population during the decade surveyed, while in the largely neglected Akkar region in the north, the rate increased from 22 percent to 62 percent.
Among Lebanese surveyed, the poverty rate in 2022 was 33 percent, while among Syrians it reached 87 percent. While the survey found an increase in the percentage of Lebanese citizens working in unskilled jobs like agriculture and construction, it found that most Lebanese still work in skilled jobs while the majority of Syrians do unskilled labor.
The report also measured “multidimensional poverty,” which takes into account access to services like electricity and education as well as income, finding that some 73 percent of Lebanese and 100 percent of non-Lebanese residents of the country qualify as poor under this metric.
Beginning in late 2019, Lebanon’s currency collapsed, while inflation skyrocketed and the country’s GDP plummeted. Many Lebanese found that the value of their life savings had evaporated.
Initially, many saw an International Monetary Fund bailout as the only path out of the crisis, but since reaching a preliminary agreement with the IMF in 2022, Lebanese officials have made limited progress on reforms required to clinch the deal, including restructuring the ailing banking sector.
An IMF delegation visiting Beirut this week found that “some progress has been made on monetary and fiscal reforms,” the international financial institution said in a statement, including on “lowering inflation and stabilizing the exchange rate,” but it added that the measures “fall short of what is needed to enable a recovery from the crisis.”
It noted that reforms to “governance, transparency and accountability” remain “limited” and that without an overhaul of the banking sector, the “cash and informal economy will continue to grow, raising significant regulatory and supervisory concerns.”
The World Bank has estimated that the cash economy makes up 46 percent of the country’s GDP, as Lebanese distrustful of banks in the wake of the crisis have sought to deal in hard currency.
The flourishing cash economy has created fertile ground for money laundering and led to concerns that Lebanon could be placed on the Paris-based watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list” of countries with a high risk of money laundering and terrorism financing.


Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

Updated 23 May 2024
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Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

  • Israeli troops withdrew from the city after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen
  • Four children among the dead, and 25 wounded during the fighting

JeNIN: A two-day Israeli raid on the occupied West Bank city of Jenin killed at least 12 Palestinians, health authorities and an AFP correspondent said Thursday.
Israeli troops withdrew from the city early Thursday, the correspondent said, after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen in a nearby neighborhood in the city center.
The Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah said Israeli forces had killed 12 people including four children, and wounded 25 during the fighting which began on Tuesday morning.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa and medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that surgeon Usaeed Jabareen, from Jenin’s Khalil Suleiman government hospital, was among those killed on Tuesday.
An AFP correspondent on Thursday saw five bodies at the hospital morgue, including Jabareen’s.
A schoolteacher and a student were also among the dead, Wafa reported, quoting hospital director Wissam Bakr.
Several of the bodies were draped in flags and carried among crowds of Palestinians, including armed militants, through the streets as gunfire rang out.
Both Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned the raid.
Israel’s army said on Wednesday troops had “exchanged fire with armed men and killed a number of terrorists, including two terrorists who threw explosives at the forces.”
The army said it had raided the house of Ahmed Barakat, who was suspected of involvement in an attack on an Israeli civilian last year.
Meir Tamari, 32, was killed in May 2023 at the entrance to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, medics and military officials said at the time.
Jenin has long been a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, and the Israeli army routinely carries out raids in the city and adjacent camp.
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has seen a surge in violence for more than a year, but especially so since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7.
At least 518 Palestinians have been killed in the territory by Israeli troops or settlers since the Gaza war broke out, according to Palestinian officials.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 12 Israelis in the West Bank over the same period, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
The Gaza Strip has been gripped by more than seven months of war since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Hezbollah fighter killed in Israeli strike on south Lebanon: source

Updated 23 May 2024
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Hezbollah fighter killed in Israeli strike on south Lebanon: source

  • Hezbollah announced the death of its member Muhammad Ali Nasser Faran from Nabatieh

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike killed a Hezbollah fighter in southern Lebanon, a source close to the powerful Islamist movement said on Thursday.
Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, has traded near daily cross-border fire with Israeli forces since the Palestinian group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel sparked the war in Gaza.
Hezbollah later announced the death of its member Muhammad Ali Nasser Faran, from Nabatieh, and a source close to Hezbollah said he was killed in the strike.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency had reported that a “drone targeted a car on the road leading to Nabatieh,” a city close to Lebanon’s border with Israel.
“The driver was killed,” it said, noting that three children in a nearby school bus were injured.
A member of the civil defense told AFP that the children received “light injuries as a result of the broken windows of the bus that was taking them to school” and that they were taken to hospital.
Since the start of the cross-border fighting, at least 429 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly militants but also including 82 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israel says 14 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed on its side of the border.
The violence has raised fears of all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006.


