Frankly Speaking: Where will Gazans go after Rafah’s invasion?

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Updated 13 May 2024

Frankly Speaking: Where will Gazans go after Rafah’s invasion?

  • Arab League assistant secretary general says Israel “mean and malignant” in seeking to drive Palestinians out and take the land for itself
  • Hossam Zaki also sets out expansive agenda of the upcoming Arab League summit in Bahrain

DUBAI: If Arab countries really cared about Gaza, they would throw open their borders to Palestinian refugees. That is a claim made repeatedly by Israel since the Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7 last year sparked the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

According to Ambassador Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general to the Arab League, this argument is deeply flawed — ignoring the fact that Arab nations already host millions of Palestinian refugees.

Furthermore, Zaki believes this argument ignores the stark reality that once the people of Gaza are displaced, the Israeli government is unlikely to permit their return — opting instead to seize the land for the state of Israel.

“If we really want the truth, the Israeli wish is to see that the Palestinian population would disappear from the Occupied Territories,” Zaki told Katie Jensen, host of the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.”

Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, appearing on “Frankly Speaking.” (AN photos)

He added: “From the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, they would love for the Palestinians just to vanish. We all know that, because we know that they want the land. They want to grab the territory. They want to annex the territory to their state.”

In a wide-ranging interview, in which he discussed the forthcoming Arab League summit in Bahrain on May 16, efforts to halt Israel’s assault on Rafah, and the diminishing prospects for a two-state solution, Zaki said previous mass displacements would not be repeated.

“The Palestinians have learned from the mistakes of the past — from the 1948 war and 1967 war — that once they move out of their territory, the territory is confiscated by Israel, taken under control by Israel. And it seems to be such an uphill battle to get it back,” he said.

“The hope of getting back territory is ever so pale. So, what we are doing is, we are assisting the Palestinians to hold on to their territory, to hold on to their land, and not to move out of the land, because they know the consequences of moving out.”

Zaki was equally vehement in his rejection of the Israeli suggestion that the Arab states had failed to offer sanctuary to Palestinian refugees.

“They (the Israelis) can criticize us all they want,” he said. “We have Palestinians living in all Arab countries, some in refugee camps — very, very few — but most living like the normal citizens of these countries.

“In Egypt and in the Gulf countries, in Jordan, in North Africa, all Arab countries, you have Palestinians living.

“Normally, that is a criticism that we are willing to take, because we know that whatever is said in this regard means only to evacuate the territory for the benefit of the Israelis who want to grab it.”

Since the war in Gaza began seven months ago, the Arab League has been actively involved in trying to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, to arrange for sufficient aid to enter the enclave, and to keep the goal of Palestinian statehood on the agenda.

Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, speaks to “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen. (AN photos)

Zaki said the Arab League and its “heavyweight members” — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan — had continued to promote the Arab Peace Initiative, first unveiled 20 years ago, and were working to stop the “killing madness” continuing.

“But nothing has been successful so far,” he said. “Even the only resolution that the UN Security Council was able to adopt in order to stop the war, to cease the fire, was not implemented. It’s been adopted since, what, one month now? Nothing. As if there is nothing.”

Zaki believes Israel has been allowed to act with impunity owing to the protection and largesse of the US.

“Israel is basically a country that is pampered by the US, pampered by many of its allies, accomplices, so-called friends in the West,” he said.

“They condone what it is doing and they cannot stop it. They cannot stop this madness. Unfortunately, they gave it a carte blanche since the beginning and this is where we are.

“Seven months in this war — this criminal war — and nothing is happening. They are not capable of reigning in this country, this government of extremists.”

Asked whether the Arab League itself shares part of the blame for failing to bring an end to the conflict, Zaki laid responsibility entirely on Washington.

“Why would we — how could we — blame the Arab League?” he said. “The Arab League is not an accomplice in this. The Arab League is not giving bombs to Israel. The Arab League is not giving ammunition to Israel. The Arab League is not funding the Israeli aggression.

“The Arab League is a regional organization, a respectable regional organization, that is seeking peace, that is talking politics. It’s a diplomatic organization. We are willing to engage with whomever is seeking peace as well on the other side.

“Why do we say the US and the West? Because it is the US that’s funding Israel. It keeps transferring money to Israel, aid to Israel, munitions, bombs, weapons, whatever — you name it.”

Israel’s months-long bombardment and strangulation of aid flows has devastated Gaza’s infrastructure. Zaki believes Israel has deliberately sought to make Gaza inhospitable to compel the Palestinian population to abandon their land and accept refugee status abroad.

“The Israelis, in the nasty, very nasty, war against the Palestinians in Gaza, what they’re trying to do is not only to kill Palestinians … they did something which is much more nasty, actually: They have destroyed the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip,” he said.

