UNRWA planning chief says ‘squeezed’ organization vital to halting Gaza famine

A Palestinian girl sits on bags of flour distributed by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Jan. 29, 2024. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 April 2024
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UNRWA planning chief says ‘squeezed’ organization vital to halting Gaza famine

  • Sam Rose: UN refugee body only has funding until May to support over 1m people
  • ‘There’s only so long you can cope with the misery’

LONDON: The planning director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has said the “squeezed” organization must remain “the backbone of any humanitarian response” to preventing starvation in Gaza.

Sam Rose warned that 300,000 people in Gaza are at risk of famine as Israel hampers efforts to get aid into the enclave, six months after the outbreak of war following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Earlier this year, UNRWA had its funding drastically cut by 16 donor states after Israel accused 12 employees of having taken part in the attack, which left around 1,200 people dead.

More than half of the countries have since reinstated funding, and earlier this year US State Department spokesman Matt Miller said the White House had “repeatedly made clear to the Israeli government the important role that UNRWA plays in delivering humanitarian assistance.”

But on March 22, the US Congress passed a law banning UNRWA funding — worth $300 million per year — until March 2025.

The UK has yet to resume funding, while Germany has withheld funds for UNRWA’s Gaza operations.

Rose told The Guardian: “Our space is continuing to be squeezed at a time when the international community urgently needs to get as much assistance as possible to people in the north (of Gaza).”

A report by France’s former Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna is expected to be published on April 20, recommending that UNRWA publish clear guidelines detailing how it will ensure it and its employees remain politically neutral.

UNRWA says a degree of indirect contact with the authorities in Gaza is necessary to maintain its operations there, as is often the case for UN agencies in many other parts of the world.

Israel, though, considers this tantamount to active cooperation, and has said it will frustrate UNRWA’s work in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

Rose said: “It is also becoming increasingly difficult for UNRWA to operate in East Jerusalem, because our international staff aren’t getting visas and our own national staff aren’t getting permits to come into the city.

“Imports have also been restricted and a bank account with an Israeli bank has also been frozen.

“So whilst the attention is on Gaza, what’s happening in the West Bank cannot be overlooked.”

He said Israel’s efforts to hinder UNRWA would be counterproductive and impractical. “UNRWA is a 75-year investment by the international community. This shouldn’t be about what we can replace, but what the international community can do to make sure that this war is the last war, to safeguard the lives, freedoms and the future of Palestinians and Israelis by refusing a return to the status quo,” he added.

“The simple reality is that no other UN organisations are set up to deliver education to hundreds of thousands of children or healthcare to over 1 million.”

Rose, who recently returned to the UK from Gaza, welcomed news that Israel is to open more crossings for aid into Gaza following discussions between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.

But Rose said UNRWA only has enough funding to provide food for the people in Gaza who rely on it until May.

“People are wandering around looking for water, looking for food. Even international staff, who are very privileged in the context of Gaza, come out hungry most times because there’s so little food. We can’t bring much in ourselves and there’s very little in the market at prices anyone can afford,” he added.

“And then there’s just a sense that the longer it goes on, the more and more people are just exhausted.

“Every time you’re woken in the night by an air raid or a tank shell, you’re not starting from zero, you’re in a slightly worse place than you were a time before. People are often coming to work traumatised and in a state of shock.”

He continued: “I don’t want to talk blithely about these things. But one can imagine soon just a total breakdown for lots and lots of people. There’s only so long you can cope with the misery.

“We’ve got staff who come to work to forget about what is going on outside because there’s a structure and you can forget about the fact that outside, there’s no clothes for your kids, no medicine, no food, and sanitary conditions are appalling.

“So many of their colleagues have had somebody killed and they lost their homes, and they lost everything.

“They’ve literally got the bags that they were carrying, and, you know, staff that were relatively well off have moved 10 or 15 times because they just followed the conflict around.

“Many are in tents because they are safer than if you are in a building that has an internet connection, and somebody latches on to that internet connection as a target, then the building could go up.”

Rose also highlighted the role UNRWA plays in education in Gaza, but said most of the schools it operates have either been damaged, destroyed, or are being used as shelters.

“Anyone thinking rationally wants to get out of this, or is unwilling to come back home since they’ve lost everything,” he said.

“Palestinians highly, highly value education and take it very seriously, and lots of people are leaving, people just want to get their kids out. They know the numbers of buildings that have been destroyed, and all the universities have been flattened, and it’s currently hard to see a long-term future,” he added.

