Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest

Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest
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People protest in the Syria's southern city of Sweida on September 1, 2023. (Suwayda24 via AFP)
Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest
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People wave Druze flags during a protest rally in the southern city of Sweida, Syria, on Sept. 15, 2023. (Suwayda24 via AP)
Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest
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Thousands of Syrians staging a protest and waving Druze flags in the southern city of Suweida on September 15, 2023. (AP).
Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest
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People protest in the Syria's southern city of Sweida on September 1, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2023
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Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest

Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest
  • Faced with a ballooning budget deficit, the government has taken painful and unpopular austerity measures
  • Most Syrians in regime-held areas were already living below poverty line prior to recent fuel subsidy cuts

LONDON: Protests in the Syrian city of Suweida have been going on more than a month now, with crowds usually gathering in the central Al-Karama Square, calling on the government in Damascus to implement economic and political reforms.

On Friday between 3,500 and 4,000 people rallied in the southern city — the largest in nearly a month of anti-regime demonstrations that have intensified as Syrians reel from the economic impact of war.

The demonstrations in Suweida and nearby Deraa — where the 2011 uprising began — started after President Bashar Assad’s regime reduced fuel subsidies and raised gasoline prices by nearly 250 percent in August.

Hyperinflation is just one of the many problems Syrians are forced to deal with in their day-to-day lives. But it is no ordinary challenge given that an estimated 90 percent of Syrian citizens in government-held areas now live below the poverty line, and half the population faces food insecurity.

Aside from dire economic conditions and poor living standards, Syrians are also frustrated with their continuing lack of basic rights.

“Undoubtedly, recent economic decisions have sparked the protests, yet society is on the brink of turmoil because the problem extends beyond mere living demands,” Ayham Azzam, head of the Suweida-based Juzour civil society group, told Arab News.




People protest in the Syria's southern city of Sweida on September 5, 2023. (AFP)

The protesters have wider demands beyond economic ones, which include “political, social and civil rights, as well as public freedoms and the release of detainees,” he added.

On Friday, the media outlet Suwayda24 published videos showing thousands of men and women chanting anti-regime slogans and waving Druze flags. Although the protests remain confined to southern cities, observers said they are reflective of political sentiments prevalent across the country.

“While large-scale public demonstrations remain relatively scarce, there is a noticeable shift in the Syrian populace’s willingness to openly and boldly voice criticism of their government and leadership,” Camille Otrakji, a Syrian Canadian analyst, told Arab News.




A handout picture released by the Suwayda 24 news site shows people protesting in the southern Syrian city of Sweida on August 25, 2023.  (Suwayda 24 handout/AFP)

In August, the Syrian pound fell to a record low on the black market of 15,500 pounds to the dollar, according to state media. The official state bank rate is 10,800 pounds to the dollar.

The government has doubled public-sector pay, increasing the minimum monthly salary to 185,940 pounds, the equivalent of about $22. However, this has done little to lessen the privations experienced by those living in government-held areas, who have had to tighten their belts.

“By lifting subsidies, the government continues its withdrawal from supporting poor and needy households and proceeds further in transferring the economic burden onto civil society, expatriates and humanitarian organizations,” Mohammad Al-Asadi, a research economist for the Syrian Center for Policy Research who is based in Germany, told Arab News.


FASTFACTS

Protests erupted in the city of Suweida after the government slashed fuel subsidies.

Economic situation deemed worse now than at the height of civil war that began in 2011.


With about 70 percent of the Syrian population requiring aid, according to UN figures, local charities are struggling to meet the growing demand.

During a recent visit to Damascus, Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, warned that the situation in the country has “become worse than it was, economically, during the height of the conflict.”

Speaking in the Syrian capital following a meeting with Faisal Mekdad, the country’s foreign minister, he added: “We cannot accept that funding for Syria is going down while the humanitarian needs are increasing.




"When people are hungry they eat their leaders, they don't eat stones", screams one placard in Arabic during a demonstration against dire living conditions in the southern Syrian city of Sweida on August 23, 2023. (Suwayda 24 handout photo via AFP)

“For Syria, without addressing the political consequences of this crisis, the deep economic crisis and humanitarian suffering will also continue.”

Huda Al-Ahmad, 50, who is the sole breadwinner in her household, lost her job months ago. She said her family have suffered for more than a year since the Damascus-based charity Al-Mabarrat stopped providing basic foodstuffs to her neighborhood.

“Coffee used to be a daily necessity for every household in Damascus. It is now a luxury,” she told Arab News. “We never thought twice before buying it but now we cannot afford an ounce a month. It would cost 5,000 Syrian pounds to make three shots of coffee.”




