Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

This handout picture released by the Israeli army on February 23, 2024 shows Israeli army soldiers on patrol at an unspecified location in the Gaza Strip amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)
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Updated 25 February 2024
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Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

  • Israeli delegation that went to Paris for talks on hostage deal returned on Saturday night
  • Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal

JERUSALEM: -Israel’s war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations toward a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.
An Israeli delegation that had traveled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country’s war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the “delegation has returned from Paris — there is probably room to move toward an agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the “next steps in the negotiations.”
Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.
As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.
Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as “Hostages Square” to demand swifter action.
“We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how,” said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.
Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu’s government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.
“They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it’s (the) economy, whether it’s peace with our neighbors,” 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding “it looks like they never want to end the war.”

After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported “unprecedented levels of desperation,” while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.
In northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.
Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting.
“We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?” one man said angrily.
Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.
The health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.
Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”
Israel has defended its track record on allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.
The war began 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 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to a Saturday tally from Gaza’s health ministry.
The ministry said early Sunday that another 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.

An AFP reporter said there had been a number of air strikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.
The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center they have yet to enter.
Despite the concerns, including from key ally the United States, Netanyahu signalled Saturday night that the expected push had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.
Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
It also says Israel will continue with the establishment of a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan has been rejected by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and drawn criticism from Washington.


Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel

Updated 3 min 7 sec ago
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Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel

  • Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army
  • Israel says 11 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed on its side of the border

Beirut: Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said it fired a fresh barrage of rockets across the border on Wednesday after a strike blamed on Israel killed two civilians.
The group had already fired rockets at northern Israel late on Tuesday “in response” to the civilian deaths.
Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army since its ally Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, triggering war in Gaza.
It has stepped up its rocket fire on Israeli military bases in recent days.
Hezbollah fighters fired “dozens of Katyusha rockets” at a border village in northern Israel “as part of the response to the Israeli enemy’s attacks on... civilian homes,” the group said in a statement.
On Tuesday, rescue teams said an Israeli strike on a house in the southern village of Hanin killed a woman in her fifties and a girl from the same family.
Since October 7, at least 380 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also 72 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israel says 11 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed on its side of the border.


Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

Updated 24 April 2024
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Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

BERLIN: The German government plans to resume cooperation with the UN agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) in Gaza, the foreign and development ministries said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
The decision follows an investigation by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna into whether some UNRWA employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.
The Colonna-led review of the agency’s neutrality on Monday concluded Israel had yet to back up its accusations that hundreds of UNRWA staff were operatives in Gaza terrorist groups.
The German ministries urged UNRWA to swiftly implement the report’s recommendations, including strengthening its internal audit function and improving external oversight of project management.
“In support of these reforms, the German government will soon continue its cooperation with UNRWA in Gaza, as Australia, Canada, Sweden and Japan, among others, have already done,” said the ministries in the statement.


Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross

Updated 24 April 2024
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Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross

  • Israel’s has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry
  • Israeli media predict offensive in Gaza’s Rafah soon

DUBAI: Humanitarian workers have no knowledge of plans to evacuate Palestinians from Gaza’s southernmost city ahead of an expected Israeli assault, but such a transfer would not be “possible” under current conditions, a Red Cross official told AFP on Tuesday.
“The rumor is that the probability of a major operation in Rafah is increasing,” Fabrizio Carboni, Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said on the sidelines of an aid conference in the United Arab Emirates.
“When we see the level of destruction in the middle area (of Gaza) and in the north, it’s not clear to us where people will be moved to... where they can have decent shelter and essential services,” he added.
“So today, with the information we have and from where we stand, we don’t see this (massive evacuation) as possible.”

Israel is poised to send troops into Rafah, the Gazan city it sees as the last bastion of Hamas, Israeli media reported on Wednesday, saying preparations were under way to evacuate war-displaced Palestinian civilians who have been sheltering there.

The Rafah sweep, postponed for several weeks amid disputes with Washington, will happen “very soon,” the mass-circulation Israel Hayom newspaper said, citing a decision by the Israeli government after ceasefire talks with Hamas stalled.
Several other Israeli media outlets carried similar reports. Some noted footage on social media that appeared to show the erection of a tent city for Rafah evacuees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli military spokesperson’s office had no immediate comment.
More than 1.5 million of Gaza’s population of 2.4 million had sheltered in Rafah, the last major population center in Gaza that Israeli ground troops have yet to enter, though thousands have been seen heading back north.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for two months talked of sending troops into Rafah to go after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs Gaza.
On Sunday, he said the Israeli military would increase pressure to “deliver additional and painful blows” to the group behind the October 7 attack on Israel which triggered the ongoing war.
But Israel’s allies including Washington have warned against a Rafah operation, fearing a worsening of Gaza’s already catastrophic humanitarian conditions.
“We don’t see for the time being any plans for civilian evacuations,” Carboni said during the interview on Tuesday at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference (DIHAD).
But “there is no condition for a military operation without devastating humanitarian consequences,” he added.
“Considering the level of destruction, considering that people are tired, some of them wounded and sick, and the limited access to food and essential services, I see (evacuations) as extremely challenging.”

