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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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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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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Discord over two-state solution opens rift between the US and Israel

US President Biden and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu held their first phone call in nearly a month on Friday following the Israeli PM’s rejection of a Washington-backed call for Palestinian sovereignty, with Biden and Netanyahu appearing to be at odds on the issue of a two-state solution to follow the war in Gaza. FRANCE 24 spoke to David Khalfa, co-director of the North Africa and Middle East Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, to shed more light on the situation. 

US President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the first time since December 23 on Friday, a day after the Israeli PM reiterated his opposition to the idea of Palestinian statehood and a post-war future for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank backed by the US.

Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel “must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan [River]”, saying he had made this clear to Israel’s “American friends”.

“This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty,” Netanyahu said in a televised news conference.

Seeking a more permanent solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that forms the backdrop of the current war between Israel and Hamas, the United States has pushed Israel for steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Read moreFrom 1947 to 2023: Retracing the complex, tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict

US authorities have called for a reformed Palestinian Authority, which currently governs semi-autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern Gaza after the war. The Gaza Strip is currently ruled by Hamas, which ousted the Fatah government of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.

Despite the Israeli premier’s open resistance, Biden said Friday after their phone call that Netanyahu might eventually agree to some form of Palestinian statehood, such as one without armed forces.

“The president still believes in the promise and the possibility of a two-state solution” for both Israelis and Palestinians, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing after the call, adding that Biden “made clear his strong conviction that a two-state solution is still the right path ahead. And we’re going to continue to make that case.”

The United States does have some leverage over its main Middle East ally, given that Israel has been the main beneficiary of US foreign aid since World War II, receiving more than $260 billion in military and economic aid. Whether Netanyahu – who said this week that “a prime minister in Israel should be able to say no, even to our best friends” – can be convinced remains to be seen, however.

FRANCE 24: Are we witnessing a turning point in US-Israel relations?

David Khalfa: The US-Israeli bilateral relationship is said to be “special” because it is based on shared values and strategic interests. However, relations between America and Israel have never been idyllic.

It is an ardent relationship between two friends and allies, but one that has known periods of tension. In fact, these tensions go back a long way: we could easily see this in the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter or, more recently, Barack Obama.

Even Donald Trump, described by Netanyahu as “Israel’s best friend”, did not hesitate last October to call Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a “jerk” or to criticise the Israeli prime minister in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 massacres.

The establishment of a Palestinian state is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, and even by some of the Israeli ruling class. Can Netanyahu continue to resist it?

In the short term, yes. Binyamin Netanyahu will do absolutely anything to stay in power, and his strategy is very clearly to wage war for as long as possible because he knows he is unpopular and facing multiple charges (for corruption, bribery and fraud). He is therefore trying to buy time, hoping to win back public support by assuming the role of warlord.

Netanyahu is a shrewd and calculating politician, but he is weakened by his Faustian alliance with the far right, which opposes any prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Moreover, he is old and on borrowed time, and will sooner or later have to step down. Beyond the national unity discourse fostered by the war and the trauma of October 7, the Israeli population has largely withdrawn its support for him. Polls show his popularity plummeting, even among moderate right-wing voters.

But the Gulf states’ offers to normalise relations with Israel in return for substantial progress towards the establishment of a Palestinian state will outlast Binyamin Netanyahu (Saudi Arabia on Tuesday said it would recognise Israel if a Palestinian state is established). This is even more so as the leaders of the petrostates are young and will probably remain in charge for decades to come.

Finally, it should be noted that the Israeli political configuration will change profoundly after Netanyahu’s departure. The centre, embodied by Benny Gantz (a centre-left MP who has repeatedly challenged Netanyahu for the premiership), is likely to take over with the right and far right serving in the opposition.

By refusing Biden’s proposals, is Netanyahu betting on Trump winning the 2024 election?

Absolutely, but it’s a risky bet. After all, relations between Binyamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, whose temperament is extremely volatile, are now very cool. The former US president feels that Netanyahu betrayed him by recognising Biden’s electoral victory in November 2020.

Next, let’s remember that the $14.5 billion in additional emergency aid promised to Israel by Joe Biden has still not been endorsed by the Senate because the Republicans are opposed to it for purely political reasons, which have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but everything to do with the polarisation of US politics.

Any Democratic proposal is a pretext for systematic Republican obstruction, even if it means putting their immediate political interest ahead of the US strategic alliance with Israel. Conversely, if Trump comes to power, the Democrats are likely to adopt an identical strategy of systematic obstruction.

Could Washington’s $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel be at stake?

There is a pro-Israel tradition that goes beyond the White House to the Pentagon, where most US strategists believe that the alliance with Israel is, first and foremost, in the US interest.

But even if US aid is not called into question, the conditions under which it is granted are likely to become more complicated, as we are witnessing a politicisation of American military support for the Hebrew state, an issue which up until now had avoided any real debate in the United States.

The Republicans are turning towards isolationism and the Democrats towards progressivism: in the medium term, changes in the US political game will lead Israel to make more concessions if it intends to maintain a high level of US diplomatic and military support.

