No quick fixes for Arab countries as high grain prices pile on the fiscal pressure

Special No quick fixes for Arab countries as high grain prices pile on the fiscal pressure
1 / 2
Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July has led to fears of wheat shortages on the global market, causing prices for food staples like bread to skyrocket in import-reliant countries like Syria. (AFP)
Special No quick fixes for Arab countries as high grain prices pile on the fiscal pressure
2 / 2
A combine loads grain onto a truck during a wheat harvest at a field near Kivshovata village, Kyiv region, UKraine. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 11 October 2023

No quick fixes for Arab countries as high grain prices pile on the fiscal pressure

No quick fixes for Arab countries as high grain prices pile on the fiscal pressure
  • Import-reliant region has felt the pinch since Russia withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal and India banned rice exports
  • Governments urged to boost food system resilience by diversifying import sources, increasing domestic production

TUNIS: As the Israel-Palestine conflict once again flares up, threatening to plunge the Middle East into a new crisis, it does not mean that the other serious problems plaguing the wider region are petering out. If anything, they are likely to grow worse.

Many low- and middle-income Arab economies have been facing deteriorating food security conditions in recent months, after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative and India banned the export of white rice and sugar. Among the most vulnerable countries are Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, to say nothing of conflict-torn Syria, Sudan and Yemen.

Russia’s exit in July from the deal announced 12 months earlier has disrupted global grain supplies in general and wheat markets in particular. At the same time, global rice prices have skyrocketed since India’s decision, also in July, to halt exports of non-basmati varieties.

Egypt and Lebanon, heavily reliant on imported rice and wheat, are now grappling with food-financing challenges, while Sudan, which was already battling hunger and civil conflict, is in no position to import costly foodstuffs.

There has been a decline in Ukrainian grain exports since the deal was signed in 2022. (AFP)

In the face of these challenges, many are asking what food-insecure Arab countries ought to be doing to insulate themselves against the effects of future supply-chain shocks, to help keep prices affordable for their populations, and potentially localize a bigger slice of their food production.

“By reducing reliance on a single source, these nations can mitigate the risks of abrupt disruptions, similar to those witnessed in the Ukraine-Russia conflict,” Adam Vinaman Yao, deputy representative of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Sudan, told Arab News

Prior to the conflict, which began in February, 2022, Russia and Ukraine were jointly responsible for almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley production. Russia’s invasion resulted in the blockade of Black Sea ports, however, raising fears of imminent shortages on the world market that would potentially hit import-reliant developing nations the hardest.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by the UN and Turkiye in July 2022, played a pivotal role in facilitating the continued export of millions of tons of grain from Ukraine to global markets despite the conflict, via the Bosphorus Strait. Approximately a third of the grain that traversed the Black Sea under the deal was destined for Egypt, Libya, Israel, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkiye and Iran.

The deal therefore offered some respite. However, just a year after it came into effect, Russia abruptly announced it was withdrawing from the agreement.

Lebanon, which has been in the throes of a crippling economic crisis since 2019, and Yemen, which has been brought to the brink of famine as a result of a nine-year civil war, were especially vulnerable to the disruption.

The UN World Food Program, which provides a lifeline for millions of people caught up in humanitarian disasters worldwide, particularly in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, was also significantly affected by the collapse of the grain deal.

A deadly feud between two military leaders in Sudan that has been raging since April 15 has compounded the woes of a population ravaged by hunger and malnutrition. (Reuters)

As of July this year, about 80 percent of the WFP’s grain stock originated in Ukraine, up from about 50 percent before the war.

The Middle East and North Africa region, much of which was already reeling from soaring public debt, high inflation and steady currency depreciation, now faces the additional threat of soaring food prices. The collapse of the grain deal merely intensified the supply challenges and price pressures such nations were already confronting.

Countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iran, which have experienced sharp currency devaluations leading to triple-digit food-price inflation, are now at even greater risk. In fact, the number of food-insecure people across the MENA region has surged by 20 percent in the past three years as a result of conflicts and climate-related challenges, such as drought.

