US criticizes Israel on Gaza civilian toll as UN to hear ceasefire demand

A man walks among the rubble of a building destroyed destroyed Israeli bombardment overnight in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip on December 7, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)
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Updated 08 December 2023
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US criticizes Israel on Gaza civilian toll as UN to hear ceasefire demand

  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls it imperative for Israel to ‘put a premium on civilian protection’
  • Blinken mention the gap between ‘the intent to protect civilians and the actual results’ seen on the ground

GAZA/WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his strongest public criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war on Hamas in south Gaza, said there was a gap between the government’s declared intentions to protect civilians and the casualties.

“As we stand here almost a week into this campaign into the south... it remains imperative that Israel put a premium on civilian protection,” Blinken told a press conference after meeting British Foreign Secretary David Cameron in Washington on Thursday.

“And there does remain a gap between... the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”

Israel says it must wipe out the Hamas militant group after its attack on Israel two months ago and is doing everything possible to get civilians out of harm’s way, including warnings about military operations.

US President Joe Biden spoke separately by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Biden “emphasized the critical need to protect civilians and to separate the civilian population from Hamas including through corridors that allow people to move safely from defined areas of hostilities,” the White House said.

More than 17,170 Palestinians have been killed and 46,000 wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry, since Oct. 7, when Israel began bombarding Gaza in response to a cross-border rampage by Iran-backed Hamas militants, who control the enclave. The Hamas attack killed 1,200 people, with 240 people taken hostage, according to Israel’s tally.

The Israeli military on Friday said 92 of its soldiers had been killed in Gaza fighting since its ground incursions began on Oct. 20.

CEASEFIRE DEMAND AT UN AS GAZA FIGHTING RAGES

Hundreds more Palestinians were killed as Israel fought Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip’s biggest cities on Thursday — 350 people, according to Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra. Israel said its forces killed a number of gunmen in Khan Younis, including two who emerged firing from a tunnel.

Arab states have renewed their push for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza, with United Arab Emirates asking the UN Security Council to vote on Friday morning on a draft resolution.

The United States and ally Israel oppose a cease-fire, saying it would only benefit Hamas. Blinken is due to meet top diplomats from Arab states, including Egypt, on Friday in Washington.

The draft was amended to say both “the Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations must be protected in accordance with international humanitarian law” and to “demand the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.”

A resolution needs at least nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the five permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, France or Britain — to be adopted. The US does not support any further action by the council at this time.

As pressure mounts on Israel over the civilian toll of its war to destroy Hamas, the Palestinian Authority is working with US officials on a plan to run Gaza after the war is over, Bloomberg News reported.

Citing Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, it said the preferred outcome would be for Hamas to become a junior partner under the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), helping to build a new independent state that includes the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“If they (Hamas) are ready to come to an agreement and accept the political platform of the PLO, then there will be room for talk. Palestinians should not be divided,” Shtayyeh said, adding that Israel’s aim to fully defeat Hamas is unrealistic.

KEREM SHALOM BORDER CROSSING TO OPEN

In a development that should help smooth the way for more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza, Israel agreed to a US request to open the Kerem Shalom border crossing for the inspection of trucks and their cargo, a US official said on Thursday.

Egypt, along with the United Nations, has been lobbying Israel to speed up an inspection process, which requires the vehicles to drive to Egypt’s border with Israel before looping back to Rafah. The number of trucks crossing daily has dropped to fewer than 100, from nearly 200 during a Nov. 24-Dec. 1 truce, according to the United Nations.

Kerem Shalom sits at Gaza’s southern border with Israel and Egypt and the crossing was used to carry more than 60 percent of the truckloads going into Gaza before war erupted two months ago.

With no end in sight to the fighting, a top White House national security aide, Jon Finer, said the United States had not given Israel a firm deadline to end major combat operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

There are many “legitimate military targets” remaining in south Gaza, including “much if not most” of the Hamas leadership, Finer said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington.

Meanwhile, hostages still held by Hamas have been kept incommunicado in Gaza despite Israel’s calls on the Red Cross to arrange visits and verify their wellbeing.

Marking two months since Hamas’ attack, the start of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah was a solemn moment for many in Israel.

