Scores killed overnight in Gaza amid negotiations in Paris for truce

Women stand amid the destruction following overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 24 February 2024

Scores killed overnight in Gaza amid negotiations in Paris for truce

  • UN aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, says Gazans are ‘in extreme peril while the world watches on’
  • The Paris talks come after plan for post-war Gaza by Israeli prime minister drew criticism from the US

Gaza Strip: More than 100 people were reported killed early Saturday in overnight strikes across Gaza, as Israel’s spy chief was in Paris for talks seeking to “unblock” progress toward a truce and the return of hostages held by Palestinian militants.
The Paris negotiations come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally the United States and was rejected by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on Friday.
They also come as fears for civilians in the territory are deepening, with the UN warning of the growing risk of famine and its main aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, saying early Saturday that Gazans were “in extreme peril while the world watches on.”
AFP footage showed distraught Gazans queuing for food in the territory’s devastated north on Friday and staging a protest decrying their living conditions.
“Look, we are fighting each other over rice,” said Jabalia resident Ahmad Atef Safi. “Where are we supposed to go?“
“We have no water, no flour and we are very tired because of hunger. Our backs and eyes hurt because of fire and smoke,” fellow Jabalia resident Oum Wajdi Salha told AFP.
“We can’t stand on our feet because of hunger and lack of food.”
In a Friday night statement on social media platform X, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said: “Without adequate food and water supplies, as well as health and nutrition services, the elevated risk of famine in #Gaza is projected to increase.”
The war started after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,514 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s health ministry on Friday.
An Israeli air strike Friday destroyed the Gaza home of well-known Palestinian comedian Mahmoud Zuaiter, killing at least 23 people and injuring dozens more, the health ministry said.
The ministry announced early Saturday that at least 103 more people were killed in strikes overnight, with many others believed to be missing under rubble.
Netanyahu on Thursday night presented his war cabinet with a plan for the post-war Gaza Strip that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
The plan stipulates that, even after the war, the Israeli army would have “indefinite freedom” to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the proposals.
It also states that Israel will move ahead with a plan, already under way, to establish a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan drew criticism from the United States, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby saying Friday that Washington had been “consistently clear with our Israeli counterparts” about what was needed in post-war Gaza.
“The Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote... through a revitalized Palestinian Authority,” he said, adding the United States also did not “believe in a reduction of the size of Gaza.”
Asked about the plan during a visit to Argentina, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would “reserve judgment” until seeing all the details, but that Washington was against any “reoccupation” of Gaza after the war.
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed Netanyahu’s plan as unworkable.
“When it comes to the day after in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed,” Hamdan told reporters in Beirut.
Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation led by David Barnea, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, was in Paris on Saturday for a fresh push toward a deal to return the remaining hostages.
Barnea will be joined by his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, Israeli media reported.
The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.
Pressure has been mounting on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate a ceasefire and secure the hostages’ release after more than four months of war, with a group representing the captives’ families planning what it billed as a “huge rally” to coincide with the Paris talks on Saturday night to demand swifter action.
The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.
White House envoy Brett McGurk held talks this week with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after speaking to other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
A Hamas source said the new plan proposes a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages being held by Hamas.
Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
US National Security Council spokesman Kirby had told journalists earlier that so far the discussions were “going well,” while Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz spoke of “the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress.”