Egypt, projected to be the world’s leading wheat importer in 2023-24, expressed strong disapproval of Russia’s decision to withdraw from the grain deal. Egyptian authorities heavily subsidize the price of bread, and so the country is highly susceptible to food-price fluctuations.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s decision to personally attend the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in July gave some indication of how seriously his government is taking the issue of the grain deal.

“Collaborations between Ukraine and Egypt for direct corn supply are on the horizon, as Ukrainian corn holds a unique position in the market, being geographically closer than alternatives in Brazil and Argentina,” Pavlo Martyshev, a Kyiv School of Economics expert in food markets, told Arab News.

Many low- and middle-income Arab economies have been facing worsening food security conditions in recent months. (AFP)

The collapse of the deal was not solely the result of geopolitical maneuverings. Russia claimed that certain aspects of the agreement, particularly those relating to its own food exports, had not been implemented, and that Western sanctions were indirectly affecting its grain exports.

Moscow’s demands for its agreement to resume the deal, including the readmission of the Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT international payments system and the resumption of exports of agricultural machinery, have thrown up further roadblocks.

However, Moscow’s claim that Russian farmers have had a raw deal compared with their Ukranian counterparts does not stand up to scrutiny.

Figures from the UN’s Black Sea Grain Initiative Joint Coordination Center, which facilitated the implementation of the agreement, reveal a decline in Ukrainian grain exports since the deal was signed in 2022, and particularly during May and June this year. Ukrainian production also suffered a significant blow as a result of the war, decreasing by between 35 and 40 percent.

In contrast, Russian wheat exports surged to historic highs in 2022 and 2023, thanks to a record harvest and substantial wheat stocks. However, this abundance did not ease the pressure on those nations dependent on the import of Black Sea grain.


• 783m People across the world who do not have enough food.

• 60% Cut in World Food Programme food aid recipients since June due to funding shortfalls.

• 60% World’s hungry living in zones affected by conflict.

• 8o% Hunger crises of which conflict is the main driver.

Russia has given the UN three months to implement terms to facilitate its agricultural exports, a move that could help stabilize the situation. Amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive, however, efforts to address this issue require careful diplomacy.

Around the same time as Russia withdrew from the grain deal, India’s government announced its decision to ban the export of several varieties of rice, to ensure sufficient supplies were available at home. The decision — prompted by rising domestic food prices, stubborn inflation and fear of shortage due to El Nino disruption — pushed up prices on the global market.

Although the ban does not include the popular basmati variety, which is a staple of Gulf dinner tables, it nevertheless triggered an increase in the prices of all rice varieties, adding to the vulnerabilities of import-reliant economies in the Middle East and Africa. By the middle of August, global rice prices had jumped 15-25 percent.

The UAE imports almost 90 percent of its food, so it is especially vulnerable to fluctuations in global prices. According to Reuters data, the nation was among the top 10 importers of non-basmati rice from India in 2020, buying almost 346,000 tons. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UK and the US also feature on the list of the top 10 importers.

The hope is that once the dust settles on the latest Middle East political crisis, the region’s daunting food-security challenge will once again get the attention it deserves. (AFP)

Other countries that were likely to feel the squeeze as a result of India’s export ban include African nations such as Benin. But even large economies such as China were not insulated from the price shock, even though it is a major rice producer in its own right.

Arab countries that have suffered the most from higher rice prices include Egypt, Algeria and Sudan, all of which were already facing economic headwinds and footing inflated wheat import bills.

In Sudan’s case, a deadly feud between two military leaders that has been raging since April 15 has compounded the woes of a population ravaged by hunger and malnutrition.

With no end to conflicts, fuel-price rises and climate crisis in sight, experts say that besides diversifying sources of food imports, Arab countries should try to improve the resilience of their food systems by promoting domestic production, including greater investment in new agricultural technologies and innovations closer to the domestic market.

“Implementing low-cost modern irrigation and water-harvesting techniques, exploring alternative energy sources, and building resilience in dry-land agriculture can help these nations reduce their reliance on costly imports,” said Yao.

However, many Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, are in no position to meet their own national demands for wheat and rice, as they lack the necessary water resources.

