Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades

In this aerial view, Iraqi campers set up a tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)
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In this aerial view, Iraqi campers set up a tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)
Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades
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In this aerial view, an Iraqi camper walks on the sand in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 04 March 2024
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Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades

In this aerial view, Iraqi campers set up a tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)
  • Iraq has been ravaged by successive years of conflict since the 2003 US-led invasion, including most recently the fight against the Daesh group
  • Iraq’s deserts have long attracted hunters, both locals and visitors from neighboring Gulf countries, before the years of conflict drove them away

SAMAWAH, Iraq: Far from the hustle and bustle of major cities, young Iraqis are increasingly taking advantage of a renewed sense of safety to explore the country’s serene desert getaways.
Sheltering amidst the golden dunes, Ghadanfar Abdallah and his friends gather around a flickering campfire in the Samawah desert south of the capital, humming tunes, laughing and eating.
“When we post pictures, people do not believe that there are such places like the dunes in Iraq,” the 35-year-old oil sector worker said.




Visiters manoeuver their car on the sand in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on January 26, 2024. (AFP)

“My friends ask me if the pictures were taken in Dubai. They are shocked when they learn that they were, in fact, in Iraq.”
For years, only the most intrepid of hikers and campers would brave the trips into Iraq’s desert. But with the rise of social media and a period of relative stability, it has become a popular destination for those seeking not only adventure and off-roading but also tranquillity in the vast, barren landscape.
“It is something I loved since I was a little boy. But I only started doing it with friends in the winter of 2018 or 2019,” Abdallah said.




An Iraqi camper reads a book inside his tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)

He crossed 200 kilometers (125 miles) from his southern city of Basra to reach an area untouched by the trappings of urban life — including phone networks.
On a crisp winter weekend, around 20 campers set up their tents amid the serene dunes. The air filled with the aroma of carp grilling over a smoky wood fire, as the hikers prepared to feast on Iraq’s national dish, masgouf.
Later, some played dominoes while others bickered over heated games of backgammon, sipping hot cups of tea and smoking hookahs (water pipe). Their voices resonated with traditional Iraqi songs, their laughter piercing the still desert night.




An Iraqi man rides a camel during a trip to the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on January 27, 2024. (AFP)

Abdallah said such desert expeditions have “become more widespread, and today many stores sell camping gear.
“Some are starting to realize that it is safe, it is an adventure.”
But for many, the lingering sense of danger remains.
Iraq has been ravaged by successive years of conflict since the 2003 US-led invasion, including most recently the fight against the Daesh group.




Iraqi campers gather around a fire in the early morning in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 3, 2024. (AFP)

Though the terrorists were driven out of their major strongholds in late 2017, many retreated into desert hideouts, largely in the country’s west, from where they still sporadically — though with increasing rarity — stage deadly attacks.
“How can someone go to a desert where there is no water or mobile network? If something happens, how would you report it?” Abdallah said.
Iraq’s soaring summer temperatures — often surpassing 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) — mean these arid adventures are limited to wintertime.
A weekend getaway costs between $75 and $100 per person, covering food, transportation and accommodation. A single trip can bring together a group of up to 30 people — typically men in the conservative country where women would not normally take part in such activities.
For Hussein Al-Jazairi, the journey is worth every penny.
“The city is full of dust, noise and daily annoyances,” the 34-year-old influencer said during his first desert camping trip.
“One can come here, where it is quiet, serene, and there is fresh air.”
Jazairi is often glued to his phone, scrolling through his social media accounts. But his recent trip to the Samawah desert proved to be a completely different experience.
“Social media is my work. I receive non-stop notifications. By the end of the day, I have spent a very long time on my phone,” Jazairi said.
“Here, there is no network. It has been two days, and my phone’s battery is still 70 percent. I haven’t used it.”

While Jazairi encourages people to explore the country’s vast sandhills, he warns that “one should not go alone, especially for the first time.”
“We came with experts who know the places around.”
Iraq’s deserts have long attracted hunters, both locals and visitors from neighboring Gulf countries, before the years of conflict drove them away.
Today, campers still need to remain vigilant, as some areas are still riddled with mines, while the borders with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria are intersected by routes used by drug traffickers or terrorists.
“We don’t start any trip without first identifying where we will sleep,” said Murad Al-Bahadli, a camper with over eight years of experience.
“We plan carefully to avoid any security risk,” the 38-year-old added.
Yet the placid desert nights are a far cry from the years of turmoil, and for many their lure is irresistible.
Among those is Ravshan Mokhtarov, an Uzbek who has been living in Basra for six years.
“This area is unique. There is no one, not even a sound,” the young man said, expressing gratitude for “Iraqi hospitality.”
“It is pretty much safe. I don’t feel any danger.”