“Palestinians are not idiots. They are well educated, they’re very worldly given the fact that they’ve never been allowed to leave their world.”


Israel’s defense chief to discuss Gaza war, Lebanon hostilities on US trip

Updated 5 sec ago
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Israel’s defense chief to discuss Gaza war, Lebanon hostilities on US trip

  • Visit comes amid concerns over conflict spreading
  • Gallant wants clearer post-war plan for Gaza

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is headed to Washington on Sunday to discuss the next phase of the Gaza war and escalating hostilities on the border with Lebanon, where exchanges of fire with Hezbollah have stoked fears of wider conflict.
Iran-backed Hezbollah began attacking Israel shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault sparked the war in Gaza, and the sides have been trading blows in the months since then. Hezbollah has said it will not stop until there is a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We are prepared for any action that may be required in Gaza, Lebanon, and in more areas,” Gallant said in a statement before setting off to Washington, where he said he would meet his counterpart Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Earlier in June, Hezbollah targeted Israeli towns and military sites with the largest volleys of rockets and drones in the hostilities so far, after an Israeli strike killed the most senior Hezbollah commander yet.
US envoy Amos Hochstein visited Israel and Lebanon last week in an attempt to cool tensions, amid an uptick in cross-border fire and an escalation in rhetoric on both sides. An Israeli soldier was severely wounded on Sunday by a drone strike, the military said.
Some Israeli officials have linked the ongoing Israeli push into Rafah — the southern area of Gaza where it says it is targeting the last battalions of Hamas — to a potential focus on Lebanon.
Gallant appeared to make the same link in his statement.
“The transition to Phase C in Gaza is of great importance. I will discuss this transition with US officials, how it may enable additional things and I know that we will achieve close cooperation with the US on this issue as well,” Gallant said.
Scaling back Gaza operations would free up forces to take on Hezbollah, if Israel were to launch a ground offensive or step up its aerial bombardments.
POST-WAR PLAN
Officials have described the third and last phase of Israel’s Gaza offensive as winding down fighting while stepping up efforts to stabilize a post-Hamas rule and begin reconstruction in the enclave, much of which has been laid to waste.
Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has sparred with the premier in the past few months, calling for a clearer post-war plan for Gaza that will not leave Israel in charge, a demand echoed by the White House.
Netanyahu has been walking a tightrope as he seeks to keep his government together by balancing the demands of the defense establishment, including ex-generals like Gallant, and far-right coalition partners who have resisted any post-Gaza strategy that could open the way to a future Palestinian state.
The head of Israel’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuli Edelstein, told Army Radio on Sunday that fighting Hezbollah would be complex either way, now or later.
“We are not in the right position to conduct fighting on both the southern front and the northern front. We will have to deploy differently in the south in order to fight in the north,” said Edelstein, also a Likud member.
Edelstein criticized a video by Netanyahu released last week in which the prime minister said the Biden administration was “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel.” The video led to a spat with the White House.
President Joe Biden’s administration paused a shipment of 2,000 pound and 500-pound bombs in May over concerns about their impact if used in densely-populated areas of Gaza. Israel was still due to get billions of dollars worth of UA weaponry.
“I hope that in the discussions behind closed doors much more will be achieved than by attempts to create pressure with videos,” Edelstein said, referring to Gallant’s trip.
Israel’s ground and air campaign in Gaza was triggered when Hamas fighters stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
The offensive has killed more than 37,400 people, according to Palestinian health authorities, and left nearly the entire population of the enclave homeless and destitute.


Red Sea ship damaged after Houthi drone attack

Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US strikes on Yemen.
Updated 36 min 18 sec ago
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Red Sea ship damaged after Houthi drone attack

  • The attack in the Red Sea came only hours after the Houthis claimed they had targeted ships in Israel, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea

AL-MUKALLA: A commercial ship cruising along Yemen’s Red Sea coast was damaged after being attacked by a drone suspected to have been operated by Yemen’s Houthi militia, two UK maritime security agencies said on Sunday.

The attack in the Red Sea came only hours after the Houthis claimed they had targeted ships in Israel, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations said it was notified by the master of a commercial ship about an uncrewed aircraft system hitting and damaging the ship in the Red Sea 65 nautical miles west of Hodeidah in Yemen, and that the ship’s crew members were safe.

“The vessel is proceeding to its next port of call,” UKMTO said in a notice on X.

Ambrey, a UK maritime security service, said that the ship is a “fully cellular container ship” flying the Liberian flag.

