As donors suspend critical funding to UNRWA, allegations against staff remain murky

From our UN correspondent in New York – The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) announced on January 26 that it had terminated the contracts of several employees pending an investigation into Israeli allegations that they had been involved in Hamas’s October 7 attacks in Israel. The move prompted several nations to suspend vital funding to UNRWA while the inquiry proceeds, deepening Gaza’s already acute humanitarian crisis. But Israel refuses to share either its evidence or the intelligence dossier – a summary of which was seen by FRANCE 24 – with UNRWA, posing a challenge for the UN agency to complete its inquiry.

A senior Israeli diplomat surprised UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini during a routine in-person meeting in Tel Aviv on January 18, informing him that Israel had evidence UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 massacre in southern Israel that left more than 1,100 dead.  

“We were shocked, we took this seriously because these were very serious allegations,” UNRWA director of communications Juliette Touma told FRANCE 24.    

Lazzarini travelled to New York four days later to brief UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and then to the US State Department in Washington to warn UNRWA’s top donor, the United States, Touma said.

Lazzarini also “had a series of phone call interactions with several of our largest donors before the UN went public in the morning of January 26” with the decision to let some staff members go.

“We took the decision to put out the information first and not to respond to leaks,” Touma said.  

She added that the Israeli information was given to Lazzarini verbally but that no evidence was shared. 

UNRWA acted quickly and “cross-checked the information and the names they were given,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told a press briefing last week.

The UN ended the contracts of the accused staff members and said it was launching an investigation into the Israeli claims. Touma said this unprecedented step was taken because the allegations “put the reputation of the agency and humanitarian operation in Gaza at serious risk”.

But despite the UN’s announcement of an immediate investigation, key UNRWA donors suspended funding to the agency pending its findings, as millions of Gazans go desperately hungry, are at risk of disease, and are forced to sleep in crude shelters or even on the streets amid continuing Israeli bombardment. 

The accusations against a handful of staff in an agency of 13,000 employees operating in Gaza alone have already had a devastating effect on civilians. UNRWA provides essential government services in Gaza, including running 278 schools for 280,000 children and 22 primary healthcare centres, while also providing food to the approximately 2 million people who have been under siege by Israel since early October. 

The ‘suspenders’ 

At least 16 donor countries, including the top two contributors – the US and Germany – have frozen funding to UNRWA over the allegations and have been dubbed the “suspenders” in the corridors of UN headquarters in New York.

About $440 million in funding is at risk, Touma said, adding that UNRWA will run out of money by the end of February if donors continue to withhold money. 

The United States and other donor nations as well as the European Union have made it clear they will not resume funding until they are satisfied with the UN’s investigation. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement that there must be “complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks”.

Guterres has urged donor nations to resume funding to UNRWA immediately, reminding them of the “swift” action the UN is taking to address the accusations. He also asked Lazzarini to task an outside organisation with conducting a separate, independent assessment of the agency’s operations in addition to the internal UN review.

The UN announced on Monday that it had appointed Catherine Colonna, France’s former minister of foreign affairs, to lead the Independent Review Group to “assess whether the Agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made”. The group will begin work on February 14 and will submit an interim report to the secretary general in late March with a final report – which will be made public – expected by late April 2024. 

France, UNRWA’s fourth-biggest donor, has not suspended its voluntary contributions to the agency. France increased its funding in 2023 to  €60 million, out of concern over the “disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza” and its impact on civilians. France’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it will be “waiting for the investigations launched in recent days” to decide how to proceed regarding its contributions for 2024.

‘The dodgy dossier’  

Israel has not yet shared its full intelligence dossier with either UNRWA or the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the UN legal body tasked with carrying out the internal investigation.

“I don’t think we need to give intelligence information,” said Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry. “This would reveal sources in the operation. We gave information to UNRWA about employees that worked for UNRWA that are members of Hamas.” 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “We haven’t had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves. But they are highly, highly credible.”

Haiat noted that the very nature of the allegations makes it impossible for Israel to share all the evidence it has with UNRWA.

“They think that we can give them intelligence information, knowing that some of their employees work for Hamas? Are you serious? Why don’t we invite Hamas to our headquarters and have them sit at our desk and have a look at all the information we have?” he asked.

A six-page summary of the Israeli dossier leaked to a handful of media outlets and seen by FRANCE 24 provides the names of the 12 UNRWA staff members accused of participating in the Hamas attacks, ranging from kidnapping Israelis to helping to carry out the massacre at the Be’eri kibbutz. Two of the accused are dead and another is unaccounted for. 

The dossier alleges that the first man on the list of the accused, an UNRWA school counselor, entered Israeli territory to kidnap an Israeli woman with the help of his son.  

The accusations say they are drawn, in part, from “intelligence information, documents and identity cards seized during the course of the fighting”. The dossier estimates that there are around 190 Hamas or Palestine Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives working for UNRWA. 

The Israeli foreign ministry told FRANCE 24 that evidence of UNRWA staff involvement includes phone tracking that shows where the employees were on October 7 as well as video footage gathered by the Israeli Defence Forces.

Yet this documentation has not been provided to UN investigators. 

“They received some type of evidence to terminate the employees, obviously they would not have done that if they did not receive some type of evidence,” said Joshua Lavine, the spokesperson for the Israeli mission to the UN.  

Lavine said that he was “not surprised that there are members of UNRWA who are also members of terror organisations” and that there have been meetings in the past between the Israeli mission and UN officials discussing the issue.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan escorted a delegation of nine UN ambassadors to Israel on January 31 where they met with the president, the foreign and defence ministers, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. UNRWA was discussed at length. 

In a February 1 briefing, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told the ambassadors that UNRWA had “lost its legitimacy to exist”. Malta’s UN Ambassador Vanessa Frazier, who took part in the delegation, told FRANCE 24 that Gallant told them that UNRWA is “an internationally funded organisation paid to kill Israelis”.  

The ambassadors had a clear message for Israel, Frazier said: “Support the SG’s (UN secretary general’s) investigation; anyone involved must be accountable, but the collective punishment only hurts the Gazans more.”

Inquiry will take time

Donors are demanding a speedy inquiry before resuming funding, but UN sources say this could take up to a year.

Former senior OIOS investigator Vladimir Dzuro, who led a major probe into top management UNRWA, said the OIOS aims to complete investigations within six months but that a realistic timeframe is more like six to 12 months, depending on the complexity of the allegations.

“I do not believe that any professional investigation into allegations of this nature, in a quality that is required under the circumstances, could be conducted in four weeks,” Dzuro said, before UNRWA’s funding runs out.

It is also unlikely that UN investigators could conduct a thorough inquiry in an active war zone, he noted.  

The OIOS director of investigations, Suzette Schultz, was tight-lipped about the investigation, saying in an email only that her team is “pursuing various avenues of enquiry” and that it has “approached multiple member states that may have information relevant to the investigation”. 

Donor nation Norway has refused to cut aid to UNRWA. The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide urged other donors not to turn their backs on UNRWA, saying: “We should not collectively punish millions of people. We must distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.” 

Chris Gunness, former chief spokesperson for UNRWA from 2007 to 2020, accused the donors who have frozen funding of “illegally weaponising” UNRWA, thus violating the International Court of Justice ruling calling on Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza and the Genocide Convention itself. 

“If these donors have made a decision without cast-iron evidence, they need to be investigated for a move which humanitarian experts say will cause mass starvation,” he said. “It’s time for serious pushback against the dodgy dossier, bad donorship and the betrayal of the UN, UNRWA, its staff and the people of Gaza.”

Gunness noted that the dossier illustrates “perfectly why the donors must ring-fence humanitarian decision-making from politics”. 

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, an organisation named after Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who coined the term “genocide” in 1944, also sounded the alarm on the withdrawal of funds. “This is a serious escalation of the crisis in Gaza and follows the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) first ruling in Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel), which many hoped would slow the genocide.” 

