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Renewed Gaza combat thrusts Palestinians between mortal danger and mass displacement

Analysis Renewed Gaza combat thrusts Palestinians between mortal danger and mass displacement
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Updated 02 December 2023

Renewed Gaza combat thrusts Palestinians between mortal danger and mass displacement

Renewed Gaza combat thrusts Palestinians between mortal danger and mass displacement
  • Nearly three-quarters of embattled enclave’s 2.2 million residents have been forcibly displaced since Oct. 7
  • Overcrowding in camps and shelters for the displaced could lead to spread of disease and shortage of aid

LONDON: A weeklong humanitarian pause in Gaza provided some respite for Palestinians in the beleaguered enclave. But the situation remains overwhelmingly bleak and, after the resumption of combat on Friday, potentially catastrophic.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israel on Thursday it must account for the safety of Palestinian civilians before resuming any military operations in Gaza, where the temporary truce allowed the exchange of captives held by Hamas for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

However, with Israeli officials vowing to continue total war against Hamas, presumably both in Gaza and the West Bank, hope for any recovery has been offset by the imminent threat of further violence in the absence of a permanent ceasefire.




Military vehicles manoeuvre next to a fence, as seen from the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. (Reuters/File)

Since Oct. 7, when Israel launched a military offensive in retaliation for a deadly attack by Hamas, Gaza has endured destruction, displacement, and suffering on an unprecedented scale.

Relentless Israeli airstrikes have reduced entire buildings to rubble, flattening more than 46,000 homes and damaging at least another 234,000, according to UN figures.

The onslaught has forced nearly three-quarters of Gaza’s 2.2 million population from their homes, including the vast majority of the north’s residents.

Close to 15,000 Palestinians across the enclave have been killed, 40 percent of whom are children. A further 6,500 are believed to be missing or trapped under the destroyed buildings.

“Northern Gaza is a disaster zone where people feel it was a miracle to survive,” Ahmed Bayram, media adviser for the Middle East at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told ż.

“The sheer level of destruction and personal loss stretches beyond anything we have seen in Gaza. More people were killed in the first two weeks of this round of hostilities compared with the most recent large-scale conflict in 2014.”

INNUMBERS

• 1.7m Palestinians displaced inside Gaza as of Nov. 23.

• 7 Days of the duration of truce before combat resumed on Friday.

• 110 Hostages freed by Hamas from captivity.

• 240 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel.

Bayram said an estimated “1.7 million people have been displaced,” adding that “the few hundreds of thousands who remained in northern Gaza have done so because there is simply nowhere for them to go.”

Despite the seven-day suspension of hostilities, official Palestinian bodies and humanitarian organizations have been unable to pin down precise casualty figures, much less the number of people who could not leave northern Gaza.

“It has been very difficult to understand the numbers that remain in the north,” Oxfam’s policy lead Bushra Khalidi told ż. “From what we hear, it is between 200,000 and half-a-million still.”

She said an estimated 1.8 million people had been displaced to the south, “and they’re all crammed in this … what we could say, half the size of the original Gaza Strip.”

Following seven weeks of Israeli bombardment and Hamas rocket attacks, the two sides agreed on a four-day truce — which was later extended. The initial Qatar-mediated deal entailed the release of 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for 150 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.




Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip along Salah Al-Din Street. (AP)

On Oct. 13, the Israeli military ordered the residents of northern Gaza to relocate immediately to the south, claiming it was for their safety.

Local media and NGOs operating in Gaza reported that nowhere in the besieged Palestinian enclave was safe — not even the “humanitarian passages” identified by the Israeli military or Israel Defense Forces.

Families crammed their most necessary possessions into small cars and pickup trucks and traveled south in a rush. Others who could not secure vehicles made the journey on foot, shielding their children’s eyes from bodies in the street and hiding from Israeli gunfire as battles raged around them.

The only exit route for civilians escaping Gaza City was Salah Al-Din Road, the area’s main north-south highway that stretches across the entire Gaza Strip.

Israel agreed on Nov. 10 to pause its bombardment for four hours every day, allowing Palestinians in northern Gaza to flee through dedicated corridors.

Consequently, tens of thousands sought refuge in UN-run schools and makeshift tents in eastern Khan Younis, the biggest city in southern Gaza. Many voiced fears they would never return home.

