Israeli military attacks southern Lebanon for second day running

Israeli soldiers stand by, as a mobile artillery unit fires on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border December 2, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Israeli soldiers stand by, as a mobile artillery unit fires on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border December 2, 2023. (REUTERS)
Israeli military attacks southern Lebanon for second day running
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A man looks on, as Hezbollah supporters protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Beirut, Lebanon, October 27, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Updated 02 December 2023

Israeli military attacks southern Lebanon for second day running

Israeli soldiers stand by, as a mobile artillery unit fires on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border December 2, 2023.
  • Lebanese PM highlights environmental deterioration due to Israeli hostilities
  • Use of prohibited weapons including white phosphorus denounced

BEIRUT: Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants exchanged fire across the Israel-Lebanon border on Saturday in a second day of hostilities.

Israeli airstrikes hit multiple border towns as the Israeli army said that it had “retaliated against attacks originating from southern Lebanon.”

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Israeli aggression against Lebanon was not only affecting its people but also causing environmental damage.

“Large areas in Lebanon have been exposed to severe impacts, leading to environmental deterioration resulting from the ongoing Israeli hostilities,” Mikati, who is currently attending the COP28 conference in Dubai, said.

He said Israeli violations included the use of prohibited weapons such as white phosphorus, which killed civilians and caused irreparable damage to more than 5 million square meters of forest, agricultural land, and thousands of olive trees, all of which would lead to the destruction of livelihoods and sources of income and the displacement of tens of thousands of Lebanese.

Prime Minister Mohamad Najib Mikati speaks at the UN climate summit in Dubai. (AFP)

Mikati met with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the conference and praised Ireland for its active contribution to the UN’s Interim Force in Lebanon.

Mikati also discussed the situation in Gaza and southern Lebanon with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of COP28. The results of French special envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Beirut were also explored.

According to local media, during his visit Le Drian had discussed the possibility of amending UN Resolution 1701 at Israel’s request so that Hezbollah had to retreat at least 15 km from the border.

MP Waddah Sadek, who met Le Drian, told Arab News that the envoy “did not tackle the issue, but we announced that we are committed to the resolution and its implementation as it is, in light of Israel’s request to amend it for its benefit.”

He added that Le Drian “did not comment on our stance, and what was said came as part of the discussion regarding the course of the implementation of Resolution 1701.”

Nabil Kaouk — a member of Hezbollah’s central council — said the party “will not allow any Israeli gains or any new Israeli equation at the expense of Lebanese sovereignty, because the Lebanese people have the right to exist and move on any inch of our land in the south.”

He asserted that Hezbollah “was, is, and will remain the biggest supporter of the people of Gaza.”

Speaking on behalf of Hezbollah, Kaouk also said: “Some people are promoting Israeli demands and goals inside and outside the country by requesting the amendment of Resolution 1701 to create a buffer zone on the border to reassure the settlers who are afraid to return to their settlements due to Hezbollah’s presence on the border.”

Kaouk’s remarks came as the Israeli military launched flare shells on Saturday at Wadi Hamoul and Al-Labouneh, located east of Naqoura.

Israeli airstrikes also targeted several valleys in Aita al-Shaab and Ramiya.

Hezbollah has repeatedly declared that it has attacked previously targeted Israeli military locations over the last 50 days, including Khirbet Maar, Ruwaisat Al-Alam in the Kfar Shuba Heights, the 91st Division headquarters in the Branit barracks, and the Al-Raheb military site and its garrison.

On Saturday, Hezbollah held funerals for three of its members who were killed on the border with Israel during confrontations on Friday after the end of the truce in the Gaza Strip:

Khader Salim Abboud, Mohammed Hussein Mazraani, and Wajih Shehada Mishik. Eighty-eight Hezbollah members have reportedly been killed between the opening of the southern Lebanese front on Oct. 8 and Dec. 2.