Israelis are more dependent than ever on military aid due to their recent focus on high-tech weapons, while urban fighting in Gaza demands artillery munitions of all kinds – including “low-tech” ones such as tank shells – which are not made in Israel.

This gives the United States leverage over Israel’s conduct of the war. The setting up of humanitarian corridors in Gaza, the increase in humanitarian aid and the scaling back of Israel’s offensive on the Palestinian enclave were all achieved under pressure from the US administration – contrary to what Netanyahu would have his people believe.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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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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‘Freedom is paid for in blood’: In the occupied West Bank, families long to bury their dead

An Israeli strike killed six Palestinians in the occupied West Bank on Sunday, four of whom were brothers. The attack took place in the city of Jenin and left a total of seven dead, including an Israeli police officer. As the family of the brothers buried their “martyrs”, others are still waiting for the remains of relatives held by the Israeli army to be returned. 

She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t speak. Ibtesam Darwish simply looks stunned. “I wasn’t just their mother, I was their friend,” she says. “We were so close.”

Sitting in her neighbour’s courtyard in Qabatiya, a city in the northern occupied West Bank, she waits for the remains of her sons. 

Twenty-two-year-old Rami, 24-year-old Ahamed, 27-year-old Hazaa and 29-year-old Alaa were killed along with two others in an Israeli airstrike near the entrance to Jenin at 6am on Sunday in an area called Martyr’s Triangle. A seventh person died of their wounds later that day.   

Ibtesam Darwish (pink hijab) awaits the remains of her four sons in Qabatia on January 7, 2024. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

The Israeli military said the strike targeted “Palestinian gunmen” who had lobbed explosives at troops, according to The Times of Israel. But eyewitnesses at the scene said the young people who gathered were unarmed and were trying to keep warm by a fire when the strike took place. They added that the attack happened as Israeli forces were withdrawing after a night of violent clashes with the Jenin Brigade, an armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, and that a soldier had been killed.  

Finding out on social media

Ibtesam knew her boys weren’t at home. They wanted to watch the Israeli military raid on the Jenin refugee camp. 

“Early in the morning, I saw that there had been a drone attack and that four members of the same family had been killed,” she says softly. “I called them immediately but nobody picked up. I left them a voice message asking them to call me back straight away,” she continues.

“It was on social media that I found out they had been killed.”  

The first thing she did was to go to the local hospital. In a video posted on X, she is seen walking into a ward asking: “Have they all gone? Is there anyone left?” With the support of one of her other children, she lifts an emergency blanket and finds horror. One of her sons lies lifeless, his body mangled from the explosion. Ibtesam lets out a muffled scream.  

A few hours later, it’s time to say goodbye. The crowd in the Qabatiya courtyard begins to swell. Dozens of women wait in silence as the men congregate outside. The sound of cars arriving, halting, then driving off is incessant. Residents of Jenin and Qabatiya come in waves to attend the funeral or to give their condolences to Ibtesam. The boys’ father, who works in Jordan, is not present. In Islam, funerals are typically conducted within 24 hours of the deceased’s passing. If the death took place in the morning, the funeral must be held before sunset. If it took place at night, the funeral happens the following morning.  

As the sun burns warmer, the atmosphere becomes suffocating. Only the clicking of cameras can be heard. Ibtesam, the mother of seven boys and two girls, explains how death is a part of everyday life in the occupied West Bank.

“That’s life for us Palestinians. We go out in the morning without knowing if we’ll be back in the evening,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone. “I have three sons left. If they kill them, we’ll make more. We will continue to resist.”  

Suddenly, the silence is broken by gunshots. The funeral procession draws nearer. Men’s voices are heard shouting the Takbir – “Allahu akbar!” (“God is greatest” in Arabic) – followed by a “la ilaha illa Allah!” (“There is no God truly worthy of worship except Allah”). More shots are fired, this time in rapid succession, almost deafening. 

The bodies of Hazaa, Rami, Ahamed and Alaa are all wrapped in the green flag of Hamas. A Palestinian keffiyeh covers their heads. Then, one by one, they are laid on the ground. A dense crowd surrounds the four “martyrs”, a widely used term to describe Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers, whether they were militants or not.  

More shots are fired, over and over again, to commemorate the dead. Men dressed in black, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, hold M-16s and other assault rifles. Among the crowds are militants from various brigades of the Jenin refugee camp. A sea of flags is waving, some clenched in the hands of young children. White for the Jenin Brigade, green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah – the party that heads the Palestinian Authority – and the red, black, green and white of the Palestinian flag.  

Time seems to stand still. As prayers and gunshots continue to fill the air, the four bodies are lifted up and carried by the men in the crowd. Ibtesam groans in pain, watching the procession walk away with her sons. She will not be going to the cemetery. According to Muslim tradition, women do not attend the burial of the deceased. The women who had come to support her flock towards her and weep. But Ibtesam does not. She was able to say goodbye to her children.  

Withholding remains, a form of ‘collective punishment’

Jamal Zubeidi was not. His son Mohammed, or “Hammoudi” as he called him, is yet to be buried. He was killed on November 29 by Israeli forces during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp. Considered a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative by Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet, the remains of the 27-year-old were taken away by soldiers. 