“They’ve destroyed the health infrastructure, the education infrastructure, the water infrastructure, the electricity infrastructure. This is mean and malignant, and they want to make it a point for the Palestinians who remain in the Gaza Strip — most of the inhabitants — to find this place uninhabitable.

“When the war ends, all the Palestinians would look around and see that this has become totally uninhabitable, so they would want to leave. But surprise to them, I would tell you from now — and mark my words — that is not going to happen.

“They’re going to reconstruct their state, their country. They’re going to reconstruct Gaza, and the Arabs are going to help them. You bet on that. And the international community has enough decent people, enough peace-loving people, who believe in Palestinian rights and who will help them rebuild their country after all the crimes that Israel has committed there.”

Furthermore, Israel has threatened to take over the Philadelphi Corridor — a narrow strip of land along the Gaza-Egypt border, established under the Philadelphi Accord in 2005 and which authorized Egypt to deploy 750 border guards to police its side of the border.

If Israel were to seize control of the Philadelphi Corridor, it could undermine the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt and created the current border that bisects Rafah.

“They are playing with fire, and I think they know that,” said Zaki, himself an Egyptian diplomat.

“Those who are taking decisions on the Israeli side are taking a big risk. I do not think that, in their right mind, they would want to see an undermining of the main pillar of peace in the region, which is the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.”

Preparations are underway for the 33rd Arab League summit, during which the leaders of the 22 member states will discuss common challenges facing the region.

With multiple conflicts blighting the Middle East and North Africa, Zaki said there would be “a hefty agenda” this year. “Obviously the issue of the war on Gaza is going to be left, right and center in all of this,” he said.

“Sudan is a big issue for us. The war on Sudan has not receded. It’s been going on for more than a year. It’s unfortunate. We need to address that. The situation in Libya. The situation with Yemen is still a problem. Syria is still an issue for us.

“And, we have a set of other socioeconomic resolutions that are prepared for the leaders to adopt in their meetings. So we do have quite a hefty agenda for our summit this year.”

High on that agenda will no doubt be the prospects of reviving the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is no alternative to that solution,” said Zaki. “The Palestinians should have their own state. They should have their own independent contiguous state. Nothing should stand in their way and nothing, really, should justify assisting Israel in diluting this solution.”

But, given the destruction in Gaza, the ongoing spread of settlements in the West Bank, and the deep hostility felt on both sides, some might argue the region is moving further away from the two-state solution.

“No, we’re not moving further away,” said Zaki. “I think the world — which has pretty much paid lip service to this two-state solution for a couple of decades now — is now realizing that, well, lip service is not useful anymore, and we should really engage in active steps, like many European leaders have been saying, active steps.

“Even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that several months ago. We should all engage in active steps to make true the Palestinian state — to make it come about and to make it a reality.

Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, speaks to “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen. (AN photos)

“This is going to happen in the UN; one step closer, one step closer to Palestinian statehood. And things are going to move in this direction.

“The Israelis will have to resist that as they want to, and as they refuse to engage in peace talks, and they refuse to agree on Palestinian statehood. But it’s not up to them.

“We are trying to convince the rest of the world, especially the Western world, that Palestinian statehood should not be subject to an Israeli veto. Because if we do give the Israelis the veto over this, I think they will never agree on it. And a Palestinian state will never see the light of day.”


Once fruitful, Libyan village suffers climate crisis

Updated 17 June 2024

Once fruitful, Libyan village suffers climate crisis

KABAW, Libya: In the Libyan village of Kabaw in the Nafusa Mountains, M’hamed Maakaf waters an ailing fig tree as climate change pushes villagers to forsake lands and livestock.
Once flourishing and known for its figs, olives, and almonds, fields around Kabaw, located some 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of Tripoli, are now mostly barren and battered by climate change-induced drought.
The area was once “green and prosperous until the beginning of the millennium,” Maakaf recalled. “People loved to come here and take walks but today it has become so dry that it’s unbearable.”
“We no longer see the green meadows we knew in the 1960s and ‘70s,” added the 65-year-old, wearing a traditional white tunic and sirwal trousers.
Kabaw, like many villages in the Nafusa Mountains, is primarily inhabited by Amazigh people, a non-Arab minority.

The old and abandoned village of Kabaw stands on arid land not far from the newer constructions in the Nafusa mountains on May 26, 2024. (AFP)

Pounded by the sun and dry winds, the mountainous area now struggles to bear fruit, facing a lack of rainfall and temperatures high above seasonal norms.
Libya — where around 95 percent of land is desert — is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries, according to the United Nations.
Its annual precipitation in coastal areas has fallen from 400 millimeters in 2019 to 200 millimeters today, with water demand higher than what is available.
The Nafusa Mountains, sitting at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in western Libya, are home to around half a million people out of Libya’s population of seven million.
Driven out by increasing water stress, local villagers and their livestock have been gradually moving out of the Nafusa Mountains and surrounding plains.

