Israel proposes dismantlement of UNRWA in exchange for allowing more aid into Gaza

Right-wing Israeli protesters gather outside the West Bank field office of the UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians, in Jerusalem on March 20, 2024, to demand its closure. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2024
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Israel proposes dismantlement of UNRWA in exchange for allowing more aid into Gaza

  • Israel alleges, without proof, UNRWA staff involved in Oct. 7 attacks
  • Plan ‘outrageous,’ undermines UN authority, says ex-UNRWA official

LONDON: Israel has proposed to the UN the dismantlement of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, and suggested transitioning its responsibilities and staff to a new entity in exchange for allowing more food aid deliveries into Gaza, the Guardian reported on Sunday.

The proposal was presented by Israel’s Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi in discussions with UN officials in Israel earlier in March. These officials then relayed the proposal to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday, sources familiar with the discussions told the Guardian.

UNRWA, the main humanitarian organization operating in the Palestinian territories since 1950, was not involved in the talks because the Israel Defense Forces have refused to deal with it. This is on the basis of unverified claims that some of the agency’s staff participated in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

The IDF has yet to substantiate these claims, which have prompted a suspension of $450 million in funding from 16 major donors. This funding freeze comes at a critical time as Israel’s blockade is driving 2.3 million residents of Gaza to the brink of famine.

The proposal details the transition of 300 to 400 UNRWA staff to either an existing UN agency, like the World Food Programme, WFP, or a newly established organization focused on food distribution in Gaza.

The plan includes the eventual transfer of more UNRWA employees and assets, though it remains unclear who would manage the new entity or ensure the security of its operations.

Tamara Alrifai, the agency’s director of external relations, highlighted concerns that the proposed new entity’s limited scale would undermine effective aid distribution in Gaza, emphasizing UNRWA’s extensive infrastructure and human resource capabilities.

“This is no criticism of WFP, but logically if they were to start food distribution in Gaza tomorrow, they’re going to use UNRWA trucks and bring food into UNRWA warehouses, and then distribute food in or around UNRWA shelters,” she told the Guardian.

“So they’re going to need at a minimum the same infrastructure that we have, including the human resources.”

UNRWA is by far the largest aid organization in Gaza, employing 13,000 people when the war broke out, 3,000 of whom are still working. In addition to distributing food, the agency is a major employer in Gaza, providing education and critical medical services as the enclave’s healthcare system crumbles.

“It’s not just food. We have seven healthcare centers now running in Gaza, we give 23,000 consultations every day, and we have administered 53,000 vaccines since the war started. So that in itself is an entire field that no other agency right now can offer,” Alrifai said.

“It’s great that we’re focusing on food because of the famine, and we are raising the alarm about malnutrition, but UNRWA is so much more than food distribution.”

Some UN officials see the Israeli plan as an attempt to portray the UN as unwilling to cooperate if there is famine in Gaza, which humanitarian organizations have warned is impending.

Others in the UN, several aid agencies, and human rights organizations see the Israeli proposal as the result of a long-running campaign to eliminate UNRWA.

“If we allow this, it is the slippery slope to us being completely managed directly by the Israelis, and the UN directly being complicit in undermining UNRWA, which is not only the biggest aid provider but also the biggest bastion of anti-extremism in Gaza,” one UN official told the Guardian. “We would be playing into so many political agendas if we allowed this to happen.”

The US has privately endorsed Israel’s proposal to integrate the functions of UNRWA into other UN agencies. However, this initiative has faced opposition from various donors and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has consistently supported UNRWA.

During a visit last week to a refugee camp in Jordan, Guterres emphasized the importance of UNRWA, adding that it would be “cruel and incomprehensible” to stop its services to Palestinians.

UNRWA’s authority and continuation are sanctioned by the UN General Assembly, which is the only body with the power to determine the agency’s destiny.

Several UN aid officials assert that only UNRWA has the resources and trust of ordinary Palestinians to deliver food aid to Gaza. And that attempting to create a new aid organization for political reasons in response to Israeli demands amid its relentless bombardment of Gaza would be disastrous.

“It is outrageous that UN agencies like WFP and senior UN officials are engaging in discussions about dismantling UNRWA,” former UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told the Guardian. “The General Assembly gives UNRWA its mandate and only the General Assembly can change it, not the secretary-general and certainly not a single member state.”

