Israeli ground offensive in Rafah ‘aimed at making Gaza uninhabitable’

Israel has announced plans to launch a full-scale offensive on the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza strip, claiming it is the only way to “completely destroy” Hamas. But according to former French military officer and author Guillaume Ancel, a large-scale military operation in the city that is now host to half of Gaza’s population is of no strategic interest. In his analysis, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s only goal is to make the Palestinian enclave “uninhabitable”.

The countdown has begun for Rafah. Israel repeated on Sunday its threats of carrying out a major ground attack against the southern Gaza city before the start of Ramadan: the holy month in Islam, during which Muslims fast, is expected to begin around March 10. The perspective of a ground operation in the city, which was once considered “safe” for civilians, is fuelling international concern about the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in the city.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz, a former Israeli defence minister currently serving on Netanyahu’s war cabinet, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday. “Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan,” he added.

Having so far ignored the warnings of his Western allies, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems more determined than ever to continue the war against Hamas, reaffirming on February 9 that he was aiming for “total victory”. On February 17 he said that foreign countries calling on Israel to spare the city were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas.

“Benny Gantz’s statements reflect a rift within the war cabinet,” French military expert Guillaume Ancel said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “While the extremists led by Netanyahu want to go all the way, those who are more moderate, like Benny Gantz, want to leave the door open for negotiations, which are currently going very badly.”

Pressure ‘on partners involved in negotiations’

According to a Hamas official quoted by Israeli daily Haaretz, the arrival of the movement’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo on Tuesday did not mean there had been any breakthrough in the negotiations.

Organised by Egypt and Qatar, several rounds of talks were held in Cairo earlier this month but failed to reach an agreement on a truce and the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, at least 30 of whom have reportedly died, out of the 257 kidnapped on October 7.

Read moreWho are the remaining Gaza hostages?

Talks have stalled over Hamas’s demands, described as “delusional” by Binyamin Netanyahu. These include a ceasefire, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, an end to the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory and safe shelter for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians.

“More than on Hamas, this is about putting pressure on the partners involved in the negotiations, specially Egypt, Qatar and the US”, says Tewfik Hamel, a researcher in military history at Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, who sees Israel’s ultimatum as a call for the Islamist movement to capitulate.

Fears of ‘carnage’

Should new negotiations fail, the prospect of a military ground offensive in overcrowded Rafah raises the worst fears for the trapped Palestinian refugees. Nearly 30,000 people have so far been killed in the conflict, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

“In an area of 10 square kilometres, there are almost 1.5 million Palestinians, so this will necessarily lead to a massacre of the civilian population,” says Hamel. “Attacking the town of Rafah, where two-thirds of Gaza’s population is now squeezed, would mean committing carnage,” agrees Ancel.

The former soldier points out that the town has already been subjected to daily bombardment designed “to prepare the territory” for a ground attack. On Thursday, fresh Israeli bombardment of the city flattened a mosque and destroyed homes in what residents called one of their worst nights yet, killing at least 97 people and wounding 130 others in the last 24 hours, according to Gaza’s health authorities. Most victims were still under rubble or in areas rescuers could not reach.

“We can’t even begin to imagine what this would mean for all these displaced people. A military offensive is going to create even more chaos,” Jamie MacGoldrick, the UN’s Middle East coordinator, told FRANCE 24.

Reports from humanitarian organisations have been increasingly alarming on the situation in the Gaza Strip, where 2.2 million people could face starvation. According to UN agencies, food and drinking water have become “extremely scarce”, and 90 percent of the enclave’s young children now suffer from infectious diseases.

Watch moreThe desperate search for food and water in Gaza

Netanyahu has said Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave Rafah before the assault, but never mentioned to which destination. In the event of an offensive, Palestinian civilians would have to try to force their way across the closed border with Egypt.

Egypt doesn’t want refugees in Sinai because the authorities don’t know whether Israel would later accept their return to the Gaza Strip, and Egypt doesn’t want to host the refugees out of fears some might end up being Hamas fighters, even if authorities don’t explicitly state it,” explains Bruno Daroux, FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor.

But recently Cairo seemed to be preparing for this scenario. According to reports by the Wall Street Journal and an Egyptian NGO, Cairo is constructing a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to receive displaced Palestinian civilians from the Gaza Strip. After satellite images appeared to show extensive construction work along the border, the reports claim the compound could accommodate more than 100,000 people on the Egyptian side, parallel to the border with Gaza.

Ancel sees this flight from Rafah as the real objective of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. “Rafah is the only urban centre that has not been destroyed by the Israeli army. The government therefore wants to complete the destruction of the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure to make it uninhabitable. Netanyahu’s aim is to empty the Gaza Strip of Palestinians under the guise of fighting Hamas,” says the former officer, who believes that “a terrorist organisation cannot be destroyed by a military offensive”.

Destruction rendering ‘return of civilians impossible’

“The current Israeli government rejects the creation of a Palestinian state. From that point of view, the most reasonable option is to drive the Palestinians out of the territory,” says Hamel. “However, the attachment of the Gazans to the territory remains strong, because they know that as soon as there is a displacement of the population, the possibility of a return completely ceases to exist.”

As well as farmlands, almost 40 percent of the buildings in the Gaza Strip had been destroyed by January 17, an Israeli study revealed. According to satellite data analysis obtained by the BBC, the actual figure is higher. That analysis suggests between 144,000 and 175,000 buildings across the whole Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed – meaning between 50 and 61 percent of Gaza’s buildings.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk on February 8 accused the Israeli army of committing a “war crime” in its reported destruction of buildings within one kilometre of the barrier between the enclave and Israel in order to create a “buffer zone” along the border inside Gaza itself.

Read moreGaza: More than 40% of buildings destroyed in the ‘buffer zone’ Israel plans to create

Turk said the destruction “appears to be aimed at, or has the effect of, rendering the return of civilians to these areas impossible,” adding Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime”, he said in a statement.

This story has been adapted from the original in French.

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France under pressure to suspend military sales to Israel as war in Gaza grinds on

NGOs and leftist members of the opposition have increased the pressure on France’s government to reconsider arms sales to Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza and follow in the footsteps of other European nations that made moves to suspend military exports over concerns about the humanitarian situation on the ground. 