The Israeli government said it was planning different evacuation scenarios, including the creation of tent cities that would be spared the fighting and would be set up with international support.
Citing Egyptian officials briefed on the Israeli plan, the Wall Street Journal reported that the evacuation operation would last two to three weeks and be carried out in coordination with the United States and Arab countries, including the UAE as well as Egypt.
But Carboni said an evacuation would be “difficult” to complete in that time frame.
Also speaking to AFP at DIHAD on Tuesday, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said that “everybody seems to be on a countdown to war across the largest displacement camp on earth, which is Rafah.”
Describing a Rafah onslaught as an “apocalyptic situation,” Jan Egeland said aid workers operating inside Gaza have not been briefed on plans to mitigate civilian suffering during a Rafah offensive.
“There is no information, no consultation with the humanitarians, no advice, no hope,” he said.
Humanitarians in Gaza are “not hearing from the donors. They’re not hearing from the Western sponsors of Israel, and nothing from Israel itself,” Egeland said.
“What they hear is that Netanyahu says that he will attack but not plans for where should the civilians go, how can aid be provided or how can access be secured.
“We are completely in the dark on how to mitigate this countdown to a catastrophe.”

The little aid that is entering Gaza is being distributed in real time leaving no buffer stock that could be used in the event of a massive population movement, Egeland said.
“There is no stocks, there is no fuel and more importantly, there is no liquidity. There is no money, we cannot pay our staff salaries. We cannot pay those who deliver the services,” the NRC chief added.
Egeland said some Palestinians had returned to areas in northern Gaza in recent weeks but that more than one million remained in Rafah.
For those who have left “what awaits them in the north is ruins, complete ruins and unexploded ordinance and, in many cases, more bombardment,” he said.
“There is no safe place in Gaza if people leave Rafah.”
The Gaza war began with the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
 

 


Hamas armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades calls for escalation across all fronts

Updated 24 April 2024
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Hamas armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades calls for escalation across all fronts

  • Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry

DUBAI: The spokesperson for Hamas’ armed Al-Qassam Brigades, Abu Ubaida, called on Tuesday for an escalation across all fronts in a televised speech marking 200 days since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7.
Israel says it is seeking to eradicate Hamas, which controls the enclave, in a war that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians thus far. The war started when the militant group attacked Israel, killing 1,200 and taking 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
In a video aired by Al Jazeera TV, Abu Ubaida praised Iran’s attack on Israel on April 13, saying the direct strikes with explosive drones and missiles “set new rules, drew important equations, and confused the enemy and those behind it.”
He also called for an escalation in the West Bank and Jordan calling it “one of the most important Arab fronts.”
Jordan, which lies between Iran and Israel, intercepted and shot down dozens of Iranian drones that entered its airspace and were heading to Israel, two regional security sources said on April 13.
“We call on the Jordanian people to step up their actions and raise their voices,” Abu Ubaida said.
He said Hamas was sticking to its demands at the ongoing ceasefire talks — that Israel ends its military offensive, pulls out forces from Gaza, allows the displaced to return to northern Gaza, and lifts the blockade.
“The government of the occupation is stalling in reaching a hostages-swap deal and is trying to obstruct efforts by the mediators to reach a ceasefire agreement,” Abu Ubaida said.
Qatar and Egypt have been trying to mediate a ceasefire, but Qatar foreign ministry’s spokesman said earlier on Tuesday all concerned parties should “show seriousness” in allowing such efforts to succeed.

 

 


‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief

Updated 24 April 2024
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‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief

  • Philippe Lazzarini says many supporters of each side in Israeli-Palestinian conflict fail to feel empathy for those on the other and so demonize them
  • ‘The peace process, per se, is not enough; what we need is healing,’ he tells Arab News

NEW YORK CITY: The head of the UN agency that helps to provide aid and development for Palestinian refugees told Arab News on Tuesday that no effort will be spared to protect it from “ferocious attacks” by its critics.

And as protests related to the war in Gaza continue to cause friction around the world, including growing rows on US college campuses, Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said many of the supporters of each side in the conflict are unable to feel any empathy for those on the other, and so they demonize them.

“The peace process, per se, is not enough,” he added. “What we need is healing.”

Lazzarini said he has been struck by the fact that “empathy in this part of the world is most of the time unilateral. It’s either empathy only for the Palestinians, with no understanding where the Israelis are coming and the trauma that Oct. 7 has created in the country, or empathy only for Israelis, with absolutely no empathy for the Palestinians.”

