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
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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.”


Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

Updated 17 sec ago
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Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

PARIS: The European Union will convene donors next week to keep Syria on the global agenda, but as the economic and social burden of refugees on neighboring countries mounts the bloc is divided and unable to find solutions to tackle the issue, diplomats say.
Syria has become a forgotten crisis that nobody wants to stir amid the war raging between Israel and Islamist Palestinian militants Hamas and tensions growing between Iran and Western powers over its regional activities.
More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Turkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home with political stability no closer than since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in 2011.
Funding to support them is dropping with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing its aid. Difficulties to host refugees are surfacing, notably in Lebanon, where the economic situation is perilous and a call to send Syrians home is one of the rare issues that unites all communities.
“We have no levers because we never resumed relations with the Assad regime and there are no indications anybody really will,” said a former European envoy to Syria.
“Even if we did, why would Syria offer carrots to countries that have been hostile to him and especially taking back people who opposed him anyway.”
Major European and Arab ministers along with key international organizations meet for the 8th Syria conference next Monday, but beyond vague promises and financial pledges, there are few signs that Europe can take the lead.
The talks come just ahead of the European elections on June 6-9 in which migration is a divisive issue among the bloc’s 27-member states. With far-right and populist parties already expected to do well, there is little appetite to step up refugee support.
The conference itself has changed from eight years ago. The level of participation has been downgraded. The likes of Russia, the key actor backing Assad, is no longer invited after its invasion of Ukraine. The global geopolitical situation and drop in the conflict’s intensity keeps it off radars.
There are divisions within the EU on the subject. Some countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to having a form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up voluntary returns in conjunction with and under the auspices of the United Nations.
However, others, like France which acknowledges the pressure the refugees are weighing on Lebanon and fears broader conflict between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, remain steadfast that there can be no discussion with the Assad regime until key conditions are met.
But the reality on the ground is forcing a discussion on the issue.
Demonstrating the tensions between the EU and the countries hosting refugees, Lebanese MPs threatened to reject the bloc’s 1 billion euro package announced earlier this month, slamming it as a “bribe” to keep refugees in limbo in Lebanon instead of resettling them permanently in Europe or sending them back home to Syria.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who unlike in previous years is not due to attend the Brussels conference, has said that Beirut would start dealing with the issue itself without proper international assistance.
The result has been an upswing in migrant boats from Lebanon to Europe, with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, prompting some countries to ring alarm bells fearing a flood of new refugees into the bloc.
“Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it’s not sustainable for Cyprus and it’s not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn’t been sustainable for years,” Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said this month during a visit to Lebanon.
Highlighting the divisions in Europe, eight countries — Austria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland — last week issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus, breaking ranks with the bloc’s previous positions.
They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability did not exist yet, things had evolved sufficiently to “re-evaluate the situation” to find “more effective ways of handling the issue.”
“I don’t think there will be a big movement in terms of EU attitude, but perhaps some baby steps to engage and see if more can be done in various areas,” said a diplomat from one of the countries that attended the talks in Cyprus.
Another was more blunt.
“Come Tuesday Syria will be swept under the carpet and forgotten. The Lebanese will be left to deal with the crisis alone,” said a French diplomat.

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

Updated 45 min 37 sec ago
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More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

  • Crowds overrun some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend, leading to a two-day suspension of aid distribution
  • At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million

WASHINGTON: A six-day-old US pier project in Gaza is starting to get more aid to Palestinians in need but conditions are challenging, US officials said Thursday. That reflects the larger problems bringing food and other supplies to starving people in the besieged territory.

The floating pier had a troubled launch, with crowds overrunning some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend. One man in the crowd was shot dead in still-unexplained circumstances. It led to a two-day suspension of aid distribution.
The US military worked with the UN and Israeli officials to select safer alternate routes for trucks coming from the pier, US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday.
As a result, the US pier on Wednesday accounted for 27 of the 70 total trucks of aid that the UN was able to round up from all land and sea crossings into Gaza for distribution to civilians, the United States said.
That’s a fraction of the 150 truckloads of food, emergency nutrition treatment and other supplies that US officials aim to bring in when the sea route is working at maximum capacity.
Plus, Gaza needs 600 trucks entering each day, according to the US Agency for International Development, to curb a famine that the heads of USAID and the UN World Food Program have said has begun in the north and to keep it from spreading south.

