Israeli forces push into Gaza from north and south

Update Israeli forces push into Gaza from north and south
Above, smoke billows during Israeli strikes in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 13, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 13 May 2024
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Israeli forces push into Gaza from north and south

Israeli forces push into Gaza from north and south
  • Israel describesd its latest return to the north as part of a ‘mop-up’ stage of the war to prevent fighters from returning

CAIRO: Israeli forces pushed deep into the ruins of Gaza’s northern edge on Monday to recapture an area where they had claimed to have defeated Hamas months ago, while at the opposite end of the enclave tanks and troops pushed across a highway into Rafah.

With some of the most intense fighting for weeks now taking place on both the northern and southern edges of Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have again taken flight, and aid groups warn that a humanitarian crisis could sharply worsen.

Israel described its latest return to the north, where it pulled out most of its troops five months ago, as part of a “mop-up” stage of the war to prevent fighters from returning, and said such operations had always been part of its plan. Palestinians say the need to keep fighting amid the ruins of previous battles is proof Israel’s military objectives are unattainable.

In sprawling Jabalia, the biggest of Gaza’s eight camps built 75 years ago to house Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel, tanks pushed toward the heart of the district. Residents said tank shells were landing at the center of the camp and air strikes had destroyed clusters of houses.

Thick clouds of black smoke from explosions could be seen rising over northern Gaza from the Israeli border on Sunday.

Israeli troops are seeking to wipe out Hamas, which has said it is committed to Israel’s destruction. The militant group burst into Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and taking more than 250 hostages, by Israeli tallies.

The Palestinian death toll in the war has now surpassed 35,000, according to Gaza health officials who fear many more bodies are lost under the rubble. The fighting has laid waste to the coastal enclave and caused a deep humanitarian crisis, with the Gaza health ministry warning in a statement on Monday that the medical system is on the verge of collapse due to a shortage of fuel to power generators and ambulances.

Palestinian health officials on Monday said they had so far recovered 20 bodies of Palestinians killed in the overnight air strikes on Jabalia, while dozens were injured.

At the opposite end of Gaza in Rafah, against the border fence with Egypt, Israel stepped up aerial and ground bombardments on the eastern areas of the city, killing people in an air strike on a house in the Brazil neighborhood.

Israel ordered residents out of the east of the city last week, and extended that order to central areas in recent days, sending hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are already displaced, fleeing for new shelters.

Residents said Israeli air and ground bombardments were intensifying and tanks had cut off the main north-south Salahuddin Road that divides the eastern part of the city from the central area.

“The tanks cut the Saladuddin road east of the city, the forces are now in the southeast side, building up near the built-up area, the situation is dreadful and the sounds of explosions never stopped,” said Bassam, 57, from the Shaboura neighborhood in Rafah.

“People continue to leave Rafah, even far away near the western areas as no place looks safe now and also because people do not want to escape at the last minute should tanks make sudden incursions and moving out becomes too late,” he told Reuters via a chat app.

UNRWA, the main United Nations aid agency in Gaza, estimated that about 360,000 people had fled the southern city since the Israeli military gave its first evacuation order a week ago.

BOMB SHIPMENT ON HOLD

The assault on Rafah has caused one of the biggest splits in generations between Israel and its main ally the United States, which put some deliveries of weapons on hold for the first time since the war began. Washington has said Israel must not assault Rafah without a plan in place to protect civilians there, which it has yet to see.

Jack Lew, the US ambassador to Israel, signalled on Sunday that the Rafah incursion was still on a scale that Washington considers acceptable.

“The president was clear in the interview he gave the other evening that what Israel has done so far hasn’t crossed over into the area where our disagreements lie,” Lew told Israel’s Channel 12 TV, without elaborating on what that area entails.

“I’m hoping we don’t end up with real disagreement.”


