Israel’s most wanted: the three Hamas leaders in Gaza it aims to kill

Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar looks on as palestinians Hamas supporters take part in an anti-Israel rally over tension in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in Gaza City October 1, 2022. (REUTERS)
Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar looks on as palestinians Hamas supporters take part in an anti-Israel rally over tension in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in Gaza City October 1, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 02 December 2023
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Israel’s most wanted: the three Hamas leaders in Gaza it aims to kill

Israel’s most wanted: the three Hamas leaders in Gaza it aims to kill
  • Two military experts said that killing Sinwar, Deif and Issa would allow Israel to claim an important symbolic victory. But achieving even that goal would be long and costly, with no guarantee of success

GAZA: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has a poster hanging on a wall of his office in Tel Aviv, in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. It shows mugshots of hundreds of the Palestinian militant group’s commanders arranged in a pyramid.
At the bottom are Hamas’ junior field commanders. At the top is its high command, including Mohammed Deif, the shadowy mastermind of last month’s assault.
The poster has been re-printed many times after Israel invaded Gaza in retaliation for Oct. 7: the faces of dead commanders marked with a cross.
But the three men topping Israel’s hit-list remain at large: Deif, the head of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades; his second in command, Marwan Issa; and Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
Hostilities resumed in Gaza on Friday after a seven-day truce brokered by Qatar collapsed. Reuters spoke to four sources in the region, familiar with Israeli thinking, who said that Israel’s offensive in Gaza was unlikely to stop until those three top Hamas commanders are dead or captured.
The seven-week-old military campaign has killed more than 15,000 people, according to Gaza health officials, stirring international outcry.
The 61-year-old Sinwar, as well as Deif and Issa, both 58, form a secretive three-man military council atop Hamas that planned and executed the Oct. 7 attack. Some 1,200 people were killed and around 240 taken hostage in that assault, the bloodiest in Israel’s 75-year history.
The three leaders are directing Hamas’ military operations and led negotiations for a prisoner-hostage swaps, possibly from bunkers beneath Gaza, three Hamas sources say.
Killing or capturing the three men will likely be a long and arduous task but might signal that Israel was close to shifting from all-out war to less intense counter insurgency operations, according to three of the senior regional sources. That does not mean that Israel’s fight against Hamas would stop.
Officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said Israel’s objectives are the destruction of Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities, bringing the hostages back, and ensuring that the area around Gaza will never be threatened by a repeat of the Oct. 7 attack. To achieve those goals, eliminating the leadership of Hamas will be essential.
“They are living on borrowed time,” Gallant told a news conference last week, indicating that Israeli intelligence agency Mossad would hunt down the militant group’s leadership anywhere in the world. The Israeli government did not respond to a request for comment.
Two military experts said that killing Sinwar, Deif and Issa would allow Israel to claim an important symbolic victory. But achieving even that goal would be long and costly, with no guarantee of success.
Backed by drones and aircraft, Israeli troops have swept through less populated northern and western parts of Gaza but the hardest, and most destructive, phase of the fighting may lie ahead, military experts said.
Israeli troops have not pushed deep into Gaza City, stormed the maze of tunnels where Hamas’ command is believed to be located, or invaded the enclave’s densely populated south, they added. Some of those tunnels are believed to be around 80 meters deep, making them difficult to destroy from the air.
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was probably unclear to all sides, including Hamas, exactly how many of its fighters had been killed.
“If (Israel) could say we’ve killed Sinwar, we’ve killed Marwan Issa, we’ve killed Mohammed Deif, that’s a very clear, symbolic and substantive achievement,” Eisenstadt said, adding that Israel faced a dilemma.
“What if they can’t get the guys? Do they keep fighting until they get them? And what if what if they just prove elusive?“
A MORE ATTAINABLE GOAL
The Israeli military says it has destroyed around 400 tunnel shafts in northern Gaza, but that is only a small part of the network Hamas has built up over the years. At least 70 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza operation, and some 392 in total, including the Oct. 7 attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has said.
A military officer, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, estimated roughly around 5,000 Hamas fighters had been killed – equivalent to roughly one fifth of its overall strength. Six battalions – numbering around 1,000 men each — had been significantly degraded, the officer said.
Osama Hamdan, a Lebanon-based Hamas leader, said the casualty figures were false and “Israeli propaganda” to cover its lack of military success.
One Hamas insider in Gaza, reached by phone, said that destroying the group as a military force would mean house to house combat and fighting in the warren of tunnels beneath the enclave, which would take a long time.
“If we talk about a year, we will be optimistic,” he said, adding that the Israeli death toll would rise.
President Joe Biden’s administration sees eliminating Hamas’ leadership as a far more attainable goal for Israel than the country’s stated objective of eliminating Hamas entirely, three US officials told Reuters.
While staunchly supportive of Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, US officials worry that an open-ended conflict driven by Israel’s hope of destroying Hamas entirely would cause a heavy civilian death toll in Gaza and prolong the risk of a regional war.
The United States learned that lesson over years of battling Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other groups during a two-decade-long global war on terrorism.
Iran-backed militants, who blame the United States for Israel’s bombings in Gaza, are already targeting US troops in Iraq and Syria in wave after wave of attacks. One of the attacks last week injured eight US troops.