Syrians waiting in a queue to buy bread at a shop in Binnish, in northwestern Idlib province. The current economic situation may be worse than it was during the height of the conflict. (AFP file photo)

Meanwhile, the daily commute to Damascus from Sitt Zaynab in Rif Dimashq, where Al-Ahmad lives, costs at least 4,000 Syrian pounds.

“My daughter and I have been ill for nearly a week, unable even to afford paracetamol,” she said. “We have not bought any kind of fruit, meat or dessert for almost a year unless we give up rice and wheat for a couple of months.”

Analysts believe policies that could boost economic activity, reduce tax evasion, combat corruption and cut military expenditure are infeasible as they would require political will, engagement with civil society in the decision-making process, and representative institutions.

“These prerequisites are impossible to reach under the existing socioeconomic and political structures,” said Al-Asadi.




The protests in Sweida province, the heartland of the country's Druze minority, began after the Syrian government ended fuel subsidies in August, dealing a heavy blow to Syrians reeling from war and a crippling economic crisis. (AFP)

Instead, he added, the current policies will “deepen (the) poverty gap, as tens of thousands of poor Syrian households are expected to fall way below the overall poverty line into extreme poverty. Lifting subsidies is the easiest and fastest way to reduce the budget deficit.”

Despite the rapidly declining living standards, nongovernmental organizations and the Damascus municipality recently collaborated on giving one of the capital’s public spaces a makeover.

Photos of the revamped Sabaa Bahrat (Seven Fountains) Square, in the vicinity of the central bank, recently went viral on social media, prompting critics to comment that it was distasteful to spend money on urban beautification when so many people in the country were experiencing power cuts and shortages of food and fuel.




This photo taken on June 17, 2020, shows a view of the Sabaa Bahrat (Seven Fountains) Square roundabout in front of the Central bank of Syria in Damascus. (AFP)

“The Sabaa Bahrat roundabout will not provide bread,” Al-Hussain Al-Nayef, chairman of the Syrian National Media Alliance, said in a message posted on Facebook. “What do we gain from this cultural achievement when the impoverished citizens anticipate real change — one that addresses their concerns and lost happiness?”

The renovation was fully funded by private donors, according to reports in January, which quoted Mohammed Eyad Al-Shamaa, chairman of the Damascus Governorate Council, as rejecting claims that the renovation work cost about 5 billion Syrian pounds.

Many local social media commentators said the funds should have been used to help feed the poor and install solar energy solutions to provide street lighting in Damascus, which, like much of the country, suffers regular power shortages.




In this picture taken during a demonstration in Sweida on August 21, 2023, a placard in Arabic reads: "Bashar al-Assad achieved victory only over his people but he didn't defeat Israel." (SUWAYDA24 photo via AFP)

“Syria’s GDP (gross domestic product) and its annual budget have dwindled significantly from their pre-Arab Spring levels,” said Otrakji, the Syrian Canadian analyst. “The Syrian government currently operates with severely limited financial resources, a situation that is far from sustainable in the long run.

“In this precarious financial state, Syria is poised to seek assistance, either from willing Arab states or by deepening its reliance on Iran.”

He lamented the fact that “beyond the stark divergence in expectations regarding the elusive political solution in Syria,” the country has become “a fertile ground for regional and international conflicts.”

He added: “Regrettably, none of these conflicts show signs of nearing resolution, further entrenching Syria as a battleground for competing interests.”




This picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on May 4, 2023, shows Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (C) attending a business forum in Damascus. (SANA handout via AFP)

Azzam, from the civil society group Juzour, is convinced that the Syrian regime is incapable of reviving the moribund economy without some progress on the political front.

“The country is in ruins — economically, socially, culturally and intellectually,” he said. “This has produced a pressing need for a fresh social agreement that marks a significant phase in which Syria is for all citizens and an integral part of the global community.

“Given the circumstances, all attempts to improve the economic situation will likely fail. And even if they do succeed, it would be a temporary, unsustainable success.”