This comes as the Houthis said on Sunday morning that they had conducted two combined military operations with the Islamic Resistance group in Iraq against five ships in Israel’s Haifa port and the Mediterranean.

In a televised statement, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said that their forces and the Iraqi militia used drones to strike four ships in Haifa, including two cement ships and two cargo ships.

The second operation included firing a drone at the Shorthorn Express ship in the Mediterranean as it approached Haifa. 

Sarea claimed the five ships were targeted because they violated the militia’s ban on vessels visiting Israeli ports.

Hours earlier, a Houthi military spokesman claimed to have launched ballistic missile attacks on the US aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Red Sea and the commercial ship Transworld Navigator in the Arabian Sea.

According to marinetraffic.com, which provides information regarding ship whereabouts and identities, the Transworld Navigator is a Liberian-flagged bulk carrier traveling from China to the Suez Canal and the Shorthorn Express, a cattle carrier sailing under the flag of Luxembourg, left Haifa for Malta on Sunday.

Since November, the Houthis have seized one commercial ship, sunk another, and launched hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones, and explosive-laden drone boats against commercial and navy vessels in international waters near Yemen, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean.

The Houthis say they solely targeted Israeli-linked ships and those ships heading to Israel to pressure Israel to cease its war in the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

At the same time, US Central Command said on Sunday morning that its forces had destroyed three Houthi drones in the Red Sea in the previous 24 hours and that the Houthis had also launched three anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Gulf of Aden from Yemeni territory under their control.

The missiles did not strike any US-led marine coalition ships or other commercial ships operating on critical commerce lanes off Yemen.

“This continued malign and reckless behavior by the Iranian-backed Houthis threatens regional stability and endangers the lives of mariners across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden,” the US military said in a statement, denying the Houthi claims of attacking the Eisenhower.

“Recent claims about a successful attack by Houthi forces on the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) are categorically false.”

On Monday, Centcom said that the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier is traveling to the Red Sea to prevent Houthi attacks on shipping, replacing the Eisenhower, which will return to the US.

Meanwhile, the Houthis freed a Bahai sect member in Sanaa after detaining him for more than a year. In a post on X, the Bahai International Community said on Saturday that the Houthis had freed Abdullah Al-Olofi but are still keeping four others, who were among 17 Bahais abducted by the Houthis in May 2023 after raiding their meeting in Sanaa, captive.

The Houthis have conducted a crackdown on Yemen’s Bahai minority, accusing them of being unbelievers and conspiring with the US and Israel.


Frankly Speaking: Is the Biden plan still the best deal to stop Gaza bloodshed?

Updated 47 min 21 sec ago
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Frankly Speaking: Is the Biden plan still the best deal to stop Gaza bloodshed?

  • Slovenia’s representative to UNSC believes negotiators should be given time to help bring about a ceasefire
  • Samuel Zbogar explains why his government recognized Palestine state, blames EU disunity for passive role in Gaza crisis

DUBAI: The fact that Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas are both uncomfortable with the Gaza peace plan presented by US President Joe Biden means that “the deal is a good one,” said Samuel Zbogar, Slovenia’s representative to the UN Security Council.

On June 10, the council adopted Resolution 2735 — a ceasefire proposal to end the conflict in Gaza. However, according to reports, Hamas has refused to accept the plan without amendments, which Israel has rejected.

Appearing on the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” Zbogar said the world should not lose hope in the Biden peace plan and should allow time for negotiators to help bring about a ceasefire.

“I wouldn’t give up on the Biden plan yet,” he said. “We understand the talks are still ongoing, mediated by Qatar, by Egypt, and the US, of course.

“I think the US put its authority behind this plan, so we hope that we will see it implemented. We want to give peace a chance. We haven’t been discussing in the council this week the situation in Gaza precisely to give negotiators time to finally come to a ceasefire.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will not agree to a ceasefire without the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities. Zbogar, however, believes compromises are required on both sides.

“I believe that problems are on both sides,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s one side that is rejecting the deal. I would think that both sides somehow are not comfortable, which means that the deal is a good one.

“We really hope that it’s implemented to stop this killing and suffering of civilians in Gaza.”

Asked whether the Security Council could be applying more pressure on the Israeli government to halt its operation in Gaza, which threatens to spill over into Lebanon and other countries in the region, Zbogar said only a unified position would prove effective.

