Blinken tells Netanyahu ‘imperative’ to protect Gaza civilians

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Tel Aviv on Nov. 30, 2023 following the announcement of an extenstion of the truce between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2023
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Blinken tells Netanyahu ‘imperative’ to protect Gaza civilians

  • Stresses imperative of accounting for humanitarian and civilian protection needs in southern Gaza

TEL AVIV: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday stepped up calls for Israel to comply with international law and spare civilians as it wages its war against Hamas in Gaza.
On his third trip to the Middle East since the war began on Oct. 7, Blinken said the US remains committed to supporting Israel’s right to self defense. But he also said it is imperative that Israel protect civilians if it starts major military operations in southern Gaza.
His message aligns with the Biden administration’s shifting rhetoric on the war, which began as a full-throated embrace of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks but gradually tempered as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties began to rise dramatically. The death toll and scale of destruction has prompted widespread international criticism, including from members of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party.
Meeting in Jerusalem just hours after Israel and Hamas agreed at the last minute to a third extension of a cease-fire agreement under which Israel has paused most military activity in return for the release of hostages held by Hamas, Blinken assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he could count on US support.
But he added that such support requires Israel’s “compliance with international humanitarian law,” and he “urged Israel to take every possible measure to avoid civilian harm.”
To prevent a further major increase in civilian casualties, Blinken said he “made clear the imperative before any operations go forward in southern Gaza there’ll be a clear plan in place that puts a premium on protecting civilians, as well as sustaining and building on humanitarian assistance getting to Gaza.”
He told reporters the Israeli government had “agreed to that approach” but declined to offer specifics on how Israel would follow through. However, he suggested that Netanyahu and others understood that that ”the massive levels of civilian life and displacement scale we saw in the north not be repeated in the south.”
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have sought shelter in southern Gaza after fleeing their homes in the northern part of the territory due to the conflict, and US officials have been warning Israel that any offensive in southern Gaza must take into account the safety of the civilian population there.
In addition, Blinken “urged immediate steps to hold settler extremists accountable for violence against Palestinians in the West Bank” and said the US places great importance on the resumption of a peace process that would eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israeli officials have pledged to the US on multiple occasions that Israeli settler violence will be punished, but the Palestinians have complained of inaction on that front. And, Netanyahu is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, having told Israelis that he is the only political leader who can prevent it.
Netanyahu’s office released a statement about the meeting with Blinken that contained no mention of settler violence or a two-state solution.
Instead, in a recorded message, Netanyahu noted that his talks with Blinken had taken place shortly after a Hamas-claimed attack in which two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on commuters at the entrance to Jerusalem, killing at least three people and wounding more than a dozen others, including two US citizens.
Netanyahu said he told Blinken, “This is the same Hamas that carried out the terrible massacre on Oct. 7, the same Hamas that tries to murder us everywhere. I told him: We swore, and I swore, to eliminate Hamas. Nothing will stop us.”
“We will continue this war until we achieve the three goals — to release all our abductees, to eliminate Hamas completely and to ensure that Gaza will never again face such a threat,” Netanyahu said.
Blinken met with Netanyahu and his war Cabinet in Jerusalem before traveling to the occupied West Bank for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then back to Tel Aviv where he saw Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and opposition leader Yair Lapid.
In his meeting with Abbas, Blinken focused on efforts to increase the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza and condemned Jewish settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. Blinken told Abbas “he would continue to insist on full accountability for those responsible,” the State Department said.
Blinken also told Abbas that “the United States remains committed to advancing tangible steps for a Palestinian state,” it said.
Gallant, the defense minister, repeatedly referred to the fight against Hamas as “a just war” that would not end until Israel’s goals are achieved.
“We are going to fight Hamas until we prevail no matter how long it takes,” he told Blinken. “It’s a just war. It’s a war to (defeat) Hamas, the Daesh of Gaza, and it’s a war to bring the hostages back home. As long as it takes.”
Blinken said Thursday had “started off in a very terrible and negative way with another terrorist attack that took the lives of innocent Israelis in Jerusalem, a reminder of what Israel and every Israeli citizen has to face every day.”
“We condemn it and we also mourn the loss of these innocent lives as we mourn the loss of any innocent life,” he said, adding that, at the same time, the truce had been extended.
“We want every hostage to come home,” Blinken said. “We look to see if this can continue. Certainly, that would be a good thing, and it’s also allowed much more humanitarian assistance to get in to the Gazans who need it. But it’s going to be up to Hamas whether they will continue to do this.”
The top US diplomat will close out his latest Mideast tour in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, where he will discuss the Gaza situation with Arab leaders gathered in Dubai for the COP28 climate change conference.


UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7

Updated 05 March 2024
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UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7

UNITED NATIONS: The UN envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict said in a new report Monday that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture,” and other cruel and inhumane treatment of women during its surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7.
There are also “reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing,” said Pramila Patten, who visited Israel and the West Bank from Jan. 29 to Feb. 14 with a nine-member technical team.
Based on first-hand accounts of released hostages, she said the team “found clear and convincing information” that some women and children during their captivity were subjected to the same conflict-related sexual violence including rape and “sexualized torture.”
The report comes nearly five months after the Oct. 7 attacks, which left about 1,200 people dead and some 250 others taken hostage. Israel’s war against Hamas has since laid waste to the Gaza Strip, killing more than 30,000 people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. The UN says a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people face starvation.
Hamas has rejected earlier allegations that its fighters committed sexual assault.
Patten stressed at a press conference launching the report that the team’s visit was not to investigate allegations of sexual violence but to gather, analyze and verify information for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ annual report on sexual violence in conflict and for the UN Security Council.
Her key recommendation is to encourage Israel to grant access to the UN human rights chief and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Palestinian territories and Israel “to carry out full-fledged investigations into the alleged violations” — and she expressed hope the Security Council would do this.
Patten said the team was not able to meet with any victims of sexual violence “despite concerted efforts to encourage them to come forward.” While the number of victims remains unknown, she said, “a small number of those who are undergoing treatment are reportedly experiencing severe mental distress and trauma.”
However, team members held 33 meetings with Israeli institutions and conducted interviews with 34 people including survivors and witnesses of the Oct. 7 attacks, released hostages, health providers and others.
Based on the information it gathered, Patten said, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred during the 7 October attacks in multiple locations across Gaza periphery, including rape and gang rape, in at least three locations.”
Across various locations, she said, the team found “that several fully naked or partially naked bodies from the waist down were recovered – mostly women – with hands tied and shot multiple times, often in the head.”
While this is circumstantial, she said the pattern of undressing and restraining victims “may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence.”
At the Nova music festival and its surroundings, Patten said, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that multiple incidents of sexual violence took place with victims being subjected to rape and/or gang rape and then killed or killed while being raped.”
“There are further accounts of individuals who witnessed at least two incidents of rape of corpses of women,” Patten said. “Other credible sources at the Nova music festival site described seeing multiple murdered individuals, mostly women, whose bodies were found naked from the waist down, some totally naked,” some shot in the head, some tied to trees or poles with their hands bound.
On Road 232 — the road to leave the festival — “credible information based on witness accounts describe an incident of the rape of two women by armed elements,” Patten said. Other reported rapes and gang rapes couldn’t be verified and require investigation.
“Along this road, several bodies were found with genital injuries, along with injuries to other body parts,” she said. “Discernible patterns of genital mutilation could not be verified at this time but warrant future investigation.”
She said “the mission team also found a pattern of bound naked or partially naked bodies from the waist down, in some cases tied to structures including trees and poles, along Road 232.”
People fleeing the Nova music festival also attempted to escape south and sought shelter in and around kibbutz Reim where Patten said there are “reasonable grounds” to believe sexual violence occurred.
The mission team verified the rape of a woman outside a bomb shelter and heard of other allegations of rape that could not yet be verified.
At Kibbutz Be’eri, Patten said, her team “was able to determine that at least two allegations of sexual violence widely repeated in the media, were unfounded due to either new superseding information or inconsistency in the facts gathered.”
These included a highly publicized allegation that a pregnant woman’s womb was reportedly ripped open before being killed with her fetus stabbed inside her, Patten said.
Another was “the interpretation initially made of the body of a girl found separated from the rest of her family, naked from the waist down,” she said. “It was determined by the mission team that the crime scene had been altered by a bomb squad and the bodies moved, explaining the separation of the body of the girl from the rest of her family.”
Patten said further investigation is needed of allegations, including of bodies found naked and in one case gagged, at kibbutz Be’eri to determine if sexual violence occurred.
At Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Patten said, verification of sexual violence was not possible. But she said “available circumstantial information – notably the recurring pattern of female victims found undressed, bound, and shot – indicates that sexual violence, including potential sexualized torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, may have occurred.”
On Oct. 7, the Nahal Oz Military Base, which operated as a hub for signals intelligence and monitoring of the Gaza perimeter fence, was also breached by Hamas and “a significant number” of male and female soldiers stationed there were killed, and seven young female soldiers were abducted and taken to Gaza, Patten said.
Patten stressed that “the true prevalence of sexual violence during the Oct. 7 attacks and their aftermath may take months or years to emerge and may never be fully known.”


Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials

Updated 05 March 2024
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Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials

  • Event was taking place some 75 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jordan and the US

LONDON: Changes in regional and international security demand a faster response to emerging technology-related threats, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah said on Monday.

The crown prince chaired the opening session of the second Jordan-US Cyber and Digital Dialogue, which was also attended by US Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger.

Officials and experts from both countries participated in the dialogue, which discussed ways to improve cybersecurity cooperation, counter cyber threats, and develop information and communications technology systems, Jordan News Agency reported.

The event was taking place some 75 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jordan and the US.

The crown prince said that complex cyber threats were increasing globally, which necessitated additional cooperation and coordination among stakeholders on both sides. He cited the dialogue as an important and strategic means of enhancing efforts and strengthening the partnership between the two countries.

He spoke of the importance of utilizing cutting-edge technologies, developing the skills of cybersecurity professionals, and aligning national frameworks with global standards.

The first Jordan-US Cyber and Digital Dialogue was held last year in Washington, and both sides agreed to hold it annually.

The crown prince stressed the importance of bilateral cooperation in cyber and digital security, citing links to both countries’ national security interests.
 


Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants

Updated 05 March 2024
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Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants

  • UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave

JERUSALEM: Israel ramped up its criticism of the embattled UN agency for Palestinian refugees Monday, saying 450 of its employees were members of militant groups in the Gaza Strip, though it provided no evidence to back up its accusation.
Major international funders have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars from the agency, known as UNRWA, since Israel accused 12 of its employees of participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people and left about 250 others held hostage in Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.
The UN envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, said Monday there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture,” and other cruel and inhuman treatment of women during the attack.
The attack sparked an Israeli invasion of the enclave of 2.3 million people that Gaza’s Health Ministry says has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. Aid groups say the fighting has displaced most of the territory’s population and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe.
UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave.
The allegations Monday were a significant escalation in the accusations against the agency. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, did not provide names or other evidence to back up the vastly increased number of UNRWA employees it said were militants.
“Over 450 UNRWA employees are military operatives in terror groups in Gaza — 450. This is no mere coincidence. This is systematic. There is no claiming, ‘we did not know,’” Hagari said.
UNRWA in a statement accused Israel of detaining several of its staffers and forcing them, using torture and ill treatment, into giving false confessions about the links between the agency, Hamas and the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
“These forced confessions as a result of torture are being used by the Israeli Authorities to further spread misinformation about the agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA,” the statement said. “This is putting our staff in Gaza at risk and has serious implications on our operations in Gaza and around the region.’’
After Israel’s initial accusation against UNRWA, the agency fired the accused employees and more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for the year.
Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, had no direct comment on the new Israeli allegations.
“UNRWA encourages any entity that has any information on the very serious allegations against UNRWA staff to share it with the ongoing UN investigation,” she said.
Two UN investigations into Israel’s allegations were already underway when the EU said Friday it will pay 50 million euros ($54 million) to UNRWA after the agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.