 


Hezbollah targets Israeli barracks after Islamist commander’s death

Hezbollah targets Israeli barracks after Islamist commander’s death
Updated 4 sec ago
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Hezbollah targets Israeli barracks after Islamist commander’s death

Hezbollah targets Israeli barracks after Islamist commander’s death
  • Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily cross-border fire since the Gaza war erupted
  • On Saturday, the Jamaa Islamiya group announced the death of one of its commanders, Ayman Ghotmeh
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group said Sunday it had targeted a military position in northern Israel with an armed drone in response to the killing of an Islamist commander.
Israel and the powerful Iran-backed group, a Hamas ally, have exchanged near-daily cross-border fire since the Gaza war erupted on October 7.
Hezbollah’s announcement came hours after it published a video excerpt purporting to show locations in Israel along with their coordinates, amid heightening fears of an all-out conflict between the two foes.
On Saturday, the Jamaa Islamiya group announced the death of one of its commanders, Ayman Ghotmeh, saying he was killed “in a treacherous Zionist raid” in Khiara in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa area.
Israel later confirmed it had carried out the strike, saying Ghotmeh was responsible for supplying the Fajr Forces, Jamaa Islamiya’s armed wing, and Hamas with weapons in the area.
Hezbollah on Sunday said its fighters launched a strike “with an attack drone” on a military leadership position in the Beit Hillel barracks “in response to the assassination carried out by the Israeli enemy in the town of Khiara.”
The Israeli military meanwhile said in a statement that a drone had “crossed from Lebanon and fell in the area of Beit Hillel,” adding that “no injuries were reported.”
Cross-border tensions have surged over the past days, with Israel’s military announcing on Tuesday that a plan for an offensive in Lebanon had been “approved and validated.”
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah responded with threats that no part of Israel would be spared in the event of an all-out war.
The Lebanese armed group on Saturday evening published a video showing Israeli positions and coordinates, along with an excerpt of Nasrallah’s speech in which he says “if war is imposed on Lebanon, the resistance will fight without restrictions or rules.”
Days earlier, it had circulated a nine-minute video showing aerial footage purportedly taken by the movement over northern Israel, including what it said were sensitive military, defense and energy facilities and infrastructure in the city and port of Haifa.
The cross-border violence has killed at least 480 people in Lebanon, most of them fighters but also 93 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israeli authorities say at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed in the country’s north.

Merchant ship damaged by drone attack in Red Sea: UK agency

Merchant ship damaged by drone attack in Red Sea: UK agency
Updated 23 June 2024
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Merchant ship damaged by drone attack in Red Sea: UK agency

Merchant ship damaged by drone attack in Red Sea: UK agency
  • Vessels in and around the Red Sea have come under repeated attack for months by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen

DUBAI: A merchant ship was damaged by a drone attack in the Red Sea near Yemen early Sunday morning, though no injuries were reported, according to a British maritime security agency.
Vessels in and around the Red Sea have come under repeated attack for months by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who say they are acting in support of Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
The attack occurred about 65 nautical miles (120 kilometers) west of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, said the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy.

 


“The Master of a merchant vessel reports being hit by uncrewed aerial system (UAS), resulting in damage to the vessel. All crew members are reported safe, and the vessel is proceeding to its next port of call,” said a bulletin from the agency.
“Authorities are investigating,” it added, offering no attribution for the attack.
On Saturday, the US Central Command, which has carried out retaliatory strikes against the Houthis over their attacks on shipping, said it had destroyed three nautical drones belonging to the group over the past 24 hours.
It also said the group had launched three anti-ship missiles into the Gulf of Aden, but no injuries or significant damage were reported.


Israeli strikes kill at least 42 in Gaza, enclave’s government media office says

Israeli strikes kill at least 42 in Gaza, enclave’s government media office says
Updated 23 June 2024
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Israeli strikes kill at least 42 in Gaza, enclave’s government media office says

Israeli strikes kill at least 42 in Gaza, enclave’s government media office says
  • One Israeli strike on houses in Al-Shati, a historic refugee camp, killed 24 people
  • Another 18 Palestinians killed in a strike on houses in the Al-Tuffah neighborhood

CAIRO: At least 42 people were killed in Israeli attacks on districts of Gaza City in the north of the Palestinian enclave on Saturday, the director of the Hamas-run government media office said.

One Israeli strike on houses in Al-Shati, one of the Gaza Strip’s eight historic refugee camps, killed 24 people, Ismail Al-Thawabta said. Another 18 Palestinians were killed in a strike on houses in the Al-Tuffah neighborhood.

The Israeli military released a brief statement saying: “A short while ago, IDF fighter jets struck two Hamas military infrastructure sites in the area of Gaza City.”

It said more details would be released soon.

Exchanges of fire across the Lebanese border between Israel and the powerful Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah have also escalated in recent weeks, raising fears of an even wider war.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday that the cross-border hostilities must not turn Lebanon into “another Gaza,” warning of the risk of triggering a catastrophe “beyond imagination.”

