Can new UN humanitarian coordinator Sigrid Kaag get more aid into embattled Gaza?

Special Can new UN humanitarian coordinator Sigrid Kaag get more aid into embattled Gaza?
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A paramedic assists a woman carrying a child arriving at the European Hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 31, 2023. (AFP)
Special Can new UN humanitarian coordinator Sigrid Kaag get more aid into embattled Gaza?
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In this photo taken on July 28, 2009, Sigrid Kaag, then UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, gives a press conference in front of the debris of the American School in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip, which was demolished during an Israeli military operation. (AFP/File)
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Updated 22 January 2024
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Can new UN humanitarian coordinator Sigrid Kaag get more aid into embattled Gaza?

Can new UN humanitarian coordinator Sigrid Kaag get more aid into embattled Gaza?
  • Veteran Dutch politician takes on UN’s aid brief for Gaza as Israeli forces continue to bombard Palestinian enclave
  • Curbs on delivery of humanitarian supplies to displaced civilians have left Gaza “uninhabitable”

DUBAI: Sigrid Kaag, the UN’s newly appointed senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, faces a monumental task as she takes the reins of the world body’s relief operations in the embattled Palestinian enclave. 

Twelve weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment and restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian relief to displaced civilians have left the Gaza Strip “uninhabitable” and on the brink of famine, according to aid chiefs.

With the UN thus far unable to provide sufficient assistance to civilians, many in the aid community hope that a change in leadership could help move the dial on the stunted humanitarian response.

“Peace, security and justice have always been my motivations,” Kaag said in a statement on taking up the new UN role. “I have accepted this special assignment in the hope to contribute to a better future.”




Sigrid Kaag takes on the UN’s aid brief for Gaza as Israeli forces continue to bombard the Palestinian enclave, causing displacement and a mounting health crisis. (AFP/File)

However, given the scale of the humanitarian challenges and the obstacles thrown up by Israel and its allies in Washington, some observers and analysts have been left wondering whether Kaag’s appointment will make any difference. 

Israel mounted its military campaign in Gaza in retaliation for the unprecedented Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which resulted in the death of 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and the kidnap of 240. 

In the months since the outbreak of fighting, more than 22,700 people have died in Gaza under Israeli bombardment, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, while almost two million have been displaced. 




A girl mourns the death of her relatives who were killed by Israeli bombardment at the European Hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 31, 2023. (AFP)

In southern Gaza — where most of the enclave’s 2.3 million people now live in makeshift shelters with limited access to food, water and health care — the Israeli military has continued bombing raids, despite deeming these areas safe havens for displaced Gazans.

Kaag, who took over the UN’s Gaza relief operation on Jan. 8, was appointed to the new role following a breakthrough UN Security Council resolution passed on Dec. 22, which called on all parties to “facilitate and enable the immediate, safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale.”

One of the Netherlands’ leading lawmakers, Kaag formerly served as the deputy head of government and finance and foreign minister under the country’s longtime prime minister, Mark Rutte.

FASTFACTS

Sigrid Kaag is the UN’s newly appointed senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza.

Her role was created as part of a breakthrough UN Security Council resolution passed on Dec. 22.

The veteran politician has worked for UNRWA, UNICEF and as UN special coordinator for Lebanon.

When the Dutch coalition government collapsed and new elections were called at the end of November 2023, Kaag declared she would be retiring from politics. However, the Arab studies graduate has since returned to her old place of work at the UN to take on one of the most challenging tasks of her career. 

From 1994 to 1997, Kaag was the head of the Donor Relations Department at UNRWA, and subsequently headed UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Directorate in Amman, Jordan.

In 2013 and 2014, she led the joint mission by the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy Syrian chemical weapons. Afterwards, she held the position of UN special coordinator for Lebanon.




In this photo taken on July 28, 2009, Sigrid Kaag, then UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, gives a press conference in front of the debris of the American School in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip, which was demolished during an Israeli military operation. (AFP/File)

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, said Kaag “brings a wealth of experience in political, humanitarian, and development affairs as well as in diplomacy,” and is also fluent in Arabic as well as five other languages.

“She will facilitate, coordinate, monitor and verify humanitarian relief consignments to Gaza,” said Guterres, emphasizing how she will also establish a UN mechanism to accelerate aid deliveries “through states which are not party to the conflict.”

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, held a call with Kaag on Monday in which they underscored the importance of strengthening the coordination mechanism delivering humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza, according to a State Department statement.

They emphasized a shared commitment to reach the most vulnerable, including urgently expanding the entry of aid and commercial goods into Gaza, increasing the use of localized aid to meet immediate needs, and enhancing funding for humanitarian assistance. 

While Kaag’s resume is impressive, the challenge of getting aid into Gaza is immense, frustrating the best efforts of the UN’s top humanitarian officials.




