Frankly Speaking: What will it take to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

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Updated 07 August 2023
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Frankly Speaking: What will it take to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

Frankly Speaking: What will it take to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel?
  • Professor Yossi Mekelberg of Chatham House says Israel must meet the Arab Peace Initiative conditions for dream of Saudi normalization to materialize
  • Says Israeli PM wants to leave a legacy of peace with normalization deals while trying to appease ultra-rightwing political parties

DUBAI: Israel has to meet the conditions set out in the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Riyadh in 2002 for any dreams of normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia to materialize, Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, has said.

Appearing in the latest episode of “Frankly Speaking,” the weekly Arab News current affairs show, Mekelberg said that the Arab Peace Initiative is “as relevant today as it was 21 years ago” as a means of ending the conflict and achieving normalization.




Professor Yossi Mekelberg appears on the Frankly Speaking show hosted by Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

In a recent column for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman reckoned that a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal would force the ultra-rightwing elements in the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose between annexing further Palestinian territory and accepting peace with the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist should know the significance of this potential development: it was he who revealed details of King Abdullah’s initiative in a famous column back in 2002.

The Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah in 2002, was endorsed by the Arab League the same year at the Beirut Summit. It was re-endorsed at the 2007 and at the 2017 Arab League summits.

It offered normalization of Arab-Israeli relations in return for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied Arab territories, a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“I think it’s actually Saudi Arabia at the time that set the right tone for normalization with Israel — that it is something that is desirable, it’s something that is possible,” Mekelberg said.

“But at the same time, there is one condition, and the condition is that Israel and the Palestinians resolve all their outstanding issues.

“Just to remind the viewers that this was in 2002, it was at the height of the second intifada, when this (breakthrough) didn’t look possible. But it could have been a real breakthrough given the right approach by Riyadh.

“Israel actually rejected the offer that was translated into the whole declaration. I think this is as relevant today as it was relevant 21 years ago. And possibly that should be the direction.”

Saudi Arabia and several other states still want to see the Arab Peace Initiative implemented before they agree to consider formal normalization with Israel.

According to Friedman, any US-brokered deal that seeks to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would require Washington to give Riyadh certain security guarantees as well. He said that the deal could fail to materialize if Democrats in the US Senate were put off by the anti-democratic turn taking place in Israel.

He urged US President Joe Biden and his administration to lean on their Israeli counterparts to rein in the government’s extreme agenda and its attempts to dismantle the Oslo peace process and the road map for a two-state solution.




US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC. (File/AFP)

“If I am interpreting what Friedman is saying, that it’s possible to change the mind of the very right wing, the Zionist religion party, people like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, and their supporters, that they will exchange the concessions that need to be made for peace, for this kind of normalization and acceptance in the region. If he is right and this is possible, why not? But I can’t see this happening,” Mekelberg said.

With the threat of a corruption trial looming, Mekelberg said, “Netanyahu can’t afford the government to fall … his main concern is to find a way to derail this corruption trial and prevent potentially going to jail.”

The US has been pushing for a Saudi-Israeli peace deal since President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom last year. Other high-level visits from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken this year have also focused on normalization efforts.

But while Blinken told the AIPAC Conference in Washington in June that any normalization “should advance the well-being of the Palestinian people,” it is unclear whether the US will push for a freeze on settlements or a promise never to annex the West Bank.

Reports from Axios suggest that the White House wants an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel before the end of the year to give the Biden administration a major boost on the campaign trail ahead of the 2024 elections.




US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy Summit in Washington. (File/Reuters)

Mekelberg said that “in principle, Washington can have great influence on Israel because of the close relationship alliance between the two countries,” but said he did not expect Biden to use this “influence or power … during (an) election year.”

Ultimately, Mekelberg argued, normalization would only be successful if Netanyahu and his government decide that the corruption trial “is secondary to normalization with Saudi Arabia” and that it is “important for the future in Israel. This is ensuring Israel’s security and prosperity in the long run.”

However, he added it would require Israeli political parties to “climb down from a very, very tall tree,” which would be challenging.

Mekelberg said that while any normalization “is a cause of celebration,” efforts by other countries in the region to improve diplomatic relations with Israel in the past have not yielded the desired results.




Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE sign historic accords normalizing ties between the Jewish and Arab states at the White House. (File/AFP)

He called the Abraham Accords in 2020 between Israel and countries including the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco a “positive development,” but added: “It (still) left you with the Palestinian issue. And this was the elephant in the room and remains the elephant in the room.”

