Israeli defense chief resists pressure to halt Gaza offensive, says campaign will ‘take time’

A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 11, 2023, shows Israeli army soldiers keeping position on a hill overlooking northern Gaza, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)
A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 11, 2023, shows Israeli army soldiers keeping position on a hill overlooking northern Gaza, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)
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Updated 12 December 2023
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Israeli defense chief resists pressure to halt Gaza offensive, says campaign will ‘take time’

Israeli defense chief resists pressure to halt Gaza offensive, says campaign will ‘take time’
  • Israel pledged to keep fighting until it removes Hamas from power and dismantles its military capabilities

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel’s defense minister on Monday pushed back against international calls to wrap up the country’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, saying the current phase of the operation against the Hamas militant group will “take time.”
Yoav Gallant, a member of Israel’s three-man war cabinet, remained unswayed by a growing chorus of criticism over the widespread damage and heavy civilian death toll caused by the two-month military campaign. The UN secretary-general and leading Arab states have called for an immediate cease-fire. The United States has urged Israel to reduce civilian casualties, though it has provided unwavering diplomatic and military support.
Israel launched the campaign after Hamas militants stormed across its southern border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping about 240 others.
Two months of airstrikes, coupled with a fierce ground invasion, have resulted in the deaths of over 17,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory. They do not give a breakdown between civilians and combatants but say that roughly two-thirds of the dead have been women and minors. Nearly 85 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gallant refused to commit to any firm deadlines, but he signaled that the current phase, characterized by heavy ground fighting backed up by air power, could stretch on for weeks and that further military activity could continue for months.
“We are going to defend ourselves. I am fighting for Israel’s future,” he said.
Gallant said the next phase would be lower-intensity fighting against “pockets of resistance” and would require Israeli troops to maintain their freedom of operation. “That’s a sign the next phase has begun,” he said.
Gallant spoke as Israeli forces battled militants in and around the southern city of Khan Younis, where the military opened a new line of attack last week. Battles were also still underway in parts of Gaza City and the urban Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, where large areas have been reduced to rubble and many thousands of civilians are still trapped by the fighting.
Israel has pledged to keep fighting until it removes Hamas from power, dismantles its military capabilities and gets back all of the hostages. It says Hamas still has 117 hostages and the remains of 20 people who died in captivity or during the initial attack. More than 100 captives were freed last month during a weeklong truce.
Gallant keeps a framed picture on the desk of his spacious office with pictures of all the children taken hostage. All but two are marked with small hearts, signaling their release from captivity.
HEAVY FIGHTING
In central Gaza, an Israeli airstrike overnight flattened a residential building where some 80 people were staying in the Maghazi refugee camp, residents said.
Ahmed Al-Qarah, a neighbor who was digging through the rubble for survivors, said he knew of only six people who made it out. “The rest are under the building,” he said. At a nearby hospital, family members sobbed over the bodies of several of the dead from the strike.
In Khan Younis, Radwa Abu Frayeh saw heavy Israeli strikes overnight around the European Hospital, where the UN humanitarian office says tens of thousands of people have sought shelter. She said one strike hit a home close to hers late Sunday.
“The building shook,” she said. “We thought it was the end and we would die.”
Gallant blamed Hamas for the heavy civilian death toll, saying that the militant group maintains a network of tunnels underneath schools, streets and hospitals.
He claimed that Israel has inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, killing half of the group’s battalion commanders and destroying many tunnels, command centers and weapons facilities.
Israeli officials have said some 7,000 Hamas militants — roughly one-quarter of the group’s fighting force — have been killed throughout the war and that 500 militants have been detained in Gaza the past month. The claims could not be independently verified. Israel says 104 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive.
The result, he said, is that in the northern Gaza Strip, Hamas has been reduced to “islands of resistance” acting on the whims of local commanders.
In southern Gaza, he said the situation is different. “They are still organized militarily,” he said.
Gallant also said Israel has recovered “hundreds of terabytes” of information about Hamas from computers its troops have seized.
Despite the reported battlefield setbacks, Hamas on Monday fired a barrage of rockets that set off sirens in Tel Aviv, where Gallant’s office and Israeli military headquarters are located.
One person was lightly wounded, according to the Magen David Adom rescue service. Israel’s Channel 12 television broadcast footage of a cratered road and damage to cars and buildings in a suburb.
HARROWING JOURNEY