Hagari also released a recording of a call he said was of an UNRWA teacher describing his role in the Oct. 7 attack.
“We have female captives. I caught one,” the male voice is heard saying in Arabic. A man on a second call, alleged to be an Islamic Jihad militant who Israel also claimed was an UNRWA teacher, is heard saying “I’m inside with the Jews.”
The military named the men, though the man in the first call identified himself in the recording by a different name. The military said that name may have been a nickname. The military did not provide evidence as to their employment with UNRWA.
The accusations came as Benny Gantz, a top member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet, met with US officials in Washington while talks were underway in Egypt to broker a ceasefire in Gaza before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.
Meanwhile, violence flared between Israel and Lebanon, amid inflamed tensions across the region.
An anti-tank missile fired into northern Israel from Lebanon killed a foreign worker and wounded seven others Monday, Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service said. The Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon did not immediately claim responsibility for Monday’s strike.
Hours later an Israeli airstrike in southern Lebanon killed three paramedics from Hezbollah’s health arm, Lebanon’s state media said.
US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday to meet with Lebanese officials in an attempt to tamp down tensions.
The near-daily clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have killed more than 200 Hezbollah fighters and at least 37 civilians in Lebanon. Around 20 people have been killed on the Israeli side, including civilians and soldiers.


Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike

Updated 05 March 2024
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Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike

  • Hezbollah on Monday claimed several attacks on Israeli military positions, while local media reported Israeli attacks on a number of locations in south Lebanon

BEIRUT: Three paramedics affiliated with Hezbollah were killed in an Israeli strike on south Lebanon Monday, the group said, amid escalating cross-border hostilities in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement have been exchanging near-daily fire since the day after the Israel-Hamas war erupted in October, raising fears all-out conflict could spread across the region.
The Hezbollah-affiliated Islamic Health Committee said three volunteers died “due to a direct Zionist attack on an emergency center” in south Lebanon’s Adaysseh.
The deaths came hours after Israeli medics said a missile strike on northern Israel killed a foreign worker and wounded seven others.
Lebanon’s health ministry condemned the Israeli raid “in the strongest terms” and called attacks on medical personnel “unacceptable,” in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency.
Hezbollah on Monday claimed several attacks on Israeli military positions, while local media reported Israeli attacks on a number of locations in south Lebanon.
The Israeli military said “numerous launches were identified crossing from Lebanon,” adding that it “struck the sources of the launches,” while “fighter jets struck a number of Hezbollah military compounds in southern Lebanon.”
Last month, two Islamic Health Committee paramedics and a Hezbollah fighter were killed in an Israeli strike on one of the organization’s centers in south Lebanon’s Blida, the group and a security source said at the time.
The Israeli army said it had struck a Hezbollah “military compound” in the village.
And in January, the Iran-backed militant group said an Israeli strike killed two Islamic Health Committee medics in the town of Hanin.
The Israeli army said it had struck Hezbollah targets, as well as “a number of areas in Lebanese territory.”
The fighting has killed at least 299 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 49 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
In Israel, at least 10 soldiers and seven civilians have been killed.


Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief

Updated 04 March 2024
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Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief

  • Philippe Lazzarini: ‘Dismantling UNRWA is short-sighted. By doing so, we will sacrifice an entire generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment and future conflict’

UNITED NATIONS: Dismantling the UN Palestinian refugee aid agency (UNRWA) would sacrifice a “generation of children,” its chief Philippe Lazzarini warned on Monday amid an increasingly bitter row between the UN and Israel.
“Dismantling UNRWA is short-sighted. By doing so, we will sacrifice an entire generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment and future conflict,” Lazzarini told the UN General Assembly.