Battle rages at Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital

Palestinians flee the area after Israeli bombardment in central Gaza City on March 18, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 19 March 2024
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Battle rages at Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital

  • Witnesses reported air strikes and tanks near the complex crowded with thousands of Palestinian patients and displaced people
  • UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said Monday he intended to visit Gaza but had been denied entry by “Israeli authorities”

GAZA STRIP: Fighting raged Monday in and around the besieged Gaza Strip’s largest hospital complex where Israel said its forces killed and arrested Hamas militants, as Palestinians fled by foot under heavy bombardment.
While the army launched the overnight raid at Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital, the Israeli government sent the head of its Mossad spy agency to Qatar for renewed talks toward a ceasefire and hostage release deal.
The devastating war since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel has left roughly half of Gazans — around 1.1 million people — experiencing “catastrophic” hunger, a UN-backed food security assessment warned.
The expert report is “exhibit A for the need for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, decrying an “entirely man-made disaster.”
“We must act now to prevent the unthinkable, the unacceptable and the unjustifiable,” he said.
Gaza’s soaring civilian death toll and large-scale destruction have hardened global opposition to Israel’s military operation and siege, including accusations of deliberate starvation of Palestinian civilians.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Israel’s military campaign had turned long-blockaded Gaza from the world’s “greatest open-air prison” into its biggest “open-air graveyard,” and that Israel was using famine as a “weapon of war.”
Foreign Minister Israel Katz replied that “Israel allows extensive humanitarian aid into Gaza” and accused Borrell of “attacking Israel.”
In the latest heavy battle, Israeli forces raided Al-Shifa in an operation the army said targeted senior Hamas militants.
Witnesses reported air strikes and tanks near the complex crowded with thousands of Palestinian patients and displaced people.
AFP images showed black smoke engulfing parts of the city after bombardment, with Palestinians fleeing by foot along rubble-strewn roads as others treated the wounded in the street.
The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said nearby residents had reported dozens of casualties who could not be helped “due to the intensity of gunfire and artillery shelling.”
An AFP journalist witnessed air strikes on buildings in the area around Al-Shifa and reported seeing “hundreds of people, mostly children, women, and the elderly, fleeing their homes.”
The Israeli military, which had asked Gazans to evacuate the area, said 20 militants were killed and dozens of others were detained at the hospital.
The army identified one of the fatalities as Hamas internal security official Fayq Al-Mabhouh, saying that “weapons were located in the room adjacent to where he was eliminated.”
A Gaza police source confirmed his death and said he was a brigadier general in the force. Relatives said he was also the brother of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, one of the founders of Hamas’s armed wing slain in Dubai in 2010.
Israeli forces previously raided Al-Shifa in November, when ground operations were focused on northern Gaza. In January Israel said it had “completed the dismantling” of Hamas’s command structure in the area.
Israel has repeatedly said the complex housed an underground Hamas control base, which the militants have denied.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “terribly worried” about the renewed fighting around Al-Shifa which was “endangering health workers, patients and civilians.”
The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Militants also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 who are presumed dead.
Israel has carried out a relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive that Gaza’s health ministry says has killed at least 31,726 people, most of them women and children.
As the fighting flared around Al-Shifa, elsewhere in Gaza City a massive crowd gathered at a UN food distribution center to collect bags of flour.
“There’s nothing to eat or drink. Children are dying,” said resident Umm Omar Al-Masharwai.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which operates the facility and coordinates nearly all aid to Gaza, has faced funding cuts since Israel accused about a dozen of its employees of involvement in the October 7 attack.
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said Monday he intended to visit Gaza but had been denied entry by “Israeli authorities,” a claim Israel did not immediately comment on.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi accused Israel of “starving children to death” in its siege of the Gaza Strip, and humanitarian charity Oxfam said Israel was “systematically and deliberately” blocking aid.
Global concern has focussed on Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians now live, many of them in crowded shelters and tent cities near the Egyptian border.
Repeated Israeli warnings of a looming ground invasion have raised fears of an even worse humanitarian catastrophe.
Responding to concerns voiced by top ally the United States and other governments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday reiterated that civilians would be evacuated from Rafah before any ground attack, without detailing where to.
Mediation efforts toward a truce were expected to resume, following a week-long ceasefire in November.
A meeting in Qatar between Israel’s Mossad spy chief, David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Egyptian officials “is expected to take place today,” a source close to the talks said.
It follows the latest proposal submitted by Hamas for a six-week truce, vastly more aid into Gaza and the initial release of about 42 hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
During the proposed truce, Israeli forces would withdraw from “all cities and populated areas” in Gaza, according to a Hamas official.
Netanyahu’s office said on Friday that Hamas’s new proposal was “unrealistic” but that Israel would send a delegation to Doha.
The White House said US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu spoke on Monday in their first call for over a month, with tensions rising over the war and its impact on civilians.