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Most of Kuwait fire victims are Indians, minister says

Updated 4 sec ago
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Most of Kuwait fire victims are Indians, minister says

  • Victims will be repatriated to India by military aircraft
  • Kuwait’s Emir orders financial compensation for the families of the victims

KUWAIT: Most of the victims in a deadly blaze that engulfed a block housing immigrant workers were from India, Kuwait’s foreign minister said on Thursday, raising the death toll to 50.
Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshaal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah ordered financial compensation for the families of the victims, who will be repatriated to India in military aircraft, according to an official statement.

Three Filipinos were among the dead, Philippines officials said, after the fire sent black smoke billowing through the six-story building south of Kuwait City.
Dozens more were injured in the fire in Mangaf, south of Kuwait City, which broke out around dawn on Wednesday at the ground level of the block housing nearly 200 workers.
“One of the injured died” overnight, Foreign Minister Abdullah Al-Yahya told reporters, after 49 people were declared dead on Wednesday.
“The majority of the dead are Indians,” he added. “There are other nationalities but I don’t remember exactly.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country is “doing everything possible to assist those affected by this gruesome fire tragedy,” in a post on X late on Wednesday.
Next of kin will receive payments of 200,000 rupees ($2,400), Modi’s office announced.
In Manila, the Department of Migrant Workers said three Filipinos died from smoke inhalation, with two more in critical condition while six escaped unharmed.
“We are in touch with the families of all the affected (workers), including the families of those two in critical condition and the families of the three fatalities,” Migrant Workers Secretary Hans Leo J. Cacdac said in a statement.
Kuwaiti officials have detained the building’s owner over potential negligence and have warned that any blocks that flout safety rules will be closed.

Since the fire broke out, Kuwaiti officials have carried out intensive inspections to demolish violating properties.
Stories of the victims

From a father-of-two who planned to leave his job to a 29-year-old due to visit his family in August, two dozen Indians from the southern state of Kerala died in a fire that ripped through a labor-housing facility in Kuwait on Wednesday, leaving their families bereft.
Around 40 Indians died in the blaze, which also killed at least 9 other people in Mangaf city, while more than 50 were injured, according to India’s foreign ministry. Most of the Indian victims came from Kerala.
Norka Roots, a government agency for Keralites living outside the state, put the number of the state’s dead at 24 with seven others injured and their condition serious. The federal government had arranged a special flight to bring the bodies, Norka Secretary K Vasuki said.
Among the Keralite victims was Muralidharan Nair, who had been working in Kuwait for 32 years, including 10 as a senior supervisor in the company that owned the housing facility where the fire broke out.
“He came on leave in December for two months with a plan to end his career in Kuwait. The company called him back,” his brother, Vinu V Nair, told Reuters, adding that the family identified the 61-year-old from a list published by India’s embassy. His two roommates also died in the blaze.
For decades, a disproportionately large share of Indian workers in the Gulf have been drawn from Kerala, a densely packed state along southern India’s Arabian Sea coast.
News of the disaster spread quickly in Kerala. The family of Saju Varghese, 56, found out about the fire from television and social media, and confirmed his death from friends and relatives in Kuwait.
Working in the Gulf nation for the last 21 years, Varghese planned to visit Kerala later this month to arrange his daughter’s higher education.
“The family is in a state of shock,” their neighbor, George Samuel, said.
Another victim, Stephin Abraham Sabu, 29, was an engineer in Kuwait since 2019 and called home almost daily.
He had visited his hometown Kottayam “two or three times” since he left, and had booked air tickets to return in August for the housewarming of his family’s new home and to help them buy a new car, his friends said.
Sabu’s father has a small shop in Kottayam while his mother is a housewife. His brother, Febin, also works in Kuwait but lived separately.


Turkiye signs deal with US to buy F-16 warplanes

Updated 33 min 25 sec ago
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Turkiye signs deal with US to buy F-16 warplanes

  • Under the deal, Turkiye will get 40 new F-16s and upgrades to 79 of the jets in its existing fleet

ISTANBUL: Turkiye and the United States have signed a contract for the sale of F-16 warplanes after Washington greenlighted the $23 billion deal following months of negotiations, Turkish defense ministry sources said Thursday.
“The contract was signed and delegations from both sides are negotiating the details,” the ministry sources said.
Under the deal, Turkiye will get 40 new F-16s and upgrades to 79 of the jets in its existing fleet.
The State Department last week hailed “a major step forward” in Turkiye’s purchase of new F-16 fighter jets calling them “the most advanced F-16 ever made available only to closest Allies and partners.”
“Just the latest example of US enduring commitment to security partnership with Turkiye,” it said in a social media post.
As required by law, the State Department notified Congress of the agreement in January, as well as a separate $8.6 billion sale of 40 F-35s to Greece.
The United States did not green light the transaction until Turkiye’s instruments of ratification of Sweden’s membership had arrived in Washington.
Turkiye’s parliament ratified Sweden’s NATO membership in January after more than a year of delays that upset Western to unite in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Erdogan is due to join NATO leaders’ summit in Washington next month.
He had been set for talks with US counterpart Joe Biden last month but what would have been their first White House meeting was postponed over scheduling problems.


