Empty chairs for hostages as Israel at war marks Passover

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in the
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in the "Mayim Shelanu" ceremony in which water is collected from a natural spring for the preparation of matza, the traditional unleavened bread eaten during the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover, near Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 21, 2024. (REUTERS)
People attend a seder in support of hostages kidnapped in the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas from Gaza, at the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tel Aviv, Israel April 22, 2024. (REUTERS)
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People attend a seder in support of hostages kidnapped in the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas from Gaza, at the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tel Aviv, Israel April 22, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 23 April 2024
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Empty chairs for hostages as Israel at war marks Passover

Empty chairs for hostages as Israel at war marks Passover
  • Israel has killed 34,151 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry

JERUSALEM: Jewish people marked Monday the start of Passover, a celebration of freedom, and around many holiday tables in Israel chairs stood empty for hostages still held captive in Gaza.
The week-long Jewish festival, also known in Hebrew as the “holiday of freedom,” celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery, as told in the Bible.
Passover is traditionally observed with a seder: a holiday feast when families eat symbolic foods and read the Haggadah.
The more than millennium-old text recounts the Exodus and Jewish people’s ties to, and their yearning to return to, the Holy Land.




Members of the Samaritan sect take part in the traditional Passover sacrifice ceremony on Mount Gerizim near Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 22, 2024. (REUTERS)

For many this year, Passover will be stained by absence and anguish; particularly the relatives of the hostages, grieving families and more than 120,000 Israelis displaced from their homes in the north and south of the country because of the war in the Gaza Strip.
“All of the symbolic things we do at the seder will take on a much more profound and deep meaning this year,” said Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son Hersh is one of the hostages.
“The bread of affliction, the bitter herbs, the saltwater that represents the tears of the Jewish people when they were in captivity, in slavery.”
For days, Israeli Jews have been making preparations for the holiday: fastidious house cleaning, burning leavened goods eschewed during Passover, and copious food shopping.




A pickup truck pulling a cart loaded with mattresses and furniture moves past destroyed buildings in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on April 22, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP)

But the holiday mood has been dampened by more than six months of war in Gaza, with many Israelis serving in the military away from home.
Above all, the continuing captivity of 129 hostages abducted by Palestinian militants on October 7 has cast a pall over Passover.
On that day, Gaza-based militants launched an unprecedented attack on southern Israel, resulting in the deaths of 1,170 people, Israelis and foreigners, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Militants also abducted some 250 people during the attack.
Israel’s retaliatory invasion of the Gaza Strip has killed 34,151 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Neither military force nor indirect negotiations with Hamas have yet succeeded in bringing the remaining hostages home.
“Everything is deadlocked and nobody knows how to move forward, on our side and on the Hamas side,” said Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist who has mediated between Israel and Hamas for more than a decade to free hostages in Gaza.
“We’re held hostage by our government and held hostage by Hamas,” he said. “There is no freedom this year.”
For many relatives of the captives, this Passover will not be joyous.
“How can we celebrate such a holiday while ... people are still without their freedom, still waiting to be liberated?” asked Mai Albini. His grandfather Chaim Peri was taken hostage on October 7.
Hundreds took their discontent to the street, burning a symbolic seder table in protest outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house on Monday evening.
“He doesn’t want the hostages back because he doesn’t want the war to end or he’ll go to prison,” said protester Guy Ben Dror in the coastal town of Caesarea.

Tzohar, a rabbinic group, the Hostage and Missing Family Forum and President Isaac Herzog have all urged families to leave an empty chair at their seder table, with the picture of a hostage on it.
“There is great hardship” this Passover, said Tzohar’s head rabbi, David Stav.
“Even at the most traditional seder night, the practice is that we also mention that which is missing and difficult.”
The Hostage and Missing Family Forum published a special edition of the Haggadah that “integrates new hopes, and introduces inspiring messages of contemporary spirit.”
It contains contributions from hostages’ relatives, a former chief rabbi of Israel, and Rita, a prominent Iranian-Israeli singer.
It has sold more than 250,000 copies in Israel and abroad, said Itay Shenberger, who heads the Haggadah project.
“It’s basically all the stock we had,” he said. The proceeds go to the forum’s efforts to secure the hostages’ release.

