Libya’s eastern government postpones Derna reconstruction conference

A worker cleans a house affected by fatal floods, in Derna, Libya, Sept. 28, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 01 October 2023

Libya’s eastern government postpones Derna reconstruction conference

BENGHAZI: Libya’s eastern authorities on Sunday announced the postponement of a reconstruction conference for the flood-hit city of Derna that had been planned for October 10 but was met with international skepticism.
The conference was put off until November 1-2 to “give companies and design offices the necessary time to prepare their projects,” the committee charged with planning the meeting said in a statement.

US tells Israel any military operation in Gaza must avoid further civilian displacement

Updated 28 November 2023

US tells Israel any military operation in Gaza must avoid further civilian displacement

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration has told Israel that it must work to avoid “significant further displacement” of Palestinian civilians in southern Gaza if it renews its ground campaign aimed at eradicating the Hamas militant group, senior US officials said.
The administration, seeking to avoid more large-scale civilian casualties or mass displacement like that seen before the current temporary pause in the fighting, underscored to the Israelis that they must operate with far greater precision in southern Gaza than they did in the north, the officials said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
Amid mounting international and domestic pressure about the rising Palestinian death toll, the White House has begun to put greater pressure on Israel that the manner of the coming campaign must be “carefully thought through,” according to one of the officials. The Israelis have been receptive when administration officials have raised these concerns, the official said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that Israeli Defense Forces will eventually restart military operations after the conclusion of the current, temporary ceasefire that has allowed for an exchange of hostages taken by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The two sides agreed Monday to extend the truce for an additional two days and to continue swapping hostages for prisoners.
President Joe Biden has said he would like to see the pause — which has also allowed a surge of much-needed humanitarian aid to get into Gaza — continue as long as feasible. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return this week to the Middle East as the US hopes to find a way to extend the ceasefire and get more hostages released, the State Department said Monday. It will be his third trip to the region since Israel’s war with Hamas began last month.
Still, Biden and top officials have also been clear-eyed about Israel’s desire to continue operations focused on Hamas that over the last seven weeks have largely focused on the north. They have said they support Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas’ control over Gaza and the threat it poses to Israeli civilians, but have grown more vocal about the need to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians. Hamas has been known to seek shelter among the territory’s civilian population, and Israeli officials have released videos from northern Gaza of what they said are weapons stockpiles and firing locations placed among civilian infrastructure.
More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed since the war began on Oct. 7, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. More than 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in the initial attack. At least 77 soldiers have been killed in Israel’s ground offensive.
The US believes roughly 2 million Palestinians are now in south and central Gaza. Biden administration officials have made clear to the Israelis that an already stretched humanitarian support network would be unable to cope with the sort of displacement that those from northern Gaza have endured in Israel’s retaliatory strikes and ground operations.
Biden administration officials have also told the Israelis they expect them to conduct operations in a way that will be “maximally deconflicted” with the operation of humanitarian aid facilities, United Nations-supported shelters and core infrastructure, including electricity and water.
The World Health Organization has warned that the war has caused a burgeoning public health crisis that is a recipe for epidemics as displaced Palestinians have been forced to take shelter in cramped homes and camps.
One administration official said vaccines are among the medical goods flowing into Gaza, but there has also been a focus on potable water supplies and sanitation to prevent outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. To that end, the White House has also pushed to get as much fuel into Gaza as possible — something the Israelis resisted, particularly in the first weeks of war, citing concerns that it would be siphoned by Hamas.
The officials said the US on Tuesday would dispatch the first of three US military humanitarian aid flights to northern Egypt carrying medical supplies, food aid and winter items for Gaza’s civilian population.

Iran’s Raisi not coming to Turkiye on Tuesday: Ankara

Updated 28 November 2023

Iran’s Raisi not coming to Turkiye on Tuesday: Ankara

  • Analysts believe that Raisi will pressure Turkiye to move past the rhetoric and cut its blossoming trade and energy relations with Israel

ANKARA: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will not be making a previously announced visit to Ankara on Tuesday, the Turkish presidency said, without providing a reason.

