Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel

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Hezbollah fighters carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District of southern Lebanon on May 21, 2023. (AP/File photo)
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Hezbollah fighters carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District of southern Lebanon on May 21, 2023. (AP/File photo)
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Updated 24 June 2024
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Thousands of Iran-backed fighters offer to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel

  • Some advisers from Iraq are already in Lebanon, two Iraqi militia officials say
  • Israeli official says they are aware that there could be intervention by the Houthis and Iraqi militias and other jihadis 

BEIRUT: Thousands of fighters from Iran-backed groups in the Middle East are ready to come to Lebanon to join with the militant Hezbollah group in its battle with Israel if the simmering conflict escalates into a full-blown war, officials with Iran-backed factions and analysts say.
Almost daily exchanges of fire have occurred along Lebanon’s frontier with northern Israel since fighters from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip staged a bloody assault on southern Israel in early October that set off a war in Gaza.
The situation to the north worsened this month after an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Hezbollah military commander in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah retaliated by firing hundreds of rockets and explosive drones into northern Israel.
Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon if there is no negotiated end to push Hezbollah away from the border.
Over the past decade, Iran-backed fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan fought together in Syria’s 13-year conflict, helping tip the balance in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Officials from Iran-backed groups say they could also join together again against Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Wednesday that militant leaders from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries have previously offered to send tens of thousands of fighters to help Hezbollah, but he said the group already has more than 100,000 fighters.
“We told them, thank you, but we are overwhelmed by the numbers we have,” Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah said the battle in its current form is using only a portion of Hezbollah’s manpower, an apparent reference to the specialized fighters who fire missiles and drones.
But that could change in the event of an all-out war. Nasrallah hinted at that possibility in a speech in 2017 in which he said fighters from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan “will be partners” of such a war.
Officials from Lebanese and Iraqi groups backed by Iran say Iran-backed fighters from around the region will join in if war erupts on the the Lebanon-Israel border. Thousands of such fighters are already deployed in Syria and could easily slip through the porous and unmarked border.
Some of the groups have already staged attacks on Israel and its allies since the Israel-Hamas war started Oct. 7. The groups from the so-called “axis of resistance” say they are using a “unity of arenas strategy” and they will only stop fighting when Israel ends its offensive in Gaza against their ally, Hamas.
“We will be (fighting) shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah” if an all-out war breaks out, one official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq told The Associated Press in Baghdad, insisting on speaking anonymously to discuss military matters. He refused to give further details.
The official, along with another from Iraq, said some advisers from Iraq are already in Lebanon.
An official with a Lebanese Iran-backed group, also insisting on anonymity, said fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Afghanistan’s Fatimiyoun, Pakistan Zeinabiyoun and the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen known as Houthis could come to Lebanon to take part in a war.




Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march during Al-Quds or Jerusalem Day in Baghdad, Iraq on June 8, 2019. (AP/File photo)

Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, agreed the current fighting is mostly based on high technology such as firing missiles and does not need a large number of fighters. But if a war broke out and lasted for a long period, Hezbollah might need support from outside Lebanon, he said.
“Hinting to this matter could be (a message) that these are cards that could be used,” he said.
Israel is also aware of the possible influx of foreign fighters.
Eran Etzion, former head of policy planning for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a panel discussion hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute on Thursday that he sees “a high probability” of a “multi-front war.”
He said there could be intervention by the Houthis and Iraqi militias and a “massive flow of jihadists from (places) including Afghanistan, Pakistan” into Lebanon and into Syrian areas bordering Israel.
Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, said in a televised statement this past week that since Hezbollah started its attacks on Israel on Oct. 8, it has fired more than 5,000 rockets, anti-tank missiles and drones toward Israel.
“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,” Hagari said. “Israel will continue fighting against Iran’s axis of evil on all fronts.”
Hezbollah officials have said they don’t want an all-out war with Israel but if it happens they are ready.




Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US strikes on Yemen outside Sanaa on Jan. 22, 2024. (AP/File photo)

“We have taken a decision that any expansion, no matter how limited it is, will be faced with an expansion that deters such a move and inflicts heavy Israeli losses,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Kassem, said in a speech this past week.
The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, and the commander of the UN peacekeeping force deployed along Lebanon’s southern border, Lt. Gen. Aroldo Lázaro, said in a joint statement that “the danger of miscalculation leading to a sudden and wider conflict is very real.”
The last large-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah occurred in the summer of 2006, when the two fought a 34-day war that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 140 in Israel.
Since the latest run of clashes began, more than 400 people have been killed in Lebanon, the vast majority of them fighters but including 70 civilians and non-combatants. On the Israeli side, 16 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed. Tens of thousands have been displaced on both sides of the border.
Qassir, the analyst, said that if foreign fighters did join in, it would help them that they fought together in Syria in the past.
“There is a common military language between the forces of axis of resistance and this is very important in fighting a joint battle,” he said.=


Breakaway Turkish Cypriot state needs recognition, leader says

Updated 18 sec ago
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Breakaway Turkish Cypriot state needs recognition, leader says

  • The invasion’s aftermath effectively divided the island along ethnic lines, with some 170,000 Greek Cypriots fleeing the north to be replaced by some 40,000 Turkish Cypriots displaced from the government-held south

NICOSIA: The breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in north Cyprus hopes to end its international isolation, its leader Ersin Tatar told AFP in an interview, as the Mediterranean island marks fives decades of division.
“Every day, we are working for recognition,” said the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which Turkish Cypriot leaders declared in 1983 but which is recognized only by Ankara.
“Turkish Cypriots have been (put) under a lot of disadvantages — embargoes, isolation,” Tatar said in the interview conducted on Thursday.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Turkiye’s invasion of the north, five days after a coup orchestrated by the junta then in power in Athens sought to unite the whole island with Greece.
The invasion’s aftermath effectively divided the island along ethnic lines, with some 170,000 Greek Cypriots fleeing the north to be replaced by some 40,000 Turkish Cypriots displaced from the government-held south.
But international recognition has always eluded the Turkish Cypriots, with knock-on effects on the northern economy.
All flights to northern Cyprus have to make at least a stopover in Turkiye, hampering the development of large-scale tourism.
The rejection of a UN peace plan by Greek Cypriot voters in a 2004 referendum meant Cyprus entered the European Union that year still a divided island, with Turkish Cypriots denied the full benefits of membership.
“I would very much hope to see a resolution from the United Nations Security Council saying that we do recognize the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus,” Tatar said.
“Greek Cypriots are obviously having a bigger part of the cake. Tourism is prospering, their economy is prospering,” he added.
UN-backed efforts to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation have been at a standstill since the last round of talks collapsed in 2017.
The Turkish Cypriot leadership says that with the UN-backed reunification talks dead, a two-state solution is the only forward.
Greek Cypriot leaders say they remain committed to the UN-backed process.

The United Nations, whose peacekeepers patrol a buffer zone behind the former front line between the two sides, is pressing for talks to resume between the leaders of the two communities.
“All I want is concerted efforts to find a practical, fair, just and sustainable settlement. But on an equal basis, a sovereign equal basis,” said Tatar.
For Tatar, “1974 was a turning point for Turkish Cypriots, a new hope,” said the leader, who was a 13-year-old pupil at the English School in Nicosia at the time and on holiday in London when he heard the news.
Citing violence and discrimination against the minority community in the decade leading up to the invasion, he insisted Turkish troops landed to “protect the Turkish Cypriots.”
A controversial treaty between Britain, Greece and Turkiye that accompanied the island’s independence in 1960 gave the three powers the right to intervene to guarantee the island’s constitution.
The treaty also outlawed partition and the union of any part of the island with Greece or Turkiye.
“This is why we call it Turkish intervention as a result of the right given to Turkiye by the 1960 agreement,” Tatar said.
He said the Turkish troop contingent in northern Cyprus — around 40,000 soldiers, according to the United Nations — was a “deterrent force” that had “ensured that we had peace on the island.”
Despite the many challenges, “what we have achieved is basically to develop our state from nothing to a consolidated state with all the functions and faculties that you would have in any modern state,” Tatar said.
 

