Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’

This combination of pictures created on January 11, 2024, shows Gaza City's Omari Mosque on January 5, 2024, the oldest mosque in Gaza, damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement(L) and a file picture of a Palestinian man reading the Koran in the courtyard of the same mosque on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 23, 2023. (AFP)
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This combination of pictures created on January 11, 2024, shows Gaza City's Omari Mosque on January 5, 2024, the oldest mosque in Gaza, damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement(L) and a file picture of a Palestinian man reading the Koran in the courtyard of the same mosque on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 23, 2023. (AFP)
Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’
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This picture taken on April 21, 2021 shows an exterior view of Qasr al-Basha in Gaza City, where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for several nights during his campaign in Egypt and Palestine. (AFP)
Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’
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A picture taken on January 5, 2024 shows Gaza City's 17th century Qasr al-Basha or the Pasha's Palace, also known as Radwan dynasty castle, which houses a museum and a girls'school, damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (AFP)
Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’
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Artifacts are on display in the first ever National Museum of Archaeology in Gaza opend recently by Jawdat Khoudary, a Palestinian businessman and collector, on July 28, 2008. (AFP)
Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’
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A Palestinian worker inspects the ancient archaeological site of Anthedon Harbour, also know as "al-Blakhiyah", which is located next to a training site for Hamas military, in Gaza City on April 25, 2013. (AFP)
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Updated 16 April 2024
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Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’

Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’
  • Israel has killed more than 33,797 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory
  • A Palestinian worker inspects the ancient archaeological site of Anthedon Harbour, also know as "al-Blakhiyah", which is located next to a training site for Hamas military, in Gaza City on April 25, 2013

JERUSALEM: Gaza’s ancient Greek site of Anthedon has been bombed, its “Napoleon’s Palace” destroyed and the only private museum burned down: the war has taken a terrible toll on the rich heritage of the Palestinian territory.
But in a strange twist of fate, some of its greatest historical treasures are safe in a warehouse in Switzerland.
And ironically, it is all thanks to the blockade that made life in the Gaza Strip such a struggle for the past 16 years.
Based on satellite images, the UN cultural organization reckons some 41 historic sites have been damaged since Israel began pounding the besieged territory after the October 7 Hamas attack.




This combination of pictures created on January 11, 2024, shows a file picture of the 17th century Qasr al-Basha in Gaza City on April 21, 2021, where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for several nights during his campaign in Egypt and Palestine (bottom), and the same building severely damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinians. (AFP)

On the ground, Palestinian archaeologist Fadel Al-Otol keeps tabs on the destruction in real time.
When he has electricity and Internet access, photos pour into a WhatsApp group he set up with 40 or so young peers he mobilized to watch over the territory’s vast array of ancient sites and monuments.
As a teenager in the 1990s, Otol was hired by European archaeological missions before going on to study in Switzerland and at the Louvre Museum in Paris.




This combination of pictures shows one taken on January 5, 2024 of Gaza City's historic Hammam Al-Samra, which used to be the only active traditional Turkish bath remaining in Gaza, located in the Zeitun quarter of the old city before it was destroyed in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement and another one (L) dating back to December 4, 2005 with Palestinian youths relaxing in the same steam bath. (AFP)

“All the archaeological remains in the north have been hit,” he told AFP by phone from Gaza.
The human toll since the October 7 Hamas attack has been chilling.
A total of 1,170 people were killed in the unprecedented raid on Israel, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Almost 34,000 have died in Gaza in unrelenting Israeli retaliation, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The damage to Gaza’s history has also been immense.




Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas views pottery specimens during his visit to the exhibition "Gaza, at the crossroad of civilizations" at the Art and History Museum in Geneva on April 26, 2007. (AFP)

“Blakhiya (the ancient Greek city of Anthedon) was directly bombed. There’s a huge hole,” said Otol.
He said part of the site, near a Hamas barracks where “we hadn’t started excavating,” was hit.
The 13th-century Al-Basha palace in Gaza City’s old town “has been completely destroyed. There was bombing and (then) it was bulldozed.
“It held hundreds of ancient objects and magnificent sarcophagi,” Otol added as he shared recent photos of the ruins.