Idit Ohel, whose son Alon, 22, was kidnapped by Hamas gunmen from an outdoor music festival where 364 people were killed, said she was hoping for a miracle.

“He doesn’t know it’s Hanukkah. I don’t think he knows the days, what’s day, what’s night,” said Ohel. “But he’s in our hearts all the time.”


US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

Updated 4 sec ago
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US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

WASHINGTON: The United States called Tuesday for a focus on diplomacy to resolve tensions over Lebanon, after Israel warned it would pursue Hezbollah even if it achieves a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
“The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path,” he said.
“That’s what we’re going to continue to pursue and, ultimately, that would make military action unnecessary.”
Miller added that Israel faced a “real security threat” with thousands of people who have fled their homes near Lebanon, calling it a “legitimate issue that needs to be addressed.”
Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement which is backed by Iran, have been exchanging fire since October 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out a major attack inside Israel.
In retaliation, Israel launched a relentless military operation in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Raising fears of all-out war, Israel this week struck Hezbollah positions deep into Lebanese territory.
On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if ongoing diplomacy succeeds in reaching a Gaza ceasefire and the release of hostages seized on October 7.
France, with US support, has been pushing a plan in which Hezbollah and allied fighters would withdraw to around 12 kilometers (eight miles) from the border and Israel would halt attacks.

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Updated 35 min 35 sec ago
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Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

AL-MEAIBDI, Iraq: Iraq enjoys tremendous oil wealth but many hard-scrabble farmers in the north say crude spills have contaminated their lands, piling on pressure as they already battle drought.

Amid the hills of Salaheddin province, puddles of the viscous black liquid pollute the otherwise fertile and green fields, rendering vast swaths of farmland barren.

“The oil has damaged all that the land can give,” said one farmer, Abdel Majid Said, 62, who owns six hectares (15 acres) in the village of Al-Meaibdi.

“Every planted seed is ruined. This land has become useless.”

Oil spills in Iraq — a country ravaged by decades of conflict, corruption and decaying infrastructure — have contaminated farmland in the northern province, especially during the winter rains.

Authorities blame the militants of the Daesh group who overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and were only defeated in Iraq three years later.

The group blew up oil pipelines and wells and also dug primitive oil storage pits, causing crude to seep into the ground, from where annual rains wash it out again.

But the local farmers also complain that the state has been too slow to clean up the mess.

In Al-Meaibdi and the nearby hills of Hamrin, authorities are struggling to find a sustainable solution to the problem, which adds to a litany of environmental challenges.

Iraq, also battered by blistering summer heat and severe drought, is ranked by the United Nations as one of the five countries most vulnerable to key impacts of climate change.

In Hamrin, layers of sludge pile up as excavators build up dirt barriers — a temporary measure to stem the flow of contaminated water onto farmland below.

The oil not only damages the soil and crops but can also pollute groundwater in the water-scarce country.

Said, the farmer, said “the soil is no longer fertile — we have not been able to cultivate it since 2016.”

Some other farmers had already abandoned their lands, he added.

He pointed to a green plot of land so far untouched by the spills and said: “Look how the crops have grown there — but not even a grain has sprouted here.”

Oil spills have contaminated 500 hectares of wheat and barley fields in Salaheddin, said Mohamed Hamad from the environment department in the province.

Hamad pointed to the reign of Daesh, which collected revenues from oil production and smuggling by building makeshift refineries and digging primitive oil storage pits.

He said the group blew up the pipelines and wells of the oil fields of Ajil and Alas, causing crude oil to flood and collect in the Hamrin hills’ natural caves.

Earlier this month, due to heavy rain, oil remnants again poured into agricultural lands, Hamad said, and “unfortunately, the leak damaged land and crops.”

Authorities have buried the group’s makeshift storage pits, Amer Al-Meheiri, the head of the oil department in Salaheddin province, told Iraq’s official news agency INA last year.

Yet during the heavy rains, the oil continues to seep out.

Iraq’s crude oil sales make up 90 percent of budget revenues as the country recovers from years of war and political upheaval, leaving it overly reliant on the sector.

The country boasts 145 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, amounting to 96 years’ worth of production at the current rate, according to the World Bank.

But for many farmers, oil has been a scourge.