It was Ramadan, and another war was raging in Gaza.

In July 2014, 8-year-old Afnan Shuheibar, her 16-year-old brother Oday, and her three cousins Basel, Jihad and Wassim – ages 8 to 11 – went up to the roof of the Shuheibar home in Gaza City to feed the pigeons when they were struck by a missile.

It was fired by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but what helped guide it to the Shuheibars’ home was a small black position sensor around 2 centimetres long lodged deep inside the missile. On it were three words, with some letters partially erased: “EUROFARAD PARIS FRANCE”.  

Wassim and Jihad were killed instantly, and Afnan died in her father’s arms on the way to the hospital.

In 2016, the Shuheibar family filed a legal suit against Eurofarad. The company has since been bought by Exxelia Technologies, which is now facing charges of complicity in war crimes in France. (Exxelia itself was recently bought by the US group HEICO but is still headquartered in Paris.)

The first complaint was dismissed, but the family lodged another in 2018. A specialised department looking at crimes against humanity opened an investigation on suspicion of “complicity with war crimes” at a Paris court, and last summer several members of the Shuheibar family were heard.

The court will hear Exxelia’s side next, the family’s lawyer, Joseph Breham, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

His law firm is in touch with the Shuheibar family on a near-weekly basis. Several of them – in addition to investigators working on the case – have been wounded since the Israel-Hamas war started in early October, “to the extent that we wondered at one point whether or not the [Israeli] army was targeting them specifically”, Breham told FRANCE 24. 

The Shuheibar case is not unique. Other French defence companies – including Dassault, Thalès and MBDA – are facing charges of “complicity in war crimes” over weapons sales reportedly made to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which has spearheaded a regional coalition to fight the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

But in the context of the current war in Gaza, and following the provisional measures issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last month and the pending ruling – which could have profound repercussions for international jurisprudence – the Shuheibar case raises some lingering questions. 

Grilling in parliament

It remains unclear whether French companies continue to export weapons or any “dual-use” equipment to Israel that can be used in a military context, or whether French companies have reviewed any export licenses that were authorised before the latest war began.

The head of Amnesty International in France, Jean-Claude Samouiller, published an open letter this week addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron, urging the suspension of all weapons sales and military equipment to Israel.

MPs from the far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise or LFI) party have repeatedly grilled members of the government over continuing French military exports to Israel.

These calls have intensified over the past week. Mathilde Panot, the president of the LFI parliamentary group, asked Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné during a February 15 session in parliament whether France was arming Israel and called for a suspension of any such sales. “Has France continued providing weapons to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu? Mister minister, can you say with certainty that no French military component is being used in Gaza in any war crime that is being committed? When will you declare an arms embargo?” she asked, adding: “[Charles] de Gaulle did it [in 1967]. Emmanuel Macron must do it.”

She also urged him to provide a list of weapons and other equipment provided to Israel. “Concerning weapons, I will revert back to you to give you a number, because I don’t have it here,” Séjourné replied.

It was then French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s turn to be questioned. In a written response to a question submitted by LFI MP Aurélien Saintoul, Lecornu said that France does not export “weapons, strictly speaking, but rather elementary components”.

Saintoul sits on the parliamentary defence commission. He repeatedly asked to question Lecornu, to no avail, prior to submitting his questions in writing.

When weapons are authorised for export, Lecornu said, they “are intended purely for defensive purposes”, citing the example of a type of missile used by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system.

Lecornu went on to say that the respect for human rights and international humanitarian law exhibited by the destination country “are fully taken into account” when reviewing arms exports. Current assessments “have not led to a full suspension of the flow of military exports since 7 October 2023”, referring to the launch of the Israeli army response to the Hamas attack in southern Israel.

In an emailed response to FRANCE 24, the defence ministry stressed that all requests for military equipment exports were subjected to “robust checks”. The foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for specific comment on military exports to Israel.

Thomas Portes, another MP from LFI, last week launched a petition calling for transparency on the issue and urging the authorities to stop exporting military equipment to Israel. The government’s responses are “never precise, they never include any numbers … and so there is a kind of omerta surrounding this arms issue”, Portes said in a telephone interview on Monday.

“At the very least, I want there to be a public debate in France on whether today we accept, yes or no – as MPs, but beyond this, do citizens accept that France delivers weapons to the Israeli state in light of what the Israeli army is committing in the Gaza Strip?”

“I wouldn’t want us to be the last European country to commit itself to not supplying arms to Israel,” he said. France, Germany and the UK continue to supply Israel whereas Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium have moved to suspend arms sales.

Transparency

But obtaining transparency and establishing whether or not French companies are still exporting any weapons or dual-use equipment to the state of Israel is not an easy question to resolve.

Any export of military equipment by a French or France-based company must be vetted by the Inter-ministerial commission for war materials exports (CIEEMG).

Exxelia said in emailed responses sent on Wednesday that the “passive electronic components” it produces usually constitute a tiny part of far larger products, and can, for instance, be used to manufacture a “(Magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a 5G antenna or a radar”.

“Exxelia complies strictly with the laws in all the countries where it operates. Sales of dual-use equipment are subjected to strict regulations that the company applies scrupulously,” it added.

But as the Shuheibars’ lawyer Breham pointed out, decisions issued by the CIEEMG are protected by what is known as the “défense secret ” – meaning they are confidential – and, by law, the CIEEMG is not required to provide any explanation for its decisions.

Every year, the government must under French law release a report to the parliament detailing any such exports. The French authorities must also report annually to the secretary-general of the international Arms Trade Treaty.

But Breham dismissed these reports as “a load of hogwash … intended to play to the gallery”.

“The categories are extremely lax … for example, if you say you exported a specific kind of artillery shell, it is not the same thing if these shells end up in a CAESAR cannon, which is extremely precise, or if they end up in ordinary cannons,” he said. Moreover, since the parliamentary report does not specify the destination country for each piece of equipment, Brehem dismissed it as “absolutely useless”.

In the latest report submitted to the French parliament, one number does, however, stand out: €207.6 million in equipment sold to Israel over the past 10 years.