 


As bombs shatter Gaza, boxing coach emboldens girls

Updated 12 July 2024
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As bombs shatter Gaza, boxing coach emboldens girls

  • Gaza offered playgrounds, football, tennis, karate, and other sports before terrifying bombs began dropping from the skies, flattening entire neighborhoods

GAZA: Israel’s offensive in Gaza has pulverized most of its sports facilities and equipment, but that has not stopped boxing coach Osama Ayoub from training Palestinian girls in a tent camp that offers no protection from airstrikes or shelling.
The boxing club where girls once learned to jab, build their stamina, and make friends has been demolished.
There are no protective equipment, ring, or punch bags in the open-air sandy space between the tents where displaced girls now practice — a mattress and pillow will have to do — but Ayoub says the training has helped them overcome their fear of war.
“They started going out on the street. They started going out at night. Their personalities became much stronger, and even their families saw they were stronger,” he said.
It’s all about improvization. One young girl unleashes barehanded punches and weaves left and right to dodge imaginary fists. “Throw a right,” yells the coach, who puts up his fists for the girls to punch.
“They have determination, they have contentment, they have courage. At first, they were afraid of the war we are living in, but through boxing, they have benefited a lot,” he said.
Gaza offered playgrounds, football, tennis, karate, and other sports before terrifying bombs began dropping from the skies, flattening entire neighborhoods.
Attempts to restart sports are risky, even when played outside. On Tuesday, an Israeli missile slammed into a football match at a tent encampment, killing at least 29 people, Palestinian officials said.
Yet the boxers dream of international competitions overseas worlds away from Gaza. This tiny, densely populated enclave suffered from poverty and high unemployment even long before Hamas triggered the war on Oct. 7.
“I hope that this war will end and that our message will reach everyone in the name of the girls of Gaza,” said one of the boxers, Bilsan Ayoub.
The chances of that happening soon are slim. Months of mediation by the US, Egypt, and Qatar have failed to secure a truce between Israel and its arch-enemy Hamas, never mind a permanent ceasefire.
So, all the boxers can do is keep practicing as each side demands concessions from the other, and the conflict rages.
“We do not have anything left, being displaced. We do not have clips, gloves, teeth protection, said Ayoub, who has to improvise daily to keep her dream of international competition alive.
“The tools are very simple, but we want to continue in this game until we achieve our dream and end the war,” she said.

 


Israel ‘has pledged to improve safety for humanitarian workers in Gaza’

USAid Administrator Samantha Power speaks during a press conference in Port Moresby on August 13, 2023. (AFP file photo)
Updated 12 July 2024
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Israel ‘has pledged to improve safety for humanitarian workers in Gaza’

  • The UN says that since May, the amount of aid reaching Gaza to distribute has fallen to some of the lowest levels of the war