“It is possible that at least some of the allegations are true. This is why UNRWA’s leadership has reacted swiftly, and an investigation has been launched,” said Matthias Schmale, UNRWA director in Gaza from 2017 to 2021.

“It can also be legitimately asked why these allegations surfaced around the time of the ICJ judgment that, amongst other things, articulated the need for immediate and massive delivery of humanitarian aid, which cannot be done without UNRWA,” he said.  

UNRWA in Israel’s crosshairs

Even before October 7, there was a long history of Israel questioning UNRWA’s credibility. And yet Israel relies solely on the UN agency to provide essential services to civilians in Gaza that it might otherwise have to provide itself. 

The agency is almost as old as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. Created by the UN General Assembly in 1949, UNRWA was set up to provide critical social support for Palestinian refugees throughout the Mideast. Its mandate was renewed for another three years by the UN General Assembly in 2023.

Schmale, the former UNRWA director in Gaza, said that despite Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, the group has no involvement in the UN administration in the enclave.

“During my almost four years in Gaza I had to fire only one staff member for direct involvement, as we discovered that he was an active member of the Al-Qassam Brigade,” he said. “This was the exception, not the norm.”

“Hamas de facto authorities are NOT involved in UNRWA’s core services which include education and health,” Schmale said in an email. Hamas leaders “unsurprisingly from time to time make their views known on what UNRWA does and how, and express expectations of what should be conducted differently”.  

But Schmale said that, during his time in Gaza, “Hamas mostly respected that it cannot interfere in the running of the Agency, and we were able to conduct our work in conformity with UN standards and norms.”

UNRWA has 30,000 staff, mostly Palestinians, who provide essential services for millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. In Gaza alone, the agency has played a crucial role, especially since Israel imposed a blockade on the strip when Hamas took over governance in 2007. UNRWA is also the second-biggest employer in Gaza; 80 percent of the population of the 360-square-kilometre enclave relies on humanitarian aid.

Nevertheless, the UN agency has aroused Israeli suspicions.

A copy of a classified report written by Israel’s foreign ministry with a plan to dismantle UNRWA in Gaza in three stages was leaked to Israeli media last month. The first stage involved revealing cooperation between UNRWA and the Hamas movement. 

Haiat confirmed the existence of the foreign ministry report but said that it was a “non-paper” that had not been “approved by anyone”. 

An earlier Israeli government plan made public in 2017 outlined a process for dissolving UNRWA and transferring its responsibilities to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  

When a Palestinian journalist and writer, Yasser Al Banna, who works in Gaza, read the allegations against UNRWA staff, he immediately recalled the leaked foreign ministry report and the 2017 Israeli government plan.

The accusations against UNRWA staff should be “taken in context,” Al Banna said, noting that the accused account for just 0.09 percent of UNRWA employees in Gaza. 

“Logically speaking, it is not strange that 12 people out of 13,000 employees [in Gaza] could get involved in illegal activities,”  Al Banna said. “Those involved should be punished legally and professionally. We should not punish an entire agency, an entire people.” 

Under pressure 

Lazzarini is now travelling to Gulf states to seek alternate funding for the agency. Despite facing intense pressure from Israel to resign, his spokesperson said he has no intention of doing so.

“This is a very serious crisis for the United Nations,” Touma acknowledged. “It’s probably one of the largest we’ve had to go through, involving the oldest and one of the most critical agencies of the UN. It’s important that the truth comes out.”

Touma was moved as she recalled her visits to UNRWA schools. “I have seen how they can be a sanctuary for children in a place like Gaza that is riddled with poverty, unemployment, despair, a blockade,” she said. 

She described meeting with young teenagers at a “children’s parliament”, an initiative run by UNRWA. It was a place “where refugee children can come together and learn about human rights, critical thinking and how to debunk” falsehoods.

“I ended up cancelling all my other engagements because I enjoyed speaking to these 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds so much,” Touma said. “They told me about their dreams, their hopes, what they want to be. They spoke about their love for Gaza, their dreams to travel, to be like any teenager … and that’s UNRWA.”

This article was produced in collaboration with PassBlueDamilola Banjo, reporter for PassBlue, contributed reporting

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Joe Biden, Benjamin Netanyahu have finally talked, but their visions still clash for ending Israel-Hamas war

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally spoke on January 19 after a glaring, nearly four-week gap in direct communication during which fundamental differences have come into focus over a possible pathway to Palestinian statehood once the fighting in Gaza ends.

Mr. Biden and his top aides have all but smothered Mr. Netanyahu with robust support, even in the face of global condemnation over the mounting civilian death toll and humanitarian suffering in Gaza as the Israelis have carried out military operations in the aftermath of the October 7 attack on Israel.

But the leaders’ relationship has increasingly shown signs of strain as Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly rebuffed Mr. Biden’s calls for Palestinian sovereignty, gumming us what the U.S. President believes is the key to unlocking a durable peace in the Middle East — the oft-cited, elusive two-state solution. Neither side shows signs of budging.

Friday’s phone call came one day after Mr. Netanyahu said that he has told U.S. officials in plain terms that he will not support a Palestinian state as part of any post-war plan. Mr. Biden, for his part, in Friday’s call reaffirmed his commitment to work toward helping the Palestinians move toward statehood.

“As we’re talking about post-conflict Gaza … you can’t do that without also talking about the aspirations of the Palestinian people and what that needs to look like for them,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

The leaders spoke frequently in the first weeks of the war. But the regular cadence of calls between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu, who have had a hot-and-cold relationship for over three decades, has slowed considerably. Their 30- to 40-minute call on Friday was their first conversation since December 23. Both sides are hemmed in by domestic political considerations.

The chasm between Mr. Biden, a centre-left Democrat and Mr. Netanyahu, who leads the most conservative government in Israel’s history, has expanded as pressure mounts on the United States to use its considerable leverage to press Israel to wind down a war that has already killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians.

There is also growing impatience with Mr. Netanyahu in Israel over the lack of progress in freeing dozens of hostages still held by Islamic militants in Gaza.

“There is certainly a reason to be concerned,” says Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, “The more and more we see political considerations dominating the relationship between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu, which is likely to continue because of the upcoming Presidential election and the weakness of both leaders, the more we will see them pulling apart.”

In their most recent calls, Mr. Biden’s frustration with Mr. Netanyahu has grown more evident, even though the U.S. leader has been careful to reaffirm his support for Israel at each step, according to U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss the leaders’ private interactions.

Yet, Mr. Biden, at least publicly, has not given up on the idea of winning over Mr. Netanyahu. Asked by a reporter on Friday if a two-state solution is impossible while Mr. Netanyahu is in office, Mr. Biden replied, “No, it’s not.”

Aides insist Mr. Biden understands the political box Mr. Netanyahu finds himself in with his hard-right coalition and as he deals with ongoing corruption charges that have left the Prime Minister fighting for his freedom, not just his political future.

Mr. Biden, meanwhile, faces American voters in November, in a likely rematch with former President Donald Trump. Netanyahu and Trump forged a close relationship during the Republican’s term in office. Mr. Biden faces criticism from some on his left who believe he hasn’t pushed the Israelis hard enough to demonstrate restraint as it carries out military operations.

Key Democratic lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, this week warned that Mr. Netanyahu’s position on statehood could complicate negotiations in the Senate on a spending package that includes military aid for Israel.

Expect Mr. Netanyahu to “use every trick that he has to keep his coalition together and avoid elections and play out the clock,” said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum. ”And I’m sure that part of it is a conviction that if he waits until November, he may end up with Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.”