Shin Bet claims that Mohammed Zubeidi was involved in the planning of a terrorist attack that killed one person close to the Hermesh settlement in May last year, as well as another in June that killed one civilian and wounded four soldiers.   

Jamal Zubeidi holds the portrait of his son Mohammed, killed by the Israeli army in the Jenin refugee camp on November 29, 2023.
Jamal Zubeidi holds the portrait of his son Mohammed, killed by the Israeli army in the Jenin refugee camp on November 29, 2023. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Israel has a long history of withholding the remains of Palestinians suspected of or having committed terrorist attacks. “The bodies of terrorists are detained in accordance with orders given by political authorities,” explains an army spokesperson contacted by FRANCE 24.  

“Twenty years ago, it was kind of an undeclared policy. But now it’s official,” says Jessica Montell, director of the Israeli human rights organisation HaMoked. “We represent several families who are waiting.”  

The practice was authorised by Israel’s Supreme Court in 2019 and is also used by Hamas or Hezbollah in Lebanon for the remains of Israeli soldiers.

“It’s a bargaining chip for future negotiations,” says Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied territories. “There were periods when the policy was used and others when it wasn’t. The number of bodies concerned is also very vague.”  

Between 1991 and 2008, Israel agreed to hand over 405 bodies in return for the bodies of deceased soldiers, according to data collected by B’Tselem. The National Campaign for Retrieval of the Bodies of Martyrs launched by the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC) estimates that the remains of 450 bodies are being kept in Israeli cemeteries and mortuaries, 47 of which were killed since October 7. According to JLAC, 2023 was a record year with 101 bodies detained, only 22 of which were returned. The Gaza Strip is not included in these figures due to lack of access.  

For both B’Tselem and HaMoked, withholding Palestinian remains is a form of “collective punishment”. Zubeidi feels the same. “It’s a punishment to make us suffer even more,” he says from the Jenin refugee camp still marked by the scars of the nighttime raid. “They think it will deter the militants.”  

A stretcher used to transport the remains, which are then buried in a shroud without a coffin, at the Jenin cemetery on January 7, 2024.
A stretcher used to transport the remains, which are then buried in a shroud without a coffin, at the Jenin cemetery on January 7, 2024. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Hopes of a swap

Denying families the right to bury their loved ones is a source of undeniable anguish. Whether Palestinian or Israeli, religious or secular, funeral rites allow people to mourn. But without a body, that becomes impossible.  

“His grave has been dug. It’s waiting for him,” says the father of nine. Two of his sons have been killed by Israeli forces and another is currently in administrative detention. “I want to bury him, and visit him, but I have no body. I have no proof. How do you expect me to accept that he’s dead? I hope he isn’t. We need to see him to believe it.”  

Graves dug in Jenin's new cemetery on January 7, 2024.
Graves dug in Jenin’s new cemetery on January 7, 2024. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Zubeidi hopes he will be able to retrieve Mohammed’s remains thanks to a potential exchange between Hamas and the Israeli government. Negotiations to free hostages held in the Gaza Strip since October 7 could see Palestinian detainees released and remains returned on both sides.

Hints of sadness and fatigue cover the 60-year-old’s face. Zubeidi himself has also spent time in Israeli prisons.

“We’re like all families, we’re scared for our children all the time,” he laments. “We’re sad because he’s dead, but we’re proud that he died a martyr. Freedom is paid for in blood.”  

This article is a translated version of the original in French

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MeToo, for Israeli victims too: Gaza war drives wedge between French feminists

French feminist groups have come under fire for purportedly turning a blind eye to the sexual violence unleashed on Israeli women during the October 7 attacks by Hamas, echoing the anger levelled at rights organisations elsewhere. The accusation is indicative of the competing narratives and loyalties elicited by the devastating conflict. It also reflects a failure to rapidly investigate and establish the specific, gender-based nature of some of the atrocities committed. 

Efforts to place the focus on the violence inflicted on Israeli women and girls triggered an incident in Paris last week at the annual November 25 march to condemn violence against women, which organisers said brought some 80,000 demonstrators to the streets of the French capital. 

A group of around 200 protesters, some carrying Israeli flags, claimed they were confronted by pro-Palestinian activists and effectively barred from joining the march. The protesters wore clothes stained with fake blood, a reference to the searing images of bloodied female victims of the October 7 massacres, filmed and posted online by the perpetrators of the attacks, in which an estimated 1,200 people were killed, most of them civilians.  

The protesters had planned to “carry the voice of the Israeli victims of Hamas and denounce the deafening silence of feminist groups”, French daily Libération cited the activists as saying. They brandished placards reading “MeToo, unless you are a Jew” and “Feminists, your silence makes you complicit”. 

Tens of thousands of people marched in Paris on November 25 to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. © Geoffroy Van der Hasselt, AFP

Reports of the incident spread widely on social media, feeding into wider condemnation of an alleged bias among advocates of women’s rights. “The ‘Nous Toutes’ (We All – France’s equivalent of MeToo) that has been proclaimed for years is a becoming a ‘Nous Toutes unless you’re Jewish,” wrote prominent journalist Rebecca Amsellem in an Instagram post, a day after the Paris march. Writing on X, author Sophie Gourion lamented the “double standards” she claimed many fellow feminists were guilty of.  

