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

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.”

‘Afraid to walk the streets’: Syria refugees face Lebanon expulsion

Updated 46 min 18 sec ago

‘Afraid to walk the streets’: Syria refugees face Lebanon expulsion

  • Standing at her husband’s vegetable stall by the side of the road outside the village of Minyara in Lebanon’s impoverished north, Janhat, 38, said she lives in a state of constant worry

MINYARA: For weeks, refugee Maryam Janhat has been living in fear of deportation as Lebanon cracks down on Syrians, with politicians ramping up calls for them to be forced home.
Refugees from Lebanon’s war-torn neighbor face a dilemma: should they stay and contend with stricter measures and growing anti-Syrian sentiment, or should they return home and risk poverty and repression?
Standing at her husband’s vegetable stall by the side of the road outside the village of Minyara in Lebanon’s impoverished north, Janhat, 38, said she lives in a state of constant worry.
“I am scared when (my husband and children) come to work at the stall. I am afraid they could take my son at any moment... we are afraid to walk the streets,” she said.
Syrians make up about half of Minyara’s 8,000 residents, the municipality says, with most living in tent camps adjacent to vast agricultural fields.
Janhat, who took refuge in the village a decade ago after fleeing violence in the central Syrian province of Homs, feels lucky to be living in a house rather than a flimsy tent.
But she and her family have been unable to renew their residency in Lebanon, and they fear being deported to Syria where she says they have “no house, no work, and no security.”
A few steps away, 70-year-old Ibrahim Mansour is offloading crates of fruit and vegetables from his van to sell.
Syrians “have stalls everywhere, competing with us in every sector,” he said.
“When they leave, the situation will improve a lot.”
Many Lebanese, including politicians, have long pushed for Syrians who have fled 13 years of civil war at home to return, blaming them for exacerbating Lebanon’s woes, including a crushing economic crisis that began in late 2019.
Lebanon says it currently hosts around two million people from Syria — the world’s highest number of refugees per capita — with almost 785,000 registered with the United Nations.
In recent months, politicians have ramped up anti-Syrian rhetoric, with Hassan Nasrallah, who heads the powerful Hezbollah group, urging Beirut to open the seas for migrant boats to reach Europe to pressure for more Western aid.
Earlier this month, the European Union announced $1 billion in aid to Lebanon to help tackle illegal migration, mostly of Syrians to nearby Cyprus, the bloc’s easternmost member.
Lebanon has long heavily relied on Syrians for manual labor, especially in agriculture and construction.
Minyara mayor Antoun Abboud said Syrians were needed in the workforce but that his village cannot accommodate large numbers of refugees or provide them with basic services.
“We are not telling them to leave. We just want to reduce... and organize Syrian presence” in Lebanon, he said.

Lebanese security forces have intensified a crackdown on Syrians without residency permits, shutting down their businesses and forcing them to evacuate their homes.
“Hate campaigns, legal restrictions, and unprecedented measures to make it difficult to obtain residency” are on the rise, said Sahar Mandour, Amnesty International’s Lebanon researcher.
This means most Syrians find themselves without legal residency, she said, adding that “voluntary returns are impossible in these conditions.”
In one of the informal camps near the village, children play in the dirt, while men sit idle, too frightened to leave.
“Everyone is scared,” said herder Hajjem, 37, who declined giving his last name for security concerns.
“Syrians cannot move anymore. Even laborers in the fields are skipping work,” he said, shearing his sheep near the camp, while women around him collected the wool.
He fled to Lebanon illegally eight years ago, at the height of Syria’s war, and cannot return because he says he is wanted by Damascus.
He said he has been too scared to venture outside for work since security forces began to clamp down more forcefully on Syrians.
“I can’t sleep at night because the army or security forces could deport us at any moment,” he said.
His elderly father is also filled with worry.
“If we leave, we will die of hunger. There are no opportunities in our country,” he said.
“It would be better to throw oneself into the sea.”