Many families will mark Passover away from home, driven out by fighting between Israel and militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah that has turned northern and southern border communities into ghost towns.
Around 60,000 Israelis from the north and almost an equal number from southern Israel remain internally displaced, according to official figures.
Hotels still house more than 26,000 displaced, many of whom will hold seders there.
Kibbutz Beeri, one of the hardest hit communities in the October 7 attack, will hold a communal seder in the Tel Aviv plaza that has become the epicenter of the hostage protests.
Nisan Zeevi, an entrepreneur from Kfar Giladi kibbutz near the Lebanese border, said his family has been “uprooted from our homes” for more than half a year.
Political leaders have given them no hint as to when they might return, he said.
“We’re not celebrating Passover in a normal way,” Zeevi said. Like the biblical Israelites, he added, this year they will “wander in the desert.”

 


UN says lawlessness in Gaza impedes aid via Kerem Shalom despite Israel’s military pause

UN says lawlessness in Gaza impedes aid via Kerem Shalom despite Israel’s military pause
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UN says lawlessness in Gaza impedes aid via Kerem Shalom despite Israel’s military pause

UN says lawlessness in Gaza impedes aid via Kerem Shalom despite Israel’s military pause
  • The UN welcomed the move, UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said on Tuesday

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations said on Tuesday it has been unable to distribute aid in the Gaza Strip from the Israel-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing because of lawlessness and panic among hungry people in the area, despite Israel’s daytime pause in military activity.
Israel’s military said on Sunday there would be a daily pause in its attacks from 0500 GMT until 1600 GMT until further notice along the road that leads from Israel via the Kerem Shalom crossing to the Salah Al-Din Road and northwards in Gaza.
The UN welcomed the move, UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said on Tuesday, but added that “this has yet to translate into more aid reaching people in need.” He said the area between Kerem Shalom and the Salah Al-Din road was very dangerous.
“Fighting is not the only reason for being unable to pick up aid ... The lack of any police or rule of law in the area makes it very dangerous to move goods there,” he said.
“But we are ready to engage with all parties to ensure that aid reaches people in Gaza, and we’ll continue to work with the authorities and with security forces, trying to see what can be done to have security conditions,” Haq said.
“When aid gets to a place, people are starving, and they’re worried that this may be the last food that they see,” he said. “They have to be assured that there’s going to be a regular flow of goods so that there’s not a panic when we get to the area.”
The United Nations and aid groups have long complained of the dangers and obstacles to getting aid in and distributing it throughout Gaza, where the UN had warned a famine is looming.
Since the Israel-Hamas war began more than eight months ago, aid for 2.3 million Palestinians has primarily entered through two crossings into southern Gaza — the Rafah crossing from Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel.
But deliveries were disrupted when Israel stepped up its military operations in Rafah last month with the stated aim of routing remaining units of Hamas fighters. Egypt closed the Rafah crossing due to the threat posed to humanitarian work and has routed a backlog of aid and fuel via Kerem Shalom.
Haq said on Tuesday that the Rafah crossing remained closed and there was limited access via Kerem Shalom. In Gaza’s north, he said the Erez crossing was not accessible due to an escalation of fighting, while the West Erez and Zikim crossings were operational.