His warning came as Israel stepped up its strikes in the Gaza Strip, where one hospital in Gaza City reported at least 30 dead on Friday.

Fighting continued Saturday morning, with witnesses reporting gunbattles between militants and Israeli forces in Gaza City.

And in the city’s Zeitun neighborhood, Israeli helicopters fired at militants, witnesses said.

The Israeli military meanwhile said troops continued to carry out operations in central Gaza “eliminating several armed terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure in the area.”

“Fighter jets and additional aircraft struck numerous terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including armed terrorists, weapons storage facilities, and additional terrorist infrastructure,” it added.

In southern Gaza, the ICRC on Friday said 22 dead and 45 wounded people were taken to a Red Cross field hospital after shelling with “heavy calibre projectiles” near its Gaza office.

“Firing so dangerously close to humanitarian structures puts the lives of civilians and humanitarians at risk,” the ICRC said on X.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory blamed the shelling on Israel, saying there were 25 killed and 50 wounded in the southern coastal Al-Mawasi area, where thousands of displaced people have been sheltering in tents.

An Israeli military spokesman did not acknowledge any role in the incident but said it was “under review.”

In the north of the Strip, the director of Gaza City’s Al-Ahli hospital was quoted by the territory’s health ministry as reporting 30 dead in strikes.

“It has been a difficult and brutal day in Gaza City. So far, around 30 martyrs have arrived at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital,” doctor Fadel Naeem was quoted as saying.

Civil defense agency spokesman Mahmud Basal said five municipal workers died when a garage in the city was bombed.

Lebanon-based Hamas ally Hezbollah meanwhile claimed a number of attacks on Israeli troops and positions near the border on Friday, including two using drones.

The Israeli army said it had carried out multiple retaliatory strikes on both days.

Israeli jets on Friday struck a “Hezbollah military structure in the area of Khiam, a Hezbollah military post in the area of Mais Al-Jabal, and Hezbollah terrorist infrastructure in the areas of Taybeh and Tallouseh in southern Lebanon,” the army said in a statement.

Experts are divided on the prospect of a wider war, almost nine months into Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Amid the escalating exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel’s military said Tuesday that plans for an offensive in Lebanon had been “approved and validated.”

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said “no place” in Israel would “be spared our rockets” in a wider war, and also threatened nearby European Union member Cyprus.

Citing the “bellicose rhetoric” on both sides, UN chief Guterres warned Friday that the risk of all-out war was real.

“One rash move — one miscalculation — could trigger a catastrophe that goes far beyond the border, and frankly, beyond imagination,” he said.

Israel’s ally the United States has appealed for de-escalation.

The violence on the Lebanon border began after the October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas militants from Gaza. That attack resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

As of Thursday, Israel’s retaliatory offensive had killed at least 37,431 people, also mostly civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Months of negotiations toward a truce and a hostage release have failed to make headway, but mediator Qatar insisted Friday it was still working to “bridge the gap” between Israel and Hamas.

The war has destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure and left residents short of food, fuel and other essentials.

On June 16 the army said it would implement a daily “tactical pause of military activity” in a southern Gaza corridor to facilitate aid delivery.

But on Friday Richard Peeperkorn of the World Health Organization said “we did not see an impact on the humanitarian supplies coming in.”

Hisham Salem in Jabalia camp said: “The markets... used to be full, but now there is nothing left. I go around the entire market and I can’t find a kilo of onions, and if I do... it costs 140 shekels ($37).”

Doctor Thanos Gargavanis, a WHO trauma surgeon and emergency officer, said the UN in Gaza was trying to “operate in an unworkable environment.”

According to the WHO, 17 of the 36 hospitals in Gaza are operational, but only partially.

Israel’s military on Friday identified two more soldiers killed in Gaza, bringing the death toll since ground operations began to at least 312.

The war has revived a global push for Palestinians to be given a state of their own.

Armenia on Friday declared its recognition of “the State of Palestine,” prompting Israel to summon its ambassador for “a severe reprimand.”


Algerian women pioneer eco-friendly farming

Algerian women pioneer eco-friendly farming
Updated 23 June 2024
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Algerian women pioneer eco-friendly farming

Algerian women pioneer eco-friendly farming
  • The plant ecology and biodiversity graduates now run one of the country’s rare ecological plots of land, where the produce is grown in harmony with the broader ecosystem and without using pesticides

ALGIERS: Ibtissem Mahtout and Amira Messous pick fresh strawberries and tomatoes on the eco-friendly smallholding the two women are working near Algiers, a pioneering initiative in Algeria’s male-dominated agricultural sector.
After graduating from university four years ago, they left the capital and started working on the small patch of land in Douaouda, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the west.
“As soon as I’m in the field I’m happy,” said Messous, 28, holding a bundle of fresh beetroot.
“From morning to night, we’re here. To me, it’s the most beautiful job in the world.”
The plant ecology and biodiversity graduates now run one of the country’s rare ecological plots of land, where the produce is grown in harmony with the broader ecosystem and without using pesticides.