In recent weeks, some of the more difficult conversations have been left to Ron Dermer, a top aide to Mr. Netanyahu and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. The two top aides talk almost daily — sometimes multiple times during a day, according to a U.S. official and an Israeli official, who were not authorised to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Other senior Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as senior advisers Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, have been at the forefront of the administration’s push to engage the Israelis and other Middle East allies as the Biden-Netanyahu dialogue has become less constructive.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has opposed calls for a two-state solution throughout his political career, told reporters this week that he flatly told U.S. officials he remains opposed to any post-war plan that includes establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Prime Minister’s latest rejection of Mr. Biden’s push in that direction came after Mr. Blinken this week said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that Israel and its Middle East neighbours had “a profound opportunity” to solve the generational Israel-Palestinian conflict. Asked if he thought Mr. Netanyahu was up to making the most of the moment, Mr. Blinken demurred.

“Look, these are decisions for Israelis to make,” Mr. Blinken said. “This is a profound decision for the country as a whole to make: What direction does it want to take? Does it see — can it seize — the opportunity that we believe is there?”

The Biden-Netanyahu relationship has seen no shortage of peaks and valleys over the years. As vice-president, Mr. Biden privately criticised Mr. Netanyahu after the the Israeli leader embarrassed President Barack Obama by approving the construction of 1,600 new apartments in disputed East Jerusalem in the middle of Biden’s 2010 visit to Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu publicly resisted, before eventually relenting to Mr. Biden’s calls on the Israelis to wind down a May 2021 military operation in Gaza. And in late 2019, during a question and answer session with voters on the campaign trail, Mr. Biden called Mr. Netanyahu an “extreme right” leader.

The path to a two-state solution — one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state — has eluded U.S. presidents and Middle East diplomats for decades.

But as the war grinds on, Mr. Biden and his team have pressed the notion that there is a new dynamic in the Middle East in which Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbours stand ready to integrate Israel into the region once the war ends, but only if Israel commits to a pathway to a Palestinian state.

Mr. Biden has proposed that a “revitalised” Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, could run Gaza once combat ends. Mr. Netanyahu has roundly rejected the idea of putting the Palestinian Authority, which is beset by corruption, in charge of the territory.

Mr. Netanyahu argues that a Palestinian state would become a launchpad for attacks on Israel. So Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “That collides with the idea of sovereignty. What can we do?”

White House officials have sought to play down Mr. Netanyahu’s public rejection of Mr. Biden’s call for a two-state solution, noting that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric is not new.

They hold out hope Israel could eventually come around to accepting a Palestinian state that comes with strong security guarantees for Israel.

“I don’t think Mr. Biden has any illusions about Netanyahu,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt during the Bill Clinton administration and to Israel under George W. Bush. “But I don’t think he’s ready to slam the door on him. And that’s because he gets the intersection between the policy and the politics.”

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Post-war Gaza: ‘The Palestinian Authority is not in a position to govern in Gaza’

The Israeli government recently laid out its plans for the future governance of Gaza once its war with Hamas is over. The proposal released on January 4 made clear that the Islamist movement would no longer control the besieged Palestinian enclave. However, there was also little provision for the return of the Palestinian Authority.

After three months of war between Israel and Hamas, Israel laid out a plan on January 4 for the “day after” in Gaza for the first time since the conflict began.

The proposal, although lacking in details, outlined a sort of roadmap for Gaza’s future governance – a key concern of Israel’s ally, the United States.

It has already met with sharp criticism. For some, it was too superficial. For others, like army spokesperson Daniel Hagari, the proposal revealed the state’s secret plans to its “enemies”.

Presented by Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on the eve of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the proposal hinges on Israel achieving its main military objective – destroying Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

“Hamas will not govern Gaza and Israel will not govern Gaza’s civilians. Gaza residents are Palestinian, therefore Palestinian bodies will be in charge, with the condition that there will be no hostile actions or threats against the State of Israel,” said Gallant in a statement. “The entity controlling the territory will build on the capabilities of the existing administrative mechanism (civil committees) in Gaza – local non-hostile actors,” the Israeli defence minister added.

“It is very important that at long last a very senior political figure in Israel is outlining a political plan for the future. I know he was criticised by the army spokesperson, who said that it is too early to reveal our secret plans. I don’t agree with [Daniel Hagari],” explained David Shimoni, a former member of Israel’s intelligence services and a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS),  a thinktank bringing together 400 former members of the security forces, the army and Israeli intelligence.

“It sounds very good to me that first of all, Israel will not be governing Gaza. Second, that Hamas will not be governing Gaza. That is, of course, the main goal of this war.”

Read moreIsrael’s ‘refuseniks’: ‘I will never justify what Israel is doing in Gaza’

‘The Palestinian Authority stands no chance’

The Israeli government’s plan is simple on paper, but difficult to implement, as many Palestinians support Hamas. According to a poll carried out between November 22 and December 2 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 42% of the population of Gaza support Hamas, compared with 38% at the start of the war.

The Islamist movement is especially gaining traction in the occupied West Bank: 44% of residents today say they support the party, compared to 12% in September. The rise in support for Hamas may also be explained by the growing unpopularity of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nearly 90% of respondents wanted Abbas to resign, representing an increase of 10 points compared to three months ago. In the occupied West Bank alone, 92% called for the resignation of Abbas, whose administration is widely seen as corrupt, autocratic and ineffective.

Putting the Palestinian Authority in a position of governance in Gaza therefore seems unrealistic.

“The Palestinian Authority as we know it does not have the power and the influence to enter Gaza. They are weak, they are corrupt, and they do not enjoy the support of most of the Palestinian population,” said Shimoni. “They have been a big disappointment to the Palestinians. They are not delivering, they are not solving the [daily] problems of Palestinians. We heard the Americans speak of a rejuvenated Palestinian Authority [. . .] hopefully that is something that will happen. But for the time being, [with] the way the Palestinian Authority looks now, they have no chance.”

At the end of his visit to the occupied West Bank on January 10, Blinken nevertheless said President Abbas was prepared to move forward. “We talked as well about the importance of reforming the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian governance so that it can effectively take responsibility for Gaza – so that Gaza and the West Bank can be reunited under a Palestinian leadership,” he added.

In 2007, Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza following violent clashes with Fatah, the party founded by Yasser Arafat. Hamas seized power in the enclave after also winning legislative elections a year earlier. Described as a “coup d’état” by Abbas, Hamas’s takeover led to the strengthening of Israel’s blockade on Gaza. No elections have been held in Gaza or the occupied West Bank since.

“The Israeli government […] had multiple chances to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and place them within Gaza”, said Nimrod Dweck, CEO and co-founder of Darkenu, an Israeli grassroots movement. “Even the Shalit deal, [the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas for five years, editor’s note] – instead of doing the deal with Hamas, [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] could have done it with Abbas. He did not do it, and he preferred bringing the money directly to Hamas, instead facilitating it through a different organisation. [He thought] he could manage Hamas with force and money. This is Netanyahu’s responsibility,” said Dweck.

Calls for the return of Israeli settlers

After the shock of the October 7 attacks, Israeli society is looking for security guarantees. Gallant’s plan stipulates that Israel will reserve the right to operate inside the Gaza Strip as often as necessary. In concrete terms, this means the army could intervene the way it currently does in the occupied West Bank. The borders would be controlled, which implies that the two-decade long blockade of the enclave would continue. Nothing would be allowed in or out without being carefully inspected.

The army will soon tell the inhabitants of the towns, farms and kibbutzim surrounding Gaza that there is no danger and that they can return home, said Shimoni. The Israeli army has eliminated many of Hamas’s fighters and destroyed much of their equipment. The chief of staff and the defence minister have said: “When you go home, you will see the IDF all over the place.” They are trying to give the impression that things will be safe, even if we do not eliminate Hezbollah’s capabilities [in the north], he added.

Gallant ruled out the option of resettling Israeli civilians in the Gaza Strip in his plan, to the dismay of the extreme right of the Israeli government. Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has repeatedly called for the return of Israeli settlers to the territory after the war and for a “solution to encourage the emigration” of Gaza’s Palestinian population.

His words echoed those of the far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. “We need to encourage immigration from this region. If there were 100,000 to 200,000 Arabs in the Gaza Strip and not two million, the discussion about the aftermath [of the war] would be completely different,” said Smotrich in late December, in an interview with Israeli army radio. “They want to leave. They have lived in a ghetto for 75 years and are in need.”