Mekelberg believes that Israel has used the Abraham Accords to “feel more secure” and “to take even more risk” against the Palestinians. He said the underlying feeling in Israel’s government was that “the whole world doesn’t care about the Palestinians anymore. We can get normalization for free.”

The prospect of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel has stirred both anticipation and skepticism in recent weeks. Mekelberg believes that while diplomatic strides have been made, the road to full normalization remains rife with challenges.

While Netanyahu has long claimed normalization is a top priority for his government and one that could lead to the end of the Middle East conflict, Mekelberg raised concerns that Netanyahu is a “weak leader, held hostage” by his ultra-rightwing government.




Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. (File/AFP)

Saudi Arabia has consistently said that the success of a Saudi-Israeli normalization hinges on Israeli addressing the plight of the Palestinian people and creating a just solution they will accept.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman underscored this position in May at the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, saying that the “Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the Kingdom’s priorities.”

But while Saudi Arabia continues to push for Palestinian statehood and, ultimately, peace in the Middle East, Mekelberg appears skeptical of Netanyahu’s priorities.

He said that Netanyahu is “dreaming in public about having trains going all the way to Jeddah and Riyadh, but he forgets that it comes with certain things, certain concessions that he has to make until this becomes a reality.”

While normalization between historic adversaries “is possible,” he sees no evidence that Israel’s ultra-rightwing government will make the concessions needed for the Palestinians that will satisfy the Kingdom.

Mekelberg added that “Israel is in a huge crisis,” destabilized by the weekly protests and judicial reforms that critics say threaten the country’s democracy.

Because of Netanyahu’s new judicial reforms, “hundreds of thousands of people are in the streets, and (at) the same time, settlements are expanding. This is the most ultra-right government in Israel. So, normalization, yes, but probably not now.”




The host of Frankly Speaking Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

There are major concerns about the new political reforms that the Knesset has passed recently, namely legislation abolishing the “reasonable doctrine.”

Until now, Israel’s Supreme Court has been able to intervene when it feels the government is acting recklessly. But last month, all 64 government members voted to abolish the law. It means Israel’s government can override any Supreme Court decisions with a small majority.

The controversial reforms have divided the country, with weekly mass demonstrations and clashes with police since the start of the year. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part, with huge numbers arrested.

Mekelberg describes the judicial reforms as a “real danger” to Israel and accuses the current government of charting a path away from democracy.

Netanyahu, he added, is now stuck in a political quagmire where he wants to “leave a legacy ... of peace ...  with (the) normalization of Saudi Arabia (and Israel) and complete the Abraham Accords” while trying to appease his ultra-rightwing government, which is pushing for even harsher changes to the constitution.

 


Yemen’s Houthis freed over 100 war prisoners, the Red Cross says

Yemen’s Houthis freed over 100 war prisoners, the Red Cross says
Updated 58 min 8 sec ago
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Yemen’s Houthis freed over 100 war prisoners, the Red Cross says

Yemen’s Houthis freed over 100 war prisoners, the Red Cross says
  • The unilateral release comes more than a year after Yemen’s warring sides freed more than 800 prisoners in a major exchange in the country in April last year

CAIRO: The Iranian-backed Houthis rebels in Yemen on Sunday released more than 100 war prisoners linked to the country’s long-running conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
The unilateral release came more than a year after Yemen’s warring sides freed more than 800 prisoners in a major exchange in the country in April last year.
The release of 113 prisoners took place Sunday morning in the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa, the Red Cross said in a statement, adding that the released detainees were among those the ICRC visited and assisted regularly in their detention in the Yemeni capital.
“We hope this paves the way for further releases, bringing comfort to families eagerly anticipating reunification with their loved ones,” said Daphnee Maret, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Yemen.
One of the released detainees with health issues was transferred in an ambulance to his hometown inside Yemen, the ICRC said without elaborating.
The release was delayed by a day because of apparent logistical reasons, said Abdul-Qader Al-Murtaza, a Houthi official in charge of prisoner exchange talks.
Thousands of people are still believed to be held as prisoners of war since the conflict erupted in 2014, with others missing. The Red Cross viewed Sunday’s releases as a “positive step” to revive prisoner exchange negotiations.
“We are ready to play our role as a neutral intermediary in facilitating the release, transfer, and repatriation of detainees,” it said.
Yemen was plunged into a devastating conflict when the Houthis descended from their northern stronghold and seized Sanaa and much of northern Yemen, forcing the government into exile.
More than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, have died in one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.