‘How can we be patient?’

Mourad Makhlouf, mayor of Kabaw, says that drought in the last decade has pushed hundreds of families to leave for the capital Tripoli and other coastal cities, where water is easier to access.
“It’s not just about water scarcity or crops dying due to drought,” said Makhlouf. “There is a demographic and human dimension with the exodus of hundreds of families toward the capital and coastal towns.”

Sheep and goats gather in the shade under trees in an arid field in the Libyan village of Kabaw in the Nafusa mountains on May 26, 2024. (Photo by Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

Suleiman Mohammed, a local farmer, fears that climate change will soon cause everyone to leave, as “living without water is certain death.”
“How can we be patient?” he said. “It has gotten to the point where breeders sell their livestock because keeping them costs twice their value.”
Standing by a cluster of dead tree trunks, Maakaf decries the loss of “thousands of olive trees.”
“Some were 200 years old and inherited from our grandfathers,” he said.
Hoping to alleviate the burden, local authorities began selling subsidized water for 25 Libyan dinars (about $5) per 12,000 liters.
Tanker trucks make the trip between the water stations and the village, traveling up to 50 kilometers and allowing some of those in need to hold on.
“We manage to water our fields two to three times a week but water is expensive,” Maakaf said, adding that they also rely on private tanker trucks selling the same amount for up to 160 dinars.

Relief plan needed
The hydrocarbon-rich country hosts the world’s largest irrigation project, the Great Man-Made River, its main source of water supply built in the 1980s under the rule of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Drawing fossil water from aquifers in the heart of the southern desert, the network of pipes supplies about 60 percent of the national need.
But the supplies remain insufficient amid increasing drought.

A road leading to the Libyan village of Kabaw in the Nafusa mountains, winds between arid hills on May 26, 2024.(AFP)

According to the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization, Libya will face “extremely high” water stress by 2050.
The World Bank predicts that by 2030, the Middle East and North Africa region will fall below the “absolute water scarcity” threshold.
“Water scarcity is one of the greatest emerging threats facing Libya,” the UN Development Programme said in a study.
“The country needs to ensure equitable access to water for domestic and economic purposes.”
“Climate smart agricultural methods should reduce the overuse of water resources and... practices that contribute to soil erosion and desertification, which further impact productive sectors and food security.”
Libya signed the 2015 United Nations framework convention on climate change and ratified the Paris Climate Accord in 2021.
Yet the North African country has shown little progress toward the development of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation strategies, as it continues to grapple with divisions and conflict after the fall of Qaddafi in 2011.
“The drought does not only concern the Nafusa Mountains, but the entire country,” said Mayor Makhlouf.
“Libya needs a relief plan, which will not be the solution to everything, but will allow us to adapt.”

Biden adviser travels to Israel for meetings to avoid escalation between Israel, Lebanon

US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein. (AFP)
Updated 13 min 30 sec ago

Biden adviser travels to Israel for meetings to avoid escalation between Israel, Lebanon

  • Amos Hochstein will advance efforts to avoid further escalation along the ‘Blue Line’ between Israel and Lebanon

WASHINGTON: A senior Biden adviser will travel to Israel on Monday for meetings to avoid further escalation between Israel and Lebanon, a White House official said.
Amos Hochstein will advance efforts to avoid further escalation along the “Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon, said the official, who did not wish to be identified.
Attacks between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon have led to worries of a deeper war across the Middle East.

Israel warns of escalation from cross-border fire from Hezbollah

Updated 17 June 2024

Israel warns of escalation from cross-border fire from Hezbollah

  • Hezbollah says it will not halt fire unless Israel stops its military offensive on Gaza

JERUSALEM: Intensified cross-border fire from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement into Israel could trigger serious escalation, the Israeli military said on Sunday.
“Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation, one that could have devastating consequences for Lebanon and the entire region,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a video statement in English.
Iran-backed Hezbollah last week launched the largest volleys of rockets and drones yet in the eight months it has been exchanging fire with the Israeli military, in parallel with the Gaza war.
After the relatively heavy exchanges over the past week, Sunday saw a marked drop in Hezbollah fire, while the Israeli military said that it had carried out several air strikes against the group in southern Lebanon.
The US and France are working on a negotiated settlement to the hostilities along Lebanon’s southern border. Hezbollah says it will not halt fire unless Israel stops its military offensive on Gaza.
“Israel will take the necessary measures to protect its civilians — until security along our border with Lebanon is restored,” Hagari said.