Breham dismissed the idea of declaring an arms embargo, advocated by LFI, arguing that it is the remit of the United Nations Security Council. But there is still room for the French authorities to take action, he argues.

“At the very least, I think it would be a good thing if France were to strongly declare that, number one, it is in favour of a total freeze on weapons exports to Israel and number two, that it is in favour of very tight restrictions on exports to Israel of double-use equipment, taking into consideration the fact that it is very easy to circumvent [these restrictions].”

As often, though, the devil is in the details. Military equipment export contracts take years to be put into place, he said. If in that time, concerns arise about international humanitarian law violations, then under article 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty, the exporting country must review its export authorisations.

“But that’s the theory,” he said.

Whether or not the Shuheibar family could ever win their case is uncertain. According to international law expert Pierre-Emmanuel Dupont, there is no such legal precedent in France.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, he evoked the case against Dassault, Thalès and MBDA – which is still pending.

He also cited the case against French cement company Lafarge, which is facing charges of complicity in crimes against humanity over alleged payoffs made to the Islamic State group and other jihadists to keep its factory running during the Syrian civil war.

Bringing the Lafarge case set a kind of precedent, Dupont said, although that case is also still awaiting a verdict.



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US to block UN resolution for Gaza ceasefire as Israel bombs Rafah

The World Health Organisation warned on Sunday that the Nasser Hospital in Gaza is “not functional anymore”.

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Israeli strikes across Gaza killed at least 18 people overnight and into Sunday, according to medics and witnesses, as the United States said it would veto another draft UN ceasefire resolution.

An airstrike in Rafah overnight killed six people, including a woman and three children, and another strike killed five men in Khan Younis, the main target of the offensive over the past two months. 

In Gaza City, which was isolated, largely evacuated and suffered widespread destruction in the initial weeks of the war, an airstrike flattened a family home, killing seven people, including three women, according to Sayed al-Afifi, a relative of the deceased.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained defiant to international pressure over a ground operation in Rafah – where 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half the enclave’s population, are sheltering – and to calls for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Such calls were reiterated by the French and Egyptian leaders on Sunday who, according to a readout of their call from the Elysée “expressed their firm opposition to an Israeli offensive at Rafah, which would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe on a new scale, as well as any forced displacement of populations into Egyptian territory, which would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law and pose a further risk of regional escalation”. 

“They also stressed the need to work towards a way out of the crisis, and the decisive and irreversible relaunch of the political process, with a view to the effective implementation of the two-state solution,” the readout also says.

Negotiations ‘not progressing as expected’

But Netanyahu’s Cabinet adopted a declaration Sunday saying Israel “categorically rejects international edicts on a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians” and opposes any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, which it said would “grant a major prize to terror” after the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war.

Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until “total victory” over Hamas and to expand it to Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah.

The US, Israel’s top ally, which hopes to broker a ceasefire agreement and hostage release between Israel and Hamas, and envisions a wider resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile said it would veto a draft UN ceasefire resolution circulated by Algeria.

The Arab representative on the UN Security Council’s resolution calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, unhindered humanitarian access, as well as rejecting the forced displacement of Palestinian civilians.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement late Saturday that the draft resolution runs counter to Washington’s own efforts to end the fighting and “will not be adopted.”

“It is critical that other parties give this process the best odds of succeeding, rather than push measures that put it — and the opportunity for an enduring resolution of hostilities — in jeopardy,” she said.

The US, Qatar and Egypt have spent weeks trying to broker a ceasefire and hostage release, but there’s a wide gap between Israel and Hamas’ demands and Qatar said Saturday that the talks “have not been progressing as expected.”

Hamas has said it will not release all of the remaining hostages without Israel ending the war and withdrawing from Gaza. It is also demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including top militants.

Netanyahu has publicly rejected both demands and any scenario in which Hamas would be able to rebuild its military and governing capabilities. He said he sent a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo last week at Biden’s request but doesn’t see the point in sending them again.

WHO team prevented from entering Nasser Hospital

Meanwhile, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that Nasser Hospital, the main medical centre serving southern Gaza, “is not functional anymore” after Israeli forces raided the facility in the southern city of Khan Younis last week.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN health agency, said a WHO team was not allowed to enter Nasser Hospital on Friday or Saturday “to assess the conditions of the patients and critical medical needs, despite reaching the hospital compound to deliver fuel alongside partners.”

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, he said there are still about 200 patients in the hospital, including 20 who need urgent referrals to other hospitals.

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Israel says it has arrested over 100 suspected militants, including 20 who it says participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, without providing evidence. The military says it is looking for the remains of hostages inside the facility and does not target doctors or patients.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 70 medical personnel were among those arrested, as well as patients in hospital beds who were taken away in trucks. Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesperson for the ministry, said soldiers beat detainees and stripped them of their clothes. There was no immediate comment from the military on those allegations.

The war erupted after Hamas burst through Israel’s defences and attacked communities across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostage. Militants still hold around 130 hostages, a fourth of whom are believed to be dead, after most of the others were released during a weeklong ceasefire in November.

At least 28,985 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed since the beginning of the war, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its records. The toll includes 127 bodies brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, it said Sunday. Around 80% of Gaza’s population have been driven from their homes and a quarter face starvation.

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Netanyahu says Rafah offensive will go ahead as fears grow for patients in raided hospital

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that troops would go into the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah regardless of whether a hostage release was agreed. Fears continued to mount for the patients and staff trapped inside the Nasser hospital in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Younis, which was raided by the Israeli army. 

The deadly bombardment of Gaza continued overnight with another 100 people killed in Israeli strikes, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

At least 120 patients and five medical teams are stuck without water, food and electricity in the Nasser hospital in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Younis, according to the health ministry.

Israel has for weeks concentrated its military operations in Khan Younis, the hometown of Hamas‘s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the October 7 attack that triggered the war.


Nasser hospital under Israeli control. © Jean-Michel Cornu, Sylvie Husson, Valentina Breschi, AFP

Intense fighting has raged around the Nasser hospital – one of the Palestinian territory’s last major medical facilities that remains even partly operational.