EXISTENTIAL THREAT
The shock and fear in Israel engendered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack may make it difficult to de-escalate the conflict.
Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, which counters negative narratives about Israel overseas, said there is strong popular support for the war to continue as Hamas is perceived as part of a broad Iran-backed axis that poses a direct threat to the nation’s survival.
Capturing Sinwar would be an important victory but not necessarily the ultimate one, Michael said.
“Israeli society perceives itself under an existential threat and the options it sees before it are two only: To be or not to be,” he said.
The objective of the war remains to dismantle Hamas’ military and government capabilities, Michael said, which could involve a turbulent period in Gaza after the war. And the greater long-term challenge was to remove the popular appeal to Palestinians of Hamas’ fierce opposition to Israel using education and outreach, he said.
Israel regularly announces the deaths of senior Hamas battalion commanders. An Israeli military officer, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the IDF viewed the elimination of such combat-level commanders as essential to dismantling Hamas’ military capabilities.
FAILED ASSASINATIONS
The three Hamas leaders have all escaped numerous Israeli operations to kill them. Deif in particular lives in the shadows after escaping seven assassination attempts before 2021, which cost him an eye and left him with a serious leg injury.
An Israeli air strike in 2014 killed his wife, his three-year-old daughter and seven-month-old son.
Speculation by Israeli and Palestinian sources is that the three men are hiding in the tunnels under the enclave but five sources close to their thinking say they could be anywhere within Gaza.
Sinwar, who unlike the elusive Deif and Issa has often appeared in the past at public rallies, is no longer using any electronic devices for fear the Israelis could track the signal, Hamas sources said.
Issa, known as the ‘Shadow Man’, is perhaps the least well known of the three but has been involved in many of Hamas’ major decisions of recent years, and would replace either of the two other men if they are killed or captured, Hamas sources said.
All three men were born into refugee families that had fled or been expelled in 1948 from areas in the newly created Israeli state.
And all three men have spent years in Israeli prisons. Sinwar served 22 years after being jailed in 1988 for the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers and the murder of four Palestinian collaborators.
He was the most senior of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners that Israel freed in 2011 in exchange for one of its soldiers, Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in a cross-border raid five years earlier.
Like Deif, Issa’s facial features were unknown to the public until 2011 when he appeared in a group photo taken during the Shalit prisoner’s exchange, which he helped to organize.
Gerhard Conrad, a German Intelligence Agency mediator (BND) from 2009 to 2011, was among the few to have met Issa while negotiating Shalit’s prisoner swap.
“He was very meticulous and careful analyst: that’s my impression of him. He knew the files by heart,” Conrad told Al Jazeera television.
Israel has killed Hamas’ leaders in the past, including the group’s founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and its former leader Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi, assassinated in a 2004 air strike. New commanders rose to fill their ranks.
“Israel has killed Sheikh Yassin, Rantissi and others but Hamas is not over,” said Hamdan, the Lebanon-based member of the group’s politburo. “Anything might happen in this battle.”  