Ahead of another donor conference for Syria, humanitarian workers fear more aid cuts

Ahead of another donor conference for Syria, humanitarian workers fear more aid cuts
Updated 26 May 2024
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Ahead of another donor conference for Syria, humanitarian workers fear more aid cuts

Ahead of another donor conference for Syria, humanitarian workers fear more aid cuts
  • Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have been pulled into poverty, and struggle with accessing food and health care as the economy deteriorates across the country’s front lines
  • id organizations are making their annual pitches to donors ahead of a fundraising conference in Brussels for Syria on Monday

BEIRUT: Living in a tent in rebel-held northwestern Syria, Rudaina Al-Salim and her family struggle to find enough water for drinking and other basic needs such as cooking and washing. Their encampment north of the city of Idlib hasn’t seen any aid in six months.
“We used to get food aid, hygiene items,” said the mother of four. “Now we haven’t had much in a while.”
Al-Salim’s story is similar to that of many in this region of Syria, where most of the 5.1 million people have been internally displaced — sometimes more than once — in the country’s civil war, now in its 14th year, and rely on aid to survive.
UN agencies and international humanitarian organizations have for years struggled with shrinking budgets, further worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and conflicts elsewhere. The wars in Ukraine and Sudan, and more recently Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip are the focus of the world’s attention.
Syria’s war, which has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of of 23 million, has long remained largely frozen and so are also efforts to find a viable political solution to end it. Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have been pulled into poverty, and struggle with accessing food and health care as the economy deteriorates across the country’s front lines.
Along with the deepening poverty, there is growing hostility in neighboring countries that host Syrian refugees and that struggle with crises of their own.
Aid organizations are now making their annual pitches to donors ahead of a fundraising conference in Brussels for Syria on Monday. But humanitarian workers believe that pledges will likely fall short and that further aid cuts would follow.
“We have moved from assisting 5.5 million a year to about 1.5 million people in Syria,” Carl Skau, the UN World Food Program’s deputy executive director, told The Associated Press. He spoke during a recent visit to Lebanon, which hosts almost 780,000 registered Syrian refugees — and hundreds of thousands of others who are undocumented.
“When I look across the world, this is the (aid) program that has shrunk the most in the shortest period for time,” Skau said.
Just 6 percent of the United Nations’ appeal for aid to Syria in 2024 has so far been secured ahead of Monday’s annual fundraising conference organized by the European Union, said David Carden, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.
For the northwestern region of Syria, that means the UN is only able to feed 600,000 out of the 3.6 million people facing food insecurity, meaning they lack access to sufficient food. The UN says some 12.9 million Syrians are food insecure across the country.
The UN hopes the Brussels conference can raise more than $4 billion in “lifesaving aid” to support almost two-thirds of the 16.7 million Syrians in need, both within the war-torn country and in neighboring countries, particularly Turkiye, Lebanon and Jordan.
At last year’s conference, donors pledged $10.3 billion — about $6 billion in grants and the rest in loans — just months after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkiye and much of northern Syria, killing over 59,000 people, including 6,000 in Syria.
For northwestern Syria, an enclave under rebel control, aid “is literally a matter of life and death” this year, Carden told the AP during a recent visit to Idlib province. Without funding, 160 health facilities there would close by end of June, he said.
The International Rescue Committee’s head for Syria, Tanya Evans, said needs are “at their highest ever,” with increasing numbers of Syrians turning to child labor and taking on debt to pay for food and basics.
In Lebanon, where nearly 90 percent of Syrian refugees live in poverty, they also face flagging aid and increasing resentment from the Lebanese, struggling with their own country’s economic crisis since 2019. Disgruntled officials have accused the refugees of surging crime and competition in the job market.
Lebanon’s bickering political parties have united in a call for a crackdown on undocumented Syrian migrants and demand refugees return to so-called “safe zones” in Syria.
UN agencies, human rights groups and Western governments say there are no such areas.
Um Omar, a Syrian refugee from Homs, works in a grocery store in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli — an impoverished community that once warmly welcomed Syrian refugees.
For her work, she gets to bring home every day a bundle of bread and some vegetables to feed her family of five. They live rent-free in a tent on a plot of land that belongs to the grocery store’s owners.
“I have to leave the kids early in the morning without breakfast so I can work,” she said, asking to be identified only by her nickname, Arabic for “Omar’s mother.” She fears reprisals because of heightened hostilities against Syrians.
The shrinking UN aid they receive does not pay the bills. Her husband, who shares her fears for their safety, used to work as a day laborer but has rarely left their home in weeks.
She says deportation to Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s government is firmly entrenched, would spell doom for her family.
“If my husband was returned to Syria, he’ll either go to jail or (face) forced conscription,” she explains.
Still, many in Lebanon tell her family, “you took our livelihoods,” Um Omar said. There are also those who tell them they should leave, she added, so that the Lebanese “will finally catch a break.”


