Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

An Israeli woman casts her vote in the twice postponed municipal elections that could offer a gauge of the public mood nearly five months into the war against Hamas in Gaza, at a polling station in Jerusalem on February 27, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 28 February 2024
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Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

  • Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament

JERUSALEM: Israelis voted Tuesday in twice postponed municipal elections that could offer a gauge of the public mood nearly five months into the war against Hamas in Gaza.
Soldiers had already cast their ballots over the past week at special polling stations set up in army encampments in Gaza as fighting raged.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and closed at 10:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Tuesday, at which point turnout stood at around 49 percent, according to election authorities.
That was down from 59.5 percent in 2018.
Turnout in Jerusalem was 30.8 percent and in Tel Aviv it was 40 percent, the authorities said.
More than seven million people were eligible to vote in the elections for local councils across most of Israel, in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in Jerusalem and in parts of the annexed Golan Heights.
No major incidents were reported.
The vote, first scheduled for October 31, has been pushed back to November 2024 in towns and villages bordering the besieged Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where Hamas ally Hezbollah has fired rockets at Israel almost daily since the start of the Gaza war.
Nearly 150,000 Israelis have been displaced by hostilities in those areas.
Amit Peretz, 32, a Jerusalem city council candidate, said Jerusalem’s diverse make-up demands that “all voices are heard in the city in order to make everything work, because it’s very complex.”
Gita Koppel, an 87-year-old resident of Jerusalem, said she turned out because voting was “the only way you can have your voice heard.”
“I hope the right people come in and do the right thing for Jerusalem,” she said.
The elections were delayed after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of at least 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, most of them women and minors, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Two candidates for council chief in Gaza border areas were killed in the October 7 attack: Ofir Libstein in Kfar Aza and Tamar Kedem Siman Tov, who was shot dead at her home in Nir Oz with her husband and three young children.
In Jerusalem and other major cities, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidates aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies were running against government critics and more moderate candidates.
Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.
Tel Aviv’s mayor of 25 years, Ron Huldai, is seeking re-election in a race against former economy minister Orna Barbivai, who could become the first woman in the job.
Lawyer Amir Badran, an Arab candidate who had initially announced he would run for Tel Aviv mayor, quit the race before election day but was still vying for a city council seat.
In Jerusalem, another Arab candidate, Sondos Alhoot, was running at the head of a joint Jewish-Arab party. If elected, she would be the first Arab woman on the city council since 1967.
The elections for municipal and regional councils are largely seen as local affairs, though some races can become springboards for politicians with national ambitions.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who had a brief stint as prime minister before Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022, said Tuesday’s vote shows “there is no problem” holding elections even during the war.
In a post on social media platform X, Lapid called for a snap parliamentary election “as soon as possible” to replace Netanyahu.
Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament.
Palestinian residents make up around 40 percent of the city’s population, but many of them have boycotted past elections.
Second round run-offs will be held where necessary on March 10.


Israeli authorities release 150 Palestinians detained from across Gaza

Updated 6 sec ago
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Israeli authorities release 150 Palestinians detained from across Gaza

  • Palestinian detainees were delivered to Kerem Shalom border crossing into Rafah in southern Gaza Strip

GAZA: Israeli authorities released on Monday morning 150 Palestinian detainees who had been arrested in different parts of the Gaza Strip.

The detainees were delivered to Kerem Shalom, a crossing on the border of Egypt, Israel and Gaza, into Rafah in southern Gaza, according to an Arab News reporter in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Among the released detainees is Sufian Abu Salah, who told local reporters he was arrested “perfectly healthy” and “walking on both legs” but has had his left leg amputated in detention due to torture and neglect.

A video circulated on social media showed Abu Salah skipping on one leg with the support of a wooden stick he used as a crutch.

He told local journalists that while in detention, his foot became infected but Israeli soldiers refused to send him to a hospital. Within seven days, the infection had spread, and he had his leg amputated.

Abu Salah lost his leg due to torture followed by medical neglect in detention. (Supplied)

An internal UN report compiled last month by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees described widespread abuses of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.

Methods of abuse include “physical beatings, forced stress positions for extended periods of time, threats of harm to detainees and their families, attacks by dogs, insults to personal dignity and humiliation such as being made to act like animals or getting urinated on, use of loud music and noises, deprivation of water, food, sleep and toilets, denial of the right to practice their religion (to pray) and prolonged use of tightly locked handcuffs causing open wounds and friction injuries,” according to the UNRWA report.  

“The beatings included blunt force trauma to the head, shoulders, kidneys, neck, back and legs with metal bars and the butts of guns and boots, in some cases resulting in broken ribs, separated shoulders and lasting injuries.”

The prisoners released on Monday also include a child and a doctor. 

Israeli authorities have arrested at least 4,000 Palestinians, including women and children, since the onset of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza on October 7, which was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on southern Israel.


Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

Updated 15 April 2024
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Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

  • Kuwaiti Emir also tasks the new prime minister to form a government

DUBAI: Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah has appointed Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency KUNA reported on Monday.

The Kuwaiti ruler also tasked the new prime minister to form a government.

The Kuwaiti ruler last week accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, after elections were held to choose new members of the National Assembly.

He also instructed the cabinet to act as caretakers until the formation of a new government.


Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Updated 15 April 2024
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Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

  • Opposition leader: ‘Jewish terrorist violence’ against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank ‘out of control’
  • ‘If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us’

JERUSALEM: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of leading to a “total loss of Israeli deterrence” in the wake of an unprecedented Iranian attack.
In a scathing criticism posted on X, former premier Lapid also said that under Netanyahu, “Jewish terrorist violence” against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank was “out of control.”
Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a coalition with far-right parties, has brought “heaps of destruction from Beeri to Kiryat Shmona,” Lapid said, calling for early elections.
Beeri, a kibbutz community near the Gaza border, came under attack when Hamas militants stormed the area on October 7, triggering the ongoing war, while the northern town of Kiryat Shmona has suffered during months of cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Lapid’s remarks came two days after Iran — which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah — launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.
Israel, the United States and other allies intercepted nearly all launches in the late Saturday aerial attack — the first direct Iranian military action against arch foe Israel.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has weighed Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, but the prime minister has not made any public comments.
In the West Bank, where violence has soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars over the weekend, killing at least two people, after an Israeli teen was “murdered in a suspected terrorist attack,” according to the Israeli military.
Pointing to surging “terrorist” settler attacks, Lapid said: “If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us.”
The government, which includes hard-line settlers, has prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Netanyahu has faced in recent months mass protests over the fate of hostages held in Gaza and pressure from a resurgent anti-government movement.
The prime minister’s Likud party responded to Lapid in a statement stressing Netanyahu’s part in “the global campaign” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which Tehran denies it is seeking.


UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

Updated 15 April 2024
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UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

  • Meetings held between Foreign Office, Rapid Support Forces in bid to end fighting, increase aid supply
  • News criticized by some experts as RSF accused of crimes against humanity

London: The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has revealed that it has held talks with Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The Guardian reported on Monday that a freedom of information request to the FCDO revealed that the UK government had opened diplomatic channels with the RSF, including a meeting on March 6.

The FCDO told the newspaper that the talks were aimed at increasing humanitarian aid flow and access in Sudan, as well as ending the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The RSF has been engaged in a civil war in Sudan for the past year, and has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US, including massacres, mass rape, looting and ethnic cleansing. The UN said the RSF’s activities in Geneina in West Darfur have left 15,000 people dead.

The war has claimed the lives of many thousands of Sudanese civilians, with around 8 million displaced by the fighting.

The UK’s willingness to meet with the RSF has drawn condemnation for what some say is a policy that could normalize a paramilitary group accused of crimes against humanity.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, told The Guardian that although talking to potentially unsavory groups is perceived as necessary in some diplomatic circles, “talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades.”

He added: “When (the RSF are) committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, (the UK is) putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the talks are justifiable as part of efforts to end the war and alleviate civilian suffering.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95 percent of Darfur,” he added.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

However, Maddy Crowther, co-director of the Waging Peace human rights group, described the talks as “a terrible move,” saying negotiating with the RSF could prove futile.

“These talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” she said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

She added that “for the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face,” and that the diaspora will interpret the news as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf.”

An FCDO spokesperson told The Guardian: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence — to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”


Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

Updated 15 April 2024
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Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

  • Fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge
  • On Monday death toll in Gaza reached 33,797 during more than six months of war

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israel struck war-battered Gaza overnight, Hamas and witnesses said Monday, as world leaders urged de-escalation awaiting Israel’s reaction to Iran’s unprecedented attack that heightened fears of wider conflict.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday that at least 33,797 people have been killed in the territory during more than six months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants.
The toll includes at least 68 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, adding that 76,465 people have been wounded in the Gaza Strip since the war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.
World powers have urged restraint after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel late Saturday, though the Israeli military has said nearly all were intercepted.
The Israeli military said it would not be distracted from its war against Tehran-backed Hamas in Gaza, triggered by the Palestinian armed group’s October 7 attack.
“Even while under attack from Iran, we have not lost sight... of our critical mission in Gaza to rescue our hostages from the hands of Iran’s proxy Hamas,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said late Sunday.
As mediators eye a deal to halt the fighting, fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge.
“Hamas is still holding our hostages in Gaza,” Hagari said of the roughly 130 people, including 34 presumed dead, who Israel says remain in the hands of Palestinian militants since the Hamas attack.
“We also have hostages in Rafah, and we will do everything we can to bring them back home,” the military spokesman told a briefing.
The army said it was calling up “two reserve brigades for operational activities,” about a week after withdrawing most ground troops from Gaza.
The Hamas government media office said Israeli aircraft and tanks launched “dozens” of strikes overnight on central Gaza, reporting several casualties.
Witnesses told AFP that strikes hit the Nuseirat refugee camp, with clashes also reported in other areas of central and northern Gaza.
Hamas’s attack that sparked the fighting resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday following the Iranian attack, where Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the region was “on the brink” of war.
“Neither the region nor the world can afford more war,” the UN chief said.
“Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate.”
More than six months of war have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Rumours of a reopened Israeli checkpoint on the coastal road from the territory’s south to Gaza City sent thousands of Palestinians heading north on Sunday, despite Israel denying it was open.
Attempting the journey back to northern Gaza, displaced resident Basma Salman said, “even if it (my house) was destroyed, I want to go there. I couldn’t stay in the south.”
“It’s overcrowded. We couldn’t even take a fresh breath of air there. It was completely terrible.”
In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, civil defense teams said they had retrieved at least 18 bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Responding late Saturday to the latest truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Hamas said it insists on “a permanent ceasefire” and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency called this a “rejection” of the proposal, accusing Hamas of “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran.”
But the United States said mediation efforts continue.
“We’re not considering diplomacy dead there,” said the National Security Council’s Kirby.
“There’s a new deal on the table... It is a good deal” that would see some hostages released, fighting halted and more humanitarian relief into Gaza, he said.