Avaaz campaigner: ‘Neither Hamas nor Fatah can claim to represent the Palestinian people’

from our special correspondent in Ramallah – Two weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, Fadi Quran, campaigns director for Avaaz, an NGO coordinating activists worldwide, is calling for a ceasefire in the interest of children on both sides.

More than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have died since the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, and at least 212 people are still being held hostage in the Gaza Strip. As the death toll climbs on both sides, UN agencies and other NGOs are calling for a ceasefire.

Quran speaks to FRANCE 24 in his residence in Ramallah about the despair of the Palestinian people caught in the conflict, and implores civil societies on both sides to pressure their governments to work for peace and spare the lives of children.

FRANCE 24: How do the people of the West Bank feel about the war in Gaza?

Quran: For many Palestinians, living in the West Bank every day is an experience of torture. We watch children being killed in Gaza – one child every 15 minutes. Imagine that you lived in Marseille, France, and you were watching TV for two weeks, seeing such images. Now, every 15 minutes, a child is pulled from under the rubble. People are in deep pain and they are trying to figure out what to do.

Many Palestinians have gone out to protest against this war, and many of them have been arrested over the last two weeks. Israel has also arrested over 4,000 Palestinians from across the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority, which is working with Israel, has also arrested dozens of people… 

Many of us have friends in Gaza. I was speaking to a friend this morning and he was telling me how he’s bringing water from the Mediterranean sea and boiling it, and then waiting for it to cool down without the salt so that he can give that water to his three-year-old child and his wife. They don’t have any more [fresh] water left where they live, because Israel has blockaded [the Gaza Strip].

That is the situation today. And for many Palestinians, what we’re beginning to do in the West Bank is to call for the replacement of the current Palestinian leadership, because we feel that they are betraying the cause by not doing enough to support the people in Gaza. But the truth is, I think many Palestinians, not just here but across the world, are staying at home, watching TV in tears.

What do you mean by replacement?

Our goal is to hold democratic elections for Palestinians across the world, to choose leaders who are capable of liberating us. The truth today is [that] neither Hamas nor Fatah can claim that they represent the Palestinian people, because we have not had elections for over 15 years. While Israel has banned Palestinians from voting in elections, the Palestinian Authority cooperates to make sure they never happen.

Many Gazans are stranded in Ramallah or elsewhere in the West Bank. What are their living conditions like?

Both my mother and sister are clinical psychologists, and they’ve been working with families from Gaza who are now here. According to what they report to me and the stories I’ve heard myself, it’s just complete and total depression, a complete and total sense of helplessness, panic attacks.

For example, a man called Mohammed from Gaza who was working in the West Bank got stuck here. He was talking to his wife and children when the phone got cut off and he hasn’t been able to reach them for ten days now. He was begging and crying: “I just want to go home. I just want to find my wife. I want to find my children.” He tried contacting his parents. They initially answered and then again disappeared. He can’t speak to them.

That is the story of hundreds of Gazans, fathers, mothers, and grandparents that are just unable to speak to their loved ones. It is heartbreaking.

How do you see the situation developing?

I’ve been speaking as part of my work in international advocacy to diplomats across key countries, including countries in the EU. [According to them,] Israel has forecast the deaths of 25 to 35,000 Palestinians. That alone is a terrifying number. They’re also estimating that 10 to 15% of Gaza’s population will be permanently displaced. We’re talking about 300 to 400,000 people becoming refugees for the third time in their lives. It seems like we’re going to face another catastrophe [of] ethnic cleansing, genocide. That is what the Israeli government is moving towards.

Read moreExperts say Hamas and Israel are breaking international law, but what does that mean?

Now there is another scenario. It’s the less likely one – but the one that we should all be fighting for – which is a proposal now being put on the table where Israel would be asked to release the 170 children that it holds in military prisons. In return, Hamas would release the children and their guardians held as hostages since October 7 and create a humanitarian corridor and safe areas for children in Gaza.