The visit had been announced earlier this month by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the two leaders would focus on forging a joint response to the Israel-Hamas war.

Erdogan has emerged as one of the Muslim world’s most vocal critics of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in response to Hamas militants’ October 7 attack.

He has branded Israel a “terrorist state” and called Iran-backed Hamas “a liberation group.”

Erdogan has also suggested trying Israeli politicians and military commanders in the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

But past meetings between Muslim and Arab leaders — including talks this month in Riyadh — have failed to find common ground over what immediate economic and political steps to take.

Analysts believe that Raisi will pressure Turkiye to move past the rhetoric and cut its blossoming trade and energy relations with Israel.

“Iran expects Turkiye to end its direct and indirect trade with Israel,” Istanbul’s Center for Iranian Studies director Hakki Uygur said.

“Turkiye, on the other hand, has taken an attitude that cares about separating political and commercial issues.”

According to Gaza’s Hamas-led government, nearly 15,000 people — mostly civilians and including thousands of children — have died since Israel began to retaliate for Hamas’s unprecedented cross-border attacks in which Israel says 1,200 people, mostly civilians, died.

Raisi’s visit comes with efforts focused on extending a truce that has seen dozens of Israeli hostages freed in return for the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners.

Iran and Turkiye share a 535-kilometer border and a complex history of close economic relations and opposing views on regional disputes.

Turkiye backed rebel efforts to topple Iranian and Russian-backed President Bashar Assad during Syria’s civil war.

Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan’s two victorious wars over Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh also created deep unease in Iran.

Tehran fears that Baku’s resurgence in the Caucasus region could feed the separatist ambitions of Iran’s large ethnic Azerbaijani minority.

Iran is also anxious about a proposed trade route running along its northern border between Azerbaijan and Turkiye that could potentially complicate its access to Armenia.

“The most important conflict between Turkiye and Iran was over the Caucasus and Karabakh,” Ankara-based Iran expert Arif Keskin said.

“With the Gaza conflict, this issue was pushed to the back burner, but it still remains there as an important issue,” Keskin said.

The Turkish presidency said Erdogan discussed finding “a common stance against Israel’s brutality” by phone with Raisi on Sunday.

Analysts believe that Iran is trying to calibrate the extent to which it uses groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon to pressure Israel and the United States.

“Iran has been wary of intervening in the ongoing Middle East crisis and is likely to avoid any action that might escalate the conflict,” the Eurasia Group said in a report.

“As Iran does not have total control over its allies, there is a risk that unintended actions bring US retaliation and escalate the conflict,” it said.

Erdogan has also voiced repeated worries about the spread of war.

“Iran and Turkiye will continue to work in unity to make the temporary ceasefire permanent and achieve permanent peace,” Erdogan’as office said after his call with Raisi.

Israel-Hamas truce extension to facilitate exchanges, allow more aid into Gaza

Updated 28 November 2023

Israel-Hamas truce extension to facilitate exchanges, allow more aid into Gaza

  • Eleven Israelis freed by Hamas entered Israel Monday night after more than seven weeks in captivity in Gaza
  • Thirty-three Palestinians released by Israel arrived early Tuesday in east Jerusalem and West Bank town of Ramallah

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel and Hamas agreed to extend their cease-fire for two more days past Monday, raising the prospect of further exchanges of militant-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and a longer halt to their deadliest and most destructive war.
Eleven Israeli women and children, freed by Hamas, entered Israel Monday night after more than seven weeks in captivity in Gaza in the fourth swap under the original four-day truce, which began Friday and was due to run out. Thirty-three Palestinian prisoners released by Israel arrived early Tuesday in east Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah. The prisoners were greeted by loud cheers as their bus made its way through the streets of Ramallah.
The deal for two additional days of cease-fire, announced by Qatar, raised hopes for further extensions, which also allow more aid into Gaza. Conditions there have remained dire for 2.3 million Palestinians, battered by weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground offensive that have driven three-quarters of the population from their homes.
Israel has said it would extend the cease-fire by one day for every 10 additional hostages released. After the announcement by Qatar — a key mediator in the conflict, along with the United States and Egypt — Hamas confirmed it had agreed to a two-day extension “under the same terms.”