He said his main message to US students is the need to show “compassion and empathy” for both peoples, “because ultimately, we expect that Israelis and Palestinians will live, and deserve to live, in peace and security.”

UNRWA has never been under attack to the extent it has been in recent months, Lazzarini said.

“It has never been in a situation where at same time 18 countries are reviewing or freezing their contributions,” he added. “It has never been the target of an open campaign for the total dismantlement of its activities in Gaza, and possibly beyond. What we are going through is quite unique in its ferocity.”

Agency staff and the communities they serve are “deeply anxious” about the possibility it might be weakened or even dismantled, he said, pointing to an opinion poll in which between 80 and 90 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank expressed such fears.

“We will leave no stone unturned and we will bring the conversation where it needs to be to avoid the agency’s dismantlement,” said Lazzarini.

He added that this has been the mindset since the crisis the agency is facing was brought to the attention of the UN General Assembly in March, and was on display again last week during a meeting of the Security Council requested by Jordan in response to long-running attempts by Israeli authorities to force the agency out of Gaza.

“Now we are looking at the next, best avenue to shield the organization from these kind of attacks,” he added.

The agency, which provides aid and other services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and throughout the region, was thrown into crisis in January when Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA workers took part in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel.

In a report published on Monday, an independent team of investigators led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, reported that Israeli authorities have yet to provide any evidence to back up their allegations, and had not previously expressed concerns about any individuals named on the lists of UNRWA staff they had been receiving since 2011.

In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli allegations, the US, the biggest single funder of the agency, and several other major donors immediately put their funding for the organization on hold. In all, 18 UN member states suspended or paused donations, while others imposed conditions, placing the very future of the agency in doubt. Many later resumed their donations.

Speaking to reporters at the end of an official visit to New York, Lazzarini once again said that he believes the attacks on UNRWA were not truly motivated by concerns about the neutrality of its staff, but rather the primary objective was to strip Palestinians of their refugee status.

Israel has long accused the agency of deliberately perpetuating the refugee status of millions of Palestinians, an allegation Lazzarini describes as “nonsense.”

“Basically, it is as if you would say that the humanitarian response in a conflict zone is perpetuating the conflict,” he said.

“The reality is that it is perpetuated because of the absence of a political solution. UNRWA was geared to be a temporary organization, hoping to end its activities the day there is a lasting and fair political solution. And here we are, 75 years later; it’s certainly not UNRWA perpetuating the status (but) our collective inability to promote a solution.

“If we have a genuine desire for a two-state solution, and we revitalize the implementation of such a solution, UNRWA’s temporary nature can be reinstated and hence UNRWA can pave the way for the future (Palestinian) state to provide the services the agency is providing.”

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza in October, 180 agency staff have been killed, more than 160 UN premises have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 400 people have been killed while seeking shelter under the flag of the UN.

Premises UNRWA staff were forced to abandon reportedly have been taken over and used for military purposes by the Israeli army, Hamas or other armed groups. Several agency workers have been arrested or mistreated, some have been tortured.

Lazzarini urged the Security Council to order an independent investigation into such incidents and for those responsible for the “blatant disregard” they have displayed toward UN premises, staff and operations in the Gaza Strip to be held accountable, so as to avoid setting “a new low standard in future conflict situations.”

The attacks on UNRWA and its work continue even as fears grow that warming weather will bring with it disease and other health risks. This is especially a concern in southern Gaza, which has become the last refuge for more than a million people forced by fighting to flee other parts of the territory, and where Lazzarini said “garbage collection has become a priority for our colleagues to prevent disease outbreak,” amid the “key anxiety” among people of a threatened, “possibly looming, upcoming military offensive” by Israel, “which seems to be back on the table.”

The report submitted by Colonna’s team after its investigation, which was ordered by the UN to assess whether UNRWA was doing all it could to ensure the neutrality of more than 32,000 workers, includes more than 50 recommendations, including improvements to internal oversight, enhanced in-person training, and additional support from donor nations.

Lazzarini welcomed the report and said he is committed to implementing its recommendations. It is clear from its findings, he said, that “the agency, in reality, has already a number of systems to deal with neutrality issues, far ahead of the average UN agencies or even (nongovernmental organizations), and because of the complexity of the environment we are operating in we need to be extremely vigilant, and we can always do more.”

He expressed his hope that as a result of the report and the measures that will be put in place, “the last group of donors will get the necessary confidence to come back” to the agency.

However, he noted that US will not provide any more donations until at least March 2025 because of a lack of political support for UNRWA in Washington, and added that “my task now is to try to bridge the gap” in financing that currently exists “and see that funding covered until the end of June.”