‘No joy’: Gazans mark somber Eid in shadow of war

Updated 17 June 2024

‘No joy’: Gazans mark somber Eid in shadow of war

  • Many Palestinians forced to spend holiday without their loved ones
  • I hope the world will put pressure to end the war on us because we are truly dying, and our children are broken

GAZA STRIP: In tents in the stifling heat and bombed-out mosques, Gazans on Sunday marked the start of the Eid Al-Adha holiday, devoid of the usual cheer as the Israel-Hamas war raged on.

“There is no joy. We have been robbed of it,” said Malakiya Salman, a 57-year-old displaced woman now living in a tent in Khan Younis City in the southern Gaza Strip.
Gazans, like Muslims the world over, would usually slaughter sheep for the holiday — whose Arabic name means “feast of the sacrifice” — and share the meat with the needy.
Parents would also give their children new clothes and money for the celebration.
But this year, after more than eight months of a devastating Israeli campaign that has flattened much of Gaza, displaced most of the besieged territory’s 2.4 million people, and sparked repeated warnings of famine, the Eid is a day of misery for many.
“I hope the world will put pressure to end the war on us because we are truly dying, and our children are broken,” said Salman.
Her family was displaced from the far-southern city of Rafah, a recent focus of the fighting which began after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel.
The military on Sunday morning announced a “tactical pause of military activity” around a Rafah-area route to facilitate the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gazans.
AFP correspondents said there were no reports of strikes or shelling since dawn, though the Israeli military stressed there was “no cessation of hostilities in the southern Gaza Strip.”
The brief respite in fighting allowed worshippers a rare moment of calm on holiday.
Many gathered for the Eid Al-Adha morning prayer in the courtyard of Gaza City’s historic Omari Mosque, which was heavily damaged in Israeli bombardment, placing down their frayed prayer mats next to mounds of rubble.
The sound of prayers traveled down some of the city’s destroyed and abandoned streets.
“Since this morning, we’ve felt a sudden calm with no gunfire or bombings ... It’s strange,” said 30-year-old Haitham Al-Ghura from Gaza City.
He hoped the pause meant a permanent ceasefire was near, though truce mediation efforts have stalled for months.
In several areas of the war-battered territory, especially in Gaza City, young boys were seen manning roadside shops selling perfumes, lotions, and other items against the backdrop of piles of rubble from destroyed buildings and homes.
Many vendors used umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun as they sold household items on Gaza City’s main market street. But there were few buyers.
Food and other goods can reach four or five times their usual price, but those who cling to the holiday traditions can still afford them.
In Khan Younis, displaced man Majdi Abdul Raouf spent 4,500 shekels ($1,200) — a small fortune for most Gazans — on a sheep to sacrifice.
“I was determined to buy it despite the high prices, to perform these rituals and bring some joy and happiness to the children in the displacement camp,” said the 60-year-old, who fled his home in Rafah.
“There is sadness, severe pain, and suffering, but I insisted on having a different kind of day.”
The deadliest-ever Gaza war began after Hamas’s unprecedented Oct. 7 attack.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,337 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Health Ministry in the territory.
For many, a halt in fighting can never bring back what has been lost.
“We’ve lost many people, there’s a lot of destruction,” said Umm Mohammed Al-Katri from Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.
“This Eid is completely different,” she said, with many Gazans forced to spend the holiday without their loved ones killed or displaced during the war.
Grieving families on Sunday flocked to cemeteries and other makeshift burial sites, where wooden planks marked the graves.
“I feel comfort here,” said Khalil Diab Essbiah at the cemetery where his two children are buried.
Even with the constant buzzing of Israeli drones overhead, visitors at the cemetery “can feel relieved of the genocide we are in and the death and destruction,” he said.
Hanaa Abu Jazar, 11, also displaced from Rafah to the tent city in Khan Yunis, said: “We see the (Israeli) occupation killing children, women and the elderly.”
“How can we celebrate?” asked the girl.


Jordan conducts three airdrops in southern Gaza

Updated 17 June 2024

Jordan conducts three airdrops in southern Gaza

  • Aid packages containing food, clothing, and sweets were delivered to various locations in the southern Gaza

AMMAN: Jordan’s armed forces conducted three airdrops to the southern part of Gaza on Sunday, in collaboration with Egypt, to mark the first day of Eid Al-Adha, Jordan News Agency reported.
Aid packages containing food, clothing, and sweets were delivered to various locations in the southern Gaza Strip by two planes from the Royal Jordanian Air Force and an aircraft from Egypt.
Earlier on Saturday, a 45-truck humanitarian aid convoy arrived in Gaza, sent by the JAF and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO).
In cooperation with its regional and international allies, the Jordanian armed forces have carried out 261 airdrops and delivered 1,970 trucks of aid since the beginning of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “a significant proportion of Gaza’s population is now facing catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions,” as Israel continues to impose severe restrictions on the supply of food, water, medicine, and fuel to the Strip.