Eitan Yahalomi, 12, walks with his mother at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. (Reuters)

But Israel says it remains committed to crushing Hamas’ military capabilities and ending its 16-year rule over Gaza after its Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel. That would likely mean expanding a ground offensive from devastated northern Gaza to the south.
Monday’s releases bring to 51 the number of Israelis freed under the truce, along with 19 hostages of other nationalities. So far, 150 Palestinians have been released from Israeli prisons.
After weeks of national trauma over the roughly 240 people abducted by Hamas and other militants, scenes of the women and children reuniting with families have rallied Israelis behind calls to return those who remain in captivity.
“We can get all hostages back home. We have to keep pushing,” two relatives of Abigail Edan, a 4-year-old girl and dual Israeli-American citizen who was released Sunday, said in a statement.
Hamas and other militants could still be holding up to 175 hostages, enough to potentially extend the cease-fire for two and a half weeks. But those include a number of soldiers, and Hamas is likely to make much greater demands for their release.

The newly released hostages included three women and nine children — including 3-year-old twin girls and their mother — from the kibbutz Nir Oz, a community near Gaza that was hard hit in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. The kibbutz said 49 of its residents remain in captivity, including the father of the twins. The Israeli military said late Monday that the hostages were undergoing initial medical checks in Israel before being reunited with their families.
Most of the hostages freed so far have appeared to be physically well. But 84-year-old Elma Avraham, released Sunday, was airlifted to Israel’s Soroka Medical Center in life-threatening condition because of inadequate care, the hospital said.
Avraham’s daughter, Tali Amano, said her mother was “hours from death” when she was brought to the hospital. Avraham is currently sedated and has a breathing tube, but Amano said she told her of a new great-grandchild who was born while she was in captivity.
Avraham suffered from several chronic conditions that required regular medications but was stable before she was kidnapped, Amano said Monday.
So far, 19 people of other nationalities have been freed during the truce, mostly Thai nationals. Many Thais work in Israel, largely as farm laborers.

Palestinian prisoner Khalil Zama' (R) hugs his mother after being released from an Israeli jail. (AP)

France said three of the hostages released Monday were French-Israeli dual citizens, two 12-year-olds and one 16-year-old. The French government is ‘’working tirelessly’’ to free five other French citizens held hostage, the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Palestinian prisoners released so far have been mostly teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces, or of less-serious offenses. But some were convicted in alleged attempts to carry out stabbings, bombings and shootings. Many Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel, including those implicated in attacks, as heroes resisting occupation.
The freed hostages have mostly stayed out of the public eye, but details of their captivity have started to trickle out.
Merav Raviv, whose three relatives were released Friday, said they had been fed irregularly and lost weight. One reported eating mainly bread and rice and sleeping on a makeshift bed of chairs pushed together. Hostages sometimes had to wait for hours to use the bathroom, she said.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby welcomed the extension of the truce.
“We would, of course, hope to see the pause extended further, and that will depend upon Hamas continuing to release hostages,” Kirby told reporters.

More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. More than 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in the initial attack. At least 77 soldiers have been killed in Israel’s ground offensive.
The calm from the truce allowed glimpses of the destruction wreaked by weeks of Israeli bombardment that leveled entire neighborhoods.
Footage showed a complex of several dozen multistory residential buildings that had been pummeled into a landscape of wreckage in the northern town of Beit Hanoun. Nearly every building was destroyed or severely damaged, some reduced to concrete frames half-slumped over. At a nearby UN school, the buildings were intact but partially burned and riddled with holes.
The Israeli assault has driven three-quarters of Gaza’s population from their homes, and now most of its 2.3 million people are crowded into the south. More than 1 million are living in UN shelters. The Israeli military has barred hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled south from returning north.
Rain and wind added to the hardship of displaced Palestinians sheltering in the compound of Al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza. Palestinians in coats baked flatbreads over a makeshift fire among tents set up on the muddy grounds.
Alaa Mansour said the conditions are simply horrendous.