The power was cut and the generators stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of six patients due to a lack of oxygen, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

“New-born children are at a risk of dying in the next few hours,” the ministry warned Saturday.

Israel’s army said troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what it said was “credible intelligence” that hostages seized in the October 7 attack had been held there and that the bodies of some may still be inside.

Hamas's armed wing has warned that the hostages held in Gaza are 'struggling to stay alive'.
Hamas’s armed wing has warned that the hostages held in Gaza are ‘struggling to stay alive’. © Tobias Schwarz, AFP

It said it has detained 100 people from the hospital suspected of “terrorist activity”, seized weapons and retrieved “medications with the names of Israeli hostages” in the hospital.

But the raid has been criticised by medics and the United Nations. The army has insisted it made every effort to keep the hospital supplied with power, including bringing in an alternative generator.

A witness, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told AFP the Israeli forces had shot “at anyone who moved inside the hospital”.

‘Pattern of attacks’

World Health Organization spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic slammed the operation Friday, saying “more degradation to the hospital means more lives being lost”.

“Patients, health workers, and civilians who are seeking refuge in hospitals deserve safety and not a burial in those places of healing,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders said its medics had been forced to flee and leave patients behind, with one employee unaccounted for and another detained by Israeli forces.

The Gaza war began with Hamas’s October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. © Mohammed Abed, AFP

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using hospitals for military purposes, which the Palestinian Islamist group has denied.

The UN Human Rights Office said the Nasser hospital raid appeared to be “part of a pattern of attacks by Israeli forces striking essential life-saving civilian infrastructure”.

‘Die from hunger’

High-level negotiations to pause the war were held this week in Cairo, but continue to remain “not really very promising”, said the prime minister of Qatar, a key mediator for the negotiations, on Saturday. 

“I believe that we can see a deal happening very soon. Yet the pattern in the last few days is not really very promising,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said at the Munich Security Conference.

“We will always remain optimistic, we will always remain pushing,” he added, speaking in English. 

A day after US President Joe Biden called for a “temporary truce” to secure the release of hostages, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday reiterated the group’s demands, including a complete pause in fighting, the release of Hamas prisoners, and withdrawal of Israeli troops.

At the Abu Yussef Al-Najjar hospital in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, AFP saw corpses lined up in body bags while relatives grieved.
At the Abu Yussef Al-Najjar hospital in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, AFP saw corpses lined up in body bags while relatives grieved. © Mohammed Abed, AFP

Qatar-based Haniyeh said Hamas would “not agree to anything less”.

Al-Thani also said on Saturday that a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas “should not be conditioned” by an agreement on hostage release. “This is the dilemma that we’ve been in and unfortunately that’s been misused by a lot of countries, that in order to get a ceasefire, it’s conditional to have the hostage deal. It shouldn’t be conditioned.”

Biden has also urged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to launch an offensive in Rafah without a plan to keep civilians safe – but Netanyahu insisted he would push ahead with a “powerful” operation there to defeat Hamas.

During a televised news conference on Saturday, Netanyahu said critics calling for Israel not to mount military action in Rafah were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas. The Israeli premier also indicated that troops would go into the southern Gaza Strip city regardless of whether a hostage release was agreed. “Even if we achieve it, we will enter Rafah.” 

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in Rafah after taking refuge in a makeshift encampment by the Egyptian border, with dwindling supplies.

“We are dying slowly due to the scarcity of resources and the lack of medications and treatments,” said displaced Palestinian Mohammad Yaghi.

In northern Gaza, many are so desperate for food they are grinding up animal feed.

Israel has called for the head of UNRWA to step down after claims a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated headquarters.
Israel has called for the head of UNRWA to step down after claims a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated headquarters. © AFP

“We need food now,” said Mohammed Nassar, 50, from Jabalia in northern Gaza.

“We’re going to die from hunger, not by bombs or missiles.”

With the UN warning that Gazans are close to famine, the head of its agency for Palestinian refugees accused Israel of waging a campaign to “destroy” it entirely.

Israel has called for UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini to resign following claims a Hamas tunnel was discovered under its Gaza City headquarters.

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

Lazzarini told Swiss media Tamedia that the tunnel was 20 metres underground, and UNRWA didn’t have the capabilities to search below ground in Gaza. More than 150 UNRWA installations have been hit during the war, he said.

Regional tensions

Hamas’s armed wing has warned hostages in Gaza are also “struggling to stay alive” as conditions deteriorate due to relentless Israeli bombardments.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Egypt was building a walled camp near the border to accommodate Palestinians displaced from Gaza, citing Egyptian officials and security analysts.

Satellite images obtained by AFP show machinery building a wall along the highly secure frontier.

With the conflict now in its fifth month, regional tensions remain high.

Hamas ally Hezbollah and arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily border fire since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed that Israel would pay “with blood” for civilians it has killed in Lebanon.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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Israeli forces storm the main hospital in southern Gaza, saying hostages were likely held there

Israeli forces stormed the main hospital in southern Gaza on Thursday, hours after Israeli fire killed a patient and wounded six others inside the complex. The Israeli army said it was a limited operation seeking the remains of hostages taken by Hamas.

The raid came a day after the army sought to evacuate thousands of displaced people who had taken shelter at Nasser Hospital in the city of Khan Younis, the focus of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in recent weeks. The war shows no sign of ending, and the risk of a broader conflict is growing as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah step up attacks after a particularly deadly exchange on Wednesday.

The military said it had “credible intelligence” that Hamas had held hostages at the hospital and that the remains of hostages might still be inside. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesperson, said forces were conducting a “precise and limited” operation there and would not forcibly evacuate medics or patients. Israel accuses Hamas of using hospitals and other civilian structures to shield its fighters.

A released hostage told The Associated Press last month that she and over two dozen other captives had been held in Nasser Hospital. International law prohibits the targeting of medical facilities, but they can lose those protections if they are used for military purposes.

Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said Israel had launched a “massive incursion” with heavy shooting that wounded displaced people still sheltering there. He said the military had ordered medics to move all patients into an older building that was not properly equipped for their treatment.

“Many cannot evacuate, such as those with lower limb amputations, severe burns, or the elderly,” he said in an interview with the Al Jazeera network.