Reassuring Arab allies in the region

These comments are “very problematic” for Dweck. Although the Israeli government has ruled out the option of resettling Gaza, certain politicians continue to raise it every day.”

“What will Likud do to tell it’s partners to stop [speaking about repopulating Gaza]?” said Dweck. It also goes beyond rhetoric, he noted. “They organised a convention and hundreds of families have already signed up to repopulate Gaza,” he said.

“The organisers were the same people who organise illegal settlements in the West Bank. […] The problem with them is that they only see their messianic interests and not the interest of Israel,” said Dweck. This will only antagonise our moderate allies in the Middle East, like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with whom we were going to sign agreements, he added.

Saudi Arabia was moving towards normalising relations with Israel when October 7 took place. Yet in an interview with BBC Radio on January 9, Prince Khalid bin Bandar al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, said that talks would resume at the end of the war on condition that an “independent State of Palestine” was created. 

More than thirty years after the Oslo Accords, sealed by the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, this prospect seems more distant than ever. The creation of a Palestinian state appears to be the only solution for achieving lasting peace in the Middle East, said Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, when interviewed by the Financial Times.

For him, any possible agreement must include “a political solution for the whole of Palestine”. Gaza’s future cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the occupied West Bank, where Israeli military operations have increased since the start of the war. In short, the region is a ticking time bomb. “There’s an international consensus on the two-state solution,” said Shtayyeh. “The question is: what are they going to do to preserve the two-state solution at a time when Netanyahu is systematically destroying [it].

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Blinken seeks Palestinian governance reform for post-war Gaza as deadly Israeli strikes continue

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on January 10 to seek governance reforms as part of U.S. efforts to rally the region behind post-war plans for Gaza that also include concrete steps toward a Palestinian state.

Mr. Blinken says he has secured commitments from multiple countries in the region to assist with rebuilding and governing Gaza after Israel’s war against Hamas, and that wider Israeli-Arab normalization is still possible, but only if there is “a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

The approach faces serious obstacles. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the autocratic, Western-backed Palestinian leadership, whose forces were driven from Gaza when Hamas took over in 2007, lacks legitimacy in the view of many Palestinians.

The war in Gaza is still raging with no end in sight, fuelling a humanitarian catastrophe in the tiny coastal enclave. The fighting has also stoked escalating violence between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants that has raised fears of a wider conflict.

On his fourth visit to the region since the war began three months ago, Mr. Blinken has met in recent days with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkiye. He says they are open to contributing to post-war plans in return for progress on creating a Palestinian state.

Also Read | Blinken urges Israel to engage with region on postwar plans that include path to Palestinian state

The Saudi Ambassador to the U.K. went even further on January 9, telling the BBC that the kingdom is still interested in a landmark normalization agreement with Israel, but that it must include “nothing less than an independent state of Palestine.”

“One doesn’t come without the other,” Prince Khalid bin Bandar said.

After meeting with Mr. Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials on January 9, Mr. Blinken delivered a stark message, saying Israel must stop undercutting the Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves with its expansion of settlements, home demolitions and evictions in the West Bank.

But he also said the Palestinian Authority “has a responsibility to reform itself, to improve its governance,” and that he would discuss that with the 88-year-old Mr. Abbas, who has not stood for elections since 2005 and lacks support among his own people.

The Palestinian Authority governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank under interim peace deals reached in the 1990s and cooperates with Israel on security matters. But it has been powerless to prevent the expansion of settlements in occupied territory it wants for a future state, and there have been no serious or substantive peace talks since Mr. Netanyahu returned to office in 2009.

Also Read | Israel faces Gaza ‘genocide’ case at U.N. top court

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been unable to get Israel to make even relatively minor concessions to the Palestinians, like turning over all the tax revenue it collects on their behalf, or allowing the reopening of a U.S. Consulate to serve Palestinians in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Later on January 10, Mr. Abbas was set to met with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, two U.S. allies who have long served as mediators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Jordan’s Red Sea city of Aqaba.

Israel has vowed to keep fighting until it crushes Hamas and returns scores of hostages held by the group after its Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war. Israeli officials say the campaign will continue through the rest of the year, and its own postwar plans call for open-ended military control over the territory, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005.

Nearly 85% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have been driven from their homes by the fighting, and a quarter of its residents face starvation, with only a trickle of food, water, medicine and other supplies entering through an Israeli siege.

Mr. Blinken said more food, water, medicine and other aid needs to enter and be distributed effectively, and he called on Israel to “do everything it can to remove any obstacles.”

Also Read | WHO axes medical aid delivery to north Gaza in absence of security guarantees

The offensive has reduced much of northern Gaza, including Gaza City, to a moonscape, raising concerns over whether the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled from those areas will ever be able to return. Far-right members of Mr. Netanyahu’s government have called for them to be resettled elsewhere, which critics say would amount to ethnic cleansing.

Mr. Blinken said the U.S. was opposed to any such scenario and that resettlement is not the policy of the Israeli government. He also said he had secured agreement on a U.N. inspection mechanism in northern Gaza to evaluate how and when people can return.

The military is now focusing major operations on the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza that date back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Hundreds of people have been killed in recent days in continuing strikes across the territory, including in areas of the far south where people have been told to seek refuge.

An airstrike late on January 9 hit a four-story house west of the southernmost city of Rafah, killing at least 14 people and wounding at least 20 others, including women and children, health officials said. Associated Press reporters saw the dead and wounded being brought into nearby hospitals.

Jaber Abu Hamed, who fled his home in Gaza City last month and is sheltering near the main hospital in Khan Younis, said he heard constant gunfire and explosions. “The ambulance sirens didn’t stop,” he said.

Also Read | Israel Army says 185 soldiers have been killed in Gaza war

Since the war began, Israel’s offensive has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians, roughly 1% of the territory’s population, and more than 58,000 people have been wounded, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children, health officials say. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In the October 7 attack, in which Hamas overwhelmed Israel’s defences and stormed through several communities, Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians. They abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

The Israeli military says it tries to avoid harming civilians and blames the high toll on Hamas because the militants fight in densely populated areas. It says it has killed some 8,000 militants — without providing evidence — and that 186 of its own soldiers have been killed in the offensive.

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Blinken meets Jordan’s king on Mideast push to keep Gaza war from spreading

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met on January 7 with Jordan’s king and Foreign Minister and visited a World Food Programme warehouse in Amman as he pressed ahead with an urgent Middle East diplomatic mission to prevent Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza from spreading.

On his fourth visit to the region in three months, Mr. Blinken stressed the need for Israel to adjust its military operations to reduce civilian casualties and significantly boost the amount of humanitarian aid reaching Gaza while highlighting the importance of preparing detailed plans for the post-conflict future of the territory, which has been decimated by intensive Israeli airstrikes and ground offensives.

After a day of talks with Turkish and Greek leaders in Istanbul and Crete, Mr. Blinken met Sunday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi seeking buy-in for U.S. efforts to tamp down resurgent fears that the three-month-old war could engulf the region, ramp up aid deliveries to Gaza and prepare for the eventual end of hostilities.

Also Read | Gaza war will continue for months, says Netanyahu

Jordan and other Arab states have been highly critical of Israel’s actions and have eschewed public support for long-term planning, arguing that the fighting must end before such discussions can begin.

They have been demanding an immediate cease-fire since mid-October as civilian casualties began to skyrocket. Israel has refused and the U.S. has instead called for specified temporary “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid to get in and people to get to safety.

Mr. Blinken also toured the World Food Programme’s Regional Coordination warehouse in the Jordanian capital where trucks are being packed with aid to be delivered to Gaza through both Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings.

He commended the work of the WFP and other U.N. agencies as well as the government of Jordan to get assistance into Gaza.