Government ministers and senior politicians also stepped into the fray. “One doesn’t choose which violence (to condemn) based on nationality or the type conflict,” said Gender Equality Minister Bérangère Couillard, warning that state subsidies for advocacy groups were conditional on the respect of “such universal values”. Senator Laurence Rossignol, a former minister for women’s rights, spoke of a “split among feminists, unlike any seen before”. 

Organisers of the Paris march hit back in a joint statement on Tuesday, stressing their “unambiguous condemnation of the sexual and sexist crimes, rapes and femicides committed by Hamas” on October 7. They also blasted an attempt to “instrumentalise” the fight against gender-based violence and accused far-right activists of stoking tensions at the march and seeking to discredit its organisers.  

Sexual violence overlooked 

The criticism voiced in France echoes complaints targeting rights groups and international organisations in other Western countries and in Israel. United Nations agencies such as UN Women have faced particular scrutiny over their alleged failure to condemn the specific violence inflicted on women on October 7. 

Ahead of the UN’s international day for the elimination of violence against women, Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog published an opinion piece in Newsweek expressing outrage and betrayal over the international community’s failure to condemn the gender-based sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas. 

“A Hamas video from a kibbutz shows terrorists torturing a pregnant woman and removing her foetus. Our forensic scientists have found bodies of women and girls raped with such violence that their pelvic bones were broken,” wrote Herzog. 

On Wednesday, a UN commission of inquiry investigating war crimes on both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict said it would focus on gathering evidence of sexual violence in the October 7 attacks. Navi Pillay, the commission’s chair, told reporters she would pass the evidence onto the International Criminal Court and call for it to consider prosecutions, amid criticism from Israel and families of Israeli hostages that the UN had kept quiet. 

Critics contend that the gruesome footage taken and posted on social media by Hamas militants, as well as CCTV images and the accounts of first responders, provide ample evidence of the horrific crimes committed by the Islamist group and other factions that took part in the massacres in Israeli communities and at the Supernova rave that was taking place close to the Gaza Strip. 

Many war crimes experts, however, stress that the harrowing images must first be corroborated by material and other evidence – a painstakingly slow task further hindered by the unprecedented nature of an attack that caught Israel completely off guard.

Céline Bardet, a war crimes expert and funder of the NGO We Are not Weapons of War, said the acrimony and mistrust surrounding the subject highlighted the need for an independent and thorough investigation into the crimes committed on October 7. The criticism levelled at feminist groups and UN bodies “is a little unfair”, she added, noting that the authorities had been slow to establish the specific gender-based nature of some of the most horrific violence.

“We know that, due in part to the ongoing fighting, the investigation of sexual violence was not made a priority in the days and weeks following the attack. That means a lot of the work still needs to be done, but it’s much more difficult now,” she told FRANCE 24, warning that much of the evidence is likely to have been compromised.  

“Israeli police have never faced such a challenge before,” she added. “We are ready to help them if they seek our expertise.”  

Women’s rights groups in Israel have warned of significant failings in preserving forensic evidence that could have shone a light on the scale of sexual violence committed against women and girls in last month’s Hamas attacks. 

Tal Hochman, a government relations officer at the Israel Women’s Network, told the Guardian: “Most of the women who were raped were then killed, and we will never understand the full picture, because either bodies were burned too badly or the victims were buried and the forensic evidence buried too. No samples were taken.” 

While grisly footage of the carnage soon spread on social media in the wake of the attacks, detailed reports of sexual violence were much slower to emerge.  

On October 24, Israel published a first video of a soldier citing evidence that women had been raped, followed by more such accounts over subsequent days. On November 8, local media reported the first testimony of a survivor who described the gang-rape, murder and mutilation of a woman at the Supernova rave. A week later, on November 14, police announced they had opened an investigation into “multiple cases” of sexual violence committed on October 7, citing video evidence, DNA samples and witness accounts. 

Israeli authorities have been playing catch-up, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote the next day, highlighting the role of civil society groups in pushing for the investigation and recognition of the gender-based violence that had been overlooked not just by international organisations – but the Israeli government too. 

“Whether it was an effort to protect the (…) victims and their families, an inability to handle the ugly details or simply one of the many systemic failures of Israel’s leaders in the initial days after the October 7 attack, the full extent of the sexual atrocities committed were not detailed or documented enough to make national or international headlines,” she wrote. “And so an opportunity was lost: the chance to gain a greater degree of recognition and sympathy from international rights organisations as to the depth of the brutality and viciousness of the Hamas attack.” 

‘Pitting one side’s sorrows against the other’s’ 

In recent weeks, the Israeli government has stepped up its efforts to obtain greater recognition and support for the victims of sexual violence. 

On November 5, the Israeli state issued an appeal on its official X account “calling all feminists” to “support all of the Israeli women who were raped, tortured, murdered and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists” – and drawing a parallel with the international support for Iran’s Mahsa Amini. The following week, Israel’s foreign ministry launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #BelieveIsraeliWomen. 