Separately, Israeli launched airstrikes in southern Lebanon for a second day after killing 10 civilians and three Hezbollah fighters on Wednesday in response to a rocket attack that killed an Israeli soldier and wounded several others.

It was the deadliest exchange of fire along the border since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Israel and Hezbollah — an ally of Hamas — have traded fire on a daily basis, raising the risks of a broader conflict.

Hezbollah has not claimed Wednesday’s rocket attack. But Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, a senior member of the group, said it is “prepared for the possibility of expanding the war” and would meet “escalation with escalation, displacement with displacement, and destruction with destruction.”

Negotiations over a cease-fire in Gaza meanwhile appear to have stalled, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until Hamas is destroyed and scores of hostages taken during the Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war are returned.

Nasser Hospital has been the latest focus of operations that have gutted Gaza’s health sector as it struggles to treat scores of patients wounded in daily bombardments.

Video of the aftermath of the strike overnight showed medics scrambling to wheel patients on stretchers through a corridor filled with smoke or dust. A medic used a cellphone flashlight to illuminate a darkened room where a wounded man screamed out in pain as gunfire echoed outside. The Associated Press could not authenticate the videos but they were consistent with its reporting.

Dr. Khaled Alserr, one of the remaining surgeons at Nasser Hospital, told the AP that the seven patients hit early Thursday were already being treated for past wounds.

“The situation is escalating every hour and every minute,” he said.

The military had ordered the evacuation of Nasser Hospital and surrounding areas last month. But as with other health facilities, medics said patients were unable to safely leave or be relocated, and thousands of people displaced by fighting elsewhere remained there.

“People have been forced into an impossible situation,” said Lisa Macheiner of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has staff in the hospital.

“Stay at Nasser Hospital against the Israeli military’s orders and become a potential target, or exit the compound into an apocalyptic landscape where bombings and evacuation orders are a part of daily life.”

The war began when Hamas militants burst through Israel’s formidable defenses on Oct. 7 and rampaged through several communities, killing some 1,200 people and taking another 250 hostage. More than 100 of the captives were freed during a cease-fire last year in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Around 130 captives remain in Gaza, a fourth of whom are believed to be dead. Netanyahu has come under intense pressure from families of the hostages and the wider public to make a deal to secure their freedom, but his far-right coalition partners could bring down his government if he is seen as being too soft on Hamas.

Israel responded to the Oct. 7 attack by launching one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history. Over 28,000 Palestinians have been killed, 80% of the population have fled their homes and a quarter are starving amid a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. Large areas in northern Gaza, the first target of the offensive, have been completely destroyed

Hamas has continued to attack Israeli forces in all parts of Gaza, and says it will not release all the remaining captives until Israel ends its offensive and withdraws. Hamas is also demanding the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

Netanyahu has rejected those demands, calling them “delusional.” He says Israel will soon expand its offensive into Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Over half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has sought refuge in Rafah after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the coastal enclave.

At least 28,663 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Over 68,000 people have been wounded in the war.

Airstrikes late Wednesday in central Gaza killed at least 11 people, including four children and five women, according to hospital records. Relatives gathered around bodies wrapped in white shrouds outside Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central town of Deir al-Balah before the remains were placed in a truck to be taken for burial.

One man struggled to let go, lying down and holding one of the bodies on the truck as he wept.

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The ‘Philadelphi Corridor’: A goal for Netanyahu, a red line for Egypt

A narrow buffer zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the “Philadelphia Corridor” has come under increasing scrutiny as Israel plans a full-scale military offensive on Rafah, Gaza’s crammed, southernmost city near the border. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to take control of the strategic sliver of land. That has Egypt worried amid fears of a breakdown of the decades-old Egypt-Israel peace accords.

Truce talks in Cairo this week have focused attention on the pressure Egypt is facing during the Israel-Hamas war and a little-known sliver of land rather inaccurately called “the Philadelphi Corridor”, sometimes translated as the Philadelphia Corridor.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to control this narrow buffer zone along the Egypt-Gaza border since the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched its war against Hamas following the October 7 attacks.

With Israel now threatening a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah – despite international warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in a city crammed with around 1.5 million forcibly displaced Gazans – Egypt is warily eyeing its northeastern border with Israel.

A day before the CIA and Mossad chiefs held talks in Cairo this week with regional negotiators desperate for a ceasefire, Netanyahu was rattling Egyptian nerves again.  

In an interview with US TV channel ABC News, Netanyahu said Israel would provide “safe passage for the civilian population to leave” Rafah, which he described as Hamas’s “last stronghold”.

The Israeli prime minister did not say exactly where the desperate, already displaced Gazans could take refuge. Netanyahu did however mention areas north of Rafah that could be used as safe zones for civilians.

The UN though is not convinced of Israel’s plans for Gaza’s civilians. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Tuesday that the UN “will not be party to the forced displacement of people” since “there is no place currently safe” in Gaza.

That increased the spotlight on the Philadelphi Corridor, a route that runs along Gaza’s southern frontier with Egypt, from the Mediterranean coast to the Kerem Shalom crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip meet.

The Philadephi Corridor © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Fearing a massive influx of refugees and its possible consequences, Egypt has deployed around 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers in northeastern Sinai over the past few weeks. This deployment is part of a series of measures aimed at reinforcing security on the border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters.

Through the corridors of power

Named “Philadelphi” after a randomly chosen Israeli military code name for what is also called the “Saladin Axis”, the strategic corridor is a 14 kilometre-long and 100 metre-wide buffer zone. It was set up in accordance with the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

The aim of the Philadelphi Corridor is to prevent armed incursions, control the movement of Palestinians in both directions, and prevent smuggling and arms trafficking between the Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Marked by barbed wire fences and concrete blocks, the Philadelphi Corridor was under Israeli control until the IDF’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The 2005 Philadelphi Accord between Egypt and Israel authorised Cairo to deploy a contingent of 750 Egyptian border guards along the Egyptian side of the buffer zone. These border guards were the first Egyptian soldiers to patrol the zone since the 1967 war, when the Gaza Strip was conquered by Israel along with the Sinai Peninsula, which was later returned to Egypt under the Camp David Accords.