“The efforts right here to collect and distribute food to people in need are absolutely essential,” Mr. Blinken said. “The United States has worked from day one to open access routes into Gaza.”

“We continue to work on that every single day, not only to open them but to multiply them, to maximise them and to try to get more assistance, more effectively,” he said. “We’re determined to do everything we possibly can to ameliorate the situation for the men, women and children in Gaza.”

The U.S. has been pressing Israel for weeks to let greater amounts of food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies into Gaza, and the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on December 22 calling for an immediate increase in deliveries.

Three weeks ago, Israel opened Kerem Shalom, adding a second entry point for aid into Gaza after Rafah.

OPINION | Widening war: On the Gaza war going beyond Israel-Palestine 

Still, the rate of trucks entering has not risen significantly. This week, an average of around 120 trucks a day entered through Rafah and Kerem Shalom, according to U.N. figures, far below the 500 trucks of goods going in daily before the war and far below what aid groups say is needed.

Almost the entire population of 2.3 million depends on the trucks coming across the border for their survival. One in four Palestinians in Gaza is starving, and the rest face crisis levels of hunger, according to the U.N.

More than 85% of people in Gaza have been driven from their homes by Israeli bombardment and ground offensives. Most live in U.N. shelters crowded beyond their capacity, in tent camps that have been sprung up, or on the streets.

The few functioning hospitals are overwhelmed with the wounded as well as patients amid outbreaks of disease, as sanitation systems have collapsed.

In Greece on Saturday, Mr. Blinken said his trip would be dominated by “not necessarily easy conversations” with allies and partners about what they are willing to do “to build durable peace and security”.

Mr. Blinken’s visit comes as developments in Lebanon, northern Israel, the Red Sea and Iraq have put intense strains on what had been a modestly successful U.S. push to prevent a regional conflagration since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, and as international criticism of Israel’s military operation mounts.

From Jordan, Mr. Blinken will travel to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on Sunday and Saudi Arabia on Monday. He will then visit Israel and the West Bank on Tuesday and Wednesday before wrapping up the trip in Egypt.

Also Read | Blinken visits West Bank as fierce fighting roils Gaza

“These are not necessarily easy conversations,” he said in Greece. “There are different perspectives, different needs, different requirements, but it is vital that we engage in this diplomacy now both for the sake of Gaza itself and more broadly the sake of the future for Israelis and Palestinians and for the region as a whole.”

He said his priorities are protecting civilians — “far too many Palestinians have been killed” — getting more humanitarian aid into Gaza, ensuring Hamas cannot strike again, and developing a framework for Palestinian-led governance in the territory and “a Palestinian state with security assurances or Israel”.

Hours before Mr. Blinken’s meetings on Saturday, Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia fired dozens of rockets at northern Israel and said the barrage was an initial response to the targeted killing, presumably by Israel, of a top leader from the allied Hamas group in Lebanon’s capital this past week.

Israel responded in what became one of the heaviest days of cross-border fighting in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, stepped-up attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have disrupted international trade and led to increased efforts by the U.S. and its allies to patrol the vital commercial waterway and respond to threats.

The coalition of countries issued what amounted to a final warning to the Houthis on Wednesday to cease their attacks on vessels or face potential targeted military action. Since December 19, the militants have carried out at least two dozen attacks in response to the Israel-Hamas war.

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Heavy fighting rages near main Gaza hospital and people trapped inside say they cannot flee

Health officials and people trapped inside Gaza’s largest hospital rejected Israel’s claims that it was helping babies and others evacuate on November 12, saying fighting continued just outside the facility where incubators lay idle with no electricity and critical supplies were running out.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed urgent calls for a cease-fire unless it includes the release of all the nearly 240 hostages captured by Hamas in the Oct. 7 rampage that triggered the war.

Also Read | Israel Hamas war Day 38 Live Updates

A day after Mr. Netanyahu said Israel was bringing its “full force” to end Hamas’ 16-year rule in Gaza, residents reported heavy airstrikes and shelling, including around Shifa Hospital. Israel, without providing evidence, has accused Hamas of concealing a command post inside and under the compound, allegations denied by Hamas and hospital staff.

“They are outside, not far from the gates,” said Ahmed al-Boursh, a resident sheltering there.

The hospital’s last generator ran out of fuel Saturday, leading to the deaths of three premature babies and four other patients, according to the Health Ministry. It said another 36 babies are at risk of dying.

Israel’s military asserted it placed 300 liters (79 gallons) of fuel near Shifa overnight for an emergency generator powering incubators for premature babies and coordinated the delivery with hospital officials. But the military said Hamas prevented the hospital from receiving the fuel.

A Health Ministry spokesperson, Ashraf al-Qidra, disputed the account and also told Al Jazeera the fuel would not be enough to operate the generator an hour. “This is a mockery towards the patients and children,” Al-Qidra said.

Speaking to CNN, Mr. Netanyahu asserted that “100 or so” people had been evacuated from Shifa and that Israel had created safe corridors.

But Health Ministry Undersecretary Munir al-Boursh said Israeli snipers have deployed around Shifa, firing at any movement.

“There are wounded in the house, and we can’t reach them,” he told Al Jazeera. “We can’t stick our heads out of the window.”

The military said troops would assist in moving babies on Sunday. But Medical Aid for Palestinians, a U.K.-based charity that has supported Shifa’s neonatal intensive care unit, said transferring critically ill infants is complex. “With ambulances unable to reach the hospital … and no hospital with capacity to receive them, there is no indication of how this can be done safely,” CEO Melanie Ward said.

The only option is for Israel to stop its assault and allow fuel into the hospital, Ward said.

The Health Ministry said there are 1,500 patients at Shifa, along with 1,500 medical personnel and between 15,000 and 20,000 people seeking shelter.

The president of Doctors Without Borders International, Christos Christou, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” it would take weeks to evacuate the patients.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on the X social media platform that Shifa has been without water for three days and “is not functioning as a hospital anymore.” Several humanitarian groups told The Associated Press they weren’t able to reach the hospital on November 12.

The Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said another Gaza City hospital, Al-Quds, is “no longer operational” because it was out of fuel with 6,000 people trapped there. Gaza’s sole power plant shut down a month ago, and Israel has barred fuel imports to prevent Hamas from using them.

One woman fleeing northern Gaza, Fedaa Shangan, said she’d had a cesarean section at Al-Quds: “The wound is still fresh.” She said the Israeli army near the hospital “did not care about the presence of patients, children, women and the elderly. They did not care about anyone.”

Alarm was growing. “We do not want to see a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, people seeking medical care are caught in the crossfire,” President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told ABC’s “This Week.”

“Decisive international action is needed now to secure an immediate humanitarian cease-fire” amid attacks on health care, the U.N. regional directors of the World Health Organization and others said in a statement, adding that more than half of Gaza’s hospitals are closed.

Muhammed Zaqout, director of hospitals in Gaza, said the Health Ministry has been unable to update the death toll since Friday as medics are unable to reach areas hit by Israeli bombardment.

About 2.3 million Palestinians remain in the besieged territory.

Mr. Netanyahu has said the responsibility for any harm to civilians lies with Hamas. Israel has long accused the group, which operates in dense residential neighborhoods, of using civilians as human shields.

The U.S. has pushed for temporary pauses that would allow for wider distribution of badly needed aid to civilians in the territory, where conditions are increasingly dire.

But Israel has only agreed to brief daily periods during which civilians can flee ground combat in northern Gaza and head south on foot along two main roads. Israel continues to strike what it says are militant targets across southern Gaza, often killing women and children.

Hospital officials said at least 13 were killed after an Israeli airstrike in the southern town of Khan Younis.

The war has displaced over two-thirds of Gaza’s population.

Wael Abu Omar, spokesperson for Gaza’s border crossings, said 846 people left Gaza to Egypt through the Rafah crossing Sunday. Nearly all were foreigners while a few were patients from Gaza’s hospitals and their caretakers.