 


Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials

Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials
Updated 05 March 2024
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Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials

Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials
  • Event was taking place some 75 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jordan and the US

LONDON: Changes in regional and international security demand a faster response to emerging technology-related threats, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah said on Monday.

The crown prince chaired the opening session of the second Jordan-US Cyber and Digital Dialogue, which was also attended by US Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger.

Officials and experts from both countries participated in the dialogue, which discussed ways to improve cybersecurity cooperation, counter cyber threats, and develop information and communications technology systems, Jordan News Agency reported.

The event was taking place some 75 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jordan and the US.

The crown prince said that complex cyber threats were increasing globally, which necessitated additional cooperation and coordination among stakeholders on both sides. He cited the dialogue as an important and strategic means of enhancing efforts and strengthening the partnership between the two countries.

He spoke of the importance of utilizing cutting-edge technologies, developing the skills of cybersecurity professionals, and aligning national frameworks with global standards.

The first Jordan-US Cyber and Digital Dialogue was held last year in Washington, and both sides agreed to hold it annually.

The crown prince stressed the importance of bilateral cooperation in cyber and digital security, citing links to both countries’ national security interests.
 


Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants

Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants
Updated 05 March 2024
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Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants

Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants
  • UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave

JERUSALEM: Israel ramped up its criticism of the embattled UN agency for Palestinian refugees Monday, saying 450 of its employees were members of militant groups in the Gaza Strip, though it provided no evidence to back up its accusation.
Major international funders have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars from the agency, known as UNRWA, since Israel accused 12 of its employees of participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people and left about 250 others held hostage in Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.
The UN envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, said Monday there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture,” and other cruel and inhuman treatment of women during the attack.
The attack sparked an Israeli invasion of the enclave of 2.3 million people that Gaza’s Health Ministry says has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. Aid groups say the fighting has displaced most of the territory’s population and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe.
UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave.
The allegations Monday were a significant escalation in the accusations against the agency. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, did not provide names or other evidence to back up the vastly increased number of UNRWA employees it said were militants.
“Over 450 UNRWA employees are military operatives in terror groups in Gaza — 450. This is no mere coincidence. This is systematic. There is no claiming, ‘we did not know,’” Hagari said.
UNRWA in a statement accused Israel of detaining several of its staffers and forcing them, using torture and ill treatment, into giving false confessions about the links between the agency, Hamas and the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
“These forced confessions as a result of torture are being used by the Israeli Authorities to further spread misinformation about the agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA,” the statement said. “This is putting our staff in Gaza at risk and has serious implications on our operations in Gaza and around the region.’’
After Israel’s initial accusation against UNRWA, the agency fired the accused employees and more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for the year.
Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, had no direct comment on the new Israeli allegations.
“UNRWA encourages any entity that has any information on the very serious allegations against UNRWA staff to share it with the ongoing UN investigation,” she said.
Two UN investigations into Israel’s allegations were already underway when the EU said Friday it will pay 50 million euros ($54 million) to UNRWA after the agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.
Hagari also released a recording of a call he said was of an UNRWA teacher describing his role in the Oct. 7 attack.
“We have female captives. I caught one,” the male voice is heard saying in Arabic. A man on a second call, alleged to be an Islamic Jihad militant who Israel also claimed was an UNRWA teacher, is heard saying “I’m inside with the Jews.”
The military named the men, though the man in the first call identified himself in the recording by a different name. The military said that name may have been a nickname. The military did not provide evidence as to their employment with UNRWA.
The accusations came as Benny Gantz, a top member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet, met with US officials in Washington while talks were underway in Egypt to broker a ceasefire in Gaza before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.
Meanwhile, violence flared between Israel and Lebanon, amid inflamed tensions across the region.
An anti-tank missile fired into northern Israel from Lebanon killed a foreign worker and wounded seven others Monday, Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service said. The Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon did not immediately claim responsibility for Monday’s strike.
Hours later an Israeli airstrike in southern Lebanon killed three paramedics from Hezbollah’s health arm, Lebanon’s state media said.
US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday to meet with Lebanese officials in an attempt to tamp down tensions.
The near-daily clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have killed more than 200 Hezbollah fighters and at least 37 civilians in Lebanon. Around 20 people have been killed on the Israeli side, including civilians and soldiers.


Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike

Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike
Updated 05 March 2024
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Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike

Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike
  • Hezbollah on Monday claimed several attacks on Israeli military positions, while local media reported Israeli attacks on a number of locations in south Lebanon

BEIRUT: Three paramedics affiliated with Hezbollah were killed in an Israeli strike on south Lebanon Monday, the group said, amid escalating cross-border hostilities in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement have been exchanging near-daily fire since the day after the Israel-Hamas war erupted in October, raising fears all-out conflict could spread across the region.
The Hezbollah-affiliated Islamic Health Committee said three volunteers died “due to a direct Zionist attack on an emergency center” in south Lebanon’s Adaysseh.
The deaths came hours after Israeli medics said a missile strike on northern Israel killed a foreign worker and wounded seven others.
Lebanon’s health ministry condemned the Israeli raid “in the strongest terms” and called attacks on medical personnel “unacceptable,” in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency.
Hezbollah on Monday claimed several attacks on Israeli military positions, while local media reported Israeli attacks on a number of locations in south Lebanon.
The Israeli military said “numerous launches were identified crossing from Lebanon,” adding that it “struck the sources of the launches,” while “fighter jets struck a number of Hezbollah military compounds in southern Lebanon.”
Last month, two Islamic Health Committee paramedics and a Hezbollah fighter were killed in an Israeli strike on one of the organization’s centers in south Lebanon’s Blida, the group and a security source said at the time.
The Israeli army said it had struck a Hezbollah “military compound” in the village.
And in January, the Iran-backed militant group said an Israeli strike killed two Islamic Health Committee medics in the town of Hanin.
The Israeli army said it had struck Hezbollah targets, as well as “a number of areas in Lebanese territory.”
The fighting has killed at least 299 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 49 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
In Israel, at least 10 soldiers and seven civilians have been killed.


Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief

Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief
Updated 04 March 2024
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Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief

Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief
  • Philippe Lazzarini: ‘Dismantling UNRWA is short-sighted. By doing so, we will sacrifice an entire generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment and future conflict’

UNITED NATIONS: Dismantling the UN Palestinian refugee aid agency (UNRWA) would sacrifice a “generation of children,” its chief Philippe Lazzarini warned on Monday amid an increasingly bitter row between the UN and Israel.
“Dismantling UNRWA is short-sighted. By doing so, we will sacrifice an entire generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment and future conflict,” Lazzarini told the UN General Assembly.


Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution

Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution
Updated 05 March 2024
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Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution

Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution
  • UN officials have documented human rights violations and abuses meted out on returnees by Syrian authorities
  • Experts say hostility and deepening economic woes of host communities are compelling many families to return

LONDON: Faced with a multitude of economic, safety and regulatory challenges in neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the civil war have returned home, despite the grim security and humanitarian situation that awaits them.

For many, this decision has exacted a heavy toll. A recent report by the UN Human Rights Office found that many refugees who fled the conflict to neighboring countries over the past decade now “face gross human rights violations and abuses upon their return to Syria.”