Appearing on the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” Samuel Zbogar said the world should not lose hope in the Biden peace plan and should allow time for negotiators to help bring about a ceasefire. (AN Photo)

“The Security Council is the most effective, or maybe the only time that it’s effective, really, is when it is completely united,” he said. “When we have 15 votes in favor, I think then, maybe, it will be a strong enough message to Israel and to Hamas that enough is enough.

“But so far, in the last resolution, Russia abstained. In the previous resolutions the US abstained. And this is always a message to one or to the other side that, maybe, there is still room to maneuver.”

Ignoring the protests of numerous governments, Israel mounted an offensive on May 6 against Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, where about 1.4 million Palestinian refugees had sought shelter having fled the bombardment in the north.

Asked whether institutions like the European Union could have done more to prevent the Rafah assault, Zbogar said it was another example of a failure of unity.

“The Rafah assault is really something that will be haunting us, I think, as members of the council and as a human society in the future,” Zbogar told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen.

“All council members in the chamber, as well as in consultations, were saying Rafah should not happen. I was warning Israel not to go against Rafah. And yet we witnessed that it happened.

“This is something that is difficult to live with, to see the neverending suffering of people, of Palestinians, of Gazans.

“Couldn’t the EU do more? Yes, it could, it should. But unfortunately, we are not united. The EU is strong when it’s united. Then really we can be a strong player in international relations. On this topic, unfortunately, we have different views inside the EU.

“There are a lot of countries inside who are supportive of the Palestinian cause and who recognize Palestine, but still we are not united.”

Elaborating the point, Zbogar said: “As the Gaza crisis continued and deepened, there was more and more understanding on the European side that maybe supporting Israel and its right to self-defense, which we did at the beginning, was not appropriate anymore. So, we don’t hear that anymore from European leaders. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign and security affairs, took a very clear position all along the crisis. But, yes, we are not united and that’s why we are not the real player in this crisis.”

Since the Israeli military launched its operation in Gaza in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, aid convoys sent to the embattled enclave have faced blockades and thorough inspections by Israeli authorities, delaying the relief response.

Once inside the Gaza Strip, aid convoys have been mobbed by crowds of starving Palestinians and come under intense Israeli fire, despite assurances by Israeli forces they would be permitted to pass.

Zbogar said only an end to the fighting would create the security conditions needed to help stricken communities. “I think it’s one word — a ceasefire,” he said. “Nothing less than a ceasefire would allow enough distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza.

“It’s very difficult to distribute aid at this moment when rockets are flying, where Israel is rejecting more than half of the trucks because of the dual use (issue), where there is public disorder now in Gaza after so many months and the desperate situation that people are in.

“We have seen so many times when the humanitarian workers had an approved road on which they could deliver the aid, and yet they were targeted.

“Like we were seeing with the World Central Kitchen a few weeks ago or months ago. How they had all the approvals, they were in touch with (the military coordinating unit) COGAT on the Israeli side, and yet they were targeted one after the other.

“How can you expect humanitarian workers to go into this situation even if they have promises from Israel that today we will not target? How do you expect people to sacrifice their lives when they see that 200 of their colleagues distributing aid were killed? And that’s why the ceasefire is the only way we can distribute more aid inside Gaza.”

It was because of this carnage and suffering in Gaza that on June 4 this year Slovenia followed Ireland, Norway and Spain in recognizing a Palestinian state, citing the need for two equally sovereign parties to negotiate future relations.

“We believe that after the destruction of Gaza, we see even more clearly that we need two equal parties,” he said.

“We need two sovereign, two parties that will be equally sovereign, Palestine and Israel, in order for them to be able to negotiate their future relations. Otherwise, as long as you have one party that is weaker, then it’s not a proper discussion. And that’s why that prevailed, then, in our reflection as well. We need a Palestine that is on the same level as Israel.”

Zbogar said Slovenian recognition of a Palestinian state was intended to send a message to the Palestinians that they are not alone, while telling the Israeli government it is on the wrong course.

“We are hoping for Palestine to open its embassy in Slovenia. And we already have a person on the ground in Ramallah who is representing Slovenia with the Palestinian Authority. So, officially we implemented the decision of the parliament,” he said.

“We’ve been discussing in Slovenia for years about this recognition. There was always a political process that we were waiting for. Now, since things began happening in Gaza, we thought it’s time for us to send a message.

“This is a message for Palestinians. It’s not a message to Israel. It’s not a message to Hamas. Neither of them really care for their citizens. They’re using Palestinians and hostages as an instrument of pressure on each other.