Israel allows return to three evacuated West Bank settlements

Israel allows return to three evacuated West Bank settlements
Updated 57 min 42 sec ago
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Israel allows return to three evacuated West Bank settlements

Israel allows return to three evacuated West Bank settlements
  • The military announced the move on the day three European states said they would formally recognize the State of Palestine
  • A fourth settlement, Homesh, was cleared for entry last year

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military has approved permission for Israelis to return to three former West Bank settlements they had been banned from entering since an evacuation ordered in 2005, the defense ministry said on Wednesday.
The three settlements, Sa-nur, Ganim and Kadim, are located near the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus, both of which are strongholds of armed militant groups in the northern West Bank.
A fourth settlement, Homesh, was cleared for entry last year after parliament passed an amendment to the so-called “disengagement law” of 2005. Permission from the military, which has overall control of the West Bank, was required for any return to the other three former settlements.
The military announced the move on the day three European states said they would formally recognize the State of Palestine, and as Israel’s military offensive against the Palestinian militant group Hamas continued in the Gaza Strip.
It took the decision despite international pressure on Israel to curb settlement expansion in the West Bank, which Palestinians want as the core of a future independent state alongside Gaza.
“The Jewish hold on Judea and Samaria guarantees security, the application of the law to cancel disengagement will lead to the development of settlement and provide security to residents of the area,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement, using the Biblical names for the West Bank that are often used in Israel.
There was no immediate comment from the Palestinian Authority.
Last year’s amendment to the disengagement law was seen as opening the way to re-establishing former West Bank settlements evacuated in 2005 under a plan overseen by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Under the plan, which was opposed by the settler movement at the time, all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza were ordered to be evacuated. Most settlements in the West Bank were unaffected apart from the four that will now be accessible again.
More than 500,000 Jewish settlers are now estimated to be living in the West Bank, part of territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, with a further 200,000 living in East Jerusalem.
For Palestinians and most of the international community, the settlements are considered illegal. Israel disputes this, citing the Jewish people’s historical, biblical and political links to the area as well as security considerations.
Despite international opposition, settlements have continued to expand strongly under successive Israeli governments.


Death of Iran’s president has delayed talks with UN nuclear watchdog, Grossi says

Death of Iran’s president has delayed talks with UN nuclear watchdog, Grossi says
Updated 22 May 2024
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Death of Iran’s president has delayed talks with UN nuclear watchdog, Grossi says

Death of Iran’s president has delayed talks with UN nuclear watchdog, Grossi says
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency faces a range of challenges in Iran
  • Nuclear watchdog has been trying to expand its oversight of Iran’s atomic activities

HELSINKI: The deaths of Iran’s president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash have caused a pause in the UN nuclear watchdog’s talks with Tehran over improving cooperation with the agency, the watchdog’s chief Rafael Grossi told Reuters on Wednesday.
“They are in a mourning period which I need to respect,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Grossi said in Helsinki, where he spoke at a nuclear conference.
“But once this is over, we are going to be engaging again,” he said, describing it as a “temporary interruption that I hope will be over in a matter of days.”
Grossi said the IAEA was planning to continue technical discussions with Iran but they had not yet taken place due to last weekend’s helicopter crash that killed President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.
The IAEA faces a range of challenges in Iran, from Tehran’s recent barring of many of the most experienced uranium-enrichment experts on its inspection team to Iran’s continued failure to explain uranium traces found at undeclared sites despite a years-long IAEA investigation.
The IAEA has been trying to expand its oversight of Iran’s atomic activities while the country’s uranium-enrichment program continues to advance. Iran is enriching uranium to up to 60 percent purity, close to the 90 percent of weapons-grade, which no other country has done without developing nuclear weapons.
Tehran says its aims are entirely peaceful.
Iran currently has about 140 kg of uranium enriched to up to 60 percent, Grossi said. According to an IAEA definition, that is theoretically enough, if enriched further, for three nuclear bombs. The IAEA’s last quarterly report in February said Iran had 121.5 kg, enough for two bombs.
Iran is still producing about nine kg a month of uranium enriched to up to 60 percent, Grossi said. It is also enriching to lower levels at which it has enough material for potentially more bombs.
Grossi, who two weeks ago said he wanted to start to see concrete results on improved cooperation from Iran soon, repeated that hope but said a more wide-ranging deal would require “a bit more time.”
For now, his team had not made progress on the main issues, he said.
“It is high time there is some concrete issuance and if not resolution, some clarification of what is this,” Grossi said of the uranium traces at undeclared sites.
“And I would say, confidence in many parts of the world (in Iran on the nuclear issue) is growing thinner.