The 2005 Egypt-Israel agreement very precisely defined the Egyptian military equipment deployment in this buffer zone: eight helicopters, 30 light armored vehicles and four coastal patrol ships.

Their mission was to guard the corridor on the Egyptian side – the only Gaza border outside the direct control of the Israeli army – to combat terrorism and prevent smuggling and infiltrations.

On the other side of the corridor, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces took over from the Israelis. But just two years later, the PA lost control of the corridor when it was pushed out of Gaza following the 2007 conflict between its Fatah and rival Hamas fighters.

In response, Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade, as well as an embargo on the Palestinian enclave now under Hamas control. These restrictions encouraged the development of a system of smuggling tunnels, passing under the no-man’s-land between Gaza and Egypt, enabling goods and people to cross the border, which was documented by Israel as early as 1983.

Since then, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah terminal, through which people, goods and humanitarian aid transit, has only been opened intermittently. Israel sees this zone as a vital supply area for Hamas.

 

A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet.
A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

In December 2007, Israel’s then foreign minister Tzipi Livni criticised Egypt for doing a “poor” job of stopping arms smuggling through the Philadelphi Corridor.

As far back as 2008-2009 Gaza war, also known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military plans called for the occupation of the Philadelphi Corridor in order to destroy the underground smuggling tunnels. This would have de facto encircled the Gaza Strip.

Following the 2013 military coup which ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo became hostile to Hamas, which it saw as a Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood.

The Egyptian army set about destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels dug under the border with the Gaza Strip. This was in retaliation against Hamas, which Cairo accused of destabilising the Sinai while the Egyptian military waged a counterterrorism operation against a branch of the Islamic State (IS) group. To destroy this underground system, Egypt deliberately flooded the border area in 2015.

The land that ‘must be in our hands’

After the October 7 attacks on Israeli soil, which was unprecedented in scale and human toll, attention in Israel once again turned to the Philadelphi Corridor, which was perceived more than ever as a strategic area for Hamas.

As the year ended – and the Gaza war headed to its third month – Netanyahu unambiguously stated Israel’s strategic intentions at a news conference on December 30.  

“The Philadelphi Corridor – or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of Gaza] – must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek,” he said.

Netanyahu has frequently repeated this threat, compelling Cairo to take the Israeli leader’s rhetoric very seriously.

The risk of desperate Gazans fleeing into Egypt due to the Israeli assault is of great concern to Egyptian authorities, according to Salah Gomaa, deputy editor of Egyptian state-owned radio station Al-Sharq Al Awsat.

Since the start of the latest Gaza war, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who acts as mediator between Hamas and the Israeli government, has opposed the idea of allowing Gazans fleeing the war and crowded together at the Egyptian border to enter his territory. In a November address, Sisi reiterated his country’s rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans to Egypt, calling it a “red line”.

“Any bombardment or attack at Rafah now will certainly lead the refugees to flee to Sinai,” said Gomaa. “If Egypt allows this to happen, it will mean that it accepts the liquidation of the Palestinian issue while hardline Israeli ministers openly advocate the resettlement of Gaza and the ‘transfer‘ of Gazans to neighbouring Egypt.”

A diplomatic crisis looms

In addition to a likely humanitarian catastrophe, Netanyahu also runs the risk of triggering an open diplomatic crisis with Egypt if he orders an Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi Corridor.

In mid-January, Israel informed Egypt of its intention to carry out a military operation along the Gaza side of the border, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing Israeli and Egyptian sources.

Days later, Diaa Rashwan, head of the Egypt’s official public relations office, the State Information Service (SIS), issued a stern warning that any “occupation” of the Philadelphi Corridor by Israeli forces would be a violation of the 1978 peace treaty between the two neighbouring nations.

“Many Israeli politicians have stated that the very purpose of taking control of the corridor is to enable the Palestinians, under the pressure of bombardment, to migrate towards Sinai, and this is the crux of the problem with the announcement of an imminent assault on Rafah,” explained Gomaa, “This is why the SIS chief issued a firm warning and this is why Egypt considers the reoccupation of this axis to be a red line.”

Egypt, an ally of the US, has used Washington to underscore the importance of its message, according to Gomaa. “Egypt has informed Israel through diplomatic channels and has informed Israel through the United States that this option will never be allowed by Egypt.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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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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Nazi death camp survivors mark anniversary of Auschwitz liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day

A group of survivors of Nazi death camps marked the 79th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during World War II in a modest ceremony Saturday in southern Poland.

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About 20 survivors from various camps set up by Nazi Germany around Europe laid wreaths and flowers and lit candles at the Death Wall in Auschwitz.

Later, the group will hold prayers at the monument in Birkenau. They were memorializing around 1.1 million camp victims, mostly Jews. The memorial site and museum are located near the city of Oswiecim. 

Nearly 6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust — the mass murder of Jews and other groups before and during World War II


Marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the survivors will be accompanied by Polish Senate Speaker Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, Culture Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Israeli Ambassador Yacov Livne. 

The theme of the observances is the human being, symbolized in simple, hand-drawn portraits. They are meant to stress that the horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau lies in the suffering of people held and killed there.

Holocaust victims were commemorated across Europe.

In Germany, where people put down flowers and lit candles at memorials for the victims of the Nazi terror, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that his country would continue to carry the responsibility for this “crime against humanity.”

He called on all citizens to defend Germany’s democracy and fight antisemitism, as the country marked the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

“Never again’ is every day,” Scholz said in his weekly video podcast. “Jan. 27 calls out to us: Stay visible! Stay audible! Against antisemitism, against racism, against misanthropy — and for our democracy.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose country is fighting to repel Russia’s full-scale invasion, posted an image of a Jewish menorah on X, formerly known as Twitter, to mark the remembrance day.

“Every new generation must learn the truth about the Holocaust. Human life must remain the highest value for all nations in the world,” said Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and has lost relatives in the Holocaust. 

“Eternal memory to all Holocaust victims!” Zelenskyy tweeted.


In Italy, Holocaust commemorations included a torchlit procession alongside official statements from top political leaders. 

