Israel frees two hostages, Gaza officials say airstrikes kill 67

People inspect the damage in the rubble of a mosque following Israeli bombardment, in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on February 12, 2024. (AFP)
People inspect the damage in the rubble of a mosque following Israeli bombardment, in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on February 12, 2024. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 12 February 2024
Follow

Israel frees two hostages, Gaza officials say airstrikes kill 67

People inspect the damage in the rubble of a mosque following Israeli bombardment, in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip.
  • The Gaza health ministry said 67 Palestinians had been killed overnight and the number could rise as rescue operations were under way
  • The Argentine government thanked Israel for the rescue of the two men, who it said were dual nationals

DOHA/JERUSALEM: An Israeli rescue operation freed two Israeli-Argentine hostages held by Hamas militants in Rafah on Monday, but supporting airstrikes killed nearly 70 Palestinians in the southern Gaza city where about one million displaced civilians have sought refuge from months of bombardments.
The mission by the Israeli military, the Shin Bet security service and a special police unit freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, the military said. They were among 250 people seized during the Oct. 7 raid by Hamas militants that triggered Israel’s war on Gaza.
More than four months on, much of the densely-populated strip of land on the Mediterranean is in ruins, with 28,340 Palestinians dead and 67,984 wounded, according to Gaza health officials, with many others believed to be buried under rubble.
The Israeli military says 31 hostages have died in that time, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday’s rescue showed that military pressure should continue and he brushed aside international alarm at its plans for a ground assault on Rafah.
“Fernando and Louis, welcome home,” he said, saluting the Israeli forces who rescued them. “Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages.”
The Gaza health ministry said 67 Palestinians had been killed overnight and the number could rise as rescue operations were under way. A Reuters journalist at the scene saw a vast area of rubble where buildings, including a mosque, had been destroyed.
“I’ve been collecting my family’s body parts since the morning, said Ibrahim Hassouna as a woman knelt over the body of a young child nearby. “I only recognized their toes or fingers.”
An Israeli military spokesman said the hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was breached with explosives during the raid amid heavy exchanges of gunfire with surrounding buildings.
“We’ve been working a long time on this operation,” Lt Col. Richard Hecht said. “We were waiting for the right conditions.”
The Argentine government thanked Israel for the rescue of the two men, who it said were dual nationals. Video footage showed them hugging relatives in Israel’s Sheba hospital, looking frail but relieved.

“Last prayers”
Israel’s military said airstrikes had coincided with the raid to allow its forces to be extracted.
Hassouna, displaced with his relatives from northern Gaza, said they were killed at least 4 km (2 miles) from the military operation.
“We have nothing to do with anything. Why did you bomb us?” he asked.
People in Rafah said two mosques and several residential buildings were hit in more than an hour of strikes by Israeli warplanes, tanks and ships which caused widespread panic.
“Death was so near as shells and missiles landed 200 meters from our tent camp,” businessman Emad, a father of six, told Reuters via a chat app. He said it was the worst night of bombing since they arrived in Rafah last month.
Some feared Israel had begun a long-expected ground offensive in the city, where more than a million people displaced by the war are sheltering with nowhere else to go.
“My family and I said our last prayers,” Emad said.
A relative of one of the hostages said he had seen both freed men following their rescue and found them “a bit frail, a bit thin, a bit pale” but overall in good condition.
Idan Bejerano, Hare’s son-in-law, said the hostages had been sleeping when “within a minute” the commandos were in the building and covering them as they fought the captors.
Hamas said the attack on Rafah was a continuation of a “genocidal war” and forced displacement attempts Israel has waged against the Palestinian people.
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, in the Oct. 7 incursion that sparked the war, according to Israeli tallies. Israel said it had killed more than 12,000 Hamas militants and taken out three-quarters of its battalions, of which it said earlier that four were in Rafah.

Dutch court blocks export of fighter jet parts to Israel
Many Western leaders have expressed alarm at Israel’s offensive while continuing to support the country.
However, a Dutch appeals court said it had blocked the export of F-35 fighter jets parts to Israel over a “clear risk of violations of international humanitarian law” in Gaza.
Israeli government spokeperson Eylon Levy said Israel was fighting to prevent “extremism and terrorism from spiralling further in Europe” and expected its allies to stand by it.
Britain urged Israel to agree to a truce to free its hostages rather than attack Rafah where people were trapped.
Foreign Secretary David Cameron said: “We think it is impossible to see how you can fight a war among these people. There’s nowhere for them to go.”
US President Joe Biden says Israel needs a credible evacuation plan. Israel’s Levy called on UN aid agencies to help. “Work with us to find a way,” he said.
Aid agencies say an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic. Egypt has reinforced its border with the city, saying it fears Gazans will be pushed across, never to return.
An Israeli official has said people will be evacuated further north, but its forces are also active in central Gaza. Palestinian medics said 15 people had been killed in an airstrike in the central town of Deir Al-Balah.
A senior Hamas leader said at the weekend that any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would “blow up” hostage-exchange negotiations.
The US and other Western leaders hope Middle Eastern countries will help rebuild Gaza after the war. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United Nations said for that to happen, there must be an “irreversible progression” toward a two-state solution to decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict — each side recognizing the other’s right to their own state.


Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials

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

Jordanian crown prince chairs cyber dialogue with US officials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike

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

Hezbollah says 3 affiliated paramedics killed in Israel strike

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

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


Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief

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

Dismantling UNRWA would sacrifice ‘generation of children:’ Chief

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO HOSTS SYRIAN REFUGEES?

• 3.6m Turkiye

• 1.5m Lebanon

• 651k Jordan

• 270k Iraq

• 155k Egypt

Source: UNHCR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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