Bahrain’s king to visit Russia and China

Bahrain’s king to visit Russia and China
Updated 22 May 2024
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Bahrain’s king to visit Russia and China

Bahrain’s king to visit Russia and China

DUBAI: Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa is visiting the Russian capital, Moscow, on Wednesday at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin, state news agency BNA reported on Wednesday. 

The two leaders will discuss cooperation between their respective countries, regional and international developments, and the results of the 33rd Arab Summit, hosted last week in Bahrain.

The king will likewise visit China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping to participate in the opening session of the Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum.

The two will discuss cooperation between Bahrain and China, as well as the outcome of the 33rd Arab Summit.


Far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions

Far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions
Updated 22 May 2024
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Far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions

Far-right Israeli Cabinet minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site, raising tensions
  • The visit was a response to a move by three European countries to unilaterally recognize an independent Palestinian state

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel’s far right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, visited Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound on Wednesday, declaring the contested holy site belongs “only to the state of Israel.”
Ben-Gvir said Wednesday’s visit was a response to a move by three European countries to unilaterally recognize an independent Palestinian state.
“We will not even allow a statement about a Palestinian state,” he said.
The hilltop compound is revered by Jews and Muslims, and the conflicting claims have led to numerous rounds of violence in the past.
Israel allows Jews to visit the compound, but not to pray there. But the visit is likely to be seen around the world as a provocation.
Norway, Ireland and Spain said Wednesday they are recognizing a Palestinian state in a historic move that drew condemnation from Israel and jubilation from the Palestinians. Israel immediately ordered back its ambassadors from Norway and Ireland.
The formal recognition will be made on May 28. The development is a step toward a long-held Palestinian aspiration that came against the backdrop of international outrage over the civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip following Israel’s offensive there.
It was a lightning cascade of announcements. First was Norway, whose Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said “there cannot be peace in the Middle East if there is no recognition.”
“By recognizing a Palestinian state, Norway supports the Arab peace plan,” he said and added that the Scandinavian country will “regard Palestine as an independent state with all the rights and obligations that entails.”
Several European Union countries have in the past weeks indicated that they plan to make the recognition, arguing a two-state solution is essential for lasting peace in the region. The decision may generate momentum for the recognition of a Palestinian state by other EU countries and could spur further steps at the United Nations, deepening Israel’s isolation.
Norway, which is not a member of the EU but mirror its moves, has been an ardent supporter of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The terror has been committed by Hamas and militant groups who are not supporters of a two-state solution and the state of Israel,” the Norwegian government leader said. “Palestine has a fundamental right to an independent state.”
Since the unprecedented attack by Hamas-led militants on Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli forces have led assaults on the northern and southern edges of the Gaza Strip in May, causing a new exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, and sharply restricted the flow of aid, raising the risk of famine.
Wednesday’s announcements come more than 30 years after the first Oslo agreement was signed in 1993. Since then, “the Palestinians have taken important steps toward a two-state solution,” the Norwegian government said.
It added that the World Bank determined that a Palestinian state had met key criteria to function as a state in 2011, that national institutions have been built up to provide the population with important services.
“The war in Gaza and the constant expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank still mean that the situation in Palestine is more difficult than it has been in decades,” it said.
In making his announcement, Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris said the move was coordinated with Spain and Norway — and that it was a “historic and important day for Ireland and for Palestine.” He said it was intended to help move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to resolution through a two-state solution.
Harris said he thinks other countries will join Norway, Spain and Ireland in recognizing a Palestinian state “in the weeks ahead.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Socialist leader since 2018, made the expected announcement to the nation’s Parliament on Wednesday. He had spent months touring European and Middle Eastern countries to garner support for the recognition, as well as for a possible ceasefire in Gaza. He has said several times that he was committed to the move.