Aid trucks from Egypt enter Gaza via Kerem Shalom crossing: media

Aid trucks from Egypt enter Gaza via Kerem Shalom crossing: media
Updated 26 May 2024
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Aid trucks from Egypt enter Gaza via Kerem Shalom crossing: media

Aid trucks from Egypt enter Gaza via Kerem Shalom crossing: media
  • All aid from Egypt is inspected by Israeli authorities and distributed via the UN

CAIRO: Aid trucks from Egypt began entering the Gaza Strip on Sunday through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, state-linked media Al-Qahera News reported.

A total of “200 trucks” had moved from the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, which has been shut since early May when Israel seized the Palestinian side of the terminal, to the Kerem Shalom crossing, some 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to the south.

Egypt has refused to coordinate aid through Rafah as long as Israeli troops control the Palestinian side.

But on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi agreed in a call with his US counterpart Joe Biden to allow aid through Kerem Shalom, the other entry point into southern Gaza, the White House said.

Al-Qahera News did not specify how many trucks had made their way through inspection into besieged Gaza, but said “four fuel trucks” had already crossed and were heading to hospitals.

All aid from Egypt is inspected by Israeli authorities and distributed via the United Nations.

The remainder of the 200 trucks were “expected to cross into Gaza today,” Khaled Zayed, head of the Egyptian Red Crescent in Al-Arish — where the bulk of aid arrives — said.


Hamas says it captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza

Hamas says it captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza
Updated 26 May 2024
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Hamas says it captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza

Hamas says it captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza
  • Al-Qassam Brigades spokesman: ‘Our fighters lured a Zionist force into an ambush inside a tunnel’
  • The Israeli military, in a statement, denied the claim of Hamas’ armed wing

CAIRO: A spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing said on Sunday its fighters had captured Israeli soldiers during fighting in Jabalia in northern Gaza on Saturday, though the Israeli military denied the claim.
The Hamas armed wing spokesman did not say how many soldiers had been abducted and showed no proof of the claim.
“Our fighters lured a Zionist force into an ambush inside a tunnel ... The fighters withdrew after they left all members of the force dead, wounded, and captured,” Abu Ubaida, the spokesman for Al Qassam Brigades, said in a recorded message broadcast by Al Jazeera early on Sunday.
The Israeli military on Sunday denied the claim by Hamas’ armed wing.
“The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) clarifies that there is no incident in which a soldier was abducted,” the military said in a statement.
Hamas released a video that appeared to show a bloodied person being dragged along the ground in a tunnel and photos of military fatigue and rifle. Reuters could not independently verify the identity of the person shown in the video nor his or her condition.
The comments by Abu Ubaida came hours after prospects for a resumption of mediated Gaza ceasefire talks grew on Saturday.
An official with knowledge of the matter said a decision had been taken to resume the talks next week after the chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency met the head of the CIA and the prime minister of Qatar.
The source, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, said it had been decided that “in the coming week negotiations will open based on new proposals led by the mediators, Egypt and Qatar and with active US involvement.”
A Hamas official later denied Israeli media reports the talks would resume in Cairo on Tuesday, telling Reuters: “There is no date.”
After more than seven months of war in Gaza, the mediators have struggled to secure a breakthrough, with Israel seeking the release of hostages held by Hamas and Hamas seeking an end to the war and a release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Nearly 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, Gaza’s health ministry says. Israel began the operation in response to Hamas-led militants attacking southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.