Egyptian homes celebrate pilgrims’ return with Hajj murals

Updated 22 June 2024
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Egyptian homes celebrate pilgrims’ return with Hajj murals

  • Worshippers parade through villages on horseback as part of traditional festivities

CAIRO: As Egyptian pilgrims return from their spiritual journey to Saudi Arabia, waiting families have begun plans for celebrations in homes decorated with special murals.

Festive images depict Hajj symbols such as airplanes, the Kaaba, Mount Arafat, and camels, celebrating the fulfillment of the sacred pilgrimage. 

Emad Abdel Latif, a folklore professor at Assiut University, told Arab News that the “deep-rooted tradition begins as soon as the pilgrim departs for the holy lands.”

He said the homes “are initially painted, typically in blue, and then adorned with murals that symbolize aspects of the Hajj, including the Kaaba and the aircraft transporting the pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.”

Abdel Latif added: “This custom also includes inscribing phrases such as ‘Labaik Allahumma Labaik’ (Here I am, O God, here I am), ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is the Greatest), along with wishes for a blessed Hajj and forgiven sins.”

Traditionally, celebrations included a religious ceremony, during which returning pilgrims might parade through their village on horseback, while sweets are distributed among onlookers. 

Said Al-Badri, a mural artist from Giza, described the intricate planning that goes into creating the artworks.

“Depending on the complexity, a single mural can take one to two hours, while a complete home mural might require a full day of work,” he said.

“These murals visually narrate the pilgrim’s journey — boarding the plane, circling the Kaaba, the ritual walk between Safa and Marwa, standing at Mount Arafat, and visiting the Prophet’s tomb. They are enriched with Qur’anic verses and popular phrases of congratulation.”

Al-Badri learnt the art from his father, and has dedicated himself to preserving this cultural tradition.

“Each year, as pilgrims return, I continue this legacy, enhancing our local heritage through these festive decorations,” he said.

Amira Mahmoud’s mother was one of more than 1.8 million people who undertook the Hajj pilgrimage this year. The murals “add to our celebration,” she said.

“Our community deeply values these traditions, which embellish our homes, and reinforce familial and communal bonds.”

Mahmoud highlights the significance of these murals in preserving cultural heritage.

“These artworks are more than decorations. They are a vibrant testament to our rich traditions, inviting every returning pilgrim to the heart of community life.”


Egypt PM orders measures to prevent fraud in Hajj trips

Updated 22 June 2024
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Egypt PM orders measures to prevent fraud in Hajj trips

  • The prime minister presided over a crisis cell meeting initiated by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, focusing on the deaths of Egyptian pilgrims
  • Preliminarily, 16 travel agencies were identified as circumventing regulations and transporting pilgrims without offering proper services

