Criminal gangs, profiteers thrive in Gaza as cash shortage worsens misery

A shortage of banknotes is gripping Gaza, fuelling criminal gangs and profiteering, after Israel has blocked imports of cash and most banks in the enclave have been damaged or destroyed during the war, according to residents, aid workers and banking sources. (AFP/File)
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Updated 14 May 2024
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Criminal gangs, profiteers thrive in Gaza as cash shortage worsens misery

  • After more than 7 months of Israeli bombardment, just a handful of ATMs remain operational in the strip, most of the them in the southern city of Rafah
  • Now residents say Israel’s offensive in Rafah has dried up supplies again and stoked prices

CAIRO/GENEVA/BERLIN: A shortage of banknotes is gripping Gaza, fueling criminal gangs and profiteering, after Israel has blocked imports of cash and most banks in the enclave have been damaged or destroyed during the war, according to residents, aid workers and banking sources.
After more than 7 months of Israeli bombardment, just a handful of ATMs remain operational in the strip, most of the them in the southern city of Rafah, where some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has ordered civilians to evacuate parts of the southern city, sparking fears of a looming offensive. Its tanks entered residential districts there on Tuesday.
Supplies of basic goods had returned to some markets in April and early May for the first time in months after Israel ceded to international pressure to let in more aid trucks amid famine warnings.
But residents and aid workers say that many people haven’t had the cash to purchase them. Now residents say Israel’s offensive in Rafah has dried up supplies again and stoked prices.
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of desperate people crowd outside ATMs, often waiting days for access. Armed gangs sometimes demand a fee to provide priority access, exploiting the absence of Palestinian police, three Western aid workers and seven residents told Reuters.
Abu Ahmed, 45, a resident of Rafah, said he had waited for as long as seven days and became so frustrated that he turned for help to gang members, who are sometimes armed with knives and guns.
“I paid 300 shekels ($80) of my salary to one of them for accessing the ATM and getting my cash,” said Abu Ahmed, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals. He earns 3,500 shekels per month as a public servant.
The three Western aid workers described the gangs as improvised groups that have sprung up across the Strip up as desperation has grown.
As of May 13, only 5 branches and 7 ATMs remain operational in the strip, primarily in Rafah, according to the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, a non-profit organization headquartered in the West Bank. Before the war, Gaza had 56 bank branches and 91 ATMs.
The conflict erupted after an Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, in which some 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 taken hostage. Israel’s assault on Gaza, aimed at destroying Hamas and returning the hostages, has killed at least 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
The Palestinian economy runs on the Israeli shekel. Gaza’s financial system is almost completely dependent on Israel, which must approve major transfers and the movement of cash into the enclave, bankers said.
Israel has blocked cash imports to Gaza since the start of the war in October, according to the Palestine Monetary Authority (PMA) and the Association of Banks in Palestine (ABP), a non-profit based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Adnan Alfaleet, the Gaza district manager of Palestine Islamic Bank, which operates the biggest Islamic banking network in the Palestinian Territories, said his bank has no cash left in Gaza.
“We reached the point of complete lack of liquidity now. It can’t get worse,” he said.
The Israeli central bank did not respond to questions about whether transfers had been blocked. It said there were no Israeli banks in Gaza and shekels had circulated there in the past because of trade with and Palestinian workers in Israel.
COGAT, an Israeli Defense Ministry agency tasked with coordinating aid deliveries into the Palestinian territories, did not respond to Reuters’ questions.

POLICE KILLED
Ismail Al-Thawabta, the director of the Hamas-run government media office, said the Palestinian police were trying to protect ATM machines, despite coming under fire from Israeli forces.
A Hamas official, who declined to be named, said police were keeping a low profile and only making surprise raids or patrols at certain locations after officers had been targeted in Israeli strikes.
In February, the top US diplomat involved in humanitarian assistance to Gaza said Israeli forces had killed Palestinian police protecting a UN convoy.
The IDF did not respond to a request for comment on whether its forces have targeted police officers. Reuters could not determine how many police officers have been killed during the war.
Residents said some merchants are profiteering from the shortage. Some money exchange store owners, who can cash Western Union transfers, and even some pharmacists who have credit card machines, were charging heft commissions for access to money, according to two sources.
Azmi Radwan, a union representative of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, said some merchants were charging its staff in Gaza City and the north commission of 20 percent or 30 percent to cash their salaries for them, in the absence of banks.
“This is very dangerous,” he said. “A quarter of the salary that is supposed to feed one’s children is going to these merchants.”
UNRWA employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza.
Sometimes money changers, after deducting a fee, will then say there are no shekels available and make payments in dollars at an unfavorable exchange rate, according to resident Abu Muhey, who also asked not to be identified by his full name for security reasons.