That is the scenario that President Macron, Biden and the international community should be pushing for. Instead of pushing for a solution that saves Jewish and Palestinian lives, they’re supporting Israel’s warmongering. That war is not only going to take tens of thousands of my people’s lives. It will also keep Netanyahu in power, but it won’t achieve security for the Jewish people. So even though the scenario of a ceasefire for children is the less likely one, if people raise their voices, it will become the only path forward. Otherwise, we’re looking at a war that is going to devastate us all.

Is the ceasefire for children feasible on the Israeli side?

This proposal for ceasefire for children is not being discussed in Israel. But we just did a poll with Israeli institutes which showed us that 57% of Israelis would support the proposal I just mentioned. Now, the government doesn’t support it, but this is why now we’re speaking with Israeli civil society organisations and even trying to reach out to the families of the hostages, so that they push their government to move away from war and towards the solution. I think we have less than a week to make this solution a reality before we face another catastrophe as Palestinians.

What do you expect from the international community?

This could be a moment that makes any solution for freedom, justice and dignity – and the opportunity to end the apartheid that the Palestinian people face – more impossible and take longer. Or, it can be a moment for a paradigm shift. And for us as Palestinians, we’re doing what we can to protect ourselves and create that path for freedom and dignity for both sides. But if people across France, the people across the United States and people across the United Kingdom don’t organise as well to stop this war, then it will not be stopped. So there is a responsibility, and one that the French and France’s leadership, are not taking seriously: putting an end to this violence.

So I call on the French people to act now because peace for us is also peace for the world.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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The dogs of war are howling in the Middle East

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The EU’s reply to Qatargate: Nips, tucks and paperwork

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STRASBOURG — The European Parliament’s response to Qatargate: Fight corruption with paperwork.

When Belgian police made sweeping arrests and recovered €1.5 million from Parliament members in a cash-for-influence probe last December, it sparked mass clamoring for a deep clean of the institution, which has long languished with lax ethics and transparency rules, and even weaker enforcement.

Seven months later, the Parliament and its president, Roberta Metsola, can certainly claim to have tightened some rules — but the results are not much to shout about. With accused MEPs Eva Kaili and Marc Tarabella back in the Parliament and even voting on ethics changes themselves, the reforms lack the political punch to take the sting out of a scandal that Euroskeptic forces have leaped on ahead of the EU election next year.

“Judge us on what we’ve done rather [than] on what we didn’t,” Metsola told journalists earlier this month, arguing that Parliament has acted swiftly where it could. 

While the Parliament can claim some limited improvements, calls for a more profound overhaul in the EU’s only directly elected institution — including more serious enforcement of existing rules — have been met with finger-pointing, blame-shifting and bureaucratic slow-walking. 

The Parliament dodged some headline-worthy proposals in the process. It declined to launch its own inquiry into what really happened, it decided not to force MEPs to declare their assets and it won’t be stripping any convicted MEPs of their gold-plated pensions.

Instead, the institution favored more minimal nips and tucks. The rule changes amount to much more bureaucracy and more potential alarm bells to spot malfeasance sooner — but little in the way of stronger enforcement of ethics rules for MEPs.

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who investigates complaints about EU administration lamented that the initial sense of urgency to adopt strict reforms had “dissipated.” After handing the EU a reputational blow, she argued, the scandal’s aftermath offered a pre-election chance, “to show that lessons have been learned and safeguards have been put in place.”

Former MEP Richard Corbett, who co-wrote the Socialists & Democrats group’s own inquiry into Qatargate and favors more aggressive reforms, admitted he isn’t sure whether Parliament will get there.  

“The Parliament is getting to grips with this gradually, muddling its way through the complex field, but it’s too early to say whether it will do what it should,” he said. 

Bags of cash

The sense of resignation that criminals will be criminals was only one of the starting points that shaped the Parliament’s response. 

“We will never be able to prevent people taking bags of cash. This is human nature. What we have to do is create a protection network,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French MEP who sketched out some longer-term recommendations he hopes the Parliament will take up. 


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Another is that the Belgian authorities’ painstaking judicial investigation is still ongoing, with three MEPs charged and a fourth facing imminent questioning. Much is unknown about how the alleged bribery ring really operated, or what the countries Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania really got for their bribes.