In this handout picture taken and released by the Israeli Prime Minister's Office on November 26, 2023 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets soldiers at undisclosed location in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

“My clothes are all wet, and I am unable to change them.” said Mansour, who is disabled. “I have not drunk water for two days, and there’s no bathroom to use.”
The UN says the truce made it possible to scale up the delivery of food, water and medicine to the largest volume since the start of the war. But the 160 to 200 trucks a day is still less than half what Gaza was importing before the fighting, even as humanitarian needs have soared.
Long lines formed outside stations distributing cooking fuel, allowed in for the first time. Fuel for generators has been brought for key service providers, including hospitals and water and sanitation facilities, but bakeries have been unable to resume work, the UN said.
Iyad Ghafary, a vendor in the urban Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, said many families were still unable to retrieve the dead from under the rubble left by Israeli airstrikes, and that local authorities weren’t equipped to deal with the level of destruction.
Many say the aid is not nearly enough.
Amani Taha, a widow and mother of three who fled northern Gaza, said she had only managed to get one canned meal from a UN distribution center since the cease-fire began.
She said the crowds have overwhelmed local markets and gas stations as people try to stock up on basics. “People were desperate and went out to buy whenever they could,” she said. “They are extremely worried that the war will return.”

Rare survey details how Gazans wary of Hamas before Israel attack

Updated 28 November 2023

Rare survey details how Gazans wary of Hamas before Israel attack

  • Despite the majority negative view of Hamas uncovered by Jamal’s research, the report cautions that following the Hamas attack on Israel, perceptions may have changed

PRINCETON, United States: Many Gazans were hostile to Hamas ahead of the group’s brutal October 7 attack on Israel, with some describing its rule as a second occupation, according to rare polling data analyzed by a US-Palestinian researcher.
The findings are striking against a backdrop of protests and counter-protests triggered by the attack, with the relationship between Hamas and ordinary Gazans often the subject of heated debate.
“We find in our surveys that 67 percent of Palestinians in Gaza had little or no trust in Hamas in that period right before the attacks,” said Amaney Jamal, dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.
“This is especially important because of the (erroneous) argument that all of Gaza supports Hamas, and therefore all of Gaza should be held accountable for the actions, atrocious actions of Hamas.”
Jamal is one of the driving forces behind the Arab Barometer which conducts surveys and polling in the region, including in Gaza where fieldwork concluded on the eve of the attacks on Israel.
She said that Hamas, which won elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006 and is designated a “terrorist” organization by Washington and the EU, was seen as “corrupt” and “authoritarian” by many respondents.
“Seventy-five percent said in the previous 30 days, they could not afford to feed their households. So again, this is an impoverished society, a society that is basically saying the Hamas-led government has some levels of corruption,” said Jamal.

“When we ask people, who do you blame?... we thought that the number-one culprit was going to be Israel because of the blockade. But most people cited Hamas corruption, more so than they cited the Israel blockade.”
Jamal, 52 and born in California and brought up in her family’s native Ramallah, said there was also a perception that “the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas-led government across time have become more dictatorial — and more authoritarian.”
“For the average Palestinian in the West Bank or in Gaza (they say) ‘we have this (Israeli) occupation and then we have these Palestinian governments that are also authoritarian’. So a common phrase is we used to be occupied by one power, now we’re occupied by two.”
The latest Arab Barometer was undertaken in Gaza, where 399 people were surveyed, and the West Bank, where 790 were polled, from the end of September to October 6. Its findings were published in the journal Foreign Affairs.
“About 60 percent said that they believed they could not express their opinions freely and openly at the eve of the attacks (and) about 72 percent said that they could not protest peacefully against the Hamas-led government,” Jamal said. “There was fear of retaliation or retribution from the government.”
The Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas, which runs Palestinian areas in the West Bank, fared poorly in Jamal’s survey, with only 9 percent of responses favorable.
Despite the majority negative view of Hamas uncovered by Jamal’s research, the report cautions that following the Hamas attack on Israel, perceptions may have changed.
“Israel cut off water, food, fuel, and electricity supplies to Gaza following the October 7 attacks, plunging the territory into a deep humanitarian crisis... the suffering the Palestinians have experienced has likely hardened their attitude,” it said.
Ahead of the attacks on Israel, more than half of respondents favored a two-state solution — a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The remainder opted either for a Palestinian-Israeli confederation or a one-state solution. But one-in-five supported armed resistance before the events of October 7, and the massive Israeli military response that followed.
“(Gazans were) open to a peaceful reconciliation with Israel based on 1967 borders,” Jamal said.