Scuffles erupt between police, protesters demanding return of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza

Scuffles erupt between police, protesters demanding return of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza
Updated 26 May 2024
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Scuffles erupt between police, protesters demanding return of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza

Scuffles erupt between police, protesters demanding return of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza
  • Israel says around 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more
  • Around half of the 250 hostages taken by Hamas and other militants have been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel

JERUSALEM: Scuffles between Israeli police and protesters erupted in Tel Aviv on Saturday after thousands gathered to demonstrate against the government and demand that it bring back the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza.
Meanwhile, a small US military vessel and what appeared to be a strip of docking area washed up on a beach near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, not far from the US-built pier on which the Israeli military said humanitarian aid is moving into the Palestinian territory.
Also on Saturday, Israeli bombardments were reported in northern and central Gaza.
Some protesters in Tel Aviv carried photos of the female soldiers who appeared in a video earlier in the week showing them soon after they were abducted during the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 started the war between Israel and Hamas. Some held banners reading “Stop the war” and “Help.” They called on the government to reach a deal to release the dozens of hostages still in captivity.
The protesters also called for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demanded new elections.
“We all saw the video, we could not stay at home after the government abandoned all these people,” said Hilit Sagi, from the group “Women Protest for the Return of All Hostages.”
Divisions among Israelis have deepened over how Netanyahu has handled the war against Hamas after the attack that killed about 1,200 people and saw 250 others taken hostage. Israel says around 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more.

Israeli police detain a protester during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on May 26, 2024, by relatives and supporters of Israelis taken hostage by Palestinian militants in Gaza in the October 7 attacks. (AFP)

“Basically they are not doing enough in order for the hostages to come back, either with military force, with (a) hostages’ deal, negotiating. Nothing is being done,” said Snir Dahan, uncle of hostage Carmel Gat, still in captivity in Gaza.
Earlier in the week, the bodies of three hostages killed were recovered from Gaza, Israel’s army said Friday. The army said they were killed on the day of the attack and their bodies were taken to Gaza. The announcement came less than a week after the army said it found the bodies of three other Israeli hostages killed on Oct. 7.
Around half of the 250 hostages taken by Hamas and other militants have been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel during a weeklong ceasefire in November.
Netanyahu’s government has faced increasing pressure, both at home and abroad, to stop the war and allow humanitarian aid into the enclave that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians, almost 80 percent of whom have been displaced.
Also this week, three European countries announced they would recognize a Palestinian state, and the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with Hamas officials.
On Friday the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to end its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and to open the nearby border crossing for crucial humanitarian aid. The top United Nations court also said Israel must give war crimes investigators access to Gaza.
However, the judges stopped short of ordering a full ceasefire across the entire Palestinian territory, and Israel is unlikely to comply with the court’s ruling. South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians during the war in Gaza, which Israel vehemently denies.
“We were hoping the war would end,” said Islam Abu Kamar, who moved from Gaza City to Rafah following the ground operation launched by Israel after the Hamas attack in October.
In the past two weeks, more than a million Palestinians have fled Rafah as Israeli forces pressed deeper into the city. Israel’s takeover this month of the Rafah border crossing, a key transit point for fuel and supplies for Gaza, has contributed to bringing aid operations to near collapse, the UN and relief groups say.
Israel says it needs to invade Rafah to destroy Hamas’ last stronghold. Egypt said it agreed to send UN humanitarian aid trucks through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, Israel’s main entry point into southern Gaza. But it remains unclear if the trucks will be able to enter because fighting still rages in Rafah.
Israel said aid is moving into the Palestinian territory through northern Gaza and via the US-built pier. On Saturday, a small US military boat and what appeared to be a strip of docking area washed up on a beach near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.
The US Central Command said four of its vessels supporting the humanitarian aid mission were affected by rough seas with two of them anchoring near the pier off the Gaza coast and another two in Israel.
US officials said no injuries were reported and the US is working with the Israeli army to recover the vessels, Central Command said.
American officials hope the pier at maximum capacity can bring the equivalent of 150 truckloads of aid to Gaza daily. That’s a fraction of the 600 truckloads of food, emergency nutritional treatments and other supplies that USAID says are needed each day to bring people in Gaza back from the brink of famine and address the humanitarian crisis brought on by the 7-month-old Israel-Hamas war.
Israeli bombardments continued in the enclave on Saturday with reports of strikes northern and central Gaza. Witnesses said people were killed in strikes on the cities of Jabaliya and Nuseirat.
More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and civilians.