Israeli offensive shifts to crowded southern Gaza, driving up death toll despite evacuation orders

Buildings lie in ruin as Palestinians carry their belongings following Israeli strikes on residential buildings at the Qatari-funded Hamad City, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 2, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Buildings lie in ruin as Palestinians carry their belongings following Israeli strikes on residential buildings at the Qatari-funded Hamad City, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 2, 2023. (REUTERS)
Israeli offensive shifts to crowded southern Gaza, driving up death toll despite evacuation orders
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A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 2, 2023, shows smoke billowing over the Palestinian territory during Israeli bombardment amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.(AFP)
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Updated 03 December 2023
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Israeli offensive shifts to crowded southern Gaza, driving up death toll despite evacuation orders

Israeli offensive shifts to crowded southern Gaza, driving up death toll despite evacuation orders
  • First aid trucks enter Rafah crossing to Gaza since truce collapses
  • Hamas said Saturday that 240 people had been killed in the Palestinian territory since a pause in the fighting expired on Friday

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip: Israel pounded targets in crowded southern Gaza on Saturday and ordered more neighborhoods designated for attack to evacuate, driving up the death toll even as the United States and others urged it to do more to protect civilians a day after a truce collapsed.
The prospect of further cease-fires in Gaza appeared bleak, as Israel recalled its negotiators and Hamas’ deputy leader said any further swap of Gaza-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel would only happen as part of ending the war.
“We will continue the war until we achieve all its goals, and it’s impossible to achieve those goals without the ground operation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address Saturday night.
At least 200 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting resumed Friday morning following the weeklong truce with the territory’s ruling militant group Hamas, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Several multi-story residential buildings were hit on Saturday, engulfing neighborhoods in huge clouds of smoke.
Separately, the ministry said the overall death toll in Gaza since the Oct. 7 start of the war had surpassed 15,200, a sharp jump from the previous count of more than 13,300 on Nov. 20. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it said 70 percent of the dead were women and children. It said more than 40,000 people had been wounded since the war began.
“Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating,” US Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters during the the COP28 climate conference in Dubai.
Appeals from the US, Israel’s closest ally, to protect civilians came after an offensive in the first weeks of the war devastated large areas of northern Gaza. Some 2 million Palestinians, almost Gaza’s entire population, are now crammed into the territory’s southern half.
Israel’s military said it had hit more than 400 Hamas targets across Gaza over the past day, including over 50 in Khan Younis city and surrounding areas in the south.
Palestinian Red Crescent spokesman Mahmoud Basal told broadcaster Al-Jazeera that there were more than 300 “martyrs” in Gaza City’s Shujaia neighborhood and that homes were flattened. Israel’s military said it killed Hamas’ Shujaia battalion commander but gave no details on the operation. Residents could not be reached.
In northern Gaza, an airstrike flattened a building hosting families in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya on Gaza City’s outskirts. It left dozens dead or wounded, said residents Hamza Obeid and Amal Radwan.
“The building turned into a pile of rubble,” Obeid said. AP video showed smoke rising as men, some in sandals, picked their way over debris. The Israeli military confirmed it was operating in Jabaliya and said it had found and destroyed Hamas tunnels in the surrounding area.
And a powerful strike hit a cluster of multi-story buildings in Hamad City, a Qatari-funded housing development on the outskirts of Khan Younis. Smoke engulfed the complex. There was no immediate word on casualties.
“Where is it safe? I swear to God, no one knows, where are we going?” asked Zohair al Raai, who said his family received a recorded message saying their building should evacuate.
Also in the south, at least nine people, including three children, were killed in a strike on a house in Deir Al-Balah, according to the hospital where bodies were taken.
Meanwhile, Palestinian militant groups in Gaza said they fired a barrage of rockets on southern Israel. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesperson, said Hamas had launched more than 250 since the cease-fire ended. There were no immediate reports injuries.
During a Saturday visit to Israel and the West Bank city of Ramallah, an International Criminal Court prosecutor said his office is serious in moving forward to investigate allegations of war crimes on both sides.
“Every actor should be without doubts that they must comply with the law now,” Karim Khan told broadcaster Palestine TV. “And if you don’t comply with the law now, don’t complain later, because we are serious.”
With the resumption of fighting, the Israeli military published an online map carving up Gaza into hundreds of numbered parcels and asked residents to familiarize themselves with the number of their location ahead of evacuation warnings.
On Saturday, the military listed more than two dozen parcel numbers around Gaza City and east of Khan Younis. Separately, it dropped leaflets with evacuation orders over towns east of Khan Younis.
One Khan Younis resident said a neighbor received a call from the Israeli army warning that houses in the area would be hit. “We told them, ‘We have nothing here, why do you want to strike it?’” said the resident, Hikmat Al-Qidra. Al-Qidra said the house was destroyed.
The maps and leaflets generated panic and confusion, especially in the crowded south. Unable to go to northern Gaza or neighboring Egypt, their only escape is to move around within the 220-square-kilometer (85-square-mile) area.
“There is no place to go,” said Emad Hajjar, who fled to Khan Younis a month ago. “They expelled us from the north, and now they are pushing us to leave the south.”
Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said Israel was making “maximum effort” to protect civilians and the military has used leafleting, phone calls, and radio and TV broadcasts to urge Gazans to move from specific areas.
Regev added that Israel is considering a future security buffer zone that would not allow Gazans direct access to the border fence on foot.
Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. Israel says 77 of its soldiers have been killed in the offensive in northern Gaza.
Also Saturday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said it had received the first convoy of aid trucks through the Rafah crossing with Egypt since fighting resumed. Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, said 100 trucks entered including three carrying 150,000 liters (nearly 40,000 gallons) of fuel.
Meanwhile the US vice president said in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi that “under no circumstances” would the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, an ongoing siege of Gaza or redrawing of its borders, according to a US summary.
The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel. Around 240 people were taken captive.
The renewed hostilities have heightened concerns for 137 hostages who, according to the Israeli military, are still held after 105 were freed during the truce. A 70-year-old woman held by Hamas was declared dead on Saturday, according to her kibbutz, bringing the number of known dead hostages to eight.
At a rally of tens of thousands in Tel Aviv, released hostages called for the rest to be freed. In a video address, Yaffa Adar, 85, spoke up specifically for children being held, saying, “I want to see them now — not when I’m in a coffin.”
Hamas and Israel differed on who was still being held.
Hamas’ deputy leader, Saleh Arouri, told Al-Jazeera that any remaining hostages are men, “all of whom served in the (Israeli) army.” That contradicted another top Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, who told The Associated Press on Friday the group was willing to trade more hostages but rebuffed an Israeli demand to release 10 female soldiers.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas violated the truce agreement by refusing to return two children and 15 women.
During the truce, Israel freed 240 Palestinians. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.


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

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

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

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

 


Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

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

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for many farmers, oil has been a scourge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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