Artifacts are on display in the first ever National Museum of Archaeology in Gaza opend recently by Jawdat Khoudary, a Palestinian businessman and collector, on July 28, 2008. (AFP)

Napoleon is said to have based himself in the ochre stone edifice at the disastrous end of his Egyptian campaign in 1799.
The room where the French emperor supposedly slept was full of Byzantine artefacts.
“Our best finds were displayed in the Basha,” Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem (EBAF) told AFP.
But we know little of their fate, he said. “Did someone remove the objects before blowing the building up?“
Nerves were frayed even further when the director of Israeli Antiquities, Eli Escusido, posted a video on Instagram of Israeli soldiers surrounded by vases and ancient pottery in the EBAF warehouse in Gaza City.
Much of what has been unearthed in digs in Gaza was stored either at the Al-Basha museum or the warehouse.
Palestinians quickly accused the army of pillaging. But EBAF archaeologist Rene Elter said he has seen no evidence of “state looting.”
“My colleagues were able to return to the site. The soldiers opened boxes. We don’t know if they took anything,” he told AFP.
However, he added: “Every day when Fadel (al-Otol) calls me, I’m afraid he’ll tell me that one of our colleagues has died or that such and such a site has been destroyed.”
Archaeology is a highly political issue in Israel and the Palestinian territories, with discoveries often used to justify the claims of the two warring peoples.
While Israel has an army of archaeologists who have unearthed an impressive number of ancient treasures, Gaza remains relatively untouched by the trowel despite a rich past stretching back thousands of years.

The only sheltered natural harbor between the Sinai and Lebanon, Gaza has been for centuries a crossroads of civilizations.
A pivot point between Africa and Asia and a hub of the incense trade, it was coveted by the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans.
A key figure in excavating this glorious past over the last few decades has been Jawdat Khoudary, a Gazan construction magnate and collector.
Gaza, with its “seafront real estate,” had a property boom in the 1990s after the Oslo peace accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
When building workers dug up the soil, they came across lots and lots of ancient objects. Khoudary amassed a treasure trove of artefacts that he opened up to foreign archaeologists.
Marc-Andre Haldimann, then curator of MAH, Geneva’s art and history museum, couldn’t believe his eyes when he was invited to have a look around the garden of Khoudary’s mansion in 2004.
“We found ourselves in front of 4,000 objects, including an avenue of Byzantine columns,” he told AFP.
Quickly an idea took shape to organize a major exhibition to highlight Gaza’s past at the MAH, and then to build a museum in the territory itself so that the Palestinians could take ownership of their own heritage.
At the end of 2006, around 260 objects from the Khoudary collection left Gaza for Geneva, with some later going on to be part of another hit show at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris.
But geopolitics changed along the way. In June 2007, Hamas drove the Palestinian Authority from Gaza. And Israel imposed its blockade.
As a result, the Gazan artefacts could no longer return home and remained stuck in Geneva, while the archaeological museum project fizzled out.
But Khoudary did not give up hope. He built a museum-hotel called Al-Mathaf, museum in Arabic, on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza City.
But then came the Israeli ground offensive after the Hamas attack on October 7, which began in Gaza’s north.

“Al-Mathaf remained under Israeli control for months,” Khoudary, who fled Gaza for Egypt, told AFP. “As soon as they left, I asked some people to go there to see what state the place was in. I was shocked. Several items were missing and the hall had been set on fire.
His mansion was also destroyed during fierce fighting in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.
“The Israelis flattened the garden with bulldozers... I don’t know whether objects were buried (by the bulldozers) or whether the marble columns were broken or looted. I can’t find words,” he added.
The Israeli military did not comment on specific sites. But it accused Hamas of systematically using civilian structures like cultural heritage sites, government buildings, schools, shelters and hospitals for military purposes.
“Israel maintains its commitments to international law, including by affording the necessary special protections,” the army added in a statement.
While part of Khoudary’s collection has been lost, the treasures held in Switzerland remain intact, saved by the blockade and the red tape that delayed their return.
“There were 106 crates ready to go” for years, said Beatrice Blandin, the MAH museum’s current curator.
Safely far from the war raging in Gaza, “the objects are in good condition,” she added. “We restored some of the bronze pieces that were slightly corroded and repacked everything.
“We just had to be sure that the convoy would not be blocked,” she told AFP. “We were waiting for that green light.”
But with any return impossible for the moment, Blandin said “discussions are under way” for a new Gaza exhibition in Switzerland.
Khoudary is excited by the idea.
“The most important collection of objects on the history of Gaza is in Geneva. If there is a new show, it will allow the whole world to learn about our history,” he told AFP from Cairo.
“It’s an irony of history,” said Haldimann, who is trying to get his friend Fadel Al-Otol safely out of Gaza.
“A new Gaza exhibition would show once again that Gaza... is anything but a black hole.”