Gaza’s older residents may see history repeat itself as they recall the Nakba, the Arabic term for the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians — the ancestors of 1.6 million of Gaza’s residents — during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Khan Younis already had a population exceeding 400,000. As displaced families flocked there the already severe humanitarian crisis worsened, as the Gaza Strip has been under Israeli blockade for 16 years.

Khalidi said these evacuation orders should be rescinded, as they represented “a grave violation under international law because it amounts to forcible displacement, and forcible displacement may amount to war crimes.”

In November, in what the chief of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described as a “recipe for disaster,” Israel proposed the establishment of a safe zone in Al-Mawasi camp on Gaza’s southern coast.

Al-Mawasi camp, according to Khalidi, is a 14-square-kilometer area “the size of London Heathrow Airport, where they (Israeli officials) want to cram 1 million people and call it a humanitarian safe zone.”

Dismissing the proposal as “absolutely inhumane,” she said: “But there’s no such thing as a safe zone. Historically, safe zones have been used to actually harm people.”

She noted that attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to some 1 million people in such a small area would be “a logistical nightmare.”

“Another thing about the safe zone is that you are talking about 30,000 to 50,000 injured people, some of whom have severe wounds,” Khalidi added.




Israeli flares light the sky above Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

“We are lacking medical supplies, and there are barely any hospitals running.”

She pointed out that other major concerns included the lack of a functioning water, sanitation, and hygiene system, which would accelerate the spread of infectious diseases such as gastroenteritis and diarrhea. This could “kill more people than bombs have.”

The WHO reported that, since mid-October, there had been more than 44,000 cases of diarrhea in Gaza, a particular risk for young children amid a shortage of clean water.

Conditions in places where Palestinians have taken shelter, such as Khan Younis and Rafah, have been no better — especially as winter weather sets in.

Opinion

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“Khan Younis and Rafah shelters are bursting with people crammed into small spaces,” Bayram said. “Sick babies, sick children, and sick adults are all at risk of transmissible diseases ahead of what promises to be the worst winter in Gaza’s history.

“There is not enough food for everybody, and even clean drinking water has become a luxury. People have resorted to burning anything made of wood — doors, school desks, window frames — just to cook something their children can eat or make some bread to keep them going for the day.

“There should be no place in this time and age for suffering like this,” he added.




Palestinians check the damage of a house destroyed in an Israeli strike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

And while the Hamas-Israel truce allowed Gazans to venture out, to scramble through the wreckage of their homes to look for warm clothes and recover more bodies, the looming threat of a broader Israeli assault persists.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly warned that military operations against Hamas would resume once the temporary ceasefire expired. Now the truce has ended, Israel is expected to expand its ground operation into the south.

In mid-November, the Israeli military dropped leaflets on parts of Khan Younis ordering residents to evacuate.

Bayram said: “There is nowhere left for people to go in Gaza. Some shelters house 50 people at a time. If Israel goes ahead with its ground operation, it means killing off any chance of Gaza ever recovering from this (catastrophe).”

Khalidi pointed out that the Gaza Strip was “as small as East London,” and the borders have been closed and controlled by Israel. “That is why the international community has been very vocal about a (permanent) ceasefire and allowing people to go home,” she said.

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Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels

Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels
Updated 10 sec ago

Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels

Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels
  • The attack comes as the Houthis continue a series of assaults at sea over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and as the US and its allies launch airstrikes trying to stop them

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A rocket exploded late Tuesday night off the side of a ship traveling through the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, authorities said, the latest suspected attack to be carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The attack comes as the Houthis continue a series of assaults at sea over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and as the US and its allies launch airstrikes trying to stop them.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center, which oversees shipping in the Mideast, reported the attack happened about 110 kilometers (70 miles) off the coast of the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida. The rocket exploded several miles off the bow of the vessel, it said.
“The crew and vessel are reported to be safe and are proceeding to next port of call,” the UKMTO said.
The private security firm Ambrey reported that the vessel targeted appeared to be a Marshall Islands-flagged, Greek-owned bulk carrier in the area at the time. Another ship, a Panama-flagged, Emirati-owned chemical tanker was nearby as well, Ambrey said.
The Associated Press could not immediately identify the vessels involved.
The Houthis typically take several hours to claim their assaults and have not yet done so for the assault late Tuesday.
Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters over the Israel-Hamas war. Those vessels have included at least one with cargo for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor, and an aid ship later bound for Houthi-controlled territory.
Despite over a month of US-led airstrikes, Houthi rebels remain capable of launching significant attacks. Last week, they severely damaged a ship in a crucial strait and downed an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars. The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition.