 


Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel

Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel
Updated 2 sec ago
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Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel

Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel
Beirut: Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said it fired a fresh barrage of rockets across the border on Wednesday after a strike blamed on Israel killed two civilians.
The group had already fired rockets at northern Israel late on Tuesday “in response” to the civilian deaths.
Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army since its ally Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, triggering war in Gaza.
It has stepped up its rocket fire on Israeli military bases in recent days.
Hezbollah fighters fired “dozens of Katyusha rockets” at a border village in northern Israel “as part of the response to the Israeli enemy’s attacks on... civilian homes,” the group said in a statement.
On Tuesday, rescue teams said an Israeli strike on a house in the southern village of Hanin killed a woman in her fifties and a girl from the same family.
Since October 7, at least 380 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also 72 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israel says 11 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed on its side of the border.

Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency
Updated 4 min 28 sec ago
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Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

BERLIN: The German government plans to resume cooperation with the UN agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) in Gaza, the foreign and development ministries said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
The decision follows an investigation by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna into whether some UNRWA employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.
The Colonna-led review of the agency’s neutrality on Monday concluded Israel had yet to back up its accusations that hundreds of UNRWA staff were operatives in Gaza terrorist groups.
The German ministries urged UNRWA to swiftly implement the report’s recommendations, including strengthening its internal audit function and improving external oversight of project management.
“In support of these reforms, the German government will soon continue its cooperation with UNRWA in Gaza, as Australia, Canada, Sweden and Japan, among others, have already done,” said the ministries in the statement.


Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross

Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross
Updated 5 min 45 sec ago
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Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross

Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross
  • Israel’s has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry
  • Israeli media predict offensive in Gaza’s Rafah soon

DUBAI: Humanitarian workers have no knowledge of plans to evacuate Palestinians from Gaza’s southernmost city ahead of an expected Israeli assault, but such a transfer would not be “possible” under current conditions, a Red Cross official told AFP on Tuesday.
“The rumor is that the probability of a major operation in Rafah is increasing,” Fabrizio Carboni, Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said on the sidelines of an aid conference in the United Arab Emirates.
“When we see the level of destruction in the middle area (of Gaza) and in the north, it’s not clear to us where people will be moved to... where they can have decent shelter and essential services,” he added.
“So today, with the information we have and from where we stand, we don’t see this (massive evacuation) as possible.”

Israel is poised to send troops into Rafah, the Gazan city it sees as the last bastion of Hamas, Israeli media reported on Wednesday, saying preparations were under way to evacuate war-displaced Palestinian civilians who have been sheltering there.

The Rafah sweep, postponed for several weeks amid disputes with Washington, will happen “very soon,” the mass-circulation Israel Hayom newspaper said, citing a decision by the Israeli government after ceasefire talks with Hamas stalled.
Several other Israeli media outlets carried similar reports. Some noted footage on social media that appeared to show the erection of a tent city for Rafah evacuees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli military spokesperson’s office had no immediate comment.
More than 1.5 million of Gaza’s population of 2.4 million had sheltered in Rafah, the last major population center in Gaza that Israeli ground troops have yet to enter, though thousands have been seen heading back north.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for two months talked of sending troops into Rafah to go after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs Gaza.
On Sunday, he said the Israeli military would increase pressure to “deliver additional and painful blows” to the group behind the October 7 attack on Israel which triggered the ongoing war.
But Israel’s allies including Washington have warned against a Rafah operation, fearing a worsening of Gaza’s already catastrophic humanitarian conditions.
“We don’t see for the time being any plans for civilian evacuations,” Carboni said during the interview on Tuesday at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference (DIHAD).
But “there is no condition for a military operation without devastating humanitarian consequences,” he added.
“Considering the level of destruction, considering that people are tired, some of them wounded and sick, and the limited access to food and essential services, I see (evacuations) as extremely challenging.”