Many are asking what food-insecure Arab countries ought to be doing to help insulate themselves against the effects of future supply-chain shocks. (AFP)

Homegrown grain does not meet even half of Egypt’s demand, particularly for wheat and corn. The country imports more than 10 million tons of wheat — mostly from Russia and Ukraine — and that amount is expected to grow.

Local wheat production is expected to remain at 9.8 million tons, and consumption to increase by 2 percent to 20.5 million tons in 2023-2024, according to a US Department of Agriculture report published in April.

Habib ben Moussa, an expert in the environment and sustainable development from Tunisia, nevertheless believes that bolstering domestic food production and implementing sustainable farming practices could aid diversification and improve the resilience of Arab food systems.

“This approach encourages the use of native seeds adapted to local conditions, reducing dependence on imported seeds that may not thrive in the region, while promoting sustainable production and consumption not only conserves resources but also enhances resilience in agriculture,” Moussa told Arab News.

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has made significant strides in improving its food security, including the launch of initiatives to diversify and localize food sources, thereby reducing its dependence on imports.

This involves significant investment in agri-tech and the introduction of modern agricultural techniques to enhance local production, minimize water wastage, and boost efficiency in the agricultural sector.

CEO of Agrotrade Group, Vitaliy Bylenko examines the condition of grain in his barn in the village of Vesele, Kyiv region. (AFP)

The significance of these efforts was underscored when Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics reported in September the country had achieved self-sufficiency in the production of dates, dairy products and eggs.

The war in Ukraine and Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal, combined with India’s swing toward protectionist trade policies, has laid bare the need for food-insecure nations to rethink and overhaul their food systems and supply chains.

“Promoting domestic food production, diversifying food-import sources, embracing local seed varieties, and adopting sustainable agricultural practices are key steps,” Yao said.

“These measures can help reduce vulnerability to global grain-market fluctuations and ensure a stable food supply for their populations.”

The hope is that once the dust settles on the latest Middle East political crisis, the region’s daunting food-security challenge will once again get the attention it deserves.


Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens
Updated 5 sec ago

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens
JERUSALEM: -Israel’s war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations toward a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.
An Israeli delegation that had traveled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country’s war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the “delegation has returned from Paris — there is probably room to move toward an agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the “next steps in the negotiations.”
Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.
As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.
Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as “Hostages Square” to demand swifter action.
“We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how,” said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.
Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu’s government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.
“They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it’s (the) economy, whether it’s peace with our neighbors,” 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding “it looks like they never want to end the war.”

After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported “unprecedented levels of desperation,” while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.
In northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.
Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting.
“We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?” one man said angrily.
Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.
The health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.
Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”
Israel has defended its track record on allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.
The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to a Saturday tally from Gaza’s health ministry.
The ministry said early Sunday that another 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.

An AFP reporter said there had been a number of air strikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.
The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center they have yet to enter.
Despite the concerns, including from key ally the United States, Netanyahu signalled Saturday night that the expected push had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.
Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
It also says Israel will continue with the establishment of a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan has been rejected by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and drawn criticism from Washington.

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan
Updated 25 February 2024

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan

Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan
  • With most banks out of service, the only exchange rate that matters to ordinary Sudanese is on the black market, where the dollar currently goes for around 1,200 Sudanese pounds