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly has ordered 16 tourism companies to be stripped of their licenses and referred their managers to the public prosecutor’s office for illegally facilitating pilgrims’ travel to Makkah.
The prime minister presided over a crisis cell meeting initiated by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, focusing on the deaths of Egyptian pilgrims.
A report discussed at the meeting highlighted that the rise in the deaths of unregistered Egyptian pilgrims stemmed from some companies that “organized the Hajj programs using a personal visit visa, which prevents its holders from entering Makkah” via official channels.
It emerged that attempts to bypass the official process included trekking through desert paths and the absence of suitable accommodation at other sacred sites, leading to exhaustion among unregistered pilgrims due to severe heat.
Preliminarily, 16 travel agencies were identified as circumventing regulations and transporting pilgrims without offering proper services.
The prime minister ordered the immediate revocation of these companies’ licenses, referred the responsible people to public prosecution, and imposed fines to benefit the bereaved families of the deceased pilgrims.
During the meeting, measures were discussed to prevent such incidents in the future, including enforcing immediate actions against companies or entities that facilitated these irregular pilgrimages.
Madbouly said that although the official Egyptian Hajj delegation comprises more than 50,000 pilgrims, it was difficult to ascertain the number of unregistered travelers due to the absence of recorded data.
An official source, preferring anonymity, told Arab News that high fatality numbers reported might include many who traveled under visit visas — not Hajj visas.
He suggested that those responsible for “these transgressions face severe repercussions, possibly extending beyond license revocation to criminal prosecution.”
The French news agency AFP reported that the death toll among Egyptian pilgrims for this year’s Hajj had risen to 600, indicating the majority were not part of the official delegation.
Regarding legal responsibilities, Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Abul Saud said that travel agencies bear criminal responsibility if they knowingly facilitate these illegal activities.
Conversely, he said that if they were unaware and merely issued visas based on client requests, it would be easier to hold them accountable if it was proven they had explicit knowledge of the pilgrims’ intentions.
Saturday’s discussions also revealed that some companies possibly knew what the unofficial pilgrims planned, while others may have been unaware, issuing visas without knowing the intended misuse.
This situation underscores the complexity of ensuring that all travel facilitators adhere strictly to legal and ethical standards, emphasizing the need for robust oversight and accountability measures to prevent future occurrences.
Officials said that ensuring all travel facilitators adhere to legal and ethical standards required robust oversight and accountability measures.


EU top diplomat demands probe into Gaza Red Cross office shelling

Updated 22 June 2024
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EU top diplomat demands probe into Gaza Red Cross office shelling

  • The EU condemns the shelling which damaged the ICRC office in Gaza

BRUSSELS: EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell on Saturday called for a probe into deadly shelling that damaged an office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza.


“The EU condemns the shelling which damaged the ICRC office in Gaza and led to dozens of casualties. An independent investigation is needed and those responsible must be held accountable,” Borrell wrote on X.


Lebanese source says Israeli strike killed Islamist leader

Updated 22 June 2024
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Lebanese source says Israeli strike killed Islamist leader

  • “A leader of the Al-Fajr Forces of the Jamaa Islamiya, Ayman Ghotmeh, was killed in an Israeli strike in Khiara in the western Bekaa,” the source said
  • The Fajr Forces, Jamaa Islamiya’s armed wing, was established in 1982 to fight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon

BEIRUT: A security source said a leader of the Lebanese Islamist group Jamaa Islamiya, an ally of Hamas, was killed Saturday in an Israeli strike on a vehicle in eastern Lebanon.
Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and other groups allied with the Palestinian militants have traded near-daily fire with Israel across the southern border.
“A leader of the Al-Fajr Forces of the Jamaa Islamiya, Ayman Ghotmeh, was killed in an Israeli strike in Khiara in the western Bekaa,” 10 kilometers (six miles) from the border with Syria, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Fajr Forces, Jamaa Islamiya’s armed wing, was established in 1982 to fight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks against Israel, including joint operations with Hamas in Lebanon. It is estimated to number around 500 men.
Lebanon’s state-run ANI news agency reported one person killed when a car was targeted in Khiara, and that the victim was from the nearby village of Lala, without giving further details.
Israel’s military said an aircraft carried out a “precise strike in the Beqaa area in Lebanon in order to eliminate the terrorist” Ayman Ghotmeh, who they said supplied weapons to Hamas and Jamaa Islamiya in Lebanon.
He was targeted for his “involvement in the promotion and execution of terrorist activities against Israel,” the Israeli statement added.
Jamaa Islamiya, which has had seven fighters killed in Lebanon since October 7, did not immediately announce any deaths.
On April 26, the group said two of their leaders were killed in an Israeli strike in eastern Lebanon.
More than eight months of violence on the Israel-Lebanon border has left at least 480 people dead in Lebanon, mostly fighters but including at least 93 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
On the Israeli side, at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed, according to Israeli authorities.
Heightened tensions in recent days on the Israel-Lebanon border have raised fears of an expanded regional conflict.