Egyptian paramedics transport an injured Palestinian child to a Red Crescent ambulance upon his arrival from Gaza via the Rafah border crossing on January 10, 2024.  (AFP)

According to the UN’s aid chief, Martin Griffiths, Gaza has become a place of “death and despair” for Palestinians. In a special statement on Jan. 7, he said: “Gaza has simply become uninhabitable. Its people are witnessing daily threats to their very existence — while the world watches on. 

“A public health disaster is unfolding. Infectious diseases are spreading in overcrowded shelters as sewers spill over. Some 180 Palestinian women are giving birth daily amidst this chaos. People are facing the highest levels of food insecurity ever recorded. Famine is around the corner.

“For children, the past 12 weeks have been traumatic: No food. No water. No school. Nothing but the terrifying sounds of war, day in and day out.”

Amid severe shortages of food, water and medicine, disease and hunger are spreading throughout Gaza. According to UNRWA, some 40 percent of Gaza’s population is “at risk of famine.”

A report released at the end of December by 23 UN agencies and NGOs said that out of Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million, 576,000 people are at catastrophic or starvation levels, with the risk of famine “increasing each day.” 

The report blamed the hunger crisis on insufficient aid entering Gaza. 

Although it is constrained by the geopolitical wrangling of the UN Security Council, the UN is widely seen as the only body capable of responding to the massive humanitarian challenges posed by the war in Gaza.

“Everything that happens in Gaza will require consensus,” Ziad Asali, the founder and president of the American Task Force on Palestine, a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington, told Arab News. 

“That is why the UN is the main venue for getting things done and not just proposed.”

However, there is a widespread view that the UN Security Council’s Dec. 22 resolution on aid for Gaza, adopted with 13 votes in favor and the US and Russia abstaining, has been so watered down that it will fail to meet the challenges posed by the conflict. 

Lahib Higel, a senior analyst at the Middle East and North Africa program at International Crisis Group, told Arab News that only an immediate and lasting ceasefire would allow sufficient aid into Gaza. 

“What we have argued at ICG from early on, and what was also reflected in the (UN) secretary general’s press conference after the resolution was adopted, is that you’re not going to have a significantly improved situation in Gaza unless you have a ceasefire,” Higel said.

“That’s really the bottom-line condition, but there’s an understanding that it is not on the horizon anytime soon.”




Palestinian children look from the windows of a minibus at a market in Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on January 8, 2024 amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas forces. (Photo by AFP)

With a ceasefire off the table for the time being, humanitarians and diplomats must find ways to help Gaza.

“There have been several obstacles throughout this period,” Higel said. “The main one is, of course, that Israel not only shut down its border crossings with Gaza through which most of the commercial and aid traffic was coming … it also shut down all essential services to Gaza — electricity grids, water pipelines.”

Although some of those water pipelines have resumed operations, damage caused by Israeli bombardment is still widespread. 

“They don’t operate full-time. You still don’t have electricity. There are constant communication blackouts, which means that distribution becomes extremely chaotic because people have been used to being notified through SMS messages, which they then can no longer receive,” Higel said.

“And then what was left was the border crossing in Rafah, which initially was a pedestrian crossing. It doesn’t have the infrastructure that Kerem Shalom (border crossing) has.” 

While about 500 trucks a day used to enter Gaza via Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel before Oct. 7, only about 100 trucks a day can pass through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. 




A truck carrying a humanitarian aid cargo arrives from Egypt on the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing, before entering the southern Gaza Strip, on January 10, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Despite the reopening of Kerem Shalom in mid-December, Higel said that there was still not enough aid entering Gaza. 

“Part of the reason is there is only so much that you can facilitate each day, considering the rigid inspections that Israel requires,” she said. 

“Secondly, they (Israel) still reject a lot of goods based on their dual-use potential — fuel, construction material — that you would need for shelter.

“What can the UN do under these conditions? Quite little. It also took them quite a long time to set up a logistics hub that is actually working because the UN infrastructure was based in Israel.”

Other barriers to the UN’s work in Gaza include the denial of visas.

In early December, Israel told the UN that it would not renew the visa of its resident humanitarian coordinator in the Palestinian territories, Lynn Hastings, effectively kicking her out of the country.

The precise details surrounding the aid mechanism Kaag will devise have yet to be revealed. One thing is clear, however — she faces a colossal task finding new ways to get aid into Gaza while navigating Israel’s continuing bombardment and strict controls on entry.

Only time will tell whether Kaag’s appointment will prove transformative for Gaza’s stricken population or merely a continuation of the UN’s lackluster response to a deepening humanitarian catastrophe.