PORT SUDAN, Sudan: Before the Sudanese army and paramilitary fighters turned their guns on each other last year, Ahmed used to sell one of Sudan’s main exports: gum arabic, a vital ingredient for global industry.
Now he’s out of business, and his story encapsulates the broader economic collapse of Sudan during 10 months of war.
Since combat between two rival generals began on April 15, Ahmed has been at the fighters’ mercy.
“When the war began, I had a stock of gum arabic in a warehouse south of Khartoum that was intended for export,” Ahmed told AFP, asking to use only his first name for fear of retaliation.
“To get it out I had to pay huge sums to the Rapid Support Forces,” the paramilitaries commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo who are at war with the Sudanese Armed Forces led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan.
“I had to pay multiple times in areas under their control, before my cargo got to areas controlled by the government,” Ahmed said.
But the government — loyal to the army — “then demanded I pay taxes” on the product, an emulsifying agent used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum.
When the trucks finally made it to Port Sudan for export on the Red Sea, “authorities again asked for new taxes, and I had to pay storage fees six times more than before the war,” Ahmed said.
His gum arabic — like many other Sudanese products — never made it onto a ship. According to Sudan’s port authorities, international trade fell 23 percent last year.
The finance ministry, which didn’t set a national budget for 2023 or 2024 and has foregone quarterly reports, recently raised the exchange rate for imports and exports from 650 Sudanese pounds to 950.
But that is still far below the currency’s real value.
With most banks out of service, the only exchange rate that matters to ordinary Sudanese is on the black market, where the dollar currently goes for around 1,200 Sudanese pounds.
“It’s a sign of the destruction of the Sudanese economy,” former Sudanese Chamber of Commerce head Al-Sadiq Jalal told AFP.
To make matters worse, a communications blackout since early February has hampered online transactions — which Sudanese relied on to survive.
The war has led industries to cease production. Others were destroyed. Businesses and food stocks have been looted.
The World Bank in September said “widespread destruction of Sudan’s economic foundations has set the country’s development back by several decades.”
The International Monetary Fund has predicted that even after the fighting ends, “years of reconstruction” await the northeast African country.
Sudan suffered under a crippled economy for decades and was already one of the world’s poorest countries before the war.
Under the Islamist-backed regime of strongman Omar Al-Bashir, international sanctions throttled development, corruption was rampant, and South Sudan split in 2011 with most of the country’s oil production.
Bashir’s ouster by the military in 2019 following mass protests led to a fragile transition to civilian rule accompanied by signs of economic renewal and international acceptance.
A 2021 coup by Burhan and Dagalo, before they turned on each other, began a new economic collapse when the World Bank and the United States suspended vital international aid.
More than six million of Sudan’s 48 million people have been internally displaced by the war, and more than half the population needs humanitarian aid to survive, according to the United Nations.
Thousands of people have been killed, including between 10,000 and 15,000 in a single city in the western Darfur region, according to UN experts.
Now the indirect death toll is also rising.
Aid agencies have long warned of impending famine, and the UN’s World Food Programme is “already receiving reports of people dying of starvation,” the agency’s Sudan director Eddie Rowe said in early February.
The Sudanese state “is completely absent from the scene” in all sectors, economist Haitham Fathy told AFP.
Chief among those is agriculture, which could have helped stave off hunger.
Before the war, agriculture generated 35-40 percent of Sudan’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank, and employed 70-80 percent of the workforce in rural areas, the International Fund for Agricultural Development said.
But the war has left more than 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural land out of commission, according to Sudanese research organization Fikra for Studies and Development.
In the wheat-growing state of Al-Jazira, where RSF fighters took over swathes of farmland south of Khartoum, farmers have been unable to tend their crops. They saw their livelihoods wither away.
From the wheat fields to Ahmed’s gum arabic warehouse, the story is the same.
His savings spent, his stock gone and his future bleak, Ahmed — like much of Sudan’s business class — has closed up shop.

Undeterred by latest US-UK strikes, Houthis target US-flagged oil tanker off Yemen

Undeterred by latest US-UK strikes, Houthis target US-flagged oil tanker off Yemen
Updated 25 February 2024

Undeterred by latest US-UK strikes, Houthis target US-flagged oil tanker off Yemen

Undeterred by latest US-UK strikes, Houthis target US-flagged oil tanker off Yemen
  • Hours after the US-UK strikes, the Houthis said they had targeted the US-flagged, owned, and operated oil tanker MV Torm Thor in the Gulf of Aden
  • Houthi attacks are disrupting the vital Suez Canal trade shortcut that accounts for about 12 percent of global maritime traffic

WASHINGTON/CAIRO: US and British forces carried out strikes against more than a dozen Houthi targets in Yemen on Saturday, officials said, the latest round of military action against the Iran-linked group that continues to attack shipping in the region.