No sign of attack on Raisi’s helicopter: Iran’s military

Updated 24 May 2024

No sign of attack on Raisi’s helicopter: Iran’s military

  • There was no sign of anything shot at the helicopter and its flight path did not change
  • Raisi was buried in a tomb at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad on Thursday

TEHRAN, Iran: The helicopter carrying Iran’s late President Ebrahim Raisi caught fire soon after it crashed into a mountain and there was no sign it was attacked, state media reported, citing the military’s crash investigators.
The statement from the general staff of the armed forces in charge of investigating the crash was read on state television late Thursday. The first statement on the crash did not lay blame but said more details would come after further investigation.
The crash Sunday killed Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and six other people.
The general staff’s statement said the communications between the control tower and the crew of the helicopter before the crash contained nothing suspicious. It said the last communication of the crashed helicopter was between it and two helicopters accompanying it some 90 seconds before the crash.
There was no sign of anything shot at the helicopter and its flight path did not change, the statement said.
The aging Bell helicopter went down in a foggy, remote mountainous region of Iran’s northwest on Sunday. The crash site was discovered Monday morning with all eight on board dead.
Raisi was buried in a tomb at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad on Thursday.

Israel’s army says the bodies of 3 more hostages killed on Oct 7. recovered overnight from Gaza

Updated 24 May 2024

Israel’s army says the bodies of 3 more hostages killed on Oct 7. recovered overnight from Gaza

  • The announcement comes less than a week after the army said it found the bodies of three other Israeli hostages killed on Oct. 7
  • Israel says around 100 hostages are still captive in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more

TEL AVIV, Israel: The bodies of three more hostages killed on Oct 7. were recovered overnight from Gaza, Israel’s army said Friday, as the top United Nations court prepares to rule on whether Israel must halt its military operations and withdraw from the enclave.
The bodies of Hanan Yablonka, Michel Nisenbaum, and Orion Hernandez Radoux were found and their families have been notified. The army said they were killed on the day of the attack at the Mefalsim intersection and their bodies were taken to Gaza.
The announcement comes less than a week after the army said it found the bodies of three other Israeli hostages killed on Oct. 7.
Hamas-led militants killed around 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducted around 250 others in the Oct. 7 attack. Around half of those hostages have since been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel during a weeklong ceasefire in November.
Israel says around 100 hostages are still captive in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to both eliminate Hamas and bring all the hostages back, but he’s made little progress. He faces pressure to resign, and the US has threatened to scale back its support over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
On Friday Netanyahu said the country had a duty to do everything to return those abducted, both those killed and those who are alive.
The country is also expecting a ruling Friday afternoon by the International Court of Justice to decide on an urgent plea by South Africa to order Israel to cease operations. Israel is unlikely to comply with any such order. Even so, a ceasefire order by judges of the International Court of Justice would heap more pressure on an increasingly isolated Israel.
On the hostages, Israelis are divided into two main camps: those who want the government to put the war on hold and free the hostages, and others who think the hostages are an unfortunate price to pay for eradicating Hamas. On-and-off negotiations mediated by Qatar, the United States and Egypt have yielded little.
Anger is growing at home at the government’s handling of the hostage crisis.
Earlier this week a group representing the families of hostages released new video footage showing Hamas’ capture of five female Israeli soldiers near the Gaza border on Oct. 7.
The video shows several of the young soldiers bloody and wounded. In one scene, a militant tells one of the terrified women she is beautiful.
The video sparked more protests across the country calling for the hostages’ release.
The army said on Friday the hostages were found during an operation in Jabaliya. Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a news conference that the army was able to retrieve the bodies based on “critical intelligence” uncovered last week by Israeli forces operating in Gaza.
The group representing the families of the hostages said the bodies had been returned to their families for burial.
Nisenbaum, 59, was a Brazilian-Israeli from the southern city of Sderot. He was taken hostage when he went to rescue his 4-year-old granddaughter.
Oryon Hernandez Radoux, 30, was a French-Mexican citizen taken from the Nova music festival, which he attended with his partner Shani Louk. Louk’s body was one of those found by the army nearly a week ago.
Yablonka, 42, a father of two, was also taken from the music festival. His family in December told the AP that he loved music. Yablonka’s family had no news of him for nearly two months after he’d been taken, not knowing if he was alive or dead.
Israel’s offensive since the war began has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, and has caused a humanitarian crisis and a near-famine.
While it has weakened Hamas’ capabilities, after nearly eight months of war, militants are regrouping in some of the hardest-hit areas in northern Gaza and resuming rocket attacks into nearby Israeli communities. Israel says its troops are operating in Rafah in the south, in central Gaza and in Jabaliya in the north.