Abbas Taha, an agriculture official in Salaheddin, said “oil spills have been occurring frequently since 2016.”

“Farmers suffer a great loss because they no longer benefit from the winter season to grow wheat,” he said.

Some farmers have filed complaints against the state demanding compensation, only to find themselves lost in Iraq’s labyrinthine judicial system, tossed from one court to another.

But Taha insists that authorities plan to compensate those affected in a country where agricultural lands are shrinking as farmers are abandoning unprofitable plots hit by drought.

Due to the severe water scarcity, authorities are drastically reducing farm activity to ensure sufficient drinking water for Iraq’s 43 million people.

Hamad said his department had contacted the relevant authorities to remove oil remnants that would eventually seep through the soil to contaminate groundwater and wells.

The soil also needs to be treated by removing the top layer and replacing it, he said.

“We urged the prime minister, the agriculture minister and the oil minister to compensate the farmers suffering from this environmental disaster,” said 53-year-old farmer Ahmed Shalash.


‘I fear the world has failed the test of humanity’ in Gaza, Slovenia’s foreign minister tells Arab News

Updated 2 min 43 sec ago
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‘I fear the world has failed the test of humanity’ in Gaza, Slovenia’s foreign minister tells Arab News

  • Tania Fajon urges Washington to use its leverage over Israel to advance two-state solution
  • Fears Israel’s planned military offensive in Rafah will trigger regional unrest

NEW YORK CITY: Tanja Fajon, Slovenia’s minister of foreign and European affairs, has expressed deep disappointment at how the US has repeatedly used its veto power at the UN Security Council to block demands for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

On Feb. 20, the US vetoed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for the third time. It was the lone vote against the resolution put forward by Algeria. The UK was the sole abstention, with 13 votes in support.

With some 30,000 people killed in Gaza since Israel launched its military offensive last October and some 2 million now at risk of famine, Washington’s continued use of its veto at the security council to prevent censure of Israel has drawn condemnation.

“I fear that the world has failed the test of humanity,” Fajon, whose country is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2024-2025, told Arab News during an interview in New York.

“Seeing so many kids without shelter, without food, without schools, no hospitals. We see the unbearably high death toll among civilians, the violations of international humanitarian laws — this is on us all.”

Washington has sought to justify its veto, saying a ceasefire would jeopardize “sensitive” negotiations, led by the US, Qatar and Egypt, to broker an end to the hostilities in Gaza, the release of hostages held by Hamas, and to allow aid to enter the enclave.

Rather than veto resolutions, Fajon said the US should use its influence over Israel to demand a halt to its military operation in Gaza and commit to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

“It’s no secret that Americans have leverage on Israel,” she said.

“They really have to do everything that’s possible, first to start serious negotiations with Israel, to stop the violations in Gaza, to ensure a ceasefire, to reach an agreement on the release of hostages and political prisoners and really start working for the two-state solution.

“We are doing our part of the job on the European side. But we need everyone at the table.”

Fajon fears the worst could still come if Israel follows through with its threat to launch a new ground offensive against Rafah, the last refuge of more than 1.5 million displaced Palestinians.

“I do expect that also in America they are aware of what might happen after the beginning of Ramadan if Israel makes its threats a reality,” she said. “If nothing happens, if a ceasefire is not urgently (implemented), I don’t know how we can move forward.”

Fajon believes that any large-scale operation in Rafah during Ramadan will provoke massive unrest across the Middle East and beyond.

“The anger is growing against Israel,” she said. “And when you have masses of people being frustrated, it’s always difficult to control and ensure peace. So, we are running the risk of a real escalation of violations in the Middle East.”

Slovenia’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differs from the EU’s dominant foreign policy position, as mainly represented by large states such as Germany whose defense export approvals to Israel have increased nearly tenfold since Oct. 7, according to Reuters.

Although many European states have called for a ceasefire, they have remained broadly pro-Israel.

“We are a small country,” said Fajon. “I wouldn’t say we are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinians, but we are for peace.”

She said Slovenians have been saddened by the images of suffering coming out of Gaza.

A large portion of the Slovenian electorate, especially the left, are critical of the foreign policy pursued by the US and Israel, which they view as “neo-colonial.”