On top of that, Parliament was occasionally looking outward rather than inward for people to blame. 

Metsola’s message in the wake of the scandal was that EU democracy was “under attack” by foreign forces. The emphasis on “malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries” set the stage for the Parliament’s response to Qatargate: blame foreign interference, not an integrity deficit. 

Instead of creating a new panel to investigate how corruption might have steered Parliament’s work, Parliament repurposed an existing committee on foreign interference and misinformation to probe the matter. The result was a set of medium- and long-term recommendations that focus as much on blocking IT contractors from Russia and China as they do on holding MEPs accountable — and they remain merely recommendations. 

Metsola did also turn inward, presenting a 14-point plan in January she labeled as “first steps” of a promised ethics overhaul. The measures are a finely tailored lattice-work of technical measures that could make it harder for Qatargate to happen again, primarily by making it harder to lobby the Parliament undetected.

The central figure in Qatargate, an Italian ex-MEP called Pier Antonio Panzeri, enjoyed unfettered access to the Parliament, using it to give prominence to his human rights NGO Fight Impunity, which held events and even struck a collaboration deal with the institution. 

This 14-point package, which Metsola declared is now “done,” includes a new entry register, a six-month cooling-off period banning ex-MEPs from lobbying their colleagues, tighter rules for events, stricter scrutiny of human rights work — all tailored to ensure a future Panzeri hits a tripwire and can be spotted sooner.

Notably, however, an initial idea to ban former MEPs from lobbying for two years after leaving office — which would mirror the European Commission’s rules — instead turned into just a six-month “cooling off” period.

Internal divisions

Behind the scenes, the house remains sharply divided over just how much change is needed. Many MEPs resisted bigger changes to how they conduct their work, despite Metsola’s promise in December that there would be “no business as usual,” which she repeated in July.  

The limited ambition reflects an argument — pushed by a powerful subset of MEPs, primarily in Metsola’s large, center-right European People’s Party group — that changing that “business as usual” will only tie the hands of innocent politicians while doing little to stop the few with criminal intent. They’re bolstered by the fact that the Socialists & Democrats remain the only group touched by the scandal.

“There were voices in this house who said, ‘Do nothing, these things will always happen, things are fine as they are,’” Metsola said. Some of the changes, she said, had been “resisted for decades” before Qatargate momentum pushed them through. 

The Parliament already has some of the Continent’s highest standards for legislative bodies, said Rainer Wieland, a long-serving EPP member from Germany who sits on the several key rule-making committees: “I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to us.”

MEP Rainer Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms | Patrick Seeger/EFE via EPA

Those who are still complaining, he added in a debate last week, “are living in wonderland.”

Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms. He chairs an internal working group on the Parliament’s rules that feeds into the Parliament’s powerful Committee on Constitutional Affairs, where Metsola’s 14-point plan will be translated into cold, hard rules. 

Those rule changes are expected to be adopted by the full Parliament in September. 

The measures will boost existing transparency rules significantly. The lead MEP on a legislative file will soon have to declare (and deal with) potential conflicts of interest, including those coming from their “emotional life.” And more MEPs will have to publish their meetings related to parliamentary business, including those with representatives from outside the EU. 

Members will also have to disclose outside income over €5,000 — with additional details about the sector if they work in something like law or consulting. 

Negotiators also agreed to double potential penalties for breaches: MEPs can lose their daily allowance and be barred from most parliamentary work for up to 60 days. 

Yet the Parliament’s track record punishing MEPs who break the rules is virtually nonexistent.

As it stands, an internal advisory committee can recommend a punishment, but it’s up to the president to impose it. Of 26 breaches of transparency rules identified over the years, not one MEP has been punished. (Metsola has imposed penalties for things like harassment and hate speech.) 

And hopes for an outside integrity cop to help with enforcement were dashed when a long-delayed Commission proposal for an EU-wide independent ethics body was scaled back. 

