On eve of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City offers little festivity as Gaza war rages

Muslim women walk through a market, ahead of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Thursday, March 7, 2024. (AP)
Muslim women walk through a market, ahead of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Thursday, March 7, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 10 March 2024
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On eve of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City offers little festivity as Gaza war rages

On eve of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City offers little festivity as Gaza war rages
  • The militants have urged Palestinians across Israel and the occupied West Bank to stream to the mosque during Ramadan to challenge anticipated Israeli restrictions on worship and movement

JERUSALEM: On the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Old City bears few of its usual hallmarks of festivity.
Nearly half of the grotto-shaped gift shops are sealed behind metal shutters. The narrow streets that run toward Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, are eerily empty. Absent are the fairy lights and shining lanterns that would usually dangle above hurried worshippers.
Ramadan preparations in Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been subdued because of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, now in its sixth month. With more than 30,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza and hundreds of thousands going hungry, there’s little room for expressions of joy.
“This will be the black Ramadan,” Abu Mousam Haddad said in front of his coffee stand near Damascus Gate, one of the Old City’s main entrances.
But over the next few days, attention is likely to shift from Gaza to Al-Aqsa, which has been a frequent flashpoint for quickly escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence in the past.
Hamas, which portrayed its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel as a battle for Muslim rights at Al-Aqsa, seeks such an eruption now in the hopes of engaging Israeli forces on new fronts and improving its leverage in Gaza ceasefire talks.
The militants have urged Palestinians across Israel and the occupied West Bank to stream to the mosque during Ramadan to challenge anticipated Israeli restrictions on worship and movement.
Although such restrictions often triggered past clashes, it’s not clear if Palestinians will risk confrontations in the current climate in which Israeli forces are clamping down hard on any perceived threats.
“There is great fear among people about what Ramadan will look like this year and how the Israeli police will behave regarding the entry and exit ... into the city,” said Imad Mona, who owns a bookshop outside the Old City.
Israel has limited access to Al-Aqsa to varying degrees over the years, including by barring young men, citing security concerns. The Israeli government has provided few details ahead of this year’s Ramadan, which could start as early as Sunday evening. But it has said some Palestinians from the West Bank will be allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa
In the past, Israeli forces raiding the sacred compound have clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians who barricaded themselves inside, at times to protest Israeli access restrictions. Such clashes have triggered escalations, including Hamas rocket fire, which set off a brief Israel-Hamas war in 2021.
The compound has long been a deeply contested religious space, as it stands on the Temple Mount, which Jews consider their most sacred site. It lies in east Jerusalem, a section of the city Israel occupied during the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed. Palestinians want to make it the capital of their own future state.
The United States and other international mediators had pushed for a Gaza ceasefire to coincide with the start of Ramadan. However, there has been no breakthrough.
Israel remains committed to continuing its invasion and annihilating Hamas, which killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took about 250 hostages on Oct. 7. The militant group freed dozens of hostages during a November truce, but it refuses to release more without guarantees of a complete end of hostilities.
Most Old City shop owners declined to share their views about the coming Ramadan. Scores of Palestinians have been detained by Israel over social media posts about the war in Gaza since it started.
Some who would speak said that more Israeli police have been deployed in the Old City since October. Young Palestinian men are regularly barred from entering the Al-Aqsa compound for noon prayers on Fridays since the war started, according to the store owners. This has fueled speculation about other possible restrictions. The Israeli police did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Israeli media, the country’s firebrand national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, has been pushing to keep out all West Bank Palestinians, as well as young men who are among the more than 2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. His spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The Israeli military body in charge of Palestinian affairs in the West Bank, known as COGAT, said Friday that some Muslims from the West Bank would be allowed in from the territory for Ramadan prayers, but it didn’t elaborate. Last year, hundreds of thousands were able to enter, most of them women, children and elderly men.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also been vague, saying only that similar numbers of people as last year would be allowed for prayers at Al-Aqsa during the first week of Ramadan. He said this will be evaluated on a weekly basis throughout the month. No further details were made public.
Under an informal arrangement since 1967, the compound is administered by a Jordanian-based Muslim religious body known as the Waqf. Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but not to pray there. The agreement has broken down in recent years as large groups of Jews, including hard-line religious nationalists, have regularly visited. Some among them have attempted to pray at the site.
In the days leading up to Ramadan, West Bank Palestinians have been unsure whether they would be able to attend prayers.
In general, Palestinians in the territory need a permit to enter east Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its united capital, though its annexation is not recognized by most of the international community. Since Oct. 7, Israel has forbidden Palestinians from entering Jerusalem or any part of Israel.
“It is the dream of every Palestinian, Muslim and Arab to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque” during Ramadan, said Akram al Baghdadi, a Ramallah resident who has extended family scattered across the West Bank and Gaza.
The holy month also threatens to heighten divisions within Israel’s unruly cabinet, with ministers already split over how to conduct the Gaza war.
In a post on X, Ben Gvir denounced Netanyahu’s decision to allow Palestinians access to Al-Aqsa for Ramadan prayers. He wrote that “Hamas celebrations on the Temple Mount” do not equate to “a complete victory,” a reference to Netanyahu’s wartime battle cry.
Ben Gvir, who has visited the Al-Aqsa compound several times, is also a vocal opponent of any ceasefire arrangement with Hamas. He has repeatedly called for the removal of Palestinians from Gaza and the establishment of Israeli settlements — ideas that most Cabinet members oppose.
Months of conflict and tension have also brought economic hardship, with a lack of tourists and Palestinians shopping in the Old City.
“It’s not just my shop that is affected, but all the traders here, too,” said Jihad Abu Salih, a sweets and pastry merchant from the city. “It’s sad.”
 