Many hold a positive attitude toward the societies of the Global South and are broadly pacifist. Many believe the Slovenian government in Ljubljana is well-placed to act as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Some historians believe these attitudes are a legacy of Slovenia’s time as part of Yugoslavia, which had a tradition of offering support to developing countries, and which was committed to non-alignment during the Cold War, backing neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact.

Fajon recently hosted the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan in Ljubljana. She said both came “with a message of gratitude because we really try to listen and be supportive in efforts to create viable or feasible peace plans.”

With the Arab ministers, Fajon said she discussed her country’s desire to hold a peace conference, bringing the Americans, Israelis and all other stakeholders to the table to find a peaceful solution to the conflict and discuss the recognition of a Palestinian state.

“That also means the well-being and safety of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side,” she said. “We are not there yet. I know there are still open questions on how to ensure stability in Gaza after the war.”

Slovenia is actively participating in proceedings at the UN’s highest court — the International Court of Justice at The Hague — examining “the ongoing violations by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, from its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967,” as well as policies in occupied East Jerusalem and allegations of “discriminatory legislation” against Palestinians.

The motion is seeking an advisory opinion on whether Israel’s activities have violated international law. The motion was requested by the UN General Assembly in 2022, and so pre-dates South Africa’s genocide allegations heard by the court last month.

“This is a very broad spectrum of alleged violations that have been committed in the region for decades and whose horrific consequences are still visible today,” Fajon said last month.

Speaking to Arab News about the case, Fajon said it was about upholding international law.

“We are using our legal arguments, speaking of an occupying force and its illegal wrongdoings on illegally occupied lands,” she said. “Our expert opinion shows clearly that we try and we always follow international law. And that is our main message at The Hague.”

Slovenia has consistently called for the EU to introduce sanctions against both Hamas and extremist Israeli settlers in the West Bank, whose violence “we are following with great concern,” said Fajon.

The country has also joined efforts by Ireland and Spain to reconsider the EU’s cooperation agreement with Israel, which regulates trade relations and is bound by the provision that it respects human rights.

“We are a part of a like-minded group of six or seven countries in the EU that are really pushing hard to achieve a permanent ceasefire,” said Fajon.

“Yes, there are divisions inside the EU for different historical reasons. But from our perspective, I believe we are just very consistent in our foreign policy, meaning we respect international law (and) international humanitarian law. And we say that what we are seeing in Gaza are violations of international humanitarian law.”

In South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, the ICJ issued provisional measures ordering Israel to prevent and punish the commission or the incitement to commit genocide, to stop the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, and immediately enable the provision of humanitarian assistance to Gazans.

“We call on Israel to respect the measures from the ICJ Hague,” said Fajon.

“This is extremely important. We respect the work of international tribunals. And that is our clear call to Israel here. I think we don’t have any double standards. We can tell that to Israel, and we tell it to Russia in its war in Ukraine.”

She said both wars, Ukraine and Gaza, are a direct result of “regimes that don’t respect the UN Charter.”

“In the case of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, that’s entering its third year, we fully understand and support Ukrainians’ fight for territorial sovereignty and integrity. Because no one, by force, can take your land away or change internationally recognized borders.

“We run a consistent foreign policy that is based on international law and the UN Charter.”

Slovenia is also one of the leaders of the Mutual Legal Assistance Initiative for the adoption of the Convention on International Cooperation in the Investigation and Prosecution of Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, War Crimes and other International Crimes.

The Ljubljana-The Hague MLA Convention was adopted in May 2023 marking a landmark international treaty aiming to strengthen international legal cooperation to help reduce impunity for perpetrators of crimes and deliver justice to victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

“The Ljubljana-The Hague Convention is an important instrument because it somehow narrows the gap in the legislation (so) that the judiciary systems around the world can faster exchange evidence in persecuting, investigating, and punishing the worst war crimes everywhere,” said Fajon.

“So all those countries that are signing this convention will be in a much better position to move faster with the processes. And I hope that many countries will join in signing it.”

Above all, Fajon believes the international community has a responsibility to help those who desire peace — no matter which side they are on — to access the means to achieve it.

“In every country, be it an aggressive regime that runs a war or be it the victim, but especially in the country that has an aggressive regime, be it in Israel or be it in Russia, there are citizens and people that want to have peace.