“We know that this initiative won’t bring back the past and the lives lost in Palestine, but we believe that it will give the Palestinians two things that are very important for their present and their future: dignity and hope,” Sánchez said.
“This recognition is not against anyone, it is not against the Israeli people,” Sánchez added, while acknowledging that it will most likely cause diplomatic tensions with Israel. “It is an act in favor of peace, justice and moral consistency.”
Sánchez argued that the move is needed to support the viability of a two-state solution that he said “is in serious danger” with the war in Gaza.
“I have spent weeks and months speaking with leaders inside and outside of the region and if one thing is clear is that Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu does not have a project of peace for Palestine, even if the fight against the terrorist group Hamas is legitimate,” the Spanish leader said.
Earlier this month, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Albares said he had informed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken of his government’s intention to recognize a Palestinian state.
Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said “recognition is a tangible step toward a viable political track leading to Palestinian self-determination.”
But in order for it to have an impact, he said, it must come with “tangible steps to counter Israel’s annexation and settlement of Palestinian territory – such as banning settlement products and financial services.”
Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz ordered Israel’s ambassadors from Ireland and Norway to immediately return to Israel. He spoke before Spain’s announcement.
“Ireland and Norway intend to send a message today to the Palestinians and the whole world: terrorism pays,” Katz said.
He said that the recognition could impede efforts to return Israel’s hostages being held in Gaza and makes a ceasefire less likely by “rewarding the jihadists of Hamas and Iran.” He also threatened to recall Israel’s ambassador to Spain if the country takes a similar position.
Regarding the Israeli decision to recall its ambassador in Oslo, Gahr Støre said “we will take note of that. This is a government with which we have many disagreements. What we agree on is to condemn Hamas’s cruel attack on Oct. 7.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking after Norway’s announcement, welcomed the move and called on other countries to follow.
In a statement carried by the official Wafa news agency, Abbas said Norway’s decision will enshrine “the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination” and support efforts to bring about a two-state solution with Israel.
Some 140 countries have already recognized a Palestinian state — more than two-thirds of United Nations members — but none of the major Western powers has done so. This move could put more pressure continental heavyweights France and Germany to reconsider their position.
The United States and Britain, among others, have backed the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel as a solution to the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. They insist, however, that Palestinian independence should come as part of a negotiated settlement.
The head of the Arab League called the step taken by the trio of European nations as “a courageous step.”
“I salute and thank the three countries for this step that puts them on the right side of history in this conflict,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit wrote on the social media platform X.
Turkiye also applauded the decision, calling it an important step toward the restoration of the “usurped rights of the Palestinians.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also said the move would help “Palestine gain the status it deserves in the international community.”

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Egypt’s foreign minister makes first trip to Iran to attend president’s funeral

Egypt’s foreign minister makes first trip to Iran to attend president’s funeral
Updated 22 May 2024
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Egypt’s foreign minister makes first trip to Iran to attend president’s funeral

Egypt’s foreign minister makes first trip to Iran to attend president’s funeral
  • Relations between Egypt and Iran have often been fraught in recent decades although the two countries have maintained diplomatic contacts
DUBAI: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry headed on Wednesday to Tehran to participate in the funeral of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Shoukry’s visit is the first visit by the Egyptian foreign minister to Iran,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said.
Relations between Egypt and Iran have often been fraught in recent decades although the two countries have maintained diplomatic contacts.
Last September, foreign ministers of both countries met during the United Nations leaders gathering in New York and Raisi, who also attended the UN General Assembly, said at the time that the meeting could pave the way for a restoration of ties.
Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who also died in the crash, had met his Egyptian counterpart earlier this month in Gambia on the sidelines of a summit for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
The two ministers had discussed efforts to promote bilateral relations and the latest developments in the region, especially the ongoing situation in Gaza.