Speaking on FRANCE 24, French writer Sarah Barukh said many feminist groups had failed to “abide by their core principle: to tell Israeli women, ‘we believe you’.” 

Claims of a lack of evidence smacked of “hypocrisy”, she argued, adding: “It’s somewhat strange to argue that more proof is needed, when it was all filmed live and published on the Internet by Hamas.” 

Barukh said the silence on the subject betrayed a bias on the subject. She described the habit of “systematically comparing the suffering of Israelis with that of the Palestinians” as a way to “minimise” the former.  

Weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip and the forced displacement of its population have shifted much of the media focus on to the plight of women and girls trapped in the enclave and the spiralling civilian death. Health officials in the Hamas-ruled territory say women and children account for two thirds of the more than 15,000 people killed.

Journalist Olivia Cattan, the founder of the advocacy group “Paroles de Femmes” (Women’s Voices), argued that many feminist campaigners’ views on the decades-long conflict roiling the Middle East had clouded their judgement and blinded them to the atrocities committed against Israeli women. 

She wrote in a blog post on the Mediapart news site: “I am not asking for your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I am simply asking that you pass judgement on this massacre of women and children. Full stop.” 

Such remarks mirror the divisions that have also roiled left-wing movements in France and abroad, with critics arguing that sympathy for the Palestinians – widely identified as the oppressed party in the conflict – has at times prevented forceful condemnations of the October 7 attacks. 

In a column on MSNBC, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of gender at The New School in New York City, suggested the “minimisation” of violence against Israeli women was “the result of an ideological turn among some feminists and progressives that elevates an ‘antiracist’ agenda above the core feminist commitment to defend the universal right to bodily autonomy for all women”. 

She added: “This argument contends that because Israel is a colonial power oppressing the Palestinians, any resistance is a justified dimension of decolonisation.” 

Others have voiced the opposite argument, bemoaning a lack of empathy for Palestinian women driven from their homes, scrambling for shelter from the bombs, giving birth with no anaesthetics, no painkillers, no electricity. 

Read moreMalnourished, sick and scared: Pregnant women in Gaza face ‘unthinkable challenges’

In an op-ed published by Mediapart on the eve of the eve of the November 25 march, Nobel literature laureate Annie Ernaux joined several activists and academics in condemning the “dehumanising and gender-based violence” perpetrated on October 7 – while also denouncing “the double standards applied to an occupied people – the Palestinian people – and an occupying state, a double standard that also applies to feminism: as if the lives and sufferings of Palestinian women had no value, no density, no complexity”. 

Hanna Assouline, of the women’s group Guerrières de la Paix (Warriors for Peace), bemoaned a widespread tendency to take sides in the conflict and amplify divisions, instead of calling for unity and peace. 

“We’re witnessing a sad spectacle of selective empathy and pitting one side’s sorrows and deaths against the other’s,” said Assouline, whose advocacy group has helped organise silent gatherings for peace, with neither flags nor slogans.  

“It’s as if we were incapable of displaying a united front of humanity facing all this horror,” she told FRANCE 24. “The only way forward is to step out of our respective solitudes and mourn together, mobilise together, and voice our common indignation.”

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Israel-Hamas war: Bombing of Gaza intensifies as death toll grows

The latest developments from the Israel-Hamas war.

Further truces are unlikely to go ahead – reports


In the clearest sign yet that a return to negotiations for further truces is unlikely, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed negotiators to return to Israel from Qatar.

They had been continuing discussions in Qatar on a new truce with Hamas but were called back to Israel because the dialogue was “at an impasse”, according to Netanyahu’s office. 

Kamala Harris speaks out on ongoing conflict

US Vice President Kamala Harris, in Dubai for the COP28 climate conference, has said in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that “under no circumstances” would the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, the besiegement of Gaza or redrawing of its borders.

Harris was expected to outline proposals with regional leaders to “put Palestinian voices at the centre” of planning the next steps for Gaza after the conflict, according to the White House. President Joe Biden’s administration has emphasised the need for an eventual two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting.

Israelis call for Benjamin Netanyahu to resign

Thousands of Israeli protesters in Caesarea are protesting outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for him to step down.

Over the past few weeks, demonstrators have been gathering in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Caesarea to protest what they believe is Netanyahu’s mishandling of the case of hostages being held in Gaza.

On Saturday, at the same time the demonstration was going on outside Netanyahu’s house in Caesarea, another was taking place in Tel Aviv, also demanding that the Israeli prime minister resign his post.

Gaza says fatalities surpass 15,200 – 70% of them women and children

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza has announced the death toll has surpassed 15,200 and that 70% of those killed were women and children.

The figure was announced on Saturday by ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra, who did not provide further details.

The previous toll given by the ministry was more than 13,300 dead. Al-Qidra did not explain the sharp jump. However, the ministry had only been able to provide sporadic updates since 11 November amid problems with connectivity and major war-related disruptions in hospital operations. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

More than 40,000 people have been wounded, al-Qidra said.

Aid trucks enter Rafah crossing for first time since truce ended

A fresh batch of aid trucks has entered through the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing for the first time since the seven-day truce in Gaza ended, the Palestinian Red Crescent has announced.