Israel bombs Gaza as Middle East tense after Iranian attack

Updated 4 sec ago

Israel bombs Gaza as Middle East tense after Iranian attack

JERUSALEM: Israel launched more deadly strikes on besieged Gaza on Thursday as world powers watched nervously whether the country would retaliate against a weekend attack by its arch enemy Iran.
The Israeli army said it had bombed dozens of targets in the Palestinian coastal territory of 2.4 million people, more than six months into the bloodiest ever Gaza war.
Weeks of talks toward an Israel-Hamas truce and hostage release deal have stalled, according to Qatar’s prime minister who said the Gulf emirate was now “reassessing our role as mediator.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to destroy Hamas over its October 7 attack on Israel, also stressed on Wednesday that Israel “reserves the right to protect itself” against Iran.
The Islamic republic last weekend carried out its first ever attack to directly target its regional foe but Israel, backed by its allies, intercepted most of the 300 missiles and drones and suffered no deaths.
Iran’s attack was retaliation for an April 1 air strike, which it blamed on Israel, on the consular annex of its embassy in Damascus.
The international community has urged de-escalation since Iran’s attack on Israel which came after months of high tensions and violence involving Israel and Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
“We are on the edge of a war in the Middle East which will be sending shock-waves to the rest of the world,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said ahead of a G7 meeting in Capri, Italy.
Iran has warned of “a fierce and severe response” if Israel launches any further attacks after seven of its Revolutionary Guards died in the consular strike.
However, Tehran had also sought to calm tensions through indirect diplomatic channels with its other major adversary, the United States, which is Israel’s top ally and military supplier.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in New York for a UN meeting, said Iran had “tried to tell the United States clearly” that it is “not looking for the expansion of tension in the region.”
Washington has made clear it won’t join any Israeli attack on Iran, but has pledged to instead impose new punitive sanctions against Iran.
The European Union on Wednesday said it would impose new sanctions on Iran’s drone and missile producers.
Israeli public broadcaster Kan said Netanyahu, after discussions with US President Joe Biden, decided not to proceed with pre-arranged plans for retaliatory strikes on Iran.
“Diplomatic sensitivities came into play,” a senior Israeli official told Kan, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official added that there would be a response, but that it would be different to the one initially planned.
US broadcaster ABC News, citing three unnamed Israeli sources, reported that Israel had “prepared for and then aborted retaliatory strikes against Iran on at least two nights this past week.”
Among the range of possible responses considered by Israel were an attack on Iranian proxies in the region or a cyberattack, the sources told ABC.
German airline Lufthansa extended its suspension of flights to and from Tehran and Beirut to the end of April and said its planes would continue avoiding Iranian airspace.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomed a European Union announcement of sanctions on Iran as “an important step” and wrote on X that “Iran must be stopped now before it is too late.”
Iran’s attack on Israel “is succeeding in taking the focus, particularly the media spotlight, off of the Gaza famine and the Gaza war and the loss of life that is taking place there,” Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a Middle East/North Africa specialist at the University of Cambridge’s POLIS department, told AFP.
“And that was very much I think what Israel planned to do,” she said.
An AFP correspondent in Gaza said Israeli artillery shelling and aircraft strikes again hit Gaza City overnight.
The Israeli military said it struck dozens of militant targets over the past day.
The war started after Hamas launched their unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
The militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,970 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll on Thursday from the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
Gaza’s civil defense said Thursday it had recovered 11 more bodies in the southern city of Khan Yunis during the night.
Israel had also bombed the far-southern city of Rafah.
Gaza rescue crews recovered the corpses of eight family members, including five children and two women, from a house in Rafah’s Al-Salam neighborhood, the civil defense service said.
One woman in Rafah, Jamalat Ramidan, told AFP she and crying children fled the carnage of a strike, stumbling over “body parts and corpses scattered all over the place.”
Talks toward a ceasefire have stalled, said Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, despite months of effort also involving United States and Egyptian officials.
He said his country was undertaking “a complete re-evaluation of its role because there has been damage to Qatar,” which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Israel has faced growing global opposition to the Gaza war, which the United Nations and aid agencies say has left the north of the territory on the brink of famine.
Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected this, saying Israeli efforts were “above and beyond” what is needed “on the humanitarian issue,” his office said.
The UN Security Council was preparing to vote soon on an Algeria-drafted resolution for full United Nations membership for a Palestinian state, diplomatic sources said.
However, the veto-wielding United States has repeatedly expressed opposition to such a move.

Dubai Airport will return to full operational capacity within 24 hours, COO says

Updated 58 min 35 sec ago

Dubai Airport will return to full operational capacity within 24 hours, COO says

  • The hub has struggled to clear a backlog of flights in the aftermath of heavy rain that swamped the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday

DUBAI: Dubai International Airport will return to its full operational capacity within 24 hours, Dubai Airports Chief Operating Officer Majed Al-Joker told state news agency WAM on Thursday.
The hub has struggled to clear a backlog of flights in the aftermath of heavy rain that swamped the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday.
“Once operations are back to normal, we will assess the damages and would be able to give figure for the size of losses,” Al Joker told Al Arabiya TV in a televised interview.