The children in Israel’s prisons
Ongoing hostage-for-prisoners exchange opens the world’s eyes to arrests, interrogations, and even abuse of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities

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Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state

Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state
Updated 23 May 2024
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Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state

Arab Parliament welcomes move to recognize Palestinian state
  • The parliament described the move as a victory for justice and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state
  • Growing international recognition of a Palestinian state represented a practical response to Israel’s plans to “liquidate the Palestinian cause, which will not succeed”

CAIRO: The Arab Parliament has welcomed a decision by the governments of Spain, Norway and Ireland to recognize the state of Palestine.
The prime ministers of the three countries said on Wednesday that they would formally recognize Palestine as a state on May 28.
All three said they hoped the decision would accelerate efforts toward securing a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, now in its eighth month.
The parliament described the move as a victory for justice and the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state.
It said the decision was a “new victory for the Palestinian cause and Palestinian diplomacy,” and an important step toward recognition by many countries worldwide.
The parliament said the recognition supported the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, foremost of which is the establishment of an independent state with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.
It said that the announcements come at a time when Israel is working to destroy the Palestinian cause through “ethnic cleansing and forced displacement against civilians, including children, women, and the elderly, against whom war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed.”
Growing international recognition of a Palestinian state represented a practical response to Israel’s plans to “liquidate the Palestinian cause, which will not succeed,” it added.
The parliament called on countries that have not yet recognized the state of Palestine to take a step toward “ending the historical injustice to which the Palestinian people have been exposed for decades of occupation and per the internationally recognized two-state solution based on international legitimacy resolutions.”
It called on the international community and all countries to stand with the Palestinian people and their just cause.
Ireland has said it will upgrade its representative office in the West Bank to a full embassy, while the Palestinian mission in Ireland will also be offered full embassy status.


Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed

Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed
Updated 23 May 2024
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Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed

Egyptians held nearly a year over deadly shipwreck are released from Greek jail after case dismissed
  • The Egyptians’ defense team had argued that the nine were not crew members of the ill-fated trawler
  • Eight of the nine were released from a jail outside the southern city of Nafplio on Wednesday evening

NAFPLIO, Greece: A group of Egyptians jailed for nearly a year pending trial for a deadly shipwreck were released from jail Wednesday, a day after a Greek court threw out the case against them on grounds that it had no jurisdiction to try it.
Nine Egyptians had been charged with being part of the crew of the Adriana, a massively overcrowded trawler that capsized and sank near Greece last June with an estimated 700 people on board while sailing from Libya to Italy. Only 104 people survived – all men, mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan — and 82 bodies were recovered.
The nine, who have been in pretrial custody since their rescue last year, had been charged with being members of a migrant smuggling ring and were accused of having caused the shipwreck. They had faced several life sentences if convicted.
But a court in the southern Greek city of Kalamata on Tuesday ruled it had no jurisdiction to try the case, as the shipwreck occurred in international waters, none of those involved had been trying to enter Greece, the ship was not Greek flagged and no Greek citizens were on board.
The Egyptians’ defense team had argued that the nine were not crew members of the ill-fated trawler but had been paying passengers who were mistakenly identified as crew by nine other survivors, and that they were being used as scapegoats by authorities eager to put all the blame for the tragedy on the trawler’s crew.
Eight of the nine were released from a jail outside the southern city of Nafplio on Wednesday evening. They were transferred to a police station in the city, where they were to remain in custody overnight pending further procedures. It was not immediately clear when they would be fully released from custody.
The ninth defendant was to be released from a different jail.
The massive loss of life in the sinking of the Adriana in the early hours of June 14, 2023, renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent. The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis, driven largely by arrivals by sea.
The exact circumstances of how the Adriana sank remain unclear. The trawler was sailing in international waters but within Greece’s search and rescue area of operations, and a coast guard patrol boat and passing merchant ships were near the vessel for several hours. Greek authorities have said the trawler’s crew repeatedly refused offers of help, insisting it wanted to continue to Italy.
Several survivors have said the boat capsized after the Greek coast guard attempted to tow it, an accusation Greek authorities have vehemently denied. A Naval Court investigation into the sinking is still underway.
Speaking at the courthouse after the case was dismissed on Tuesday, Dimitris Choulis, one of the lawyers in the defense team for the nine Egyptians, said attention should turn to how the Adriana sank.
“The court today had to be very brave to issue this decision, and to say that these people are not the smugglers,” Choulis said.
The lawyer blamed the tragedy on the Greek coast guard and Europe’s migration policies, and said it was essential to “make sure that nothing like that would happen again.”