A joint statement from countries that either took part in the strikes or provided support, said the military action was against 18 Houthi targets across eight locations in Yemen including underground weapons and missile storage facilities, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter.

But hours after the strikes, the Houthis said they had targeted the US-flagged, owned, and operated oil tanker MV Torm Thor in the Gulf of Aden. The group’s military spokesman Yahya Sarea announced the new attack in a televised speech early on Sunday.

It was not clear if the attack announced by the Houthis was the same incident referred to by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations agency early on Sunday. The UKMTO said that it received a report of an incident 70 nautical miles east of the port of Djibouti and authorities are currently investigating.

The United States has carried out near-daily strikes against the Houthis, who control the most populous parts of Yemen and have said their attacks on shipping are in solidarity with Palestinians as Israel strikes Gaza.

The months of attacks by Houthis have continued and have upset global trade and raised shipping rates.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strikes were meant “to further disrupt and degrade the capabilities of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.”

“We will continue to make clear to the Houthis that they will bear the consequences if they do not stop their illegal attacks, which harm Middle Eastern economies, cause environmental damage and disrupt the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen and other countries,” Austin added.

Earlier this week the Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack on a UK-owned cargo ship and a drone assault on an American destroyer, and they targeted Israel’s port and resort city of Eilat with ballistic missiles and drones.

The group’s strikes are disrupting the vital Suez Canal trade shortcut that accounts for about 12 percent of global maritime traffic, and forcing firms to take a longer, more expensive route around Africa.

No ships have been sunk nor crew killed during the Houthi campaign. However, there are concerns about the fate of the UK-registered Rubymar cargo vessel, which was struck on Feb. 18 and its crew evacuated.

The Houthis say they are targeting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

Following previous US and UK strikes, the Houthis declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.

Anger over Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza — which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 — has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.



Israel war cabinet meets over Hamas hostage talks

Israel war cabinet meets over Hamas hostage talks
Updated 25 February 2024

Israel war cabinet meets over Hamas hostage talks

Israel war cabinet meets over Hamas hostage talks
  • “There is probably room to move toward an agreement,” Hanegbi told N12 News television
  • “Such agreement does not mean the end of the war”

JERUSALEM: Israel’s war cabinet convened Saturday after a delegation returned from talks in Paris on a hostage release and ceasefire deal in the war against Hamas.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said before the telephone meeting that members would hear an update on discussions about the conflict in the Gaza Strip, which is now in its fifth month.
The Paris talks saw the head of Israel’s overseas intelligence service Mossad and his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security service meeting with mediators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
“There is probably room to move toward an agreement,” Hanegbi told N12 News television in an interview, without elaborating.
Israel wants the release of all hostages seized in the October 7 attacks, starting with all women, but Hanegbi added: “Such agreement does not mean the end of the war.”
He also indicated that Israel would not accept any deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia for a Palestinian state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Saturday’s meeting would discuss “next steps in the negotiations.”
He also reaffirmed his aim for troops to go into Rafah in southern Gaza, despite widespread concern about the impact on hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled there to avoid bombardments.
An AFP reporter in Rafah said there had been at least six air strikes on the city on Saturday evening.
Israel’s air, land and sea against Hamas fighters in retaliation for their deadly October 7 on southern Israel has killed at least 29,606 people, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says.
Hamas attacked rural communities and military posts bordering the Gaza Strip, leaving at least 1,160 people dead, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Some 250 hostages were taken, of whom 130 are still in Gaza, although about 30 are thought to be dead, Israel says.
A one-week pause in fighting in November saw more than 100 hostages released, the Israelis among them in exchange for some 240 Palestinians jailed in Israel.
Netanyahu has characterised Hamas’s demands for a ceasefire in Gaza as “bizarre” and vowed to press on with the military campaign until “total victory” over the group.
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he said.
The head of Israel’s military, Herzi Halevi, visited the Gaza Strip and also said military action was the most effective way of getting back the hostages.
Combat was “leverage,” he told troops. “We need to continue and apply it strongly... to use it to release the hostages,” he added.
In Tel Aviv, where families and supporters of the hostages gathered again to call for their release, Orna Tal urged the government to “be responsible.”
“We think about them (the hostages) all the time and want them back alive as soon as possible,” said Tal, whose close friend Tsachi Idan was kidnapped from the Nahal Oz kibbutz.
“We’ll protest again and again until they’re back,” she told AFP

