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

Special ‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief
UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting on UNRWA at UN headquarters in New York on April 17, 2024. (AFP)
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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.”


Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea
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Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea
  • The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call: UKMTO
  • The incident occurred 76 nautical miles (140 kilometers) off Yemen’s Hodeidah

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s Houthi militia launched an anti-ship ballistic missile into the Red Sea on Saturday morning, striking an oil tanker traveling from Russia to China, according to US Central Command, the latest in a series of Houthi maritime strikes. 

CENTCOM said that at 1 a.m. on Saturday, a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile struck a Panamanian-flagged, Greek-owned and operated oil tanker named M/T Wind, which had just visited Russia and was on its way to China, causing “flooding which resulted in the loss of propulsion and steering.”

Slamming the Houthis for attacking ships, the US military said: “The crew of M/T Wind was able to restore propulsion and steering, and no casualties were reported. M/T Wind resumed its course under its power. This continued malign and reckless behavior by the Iranian-backed Houthis threatens regional stability and endangers the lives of mariners across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

Earlier on Saturday, two UK naval agencies said that a ship sailing in the Red Sea suffered minor damage after being hit by an item thought to be a missile launched by Yemen’s Houthi militia from an area under their control.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors ship attacks, said on Saturday morning that it received an alarm from a ship master about an “unknown object” striking the ship’s port quarter, 98 miles south of Hodeidah, inflicting minor damage.

“The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call,” UKMTO said in its notice about the incident, encouraging ships in the Red Sea to exercise caution and report any incidents.

Hours earlier, the same UK maritime agency stated that the assault happened 76 nautical miles northwest of Hodeidah.

Ambrey, a UK security firm, also reported receiving information regarding a missile strike on a crude oil tanker traveling under the Panama flag, around 10 nautical miles southwest of Yemen’s government-controlled town of Mokha on the Red Sea, which resulted in a fire on the ship.

The Houthis did not claim responsibility for fresh ship strikes on Saturday, although they generally do so days after the attack.

Since November, the Houthis have seized a commercial ship, sunk another, and claimed to have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles at international commercial and naval ships in the Gulf of Aden, Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and Red Sea in what the Yemeni militia claims is support for the Palestinian people.

The Houthis claim that they solely strike Israel-linked ships and those traveling or transporting products to Israel in order to pressure the latter to cease its war in Gaza.

The US responded to the Houthi attacks by branding them as terrorists, forming a coalition of marine task forces to safeguard ships, and unleashing hundreds of strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen.

Local and international environmentalists have long warned that Houthi attacks on ships carrying fuel or other chemicals might lead to an environmental calamity near Yemen’s coast.

The early warning came in February when the Houthis launched a missile that seriously damaged the MV Rubymar, a Belize-flagged and Lebanese-operated ship carrying 22,000 tonnes of ammonium phosphate-sulfate NPS fertilizer and more than 200 tonnes of fuel while cruising in the Red Sea. 

The Houthis have defied demands for de-escalation in the Red Sea and continue to organize massive rallies in regions under their control to express support for their campaign. On Friday, thousands of Houthi sympathizers took to the streets of Sanaa, Saada, and other cities under their control to show their support for the war on ships.

The Houthis shouted in unison, “We have no red line, and what’s coming is far worse,” as they raised the Palestinian and militia flags in Al-Sabeen Square on Friday, repeating their leader’s promise to intensify assaults on ships.

Meanwhile, a Yemeni government soldier was killed and another was injured on Saturday while fending off a Houthi attack on their position near the border between the provinces of Taiz and Lahj.

According to local media, the Houthis attacked the government’s Nation’s Shield Forces in the contested Hayfan district of Taiz province, attempting to capture control of additional territory.

The Houthis were forced to stop their attack after encountering tough resistance from government troops.

The attack occurred a day after the Nation’s Shield Forces sent dozens of armed vehicles and personnel to the same locations to boost their forces and repel Houthi attacks. 


Iran to send experts to ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators

Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Iran to send experts to ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators

Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
  • “Venezuela has a number of accelerators in its hospitals that have been stopped due to the embargo,” the message said

CARACAS: Iran on Saturday said it will send experts to its ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators in hospitals it said had been stopped due to Western sanctions.
Venezuela requested Iran’s help, according to a message on the social media platform X by the Iranian government attributed to the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
“Venezuela has a number of accelerators in its hospitals that have been stopped due to the embargo,” the message said.
Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients.
Venezuela is also an ally of Russia and China.
The return of US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry has made its alliance with Iran critical to keeping its lagging energy sector afloat. Washington last year temporarily relaxed sanctions on Venezuela’s promise to allow a competitive presidential election. The US now says only some conditions were met. 