“This is, for us, a message to Palestinians that no matter how difficult it looks at the moment and that the world is abandoning them, that we do recognize their right to have a state, to live in their own state. And it’s time to do that.”

He added: “We have been friends, and we continue to be friends, with Israel. And we think this is a message to them as well, that what they’re doing is not right. I think they’re on the wrong course.

“But Israel is much more than the current government. And I believe that people in Israel will recognize that what we did was a good thing, to help bring peace to the region.”

Asked whether the Security Council could be applying more pressure on the Israeli government to halt its operation in Gaza, Zbogar said only a unified position would prove effective. (AN Photo)

Zbogar is concerned that a failure to respond to the carnage in Gaza will result in the youth of the region turning against the international community.

“You have the whole population in the region that might be turning against the international community, that we are not doing enough to stop the bloodshed in Gaza,” he said.

“I think we might be losing the whole young population across the region. That’s the message we are getting from all the countries, all the special representatives there, that it’s for the future relations between the West and these countries that is a very dangerous situation.”

Once the war ends in Gaza, the question will turn to who should govern the war-scarred territory — Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, an external power, or a multilateral agency.

Zbogar believes Gaza will need a transitional period to guarantee its own and Israel’s security and to rebuild. But he does not believe this is something the Palestinian Authority can do on its own, calling instead for UN involvement.

Indeed, a recent poll of Gaza and the West Bank by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed huge dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority, with more than 60 percent supporting its dissolution, and close to 90 percent wanting President Mahmoud Abbas to resign.

“I don’t think it’s surprising — this dissatisfaction — because the Palestinian authorities don’t have power to deliver to their people. And that’s why people are disappointed,” Zbogar said.

“They continue to see Israeli occupation. They continue to see what’s happening in Gaza. And, of course, they are disappointed that their authority is not protecting them and cannot do anything about it.

“But they really cannot do anything about it if you are serious. So, who should run Palestine or Gaza? I think it’s for Palestinians to decide. I don’t think it should be foreigners to decide. They should decide who should govern.

“Of course, there probably will be some transition period in Gaza after all this is over. There will need to be a transition period with regard to security, to re-establishment of security, to provide security to Israel. There will be a need to rebuild Gaza. There will be a lot of needs.

“But I don’t think Palestinian authorities can do that on their own. I think probably the UN should be involved, should be helping them, coordinating all the assistance and all the support that was coming from abroad, in re-establishing Gaza as a place to live.”


Israeli strike kills eight at Gaza aid center, witnesses say

Palestinians carry a casualty outside the headquarters of UNRWA following an Israeli strike, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Updated 23 June 2024
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Israeli strike kills eight at Gaza aid center, witnesses say

  • “Some people were coming to receive coupons and others had been displaced from their houses and they were sheltering here,” witness says

CAIRO: Eight Palestinians were killed on Sunday in an Israeli air strike on a training college near Gaza City being used to distribute aid, Palestinian witnesses said, as Israeli tanks pushed further into the southern city of Rafah.
The strike hit part of an industrial college run by the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA now providing aid to displaced families, the witnesses said. UNRWA and the Israeli military did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Some people were coming to receive coupons and others had been displaced from their houses and they were sheltering here. Some were filling up water, others were receiving coupons, and suddenly we heard something falling. We ran away, those who were carrying water let it spill,” said Mohammed Tafesh, one of the witnesses.
A Reuters photographer saw a low-rise building completely demolished and bodies wrapped in blankets laid out beside the road, waiting to be taken away.
“We pulled out martyrs [from beneath the rubble], one who used to sell cold drinks and another who used to sell pastries and others who distributed or received coupons,” Tafesh said. “There are about four or five martyrs and 10 injured. Thank God, the condition of the injured is good.”
More than eight months into Israel’s war in the Hamas-administered Palestinian enclave, its advance is focused on the two areas its forces have yet to seize: Rafah on Gaza’s southern tip and the area surrounding Deir Al-Balah in the center.
Residents said Israeli tanks had advanced to the edge of the Mawasi displaced persons’ camp in the northwest of Rafah in fierce fighting with Hamas-led fighters, part of a push into western and northern Rafah in which they had blown up dozens of houses in recent days.
Images of two Israeli tanks stationed on a hilltop overlooking the coastal area went viral on social media, but Reuters could not independently verify them.
“The fighting with the resistance has been intense. The occupation forces are overlooking the Mawasi area now, which forced families there to head for Khan Younis,” said one resident, who asked not to be named, on a chat app.
The Israeli military said it was continuing “intelligence-based, targeted operations” in the Rafah area and had located weapons stores and tunnel shafts, and killed Palestinian gunmen.
The armed wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement said their fighters had attacked Israeli forces in Rafah with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs and pre-planted explosive devices.
Another strike killed two people in Nuseirat in central Gaza.
On Saturday, Palestinian health officials said at least 40 Palestinians had been killed in separate Israeli strikes in some northern Gaza districts, where the Israeli army said it had attacked Hamas’s military infrastructure. Hamas said the targets were the civilian population.
In Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, health officials at Kamal Adwan Hospital said a baby had died of malnutrition, taking the number of children dead of malnutrition or dehydration since Oct. 7 to at least 30, a number that health officials say reflects under-recording.
Israel’s ground and air campaign in Gaza was triggered when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
The offensive has left Gaza in ruins, killed almost 37,600 people, according to Palestinian health authorities, and left nearly the entire population homeless and destitute.