ASHDOD: The head of the US agency overseeing American humanitarian assistance worldwide said she has received Israeli pledges to allow aid workers to move more quickly and safely throughout the war-battered Gaza Strip.
In an interview, Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said that Israel has also taken new steps to increase the flow of aid through its port of Ashdod, just north of Gaza.
The move could give donors a new option for delivering aid as the US shutters its troubled maritime pier off Gaza’s coast.
Nine months into the war in Gaza, the announcement marked a small victory for international efforts to increase aid deliveries to the territory’s desperate civilians.
The Israeli offensive launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack has plunged Gaza into a humanitarian crisis. Over 80 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million people have been displaced, with most now living in squalid tent camps.
International experts say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.
“We have not seen the kind of humanitarian system to this point that has allowed humanitarians to move efficiently and safely to the degree that we need,” Power said.
“This week and through this visit, we have secured an agreement.”
“My whole career has been working in and around conflict areas,” said Power, a former war correspondent and US ambassador to the UN.
“I have never seen a more difficult conflict environment for humanitarians to work in.”
The UN says that since May, the amount of aid reaching Gaza to distribute has fallen to some of the lowest levels of the war. Israel says it places no limits on the entry of aid into Gaza.
But tons of supplies have piled up on the Gaza side of Israeli-controlled border crossings because the UN says it is unable to collect them for distribution.
Israel blames the bottleneck on UN logistical failures.
But UN and other aid officials deny that, saying that permit requirements from the military limit access to the site and that Israeli military operations against Hamas make it too dangerous to move around. Also, criminal gangs inside Gaza have looted aid trucks, adding another challenge for aid workers.
Power said her talks with the Israelis focused heavily on improving the system by which humanitarian groups and the military coordinate safe passage.
Throughout the war, humanitarian groups complained that the system was not working.
In one instance early this year, the Israeli military struck an aid convoy of World Central Kitchen, killing seven workers from the international charity.
Israel called the incident a tragedy and punished five officers.
Power said that for deliveries by the pier, a system was set up where the Israeli and US militaries and the UN could communicate more closely and immediately over the location of humanitarian workers.
She said the Israeli government had now agreed to extend that system across Gaza.
“Having a system lined up where those aid workers can convey their coordinates, their movements to the (Israeli army), and know that they are going to be safe in making those deliveries, that has not been an assurance that they have had throughout this conflict,” she said.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military or COGAT, the military body in charge of coordinating aid into Gaza. Power said it would take time to implement the changes, but the US is pushing for improvements “not a month from now, but a week from now.”
Power spoke after touring the Ashdod port, about 30 km from Gaza.
She said Israel is increasing its scanning capacity at the port to inspect goods bound for Gaza, which can then be delivered by truck through nearby Israeli crossings.
As the US prepares to shut down the temporary maritime pier, she said she expected Ashdod to play a bigger role in aid deliveries.
“I think there will be a maritime part of the humanitarian solution over time that will get bigger and bigger,” she said. “It will probably flow through this port.”
During the visit, Power also announced that the US pledged $100 million in new assistance to the Palestinians. USAID said the money would assist the UN’s World Food Program and help deliver “lifesaving humanitarian aid across Gaza.” Altogether, the US has donated $774 million to the Palestinians since the war began last October.
Power said the only way to improve conditions in Gaza dramatically would be through a cease-fire.
She blamed Hamas for holding up a deal and urged the militant group to accept the latest proposals being floated by international mediators.
“Hamas must accept the terms of the cease-fire, and then we will be in a position to flood the zone with humanitarian support on a scale that is just not possible when you have fighting,” she said.

 


UN chief says no alternative to UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

Updated 12 July 2024
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UN chief says no alternative to UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

  • Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long-called for UNRWA to be dismantled

NEW YORK: United Nations chief Antonio Guterres declared on Friday that there is no alternative to the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA and 118 countries backed the relief organization as indispensable, amid stepped up efforts by Israel to dismantle it.
The UN Relief and Works Agency provides education, health and aid to millions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Since war erupted nine months ago between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza, UN officials have stressed UNRWA is the backbone of aid operations.
“My appeal to everyone is this: Protect UNRWA, protect UNRWA staff, and protect UNRWA’s mandate — including through funding,” Guterres told an UNRWA pledging conference in New York on Friday. “Let me be clear: there is no alternative to UNRWA.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long-called for UNRWA to be dismantled, accusing it of anti-Israeli incitement, and Israel’s parliament is currently considering designating UNRWA as a terrorist organization.
Several countries halted their funding to UNRWA following accusations by Israel that some of the agency’s staff were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that triggered the Gaza war. Most donors have since resumed their funding, while the UN is conducting an internal investigation.
UNRWA has been hit hard during the conflict in Gaza — 195 staff have been killed.
“UNRWA is also being targeted in other ways,” Guterres said. “Staff have been the subject of increasingly violent protests and virulent misinformation and disinformation campaigns.”
“Some have been detained by Israeli security forces, and subsequently reported mistreatment and even torture,” he said, adding that in the West Bank the presence and movements of UNRWA staff have also been severely restricted by Israel.
The Israeli military has said it acts according to Israeli and international law and those it arrests get access to food, water, medication and proper clothing.
Israel accuses UNRWA of complicity with Hamas, saying the militant Islamist group was embedded within the UN agency’s infrastructure.
UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly in 1949 following the first Arab-Israeli war. Jordan’s UN Ambassador Mahmoud Daifallah Hmoud said on Friday ahead of the pledging event that 118 countries had signed on to a joint statement supporting UNRWA and its work.
The statement underlined “that UNRWA is the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza, and recognizing that no organization can replace or substitute UNRWA’s capacity.”