STUCK IN VAULTS
Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of shekels are stranded inside bank vaults in northern Gaza due to a lack of armored vehicles and fear of looting, according to three UN and banking sources.
Bashar Odeh Yasin, director general of Association of Banks in Palestine (ABP), said the situation remains too unsafe for bank employees or international bodies to transfer the money.
“There’s a real problem in transferring cash from northern Gaza to the south and in bringing in cash from outside the Gaza Strip,” he said.
The number of bank notes in circulation has been further diminished by wear and tear as well as people taking them out when they leave, residents said.
Essential goods such as medicine remain chronically scarce in the enclave, which is also plagued by lengthy power shortages and lack of fuel.
The World Food Programme warned in April of the risk of famine in northern parts of Gaza. Israel this week opened a third crossing to allow more humanitarian aid into the north, but it has shut two checkpoints in the south, including the vital Rafah crossing into Egypt, halting aid deliveries there.
Monday saw fierce fighting in north and south Gaza. Efforts by Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators to secure a ceasefire have so far failed.
“There’s more food, which is provided, but there is definitely a lack of cash for people to buy it,” said Rik Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) representative to the Palestinian territory.
Many people were trading canned food or other aid for items they were missing, or selling them for cash, residents told Reuters.
Aya, a resident of Gaza City who was displaced first to Rafah and then central Gaza by Israeli operations, received ten blankets in aid packages. As her family already had some, she sold 8 of the blankets to buy her sisters and brothers chocolate and Nescafe, she said.
“Despite the misery, I tried to make them feel happy,” she said.


Blinken tells Israeli officials of need to avoid further escalation with Lebanon

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Blinken tells Israeli officials of need to avoid further escalation with Lebanon

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli officials during a meeting on Thursday of the need to avoid further escalation in Lebanon amid the war in Gaza, the State Department said.
Blinken was meeting Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs.


Iran’s presidential candidates talk economic policies in 2nd live debate ahead of June 28 vote

Updated 21 June 2024
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Iran’s presidential candidates talk economic policies in 2nd live debate ahead of June 28 vote

  • Qalibaf is a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard

TEHRAN, Iran: In the second live debate on state television, six presidential candidates on Thursday discussed Iran’s economic problems ahead of the country’s June 28 election following a helicopter crash last month that killed President Ebrahim Raisi and seven others.
It was the second of five debates planned in the days before the vote in a shortened campaign to replace Raisi, a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once floated as a possible successor to the 85-year-old cleric.
Like the first debate, the second one also related to economics with the candidates discussing their proposals for Iran’s spiraling economy which is struggling under sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations.
The candidates also discussed inflation, the budget deficit, fuel consumption subsidies and education. They all promised to try to get the sanctions lifted and to introduce reforms, but none offered concrete details.
“Negotiation is a method of struggle,” said prominent candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 62, with regards to getting the Western sanctions on Iran lifted. Qalibaf is a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
He emphasized the destructiveness of the sanctions on the economy and said that Iranians have a right to a good life, not just an ordinary life.
Iran’s vice president, Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, 53, said he will continue Raisi’s unfinished administration and vowed to develop the tourism industry.
Regarding the health sector and the emigration of doctors and nurses abroad, Qalibaf said there should be a fundamental change in the way health workers are paid to increase the motivation to stay.
Many doctors and nurses reportedly have left Iran in recent years over its deepening economic woes and poor working conditions. Qalibaf’s call for more pay for health workers was repeated by the other candidates.
All the candidates said they believe the Education Ministry is the most important part of the government because “the next generation of the country is raised in this ministry.” Qalibaf said the ministry’s budget must be increased.
The one pro-reform candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, who is backed by pro-reform figures such as former President Mohammad Khatami and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, thinks the economic crisis can be resolved by solving party differences inside the country as well as external factors.
The June 28 election comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, its arming of Russia in that country’s war on Ukraine and its wide-reaching crackdowns on dissent.
Iran’s support of militia proxy forces throughout the wider Middle East, meanwhile, has been increasingly in the spotlight as Iran-backed Yemen’s Houthi rebels attack ships in the Red Sea over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

 


South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

Updated 21 June 2024
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South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

  • The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people

JUBA, South Sudan: South Sudan ‘s vice president said Thursday that peace talks in neighboring Kenya have failed to acknowledge the country’s peace agreement established in 2018, alleging a new draft agreement is aimed at replacing the original peace deal.
Riek Machar in a protest letter to the talks’ mediator said the draft established alternative institutions to replace or run in parallel with those established by the previous peace agreement. He added that the current peace talks should complement and not obliterate the original deal.
The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people. Machar and Kiir were on opposite sides in the war and Machar was appointed vice president after the 2018 deal. His group isn’t part of the current talks, which are for groups that were not included in the 2018 agreement.
Despite the peace deal, violence in South Sudan has continued, most of it attributed to rebel groups and warring ethnic groups.
The body mandated with monitoring the implementation of the 2018 peace deal raised concerns in May over the slow implementation of election related tasks with only a few months left until December elections.
Opposition groups that were not part of the 2018 peace agreement have been in talks in Kenya since May 9 aimed at bringing groups on board ahead of the December elections.
The talks have resulted in a draft agreement that recommends an extension of the transitional period to provide more time for election preparations.
President Kiir on Thursday received a progress report from government representatives in the ongoing talks with the government spokesperson telling media that participants in the talks are close to reaching a final agreement.