Vessel reports being struck 129 NM east of Yemen’s Aden

Updated 35 min 32 sec ago
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Vessel reports being struck 129 NM east of Yemen’s Aden

  • Ambrey said it assessed the vessel to be aligned with “the Houthi target profile”

ADEN: A merchant vessel issued a distress call reporting a missile impacting the vessel approximately 129 nautical miles east of Yemen’s Aden while on route from Malaysia to Italy’s Venice, British maritime security firm Ambrey said on Thursday.
Ambrey said it assessed the vessel to be aligned with “the Houthi target profile.”
Iran-allied Houthis have attacked international shipping in the Red Sea region since November in solidarity with the Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas. They have sunk one ship, seized another vessel, and killed three seafarers in another attack.
The group controls Yemen’s capital and most populous areas.
The Yemeni militants on Wednesday
took responsibility
for small watercraft and missile attacks that left a Greek-owned cargo ship taking on water and in need of rescue near Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah.
Separately, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) agency said it has received a report of an incident 98 NM east of Aden as well.


US envoy to Yemen demands Houthis free detained international staff

Updated 13 June 2024
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US envoy to Yemen demands Houthis free detained international staff

  • The Houthis have held around 20 Yemeni employees of the US embassy in Sanaa for the past three years.

DUBAI: The United States’ ambassador to Yemen on Thursday called on Yemen’s Houthi group to immediately release the detained staff of international organizations including employees of the US embassy in Sanaa.
The Iran-aligned Houthis detained 11 United Nations personnel in Yemen last week, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.
On Thursday, the US ambassador condemned the detentions and called them “shocking.”
“The Houthis owe all of these Yemenis thanks, not false accusations and imprisonment. The people of Yemen deserve better than fanciful Houthi lies meant to bolster their abusive and autocratic rule,” ambassador Steven Fagin said in a statement.
The staff members — all Yemenis — were swept up by armed Houthi intelligence officials in a series of raids that also resulted in the detention of three employees of the US-funded pro-democracy group National Democratic Institute (NDI) and three employees of a local human rights group.
The Houthis have held around 20 Yemeni employees of the US embassy in Sanaa for the past three years. The embassy suspended operations after Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2014 and Houthis seized control of the capital.
The US mission to Yemen is currently located in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.
Yemen’s Houthis said on Monday they had targeted an alleged “American-Israeli spy cell” that included former staff of the US embassy in Yemen, according to a television statement from Abdel Hakim Al Khaiwani, the Houthis’ intelligence chief.
“The American-Israeli spy cell carried out espionage and sabotage activities in official and unofficial institutions for decades in favor of the enemy,” he said.
The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have attacked shipping in the Red Sea in what they say are acts of solidarity with Palestinians amid the Gaza war, drawing airstrikes from the United States and Britain.


Fire at Iraqi oil refinery injures 10: civil defense

Updated 13 June 2024
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Fire at Iraqi oil refinery injures 10: civil defense

  • Firefighters worked through the night battling to extinguish the flames
  • The fire broke out in an asphalt tank on Wednesday night before spreading to a second refinery on a road southwest of Irbil

Irbil: A massive fire at an oil refinery in Iraqi Kurdistan injured at least 10 people including firefighters battling to control the blaze, which was ongoing Thursday, the civil defense agency reported.
The fire broke out in an asphalt tank on Wednesday night before spreading to a second refinery on a road southwest of Irbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Firefighters worked through the night battling to extinguish the flames, which sent thick plumes of black smoke and balls of orange flame into the sky, an AFP photographer reported.
“More than 10 people were injured, mainly men from the Irbil civil defense,” the agency said in a statement, noting three fire trucks were burned.
The cause of the blaze was still unknown, it said.
“The fire started in one refinery before spreading to another,” the statement said. Four fuel tanks had been affected.
With Iraq experiencing scorching summers, the country has seen multiple fires in recent weeks, affecting shopping centers, warehouses and hospitals.
Iraq is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, and crude oil sales make up 90 percent of Iraqi budget revenues.
But exports from the Kurdistan region have been halted for more than a year in a dispute over legal and technical issues.