Rare day of relative calm as Gaza sees ‘tactical pause’ for aid

Rare day of relative calm as Gaza sees ‘tactical pause’ for aid
Palestinians perform the Eid Al-Adha morning prayer in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on the first day of the Muslim holiday marking the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah, on June 16, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 16 June 2024
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Rare day of relative calm as Gaza sees ‘tactical pause’ for aid

Rare day of relative calm as Gaza sees ‘tactical pause’ for aid
  • The pause came a day after eight Israeli soldiers were killed in a blast near the Rafah city
  • It was one of the heaviest losses for Israel in more than eight months of war against Hamas

GAZA: Gaza saw its first day of relative calm in months Sunday, after Israel’s military said it would “pause” fighting daily around a southern route to facilitate aid flows, following repeated UN warnings of famine in the Palestinian territory.
“Compared with the previous days, today, the first day of Eid Al-Adha, is considered near calm and the calm has prevailed across all of Gaza,” Mahmud Basal, spokesman for the civil defense agency in Hamas-ruled Gaza, told AFP.
He said the exceptions included “some targeting” in Gaza City’s Shujaiya and Zeitun areas, as well as Israeli artillery fire in Rafah, southern Gaza.
AFP correspondents in Gaza’s north and center reported no fighting on Sunday morning, though they reported some shelling and at least one strike in Rafah and an air strike in central Gaza during the early evening.
The military stressed in a statement there was “no cessation of hostilities in the southern Gaza Strip.”
The announcement of a “local, tactical pause of military activity” during daylight hours in an area of Rafah came a day after eight Israeli soldiers were killed in a blast near the far-southern city and three more troops died elsewhere.
It was one of the heaviest losses for the army in more than eight months of war against Hamas militants.
“Since this morning, we’ve felt a sudden calm with no gunfire or bombings... It’s strange,” said 30-year-old Haitham Al-Ghura from Gaza City.
The United Nations welcomed the Israeli move, although “this has yet to translate into more aid reaching people in need,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.
He called for “further concrete measures by Israel to address longstanding issues” on aid needs.
Laerke told AFP Gazans “urgently need food, water, sanitation, shelter, and health care, with many living near piles of solid waste, heightening health risks.”
“We need to be able to deliver aid safely throughout Gaza,” he added.
The UN and aid groups have repeatedly voiced alarm over dire shortages of food and other essentials in the Gaza Strip.
This has been exacerbated by overland access restrictions and the closure of the key Rafah crossing with Egypt since Israeli forces seized the Palestinian side in early May.
Israel has long defended its efforts to let aid into Gaza including via its Kerem Shalom border near Rafah, blaming militants for looting supplies and humanitarian workers for failing to distribute them to civilians.
The pause “for humanitarian purposes will take place from 8:00 am (0500 GMT) until 7:00 p.m. (1600 GMT) every day until further notice along the road that leads from the Kerem Shalom crossing to the Salah Al-Din road and then northwards,” a military statement said.
A map released by the army showed the declared humanitarian route extending until Rafah’s European Hospital, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Kerem Shalom.
The announcement came as Muslims the world over mark Eid Al-Adha, or the feast of the sacrifice.
“This Eid is completely different,” said Umm Muhammad Al-Katri in northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp.
“We’ve lost many people. There’s a lot of destruction. We don’t have the joy we usually have,” she told AFP.
Instead of a cheerful holiday spirit, “I came to the Eid prayers mourning. I’ve lost my son.”
The military said the pause was already in effect as part of efforts to “increase the volumes of humanitarian aid” following discussions with the United Nations and other organizations.
The eight soldiers killed Saturday were hit by an explosion as they traveled in an armored vehicle near Rafah, the military said. Troops were engaged in fierce street battles against Palestinian militants there.
Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the blast was “apparently from an explosive device planted in the area or from the firing of an anti-tank missile.”
Separately, two soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Gaza and another succumbed to wounds from recent fighting.
Abu Obaida, spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, vowed to “continue our painful strikes against the enemy wherever it may be.”
Saturday’s losses brought the Israeli military’s overall toll to 309 deaths since it began its ground offensive in Gaza on October 27.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences following “this terrible loss” and said that “despite the heavy and unsettling price, we must cling to the goals of the war.”
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas following the Palestinian group’s unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza, although the army says 41 are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,337 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The latest toll includes at least 41 deaths over the previous 24 hours, it said.
Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators have been pushing for a new Gaza truce, so far without success.
The only previous truce lasted one week in November and saw many hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, while increased aid flowed into Gaza.
Hamas has insisted on the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and a permanent ceasefire — demands Israel has repeatedly rejected.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Israel backs the latest plan but Netanyahu, whose far-right coalition partners are strongly opposed to a ceasefire, has not publicly endorsed it.
Israel’s hard-line National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Sunday the humanitarian pause announced by the military was part of a “crazy and delusional approach.”
In early November, the United States said Israel had agreed to humanitarian pauses of four hours. One such pause occurred on December 14, COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said at the time.