Israel to stop work of Spanish consulate for Palestinians

Updated 51 min 48 sec ago

Israel to stop work of Spanish consulate for Palestinians

  • It was not immediately clear how Israel would carry out the threat

JERUSALEM: Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Friday he had decided to “sever the connection” between Spain’s diplomatic mission and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank over Madrid’s recognition of a Palestinian state.
“I have decided to sever the connection between Spain’s representation in Israel and the Palestinians, and to prohibit the Spanish consulate in Jerusalem from providing services to Palestinians from the West Bank,” Katz said in a post on X.
It was not immediately clear how Israel would carry out the threat.
Asked by AFP about the practicalities and consequences of Katz’s announcement, the foreign ministry did not immediately comment.
Katz said his decision was made “in response to Spain’s recognition of a Palestinian state and the anti-Semitic call by Spain’s deputy prime minister to... ‘liberate Palestine from the river to the sea’.”
Spain, Ireland and Norway announced Wednesday their decision to recognize the State of Palestine later this month, drawing rebuke from Israel.
The Israeli government denounced the largely symbolic move as a “reward for terror” as the war in the Gaza Strip, sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, nears an eighth month.
The foreign ministry on Thursday warned that Israel’s ties with Ireland, Norway and Spain would face “serious consequences.”
Katz in his Friday announcement criticized remarks on X by the Spanish government’s number three Yolanda Diaz, a far-left party leader and labor minister.
Welcoming the announcement of the formal recognition of a Palestinian state, Diaz had said: “We cannot stop here. Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.”
The pro-Palestinian rallying cry refers to historic Palestine’s borders under the British mandate, which extended from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea, before the creation of Israel in 1948.
Critics perceive it as a call for the elimination of Israel, including its ambassador to Spain who condemned the minister’s remarks.
The phrase “from the river to the sea” is sometimes also used as a Zionist slogan for a Greater Israel that would span over the same territory.

Security Council to vote on resolution decrying attacks on UN and aid workers, demanding protection

Updated 24 May 2024

Security Council to vote on resolution decrying attacks on UN and aid workers, demanding protection

  • The Swiss-sponsored resolution expresses grave concern at the growing number of attacks and threats against UN and humanitarian personnel
  • The draft resolution does not single out any conflict

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote Friday on a resolution that strongly condemns attacks on humanitarian workers and UN personnel, and demands that all combatants protect them in accordance with international law.
The Swiss-sponsored resolution expresses grave concern at the growing number of attacks and threats against UN and humanitarian personnel along with the continuing disregard and violations of international humanitarian law by combatants.
“The goal of the resolution is as simple as it is important,” Switzerland’s UN Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It’s about protecting the men and women who work and risk their lives — every day — to help people affected by armed conflict.”
The draft resolution does not single out any conflict, but it is being voted on as battles rage in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar and many other hotspots around the world.
It is the seven-month war in Gaza, however, that has seen the greatest number of attacks on UN and humanitarian personnel. Over 190 UN staff have been killed, a death toll unprecedented in the United Nations’ nearly 80-year history, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The war has also seen the killing of other humanitarian personnel, including seven World Central Kitchen workers who died in an Israeli airstrike last month.
Baeriswyl said in a statement to AP that the resolution is being put to a vote at a very timely moment. The Geneva Conventions, which Baeriswyl described as the cornerstone of international humanitarian law and a reflection of our common humanity, commemorates its 75th anniversary in August.
The draft resolution calls on all countries to respect and protect humanitarian and UN personnel as required by international law. And it calls on all nations and parties to armed conflict to respect international humanitarian law and their obligations under the Geneva Conventions. It “strongly condemns attacks and all forms of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, threats and intimidation against humanitarian personnel and United Nations and associated personnel.”
The draft urges combatants “to respect the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in the conduct of hostilities and refrain from attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”
The proposed resolution also urges warring parties to facilitate “full, safe, rapid and unhindered humanitarian access to all civilians in need, and to promote the safety, security and freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel and United Nations and associated personnel.”
On another issue, the draft condemns “disinformation, information manipulation and incitement to violence” against humanitarian and UN staff and it encourages all countries and the United Nations to take action to address these threats.
If approved, the resolution would express the council’s determination to take steps to provide for the safety and security of humanitarian and UN staff. It would ask the UN Secretary-General to make recommendations within six months on measures to prevent attacks, ensure accountability and enhance protection of humanitarian and UN staff.