Israeli women rush to buy guns in October 7 aftermath

Updated 22 June 2024
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Israeli women rush to buy guns in October 7 aftermath

  • According to security ministry data, there have been 42,000 applications by women for gun permits since the attack
  • More than 15,000 women civilians now own a firearm in Israel and the occupied West Bank

ARIEL, Palestinian Territories: With many Israelis gripped by a sense of insecurity following Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, the number of women applying for gun permits has soared, while feminist groups have criticized the rush to arms.
According to security ministry data, there have been 42,000 applications by women for gun permits since the attack, with 18,000 approved, more than tripling the number of pre-war licenses held by women.
The surge has been enabled by the loosening of gun laws under Israel’s right-wing government and its far-right security minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
More than 15,000 women civilians now own a firearm in Israel and the occupied West Bank, with 10,000 enrolled in mandatory training, according to the ministry.
“I would have never thought of buying a weapon or getting a permit, but since October 7, things changed a little bit,” political science professor Limor Gonen told AFP during a weapons handling class at a shooting range in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
The October 7 attack that triggered the war resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,431 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.
“We were all targeted (on October 7) and I don’t want to be taken by surprise, so I’m trying to defend myself,” Gonen said after the class, an obligatory step for acquiring a permit.
While the immediate trigger for the surge in gun buying was the Hamas attack, Ben Gvir was already pledging to reform firearms legislation when he became security minister in late 2022.
He promised to raise the number of civilians holding weapons and “increase self-defense capacity.”
Under Ben Gvir, the process for getting a gun license has been sped up, with Israeli media reporting that in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack the authorities were often clearing hundreds of permits per day.
Eligibility criteria for gun ownership in Israel now include being a citizen or permanent resident over the age of 18, having a basic command of Hebrew and medical clearance.
The full list of requirements makes it nearly impossible for non-Jews to obtain a permit.
In March, Ben Gvir, who is himself a settler in the West Bank, hailed civilian weapon ownership passing the 100,000 mark, while showing off his own gun at a rally.
But his rush to put deadly arms into the hands of ordinary Israelis has drawn criticism too.
The Gun Free Kitchen Tables Coalition, an Israeli initiative founded by feminist activists, condemned the civilian arms race.
It is “a strategy of far-right settlers to consider the arming of women to be a feminist act,” a spokesperson for the group of 18 organizations told AFP.
“The increase of weapons in the civilian space leads to an increase in violence and murder against women. It’s time for the state to understand that individual safety is its responsibility.”
Community manager Yahel Reznik, 24, said she now felt “a lot more safe” in Ariel, which sits three kilometers north of the Palestinian city of Salfit.
“Thanks to my training I will be able to defend myself and protect others” from an attack, she told AFP.
Violence in the West Bank, which was already rising before the war, has surged since October 7.
At least 549 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli settlers and troops across the West Bank since the start of the Gaza war, according to the Palestinian Authority.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 14 Israelis, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
The surge in gun ownership is not limited to West Bank settlers. In the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, just north of Tel Aviv, Corine Nissim said she never leaves home without her gun.
The 42-year-old English teacher walked her three children to the park with a 9mm Smith & Wesson sticking out the back of her trousers.
“After October 7, I think like most people in Israel, I realized that the only person I can trust is myself,” she told AFP, adding she bought a gun not to feel “helpless.”
“The worst scenario that was going through my head was that, of course, terrorists attack me and my family in our own house,” the mother said.
Her decision to own a gun initially surprised some in the seaside town known for its tranquillity and safety, she said.
“People watched me and said, ‘This is so surreal to see you like this with a gun and with the baby’” said Nissim.
But, she said, others started to agree with her and said they would follow suit.
“Many women told me: ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to get a gun as well.’“