Israel’s defense minister says Gaza operations allow hostage deal

Israel’s defense minister says Gaza operations allow hostage deal
Updated 7 sec ago
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Israel’s defense minister says Gaza operations allow hostage deal

Israel’s defense minister says Gaza operations allow hostage deal

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told his US counterpart that military operations in the Gaza Strip have created conditions that would enable a hostage deal to be reached, Gallant’s office said on Wednesday.
Gallant made the comments during an overnight call with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, his office said.
“IDF operations in Gaza have led to the conditions necessary to achieve an agreement for the return of hostages, which is the highest moral imperative at this time,” Gallant said, according to the statement.


Hezbollah to hit new Israeli targets if it keeps killing civilians, Nasrallah says

Hezbollah to hit new Israeli targets if it keeps killing civilians, Nasrallah says
Updated 52 min 51 sec ago
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Hezbollah to hit new Israeli targets if it keeps killing civilians, Nasrallah says

Hezbollah to hit new Israeli targets if it keeps killing civilians, Nasrallah says
  • Hezbollah refers to all Israeli population centers as settlements and does not recognize Israel
  • Israel and Hezbollah have been trading fire since Hezbollah announced a ‘support front’ with Palestinians

BEIRUT: Hezbollah will hit new targets in Israel if it keeps killing civilians in Lebanon, the group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday, noting a spike in the number of non-combatants killed in Lebanon in recent days.
Five civilians, all Syrians and including three children, were killed in Israeli strikes in Lebanon on Tuesday and at least three Lebanese civilians were killed the day before, according to state media and security sources.
“Continuing to target civilians will push the Resistance to launch missiles at settlements that were not previously targeted,” Nasrallah said, in comments made during a televised address to mark the Shiite holy day Ashoura.
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, refers to all Israeli population centers as settlements and does not recognize Israel.
Israel and Hezbollah have been trading fire since Hezbollah announced a “support front” with Palestinians shortly after its ally Hamas attacked southern Israeli border communities on Oct. 7, triggering Israel’s ensuing military offensive in Gaza.
Iran-aligned groups in the region, including Shiite armed factions in Syria and Iraq and Yemen’s Houthis, have also been firing on Israel since shortly after Oct. 7.
In Lebanon, the fighting has killed more than 100 civilians and more than 300 Hezbollah fighters, according to a Reuters tally, and led to levels of destruction in Lebanese border towns and villages not seen since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.
Nasrallah promised that totally or partially destroyed homes would be rebuilt “more beautiful than they were before.”


Israel pounds central Gaza, sends tanks into north of Rafah

Israel pounds central Gaza, sends tanks into north of Rafah
Updated 17 July 2024
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Israel pounds central Gaza, sends tanks into north of Rafah

Israel pounds central Gaza, sends tanks into north of Rafah
  • Israeli tanks shell eastern areas of Al-Bureij and Al-Maghazi camps in the center of enclave
  • Diplomatic efforts by Arab mediators to halt the hostilities seem to be on hold