From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life

From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life
Updated 23 May 2024
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From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life

From wedding photographer to water queue: Gaza mother mourns lost dream life
  • The mother of seven is one of over two million Gazans who struggle to survive in the eighth month of an Israeli siege
  • "I'm a wedding photographer. Someone like me should be going out and living well and spending money on their children," Abdulati said

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip: Falasteen Abdulati mourns her vanished good life as a wedding photographer as she wearily queues day after day for scarce drinking water in a rubble-strewn street in south Gaza, fearing for the future of her children.
The mother of seven is one of over two million Gazans who struggle to survive in the eighth month of an Israeli siege and invasion triggered by a cross-border Hamas attack, with food, drinking water, medical care and safe shelter hard to find.
"I'm a wedding photographer. Someone like me should be going out and living well and spending money on their children," Abdulati, 35, said, laboriously filling a few buckets with water from a battered barrel in the city of Khan Younis.
"Our life has (been reduced) to the simplest needs. It is work and exhaustion. Nothing else. The dream that I had as a wedding photographer to open a studio and to get cameras and to make people happy, is lost. My dream is lost."
She continued: "Every morning we wake up at 7 o’clock and of course the first thing we think about is water," she said. "We come here and wait in the long queue, just to fill up four buckets with water. Other than that, our shoulders hurt. There are no men to carry it for us. There is no one but us. Women are the ones working these days."
Israel's assault on the tiny, heavily urbanised coastal enclave has displaced over three-quarters of the 2.3 million Palestinian population and demolished its infrastructure.
"The future of my children that I worked tirelessly for is lost. There are no schools (functioning), no education. There is no more comfort in life," said Abdulati.
"No safety," she added, referring to the threat of shelling or raids that Israel says target Hamas militants holed up in densely-packed residential neighbourhoods.
Abdulati, dressed in a body-length robe and head-covering, said the upheaval of war had turned the lives of Gaza women upside down. "Women are now like men. They work hard just like men. They're no longer comfortable at home."
Her husband is hospitalised with war injuries.
Breathing heavily, she lugged her buckets along a shattered, sand-covered street and up a dingy flight of cement stairs into the family flat. There she heated up the fresh water over a makeshift fire stove in a cluttered, cramped room dark for lack of electricity, watched intently by her young children.
"We are suffering due to a lack of gas because the border crossings are shut," she said, referring to Israel's siege that has severely restricted humanitarian aid shipments into Gaza.
"The water that I filled up must be rationed. I heat it up so I can wash the children, in addition to doing the dishes and washing clothes. The four buckets I can get per day are just not enough. I have to go back again and again."


Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says

Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says
Updated 23 May 2024
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Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says

Poverty in Lebanon tripled over a decade, World Bank says
  • The findings showed stark differences in poverty levels between different areas of the country
  • Among Lebanese surveyed, the poverty rate in 2022 was 33 percent, while among Syrians it reached 87 percent

BEIRUT: Poverty in Lebanon tripled over the course of a decade during which the small Mediterranean country slid into a protracted financial crisis, the World Bank said Thursday.
The percentage of people in Lebanon living below the poverty line rose from 12 percent in 2012 to 44 percent in 2022, the bank said in a report based on surveys conducted in five of the country’s eight governorates.
The data provided the most detailed snapshot to date on the economic circumstances of the country’s population since the crisis that began in late 2019, although World Bank officials acknowledged it was incomplete as surveyors were not given access to three governates in the south and east of the country.
The findings showed stark differences in poverty levels between different areas of the country and between Lebanese citizens and the country’s large population of Syrian refugees.
In the Beirut governate, in contrast to the rest of the country, poverty actually declined from 4 percent to 2 percent of the population during the decade surveyed, while in the largely neglected Akkar region in the north, the rate increased from 22 percent to 62 percent.
Among Lebanese surveyed, the poverty rate in 2022 was 33 percent, while among Syrians it reached 87 percent. While the survey found an increase in the percentage of Lebanese citizens working in unskilled jobs like agriculture and construction, it found that most Lebanese still work in skilled jobs while the majority of Syrians do unskilled labor.
The report also measured “multidimensional poverty,” which takes into account access to services like electricity and education as well as income, finding that some 73 percent of Lebanese and 100 percent of non-Lebanese residents of the country qualify as poor under this metric.
Beginning in late 2019, Lebanon’s currency collapsed, while inflation skyrocketed and the country’s GDP plummeted. Many Lebanese found that the value of their life savings had evaporated.
Initially, many saw an International Monetary Fund bailout as the only path out of the crisis, but since reaching a preliminary agreement with the IMF in 2022, Lebanese officials have made limited progress on reforms required to clinch the deal, including restructuring the ailing banking sector.
An IMF delegation visiting Beirut this week found that “some progress has been made on monetary and fiscal reforms,” the international financial institution said in a statement, including on “lowering inflation and stabilizing the exchange rate,” but it added that the measures “fall short of what is needed to enable a recovery from the crisis.”
It noted that reforms to “governance, transparency and accountability” remain “limited” and that without an overhaul of the banking sector, the “cash and informal economy will continue to grow, raising significant regulatory and supervisory concerns.”
The World Bank has estimated that the cash economy makes up 46 percent of the country’s GDP, as Lebanese distrustful of banks in the wake of the crisis have sought to deal in hard currency.
The flourishing cash economy has created fertile ground for money laundering and led to concerns that Lebanon could be placed on the Paris-based watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list” of countries with a high risk of money laundering and terrorism financing.


Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead
Updated 23 May 2024
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Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead
  • Israeli troops withdrew from the city after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen
  • Four children among the dead, and 25 wounded during the fighting

JeNIN: A two-day Israeli raid on the occupied West Bank city of Jenin killed at least 12 Palestinians, health authorities and an AFP correspondent said Thursday.
Israeli troops withdrew from the city early Thursday, the correspondent said, after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen in a nearby neighborhood in the city center.
The Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah said Israeli forces had killed 12 people including four children, and wounded 25 during the fighting which began on Tuesday morning.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa and medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that surgeon Usaeed Jabareen, from Jenin’s Khalil Suleiman government hospital, was among those killed on Tuesday.
An AFP correspondent on Thursday saw five bodies at the hospital morgue, including Jabareen’s.
A schoolteacher and a student were also among the dead, Wafa reported, quoting hospital director Wissam Bakr.
Several of the bodies were draped in flags and carried among crowds of Palestinians, including armed militants, through the streets as gunfire rang out.
Both Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned the raid.
Israel’s army said on Wednesday troops had “exchanged fire with armed men and killed a number of terrorists, including two terrorists who threw explosives at the forces.”
The army said it had raided the house of Ahmed Barakat, who was suspected of involvement in an attack on an Israeli civilian last year.
Meir Tamari, 32, was killed in May 2023 at the entrance to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, medics and military officials said at the time.
Jenin has long been a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, and the Israeli army routinely carries out raids in the city and adjacent camp.
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has seen a surge in violence for more than a year, but especially so since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7.
At least 518 Palestinians have been killed in the territory by Israeli troops or settlers since the Gaza war broke out, according to Palestinian officials.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 12 Israelis in the West Bank over the same period, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
The Gaza Strip has been gripped by more than seven months of war since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.