“The Palestine Red Crescent crews have now received aid trucks through the Rafah crossing from our partners in the Egypt Red Crescent,” PRCS posted on X – formerly Twitter.

No aid trucks were able to enter the Gaza Strip on Friday as Israel immediately renewed its attacks on the besieged enclave following the conclusion of the truce.

Israel resumes heavy bombing post-truce

Israel has been pounding targets in the southern Gaza Strip, intensifying a renewed offensive that followed a weeklong truce with Hamas and giving rise to renewed concerns about civilian casualties.

At least 400 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting resumed on Friday morning, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, even as the United States urged ally Israel to do everything possible to protect civilians.


“This is going to be very important going forward,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday after meetings with Arab foreign ministers in Dubai, wrapping up his third Middle East tour since the war started. “It’s something we’re going to be looking at very closely.”

Many of Israel’s attacks on Saturday were focused on the Khan Younis area in southern Gaza, where the military said it had struck more than 50 Hamas targets with airstrikes, tank fire and its navy.

Leaflet drops resume – but nowhere for Gazans to go

The IDF dropped leaflets on Friday warning residents to leave but, as of late on Friday, there had been no reports of large numbers of people leaving, according to the United Nations.

“There is no place to go,” lamented Emad Hajar, who fled with his wife and three children from the northern town of Beit Lahia a month ago to seek refuge in Khan Younis.

“They expelled us from the north, and now they are pushing us to leave the south.”


Israel’s military said it also carried out strikes in the north, and hit more than 400 targets in all across the Gaza Strip.

Some 2 million people – almost Gaza’s entire population – are currently crammed into the territory’s south, where Israel urged people to relocate at the war’s start.

Unable to go into north Gaza or neighbouring Egypt, their only escape is to move around within the 220-square-kilometre area.

UN criticises IDF’s evacuation ‘plan’

In response to US calls to protect civilians, the Israeli military released an online map, but it has done more to confuse than to help.

It divides the Gaza Strip into hundreds of numbered, haphazardly drawn parcels, sometimes across roads or blocks, and asks residents to learn the number of their location in case of an eventual evacuation.


“The publication does not specify where people should evacuate to,” the UN office for coordinating humanitarian issues in the Palestinian territory noted in its daily report. “It is unclear how those residing in Gaza would access the map without electricity and amid recurrent telecommunications cuts.”

Egypt has expressed concerns the renewed offensive could cause Palestinians to try to cross into its territory. In a statement late on Friday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the forced transfer of Palestinians “is a red line.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in Dubai on Saturday for the COP28 climate conference, was expected to outline proposals with regional leaders to “put Palestinian voices at the centre” of planning the next steps for the Gaza Strip after the conflict, according to the White House. US President Joe Biden’s administration has been emphasising the need for an eventual two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting.

What will become of the remaining hostages?

The renewed hostilities have also heightened concerns for 136 hostages who, according to the Israeli military, are still held captive by Hamas and other militants after 105 were freed during the truce. For families of remaining hostages, the truce’s collapse was a blow to hopes their loved ones could be the next out after days of seeing others freed.

The Israeli army said on Friday it had confirmed the deaths of four more hostages, bringing the total of known dead to seven.


During the truce, Israel freed 240 Palestinians from its prisons. Most of those released from both sides were women and children.

A halt on humanitarian aid

Hundreds of thousands of people fled northern Gaza to Khan Younis and other parts of the south earlier in the war, part of an extraordinary mass exodus that has left three-quarters of the population displaced and facing widespread shortages of food, water and other supplies.

Since the resumption of hostilities, no aid convoys or fuel deliveries have entered Gaza, and humanitarian operations within Gaza have largely halted, according to the UN

The International Rescue Committee, an aid group operating in Gaza, warned the return of fighting will “wipe out even the minimal relief” provided by the truce and “prove catastrophic for Palestinian civilians.”

Up until the truce began, more than 13,300 Palestinians were killed in Israel’s assault, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.


The toll is likely much higher, as officials have only sporadically updated the count since 11 November.

The ministry says thousands more people are feared dead under the rubble.

Israel says it is targeting Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighbourhoods. Israel says 77 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive in northern Gaza. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.

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Israel-Hamas war: Israeli relatives of hostages face agonising limbo

Nearly two months into the conflict, many Israelis have no idea if their relatives taken as hostages or lost in the chaos of 7 October are dead or alive.


On 7 October, when Hamas militants rampaged through a music festival in southern Israel, Hanan Yablonka and four friends tried to flee the carnage.

The friends were killed – but what became of Yablonka is still a mystery.

The 42-year-old Israeli’s phone was found in the bullet-riddled car he and his companions used in their escape attempt – but there has been no sign of him since. No social media updates or replies to messages.

Like so many Israeli families, Yablonka’s family still has no news about what happened to him. He is one of dozens of people still unaccounted for in the aftermath of Hamas infiltrating Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages – a number who have since been released – both at the Tribe of Nova Trance music festival and beyond.

Some of the bodies of those who died were so badly burned in fires or explosions during the attacks that there’s little left to identify. Others who might still be alive haven’t been traced, forcing families to live in a seemingly never ending limbo.