The report, published on Feb. 13, documented incidents in various parts of the country perpetrated by de facto authorities, the Syrian government, and an assortment of armed groups.

“The situation in these host countries has become so horrible that people are still making the decision to return back to Syria in spite of all the challenges,” Karam Shaar told Arab News. (AFP/File)

Returnees are exposed to a host of menaces at the hands of “all parties to the conflict,” including enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, torture and ill-treatment in detention, and death in custody, the report said.

Many of the returnees interviewed by the UN Human Rights Office said that they were called in for questioning by Syrian security agencies after their return to Syria.

Others reported being arrested and detained by government authorities in regime-held areas, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or Turkish-affiliated armed groups in the northwest, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast.

Not everyone who has returned to Syria has done so voluntarily.

On Sunday, reports emerged on social media of four Syrian detainees in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison near Beirut threatening to commit suicide after a brother and fellow inmate of one of the men was handed over to Syrian government authorities on March 2.

According to Samer Al-Deyaei, CEO and co-founder of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, who posted images of the prison protest on social media, the men are receiving medical attention and have been given assurances that their files would be reviewed.

Since violence erupted in Syria, more than 14 million people have fled their homes. (AFP/File)

However, the dispute has highlighted the willingness of Lebanese authorities to place Syrian refugees into the custody of regime officials, despite well documented cases of abuse in Syrian jails, thereby putting Lebanon in breach of the principle of non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in probable danger of persecution.

But fear of persecution has not stopped many thousands of Syrians who had been sheltering abroad from returning home in recent years.

Since 2016, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has verified or monitored the return of at least 388,679 Syrians from neighboring countries to Syria as of Nov. 30, 2023.

Karam Shaar, a senior fellow at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, believes the bleak situation in host countries such as Lebanon and Turkiye was the primary reason for the voluntary return of many Syrian refugees.

“The situation in these host countries has become so horrible that people are still making the decision to return back to Syria in spite of all the challenges,” he told Arab News.

“So, basically, they are between a rock and a hard place. And the sad thing is that no one is really even listening to them.”

Since 2016, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has verified or monitored the return of at least 388,679 Syrians from neighboring countries to Syria as of Nov. 30, 2023. (AFP/File)

Although Syrians enjoyed more international sympathy early in the civil war, which began in 2011, and when Daesh extremists were conquering swathes of the country in 2014, it has since become a “protracted conflict that not many governments are actually interested in looking at,” Shaar said.

Since violence erupted in Syria, more than 14 million people have fled their homes, according to UN figures. Of these, some 5.5 million have sought safety in Turkiye, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, while more than 6.8 million remain internally displaced.

Syrians in these host countries have also experienced hostility and discrimination at the hands of local communities. This hostile environment has been made worse by a rise in anti-refugee rhetoric.

“Politicians in neighboring countries always capitalize on these refugees and try to leverage their presence politically and even economically, such as in Jordan and in Egypt,” Shaar said.

In the study of migration, there are several “push and pull factors” that contribute to a person’s “decision to migrate or stay,” he said.

In the case of Lebanon, for instance, “the pull factors from Syria are virtually non-existent,” because a returnee might be persecuted, basic services are on the brink of collapse, there is widespread unemployment and inflation is high.

“However, on balance, that decision still makes sense only because the push factors are even harder,” Shaar said.

“So, these push factors in Lebanon, for example, include the inability to seek a job, the fact that the Lebanese government is now harassing UNHCR and asking them not to register refugees, the difficulties related to educating your children in public schools, and so on.”

For Syrian refugees, “the situation in Turkiye is also turning extremely dire,” he said.

Many of the returnees interviewed by the UN Human Rights Office said that they were called in for questioning by Syrian security agencies after their return to Syria. (AFP/File)

The refugee issue took center stage during the Turkish presidential election in May last year, with several opposition candidates campaigning on pledges to deport refugees.

Despite the country hosting an estimated 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees, Syrians have not been offered a seat in Turkiye’s political debates about their fate.