How Israeli settlers are exploiting Gaza conflict to seize more Palestinian land in the West Bank

How Israeli settlers are exploiting Gaza conflict to seize more Palestinian land in the West Bank
Updated 25 February 2024

How Israeli settlers are exploiting Gaza conflict to seize more Palestinian land in the West Bank

How Israeli settlers are exploiting Gaza conflict to seize more Palestinian land in the West Bank
  • Forced evictions and disputes over land in the West Bank have increased since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack
  • Israeli authorities are accused of actively undermining decades-old prohibition on settlement expansion

LONDON: As Israel’s military campaign in Gaza approaches its sixth month, Western governments have upped the pressure on “extremist” settlers who critics say are taking advantage of the conflict to illegally occupy more Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

In recent months, violence by extremist Israeli settlers has triggered Western sanctions, with more such penalties expected to be announced in the coming weeks and months. But that did not deter Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, from approving last week the construction of more than 3,000 new settlement homes in response to a deadly shooting attack in the West Bank.

Far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, shown in this photo walks with soldiers during a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the border with the Gaza Strip on November 14, 2023, has approved the construction of more than 3,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank. (AFP/File)

Peace Now, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that advocates for the two-state solution and which condemns the behavior of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, said 26 new communities had sprung up over the past 12 months, making 2023 a record year for new illegal settlements.

Yonatan Mizrachi, part of the Settlement Watch Team at Peace Now, said it was not unusual to see new outposts pop up in the West Bank during periods of violence in Gaza when the international community was distracted.

“Since the war there is much less, if any, enforcement from the Israeli Civil Administration to remove the illegal outposts,” Mizrachi told Arab News. “The settlers are using these periods to increase their illegal work and build new outposts, roads and other bits of infrastructure.”

On Friday, the US restored its longstanding policy that settlements are inconsistent with international law, just hours after Smotrich announced the plan to advance the construction of thousands of new settlement homes.

“It’s been long-standing US policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike that new settlements are counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace,” Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said on Friday.



The approval of a record number of settlement homes last year and the expansion of settler presence in the West Bank led the Biden administration to summon the Israeli ambassador in Washington for the first time in over a decade.

Under the far-right coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli authorities appear to have actively undermined the decades-old prohibition on settlement expansion, marrying Israeli law to settler practices.

Those changes have helped legalize 15 West Bank outposts, with the government also moving to promote the construction of 12,349 housing units across the West Bank — another new record.

A view of an unauthorized Israeli settler outpost of Meitarim Farm near Hebron city in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)

In a recent statement, Peace Now cited data from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem: “In direct relation to the establishment of these outposts, approximately 1,345 Palestinians were forced to flee from their homes due to violent attacks by settlers.”

These new outposts have spelled disaster for Palestinians, with 21 communities forced from their homes over the past 12 months — 16 of them since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel that sparked the current war in Gaza.

Such forced evictions and disputes over land use have long contributed to localized violence between settlers and Palestinian residents. According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, such violence has escalated since the war began.

Using data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the NGO highlighted 532 settler attacks on Palestinians between Oct. 7 and Feb. 14, which included shootings and the burning of homes, resulting in casualties and property damage.

Palestinians gather near the rubble of a family home demolished by Israeli forces earlier during a raid in Hebron city in the occupied West Bank on January 21, 2024. (AFP)

“Prior to Oct. 7, settlements and settler-driven displacement had already been increasing in the occupied West Bank in recent years,” a spokesperson for GCR2P told Arab News.

“Since Oct. 7 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported that settlers carrying out these attacks are at times acting with the acquiescence and collaboration of Israeli forces and authorities.”

UN data also reveals the extent of the resulting displacement in the occupied West Bank, with 4,525 Palestinian-owned structures demolished or destroyed since 2019.