“And we have to support these people. That is what I mean when I say we are neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinians. I mean exactly our support for these people who want to see peace.

“I think this is our role as politicians.”
 


Israel intentionally starving Palestinians in Gaza: UN official

Updated 28 min 22 sec ago
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Israel intentionally starving Palestinians in Gaza: UN official

  • Country guilty of war crimes, special rapporteur on right to food Michael Fakhri says
  • ‘Israel has announced its intention to destroy the Palestinian people,’ he says

LONDON: Israel is intentionally starving the population of Gaza in its battle with Hamas in the enclave and should be held accountable for war crimes and genocide, a UN official said on Tuesday.

Michael Fakhri, special rapporteur on the right to food, told The Guardian newspaper that Israel had been deliberately destroying food supplies and restricting the flow of food to Gaza since the war started in October.

About 2.2 million civilians are facing hunger and severe malnutrition as a result of extreme shortages of basic supplies in the enclave.

Fakhri said that to intentionally deprive civilians of food was a war crime, as per the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which states that depriving people of “objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies” falls under that definition.

Human rights groups have repeatedly accused Israel of using starvation in its operations within Gaza, an act which the UN Security Council outlined as a violation of international law and a war crime in 2018.

“There is no reason to intentionally block the passage of humanitarian aid or intentionally obliterate small-scale fishing vessels, greenhouses and orchards in Gaza — other than to deny people access to food,” Fakhri said.

“Israel has announced its intention to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part, simply for being Palestinian.”

The official said that the situation in Gaza was one of “genocide” and that Israel in its entirety, “not just individuals or this government or that person,” was “culpable and should be held accountable.”

“It was already a very fragile situation due to Israel’s chokehold on what goes in and out of Gaza. So when the war started, Israel was very easily able to make everyone go hungry because they had most people on the brink,” Fakhri said.

“We have never seen a civilian population made to go so hungry so quickly and so completely, that is the consensus among starvation experts. Israel is not just targeting civilians, it is trying to damn the future of the Palestinian people by harming their children.”

Fakhri also criticized those countries that cut their funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees following claims made by Israel that 12 of the organization’s workers had links to Hamas and its attack on Israel on Oct. 7, in which 1,200 people were killed.

UNRWA provides food, healthcare, education and other basic services to almost 6 million Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories and across the Middle East.

“Ending funding almost instantaneously based on unsubstantiated claims against a small number of people has no other purpose than collective punishment of all Palestinians in multiple countries,” he said.

“The countries that withdrew this lifeline are undoubtedly complicit in the starvation of Palestinians.

“Israel will claim there are exceptions to war crimes. But there is no exception to genocide and there’s no argument as to why Israel is destroying civilian infrastructure, the food system, humanitarian workers and allowing this degree of malnutrition and hunger … The charge of genocide holds a whole state accountable and the remedy of genocide is the issue of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

“The path forward must not just be ending the war but actually peace.”


Egypt, Jordan foreign ministers meet in Geneva to discuss Gaza conflict

Updated 27 February 2024
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Egypt, Jordan foreign ministers meet in Geneva to discuss Gaza conflict

  • Sameh Shoukry and Ayman Safadi warned of the consequences of an Israeli military ground operation in Rafah
  • Ministers also discussed the challenges facing UNRWA after several countries suspended their financial contributions

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan met in Geneva on Monday to discuss the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry and Jordan’s Ayman Safadi, who is also deputy prime minister, reviewed the situation in the war-torn region and warned of the consequences of an Israeli military ground operation in Rafah, according to a statement by Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry.

Any such offensive would have “extremely negative repercussions” and exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe, they said.

The ministers also discussed the challenges facing the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees after several countries suspended their financial contributions to the organization. Any disruption to its mandate would gravely harm refugees, they said.

The pair stressed the importance of continuing to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and of working together to prevent the conflict worsening and damaging regional security and stability.

Shoukry also expressed his concern at the deterioration of conditions in the West Bank and the increased pace of Israeli military incursions, which he said threatened to exacerbate the situation there.

He also outlined Egypt’s efforts to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, including trying to accelerate the provision of relief consignments.