“It’s a big nightmare,” Yablonka’s niece, Emanuel Abady, told The Associated Press.

“Is he alive, is he dead, or where is the body? Maybe he’s in Gaza… Maybe he got hurt, maybe he got shot, but he’s in Gaza.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, police, the military and investigators grappled with a mass casualty crime scene, trying desperately to identify the dead and the abducted.

Getting clear answers for people’s whereabouts and the number of dead was, and still remains, challenging.

In November, the military adjusted the number of people killed from more than 1,400 down to approximately 1,200 – but didn’t specify why.

It has also repeatedly updated the number of hostages believed to have been taken into Gaza.

Israeli officials told The Associated Press that dozens of people’s fates were still unknown, but wouldn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about why it’s taken so long to identify them and why the number of dead was adjusted.

The military – also known as the IDF – has announced it enlisted the help of archaeologists to apply excavation techniques used in burned and damaged ancient sites to help identify victims. The experts have so far helped to identify at least 10 people.

Some people initially thought to have been taken hostage have, sadly, been proclaimed dead.

That group includes Vivian Silver, a Canadian-born Israeli peace activist whose family has only recently been notified that she’d been killed.

On the other side of the coin, though, others thought to have been killed were found to have been abducted.

Nine-year-old Emily Tony Korenberg Hand was one of that number, released last Saturday.

The bodies of victims alongside other human remains have been taken to the Shura military base in central Israel, now converted into a morgue for the identification of victims.


At the start, it was easier to identify bodies that were more intact, forensic specialists explained. Now, the final stretch has become painstaking with the need to sift through charred bones which makes it significantly harder to extract and match DNA.

Other means of identification, such as fingerprints or dental records, often cannot be used.

“It is a long process, sometimes we don’t have the right bone or the right sample in order to give the answer… When you have difficult samples it takes time,” Gila Kahila Bar-Gal explains.

She’s an expert in wildlife forensic and ancient DNA research who has been volunteering at the National Institute of Forensic Medicine to help identify victims. It can take up to twice as long to identify burned bones, she says.

It’s also been challenging to determine how many people were abducted in the chaos that ensued when Hamas entered Israel from Gaza.


“Many people ended up storming through the barrier that day: civilians, militants and Hamas, and it’s still pretty unclear the scale of who was taken and who’s holding everyone,” Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel for the International Crisis Group tells the AP.

Yablonka’s niece believes her uncle is still alive and was likely abducted. Through video, text messages and phone calls the family has been able to piece together the last few hours before he disappeared.

Yablonka was among the thousands who attended the Nova music festival near the border with Gaza. A father of two, he loved music, Abady says.

His family were not aware, though, that he’d gone to the festival – and it was only when they hadn’t heard from him late on 7 October that they started to worry, making calls, combing through social media and contacting the police.

When the sirens warning of Hamas rockets went off that morning, surveillance video received by the family and seen by the AP shows a man the family says is Yablonka in a packed festival car park, at one point crouching behind a car.


Just before 7 a.m. local time, one of his friends called Israel’s emergency service from the car, saying someone had been shot. Text messages sent by two women with the group to their families said Yablonka was driving and they were trying to escape.

Another video shown to the family revealed the damaged car with its back window blown out and shattered glass, a backpack and clothes strewn on the seat.

The car was found near Mefalsim Kibbutz, a few kilometres from the festival site, with the bodies of Yablonka’s three friends nearby, Abady says.

Despite all of those signs, there was no trace of Yablonka, including any blood splatter. His keys, phone and identification documents were inside the car but no more evidence which might help his family locate him.

They have provided DNA samples, along with his dental records and medical information in hopes he will be found and identified.


The stress and anxiety of not knowing what happened to a loved one takes a huge psychological and emotional toll, says Sarah Davies, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“They are living with a gaping hole in their lives. Countless scenarios run through the mind of family members… imagining the worst and being unable to do anything about it,” she explains.

For some families, it’s simply too painful to wait for answers.

In early November, the family of 12-year-old Liel Hetzroni put some of her clothes, personal belongings and ashes from where they thought she’d died, inside a coffin and buried it alongside her twin brother and aunt.

The three were trapped in a house with dozens of others in Kibbutz Be’eri during an hours-long standoff between Hamas and Israeli soldiers that ended in an explosion, killing nearly everyone inside.


While the remains of Liel’s brother and aunt were quickly identified, there was no trace of Liel for weeks, Sagi Shifroni, Liel’s cousin, explains.

“The waiting (wasn’t) healthy for the soul or for our family,” Shifroni says. Shortly after they buried the coffin, the army informed them that one of her bones had been found.

“It feels good to get approval for what we knew already,” he says, “It’s closure.”

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Israel-Hamas war: Ceasefire continues, more hostages to be exchanged

The latest developments from the Israel-Hamas war.

Israel-Hamas war: Fewer hostages to be swapped on Saturday – IDF


Hamas is set to release 13 Israeli hostages on Saturday, bringing the number down from the planned 14.

That’s according to an Israeli military spokesman who was speaking to France’s BFMTV.

In return, Israel will release 39 Palestinian prisoners in return..

Those figures are the same as the amount of hostages released on Friday.