Israel defense chief to discuss Gaza, Lebanon on US trip

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
Updated 23 June 2024
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Israel defense chief to discuss Gaza, Lebanon on US trip

  • “We are prepared for any action that may be required in Gaza, Lebanon, and in more areas,” Gallant said
  • US envoy Amos Hochstein visited Israel and Lebanon last week in an attempt to cool tensions

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant headed to Washington on Sunday to discuss the next phase of the Gaza war and escalating hostilities on the border with Lebanon, where exchanges of fire with Hezbollah have stoked fears of wider conflict.
Iran-backed Hezbollah began attacking Israel shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault sparked the war in Gaza, and the sides have been trading blows in the months since then. Hezbollah has said it will not stop until there is a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We are prepared for any action that may be required in Gaza, Lebanon, and in more areas,” Gallant said in a statement before setting off to Washington, where he said he would meet his counterpart Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Earlier in June, Hezbollah targeted Israeli towns and military sites with the largest volleys of rockets and drones in the hostilities so far, after an Israeli strike killed the most senior Hezbollah commander yet.
US envoy Amos Hochstein visited Israel and Lebanon last week in an attempt to cool tensions, amid an uptick in cross-border fire and an escalation in rhetoric on both sides. An Israeli soldier was severely wounded on Sunday by a drone strike, the military said.
Some Israeli officials have linked the ongoing Israeli push into Rafah — the southern area of Gaza where it says it is targeting the last battalions of Hamas — to a potential focus on Lebanon.
Gallant appeared to make the same link in his statement.
“The transition to Phase C in Gaza is of great importance. I will discuss this transition with US officials, how it may enable additional things and I know that we will achieve close cooperation with the US on this issue as well,” Gallant said.
Scaling back Gaza operations would free up forces to take on Hezbollah, if Israel were to launch a ground offensive or step up its aerial bombardments.
Post-war plan
Officials have described the third and last phase of Israel’s Gaza offensive as winding down fighting while stepping up efforts to stabilize a post-Hamas rule and begin reconstruction in the enclave, much of which has been laid to waste.
Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has sparred with the premier in the past few months, calling for a clearer post-war plan for Gaza that will not leave Israel in charge, a demand echoed by the White House.
Netanyahu has been walking a tightrope as he seeks to keep his government together by balancing the demands of the defense establishment, including ex-generals like Gallant, and far-right coalition partners who have resisted any post-Gaza strategy that could open the way to a future Palestinian state.
The head of Israel’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuli Edelstein, told Army Radio on Sunday that fighting Hezbollah would be complex either way, now or later.
“We are not in the right position to conduct fighting on both the southern front and the northern front. We will have to deploy differently in the south in order to fight in the north,” said Edelstein, also a Likud member.
Edelstein criticized a video by Netanyahu released last week in which the prime minister said the Biden administration was “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel.” The video led to a spat with the White House.
President Joe Biden’s administration paused a shipment of 2,000 pound and 500-pound bombs in May over concerns about their impact if used in densely-populated areas of Gaza. Israel was still due to get billions of dollars worth of US weaponry.
“I hope that in the discussions behind closed doors much more will be achieved than by attempts to create pressure with videos,” Edelstein said, referring to Gallant’s trip.
Israel’s ground and air campaign in Gaza was triggered when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
The offensive has killed more than 37,400 people, according to Palestinian health authorities, and left nearly the entire population of the enclave homeless and destitute.