Nassifa Mazraani, a civilian, and her son were killed on Friday inside their house by an Israeli shell in the town of Hula. Mazraani had survived the July 2006 war, in which she suffered burns, and had been detained by Israeli forces before they withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. She was one of those freed in prisoner-exchange agreements.

Israeli media reported that the Israeli military has asked residents of the northern border region near southern Lebanon to refrain from traveling to and from towns that have been evacuated due to a security assessment.

The military advised individuals to limit movement within settlements and remain in protected areas. Israeli authorities have also banned agricultural activity in the area.



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 50 min 6 sec ago

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

“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.

Jordanian, Irish educational institutions discuss collaboration

Jordanian, Irish educational institutions discuss collaboration
Updated 04 March 2024

Jordanian, Irish educational institutions discuss collaboration

Jordanian, Irish educational institutions discuss collaboration
  • Talks include joint scientific projects and research, faculty and student exchange programs

AMMAN: Officials from Jordan and Ireland met on Monday to discuss cooperation on higher education and scientific research, Jordan News Agency reported.
Vice President of the University of Jordan (Aqaba) Nazeeh Btoush held talks with Irish Ambassador to Jordan Marianne Bolger.
Bolger proposed several collaborative opportunities, including carrying out joint scientific projects and research, implementing faculty and student exchange programs, and promoting the exchange of scientific information.
Btoush highlighted the university’s dedication to establishing international partnerships, pointing out the mutual benefits of exchanging knowledge and experience.
He highlighted the significance of such collaborations in enhancing the university’s educational and research activities.
Bolger expressed the Irish embassy’s keenness to forge strong links with Jordanian educational institutions, praising the university’s distinguished reputation and array of scientific units and centers.
UoJ Aqaba specializes in marine science and is involved in research and monitoring initiatives. The aim is to establish environmental baselines along the Jordanian coastline of the Gulf of Aqaba, while also tackling applied coastal and marine research.

Hamas says it presses on with Gaza truce talks without Israelis

Hamas says it presses on with Gaza truce talks without Israelis
Updated 04 March 2024

Hamas says it presses on with Gaza truce talks without Israelis

Hamas says it presses on with Gaza truce talks without Israelis
  • Ceasefire talks billed as a final hurdle to establish first extended ceasefire of five-month-old war in time for Ramadan 
  • Washington appeared to take a tougher line in demanding its ally Israel ease the plight of suffering civilians

CAIRO/RAFAH: Hamas said on Monday it was pressing on with talks on securing a ceasefire in Gaza despite Israel’s decision not to attend, while Washington appeared to take a tougher line in demanding its ally Israel ease the plight of suffering civilians.
The ceasefire talks, which began on Sunday in Cairo, are billed as a final hurdle to establish the first extended ceasefire of the five-month-old war, in time for the Ramadan Muslim fasting month which is expected to begin on Sunday.
Israel has declined public comment on the Cairo talks or its decision not to attend. A source had earlier told Reuters Israel would stay away because Hamas had refused its request for a list of names of all hostages it is holding that are still alive, information the militants say they will provide only once terms are agreed.
“Talks in Cairo continue for the second day regardless of whether the occupation’s delegation is present in Egypt,” a Hamas official told Reuters on Monday.
Washington, which is both Israel’s closest ally and a sponsor of the talks, says a deal remains close, with an agreement already effectively agreed by Israel and only awaiting approval from Hamas.
“Hamas claims it wants a ceasefire. Well, there is a deal on the table. And as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal,” Vice President Kamala Harris said on Sunday. “Let’s get a ceasefire. Let’s reunite the hostages with their families. And let’s provide immediate relief to the people of Gaza.”
In a speech signalling an apparent change of tone from the administration of President Joe Biden toward its ally, Harris also used unusually forceful language to call for Israel to do more to alleviate the humanitarian plight of the Gaza Strip.
“People in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane and our common humanity compels us to act,” she said. “The Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”
A Palestinian official close to the talks disputed the US contention that Israel had agreed to the ceasefire deal and Hamas was holding it up, saying the position appeared aimed at deflecting blame away from Israel should the talks collapse.
“The Palestinian resistance, led by Hamas, has shown the flexibility needed, but at the same time they are determined to defend their people and achieve a deal that is acceptable to the Palestinian people,” the official said.
The proposal being discussed is for a ceasefire of around 40 days, during which militants would release around 40 of the more than 100 hostages they are still holding in return for around 400 detainees held in Israeli jails.
Israeli troops would pull back from some areas, more humanitarian aid would be allowed into Gaza, and residents would be permitted to return to abandoned homes.
But the deal does not appear to address directly a Hamas demand for a clear path to permanently ending the war. Nor does it resolve the fate of more than half of the remaining hostages — Israeli men excluded from both this and earlier agreements covering women, children, the elderly and the wounded.
Israel says it will not end the war until Hamas is eradicated. Hamas says it will not free all its hostages without a deal that ends the war. Mediators have indicated they hope to overcome the standoff with promises to resolve further issues in later phases.