Blinken to return to Israel, West Bank as truce extended

Updated 28 November 2023

Blinken to return to Israel, West Bank as truce extended

  • The trip comes as mediator Qatar announced a 48-hour extension of a truce between Israel and Hamas, opening the way for further releases of hostages and the arrival of humanitarian aid into the war-battered Gaza Strip

BRUSSELS: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will pay his third wartime visit to the Middle East this week, a US official said Monday, just as mediators announced an extension of a truce in Gaza.
Blinken will also head this week to Dubai to represent the United States at the COP28 climate summit, which President Joe Biden is skipping after two previous years of attending to highlight US leadership.
A senior US official, speaking as Blinken arrived in Brussels for NATO meetings, said the top US diplomat would meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah.
“In his meetings in the Middle East, the secretary will stress the need to sustain the increased flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, secure the release of all hostages and improve protection to civilians in Gaza,” the official said.
“The secretary will discuss with partners in the region the principles he laid out for the future of Gaza and the need to establish an independent Palestinian state,” the official said.
The trip comes as mediator Qatar announced a 48-hour extension of a truce between Israel and Hamas, opening the way for further releases of hostages and the arrival of humanitarian aid into the war-battered Gaza Strip.
There was no immediate confirmation from Israel, which has vowed to keep up the fight to destroy Hamas.
The United States has been pressing Israel to work with the Palestinian Authority and rein in settlers who have attacked Palestinians in the West Bank since October 7, but Netanyahu has been a long-time critic of Abbas and of a two-state solution.

Blinken and Biden have vowed support for Israel after Hamas militants stormed into the US ally on October 7 and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in Israel’s deadliest-ever attack.
But US officials have also voiced increasing concern about the Israeli reprisals’ toll on civilians, which have galvanized public opinion in much of the world.
The bombing and ground campaign has left almost 15,000 people dead, mostly Palestinian civilians, according to Gaza’s Hamas government.
Blinken will head Friday to COP28 in Dubai, which opens on Thursday in the largest-yet UN-led summit on climate change.
Biden has attended the last two annual summits, in Scotland and Egypt, in hopes of showing that the United States has turned the page from his climate skeptic predecessor Donald Trump, who is seeking the White House again.
The Biden administration has pushed through billions of dollars of investment in the green economy, including electric cars.
Another US official earlier said that Biden would not attend COP28, whose attendees include Pope Francis. Officials did not give a reason. Biden has been consumed by the Middle East but is seeking to focus on his domestic agenda with less than a year to go before the presidential election.
Blinken will also seek to rally support for Ukraine in talks with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels and then at a meeting in North Macedonia of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
“We anticipate that he’ll engage in a good discussion with our OSCE colleagues about support for Ukraine,” said James O’Brien, the top US diplomat for Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that North Macedonia, which has joined Western sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, has agreed to let him attend the annual meeting of the pan-European security body in which Russia is a member.
Russian state media said that EU member Bulgaria has informed Moscow it would allow Lavrov’s plane to cross its airspace.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said there would not be a meeting with Blinken.
“No, (they) haven’t asked, (they) won’t ask and there won’t be a meeting” he told Russian state news agencies.”
Last year, OSCE host Poland refused to let Lavrov attend, sparking an angry response from Russia.
US officials have cut most top-level contact with Russia since the February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, although Blinken briefly met Lavrov in March on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in India.