Stymied by legal constraints and left-right divides within the Parliament, the Commission opted for suggesting a standards-setting panel that, at best, would pressure institutions into better policing their own rules.

“I really hate listening to some, especially members of the European Parliament, who say that ‘Without having the ethics body, we cannot behave ethical[ly],’” Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová lamented in June.

Metsola, for her part, has pledged to adhere to the advisory committee’s recommendations going forward. But MEPs from across the political spectrum flagged the president’s complete discretion to mete out punishments as unsustainable.

“The problem was not (and never really was) [so] much the details of the rules!!! But the enforcement,” French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield — who sits in the working group — wrote to POLITICO.

Wieland, the German EPP member on the rule-making committees, presented the situation more matter-of-factly: Parliament had done what it said it would do.

“We fully delivered” on Metsola’s plan, Wieland told POLITICO in an interview. “Not more than that.”

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Macron government under fire for criticising one of France’s oldest human rights NGOs

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Amid the tense political atmosphere gripping France as the pension reform crisis continues, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne on Wednesday became the latest member of the Macron government to criticise the Human Rights League, one of France’s oldest NGOs, even accusing it of taking an “ambiguous” stance on Islamism in recent years. Her comments follow those of the interior minister, who suggested the group’s state subsidies should come under review given its recent criticism of the government. 

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said during a Senate question-and-answer session on Wednesday that her opinion of the Human Rights League (Ligue des droits de l’Homme, or LDH) had changed. “I have a lot of respect for what LDH embodied in the past,” she said, but “I no longer understand some of its positions.”

Borne went on to say that some of her incomprehension stems from the league’s “ambiguities in the face of radical Islamism – and it has been reinforced over recent months”.

Borne appeared to be referring to actions such as the league’s support for the “march against Islamophobia” in late 2019. Some on the French left as well as the right viewed the name of the protest as an implicit contradiction of France’s belief in the right to criticise all religions, part of the France’s cherished value of secularism (laïcité). However, others insisted the march was against anti-Muslim discrimination, not against the critique of Islam.

It is highly unusual for a French leader to so strongly criticise one of the country’s oldest and best-known human rights NGOs. The League was founded in 1898, at the height of the 1894-1906 Dreyfus Affair – the greatest scandal of France’s Third Republic, concerning a Jewish army officer who was baselessly convicted of treason and the long struggle to exonerate him. The LDH has played a key role in French civil society ever since.

The Human Rights League came under fire in 2020 for declining to send a representative to the trial of those accused in the January 2015 jihadist attacks at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and Hypercasher kosher supermarkets, a landmark moment in France that eventually saw the suspects convicted and sentenced.

In recent weeks, the league has deployed citizen observers to the pension reform protests to document how security forces are maintaining order. Borne hailed the actions of police – whose actions have been criticised internationally as excessive – and suggested they were there to protect protesters. “Demonstrating is a fundamental right. It is not by excusing violence that we defend it… Much the contrary,” she said. 

Controversy over protests

Borne went on to rail against LDH for critiquing attempts to prevent further unrest in Sainte-Soline, a village in western France that has seen violent clashes between police and demonstrators opposed to a huge reservoir project over its potential environmental impact. Referring to a ban on armes par destination – ordinary items that can be used as weapons such as cooking knives or baseball bats – Borne expressed annoyance at the league for “criticising an order preventing people from bringing weapons to Sainte-Soline”.

The LDH has said over recent weeks that it favours banning people from bringing weapons to the protests but argues that the government’s definition is unduly broad – and that its own narrower definition of the term accords with that of France’s constitution.

Critics have accused the French police of using excessively forceful methods against protesters at Sainte-Soline. Scenes of violence there on March 25 fuelled the sense of turmoil in France, as they came amid clashes between protesters and police during the pension reform demonstrations taking place across the country. The violence at the March 23 pension reform demonstrations attracted particular international attention – with Bordeaux town hall set on fire and more than 149 police and gendarmes injured, according to the French authorities.

Funding threat

In her remarks on Wednesday, Borne also cited “many other NGOs” who also “do not understand” the LDH’s positions – referring to a letter sent on Tuesday by the head of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme, or LICRA) to the head of the Consultative Commission on Human Rights, another longstanding French rights NGO.