 


Three Syrians missing after cargo ship sinks off Romania

Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Three Syrians missing after cargo ship sinks off Romania

Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
  • Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels, while the search for the other three, “all of Syrian nationality,” was continuing, the statement said

BUCHAREST: Romanian rescue teams on Saturday were scouring the Black Sea for three Syrian sailors who went missing when their cargo ship sank off the coast, the naval authority said.
The Mohammed Z sank with 11 crew on board, 26 nautical miles off the Romanian town of Sfantu Gheorghe in the Danube delta in the Black Sea on Saturday morning, officials said in a statement.
The ship sailing under the Tanzanian flag was carrying nine Syrian and two Egyptian nationals, it said.
After receiving an alert at “around 4:00am,” naval authorities and border police were dispatched, with two nearby commercial vessels also joining the search and rescue operation.
Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels, while the search for the other three, “all of Syrian nationality,” was continuing, the statement said.
The cause of the accident was unclear.
According to the specialist website Marine Traffic, the ship departed from the Turkish port of Mersin and was heading to the Romanian port of Sulina.
Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, drifting sea mines have posed a constant threat for ships in the Black Sea, with countries bordering it doubling down on demining efforts.
Ensuring safe passage through the Black Sea has gained particular importance since Romania’s Danube ports became hubs for the transit of grain following the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports.
 

 


Iraq parliament fails to elect a speaker

A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Iraq parliament fails to elect a speaker

A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
  • A coalition of three Sunni blocs backed Issawi, while Mashhadani, who served as Iraq’s first speaker following the adoption of the 2005 constitution, received the support of the former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbussi’s sizeable bloc

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s lawmakers failed to elect a speaker on Saturday as neither of the two main candidates secured a majority during a tense session of parliament.
It is the latest in a series of failed attempts to replace the former head of parliament who was dismissed in November, with political bickering and divisions between key Sunni parties derailing every attempt so far.
Saturday’s vote was the closest yet to selecting a new head of the 329-member parliament, with 311 lawmakers showing up for the session and the leading candidate falling just seven votes short.
The parliament’s media office announced that 137 lawmakers chose Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, the oldest MP, while 158 picked Salem Al-Issawi.
However, candidates require at least 165 votes to win.
Many lawmakers did not return for a second attempt on Saturday, with local media sharing videos of a brief brawl between MPs and reporting that at least one of them was injured.
The parliament’s media office then announced that the session had been adjourned.
Iraq, a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups, is governed by complex power-sharing arrangements.
The largely ceremonial role of president traditionally goes to a Kurd, that of prime minister to a Shiite, while the speaker of parliament is usually Sunni.
But parliament is dominated by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties, reflecting the country’s largest religious group.
A coalition of three Sunni blocs backed Issawi, while Mashhadani, who served as Iraq’s first speaker following the adoption of the 2005 constitution, received the support of the former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbussi’s sizeable bloc.
The new speaker will replace Halbussi, the influential politician dismissed by Iraq’s top court in November last year after a lawmaker accused him of forging a resignation letter.
Halbussi had been the country’s highest-ranking Sunni official since he first became a speaker in 2018.
The new speaker’s stint will not last long with the general election due in 2025.
 

 


Libyan armed groups clash near capital Tripoli

Libyan armed groups clash near capital Tripoli
Updated 19 May 2024
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Libyan armed groups clash near capital Tripoli

Libyan armed groups clash near capital Tripoli
  • Libya is divided between the UN-recognized Tripoli-based government and a rival administration in the country’s east

TRIPOLI: Clashes between Libyan armed groups broke out on Friday night in the city of Zawiya, some 40 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli, a security official told AFP.
An official at the city’s security directorate told AFP the clashes were ongoing but “intermittent” on Saturday.
“The southern areas of the city of Zawiya have been witnessing clashes between armed groups since last night,” the official said.
Libya is still struggling to recover from years of war and chaos after the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
On Saturday morning, schools in Zawiya were suspended as some roads leading to the city were shut down amid a “casual” exchange of fire between the groups, the official said.
Media reports said the fighting left casualties, but authorities in Tripoli have yet to confirm any.
The Tripoli-based health ministry said in a statement it was working to evacuate parts of the city and taking injured people to hospitals.
The Libyan Red Crescent said it had evacuated some families from areas affected by the fights.
Authorities have not disclosed the reasons behind the fight.
Videos shared since Friday night on social media, which AFP could not verify, showed armed men in SUVs firing heavily at other armed groups.
Other videos showed smoke rising from parts of the city.
Although relative calm has returned to the oil-rich country in the past few years, clashes periodically occur between its myriad armed groups.
Last month, clashes broke out in the capital Tripoli, sparking panic among locals who were celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In August 2023, Tripoli’s worst armed clashes in a year left 55 people dead when two powerful groups fought.
Libya is divided between the UN-recognized Tripoli-based government and a rival administration in the country’s east.