He said 76 aid trucks entered Gaza. The U.N. and partners have said much more were needed daily.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on X that he asked European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to apply the same “legal, moral grounds” for EU support of Ukraine to “define its stand on Israel’s war crimes.”

More than 11,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths. About 2,700 people have been reported missing.

At least 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in the initial Hamas attack. Forty-six Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the ground offensive began.

About 250,000 Israelis have evacuate d from communities near Gaza, where Palestinian militants are still firing barrages of rockets, and along the northern border with Lebanon.

Mr. Netanyahu has begun to outline Israel’s postwar plans for Gaza, which contrast sharply with the vision of the United States.

He said Gaza would be demilitarized and Israel would retain the ability to enter Gaza freely to hunt down militants. He rejected the idea that the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, would at some stage control Gaza.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. opposes an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza and envisions a unified Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank as a step toward a Palestinian state, long opposed by Netanyahu’s government.

The war threatens to trigger a wider conflict, with Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon trading fire along the border. Attacks by Hezbollah on November 12 wounded seven Israeli troops and 10 others, Israel’s military and rescue services said.

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The dogs of war are howling in the Middle East

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

BEIRUT — Against a dawning day, just hours after the fatal Gaza hospital explosion that killed hundreds, Israel’s border with Lebanon crackled with shelling and fighter jet strikes as Israeli warplanes responded to an uptick in shelling from Hezbollah.

Regardless of who struck the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the needle is now rapidly shifting in a dangerous direction. And hopes are being pinned on United States President Joe Biden and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is set to host an emergency summit in Cairo on Saturday. But the chances of a wider war engulfing Lebanon and the entire region being hurled into violent chaos once more are growing by the hour.

As Hezbollah announced “a day of rage” against Israel, protests have targeted U.S. missions in the region, more embassies in Beirut have started sending off non-essentials staff, and security teams are being flown in to protect diplomatic missions and European NGOs, preparing contingency plans for staff evacuation. An ever-growing sense of dread and foreboding is now gripping the Levant.

Currently, Israel insists the hospital explosion was caused by an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad — and the White House agrees. But the Palestinian militant group, which is aligned with Hamas, says this is a “lie and fabrication,” insisting Israel was responsible. Regardless of where the responsibility lies, however, the blast at the hospital — where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were sheltering from days of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave of Gaza — is sending shock waves far and wide.

It has already blown Biden’s trip to the region off course, as his planned Wednesday meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan had to be axed. The meeting was meant to take place after his visit to Israel, where Biden had the tricky task of showing solidarity, while also pressing the country’s reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

A statement from the White House said the the decision to cancel the meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been jointly made in light of the hospital strike.

But Arab leaders have made clear they had no hope the meeting would be productive. Abbas pulled out first, before Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested a meeting would be pointless. “There is no use in talking now about anything except stopping the war,” he said, referencing Israel’s near-constant bombardment of Gaza.

Scrapping the Jordan stop lost the U.S. leader a major face-to-face opportunity to navigate the crisis, leaving American efforts to stave off a wider conflict in disarray.

The U.S. was already facing tough criticism in the region for being too far in Israel’s corner and failing to condemn the country for civilian deaths in Gaza. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have shrugged off U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts to get them to denounce Hamas — they refuse to label the organization as a terror group, seeing the October 7 attacks as the inevitable consequence of the failure to deliver a two-state solution for Palestinians and lift Israel’s 17-year blockade on Gaza.

Whether anyone can now stop a bigger war is highly uncertain. But there was one word that stood out in Biden’s immediate remarks after the Hamas attacks, and that was “don’t.” “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word,” he said. “Don’t.”

However, this is now being drowned out by furious cries for revenge. Wrath has its grip on all parties in the region, as old hatreds and grievances play out and the tit-for-tat blows accelerate. Much like Mark Antony’s exhortation in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” is now the sentiment being heard here, obscuring reason and leaving diplomacy struggling in its wake.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s slaughter, righteous fury had understandably gripped Israelis. Netanyahu channeled that rage, vowing “mighty vengeance” against Hamas for the surprise attacks, pledging to destroy the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group. “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man,” he said days later.

However, Israel hasn’t officially announced it will launch a ground mission — something it has refrained from doing in recent years due to the risk of losing a high number of soldiers. But it has massed troops and armor along the border, drafted 300,000 reservists — the biggest call-up in decades — and two days after the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that Israel had no choice but to launch a ground operation. Publicly, he warned Israelis the country faced a “long and difficult war.”

The one hope that havoc won’t be unleashed in the region now rests partly — but largely — upon Israel reducing its military goals and deciding not to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, which would be the most likely trigger for Hezbollah and its allies to commence a full-scale attack, either across the southern border or on the Golan Heights.

That was certainly the message from Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon. He told POLITICO that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would be one of the key triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are now closely coordinating their responses.

“Hezbollah will pay no attention to threats from anyone against it entering the war; it will ignore warnings to stay out of it. The timing of when Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will relate to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel tries to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.

Lebanese politicians are now pinning their hopes on Israel not opting to mount a ground offensive on the densely populated enclave — an operation that would almost certainly lead to a high number of civilian casualties and spark further Arab outrage, in addition to a likely Hezbollah intervention. They see some possibility in Biden’s warning that any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a “big mistake” — a belated sign that Washington is now trying to impose a limit on Israel’s actions in retaliation for the Hamas attacks.

And how that dovetails with Netanyahu’s stated aim to “demolish Hamas”and “defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us” is another one of the major uncertainties that will determine if the dogs of war will be fully unleashed.

At the moment, however, an apparent pause in Israeli ground operations is giving some a reason to hope. While assembled units are on standby and awaiting orders, on Tuesday an Israel military spokesman suggested a full-scale ground assault might not be what’s being prepared.

Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suspects a “rethink” is underway, likely prompted by Israeli military chiefs’ realization that a ground offensive wouldn’t just be bloody, it wouldn’t rid Gaza of Hamas either. “When the PLO was forced out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, it still was able to maintain a presence in the country and Yasser Arafat was back within a year in Lebanon,” he said.

Likewise, lawmaker Ashraf Rifi — a former director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces — told POLITICO he thinks Israeli generals are likely just as behind the apparent hold as their Western allies. “Military commanders are always less enthusiastic about going to war than politicians, and Israeli military commanders are always cautious,” he said.

“Let’s hope so, otherwise we will all be thrown into hell.”

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Kosovo attack: Who benefits?

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

The European Union and the United States have been trying to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to end their enmity and normalize relations for more than a decade.

There were finally signs of promise in April, when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti finally gave tacit, if begrudging, approval to an EU-brokered plan that would see the two finally sprinkle some soil over the hatchet.

But despite all the cajoling and coaxing, it wasn’t to be.

U.S. and European officials have insinuated that Kurti was more to blame here, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell drawing attention to the failure to establish an association of municipalities in northern Kosovo, which would have allowed Kosovo’s Serbs some autonomy in an enclave where they’re a majority.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and European officials have also quietly praised Vučić for a slow and halting tilt toward the West, secretly supplying some arms to Ukraine and moving to reduce Serbia’s dependency on Russian energy supplies.

This is why last week’s astonishing clash between armed Serbs and police in the village of Banjska, in northern Kosovo’s Zvečan municipality, is especially perplexing — and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves.

Kosovo’s leaders quickly blamed Vučić for the attack, which also involved a siege of an Orthodox monastery. A Kosovan policeman and three Serb gunmen were killed in the clash. And Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani said Friday that “the (armed) group simply exercised the intentions and the motives of Serbia as a country and Vučić as the leader.”

Osmani maintains Belgrade was trying to copy Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which began with so-called little green men infiltrating the Ukrainian peninsula. “They are trying to carry out a Crimea model in the Republic of Kosovo, but we will absolutely not let that happen,” she added.

Kurti has called for sanctions to be imposed on Serbia for what he describes as a state-sponsored terrorist attack, warning that if the crime goes unpunished, Belgrade will repeat it. Vučić planned and ordered an attack in northern Kosovo “to destabilize” the country with the goal of starting a war, he said.