Ship manager calls on Houthis to free Galaxy Leader crew

Ship manager calls on Houthis to free Galaxy Leader crew
Updated 18 June 2024
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Ship manager calls on Houthis to free Galaxy Leader crew

Ship manager calls on Houthis to free Galaxy Leader crew
  • Galaxy Leader management: ‘There is nothing to be gained by the Houthis in keeping the 25 crew members’
  • Houthis hold captive the Bulgarian ship master and chief officer, along with 17 Filipinos and other sailors from Ukraine, Mexico and Romania

Managers of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship on Tuesday renewed calls for the release of the vessel’s 25 crew being held by Yemen’s Houthi militants for seven months.
The militants used helicopters to attack the Bahamas-flagged ship on Nov. 19. They captured the Bulgarian ship master and chief officer, along with 17 Filipinos and other sailors from Ukraine, Mexico and Romania, the ship managers said.
“There is nothing to be gained by the Houthis in keeping the 25 crew members,” said the ship managers, who requested that they be released to their families without further delay.
The Houthis have used drones and missiles to assault ships in the Red Sea, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden since November, saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza war. Since then, they have sunk one ship, seized another vessel and killed three seafarers in separate attacks.
The International Chamber of Shipping, which represents ship owners, has called the Houthi attacks “unacceptable acts of aggression which threaten the lives of innocent seafarers and the safety of merchant shipping.”
Last week, Houthis notched up direct strikes on two ships — the Liberan-flagged Tutor coal carrier and Palau-flagged Verbena, which was loaded with wood construction material.
Those assaults prompted security experts to note a significant increase in the effectiveness of the Iran-aligned militants’ drone and missile attacks.
Rescuers evacuated crews from the damaged ships due to safety risks. One sailor from the Tutor remains missing. Both ships are now adrift and vulnerable to further attack or sinking.
US and British forces on Monday conducted airstrikes targeting Yemen’s Hodeidah International Airport and Kamaran Island near the port of Salif off the Red Sea.


Israel army says operational plans for Lebanon offensive ‘approved’

Israel army says operational plans for Lebanon offensive ‘approved’
Updated 18 June 2024
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Israel army says operational plans for Lebanon offensive ‘approved’

Israel army says operational plans for Lebanon offensive ‘approved’
  • “As part of the situational assessment, operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon were approved and validated," the military said
  • "Decisions were taken on the continuation of increasing the readiness of troops in the field"

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said Tuesday operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon were "approved and validated", as Israeli forces and the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement engaged in cross-border exchanges of fire.
Senior Israeli military officials "held a joint situational assessment in the Northern Command. As part of the situational assessment, operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon were approved and validated," the military said in a statement.
"Decisions were taken on the continuation of increasing the readiness of troops in the field."
Lebanon's Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, and Israel have been trading near-daily fire since the Gaza war was trigged by the Palestinian militant group's October 7 attack on southern Israel.
The sign-off came as Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz earlier warned Hezbollah that it would be destroyed in the event of a "total war" between the two.
"We are very close to the moment when we will decide to change the rules of the game against Hezbollah and Lebanon. In a total war, Hezbollah will be destroyed and Lebanon will be hit hard," Katz said, according to a statement from his office.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this month that the military was ready for an intense operation in Lebanon if necessary, pledging to restore security to the country's northern border.
US special envoy Amos Hochstein was in Lebanon on Tuesday a day after meeting Israeli leaders, seeking "urgent" de-escalation on the Israel-Lebanon border.


Iran slaps one-year prison term on Nobel winner Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi. (Supplied)
Narges Mohammadi. (Supplied)
Updated 18 June 2024
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Iran slaps one-year prison term on Nobel winner Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi. (Supplied)
  • Mohammadi refused to attend a trial session in Tehran earlier this month, and in March shared an audio message from prison in which she decried a ‘full-scale war against women’ in Iran

TEHRAN: An Iranian court has sentenced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi to a year in prison for “propaganda against the state,” the jailed activist’s lawyer said on Tuesday.
Mohammadi, 52, has been jailed since November 2021 over several past convictions relating to her advocacy against the obligatory hijab for women and capital punishment in Iran.
Lawyer Mostafa Nili said on X that “Mohammadi was sentenced to one year in prison for propaganda against the system.”
Nili said “the reasons for issuing this sentence” include calls to boycott parliamentary elections, letters to Swedish and Norwegian lawmakers and “comments about Mrs.Dina Ghalibaf.”
Rights groups have said that Ghalibaf, a journalist and student, had been taken into custody after accusing security forces on social media of putting her in handcuffs and sexually assaulting her during a previous arrest at a metro station. Ghalibaf has since been released.
The Iranian judiciary’s Mizan Online website said on April 22 that Ghalibaf “had not been raped” and that she was being prosecuted for making a “false statement.”
Iranian police  have intensified enforcement of the country’s dress code for women.