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said that her conservative nationalist government was committed to eradicating antisemitism that she said had been “reinvigorated” amid the Israel-Hamas war. Meloni’s critics have long accused her and her Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, of failing to sufficiently atone for its past.

Later Saturday, leftist movements planned a torchlit procession to remember all victims of the Holocaust — Jews but also Roma, gays and political dissidents who were deported or exterminated in Nazi camps.

Police were also on alert after pro-Palestinian activists indicated that they would ignore a police order and go ahead with a rally planned to coincide with the Holocaust commemorations. Italy’s Jewish community has complained that such protests have become occasions for the memory of the Holocaust to be co-opted by anti-Israel forces and used against Jews.

In Poland, a memorial ceremony with prayers was held Friday in Warsaw at the foot of the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, who fell fighting the Nazis in 1943.

Earlier in the week, the countries of the former Yugoslavia signed an agreement in Paris to jointly renovate Block 17 in the red-brick Auschwitz camp and install a permanent exhibition there in memory of around 20,000 people who were deported from their territories and brought to the block. Participating in the project will be Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia

The gate with “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) written across it is pictured at the Auschwitz-Birkenau former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp during events marking the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oswiecim, Poland on January 27, 2024. © Bartosz Siedlik, AFP

Preserving the camp, a notorious symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust, with its cruelly misleading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One Free”) gate, requires constant effort by historians and experts, and substantial funds.

The Nazis, who occupied Poland from 1939-1945, at first used old Austrian military barracks at Auschwitz as a concentration and death camp for Poland’s resistance fighters. In 1942, the wooden barracks, gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau were added for the extermination of Europe’s Jews, Roma and other nationals, as well as Russian prisoners of war. 

Soviet Red Army troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945, with about 7,000 prisoners there, children and those who were too weak to walk. The Germans had evacuated tens of thousands of other inmates on foot days earlier in what is now called the Death March, because many inmates died of exhaustion and cold in the sub-freezing temperatures. 

Since 1979, the Auschwitz-Birkenau site has been on the UNESCO list of World Heritage.

(AP) 



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The black market price to get out of Gaza: $9,000

Many Palestinians have been desperately trying to leave the Gaza Strip and get to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing since October 7 and Israel’s subsequent military campaign, which has killed more than 25,000 people, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. However, it’s nearly impossible to get an authorisation to leave the enclave, especially if you don’t have another nationality and a foreign government working on your behalf.

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Many Gazans are resorting to paying exorbitant sums to intermediaries with connections to Egyptian authorities, according to testimonies gathered by our team, to try and leave Gaza. But as increasing light is shed on this practice, many fear that even this way of leaving the country will no longer be possible.

“You need to pay $9,000 (roughly €8,200) per person to get your name on a list of people authorised to leave Gaza,” a Gaza resident told our team via the messaging service WhatsApp. In light of this situation, hundreds of people have started online fundraisers in the hopes of raising enough money to pay a black market passage for their family members trapped in a war zone.

The average salary in Gaza is between $500 and $600 (equivalent to €460 to €550). 

So who are these people who can get you out, if you can raise that much money? Mysterious intermediaries who, our witnesses say, have been asking for higher and higher sums since the start of the war.

This well-oiled system is known locally as “al-tansikat al-misriya”, which translates roughly to “Egyptian coordination”.

‘If you talk about it, your name is added to a blacklist’

Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist who has been investigating the situation, says that it amounts to “corruption on a wide scale”.

 

It is the most vulnerable people who have to go through these intermediaries, these dealers in misery. Injured people, those with serious illnesses like cancer— people who are desperate to leave Gaza as soon as possible. 

These intermediaries are located in the places in the south of the Gaza Strip, where people have fled, especially in Khan Younis and Rafah. 

If you pay, then your name will appear on the lists published by the Rafah crossing relatively quickly.  

There are different government bodies involved in this practice— the Egyptian passport and immigration services, the army, the intelligence services and others. 

Everyone knows this is going on. At the same time, there is clearly an omerta going on [Editor’s note: a policy or code of keeping silent about crimes and refusing to cooperate with the police] because, if you talk about it, your name goes on a black list of people forbidden from leaving Gaza. 

Since the start of the war, about 6,000 Palestinians have been able to leave the Gaza Strip [Editor’s note: The FRANCE 24 Observers team has been unable to independently verify these numbers].

 

The Rafah border crossing regularly posts on its website lists of people authorised to leave the enclave. 

Most of them are Palestinians with dual nationality who have been repatriated thanks to the intervention of their respective countries or those with serious injuries who need emergency care. 

For people who only have Palestinian nationality, pretty much the only option to get out is to pay this network of intermediaries. Their names will then be published on the website of the Rafah border crossing. People in Gaza say usually those who have paid bribes are added to lists of Egyptian nationals who will be evacuated. 

This practice isn’t new. It began during the 2007 Gaza siege, according to a man from Gaza who spoke to our team from Europe, where he now lives.

 

I have a friend who left Gaza in 2017 because he had a scholarship to study abroad. Back then, if you wanted to leave the Gaza Strip, you’d have to make a request with the Palestinian ministry of the interior. But it might take a few months before you got a response. And, because he didn’t have a lot of time, he decided to go the black market route. 

Everything goes by word of mouth. My friend went to see an intermediary who had links with the Egyptian intelligence services. He took a photo of his passport and then sent it to his contacts. In a few weeks, his name was on the lists of people authorised to leave published by the Rafah border crossing. 

Back in 2017, this “authorisation” to leave the territory would have cost between $2,000 and 3,000 [Editor’s note: between €1,800 and €2,700].

By 2020, the practice was so widespread that there were even so-called tourist agencies offering this service. They were well established in Gaza and in Cairo, Egypt and offered to “facilitate” the journey for Palestinians who wanted to leave Gaza.        

However, since the start of the war, these agencies have closed.

In parallel, the price of these so-called “coordinations” has increased considerably, reaching $9,000 [roughly €8,000] per person.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted several people who had started online fundraising campaigns to try to raise the money for loved ones to leave Gaza by these illegal routes. However, no one wanted to speak to us. They said they were afraid that if there was media coverage about this practice then it would be suspended and their hopes of evacuating their loved ones would end.