 


Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

Updated 21 June 2024
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Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

  • Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said Sunday that it was establishing a new safe corridor to deliver aid into southern Gaza. But days later, this self-declared “tactical pause” has brought little relief to desperate Palestinians.
The United Nations and international aid organizations say a breakdown in law and order has made the aid route unusable.
With thousands of truckloads of aid piled up, groups of armed men are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media on the issue.
He said lawlessness has emerged as the main obstacle to aid distribution in southern Gaza — where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from Rafah, or more than half of Gaza’s entire population, are now sheltering in tent camps and cramped apartments without adequate food, water, or medical supplies.
Here is a closer look at the security challenges facing the UN and aid organizations.
Israel’s ‘tactical pause’ stymied
Israel said Sunday it would observe daily pauses in combat along a route stretching from Kerem Shalom — the strip’s only operational aid crossing in the south — to the nearby city of Khan Younis. Before the pause, aid organizations had reported that the need to coordinate trucks’ movement with the Israelis in an active combat zone was slowing aid distribution.
The UN official familiar with the aid effort said that there has been no sign of Israeli activity along the route. The UN tried to send a convoy of 60 trucks down the road Tuesday to pick up aid at Kerem Shalom. But 35 of the trucks were intercepted by armed men, the official said.
In recent days, armed men have moved closer to the crossing and set up roadblocks to halt trucks loaded with supplies, the UN official said. They have rifled through the pallets in search of smuggled cigarettes, a rare luxury in a territory where a single smoke can go for $25.
The surge in lawlessness is a result of growing desperation in Gaza and the power vacuum that left by Hamas’s waning power over the territory, said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza who is now in Cairo.
With the territory’s police force targeted by Israel, he said, crime has reemerged as an untreated issue in Gaza.
“After Hamas came to power, one of the things that they brought under their control was the lawlessness of the so-called big clans,” said Abusada. “Now, that’s left for the Palestinians on their own to deal with it. So once again, we are seeing shootings between families, there are thefts, all the bad things are happening.”
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, used to deploy local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah, the agency said.
Israel says the police are legitimate targets because they are controlled by Hamas.
Is any aid still getting into Gaza?
The situation has largely paralyzed aid distribution to the south — particularly since Gaza’s nearby Rafah crossing with Egypt was closed when Israel invaded the city early last month.
The UN official said that 25 trucks of flour used the route Tuesday. Some private commercial trucks also got through — many of which used armed security to deter groups seeking to seize their cargo. An AP reporter stationed along the road Monday saw at least eight trucks pass by, armed security guards riding on top.
Before Israel’s offensive into the city of Rafah, hundreds of fuel trucks routinely entered the area.
The UN has now begun rerouting some fuel trucks through northern Gaza. Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman, said five fuel trucks entered Gaza Wednesday. The UN humanitarian office reported that these were the first fuel deliveries since early June and supplies remain scarce.
Aid groups say only a ceasefire and a reopening of the Rafah crossing could significantly increase aid flow to the area.
The military body in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, COGAT, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Security concerns also afflict aid from US pier project
The US installed a pier off Gaza’s coast last month, aiming to provide an additional route for aid to enter Gaza. But the ambitious project has suffered repeated logistical and security setbacks.
Cyprus, a partner in the effort, said the pier was up and running again Thursday after being detached for a second time last week because of rough seas. COGAT said Thursday there were “hundreds of aid pallets awaiting collection and distribution by the UN aid agencies.”
But there, too, security concerns are hindering distribution of aid.
The UN suspended its cooperation with the pier on June 9 – a day after rumors swirled that the Israeli military had used the area in a hostage rescue operation that left over 270 Palestinians dead. Photos of the operation have shown an Israeli helicopter in the vicinity of the pier.
Both Israel and the US deny the pier was used in the operation. But the perception that the pier was used for military purposes could endanger humanitarian workers, and threaten humanitarian groups’ principles of of neutrality, the UN says.
Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders.
UN and other humanitarian officials, including Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, met with Israel’s military chief and COGAT officials this week to seek solutions.
USAID said afterward that the meeting ended with promises of specific actions, but gave no details.