Rafah strike kills family
The Gaza war erupted after Hamas fighters who control the enclave burst into Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, Israel has sealed off the coastal strip, stormed nearly all of its towns and pounded it from the sky. Palestinian authorities say more than 30,000 people have been confirmed killed, with thousands of other bodies unrecovered. Most of the population has been made homeless, and the United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people face famine.
An agreement to halt fighting by Ramadan would effectively head off a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, the last town on the southern edge of Gaza, where more than half of the enclave’s population are now sheltering, mostly in makeshift tents.
The final days leading up to that deadline have been particularly bloody. Residents have described heavy fighting since Saturday just north of Rafah in Khan Younis, the main southern city, where Israeli forces have released video showing buildings obliterated in airstrikes.
In Rafah itself, airstrikes on homes have been killing families nightly as they sleep. At least 14 corpses of a family killed overnight were laid out at a hospital morgue in Rafah on Monday morning. One of the body bags was partially unzipped so weeping relatives could stroke the hair of a dead child.
Israel’s Channel 14 News reported on Monday that several officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson’s unit were leaving their jobs, including chief international spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. It said the large number leaving at once at a time of war was unusual.
The military denied media reports that chief spokesperson Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari had resigned, but did not directly comment on reports of other officers leaving the unit. “The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit continues to fulfil its mission of sharing the truth with transparency and accuracy, while countering misinformation — including baseless claims such as these,” it said in a statement.

Houthis attack ship off Yemen’s Aden

Houthis attack ship off Yemen’s Aden
Updated 04 March 2024

Houthis attack ship off Yemen’s Aden

Houthis attack ship off Yemen’s Aden
  • Vessel reported an incident around 91 nautical miles southeast of Yemen’s port city of Aden
  • UN official said that attacks by Yemen’s Houthi militia on ships in the Red Sea have quadrupled global shipping costs and cut cargo movement by 30 percent

AL-MUKALLA: The UK Maritime Trade Operations agency cautioned ships crossing the Red Sea on Monday to exercise care after a vessel reported an incident around 91 nautical miles southeast of Yemen’s port city of Aden.

This came as a UN official said on Monday that attacks by Yemen’s Houthi militia on ships in the Red Sea have quadrupled global shipping costs and cut cargo movement by 30 percent. 

Oleg Kobyakov, director of the office for liaison with Russia at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told the Russian news agency TASS that what he called the Houthis’ “blockade” of the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab Strait has led to an increase in the price of goods across the globe, hurt the movement of goods, increased fuel bills for ships by an average of 15 percent, and pushed many shipping companies into taking the “8,000 km” route through the Cape of Good Hope to travel between Asia and Europe to avoid Houthi attacks. 

“The blockade of Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea by the Houthis is hurting global food trade. The cost of chartering a ship to travel along this route has almost quadrupled while cargo traffic has dropped by 30 percent,” he said.