The LICRA president’s letter criticised the LDH for feeding into a sense that “the authorities are the public enemy No. 1” and warning of the risk of violence being “legitimised” when it is directed against representatives of the French state.

The controversy over Borne’s statements follows earlier outrage over comments from right-wing Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin during another Senate question time on April 5. In response to a senator from the conservative Les Républicains party who called for an “end to state funding for associations that seriously undermine the state”, Darmanin declared that the state subsidy given to LDH “should be looked into in light of their actions”.

Various left-wing politicians joined LDH’s president Patrick Baudouin in strongly criticising Darmanin’s remarks.

The interior minister’s declaration also prompted a petition in communist newspaper L’Humanité signed by 1,000 public figures – including an array of leftist politicians, trade union leaders and prominent names in the arts – saying, “Don’t touch the LDH!”

“Public subsidies are essential to guaranteeing associations’ independence and protecting them from the whims of those in power,” the petition read. “Calling these subsidies into question is a way to get rid of checks and balances and extinguish public debate.”

Borne adopted a softer approach than Darmanin – tempering her criticism of LDH by saying that “cutting subsidies to particular associations” is “not on the cards” and that she hopes human rights NGOs will “continue their monitoring activities”.  

But she added that government also “has a responsibility to talk to NGOs about what they are doing when they get government funding”.

LDH chief Baudouin responded furiously to Borne’s Wednesday remarks, saying he was “surprised” and “appalled” by what he saw as her “distortions” of the group’s positions. Baudouin called on the PM to “calm the debate instead of making things worse”.

Left-wing politicians joined Baudouin in condemning her remarks. Green Party Senator David Salmon accused the government of “blackmail” over the comments on public subsidies for LDH, saying such a stance could lead to a “time when people no longer have the right to question the government’s policies”.

The prime minister is keen to “avoid disowning” Darmanin, said Eliane Assassi, the Communist Party leader in the Senate, who asked Borne the question that prompted her comments on LDH.

But some politicians on the right voiced agreement with Borne’s – and Darmanin’s – approach. Bruno Retailleau, the Les Républicains leader in the Senate, notably urged the government to “cut [LDH’s] subsidies” – saying the NGO “undoubtedly had a noble past, a glorious past”, but is now “losing itself in far-left squabbling”.

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West must move faster to prevent a catastrophe in northern Syria

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

On the “treacherous night” of the deadly earthquake that shook northern Syria, Idris Nassan, a Kurdish official living in Raqqa, was startled awake as his apartment swayed.

“My body was trembling, noise filled the place; the building turned into a swing, leaning left and right,” he said.

With his wife and mother in tow, Nassan scrambled down three flights of stairs, joining neighbors who, “like birds fleeing snakes of prey,” made their chaotic exit. The stairwell echoed with the cries and screams of terrified children.

The scenes outside were “beyond endurance,” Nassan said — telling, coming from a man who witnessed the siege of Kobani and the vicious battles between Kurds and the Islamic State militants there. But, he added, the “pain of the earthquake has been “deepened by the failure of others to help.”

Of all the places to be tested by the grinding of tectonic plates, this is one that just didn’t need to suffer more pain and grief.

The Syrians of Idlib and northern Aleppo, many displaced from elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, have endured barbaric conflict, a gruesome descent into hell, for over a decade. They’ve suffered barrel bombs; their hospitals and markets have been targeted; they’ve been starved; and they’ve been preyed upon by the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Idlib was turned into a large “kill zone” by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, as rebels and their families were funneled into the area, corralled like cattle awaiting slaughter.

Adding insult to injury, since 2018, Turkish authorities have been deterring Syrian asylum seekers from crossing the border and declining to register them. Turkey has also mounted unlawful deportations and coerced some to return to northern Syria, while the European Union — fearful of another migration surge — has raised few objections to this breach of the Geneva Convention.