The UN humanitarian office, known as OCHA, described a harrowing journey through the battle zone in northern Gaza by a UN and Red Crescent convoy over the weekend that made the first delivery of medical supplies to the north in more than a week. It said an ambulance and UN truck were hit by gunfire on the way to Al-Ahly Hospital to drop off the supplies.
The convoy then evacuated 19 patients but was delayed for inspections by Israeli forces on the way south. OCHA said one patient died, and a paramedic was detained for hours, interrogated and reportedly beaten.
The fighting in Jabaliya has trapped hundreds of staff, patients and displaced people inside hospitals, most of which are unable to function.
Two staff members were killed over the weekend by clashes outside Al-Awda Hospital, OCHA said. Shelling and live ammunition hit Al-Yemen Al-Saeed Hospital, killing an unknown number of displaced people sheltering inside, it said. It did not say which side was behind the fire.
HARSH CONDITIONS IN THE SOUTH
With Israel allowing little aid into Gaza and the UN largely unable to distribute it amid the fighting, Palestinians face severe shortages of food, water and other basic goods.
Israel said it will start conducting inspections of aid trucks Tuesday at its Kerem Shalom crossing, a step meant to increase the amount of relief entering Gaza. Currently, Israel’s Nitzana crossing is the only inspection point in operation. All trucks then enter from Egypt through the Rafah crossing. Aid workers, however, say they are largely unable to distribute aid beyond the Rafah area because of the fighting elsewhere.
Israel has urged people to flee to what it says are safe areas in the south. The fighting in and around Khan Younis has pushed tens of thousands toward the town of Rafah and other areas along the border with Egypt.
Still, airstrikes have continued even in areas to which Palestinians are told to flee.
A strike in Rafah early Monday heavily damaged a residential building, killing at least nine people, all but one of them women, according to Associated Press reporters who saw the bodies at the hospital.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders said people in the south are also falling ill as they pack into crowded shelters or sleep in tents in open areas.
Nicholas Papachrysostomou, the group’s emergency coordinator in Gaza, said “every other patient” at a clinic in Rafah has a respiratory infection after prolonged exposure to cold and rain. In shelters where hundreds share a single toilet, diarrhea is widespread, particularly among children, he said.


Urgent UN Security Council action sought to end war in Sudan

Urgent UN Security Council action sought to end war in Sudan
Updated 29 February 2024
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Urgent UN Security Council action sought to end war in Sudan

Urgent UN Security Council action sought to end war in Sudan
  • “It is clear that this is an urgent matter of peace and security that demands greater attention from the Security Council,” says US envoy
  • UN says that nearly 25 million people — half Sudan’s population — need aid and some 8 million have fled their homes

UNITED NATIONS: The United States on Wednesday pushed for the United Nations Security Council to take action to help end a nearly year-long conflict in Sudan between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The United States says the warring parties have committed war crimes and the RSF and allied militias have also committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. The UN says that nearly 25 million people — half Sudan’s population — need aid and some 8 million have fled their homes and hunger is rising.
“It is clear that this is an urgent matter of peace and security that demands greater attention from the Security Council,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Reuters in a statement.
“The council must act urgently to alleviate human suffering, hold perpetrators to account, and bring the conflict in Sudan to an end. Time is running out,” she said, without specifying what action the 15-member council should take.
Since war erupted on April 15, 2023, the council has only issued three press statements condemning and expressing concern about the war. It echoed that language in a resolution in December that shut down a UN political mission — following a request from Sudan’s acting foreign minister.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed in one city alone in Sudan’s West Darfur region last year in ethnic violence by the RSF and allied Arab militia, according to a UN sanctions monitors report, seen by Reuters last month.
“I am deeply disappointed that the allegations detailed in this report have received such little attention, both inside the UN Security Council and outside the United Nations,” said Thomas-Greenfield, who visited a refugee camp in Chad near the border with Sudan’s Darfur in September.
The Sudanese government recently prohibited aid deliveries through Chad, effectively shutting down a crucial route for supplies to the vast Darfur region, which is controlled by the rival RSF. Thomas-Greenfield described the move as “unacceptable” for threatening a “critical lifeline.”
Reuters last year chronicled the ethnically targeted violence committed in West Darfur. In hundreds of interviews with Reuters, survivors described horrific scenes of bloodletting in El Geneina and on the 30-km (18-mile) route from the city to the border with Chad as people fled.
 


Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release

Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release
Updated 29 February 2024
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Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release

Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks. Israeli hostages’ families push for release
  • The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, who see in them an enduring symbol of the state’s failure to protect its citizens from Hamas’ assault

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Aid convoys carrying food reached northern Gaza this week, Israeli officials said Wednesday, the first major delivery in a month to the devastated, isolated area, where the UN has warned of worsening starvation among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians amid Israel’s offensive.
The increasing alarm over hunger across Gaza has fueled international calls for a ceasefire as the US, Egypt and Qatar work to secure a deal between Israel and Hamas for a pause in fighting and the release of some of the hostages seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack.
Mediators hope to reach an agreement before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts around March 10. But so far, Israel and Hamas have remained far apart in public on their demands.
Increasing the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach a deal, families of hostages on Wednesday launched a four-day march from southern Israel to Jerusalem to demand their loved ones be set free. Some of the around 100 hostages freed during a ceasefire in late November are joining the march, which is to end near Netanyahu’s official residence.
The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, who see in them an enduring symbol of the state’s failure to protect its citizens from Hamas’ assault. In its Oct. 7 attack, the Palestinian militant group abducted roughly 250 people, according to Israeli authorities, including men, women, children and older adults. After the November releases, some 130 hostages remain, and Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.
Israel’s assault on Gaza, which it says aims at destroying Hamas after its attack, has killed more than 29,900 Palestinians. UN officials warn of further mass casualties if it follows through on vows to attack the southernmost city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has taken refuge. They also say a Rafah offensive could collapse the aid operation that has already been crippled in the fighting.
Across Gaza, more than 576,000 people – a quarter of the population – are a step away from famine, the UN says. But northern Gaza in particular has been gutted by hunger. The north has largely been cut off and much of it has been leveled since Israeli ground troops invaded in late October. Several hundred thousand Palestinians are believed to remain there, and many have been reduced to eating animal fodder to survive. The UN says one in 6 children under 2 in the north suffer from acute malnutrition and wasting.
A convoy of 31 trucks carrying food entered northern Gaza on Wednesday, the Israeli military office that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs said. The office, known by the acronym COGAT, said nearly 20 other trucks entered the north on Monday and Tuesday. Associated Press footage showed people carrying sacks of flour from the distribution site.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the deliveries. The UN was not involved, said a spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office, Eri Keneko.
As of Sunday, the UN had been unable to deliver food to northern Gaza since Jan. 23, according to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees that has led the aid effort during the war. On Feb. 18, the World Food Program attempted a delivery to the north for the first time in three weeks, but much of the convoy’s cargo was taken en route by desperate Palestinians, and it was only able to distribute a small amount in the north. Two days later, the WFP announced it was pausing deliveries to the north because of the chaos.
Since launching its assault on Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Israel has barred entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies except for a trickle of aid entering the south from Egypt at the Rafah crossing and Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing. Despite international calls to allow in more aid, the number of supply trucks entering has dropped dramatically in recent weeks.
COGAT said Wednesday that Israel does not impose limits on the amount of aid entering. Israel has blamed UN agencies for the bottleneck, saying hundreds of trucks are waiting on the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom for aid workers to collect them.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Wednesday countered saying large trucks entering Gaza have to be unloaded and reloaded onto smaller Palestinian trucks, but there aren’t enough of them and there’s a lack of security to distribute aid in Gaza. Police in Gaza stopped protecting convoys after Israeli strikes on them near the crossing. There is also “insufficient coordination” from Israel on security and deconfliction, which puts the lives of UN staff and other humanitarian workers at risk.
“That’s why we’ve repeatedly asked for a humanitarian ceasefire,” he said. The UN has called for Israel to open crossings in the north to aid deliveries and guarantee safe corridors for convoys.
The director of Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza said the number of children who have died in recent days from severe malnutrition and dehydration had risen to four.
Dr. Hussam Abu Safiya said that operations at the hospital will shut off starting Wednesday due to fuel shortages. “Dialysis, intensive care, childcare, and surgeries will stop. Therefore, we will witness more deaths in the coming days,” he said.
But the pain from the lack of supplies extends across Gaza. Project Hope, a humanitarian group that runs a clinic in the central town of Deir Al-Balah, said 21 percent of the pregnant women and 11 percent of the children under 5 it has treated in the last three weeks are suffering from malnutrition.
The Gaza Health Ministry said the death toll from Israel’s offensive had risen to 29,954 people, with 70,325 wounded. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it says two-thirds of the dead were children and women.
In its attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Hamas and other Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians.


Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths

Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths
Updated 28 February 2024
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Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths

Gaza officials report two more child malnutrition deaths
  • The latest fatalities were at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza city
  • The death toll from the famine among children rose to six martyrs as a result of dehydration and malnutrition

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: Two children have died “of dehydration and malnutrition” in war-torn Gaza, the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry said Wednesday, the latest reported deaths as the UN warned of “imminent” famine.
The latest fatalities were at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza city, the largest hospital in the besieged territory, said health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra.
“The death toll from the famine among children rose to six martyrs as a result of dehydration and malnutrition,” Qudra said.
The deaths could not be independently verified.
“We call on international institutions to take immediate action to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe in the northern Gaza Strip,” the spokesman added.
UN agencies have said the latest humanitarian convoy was allowed into the north more than a month ago.
The United Nations humanitarian coordination office on Wednesday said two children had died earlier of dehydration and malnutrition in northern Gaza’s Kamal Adwan hospital — deaths previously announced by Qudra.
A dire humanitarian emergency is unfolding in Gaza as Israel continues its relentless bid to eliminate Hamas in response to the Palestinian group’s October 7 attack.
The surprise attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Nearly five months into the war, the Israeli campaign has killed at least 29,954 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.
With aid still blocked from entering northern Gaza by Israeli forces, and only entering the rest of the territory in dribs and drabs, the World Food Programme said on Tuesday that “if nothing changes, a famine is imminent.”
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA, has reported a 50-percent drop in trucks entering Gaza so far this month compared to January.
The UN humanitarian office OCHA also cited projections indicating that “the entire population of the Gaza Strip faces crisis or worse levels of food insecurity.”
More than 500,000 people out of Gaza’s 2.4 million inhabitants are “facing catastrophic conditions characterised by lack of food, starvation and exhaustion of coping capacities,” it warned.


US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan

US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan
Updated 28 February 2024
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US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan

US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan
  • “It is not in Israel’s security interest to inflame tensions in the West Bank or in the broader region,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters
  • Israel has been assessing how to address worship in Jerusalem during Ramadan

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday urged Israel to allow Muslims to worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during Ramadan, after a far-right minister proposed barring Palestinians from the occupied West Bank from praying there.
“As it pertains to Al-Aqsa, we continue to urge Israel to facilitate access to Temple Mount for peaceful worshippers during Ramadan consistent with past practice,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters, using the Jewish term for the site, the holiest in Judaism.
“That’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just a matter of granting people religious freedom that they deserve and to which they have a right, but it’s also a matter that directly is important to Israel’s security,” he said.
“It is not in Israel’s security interest to inflame tensions in the West Bank or in the broader region.”
Israel has been assessing how to address worship in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that will start on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.
The month of fasting comes as Israel wages a relentless military campaign in the Gaza Strip in response to a major attack by Hamas inside Israel on October 7.
Hamas has called for a mass movement on Al-Aqsa for the start of Ramadan.
“We call on our people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the occupied interior (Israel) to travel to Al-Aqsa from the first day of the blessed month of Ramadan, in groups or alone, to pray there to break the siege on it,” Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised statement Wednesday.
Last week, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said that Palestinian residents of the West Bank “should not be allowed” entry to Jerusalem to pray during Ramadan.
“We cannot take risks,” he said, adding: “We cannot have women and children hostage in Gaza and allow celebrations for Hamas on the Temple Mount.”
Ben Gvir leads a hard-right party advocating Jewish control of the compound.
The United States has been pressing for a deal before Ramadan begins in which Israel would halt strikes in the Gaza Strip and hostages snatched on October 7 would be freed.
The Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed at least 29,954 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest figures by the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
It was launched in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.


Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy

Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy
Updated 28 February 2024
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Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy

Many in Iran are frustrated over unrest, poor economy
  • Parliament vote could see a low turnout ­— a constant feature of past elections

DUBAI: Iran is holding parliamentary elections this Friday, yet the real question may not be who gets elected but how many people actually turn out to vote.

Widespread discontent over the cratering economy, years of mass protests rocking the country, and tensions with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program and Iran’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine have many people quietly saying they won’t vote in this election.

Officials have urged people to cast ballots but tellingly, no information has been released this year from the state-owned polling center ISPA about expected turnout — a constant feature of past elections. Of 21 Iranians interviewed recently by The Associated Press, only five said they would vote. Thirteen said they won’t and three said they were undecided.

“If I protest about some shortcoming, many police and security agents will try to stop me,” said Amin, a 21-year-old university student who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. “But if I die from hunger on the corner of one of the main streets, they will show no reaction.”

Over 15,000 candidates are vying for a seat in the 290-member parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Terms run for four years and five seats are reserved for Iran’s religious minorities.

Under the law, the parliament has oversight over the executive branch, votes on treaties and handles other issues. In practice, absolute power in Iran rests with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Hard-liners have controlled the parliament for the past two decades — with chants of “Death to America” often heard from the floor.

Under parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard general who supported a violent crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999, the legislature pushed forward a bill in 2020 that greatly curtailed Tehran’s cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That followed then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 — an act that sparked years of tensions in the Middle East and saw Iran enrich enough uranium at record-breaking purity to have enough fuel for “several” nuclear weapons if it chose.

More recently, the parliament has focused on issues surrounding Iran’s mandatory headscarf, or hijab, for women after the 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, which sparked nationwide protests. The protests quickly escalated into calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers. A subsequent security crackdown killed over 500 people, with more than 22,000 detained.

Calls for an election boycott have spread in recent weeks, including from imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, a women’s right activist, who called them a “sham.”

“The Islamic Republic, with its ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions and the imprisonment and torture of men and women, deserves national sanctions and global disgrace,” Mohammadi said in a statement.

The boycott calls have put the government under renewed pressure — since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s theocracy has based its legitimacy in part on turnout in elections.

On Wednesday, Khamenei himself urged people to vote, describing it as a national duty. “There is no reasoning behind not voting,” he said. “It does not solve any problem of the country.”

He also said “those who express a lack of interest in the election and encourage others not to participate should think some more.”

“If the election is weak, all face harm,” he added.

Though ISPA, the polling agency, conducted election surveys in October, its results have not been made public. Figures from politicians and other media outlets suggest a turnout of around 30 percent.

In the 2021 presidential election that brought hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to power, the turnout was 49 percent — the lowest on record for a presidential vote. Millions of ballots were declared void, likely from those who felt obligated to vote but did not want to cast a ballot.

The 2019 parliament race saw a 42 percent turnout.

Separately, Iranians will also vote on Friday for members of the country’s 88-seat Assembly of Experts, an eight-year term on a panel that will appoint the country’s next supreme leader after Khamenei, 84.

Barred from that race is former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate under whose term Iran struck the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Some said Iran’s economic woes were the reason they are staying away from the polls. Inflation is reportedly at around 50 percent, with unemployment around 20 percent for young Iranians.

“I will not vote,” said Hashem Amani, a 55-year-old fruit merchant in southern Tehran. “In 2021, I voted for Raisi to become president in hope that similar people in the government can work together and make a better life for me. What I got in return was rocketing prices for everything.”