British MPs urge government to designate IRGC a terror group

Updated 18 April 2024

British MPs urge government to designate IRGC a terror group

  • Signatories to open letter say Iranian organization has ‘never posed a greater threat to UK’
  • Proscription would put Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on par with Daesh, Al-Qaeda

LONDON: A cross-party group of more than 50 MPs and Lords peers in the UK have demanded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be designated a terrorist organization.

The cross-party group, which includes former home secretaries Suella Braverman and Priti Patel, made the request in an open letter to The Times.

The IRGC is a key component of Iran’s military and power-projection capabilities. More than 125,000 personnel serve in its ranks, spread across wings including the Quds Force, the overseas element responsible for liaising with and supporting militias in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. In recent years, the IRGC has also built a relationship with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The open letter, signed by 134 people, follows last weekend’s Iranian attack on Israel, which signatories described as the “latest chapter of destructive terror by the IRGC.”

It says: “The government has combated extremism and terrorism by proscribing Hamas and Hezbollah but it is not enough.

“The IRGC is the primary source of ideological radicalisation, funding, equipment and training for these groups.

“The government must act against the root cause and proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.”

Iran’s attack was a response to Israel’s strike on its consulate in Damascus that killed 11 people, including senior commanders.

Former US President Donald Trump designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization in 2019, a year before the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force.

But the UK has been reluctant to follow the US measure for fear of breaking diplomatic communication channels with Tehran.

As part of sanctions on Iran targeting its nuclear program, however, the UK sanctioned the IRGC, freezing the assets of its members and implementing travel bans.

A terrorist designation in the UK would put the IRGC on par with Daesh and Al-Qaeda, and make it illegal to support the group, with a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.

The 134 signatories said the IRGC has “never posed a greater threat to the UK,” accusing “thugs” belonging to the group of stabbing an Iranian dissident in London last month.

The letter was coordinated by the UK-Israel All Parliamentary Party Group, which includes former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick.

Iran tells US it does not seek ‘expansion of tensions’

Updated 18 April 2024

Iran tells US it does not seek ‘expansion of tensions’

  • Tehran carried out its first-ever direct attack on Israel, firing drones and missiles on the weekend
  • Top envoy: Iran communicated with Washington ‘before and after’ launching its attack on Israel

TEHRAN: Iran’s top diplomat said Thursday his country has told the United States that it is not seeking escalation after an unprecedented attack on Israel.
The Islamic republic carried out its first-ever direct attack on Israel, firing drones and missiles on the weekend. The barrage — to which Israel’s army chief has vowed a response — was retaliation for an April 1 air strike on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus. Iran blamed Israel for the consular attack.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who is in New York to attend a UN Security Council meeting, said his country has “tried to tell the United States clearly” that Iran is “not looking for the expansion of tension in the region,” he said in a video posted by his ministry.
Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations since 1980, but neutral Switzerland represents Washington’s interests in Iran. Both the US and Iran have alluded to the Swiss role as an intermediary.
According to Amir-Abdollahian, Iran communicated with Washington “before and after” launching its attack on Israel.
Iran informed the United States that the decision by the Islamic Republic of Iran to “respond to the (Israel) regime is final,” and the matter concluded, he said.
Iran’s retaliation against Israel left a girl severely wounded but caused little damage. It followed the strike in Damascus that killed seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, including two generals.
“Before the operation, we clearly told the American side that we will not target American bases and interests in the region,” Amir-Abdollahian said.
The Islamic republic has celebrated the attack as a success but President Ebrahim Raisi warned of “a fierce and severe response” to further “aggression” by Israel.
During his trip to New York, Amir-Abdollahian is set to meet United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and his counterparts from other countries.
The United States, Israel’s top ally, has said it would soon impose new sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone program following the strike on Israel, and said it expects allies to take parallel measures.
The US and other allies helped Israel intercept the Iranian strike.