 


Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood
Updated 28 February 2024

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood
  • Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament

JERUSALEM: Israelis voted Tuesday in twice postponed municipal elections that could offer a gauge of the public mood nearly five months into the war against Hamas in Gaza.
Soldiers had already cast their ballots over the past week at special polling stations set up in army encampments in Gaza as fighting raged.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and closed at 10:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Tuesday, at which point turnout stood at around 49 percent, according to election authorities.
That was down from 59.5 percent in 2018.
Turnout in Jerusalem was 30.8 percent and in Tel Aviv it was 40 percent, the authorities said.
More than seven million people were eligible to vote in the elections for local councils across most of Israel, in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in Jerusalem and in parts of the annexed Golan Heights.
No major incidents were reported.
The vote, first scheduled for October 31, has been pushed back to November 2024 in towns and villages bordering the besieged Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where Hamas ally Hezbollah has fired rockets at Israel almost daily since the start of the Gaza war.
Nearly 150,000 Israelis have been displaced by hostilities in those areas.
Amit Peretz, 32, a Jerusalem city council candidate, said Jerusalem’s diverse make-up demands that “all voices are heard in the city in order to make everything work, because it’s very complex.”
Gita Koppel, an 87-year-old resident of Jerusalem, said she turned out because voting was “the only way you can have your voice heard.”
“I hope the right people come in and do the right thing for Jerusalem,” she said.
The elections were delayed after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of at least 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, most of them women and minors, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Two candidates for council chief in Gaza border areas were killed in the October 7 attack: Ofir Libstein in Kfar Aza and Tamar Kedem Siman Tov, who was shot dead at her home in Nir Oz with her husband and three young children.
In Jerusalem and other major cities, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidates aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies were running against government critics and more moderate candidates.
Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.
Tel Aviv’s mayor of 25 years, Ron Huldai, is seeking re-election in a race against former economy minister Orna Barbivai, who could become the first woman in the job.
Lawyer Amir Badran, an Arab candidate who had initially announced he would run for Tel Aviv mayor, quit the race before election day but was still vying for a city council seat.
In Jerusalem, another Arab candidate, Sondos Alhoot, was running at the head of a joint Jewish-Arab party. If elected, she would be the first Arab woman on the city council since 1967.
The elections for municipal and regional councils are largely seen as local affairs, though some races can become springboards for politicians with national ambitions.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who had a brief stint as prime minister before Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022, said Tuesday’s vote shows “there is no problem” holding elections even during the war.
In a post on social media platform X, Lapid called for a snap parliamentary election “as soon as possible” to replace Netanyahu.
Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament.
Palestinian residents make up around 40 percent of the city’s population, but many of them have boycotted past elections.
Second round run-offs will be held where necessary on March 10.


One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says
Updated 27 February 2024

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says
  • One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition
  • WFP “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau said

UNITED NATIONS: At least 576,000 people in the Gaza Strip — one quarter of the population — are one step away from famine, a senior UN aid official told the Security Council on Tuesday, warning that widespread famine could be “almost inevitable” without action.
One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting and practically all the 2.3 million people in the Palestinian enclave rely on “woefully inadequate” food aid to survive, Ramesh Rajasingham, director of coordination for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the council.
The World Food Programme “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau told the 15-member council.
“But in the meantime, the risk of famine is being fueled by the inability to bring critical food supplies into Gaza in sufficient quantities, and the almost impossible operating conditions faced by our staff on the ground,” he said.
The war in Gaza began when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s air and ground campaign in Gaza has since killed around 30,000 Palestinians, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.


US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning
Updated 27 February 2024

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning
  • “We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters
  • “The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path”

WASHINGTON: The United States called Tuesday for a focus on diplomacy to resolve tensions over Lebanon, after Israel warned it would pursue Hezbollah even if it achieves a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
“The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path,” he said.
“That’s what we’re going to continue to pursue and, ultimately, that would make military action unnecessary.”
Miller added that Israel faced a “real security threat” with thousands of people who have fled their homes near Lebanon, calling it a “legitimate issue that needs to be addressed.”
Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement which is backed by Iran, have been exchanging fire since October 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out a major attack inside Israel.
In retaliation, Israel launched a relentless military operation in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Raising fears of all-out war, Israel this week struck Hezbollah positions deep into Lebanese territory.
On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if ongoing diplomacy succeeds in reaching a Gaza ceasefire and the release of hostages seized on October 7.
France, with US support, has been pushing a plan in which Hezbollah and allied fighters would withdraw to around 12 kilometers (eight miles) from the border and Israel would halt attacks.


Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers
Updated 27 February 2024

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

AL-MEAIBDI, Iraq: Iraq enjoys tremendous oil wealth but many hard-scrabble farmers in the north say crude spills have contaminated their lands, piling on pressure as they already battle drought.

Amid the hills of Salaheddin province, puddles of the viscous black liquid pollute the otherwise fertile and green fields, rendering vast swaths of farmland barren.

“The oil has damaged all that the land can give,” said one farmer, Abdel Majid Said, 62, who owns six hectares (15 acres) in the village of Al-Meaibdi.

“Every planted seed is ruined. This land has become useless.”

Oil spills in Iraq — a country ravaged by decades of conflict, corruption and decaying infrastructure — have contaminated farmland in the northern province, especially during the winter rains.

Authorities blame the militants of the Daesh group who overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and were only defeated in Iraq three years later.

The group blew up oil pipelines and wells and also dug primitive oil storage pits, causing crude to seep into the ground, from where annual rains wash it out again.

But the local farmers also complain that the state has been too slow to clean up the mess.

In Al-Meaibdi and the nearby hills of Hamrin, authorities are struggling to find a sustainable solution to the problem, which adds to a litany of environmental challenges.

Iraq, also battered by blistering summer heat and severe drought, is ranked by the United Nations as one of the five countries most vulnerable to key impacts of climate change.

In Hamrin, layers of sludge pile up as excavators build up dirt barriers — a temporary measure to stem the flow of contaminated water onto farmland below.

The oil not only damages the soil and crops but can also pollute groundwater in the water-scarce country.

Said, the farmer, said “the soil is no longer fertile — we have not been able to cultivate it since 2016.”

Some other farmers had already abandoned their lands, he added.

He pointed to a green plot of land so far untouched by the spills and said: “Look how the crops have grown there — but not even a grain has sprouted here.”

Oil spills have contaminated 500 hectares of wheat and barley fields in Salaheddin, said Mohamed Hamad from the environment department in the province.

Hamad pointed to the reign of Daesh, which collected revenues from oil production and smuggling by building makeshift refineries and digging primitive oil storage pits.

He said the group blew up the pipelines and wells of the oil fields of Ajil and Alas, causing crude oil to flood and collect in the Hamrin hills’ natural caves.

Earlier this month, due to heavy rain, oil remnants again poured into agricultural lands, Hamad said, and “unfortunately, the leak damaged land and crops.”

Authorities have buried the group’s makeshift storage pits, Amer Al-Meheiri, the head of the oil department in Salaheddin province, told Iraq’s official news agency INA last year.

Yet during the heavy rains, the oil continues to seep out.

Iraq’s crude oil sales make up 90 percent of budget revenues as the country recovers from years of war and political upheaval, leaving it overly reliant on the sector.

The country boasts 145 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, amounting to 96 years’ worth of production at the current rate, according to the World Bank.

But for many farmers, oil has been a scourge.

Abbas Taha, an agriculture official in Salaheddin, said “oil spills have been occurring frequently since 2016.”

“Farmers suffer a great loss because they no longer benefit from the winter season to grow wheat,” he said.

Some farmers have filed complaints against the state demanding compensation, only to find themselves lost in Iraq’s labyrinthine judicial system, tossed from one court to another.

But Taha insists that authorities plan to compensate those affected in a country where agricultural lands are shrinking as farmers are abandoning unprofitable plots hit by drought.

Due to the severe water scarcity, authorities are drastically reducing farm activity to ensure sufficient drinking water for Iraq’s 43 million people.

Hamad said his department had contacted the relevant authorities to remove oil remnants that would eventually seep through the soil to contaminate groundwater and wells.

The soil also needs to be treated by removing the top layer and replacing it, he said.

“We urged the prime minister, the agriculture minister and the oil minister to compensate the farmers suffering from this environmental disaster,” said 53-year-old farmer Ahmed Shalash.