Along the arc of northern Syria, the widespread complaint by Arabs and Kurds alike is that since the defeat of the Islamic State, they’ve been abandoned by the international community. That sense of desertion is now being compounded as they dig mass graves and grapple with the effects of a devastating earthquake.

Since the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened towns, destroyed homes and crushed thousands of lives on February 6, the world’s focus has mainly been on Turkey — that’s where Western media and international rescue crews, aid and equipment have been heading.

But across the border, there’s been scant assistance.

Sent into rebel-held Idlib, a member of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, said, “What sticks in my mind is that some people were standing above the rubble and hearing the voices of their families and relatives a few meters away, but they could not do anything to rescue them due to the lack of equipment and the absence of an international response to help.”

Predictably, Moscow and Beijing haven’t been lagging in their efforts to try to spin the events in Syria. “The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies are hampering relief and rescue work . . . such a humanitarian disaster is not enough to melt the cold-blooded heart of the US,” goaded the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the “collective West” of ignoring what’s taking place in northern Syria, blaming the economic sanctions against the Assad government for prolonging suffering.

Of course, these are crocodile tears coming from a Chinese Communist government that’s incarcerated over a million Uyghurs since 2015. It’s also strikingly indecent of Russia to claim sympathy for the north of Syria, where it shunned the laws of war and rehearsed the bombing campaigns and egregious tactics it’s now using in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be a Russian or Chinese propagandist to question the West’s sluggishness in anticipating the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Syria, or in developing an action plan to ease the suffering in Idlib and northern Aleppo.

Last week, EU officials slammed the complaints of neglect coming from northern Syria. “I categorically reject the accusations that EU sanctions may have any impact on humanitarian aid. These sanctions were imposed since 2011 in response to the violent repression of the Syrian regime against its own civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič told reporters. “There is nothing there that would hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation in which Syrian people find themselves after this terrible earthquake,” he added.

The EU says it’ll provide additional emergency support to both Turkey and Syria, and emergency humanitarian assistance worth €6.5 million. But officials say the bloc will also require safeguards to ensure aid effectively reaches those in need and isn’t misused by the Assad government — something that’s plagued humanitarian assistance in the past.

Indeed, funneling aid into northern Syria is fraught with logistical and political nightmares. Idlib is controlled by a variety of feuding rebel groups, with a large part held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group that’s been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and, much like the Assad government, has been accused of manipulating international aid.

Additionally, of the five border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria, only one has been authorized by Turkish authorities to handle humanitarian aid — although Ankara has now said it’s considering reopening more crossings to allow aid into both opposition-held and Assad-controlled areas.

But time is of the essence, and the scale of the crisis unfolding requires a momentous step change.

Mercy Corps reports that there aren’t enough structural engineers in northern Syria to inspect buildings, and even small aftershocks risk further collapse. There’s also very little coordination on the ground, with extremely limited information available on shelter options for survivors.

Fuel for heating and cooking is becoming a major challenge as well. “There is limited availability, and what is available is of poor quality and very expensive. People are burning trash to stay warm, and aid deliveries will be dependent on consistent access to fuel for trucks,” said Mercy Corps. Meanwhile, food is hard to procure, prices are skyrocketing, and access to clean drinking water is becoming a critical problem, with assessment teams worried about pollutants leaking into water sources.

On Friday, the United Nations warned that over 5 million Syrians may be left homeless after the earthquake. “That is a huge number and comes to a population already suffering mass displacement,” said Sivanka Dhanapala, the Syria representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thankfully, in the past few days, 20 U.N. aid trucks have crossed into rebel-held areas, but most were carrying pre-planned provisions that had been delayed due to the earthquake. And on Friday, the U.N. announced it was releasing an additional $25 million in emergency funding for Syria, bringing the total to $50 million so far.

However, NGO assessment workers say this is far short of what’s needed — and they argue that Western powers will have to rethink the sanctions regime.

While humanitarian aid isn’t barred by Western sanctions, there are plenty of other things desperately needed in northern Syria that are, including fuel and construction equipment critical to rescue efforts, to prop up battered buildings and to rebuild, so the displaced aren’t left to shelter in tents.