The Israeli government said it was planning different evacuation scenarios, including the creation of tent cities that would be spared the fighting and would be set up with international support.
Citing Egyptian officials briefed on the Israeli plan, the Wall Street Journal reported that the evacuation operation would last two to three weeks and be carried out in coordination with the United States and Arab countries, including the UAE as well as Egypt.
But Carboni said an evacuation would be “difficult” to complete in that time frame.
Also speaking to AFP at DIHAD on Tuesday, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said that “everybody seems to be on a countdown to war across the largest displacement camp on earth, which is Rafah.”
Describing a Rafah onslaught as an “apocalyptic situation,” Jan Egeland said aid workers operating inside Gaza have not been briefed on plans to mitigate civilian suffering during a Rafah offensive.
“There is no information, no consultation with the humanitarians, no advice, no hope,” he said.
Humanitarians in Gaza are “not hearing from the donors. They’re not hearing from the Western sponsors of Israel, and nothing from Israel itself,” Egeland said.
“What they hear is that Netanyahu says that he will attack but not plans for where should the civilians go, how can aid be provided or how can access be secured.
“We are completely in the dark on how to mitigate this countdown to a catastrophe.”

The little aid that is entering Gaza is being distributed in real time leaving no buffer stock that could be used in the event of a massive population movement, Egeland said.
“There is no stocks, there is no fuel and more importantly, there is no liquidity. There is no money, we cannot pay our staff salaries. We cannot pay those who deliver the services,” the NRC chief added.
Egeland said some Palestinians had returned to areas in northern Gaza in recent weeks but that more than one million remained in Rafah.
For those who have left “what awaits them in the north is ruins, complete ruins and unexploded ordinance and, in many cases, more bombardment,” he said.
“There is no safe place in Gaza if people leave Rafah.”
The Gaza war began with the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
 

 


Hamas armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades calls for escalation across all fronts

Hamas armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades calls for escalation across all fronts
Updated 24 April 2024
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Hamas armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades calls for escalation across all fronts

Hamas armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades calls for escalation across all fronts
  • Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry

DUBAI: The spokesperson for Hamas’ armed Al-Qassam Brigades, Abu Ubaida, called on Tuesday for an escalation across all fronts in a televised speech marking 200 days since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7.
Israel says it is seeking to eradicate Hamas, which controls the enclave, in a war that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians thus far. The war started when the militant group attacked Israel, killing 1,200 and taking 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
In a video aired by Al Jazeera TV, Abu Ubaida praised Iran’s attack on Israel on April 13, saying the direct strikes with explosive drones and missiles “set new rules, drew important equations, and confused the enemy and those behind it.”
He also called for an escalation in the West Bank and Jordan calling it “one of the most important Arab fronts.”
Jordan, which lies between Iran and Israel, intercepted and shot down dozens of Iranian drones that entered its airspace and were heading to Israel, two regional security sources said on April 13.
“We call on the Jordanian people to step up their actions and raise their voices,” Abu Ubaida said.
He said Hamas was sticking to its demands at the ongoing ceasefire talks — that Israel ends its military offensive, pulls out forces from Gaza, allows the displaced to return to northern Gaza, and lifts the blockade.
“The government of the occupation is stalling in reaching a hostages-swap deal and is trying to obstruct efforts by the mediators to reach a ceasefire agreement,” Abu Ubaida said.
Qatar and Egypt have been trying to mediate a ceasefire, but Qatar foreign ministry’s spokesman said earlier on Tuesday all concerned parties should “show seriousness” in allowing such efforts to succeed.

 

 


‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief

‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief
Updated 24 April 2024
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‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief

‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief
  • Philippe Lazzarini says many supporters of each side in Israeli-Palestinian conflict fail to feel empathy for those on the other and so demonize them
  • ‘The peace process, per se, is not enough; what we need is healing,’ he tells Arab News

NEW YORK CITY: The head of the UN agency that helps to provide aid and development for Palestinian refugees told Arab News on Tuesday that no effort will be spared to protect it from “ferocious attacks” by its critics.

And as protests related to the war in Gaza continue to cause friction around the world, including growing rows on US college campuses, Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said many of the supporters of each side in the conflict are unable to feel any empathy for those on the other, and so they demonize them.

“The peace process, per se, is not enough,” he added. “What we need is healing.”

Lazzarini said he has been struck by the fact that “empathy in this part of the world is most of the time unilateral. It’s either empathy only for the Palestinians, with no understanding where the Israelis are coming and the trauma that Oct. 7 has created in the country, or empathy only for Israelis, with absolutely no empathy for the Palestinians.”

He said his main message to US students is the need to show “compassion and empathy” for both peoples, “because ultimately, we expect that Israelis and Palestinians will live, and deserve to live, in peace and security.”