Under this new agreement, Hamas will likely continue to release one Israeli hostage for every three Palestinian prisoners freed.

London march: Protester arrested for ‘carrying placard with Nazi symbols’

London’s Metropolitan Police have announced they have arrested a protester in the capital on suspicion of inciting racial hatred.

Thousands of people are taking to the streets of London for the National March for Palestine, organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

In a statement posted on X – formerly Twitter – the Met wrote: “We have arrested a man on suspicion of inciting racial hatred near the start of the protest. Officers spotted him carrying a placard with Nazi symbols on it.”

The announcement comes as police have been handing out leaflets to protesters – telling them how to avoid “ending up in our cells”. 

Red Crescent delivers ‘largest’ batch of aid to north Gaza since war began

The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) have announced that it has delivered a convoy of 61 trucks carrying aid to “Gaza [City] and the North governorates”.

Posting on X – formerly Twitter – they say it’s the largest such delivery since the war began on 7 October.

Also on the social media platform, PRCS added that the trucks were “loaded with food and non-food items, water, primary health care medicines, and emergency medical supplies.” 

London’s police force sends ‘clear message’ to pro-Palestine demonstrators

London’s Metropolitan Police have sent what they are calling a “clear message” to protesters ahead of a pro-Palestinian demonstration in the capital today.

In a video clip shared on X – formerly Twitter – the Met listed a number of actions, including supporting Hamas or any other banned organisation, inciting hatred and promoting acts of terror, which would result in the perpetrators being arrested.

Tens of thousands of people will likely descend on London for the rally and the met have deployed some 1,500 officers ahead of time.

Israeli-owned ship was targeted in suspected Iranian attack in Indian Ocean

A container ship owned by an Israeli billionaire came under attack by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean as Israel wages war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, an American defence official said on Saturday.

The attack on the CMA CGM Symi comes as global shipping increasingly finds itself targeted in the weeks-long war that threatens to become a wider regional conflict – even as a truce has halted fighting and Hamas exchanges hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.


The defence official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the Malta-flagged vessel was suspected to have been targeted by a triangle-shaped, bomb-carrying Shahed-136 drone while in international waters. The drone exploded, causing damage to the ship but not injuring any of its crew.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely,” the official said. The official declined to elaborate on what intelligence the US military gathered to assess Iran was behind the attack.

Al-Mayadeen, a pan-Arab satellite channel that is politically allied with the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, reported that an Israeli ship had been targeted in the Indian Ocean. The channel cited anonymous sources for the report, which Iranian media later cited.

CMA CGM, a major shipper based in Marseille, France, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the vessel’s crew had been behaving as though they believed the ship faced a threat.

The ship had its Automatic Identification System tracker switched off since Tuesday when it left Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, according to data from analysed by the AP. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted. It had done the same earlier when travelling through the Red Sea past Yemen, home to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.


During the conflict, the Houthis have seized a vehicle transport ship in the Red Sea off Yemen. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq also have launched attacks on American troops in both Iraq and Syria during the war, though Iran itself has yet to be linked directly to an attack.

Hostage swap to go ahead on Saturday

Fourteen hostages held in Gaza by Hamas will be released on Saturday in exchange for 42 Palestinian prisoners, on the second day of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement which includes a truce in the Gaza Strip, according to Israeli officials.

The slated swap comes on the second day of a ceasefire that has allowed critical humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and given civilians their first respite after seven weeks of war.

On the first day of the four-day ceasefire, Hamas released 24 of the about 240 hostages taken during its 7 October attack on Israel that triggered the war, while Israel freed 39 Palestinians from prison.

Those freed from captivity in Gaza were 13 Israelis, 10 Thai nationals and a citizen of the Philippines.


During the four days, Hamas is set to release at least 50 Israeli hostages – and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has said the truce can be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed – something United States President Joe Biden said he hoped would come to pass.

The start of the truce on Friday morning brought the first quiet for 2.3 million Palestinians reeling and desperate from relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed thousands, driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and levelled residential areas. Rocket fire from Gaza militants into Israel went silent as well.

The United Nations said the pause enabled it to scale up the delivery of food, water, and medicine to the largest volume since the resumption of humanitarian aid convoys on 21 October.

It was also able to deliver 129,000 litres (34,078 gallons) of fuel – just over 10% of the daily pre-war volume – as well as cooking gas, a first time since the war began.


For the first time in over a month, aid reached northern Gaza, the focus of Israel’s ground offensive. A UN convoy delivered flour to two facilities sheltering people displaced by fighting.

The UN said it and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society were also able to evacuate 40 patients and family members from a hospital in Gaza City, where much of the fighting has taken place, to a hospital in Khan Younis.

The relief brought by the ceasefire has been tempered, however, for both sides – among Israelis by the fact that not all hostages will be freed and among Palestinians by the brevity of the pause. The short truce leaves Gaza mired in humanitarian crisis and under the threat that fighting could soon resume.

Israel has vowed to resume its massive offensive once the truce ends. That has clouded hopes that the deal could eventually help wind down the conflict, which has fueled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank and stirred fears of a wider conflagration across the Middle East.

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