In response, Vučić has angrily denied these allegations but has noticeably hardened his rhetoric, possibly as a sop to Serbian ultra-nationalists. More alarmingly, however, Serbia has been building up its forces near the border with Kosovo since the deadly clashes, which the White House has described as “unprecedented.” And according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, on a phone call with Vučić, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue.”

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, however, it would appear to pull against the caution Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hedging his bets between the West and Serbia’s traditional Slavic ally. Vučić didn’t join in on Western sanctions against Russia but has condemned the invasion, and says he’s keen to pursue Serbia’s bid for EU membership.

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, it would appear to pull against the caution Aleksandar Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine | Andrej Cukic/EFE via EPA

Marko Đurić, the Serbian ambassador to the U.S., echoes Vučić’s argument that planning or approving an attack in Kosovo at this juncture would make no sense and potentially ruin Belgrade’s improving relations with the West. “We have a lot to lose by any kind of escalation in Kosovo,” he told POLITICO — including harming the country commercially.

Đurić also said the attack has complicated the country’s domestic politics, noting that “the far right in Serbia is going to try and exploit this to the greatest extent possible.”

But Kosovo’s leaders have a case against Belgrade that needs answering.

To support the allegation that Vučić endorsed the attack, they highlight the role of Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the Serb List — a party that dominates Serb politics in northern Kosovo and has close links with Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party.

Nicknamed the “boss of the north,” Radoičić admitted to organizing and leading the attack in a statement issued by his lawyer, saying he was solely responsible. “I didn’t inform anyone from the government structures of the Republic of Serbia about this, nor from the local political structures from the north of Kosovo and Metohija, nor did I get any help from them, because we already had had different views on the previous methods of resisting Kurti’s terror,” he said.

But Kurti dismisses the idea that Radoičić would have gone ahead without Vučić’s approval. “I have no doubt that Radiočić was only the executor. The one who planned and ordered this terrorist, criminal attack on our state, in order to violate our territorial integrity, national safety and state security, is none other than President Vučić,” he told reporters.

Other officials in Pristina also say it would be stretching credulity to think Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s BIA intelligence agency, would have been unaware of a planned attack.

Bojan Pajtić, a Serbian law professor and former president of the autonomous province of Vojvodina within Serbia, agrees the Banjska provocation wouldn’t have gone ahead without the security agency’s knowledge, saying it is improbable that the BIA would have failed to notice an operation being prepared by a heavily armed formation consisting of dozens of people in such a small area. “The BIA normally knows who drank coffee with whom yesterday in Zvečan,” he said.

“When an incident occurs that is not accidental, but the result of someone’s efforts, you always wonder whose interests it is in,” Paltić said. “In this case, it is certainly not in the interest of Aleksandar Vučić, because after the last attempt at dialogue in Brussels, in the eyes of the West, in relation to Kurti, he still looked like a constructive partner.”

Pajtić isn’t alone in querying who’s interest the attack was in, and so far, both Washington and Brussels have been extremely cautious in their comments. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU will wait for the completion of the investigation before coming to any conclusions on what he described as a terrorist attack. Washington, careful to keep its language neutral, hasn’t been specific about who it blames either.

This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to Moscow, which predictably grandstanded as Serbia’s traditional protector, accusing Pristina of ethnic cleansing in northern Kosovo — the very same lie used to try to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This incident, the most serious example of violence in Kosovo for years, turned the tables on Vučić,” said Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. And he, too, questioned whether the attack was a rogue operation by Serbian ultra-nationalists and Kosovo’s Serb leaders.

“Should the story of Radoičić freelancing be corroborated, it would appear that Vučić has lost control over his erstwhile proxies,” he said.

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Two years after the fall of Kabul, Afghans’ wait for US visas continues

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Shukria Sediqi knew her days in safety were numbered. As a journalist who advocated for women’s rights, she’d visited shelters and safe houses to talk to women who had fled abusive husbands. She went with them to court when they asked for a divorce.

According to the Taliban, who bar women from most public places, jobs and education, her work was immoral.

So when the Taliban swept into her hometown of Herat in western Afghanistan in August 2021 as the US was pulling out of the country, she and her family fled.

First they tried to get on one of the last American flights out of Kabul. Then they tried to go to Tajikistan but had no visas. Finally in October 2021, after sleeping outside for two nights at the checkpoint into Pakistan among crowds of Afghans fleeing the Taliban, she and her family made it into the neighbouring country.

The goal? Resettling in the US via an American government programme set up to help Afghans at risk under the Taliban because of their work with the U.S. government, media and aid agencies.

But two years after the US left Afghanistan, Sediqi and tens of thousands of others are still waiting. While there has been some recent progress, processing US visas for Afghans has moved painfully slowly. So far, only a small portion of Afghans have been resettled.

Many of the applicants who fled Afghanistan are running through savings, living in limbo in exile. They worry that the US, which had promised so much, has forgotten them.

“What happens to my children? What happens to me?” Sediqi asked. “Nobody knows.”

Special immigrant visa programmme

During two decades in Afghanistan after its 2001 invasion, the US relied on Afghans helping the US government and military. Afghan journalists went to work at a growing number of media outlets. Afghans, often women working in remote areas, were the backbone of aid programmes providing everything from food to tutoring.

Since 2009, the US has had a special immigrant visa programme to help Afghans like interpreters who worked directly with the US government and the military.

Then, in the waning days of the US presence in the country, the Biden administration created two new programmes for refugees, expanding the number of Afghans who could apply to resettle in the US.

The visas, known as P-1 and P-2, are for aid workers, journalists or others who didn’t work directly for the US government but who helped promote goals like democracy and an independent media that put them at risk under the Taliban.

The programmes were intended to help people like Enayatullah Omid and his wife — Afghans who helped build the country after the 2001 Taliban ouster and were at “risk due to their US affiliation” once the US withdrew.

In 2011, Omid started a radio station in Baghlan province with the help of the US-based media training nonprofit Internews and funding from the US Agency for International Development.

He was the station’s general manager but did everything from reporting on-air to sweeping the floors at night. His wife, Homaira Omid Amiri, also worked at the station and was an activist in the province.

Unsafe atmosphere

When the Taliban entered Baghlan on August 9, 2021, Omid said he did one last thing: He burned documents to keep the Taliban from identifying his staff. Then he and his wife fled.

They stayed at shelters arranged by a committee to protect Afghan journalists until the Taliban shut them down. Internews referred Omid to the US refugee programme in the spring of 2022. Told he had to leave Afghanistan for his case to proceed, Omid and his wife went to Pakistan in July 2022.

Even in Pakistan Omid doesn’t feel safe. Worried about the Taliban’s reach, he’s moved three times. There are police raids targeting Afghans whose visas have run out. As he spoke to The Associated Press, he was getting text messages about raids in another Islamabad neighbourhood and wondered how much he should tell his already stressed wife.

He said America has a saying: Leave no one behind.

“We want them to do it. It shouldn’t be only a saying for them,” he said.

— The American airlift in August 2021 carried more than 70,000 Afghans to safety, along with tens of thousands of Americans and citizens of other countries — plane after plane loaded with the lucky ones who managed to make their way through the massive crowds encircling Kabul airport. Most gained entry to the US under a provision known as humanitarian parole.

Many more are still waiting. There are about 150,000 applicants to the special immigrant visa programmes — not including family members. A report by the Association of Wartime Allies said at the current rate it would take 31 years to process them all.

Separately, there are 27,400 Afghans who are in the pipeline for the two refugee programmes created in the final days of the US presence in Afghanistan, according to the State Department.

That doesn’t include family members, which potentially adds tens of thousands more. But since the US left Afghanistan it’s only admitted 6,862 of these Afghan refugees, mostly P-1 and P-2 visa applicants, according to State Department figures.