CAIRO: Israeli forces pounded areas in the central Gaza Strip on Wednesday, killing at least nine Palestinians, according to health officials, while Israeli tanks carried out a limited advance further into Rafah in the south.
In one Israeli air strike around midnight on a house in Al-Zawyda in the central Gaza Strip, eight people were killed, the health officials said. Another strike killed a man in Nuseirat camp, one of the enclave’s eight refugee camps, where 23 people were killed in an Israeli air strike on a school a day ago.
Israeli tanks also shelled the eastern areas of Al-Bureij and Al-Maghazi camps in the center of enclave, residents said. An air strike destroyed a mosque, residents said.
Meanwhile in Rafah, tanks carried out a raid in the north of the city before retreating, a tactic Israeli forces have used in other areas before mounting deeper incursions. Tanks have operated in most parts of the city since May, although have not gone deep into the northern districts.
Medics said an Israeli strike killed two people in Rafah on Wednesday, while residents said the forces had blown up dozens of homes.
The Israeli military said troops were “continuing precise, intelligence-based operational activity in the Rafah area.” It said it they had eliminated what it called a terrorist cell and a launcher that had been used to fire at troops.
It said airstrikes had struck 25 targets throughout the Gaza Strip during the past day and that troops were continuing to operate in the central area, including to dismantle structures used to observe the soldiers.
Nine months into the war, Palestinian fighters led by the Islamist Hamas group are still able to attack Israeli forces with anti-tank rockets, and mortar bombs and from time to time fire barrages of rockets into Israel.
Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas after its militants killed 1,200 people and took over 250 hostages in an attack on southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies.
On Tuesday, the military said it had eliminated half of the leadership of Hamas’ military wing, with about 14,000 fighters killed or captured since the start of the war.
At least 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory offensive since then, Gaza health authorities say. Israel says 326 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza.
HAMAS DENIES WAR CRIMES
Diplomatic efforts by Arab mediators to halt the hostilities, backed by the United States, seem to be on hold, but officials from all sides have said they are open to more talks, including Israel and Hamas, who have traded blame over the current impasse.
A deal would aim to end the war and release Israeli hostages in Gaza in return for many Palestinians jailed by Israel.
On Wednesday, Israel released 13 Palestinians detained during the military offensive in Gaza, the Palestinian Red Crescent said in a statement. The freed inmates were transferred to a hospital in the central Gaza Strip for treatment.
Many of the hundreds of Palestinians Israel has released in the past months have accused Israeli forces of ill-treatment and torture. The Palestinian Prisoner Association said nearly 20 Palestinians had died in Israeli detention after being detained from Gaza. Israel denies allegations of torture.
Meanwhile, in a report published on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades, and at least four other Palestinian armed groups “committed numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilians during the Oct. 7, 2023, assault on southern Israel.”
According to its findings, these included “deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian objects; willful killing of persons in custody; cruel and other inhumane treatment; sexual and gender-based violence; hostage taking; mutilation and despoiling of bodies; use of human shields; and pillage and looting.”
In response, Hamas rejected “the lies and blatant bias” toward Israel and demanded Human Rights Watch withdraw its report and apologize.
“The Human Rights Watch report adopted the entire Israeli narrative and moved away from the method of scientific research and the neutral legal position, and became more like an Israeli propaganda document,” Hamas said in a statement.


Israeli settlement threatens Palestinian UNESCO village

Israeli settlement threatens Palestinian UNESCO village
Updated 17 July 2024
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Israeli settlement threatens Palestinian UNESCO village

Israeli settlement threatens Palestinian UNESCO village
  • Palestinians have long battled attempts to settle the land in Battir, a heritage site in the Israeli-occupied West Bank famed for its ancient stone terraces
  • Israeli construction in the West Bank has boomed since the war began in the Gaza Strip, even though all settlements in the territory are considered illegal

BATTIR, Palestinian Territories: On a hillside near Palestinian landowner Olayan Olayan’s olive groves, young Israeli settlers are hammering out a new, illegal outpost in a UNESCO-protected zone.
Olayan and his neighbors have long battled attempts to settle the land in Battir, a heritage site in the Israeli-occupied West Bank famed for its ancient stone terraces.
Israeli construction in the West Bank has boomed since the war began in the Gaza Strip, even though all settlements in the territory are considered illegal under international law.
The new outpost on a Battir hilltop, also not approved by Israel, was served an eviction notice that Olayan’s cousin Ghassan Olayan said has not been enforced because of the Gaza war.
The outpost already has a flagpole, living quarters and a barn for sheep that roam a rocky hill covered by olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers.
“I plowed the land and planted it until it bore fruit trees,” said Olayan, who at 83 is older than the state of Israel itself.
“Some trees were 50 years old, or even more, and suddenly the settlers came and wanted to devour the land and take it from us,” he added, his voice shaky.
Even more concerning to the Olayans than the encroaching outpost is the adjacent, future settlement of Heletz.
Yonatan Mizrahi of settlement watchdog Peace Now said Heletz was among five settlements “deep in Palestinian territory” approved by the Israeli government on June 27.
“It is a settlement that is going to block Battir and in many ways create tension between the neighbors,” he said.
Heletz and the outpost sit inside the UNESCO protection zone for Battir, one of four listed heritage sites in the West Bank.
The UNESCO classification means the village can get technical, legal, and monetary assistance to preserve sites deemed in danger.
In Battir, children splash in the Roman-era fountain that waters the terraces where tomatoes, corn, aubergines and olive trees grow.
The 2,000-year-old dry stone walls supporting the landscape earned the village its cultural inscription in 2014. But the classification has done little to prevent seizures of the surrounding farmland.
Battir’s inhabitants have beaten in court at least three previous Israeli settlement outpost attempts.
But Ghassan Olayan fears the war since the Hamas attacks of October 7 on Israel will make the new, government-approved Heletz more likely to become reality.
According to Olayan, Heletz is intended to link Jerusalem to Gush Etzion, a cluster of settlements deeper in the West Bank.
If that is achieved, Battir and the nearby Palestinian villages would be cut off from Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank, a process they fear will fragment a future Palestinian state.
“There will be no (territorial) continuity,” said Olayan, leaving only what some observers describe as an archipelago of Palestinian sovereignty.
Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler himself, openly states that preventing Palestinian statehood is the objective.
“We will continue to develop the settlements in order to maintain Israel’s security and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he wrote on the X social media platform after the five latest settlements were approved in June.
In recent months, Israeli forces have blocked a road to Battir, nearly doubling the time it takes to reach Jerusalem just 10 kilometers (six miles) north.
When asked about the new outpost in Battir, an Israeli security official acknowledged that “an Israeli farm had been established without proper authorization.”
The official told AFP “the possibility of authorizing the farm will be weighed” as the development of Heletz gets under way.
Battir residents “raised several claims that the land belongs to them” but have “not presented documentation to support their position,” according to the official.
Olayan said documents from Ottoman times prove Battir inhabitants’ ownership of the land.
A UNESCO spokesperson said the UN cultural agency’s world heritage committee had been told about “reports of illegal constructions” and that Battir would be discussed at a session in late July.
Olayan fears that sleepy Battir, with its collective life centered around the Roman fountain’s irrigation system allotting each family a specific time slot to irrigate their crops, faces a difficult future.
“Battir is a peaceful village and the settlement will only bring trouble,” he said.