 


More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank
Updated 2 sec ago
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More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank
27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty
“Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, the World Bank said

BEIRUT: More than a quarter of Syrians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said Saturday, 13 years into a devastating civil war that has battered the economy and impoverished millions.
The World Bank published two new reports on Syria, which found that “27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty.”
“Extreme poverty, while virtually non-existent before the conflict, affected more than one in four Syrians in 2022” and might have further deteriorated after a deadly earthquake last year, one of the reports said.
The quake killed about 6,000 people in the country.
According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty, while it previously estimated that around 2 million lived in extreme poverty after more than a decade of war.
The report cited neighbor Lebanon’s economic meltdown in late 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, as having eroded the welfare of Syrian households in recent years.
The civil war in Syria has also ravaged the economy, infrastructure and industry, while Western sanctions have added to the country’s woes.
“Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, already coping with “soaring prices, reduced access to essential services and rising unemployment,” the World Bank said.
The UN told AFP previously that its humanitarian response plan for Syria for 2024 requires more than $4 billion but that it is only six percent funded.
The international community is set to meet in Brussels Monday to try and muster funds for Syria at a yearly pledging conference.
A lack of opportunities and dwindling aid has pushed many Syrians to rely on money sent from relatives abroad to survive, with the World Bank estimating that “in 2022, the total value of remittances received by Syrian households reached about $1.05 billion.”
Syria’s estimated GDP stood at around $6.2 billion in 2023.
Syria’s “real GDP is projected to contract by 1.5 percent in 2024, extending the 1.2 percent decline in 2023,” the report said.
“Inflation is anticipated to remain high in 2024 due to the pass-through effects of currency depreciation, along with persistent shortages and potential further subsidy cuts (for) food and fuel,” it said.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.

Mediated Israel-Hamas talks on hostage deal expected next week, source says

Mediated Israel-Hamas talks on hostage deal expected next week, source says
Updated 26 min 27 sec ago
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Mediated Israel-Hamas talks on hostage deal expected next week, source says

Mediated Israel-Hamas talks on hostage deal expected next week, source says
  • The source declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue

JERUSALEM: Mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas to reach a deal to free Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip are due to restart next week, an official with knowledge of the matter said on Saturday.
The decision to restart the talks, said the source, who declined to be identified by name or nationality given the sensitivity of the issue, came after the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency met with the head of the CIA and the prime minister of Qatar, which has been a mediator.
“At the end of the meeting, it was decided that in the coming week negotiations will open based on new proposals led by the mediators, Egypt and Qatar and with active US involvement,” the source said.


Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces
Updated 37 min 56 sec ago
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Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces
  • The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023
  • Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry

CAIRO: Yemen’s Houthis said they had postponed the release of around 100 prisoners belonging to government forces that had previously been announced to take place on Saturday.
A Houthi official said that the delay was because of “technical reasons,” adding the release would take place at another time.
The head of the Houthi Prisoner Affairs Committee, Abdul Qader Al-Murtada, said on Friday that the group would release more than 100 prisoners in what he called “a unilateral humanitarian initiative.”
The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023 in an exchange of 250 Houthis for 70 government forces.
Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry.
The Houthis are the de facto authorities in northern Yemen, while the internationally recognized government is represented by the Political Leadership Council, which took over power from Yemen’s president-in-exile.


Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order
Updated 25 May 2024
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Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order
  • Spanish government: Ruling by the International Court of Justice is legally binding
  • British government says ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

MADRID/LONDON: The Spanish government demanded on Saturday that Israel comply with an order by the top UN court to immediately stop its bombardment and ground assault on the Gazan city of Rafah.
It stressed that the ruling on Friday by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was legally binding.
“The precautionary measures set out by the ICJ, including that Israel should cease its military offensive in Rafah, are compulsory. Israel must comply with them,” Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares wrote on X.
“The same goes for a ceasefire, the release of the hostages and access for humanitarian aid (to Gaza),” he said.
“The suffering of the people of Gaza and the violence must end.”
The British government, meanwhile, has criticized the World Court order, saying the ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
“The reason there isn’t a pause in the fighting is because Hamas turned down a very generous hostage deal from Israel. The intervention of these courts — including the ICJ today — will strengthen the view of Hamas that they can hold on to hostages and stay in Gaza,” a UK foreign ministry spokesperson said late on Friday.
“And if that happens there won’t be either peace, or a two-state solution.”
In a case brought by South Africa alleging the Israeli assault on Gaza amounts to “genocide,” the ICJ ordered Israel on Friday to “immediately halt” the ground and air offensive in Rafah.
The operations began on May 7 despite international fears for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians trapped in the city.
The Hague-based ICJ, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ruled that Israel must keep open the key Rafah crossing with Egypt to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into Gaza.
And it urged the “unconditional” release of hostages taken by Hamas fighters during their October 7 attack in Israel.
Israel responded on Saturday by bombing Rafah and other parts of the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Spain is one of the European countries to have been most critical of Israel over the war in Gaza.
On Wednesday, Spain, Ireland and Norway said their governments would recognize a Palestinian state from next week.
Israel summoned their envoys to “reprimand” them for the decision and on Friday said it would ban Spain’s consulate in Jerusalem from helping Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
The war in Gaza began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Some 252 people were taken hostage, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,857 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor
Updated 25 May 2024
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Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor
  • It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike in central Syria killed two fighters from Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement on Saturday, a war monitor said.
“An Israeli drone fired two missiles at a Hezbollah car and truck near the town of Qusayr in Homs province, as they were on their way to Al-Dabaa military airport, killing at least two Hezbollah fighters and wounding others,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week.
On Monday, Israeli strikes in the Qusayr area, which is close to the Lebanese border, killed eight pro-Iranian fighters, said Observatory, a Britain-based monitor with a network of sources in Syria.
At least one Hezbollah fighter was among those killed, a source from Hezbollah told AFP at the time.
Another strike, on May 18, targeted “a Hezbollah commander and his companion,” the Observatory said. It did not report any casualties.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes in Syria but has repeatedly said it will not allow its arch-enemy Iran to expand its presence there.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in its northern neighbor, mainly targeting army positions and Iran-backed fighters including from Hezbollah.
The strikes have increased since Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip began on October 7, when the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group launched an unprecedented attack against Israel.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.