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.”


Turkiye signs deal with US to buy F-16 warplanes

Updated 2 sec ago
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Turkiye signs deal with US to buy F-16 warplanes

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 2 min 56 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.


US envoy to Yemen demands Houthis free detained international staff

Updated 58 min 25 sec ago
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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.


Israeli forces thrust deeper into Rafah as diplomacy falters

Updated 47 min 54 sec ago
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Israeli forces thrust deeper into Rafah as diplomacy falters

  • Israeli military denied in a statement it had launched any strikes inside the Al-Mawasi humanitarian zone
  • Biden will urge G7 leaders to push Hamas to back ceasefire deal

CAIRO: Israeli tanks advanced deeper into the western area of Rafah, amid one of the worst nights of bombardment from air, ground, and sea, forcing many families to flee their homes and tents under darkness, residents said on Thursday.
Residents said the Israeli forces thrust toward the Al-Mawasi area of Rafah near the beach, which is designated as a humanitarian area in all announcements and maps published by the Israeli army since it began its Rafah offensive in May.
The Israeli military denied in a statement it had launched any strikes inside the Al-Mawasi humanitarian zone.
Israel said its assault aimed to wipe out Hamas’ last intact combat units in Rafah, a city which had sheltered more than a million people before the latest advance began. Most of those people have now moved north toward Khan Younis and Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said in a statement it was continuing “intelligence-based, targeted operations” on Rafah, saying forces in the past day had located weapons, and killed Palestinian gunmen in close-range combat.
Over the past day, the military said it had struck 45 targets across the Gaza Strip from the air, including military structures, militant cells, rocket launchers, and tunnel shafts.
Israel has ruled out peace until Hamas is eradicated, and much of Gaza lies in ruins. But Hamas has proven resilient, with militants resurfacing to fight in areas where Israeli forces had previously declared to have defeated them and pulled back.
Ceasefire proposal

US President Joe Biden will urge fellow leaders of Group of Seven nations to support ceasefire negotiations and encourage Hamas to accept a proposal backed by Israel, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of G7 leaders in southern Italy, Sullivan said the world should encourage the Palestinian militant group to accept the proposal and avoid stalemate.
Sullivan said Israel is standing behind a ceasefire proposal for the eight-month-old war in the Gaza Strip, and the goal is to bridge gaps with Hamas and get to a deal soon.
Hamas has welcomed the ceasefire proposal, but insists any agreement must secure an end to the war, a demand Israel still rejects. Israel described Hamas’s response to the new US peace proposal as total rejection.
Since a brief week-long truce in November, repeated attempts to arrange a ceasefire have failed, with Hamas insisting on a permanent end to the war and full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Sullivan said Hamas had submitted an amended proposal with some minor changes that could be worked out, as well as others that were not in line with what Biden had laid out or that had been embraced by the UN Security Council.
“Our goal is to figure out how we bridge the remaining gaps and get to a deal,” he said, adding that discussions would continue with Qatar and Egypt, who, in turn, would work with Hamas to reach agreement as quickly as possible.
Sullivan stressed that Israel was standing behind the ceasefire proposal Biden outlined in a May 31 speech, adding that he had heard no Israeli leader challenge the deal.
Hamas precipitated the war when militants from Israeli-blockaded Gaza stormed into southern Israel in a lightning strike last Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages back to the enclave, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Gaza since then has killed at least 37,000 people, according to the territory’s health ministry. Thousands more are feared dead and buried under rubble, with most of the population of 2.3 million displaced.
Biden was expected to update G7 leaders on the ceasefire negotiations and how their countries could support the process, Sullivan said, underscoring the broader implications for increasing tension between Israel and Lebanon.
Biden would discuss “the increasing intensity and scope of the strikes by Hezbollah deeper into Israel, and including into civilian areas,” Sullivan said, adding that a ceasefire in Gaza would help bring calm to that region as well.
G7 leaders would also compare notes on what he called “the continuing threat posed by Iran, both with respect to its support for proxy forces, and with respect to the Iranian nuclear program, where we continue to have grave concerns.”