UNRWA has never been under attack to the extent it has been in recent months, Lazzarini said.

“It has never been in a situation where at same time 18 countries are reviewing or freezing their contributions,” he added. “It has never been the target of an open campaign for the total dismantlement of its activities in Gaza, and possibly beyond. What we are going through is quite unique in its ferocity.”

Agency staff and the communities they serve are “deeply anxious” about the possibility it might be weakened or even dismantled, he said, pointing to an opinion poll in which between 80 and 90 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank expressed such fears.

“We will leave no stone unturned and we will bring the conversation where it needs to be to avoid the agency’s dismantlement,” said Lazzarini.

He added that this has been the mindset since the crisis the agency is facing was brought to the attention of the UN General Assembly in March, and was on display again last week during a meeting of the Security Council requested by Jordan in response to long-running attempts by Israeli authorities to force the agency out of Gaza.

“Now we are looking at the next, best avenue to shield the organization from these kind of attacks,” he added.

The agency, which provides aid and other services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and throughout the region, was thrown into crisis in January when Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA workers took part in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel.

In a report published on Monday, an independent team of investigators led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, reported that Israeli authorities have yet to provide any evidence to back up their allegations, and had not previously expressed concerns about any individuals named on the lists of UNRWA staff they had been receiving since 2011.

In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli allegations, the US, the biggest single funder of the agency, and several other major donors immediately put their funding for the organization on hold. In all, 18 UN member states suspended or paused donations, while others imposed conditions, placing the very future of the agency in doubt. Many later resumed their donations.

Speaking to reporters at the end of an official visit to New York, Lazzarini once again said that he believes the attacks on UNRWA were not truly motivated by concerns about the neutrality of its staff, but rather the primary objective was to strip Palestinians of their refugee status.

Israel has long accused the agency of deliberately perpetuating the refugee status of millions of Palestinians, an allegation Lazzarini describes as “nonsense.”

“Basically, it is as if you would say that the humanitarian response in a conflict zone is perpetuating the conflict,” he said.

“The reality is that it is perpetuated because of the absence of a political solution. UNRWA was geared to be a temporary organization, hoping to end its activities the day there is a lasting and fair political solution. And here we are, 75 years later; it’s certainly not UNRWA perpetuating the status (but) our collective inability to promote a solution.

“If we have a genuine desire for a two-state solution, and we revitalize the implementation of such a solution, UNRWA’s temporary nature can be reinstated and hence UNRWA can pave the way for the future (Palestinian) state to provide the services the agency is providing.”

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza in October, 180 agency staff have been killed, more than 160 UN premises have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 400 people have been killed while seeking shelter under the flag of the UN.

Premises UNRWA staff were forced to abandon reportedly have been taken over and used for military purposes by the Israeli army, Hamas or other armed groups. Several agency workers have been arrested or mistreated, some have been tortured.

Lazzarini urged the Security Council to order an independent investigation into such incidents and for those responsible for the “blatant disregard” they have displayed toward UN premises, staff and operations in the Gaza Strip to be held accountable, so as to avoid setting “a new low standard in future conflict situations.”

The attacks on UNRWA and its work continue even as fears grow that warming weather will bring with it disease and other health risks. This is especially a concern in southern Gaza, which has become the last refuge for more than a million people forced by fighting to flee other parts of the territory, and where Lazzarini said “garbage collection has become a priority for our colleagues to prevent disease outbreak,” amid the “key anxiety” among people of a threatened, “possibly looming, upcoming military offensive” by Israel, “which seems to be back on the table.”

The report submitted by Colonna’s team after its investigation, which was ordered by the UN to assess whether UNRWA was doing all it could to ensure the neutrality of more than 32,000 workers, includes more than 50 recommendations, including improvements to internal oversight, enhanced in-person training, and additional support from donor nations.

Lazzarini welcomed the report and said he is committed to implementing its recommendations. It is clear from its findings, he said, that “the agency, in reality, has already a number of systems to deal with neutrality issues, far ahead of the average UN agencies or even (nongovernmental organizations), and because of the complexity of the environment we are operating in we need to be extremely vigilant, and we can always do more.”

He expressed his hope that as a result of the report and the measures that will be put in place, “the last group of donors will get the necessary confidence to come back” to the agency.

However, he noted that US will not provide any more donations until at least March 2025 because of a lack of political support for UNRWA in Washington, and added that “my task now is to try to bridge the gap” in financing that currently exists “and see that funding covered until the end of June.”