 


Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea
Updated 21 min 50 sec ago
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Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea
  • The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call: UKMTO
  • The incident occurred 76 nautical miles (140 kilometers) off Yemen’s Hodeidah

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s Houthi militia launched an anti-ship ballistic missile into the Red Sea on Saturday morning, striking an oil tanker traveling from Russia to China, according to US Central Command, the latest in a series of Houthi maritime strikes. 

CENTCOM said that at 1 a.m. on Saturday, a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile struck a Panamanian-flagged, Greek-owned and operated oil tanker named M/T Wind, which had just visited Russia and was on its way to China, causing “flooding which resulted in the loss of propulsion and steering.”

Slamming the Houthis for attacking ships, the US military said: “The crew of M/T Wind was able to restore propulsion and steering, and no casualties were reported. M/T Wind resumed its course under its power. This continued malign and reckless behavior by the Iranian-backed Houthis threatens regional stability and endangers the lives of mariners across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

Earlier on Saturday, two UK naval agencies said that a ship sailing in the Red Sea suffered minor damage after being hit by an item thought to be a missile launched by Yemen’s Houthi militia from an area under their control.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors ship attacks, said on Saturday morning that it received an alarm from a ship master about an “unknown object” striking the ship’s port quarter, 98 miles south of Hodeidah, inflicting minor damage.

“The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call,” UKMTO said in its notice about the incident, encouraging ships in the Red Sea to exercise caution and report any incidents.

Hours earlier, the same UK maritime agency stated that the assault happened 76 nautical miles northwest of Hodeidah.

Ambrey, a UK security firm, also reported receiving information regarding a missile strike on a crude oil tanker traveling under the Panama flag, around 10 nautical miles southwest of Yemen’s government-controlled town of Mokha on the Red Sea, which resulted in a fire on the ship.

The Houthis did not claim responsibility for fresh ship strikes on Saturday, although they generally do so days after the attack.

Since November, the Houthis have seized a commercial ship, sunk another, and claimed to have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles at international commercial and naval ships in the Gulf of Aden, Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and Red Sea in what the Yemeni militia claims is support for the Palestinian people.

The Houthis claim that they solely strike Israel-linked ships and those traveling or transporting products to Israel in order to pressure the latter to cease its war in Gaza.

The US responded to the Houthi attacks by branding them as terrorists, forming a coalition of marine task forces to safeguard ships, and unleashing hundreds of strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen.

Local and international environmentalists have long warned that Houthi attacks on ships carrying fuel or other chemicals might lead to an environmental calamity near Yemen’s coast.

The early warning came in February when the Houthis launched a missile that seriously damaged the MV Rubymar, a Belize-flagged and Lebanese-operated ship carrying 22,000 tonnes of ammonium phosphate-sulfate NPS fertilizer and more than 200 tonnes of fuel while cruising in the Red Sea. 

The Houthis have defied demands for de-escalation in the Red Sea and continue to organize massive rallies in regions under their control to express support for their campaign. On Friday, thousands of Houthi sympathizers took to the streets of Sanaa, Saada, and other cities under their control to show their support for the war on ships.

The Houthis shouted in unison, “We have no red line, and what’s coming is far worse,” as they raised the Palestinian and militia flags in Al-Sabeen Square on Friday, repeating their leader’s promise to intensify assaults on ships.

Meanwhile, a Yemeni government soldier was killed and another was injured on Saturday while fending off a Houthi attack on their position near the border between the provinces of Taiz and Lahj.

According to local media, the Houthis attacked the government’s Nation’s Shield Forces in the contested Hayfan district of Taiz province, attempting to capture control of additional territory.

The Houthis were forced to stop their attack after encountering tough resistance from government troops.

The attack occurred a day after the Nation’s Shield Forces sent dozens of armed vehicles and personnel to the same locations to boost their forces and repel Houthi attacks. 


Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved

Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved
Updated 5 sec ago
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Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved

Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved
  • The Israeli army has been battling Hamas militants across the Gaza Strip for more than seven months

JERUSALEM: Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said Saturday he would resign from the body unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a post-war plan for the Gaza Strip.

“The war cabinet must formulate and approve by June 8 an action plan that will lead to the realization of six strategic goals of national importance.. (or) we will be forced to resign from the government,” Gantz said, referring to his party, in a televised address directed at Netanyahu.

Gantz said the six goals included toppling Hamas, ensuring Israeli security control over the Palestinian territory and returning Israeli hostages.

“Along with maintaining Israeli security control, establish an American, European, Arab and Palestinian administration that will manage civilian affairs in the Gaza Strip and lay the foundation for a future alternative that is not Hamas or (Mahmud) Abbas,” he said, referring to the president of the Palestinian Authority.

He also urged the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia “as part of an overall move that will create an alliance with the free world and the Arab world against Iran and its affiliates.”