Top UN court to rule Friday on South Africa Gaza ceasefire bid

Updated 23 May 2024
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Top UN court to rule Friday on South Africa Gaza ceasefire bid

  • The rulings of the ICJ are binding but it has no power to enforce them

THE HAGUE: The UN’s top court said it will rule Friday on a request by South Africa to order Israel to implement a ceasefire in Gaza.
South Africa has petitioned the International Court of Justice for emergency measures to order Israel to “cease its military operations in the Gaza Strip” including in Rafah city, where it is pressing an offensive.
The rulings of the ICJ, which rules on disputes between states, are binding but it has no power to enforce them — it has ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine to no avail, for example.
But a ruling against Israel would increase the international legal pressure after the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor said Monday he was seeking arrest warrants for top Israeli and Hamas leaders.
In hearings last week, South Africa charged that what it described as Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza had hit a “new and horrific stage” with its assault on Rafah, the last part of Gaza to face a ground invasion.
The Rafah campaign is “the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people,” argued Vaughan Lowe, a lawyer for South Africa.
“It was Rafah that brought South Africa to the court. But it is all Palestinians as a national, ethnical and racial group who need the protection from genocide that the court can order,” he added.
Lawyers for Israel hit out at South Africa’s case as being “totally divorced” from reality that made a “mockery” of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention it is accused of breaching.
“Calling something a genocide again and again does not make it genocide. Repeating a lie does not make it true,” top lawyer for Israel Gilad Noam said.
“There is a tragic war going on but there is no genocide,” he added.
Israeli troops began their ground assault on parts of Rafah early this month, defying international opposition including from top ally the United States, which voiced fears for the more than one million civilians trapped in the city.
Israel has ordered mass evacuations from the city, where it has vowed to eliminate Hamas’s tunnel network and its remaining fighters.
The UN says more than 800,000 people have fled.


Israel says ready to resume truce talks as Gaza war grinds on

Updated 23 May 2024
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Israel says ready to resume truce talks as Gaza war grinds on

  • The week started with the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court seeking arrest warrants over war crimes
  • Newly released video showed five female Israeli soldiers, tied up and some with bloodied faces, in the hands of Palestinian militants

Jerusalem: Israel bombed Gaza on Thursday even as it said it was ready to resume stalled talks on a truce and hostage release deal with Hamas to pause the war raging since October 7.
Global pressure for a ceasefire has mounted on Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as three European countries said Wednesday they would recognize a Palestinian state.
The week started with the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court seeking arrest warrants over war crimes against Netanyahu and his defense minister as well as three Hamas leaders.
Israel has angrily rejected those moves, voicing “disgust” over the ICC move and labelling a recognition of the State of Palestine now a “reward for terrorism.”
But domestic pressure has also risen as supporters of hostages trapped in war-torn Gaza again rallied outside Netanyahu’s office, passionately demanding steps to free them.
A newly released video showed five female Israeli soldiers, tied up and some with bloodied faces, in the hands of Palestinian militants during the attack more than seven months ago.
The three-minute clip, taken from a militant’s body camera footage, was released by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum on Wednesday after the Israeli army lifted censorship on it.
“The footage reveals the violent, humiliating and traumatising treatment the girls endured on the day of their abduction, their eyes filled with raw terror,” the forum said.
Netanyahu vowed to continue fighting Hamas to “ensure what we have seen tonight never happens again,” and more bombardment rained down overnight on targets in the devastated Gaza Strip.
But his office also said that the war cabinet had asked the Israeli negotiating team “to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages.”
The previous round of truce talks, involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators, ended shortly after Israel launched its attack on Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah early this month.
Israel went ahead with the assault on the last Gaza city so far spared a major ground offensive in defiance of global opposition, including from top ally the United States.
Washington voiced concerns that 1.4 million Palestinians who had been trapped in crowded tent cities and shelters there would be caught in the line of fire.
Israel has since ordered mass evacuations from the city, and the UN says more than 800,000 people have fled.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Wednesday the Rafah operation “has been more targeted and limited” than feared and “has not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas.”
But he stopped short of saying that Israel had addressed US concerns, adding that Washington was closely watching ongoing Israeli actions.
Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi has meanwhile given a bleak assessment of the war so far to a meeting of the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, according to a report by Israel’s Channel 13.
He reportedly said that Israel has “not achieved any of the strategic aims of the war — not conditions for a hostage deal, we haven’t toppled Hamas, and we haven’t allowed residents of the (Gaza) periphery to return safely home.”
The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 124 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Heavy fighting raged again in Gaza, where an AFP team reported fresh strikes early Thursday around Rafah.
Troops in the city had “dismantled a number of tunnel shafts and launchers in the area, and eliminated several terrorists during close-quarters encounters,” said the military.
Urban combat has also flared again in northern areas, including Jabalia, which Israeli forces first entered several months ago.
Israeli forces there “targeted several Hamas terrorists during strikes on military compounds” and located AK-47 and sniper rifles, grenades and other weaponry, the military said.
Israel has also imposed a siege that has deprived Gaza’s 2.4 million people of most drinking water, food, medical and fuel supplies.
The sporadic arrival of aid by truck slowed further after Israeli forces took control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
Jordan and others have kept up aid airdrops, and relief goods have been shipped in via a US-built pier, but many trucks were quickly swarmed by desperate crowds.
Israel has faced ever greater opposition to the bloody war around the world, and pro-Palestinian protests have swept US and other university campuses.
Israel reacted with fury after Ireland, Norway and Spain said they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28, a move praised by Palestinians and across the Arab world.
Israel recalled its envoys to Dublin, Oslo and Madrid and summoned their ambassadors for a rebuke.
Most Western governments say they are willing to recognize Palestinian statehood one day, but not before thorny issues such as final borders and the status of Jerusalem are settled.
The White House said Biden opposed unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, saying it should be realized “through direct negotiations.”
Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris called the October 7 attack “barbaric” but stressed that “a two-state solution is the only way out of the generational cycles of violence.”