 


Gaza conflict has caused major environmental damage: UN

Palestinian residents search the rubble of a family home destroyed in Israeli strikes in the central Gaza Strip on Tuesday. (AFP
Palestinian residents search the rubble of a family home destroyed in Israeli strikes in the central Gaza Strip on Tuesday. (AFP
Updated 18 June 2024
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Gaza conflict has caused major environmental damage: UN

Palestinian residents search the rubble of a family home destroyed in Israeli strikes in the central Gaza Strip on Tuesday. (AFP
  • Latest assessment adds to concerns about humanitarian crisis and environmental costs of war

GENEVA: The conflict in Gaza has created unprecedented soil, water, and air pollution in the region, destroying sanitation systems and leaving tonnes of debris from explosive devices, a UN report on the environmental impact of the war said on Tuesday.

The war between Israel and Hamas has swiftly reversed limited progress in improving the region’s water desalination and wastewater treatment facilities, restoring the Wadi Gaza coastal wetland, and investments in solar power installations, according to a preliminary assessment from the UN Environment Programme, or UNEP.
Explosive weapons have generated some 39 million tonnes of debris, the report said.

FASTFACT

UNEP is mandated to assist countries with pollution mitigation and control in areas affected by armed conflict or terrorism.

Each square meter of the Gaza Strip is now littered with more than 107 kg of debris. The report said that is more than five times the debris generated during the battle for Mosul, Iraq, in 2017.
“All of this is deeply harming people’s health, food security, and Gaza’s resilience,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.
Gaza’s environment was already suffering from recurring conflicts, rapid urban growth, and high population density before the most recent conflict began on Oct. 7. The UN assessment adds to concerns about the unfolding humanitarian crisis and the environmental costs of war, with Ukraine also recording widespread ecological damage over the past two years.
“Understanding the environmental impacts of war is a grand challenge of our time,” said Eoghan Darbyshire, a senior researcher at the UK-based nonprofit Conflict and Environment Observatory.
“The impacts will not only be felt locally where the fighting is taking place but may be displaced or even felt at the global scale via greenhouse gas emissions.”
The UN assessment stems from a December 2023 request from the Palestinian Environment Quality Authority for UNEP to take stock of environmental damages. UNEP is mandated to assist countries with pollution mitigation and control in areas affected by armed conflict or terrorism.
Due to security concerns and access restrictions, the UN used remote sensing surveys, data from Palestinian technical entities, and damage assessments from the World Bank in their report.
Ground measurements, however, would be critical to understanding the extent of soil and water pollution, Darbyshire said.
The report found that the water, sanitation, and hygiene systems are almost entirely defunct, with Gaza’s five wastewater treatment plants shut down. Israel’s long-term occupation had already posed major environmental challenges in the Palestinian territories about water quality and availability, according to a 2020 report by the UN Development Program.
Over 92 percent of water in the Gaza Strip was then deemed unfit for human consumption.
The Gaza Strip had one of the highest densities of rooftop solar panels in the world, with the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimating 2023 some 12,400 rooftop solar systems.
But Israel has since destroyed a large proportion of Gaza’s burgeoning solar infrastructure, and broken panels can leak lead and heavy metal contaminants into the soil.
Since a week-long truce in November, repeated attempts to arrange a ceasefire have failed.
Looking at the scale of environmental destruction, “it is my opinion that large areas of Gaza will not be recovered to a safe state within a generation, even with limitless finance and will,” said Darbyshire.