Only one of the 54 trucks that came from the pier Tuesday and Wednesday encountered any security issues on their way to aid warehouses and distribution points, US officials said. They called the issues “minor” but gave no details.
A deepening Israeli offensive in the southern city of Rafah has made it impossible for aid shipments to get through the crossing there, which is a key source for fuel and food coming into Gaza. Israel says it is bringing aid in through another border crossing, Kerem Shalom, but humanitarian organizations say Israeli military operations make it difficult for them to retrieve the aid there for distribution.
The Biden administration last week launched the $320 million floating pier for a new maritime aid route into Gaza as the seven-month-old Israel-Hamas war and Israeli restrictions on land crossings have severely limited food deliveries to 2.3 million Palestinians.
For all humanitarian efforts, “the risks are manifold,” Daniel Dieckhaus, USAID’s response director for Gaza, said at a briefing with Cooper. “This is an active conflict with deteriorating conditions.”
Dieckhaus rejected charges from some aid groups that the pier is diverting attention from what the US, UN and relief workers say is the essential need for Israel to allow full access to land crossings for humanitarian shipments.
For instance, Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official now leading Refugees International, tweeted that “the pier is humanitarian theater.”
“I would not call, within a couple of days, getting enough food and other supplies for tens of thousands of people for a month theater,” Dieckhaus said Thursday when asked about the criticism.
At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million.
 


Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

Updated 24 May 2024
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Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

WASHINGTON: Three US troops suffered non-combat injuries in the effort to make a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza into a conduit for humanitarian aid, with one in critical condition at an Israeli hospital, US officials said on Thursday.

The injuries were the first for US forces during the latest operation to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The pier was announced by US President Joe Biden in March and involved the military assembling the floating structure off the coast. Estimated to cost $320 million for the first 90 days and involve about 1,000 US service members, it went into operation last week.

US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the deputy commander of US Central Command, told reporters that two of the troops had a sprained ankle and a minor back injury.

“Two were very minor, routine injuries. Those individuals returned to duty,” Cooper said.

A third service member, injured on a ship at sea, was medically evacuated to a hospital in Israel, he said. A US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the individual was in critical condition.

US lawmakers have voiced concern about the risks to positioning US troops off the coast of Gaza. Biden has said they will not step foot in the war-torn city itself.

The Pentagon has said it will prioritize the safety of US military personnel.

“We’re clear eyed and we continue to look at force protection all day, every day and as it stands now we assess the operations can continue,” Cooper said.

Social media images showed a US air defense system, known as the Counter Rockets, Artillery and Mortars (CRAM), firing into the sky while on the pier. US officials said troops were testing the system.

Daniel Dieckhaus of the US Agency for International Development said that since the pier opened last week, about 506 metric tons of aid had been handed off to humanitarian groups inside Gaza. About a third of that has not yet been distributed but would be soon, he said.


Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

Updated 23 May 2024
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Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

GAZA STRIP: A senior official at Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza said it was under Israeli military siege for a fifth straight day on Thursday after soldiers stormed it the previous day.

“We are still under siege for the fifth day in a row,” said the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

“Soldiers are present in the hospital’s courtyard and nearby houses,” he said, adding that there was “continuous gunfire and shelling” toward it.

Troops stormed the hospital building on Wednesday evening, he said.

“The hospital was stormed, and staff were forced to leave. I currently have only 13 staff, 11 patients, and two women accompanying wounded children,” Saleh said.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on social media platform X that 140 staff, patients, and accompanying adults were inside the hospital when troops stormed it.

The WHO visited Al-Awda regularly in April to deliver medical supplies and fuel, but on Tuesday Ghebreyesus said snipers were targeting the building and artillery had hit the fifth floor.

On Tuesday, patients and staff were also evacuated from another hospital in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan, its director, Dr. Hossam Abu Safia, said at the time.

“These are the only two functional hospitals remaining in northern Gaza. Ensuring their ability to deliver health services is imperative,” Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

Israeli troops have previously raided other medical facilities in Gaza, including Al-Shifa in Gaza City, the territory’s largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble after an operation in March, the WHO said.


Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

Russian President Vladimir receives Bahrain's King Hamad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2024. (BNA)
Updated 23 May 2024
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Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

  • King meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin 

RIYADH: Bahrain’s King Hamad said his country was looking forward to improving its relations with Iran during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
The king added that there was no reason for Bahrain to postpone the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, the Bahrain News Agency reported on Thursday.
The king and Putin discussed the war in Gaza, regional and international efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire, and the release of hostages and detainees. They also focused on providing humanitarian aid without obstacles to the territory’s civilian population.
They highlighted the importance of advancing the course of diplomatic action to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and achieving a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The leaders also said efforts to recognize the Palestinian state and accept it as a permanent member of the UN should be supported.
They also stressed the importance of the UN Security Council assuming its responsibilities toward resolving and ending global conflicts, and working to settle them in accordance with the rules of international law and the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.
The king informed the Russian president of the outcomes of the Arab Summit held recently in Bahrain, adding that Arab countries appreciated Russia’s sympathy for just Arab causes.
The king and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the convening of an international conference at the summit, which would take place under the auspices of the UN, to resolve the Palestinian issue on the basis of a two-state solution.
The king added that he hoped to host the conference and requested Russia’s support for it.