Hundreds of war crimes committed in October 7 attack: HRW

Hundreds of war crimes committed in October 7 attack: HRW
Updated 17 July 2024
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Hundreds of war crimes committed in October 7 attack: HRW

Hundreds of war crimes committed in October 7 attack: HRW
  • HRW report: ‘It is impossible for us to put a number on the specific instances’
  • The October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians

JERUSALEM: Hamas led other Palestinian armed groups in committing hundreds of war crimes in the surprise October 7 attack on Israel that set off the Gaza war, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Wednesday.
One of the most in-depth international studies on the unprecedented incursion into southern Israel outlined a host of potential war crimes cases.
“It’s impossible for us to put a number on the specific instances,” HRW associate director Belkis Wille told a news conference, adding that “there were obviously hundreds on that day.”
The crimes include “deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian objects; willful killing of persons in custody; cruel and other inhumane treatment; sexual and gender-based violence; hostage taking; mutilation and despoiling (robbing) of bodies; use of human shields; and pillage and looting,” said the report.
The report focuses on violations of international humanitarian law, rules mostly rooted in the Geneva Conventions for conduct in war.
Although Palestinian Islamist group Hamas is recognized as the orchestrator of the attack, the report lists other armed groups that committed war crimes on October 7, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
“The reality is that it really wasn’t civilians from Gaza who perpetrated the worst abuses,” said Wille.
“That was a claim made very early on by Hamas to distance itself from the events, and by Israel to justify its retaliation operation.”
Wille pointed to the “incredibly organized and coordinated nature” of the assault on cities, kibbutz communities, and military bases around Gaza.
“Across many attack sites, fighters fired directly at civilians, often at close range, as they tried to flee, and at people who happened to be driving vehicles in the area,” said the report.
“They hurled grenades and shot into safe rooms and other shelters and fired rocket-propelled grenades at homes.
“They set some houses on fire, burning and suffocating people to death, and forcing out others who they then captured or killed.”
HRW said it “found evidence of acts of sexual and gender-based violence by fighters including forced nudity, and the posting without consent of sexualized images on social media.”
The report quoted a team of the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict who said they interviewed people “who reported witnessing rape and other sexual violence” including “rape and gang rape, in at least three locations.”
But it said the full extent of sexual and gender-based violence “will likely never be fully known” as victims had died, or stigma would stop them talking out, or Israeli first responders “largely” did not collect relevant evidence.
The attack resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
The militants seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza including 42 the military says are dead.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,664 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Gaza health ministry.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas and bring back all hostages.
The report only covered the events of October 7, not the subsequent war.
The International Criminal Court chief prosecutor has asked court judges to issue arrest warrants against Hamas leaders including its political leader Ismail Haniyeh and Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The prosecutor has also sought warrants against Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on charges ranging from “starvation of civilians” to “extermination and/or murder” as crimes against humanity.