Netanyahu responded to Gantz’s threat on Saturday by slamming the minister’s demands as “washed-up words whose meaning is clear: the end of the war and a defeat for Israel, the abandoning of most of the hostages, leaving Hamas intact and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

The Israeli army has been battling Hamas militants across the Gaza Strip for more than seven months.

But broad splits have emerged in the Israeli war cabinet in recent days after Hamas fighters regrouped in northern Gaza, an area where Israel previously said the group had been neutralized.

Netanyahu came under personal attack from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday for failing to rule out an Israeli government in Gaza after the war.

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s attack on October 7 on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized about 250 hostages, 124 of whom Israel estimates remain in Gaza, including 37 the military says are dead.

Israel’s military retaliation against Hamas has killed at least 35,386 people, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza’s health ministry, and an Israeli siege has brought dire food shortages and the threat of famine.


Iran to send experts to ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators

Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Iran to send experts to ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators

Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
  • “Venezuela has a number of accelerators in its hospitals that have been stopped due to the embargo,” the message said

CARACAS: Iran on Saturday said it will send experts to its ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators in hospitals it said had been stopped due to Western sanctions.
Venezuela requested Iran’s help, according to a message on the social media platform X by the Iranian government attributed to the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
“Venezuela has a number of accelerators in its hospitals that have been stopped due to the embargo,” the message said.
Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients.
Venezuela is also an ally of Russia and China.
The return of US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry has made its alliance with Iran critical to keeping its lagging energy sector afloat. Washington last year temporarily relaxed sanctions on Venezuela’s promise to allow a competitive presidential election. The US now says only some conditions were met. 

 


Three Syrians missing after cargo ship sinks off Romania

Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Three Syrians missing after cargo ship sinks off Romania

Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
  • Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels, while the search for the other three, “all of Syrian nationality,” was continuing, the statement said

BUCHAREST: Romanian rescue teams on Saturday were scouring the Black Sea for three Syrian sailors who went missing when their cargo ship sank off the coast, the naval authority said.
The Mohammed Z sank with 11 crew on board, 26 nautical miles off the Romanian town of Sfantu Gheorghe in the Danube delta in the Black Sea on Saturday morning, officials said in a statement.
The ship sailing under the Tanzanian flag was carrying nine Syrian and two Egyptian nationals, it said.
After receiving an alert at “around 4:00am,” naval authorities and border police were dispatched, with two nearby commercial vessels also joining the search and rescue operation.
Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels, while the search for the other three, “all of Syrian nationality,” was continuing, the statement said.
The cause of the accident was unclear.
According to the specialist website Marine Traffic, the ship departed from the Turkish port of Mersin and was heading to the Romanian port of Sulina.
Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, drifting sea mines have posed a constant threat for ships in the Black Sea, with countries bordering it doubling down on demining efforts.
Ensuring safe passage through the Black Sea has gained particular importance since Romania’s Danube ports became hubs for the transit of grain following the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports.
 

 


Iraq parliament fails to elect a speaker

A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Iraq parliament fails to elect a speaker

A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
  • A coalition of three Sunni blocs backed Issawi, while Mashhadani, who served as Iraq’s first speaker following the adoption of the 2005 constitution, received the support of the former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbussi’s sizeable bloc

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s lawmakers failed to elect a speaker on Saturday as neither of the two main candidates secured a majority during a tense session of parliament.
It is the latest in a series of failed attempts to replace the former head of parliament who was dismissed in November, with political bickering and divisions between key Sunni parties derailing every attempt so far.
Saturday’s vote was the closest yet to selecting a new head of the 329-member parliament, with 311 lawmakers showing up for the session and the leading candidate falling just seven votes short.
The parliament’s media office announced that 137 lawmakers chose Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, the oldest MP, while 158 picked Salem Al-Issawi.
However, candidates require at least 165 votes to win.
Many lawmakers did not return for a second attempt on Saturday, with local media sharing videos of a brief brawl between MPs and reporting that at least one of them was injured.
The parliament’s media office then announced that the session had been adjourned.
Iraq, a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups, is governed by complex power-sharing arrangements.
The largely ceremonial role of president traditionally goes to a Kurd, that of prime minister to a Shiite, while the speaker of parliament is usually Sunni.
But parliament is dominated by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties, reflecting the country’s largest religious group.
A coalition of three Sunni blocs backed Issawi, while Mashhadani, who served as Iraq’s first speaker following the adoption of the 2005 constitution, received the support of the former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbussi’s sizeable bloc.
The new speaker will replace Halbussi, the influential politician dismissed by Iraq’s top court in November last year after a lawmaker accused him of forging a resignation letter.
Halbussi had been the country’s highest-ranking Sunni official since he first became a speaker in 2018.
The new speaker’s stint will not last long with the general election due in 2025.