‘There are also intermediaries in Europe’

Our team spoke to a man from Gaza who now lives in France. He is currently trying to get his mother out of Gaza. He said he wasn’t sure how to feel about this practice.

On one hand, you want to denounce this practice. But on the other hand, you are afraid that it might be stopped and, in the end, it’s us who would suffer. 

I personally paid an intermediary in France because, yes, there are intermediaries in Europe, too. You have to pay in cash so that there is no trace. 

I’m concerned because it seems like this type of evacuation of Palestinians has been suspended since the media like the Guardian started reporting on it. 

The Facebook page of the body that runs the border post in Rafah hasn’t published any lists of people who are authorised to leave since January 11. Before, they were posting lists almost daily.   

Our team reached out to the State Information Service, the official press office of the Egyptian government, in an attempt to find out more about these accusations. 

More than 25,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli bombs and military operations, most of them women, children and teenagers, according to the Hamas ministry of health. Hamas is the ruling party in Gaza.   



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Israel loses 24 soldiers in deadliest day of Gaza ground war

January 23, 2024 12:02 pm | Updated 10:13 pm IST – Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territories

Israel said on January 23 that 24 soldiers were killed in the biggest single-day losses since the start of its ground war in Gaza amid growing pressure on the government to find a way to end the conflict.

The heavy clashes came as a White House official was due in the region for talks aimed at securing more hostage releases, and as U.S. media reported a new Israeli proposal for a deal that would involve a two-month pause in fighting.

Also read: Why are conflicts spreading in West Asia? | Explained

Twenty-four soldiers were killed on Monday, with the army saying 21 of them were reservists slain when rocket-propelled grenade fire hit a tank and two buildings they were trying to blow up.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said an investigation was launched into the “disaster” and that Israel “must learn the necessary lessons”. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the “deaths of 24 of our fighters, our best sons… is a heavy blow”.

More than 200 people attended the funeral of one of the reservists, Hadar Kapeluk, whose coffin was draped with an Israeli flag, at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

An analyst said the mounting toll of soldiers killed — now 221 — since Israel launched its ground offensive in Gaza would heap pressure on the government.

“Everybody is mourning the soldiers this morning and I think people will demand clear answers about the purpose and the goal of this operation in Gaza,” said Israela Oron of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

On the ground, fighting raged in Khan Yunis, the biggest city in southern Gaza, which the army said it had “encircled”.

Also Read | Israel hammers Gaza’s south, hostage families urge Netanyahu to seek deal

Witnesses said powerful explosions rocked Khan Yunis, as well as Deir al-Balah in north Gaza and Rafah in the south.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said its staff at Khan Yunis’s Nasser Hospital felt the “ground shaking”.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli forces had hit its headquarters in Khan Yunis “resulting in injuries among internally displaced individuals who sought safety on our premises”.

‘Looming threat of famine’

U.N. agencies and aid groups have sounded the alarm about the growing threat of disease and famine in Gaza, where 1.7 million people are estimated to have been uprooted.

“The situation in Gaza is of course slipping every day into a much more catastrophic situation,” with “a looming threat of famine”, said Abeer Etefa, the World Food Programme’s senior spokeswoman for the Middle East.

Abu Iyad, his belongings piled on a donkey-drawn cart, said he was moving for the seventh time, fleeing Khan Yunis for Rafah on the Egyptian border, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought shelter, many in makeshift tents.

“I’m heading to the unknown,” he told AFP. “They told us to go to Rafah — where to go in Rafah? Is there any space left?”

The Gaza war broke out with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attacks, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

In response, Israel has carried out a relentless offensive that has killed at least 25,490 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Also Read | Palestinian death toll in Gaza surpasses 25,000 while the prolonged war divides Israelis

The Hamas attack also saw about 250 hostages seized, and Israel says around 132 remain in Gaza. That number includes the bodies of at least 28 dead hostages, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

A week-long truce in November saw 105 hostages released, the Israelis among them in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Relatives of those still held captive stormed a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday demanding urgent action.

“You sit here while our children are dying over there,” yelled Gilad Korngold, father of hostage Tal Shoham, an AFP correspondent reported.

Two-state solution

U.S. news outlet Axios reported on Monday night that Israel had proposed to Hamas, via Qatari and Egyptian mediators, a new deal to free all the hostages.

The report, citing unnamed Israeli officials, said the proposed deal would be carried out in multiple stages, and would also involve the release of an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners.

The plan was expected to take about two months to complete.

The proposal does not include promises to end the war, but it would involve Israeli troops reducing their presence in major cities in Gaza and gradually allowing residents to return to the territory’s devastated north, Axios said.

Also Read | No normalisation of Israel ties without Palestine state: Saudi

News of the proposal comes as U.S. media said the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, was expected in Egypt and Qatar for meetings aimed at securing a new hostage exchange deal.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel, however, said Washington still believed “a two-state solution, a creation of a Palestinian state, is the only path that gets us out of this endless cycle of violence”.

Netanyahu has steadfastly rejected calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, saying Israel must maintain “security control over all the territory west of the Jordan” River, an area that includes all of the Palestinian territories.

U.S., U.K. hit Yemen’s Huthis

EU Foreign Ministers pressed Israel to change its mind at meetings in Brussels on Monday with the top diplomats from the two warring parties and key Arab states.

“The two-state solution is the only solution, and even those who don’t want to know about it have not yet come up with any other alternative,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

At the gathering, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz ignored questions from journalists over a future two-state solution and said his country was focused on returning the hostages and ensuring its security.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who was also in attendance, said Israel’s rejection of “the two-state solution is dooming the future of the region to more conflicts”.

The Gaza war spurred fears of a wider escalation, with a surge in violence involving Iran-backed Hamas allies across the region.

Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah said Tuesday it struck the Israeli air control base of Meron for a second time in recent weeks, in response to Israeli “assassinations” and attacks on civilians.

The United States and Britain launched a new wave of air strikes against Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels on Tuesday over their attacks on Red Sea shipping.

In response, the Huthis warned that “these attacks will not go unanswered and unpunished”.

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