• 26 Israeli settlements established in the West Bank in 2023 alone — a new annual record.

• 21 Palestinian communities displaced over the past 12 months — 16 of them since Oct. 7.

• 532 Recorded settler attacks on Palestinians between Oct. 7 and Feb. 14.

Source: Peace Now, OCHA

Although Western governments have been slow to censure Israel for its conduct in Gaza, they have taken a clearer stance on the need to prevent the expansion of West Bank settlements, which they view as undermining the potential for a future Palestinian state.

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its civilian population into occupied territory, also known as “settler implantation.”

GCR2P’s spokesperson said: “This settler implantation and settler activity is therefore in violation of Israel’s obligations as the occupying power under international humanitarian law.

“Settlement expansion effectively guarantees that the occupied territory will remain under Israeli control in perpetuity leading to de facto annexation.” 

A Palestinian man inspects a car burnt in an attack the previous night by Israeli settlers in the village of Burqa, northwest of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on February 20, 2024. Around 490,000 Israelis live in dozens of West Bank settlements that are deemed illegal under international law. (AFP)

Canada, France, the UK and the US have all moved against Israeli settlers, with sanctions ranging from travel bans to restrictions prohibiting trade and the blocking of assets, while some Israeli financial institutions have followed suit, freezing the accounts of four men.

A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office told Arab News there has been a long-held opposition in the UK to Israeli settlement expansion.

“Settlements are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace and threaten the viability of a two-state solution,” the spokesperson said.

“We repeatedly urge Israel to halt all settlement expansion in the West Bank and hold those responsible for settler violence to account.”

Announcing sanctions against four “extremist” settlers on Feb. 14, David Cameron, the UK’s foreign secretary, said: “Israel must also take stronger action to put a stop to settler violence.”

Mizrachi of Peace Now said the sanctions had been a “big deal” in Israel. “I think and hope it will have an effect on all levels, but we also need the Israeli public to be more active against the settlements,” he said.

“I think we have to wait and see how and if the Israeli government will change its policy when it comes to the ‘settlements enterprise.’

“I believe that a different government — a less pro-settler government — will definitely think twice before allowing the settlers to violate the law and build so many new outposts. With the current government, though, we will have to wait and see.”

Lawmakers in Israel have responded angrily to the measures. Amit Halevi of Netanyahu’s Likud party called an urgent meeting of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee to explore how to aid the “simple families working in agriculture” who had been sanctioned.

Rights monitors, meanwhile, have described the sanctions as mere political window dressing by governments that are otherwise content to continue funding, supplying arms and providing diplomatic cover to Israel’s war effort.

Budour Hassan, an Israel-Palestine researcher for Amnesty International, said the sanctions were something of a double-edged sword. She told Arab News that while they indicated the international community had taken notice, they ignored the real issue.

“They’re deceptive, contributing to an idea that it is individual settlers, not the settlements, being the problem, ignoring the violence inherent to the settlement enterprise,” said Hassan.

“The majority of settlers are not violent; they don’t attack Palestinians. But it is not just physical violence. It is forced acquisition of Palestinian land, segregation of communities. The rights and privileges of settlers discriminating against Palestinians. It is all inherently violent.

“It is checkpoints, Israeli soldiers, the legal, physical, and political infrastructure combining to promote the enterprise that is the issue. Punishing individuals ignores these root problems.”

Israeli security forces man a checkpoint at the closed-off southern entrance of Hebron city in the occupied West Bank near the Israeli settlement of Beit Haggi. (AFP)

Hassan reiterated Amnesty International’s long-held view that “settlements that are illegal under international law” must be dismantled for peace to be achieved. 

However, the notion of dismantling these settlements raises questions about the fate of settler families, “if and when Israel withdraws,” said Mizrachi.

“Israel evacuated settlers twice in the past. First in 1982 from Sinai and then again in 2005 from Gaza Strip and the north of the West Bank. As we know, if there is a will, there is a way.

“It might take time and you can’t evacuate hundreds of thousands in one day, but there are possibilities to achieve this that exist.”