Call to close UNRWA is attempt to strip Palestinians of refugee status — agency chief

Updated 18 April 2024

Call to close UNRWA is attempt to strip Palestinians of refugee status — agency chief

  • Philippe Lazzarini tells Security Council demise of agency would also accelerate onset of famine in Gaza, and jeopardize transition from a ceasefire to recovery
  • Meeting of the council requested by Jordan in response to long-running, continual attempts by Israel to force the agency out of Gaza and have it dismantled entirely

NEW YORK CITY: Disbanding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees would have lasting repercussions for millions of Palestinians because it would result in them being stripped of their refugee status, the head of the agency told the Security Council on Wednesday.

Philippe Lazzarini warned it would also accelerate the onset of famine in Gaza, and jeopardize the eventual transition from a ceasefire to recovery by depriving a traumatized population of the essential services it requires.

Some of the ramifications would be long term, he added: “It will make impossible the formidable task of bringing half a million deeply distressed girls and boys back to learning. Failing to deliver on education will condemn an entire generation to despair, fueling anger, resentment, an endless cycle of violence.”

The meeting of the council was requested by Jordan in response to long-running, continual attempts by Israeli authorities to force the agency out of Gaza, and have it dismantled entirely.

It began with a minute’s silence in honor of the 178 UNRWA employees killed during the war in Gaza.

The agency has been facing great challenges not only in its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians in Gaza, but also in ensuring it is able to continue its operations more generally.

More than 163 UNRWA installations in the Gaza Strip have been damaged during the war between Israel and Hamas, and only nine of its 24 healthcare facilities remain operational.

Meanwhile, the agency has been in a precarious financial position for some time, in part because of the decision by some major donor nations to suspend the funding they provide for the agency, which threatened to bring its operations grinding to a halt.

Several countries put their donations on hold after Israeli authorities alleged in January, without providing any supporting evidence, that 12 UNRWA workers had played a role in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel.

The agency terminated the contracts of the employees identified in the allegations, and the Office of Internal Oversight Services, the UN’s main investigative body, launched an inquiry at the request of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Separately, the UN also ordered an independent review, led by the French former minister of foreign affairs, Catherine Colonna, of the steps the agency takes to uphold the principle of neutrality among its workers. The review group is expected to present its findings on April 20.

Lazzarini told council members on Wednesday that the real reason behind the Israeli calls for UNRWA to be closed down is not about its adherence to humanitarian principles, it is an attempt to end the refugee status of millions of Palestinians. The true aim is to change the long-standing political parameters for peace in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he added.

“Accusations that UNRWA has deliberately perpetuated Palestinians’ refugee status are false and dishonest,” Lazzarini said. “The agency exists because a political solution does not. It exists in lieu of a state that can deliver critical public services.

“The international community has long attempted to contain, rather than resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lip service is paid to the two-state solution each time an escalation occurs, costing lives and hope.

“UNRWA was created 75 years ago as a temporary agency, a stop-gap measure, pending a political answer to the question of Palestine.

“If the international community truly commits to a political solution, UNRWA can retrieve its temporary nature by supporting a time-bomb transition, delivering education, primary healthcare and social support. It can do so until a Palestinian administration takes over the services.”

Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzia, called on the Security Council to consider, as a matter of urgency, imposing sanctions on Israel for its failure to implement the council’s recent ceasefire resolution.

“Everyone knows about the facts, the unthinkable statistics, the number of people dead and those in need of urgent food and medical assistance, as well as reported cases of people dying of famine and dehydration, including minors,” he said.

“The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is blocking half of humanitarian convoys, yet aid supplies are waiting at the border. We warned time and time again that in the absence of a lasting, sustainable ceasefire, which must be duly monitored by military observers, all of our humanitarian efforts are doomed.”

The US deputy ambassador to the UN, Robert Wood, said the conflict in Gaza has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of the number of aid workers killed, with the total standing at more than 240 since Oct. 7.

“These incidents are unacceptable. Humanitarian personnel must be protected, full stop,” he said, and he expressed deep concern that “Israel has not done enough to protect humanitarian aid workers or civilians.”

Wood added: “UNRWA plays a crucial role throughout the region, contributes to stability of the region and supporting Palestinian refugees, to educating hundreds of thousands of students, to providing primary healthcare and critical relief and social services.

“UNRWA is the bedrock of support for the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank. The United States supports this important work and emphasizes that it must continue uninterrupted.”