Palestinian released from Israeli jail ‘came back from the dead’

Updated 12 July 2024
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Palestinian released from Israeli jail ‘came back from the dead’

  • Abayat, a butcher by trade, was arrested without explanation on October 26
  • He was held at a prison in the Negev desert

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories: Muazzaz Abayat’s parents barely recognized their son lying in a hospital bed after being freed from nine months in Israeli detention, with his weight halved from his usual heavyset build, hollowed cheeks and shaggy hair.
“I came back from the dead,” the 37-year-old Palestinian, told AFP at a hospital in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
Abayat, a butcher by trade, was arrested without explanation on October 26, just over two weeks after the unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that sparked the Gaza war.
He was held at a prison in the Negev desert, officially under so-called administrative detention, which meant he could be held without charge or trial for an extended period.
“They arrested me at home, not surrounded by fighters but by my children and pregnant wife,” said Abayat, whose sixth child was born while he was in jail.
Detentions of West Bank Palestinians have soared since the war began on October 7, with regular use of administrative detentions.
According to the Prisoners Club, a Palestinian watchdog, about 9,700 Palestinians are currently in Israeli jails, including hundreds under administrative detention.
The NGO estimates that arrests have doubled since October 7 compared to the same period last year.
Violence has surged in the territory since the start of the Gaza war, with at least 572 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops or settlers, according to the Palestinian authorities.
At least 16 Israelis have also died in Palestinian attacks, according to official Israeli figures.
In a video that went viral on social media when Abayat was freed Tuesday, he is seen limping and leaning on a man to walk, while his right hand seems paralyzed.
“No human being on the face of the earth can imagine how life has been” he said, calling the prison where he was held, “the ‘Guantanamo of the Negev’,” after the US prison in Cuba used to hold detainees after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“We were unjustly detained, killed and severely beaten with iron clubs and subjected to all kinds of torture,” Abayat added.
Israel’s prison administration told AFP it was “not aware” of Abayat’s claims.
“All prisoners are detained according to the law. All basic rights required are fully applied by professionally trained prison guards,” an Israeli Prison Service (IPS) spokesperson told AFP.
“The prisoner was examined and treated medically by the IPS’ finest doctors throughout his incarceration.” The spokesperson said, Abayat could file a complaint if he wished.
Showing his bruised, bony legs, Abayat recounted beatings with clubs and chains, and said his body still hurt all over.
“They gave us 10 to 12 beans with pieces of cabbage, and we had to survive on that from 7.00 am until dinner time,” he said while explaining his dramatic weight loss.
A “before and after” photo montage of Abayat shared online shows a muscular man with a shaved head and trimmed beard — wildly different from the long dishevelled hair and messy beard of the man in the Bethlehem hospital.
“This is enough to tell what happened to me,” he said of the photos.
His father Khalil Abayat told AFP that his son “was a man who weighed about 100, 110 kilos (220 to 242 pounds) and was muscular.”
When Muazzaz stood on the hospital scale Wednesday, he weighed just 54 kilograms.
“When I saw Muazzaz, he was not the same Muazzaz my son was before his arrest,” said the father, shocked by the confusion his son seemed to suffer from.
“He doesn’t recognize me, he’s disorientated and his health is very low.”
Khalil added, however, that doctors had expressed confidence that Muazzaz’s condition would improve. The former detainee has started eating more.
From his hospital bed, Muazzaz admitted that he had “forgotten things.”
But he said he was not completely done with Israeli detention.
“I’ve left a small prison for the big prison” of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, he said.