Similarly, in Lebanon, Syrian refugees live with the constant fear of deportation, especially after the Lebanese Armed Forces summarily deported thousands of Syrians in April 2023, including many unaccompanied minors.

The move was condemned by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch.

WHO HOSTS SYRIAN REFUGEES?

• 3.6m Turkiye

• 1.5m Lebanon

• 651k Jordan

• 270k Iraq

• 155k Egypt

Source: UNHCR

However, Jasmin Lilian Diab, director of the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University, believes the lack of economic opportunities in neighboring countries has been the key issue that has driven Syrians to return or migrate elsewhere.

Some 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, 20 percent of whom exist in deplorable conditions, according to the European Commission, citing data from UNHCR.

Due to the country’s economic collapse, coupled with insufficient humanitarian funding and the government’s rejection of local integration or settlement of refugees, these Syrians find themselves ever more vulnerable.

Syrian refugees interviewed by Diab’s team said that they would return because they are “tired of waiting around in the host country for a few things.”

Claiming that “everybody in Lebanon who is Syrian can return” is “not a safe narrative (or) a safe message to propagate,” said Jasmin Lilian Diab. (AFP/File)

Emphasizing that this was “not the overwhelming majority,” Diab said “many people returned from Lebanon because, after 12 years, there are really no integration prospects.”

She said: “The overwhelming majority of (Syrian refugees) would not prefer to stay or return but would rather engage in onward migration.”

Describing the current situation for most Syrian refugees in Lebanon as a “legal limbo,” Diab said “there is currently no willingness to integrate this population.”

Local municipalities across Lebanon have also imposed measures against Syrians that Amnesty International described as “discriminatory.” These include curfews and restrictions on renting accommodation.

Syrians in Lebanon rely on the informal labor market and humanitarian aid to survive. This population is mainly employed in agriculture, sanitation, services and construction.

Due to the limited resources and a lack of integration prospects, Diab believes that for many refugees, returning to Syria “makes sense.”

Fear of persecution has not stopped many thousands of Syrians who had been sheltering abroad from returning home in recent years. (AFP/File)

She said: “Even though there are reports on persecution and detainment, people who have returned have done that through their own family networks. The majority of people we have spoken to are not returning in a vacuum or venturing out on their own.

“They are doing this based on the recommendation of a family member who has either been there the entire conflict and tells them now it is safe enough to return or that they have secured a job or a livelihood opportunity for them.”

Diab said that another strategy employed by returnees is to go to Syria “in waves,” meaning that the primary breadwinner, predominantly a male figure, would return alone initially to “check the situation.” The rest of the household stays put, “waiting for his green light” to join him.

And while several host governments have discussed developing plans for the repatriation of Syrian refugees to Syria, UNHCR said last year the country was not suitable for a safe and dignified return.

Calling for a political resolution to the Syrian conflict, King Abdullah of Jordan stated in September 2023 at the UN General Assembly that his country’s “capacity to deliver necessary services to refugees has surpassed its limits.”

He noted that “refugees are far from returning” and that the UN agencies supporting them have faced shortfalls in funds, forcing them to reduce or cut aid.

The Lebanese government in 2022 announced a plan to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria per month under the pretext that “the war is over,” therefore “the country has become safe.”

But Diab does not believe the Lebanese government has “any assessments as to what safety means.”

Not everyone who has returned to Syria has done so voluntarily. (AFP/File)

“I do not think at the moment there are enough efforts to facilitate a safe return,” she said, highlighting that the Lebanese government “homogenizes the Syrian refugee population” and does not assess individuals’ situations to determine who might be able to return and for whom Syria was never safe.

“Now, because we lump all Syrians together in Lebanon, conversations on safety are very tricky to have,” Diab said.

Claiming that “everybody in Lebanon who is Syrian can return” is “not a safe narrative (or) a safe message to propagate,” she said.