Since November, the Houthis have targeted scores of commercial and naval ships going through international seas near Yemen, seized a commercial ship, and blocked the Red Sea before all Israel-bound ships. The Houthis claim their assaults are intended to push Israel to break its embargo on Gaza. 

On Feb. 18, Houthi missiles targeted the MV Rubymar, a Belize-flagged and Lebanese-operated ship, severely damaging it and triggering a big oil leak in the Red Sea.

The ship, carrying more than 21,000 tonnes of fertilizer, sank on Saturday, raising global fears about a possible environmental disaster in the Red Sea as well as hazards to trade along the critical route.

Similarly, the Houthis have accused the US of exaggerating the environmental damage of the ship and its contents. 

The ship’s around 21,000 tonnes of ammonium phosphate sulfate fertilizer are good for fish and coral reefs, as well as helping plants grow in seawater, according to Houthi media official Nasr Al-Din Amer, who purportedly cited a study by an “international” fertilizer production business. 

Amer said in a post on X that the study “refutes American propaganda about the ‘Red Sea disaster.’” 

Meanwhile, the Houthis have announced the mobilization of thousands of fighters in the central province of Marib under the banner of “supporting people in Palestine,” raising concerns in Yemen that the Houthis are using public outrage over Israel’s war in Gaza to resume a military offensive in Marib.

The Houthis said on Sunday that 4,000 of their armed militants journeyed for three days and 100 km from the Harf Sufyan District in the province of Amran to Marib’s Majzar District, where they would settle in preparation for instructions from their commanders to “reinforce” Palestinians.

Another 2,500 infantry Houthi men marched from the same Amran province to Marib on Saturday, allegedly to help Palestinians, according to Houthi official media.

Between January 2021 and April 2022, thousands of civilians and combatants were killed in the province of Marib when the Houthis began a massive military assault to capture control of the region.

Despite moving closer to the city, the Houthis lost thousands of men, failed to seize Marib, and were forced to halt their attack in April 2022 under a UN-brokered ceasefire.

With the current Houthi military rallies outside Marib, Yemen’s government authorities have raised the alarm about a possible Houthi assault on the city under the pretext of battling Israel.

Egyptian FM, UN official discuss ways to boost Gaza relief

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (AP)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (AP)
Updated 04 March 2024

Egyptian FM, UN official discuss ways to boost Gaza relief

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (AP)
  • Shoukry stressed the necessity of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza before the month of Ramadan so that the flow of humanitarian aid and relief materials can be increased in quantities sufficient for the needs of the residents

CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has stressed the humanitarian and legal responsibility of the UN Security Council to ensure the full implementation of the provisions of Resolution 2720.

He made the comments during talks with Sigrid Kaag, the UN’s senior coordinator for humanitarian affairs and reconstruction in Gaza.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said that Shoukry and Kaag discussed in depth the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in areas of the Gaza Strip due to starvation and the targeting of civilians and humanitarian aid convoys by the Israeli military.

Shoukry stressed the necessity of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza before the month of Ramadan so that the flow of humanitarian aid and relief materials can be increased in quantities sufficient for the needs of the residents.

He noted the humanitarian risks resulting from systematic attempts to target the work of UNRWA and the suspension of funding to the agency by some donors.

UN official Kaag expressed her appreciation for Egypt’s pivotal role since the beginning of the crisis in Gaza.

Kaag emphasized her keenness to continue consultation and coordination with Egypt to ensure the implementation of her tasks related to increasing aid delivery to the strip.

Shoukry was keen to hear from the visiting UN official about developments in work to activate the UN mechanism established by Security Council Resolution 2720 to facilitate, coordinate, and monitor the entry of aid into the Gaza Strip and how to overcome the existing obstacles that prevent her from being able to implement the mandate more than two months after the adoption of the resolution.

Shoukry said Israel must be pressured to comply with the provisions of international law and remove the obstacles it places to bringing aid in to the enclave, including facilitating the use of all available roads into and from the Gaza Strip, including border crossings and using the most direct paths for aid to reach those who need it.