Amira Messous (L) and Ibtissem Mahtout (C) speak to a customer at their vegetable and fruit stand during the Friday market at an educational farm in Zeralda on May 30, 2024. (AFP)

Messous said it was challenging at first to “have to integrate” into a sector in which most people who work the land are men.
According to local media, as of last October just four percent of workers registered with the Chamber of Agriculture in Tipaza province where their land is were women.
But some “male farmers are happy to see educated women working the land,” said Messous.
“They take the time to explain things to us, and it brings more value to their own work.”
Her 29-year-old partner, Mahtout, recalls that they launched the project with just 60,000 Algerian dinars (around $445) — “enough to buy basic tools” — after renting the patch of land.

With the help of Torba, an association that promotes ecological farming in Algeria, they “learned to plant, to sow, to work the soil.”
Today, their 1,300-square-meter farm even employs one male worker full-time — and up to eight part-timers at harvest time.
When they are not in the fields themselves, the two women make full use of social media to sell their produce.

Ibtissem Mahtout (C) speaks with a customer who has come to pick up or buy their produce, at the Friday market at an educational farm in Zeralda, west of Algiers on May 30, 2024. (AFP)

On Instagram, they advertise their baskets of seasonal fruits and vegetables each week, and take orders for the produce on WhatsApp.
Come Friday, the first day of the Algerian weekend, clients pick up their orders at a larger farm in nearby Zeralda, where other smallholders also sell produce including flowers.
“We want to eat something healthy from time to time,” said Fatma Zohra, a 72-year-old loyal customer and subscriber to the small farm’s social media account.
“I found these girls very nice, and when I discovered they sell to subscribers, I wanted to encourage them.”
Each week, the pair sell between 10 and 30 baskets of fruit and vegetables that are in season.
The farm in Zeralda where they market their produce is also educational, and runs themed programs for children.
In addition to the Friday farmers’ market, it is also a meeting space for local families and offers cooking classes, entertainment and cultural events.
 


Tens of thousands rally against Israeli government

Tens of thousands rally against Israeli government
Updated 23 June 2024
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Tens of thousands rally against Israeli government

Tens of thousands rally against Israeli government
  • Anti-government protest organization Hofshi Israel estimated more than 150,000 people attended the rally, calling it the biggest since the Gaza war began

TEL AVIV: Tens of thousands of protesters waving Israeli flags and chanting slogans against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday, demanding new elections and the return of hostages held in Gaza.
Large protests have occurred in the Israeli city on a weekly basis over Netanyahu’s handling of the nearly nine-month-old war in Gaza started by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.
Many protesters held signs reading “Crime Minister” and “Stop the War” as people poured into the biggest Israeli city’s main thoroughfare.
“I am here because I am afraid of the future of my grandchild. There will be no future for them if we don’t go out and get rid of the horrible government,” said 66-year-old contractor Shai Erel.
“All of the rats in the Knesset... I wouldn’t let any one of them be a guard of a kindergarten.”
Anti-government protest organization Hofshi Israel estimated more than 150,000 people attended the rally, calling it the biggest since the Gaza war began.
Some demonstrators lay on the ground covered in red paint in the city’s Democracy Square to protest what they say is the death of the country’s democracy under Netanyahu.
In an address to the crowd, a former head of Israel’s domestic Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin, condemned Netanyahu as Israel’s “worst prime minister.”
Many are frustrated with the country’s right-wing coalition, which includes Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and other far-right ultra-nationalists, accusing it of prolonging the war in Gaza and putting the country’s security and hostages at risk.
Yoram, a 50-year-old tour guide who declined to give his last name, said he was attending every weekly protest as Israel needed elections “yesterday” because of Netanyahu.
“I really hope that the government collapses,” he said. “If we go to the original date of elections in 2026, it is not going to be a democratic election.”
Hamas militants seized 251 hostages on October 7, of whom Israel believes 116 remain in Gaza, including 41 who the army says are dead.
A separate Tel Aviv rally on Saturday night drew thousands of relatives and supporters of the hostages.
The attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza has killed at least 37,551 people, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.