In June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has relocated about 24,000 Afghans since September 2021, apparently referring to all the resettlement programmes combined.

Among the refugee programme applicants are about 200 AP employees and their families, as well as staff of other American news organisations still struggling to relocate to the US.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said the US refugee process in general can be agonizingly slow, and waits of as long as 10 years are common.

Furthermore, former US President Donald Trump gutted the refugee system, lowering the annual number of accepted refugees to its lowest ever.

Other challenges are unique to Afghan immigrants, said Vignarajah. Many Afghans destroyed documents during the Taliban takeover because they worried about reprisals. Now they need them to prove their case.

“The grim reality is that they’ll likely be waiting for years on end and often in extremely precarious situations,” Vignarajah said.

In a recent report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a body created by Congress to oversee government spending in Afghanistan, faulted the various resettlement programmes set up for Afghans.

“Bureaucratic dysfunction and understaffing have undermined US promises that these individuals would be protected in a timely manner, putting many thousands of Afghan allies at high risk,” the report said.

It also criticised the lack of transparency surrounding the refugee programmes, which it said has left Afghans considering whether to leave their country to await processing without “critical information” they need for such a crucial decision.

In a sign of the confusion surrounding the process, applicants like Omid and his wife were told they had to leave Afghanistan to apply, a costly endeavour involving selling their possessions, going to another country and waiting. They, like many others, ended up in Pakistan — one of the few countries that allows Afghans in — only to discover the US was not processing refugee applications there.

That changed late last month when the State Department said it would begin processing applications in Pakistan.

However, Congress has so far failed to act on a bill that seeks to improve efforts to help Afghans still struggling to get to America.

The State Department declined an AP request for an interview but said in a statement it is committed to processing Afghan refugee visas. In June, Blinken applauded the efforts that have gone into helping Afghans resettle in America but emphasised the work continues.

At the same time, the Biden administration has made progress in recovering from the Trump-era curtailment of the refugee system.

Cap on refugees

The administration raised the cap on refugees admitted to the US to 125,000 a year, compared to Trump’s 15,000 in his final year in office. It’s unlikely the Biden administration will reach the cap this year, but the number of refugees and Afghans admitted is increasing.

Shawn VanDiver, who heads a coalition supporting Afghan resettlement efforts called #AfghanEvac, said he doesn’t agree with criticism that the refugee programmes are a failure.

They have gotten off to a “really slow start and there are vulnerable people that are waiting for this much needed relief,” he said. “But I also know that … from my conversations with government, that there is movement happening to push on this.” __ Left with little information, Afghans in Pakistan compare what they hear from US officials about their cases in What’s App chat groups that have organised social media protests demanding swifter US action.

“Avoid putting our lives in danger again,” one post read.

Pakistan was already home to millions of Afghans who fled decades of conflict when the Taliban returned to power and an estimated 600,000 more surged into the country.

While many had valid travel documents, renewing them is a lengthy and costly process. Raids looking for Afghans with expired visas have heightened tensions.

Abdul, who declined to give his surname for fear of arrest because his visa has expired, worked as head of security for an aid group in Afghanistan that specialised in economic help for women. The risks were enormous; three colleagues were killed while he worked there.

One of his last tasks was getting the group’s foreign staff to the airport to escape. The organisation stayed open into 2022, when the Taliban detained Abdul for two weeks. After his release, a Taliban member said he could protect his family — if Abdul gave him his daughter in marriage.

Abdul knew it was time to leave. He, his wife and children fled that night to Iran. Late last year, when they were told their referral to one of the refugee programmes had been approved, they went to Pakistan. Since then, there’s been no information.

Their visas now expired, the family is terrified to leave the house.

“The future is completely dark,” Abdul said. “I’m not afraid to die, I’m just really worried about the future of my children.”

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Foreign ministers of US and China hold rare one-to-one meeting

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang talk for nearly six hours in Beijing – but appeared to agree on little.

The United States and China have failed to overcome their most serious disagreements but were able to discuss them in a potentially constructive way and have agreed to continue talks, U.S. and Chinese officials said on Sunday.

 Blinken was able during a nearly six-hour meeting to secure a visit to Washington by Qin and China confirmed that Qin had accepted the invitation at a “mutually convenient time” but no date was set.

Both sides said advancement on the issues that divide them remains a work in progress while the Chinese foreign ministry said “the China-U.S. relationship is at the lowest point since its establishment.”

The State Department said that Blinken had stressed “the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation.”

The Chinese, meanwhile, restated their position that the current state of relations “does not serve the fundamental interests of the two peoples or meet the shared expectations of the international community,” according to the foreign ministry.

Blinken, the highest-level American official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office, will have more senior level contacts with the Chinese on Monday, including potentially with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Despite Blinken’s presence in the Chinese capital, the prospects for any significant breakthrough on the most vexing issues facing the planet’s two largest economies was slim.

And neither side showed any inclination to back down on their entrenched positions.

Blinken’s trip followed his postponement of plans to visit China in February after the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S.

The talks could pave the way for a meeting in the coming months between Biden and Xi. Biden said Saturday that he hoped to be able to meet with Xi in the coming months to take up the plethora of differences that divide them.

That long list incudes disagreements ranging from trade to Taiwan, human rights conditions in China and Hong Kong to Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In his meetings on Sunday, Blinken also pressed the Chinese to release detained American citizens and to take steps to curb the production and export of fentanyl precursors that are fuelling the opioid crisis in the United States.

Blinken “made clear that the United States will always stand up for the interests and values of the American people and work with its allies and partners to advance our vision for a world that is free, open, and upholds the international rules-based order,” the State Department said.

The Chinese foreign ministry countered in its statement that “China hopes that the U.S. will adopt an objective and rational perception of China, work with China in the same direction, uphold the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and handle unexpected and sporadic events in a calm, professional and rational manner.”

Shortly before leaving Washington, Blinken emphasised the importance of the U.S. and China establishing and maintaining better lines of communication.

Biden and Xi had made commitments to improve communications “precisely so that we can make sure we are communicating as clearly as possible to avoid possible misunderstandings and miscommunications,” Blinken said Friday.

Relation have detoriorated so badly that some analysts talks of the possibility of a conflict over Taiwan: last year President Biden said the US would defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded.

And Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – now 100 years old – even suggested last week that the two superpowers have less than ten years to avoid a military confrontation.

But President Xi has offered a hint of a possible willingness to reduce tensions, saying in a meeting with Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates on Friday that the United States and China can cooperate to “benefit our two countries.”

Since the cancellation of Blinken’s trip in February, there have been some high-level engagements. CIA chief William Burns traveled to China in May, while China’s commerce minister traveled to the U.S. And Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Wang Yi in Vienna in May.

But those have been punctuated by bursts of angry rhetoric from both sides over the Taiwan Strait, their broader intentions in the Indo-Pacific, China’s refusal to condemn Russia for its war against Ukraine, and U.S. allegations from Washington that Beijing is attempting to boost its worldwide surveillance capabilities, including in Cuba.

And, earlier this month, China’s defence minister rebuffed a request from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a meeting on the sidelines of a security symposium in Singapore, a sign of continuing discontent.

Underscoring the difficulties, China rejected a report by a U.S. security firm, that blamed Chinese-linked hackers for attacks on hundreds of public agencies, schools and other targets around the world, as “far-fetched and unprofessional”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson repeated accusations that Washington carries out hacking attacks and complained the cybersecurity industry rarely reports on them.

Meanwhile, the national security advisers of the United States, Japan and the Philippines held their first joint talks Friday and agreed to strengthen their defense cooperation, in part to counter China’s growing influence and ambitions.

This coincides with the Biden administration inking an agreement with Australia and Britain to provide the first with nuclear-powered submarines, with China moving rapidly to expand its diplomatic presence, especially in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific island nations, where it has opened or has plans to open at least five new embassies over the next year.

The agreement is part of an 18-month-old nuclear partnership given the acronym AUKUS — for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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