Lebanon’s Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?

Updated 20 June 2024
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Lebanon’s Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?

  • Many of the Shiite Muslim group’s weapons are Iranian, Russian or Chinese models

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah has drawn on an expanded arsenal in ongoing hostilities with Israel, with leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah saying in a speech on Wednesday the Iran-backed group had obtained new weapons.
He did not identify the new weapons, but said they would “emerge in the field.”
Hezbollah’s latest conflict with Israel, which has raged in parallel with the Gaza war, has raised concerns of further escalation between the regional enemies, which last fought a major war in 2006.
Here is a snapshot of Hezbollah’s arsenal:

AN OVERVIEW
Hezbollah’s military strength is underpinned by upwards of 150,000 missiles and rockets of various types and ranges, according to the World Factbook of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Hezbollah says it has rockets that can hit all areas of Israel. Many of them are unguided, but it also has precision missiles, drones and anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.
Hezbollah’s main supporter and weapons supplier is Iran. Analysts say Tehran sends arms to the group by land via Iraq and Syria, both Middle Eastern countries where Iran has close ties and influence. Many of the Shiite Muslim group’s weapons are Iranian, Russian or Chinese models.
Nasrallah said in 2021 the group has 100,000 fighters. The CIA World Factbook says it was estimated in 2022 to have up to 45,000 fighters, split between roughly 20,000 full-time and 25,000 reserve personnel.

ANTI-TANK MISSILES
Hezbollah used guided anti-tank missiles extensively in the 2006 war. It has deployed guided rockets again in the latest hostilities. These include the Russian-made Kornet.
Hezbollah has also used an Iranian-made guided missile known as “al-Mas,” according to a report by the pro-Iran Arabic broadcaster Al-Mayadeen.
A report by Israel’s Alma Research and Education Center published in April described the Al-Mas as an anti-tank weapon that can hit targets beyond the line of sight following an arched trajectory, enabling it to strike from above.
The missile is part of a family of weapons made by Iran through reverse engineering based on the Israeli Spike missile family, the report said. It said the missile was a “flagship product” of Iran’s defense industry in Hezbollah’s possession.
ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILES
Hezbollah said on June 6 it had fired at an Israeli warplane. A source familiar with its arsenal said it was the first time the group had done so, calling it a milestone, while declining to identify the weapon used.
Hezbollah has also shot down Israeli drones during this conflict using surface-to-air missiles.
The first such incident was on Oct. 29 when Hezbollah for the first time said it had used anti-aircraft weaponry it had long been thought to have.
Hezbollah has used such missiles several times since, downing Israeli Hermes 450 and Hermes 900 drones.

DRONES
Hezbollah has repeatedly launched explosive one-way drones, including in some of its more complicated attacks. It launched some to distract Israeli air defenses, while explosives-laden drones were flown at targets.
More recently, the group has announced attacks that use drones that drop bombs and return to Lebanon, rather than just flying at their targets.
Hezbollah’s drones include what it says are the locally-assembled Ayoub and Mersad models, which analysts say are cheap and relatively easy to produce.

LAND-ATTACK ROCKETS AND MISSILES
Unguided rockets comprised the bulk of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal in the last war with Israel in 2006, when the group fired about 4,000 of them into Israel — mostly Russian-made Katyusha-style missiles with a range of up to 30 km (19 miles).
Nasrallah has said the biggest change in Hezbollah’s arsenal since 2006 is the expansion of its precision guidance systems.
In 2022, he said Hezbollah had the ability within Lebanon to retrofit thousands of rockets with guidance systems to make them precision missiles.
Hezbollah has Iranian models, such as Raad (Arabic for Thunder), Fajr (Dawn) and Zilzal (Earthquake) rockets, which have a more powerful payload and longer range than Katyushas.
Rockets fired by Hezbollah at Israel during the Gaza conflict since October have included Katyushas and Burkan (volcano) missiles with an explosive payload of 300-500 kg.
Its Iranian-made Falaq 2 rockets it used for the first time on June 8, could carry a bigger warhead than the Falaq 1 used in the past.
Hinting at the damage it could do, Nasrallah in 2016 made a veiled threat that Hezbollah could hit ammonia storage tanks in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, saying the result would be “like a nuclear bomb.”

ANTI-SHIP MISSILES
Hezbollah first proved it had anti-ship missiles in 2006, when it hit an Israeli warship 16 km (10 miles) off the coast, killing four Israeli personnel and damaging the vessel.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has acquired the Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missile with a range of 300 km (186 miles), sources familiar with its arsenal say. Hezbollah has not confirmed it has the weapon.
Hezbollah has also broadcast videos that it says show more of the same type of anti-ship missile used in 2006.