The United States has moved faster than the EU in recognizing that sanctions risk impeding quake assistance, issuing a six-month waiver for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

 Navigating the political dilemmas all this will bring — getting in front of Assad exploiting the earthquake to force a normalization of relations, getting Turkey to coordinate with the Kurds of northern Syria, and dealing with HTS and the other feuding rebel groups — is undoubtedly going to be a tall order.

Aside from the imperatives of compassion, a slow and inadequate Western response will also feed into African and Middle Eastern countries’ perception — kindled by Moscow and Beijing — that Western powers only pay attention to them when they want or need something.

And if these challenges aren’t confronted, the immediate humanitarian crisis risks turning into a catastrophe.

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US Waives Sanctions To Speed Earthquake Aid To Syria

The death toll from the huge earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria Monday continues to go higher and higher, with nearly 23,000 people estimated to have died as of today — expect that to keep going higher — and a rapidly closing window for the chances of digging more survivors from the rubble.

The situation is especially dire in northern Syria, where the response to the natural disaster has been complicated by the fact that the earthquake hit right in the heart of territory still held by rebels in the civil war against the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad. Most aid bound for the affected region has to go through Syrian government channels, although starting Thursday, the first UN aid trucks have begun reaching the area through the single open border crossing with Turkey.

Here’s a sobering Al Jazeera video explainer on why it’s so hard to get aid to the earthquake victims in Northern Syria:


The video explains that, for the most part, the international sanctions against Syria have been aimed at Syrian military and government leaders, as well as government agencies that have played a role in violating human rights.

But just to make sure that as much aid as possible gets where it’s needed, the US Treasury Department yesterday issued a six-month waiver on “all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited” under the sanctions. In a press release, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said,

As international allies and humanitarian partners mobilize to help those affected, I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people. While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today Treasury is issuing a blanket General License to authorize earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.

The announcement added that US sanctions, by design, already don’t apply to humanitarian assistance, but that the new waiver “expands upon these broad humanitarian authorizations already in effect,” for nongovernmental organizations, the UN, and US government aid programs. The US has made clear it will not give aid directly to the Syrian government, only to international aid groups working in the region.

Also too, Al Jazeera reports that

The US Agency for International Development on Thursday announced Washington had pledged $85m in urgent humanitarian aid on top of the 160 people and 12 dogs it had sent to Turkey to help with rescue efforts.

Since humanitarian aid is already exempt from sanctions, Karam Shaar, a Syrian economist with the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera that the new waiver will have “a limited positive impact.”

“This makes it easier still to send humanitarian funding to Syria,” Shaar told Al Jazeera. “Now you don’t have to prove to OFAC that your transaction is exempt from sanctions. You do the transaction, and then if you’re asked to, you need to prove it.”

Simply put, this means that donors and organisations don’t need to spend resources and time proving an exemption from sanctions before sending aid.

Shaar said it’s not yet clear whether private banks will be sufficiently reassured by the waiver that they’ll feel comfortable making money transfers; many avoid Syria altogether out of fear of getting into sanctions trouble. The waiver therefore may or may not result in some institutions allowing transfers, including remittances from Syrians living abroad.

As Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Politics at the University of Oklahoma, explained to Al Jazeera, Assad has made his own use of the sanctions regime to punish the rebels in the north, using the sanctions as an excuse to keep resources from getting to areas the rebels control.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to change even following the earthquake, because why would a guy who’s used poison gas and indiscriminate bombing on civilians (with Russian help) start caring about them now?

Despite demands by Assad’s government, the UN has started getting some aid to northern Syria, using the only humanitarian corridor between Syria and Turkey at the Bab al-Hawa crossing. CNN reports that the first convoy of six trucks carried only “shelter items” and other non-food supplies.

“The UN cross-border aid operation has been reinstated today. We are relieved that we are able to reach the people in northwest Syria in this pressing time. We hope that this operation continues as this is a humanitarian lifeline and the only scalable channel,” Sanjana Quazi, head of OCHA Türkiye [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said.

The delivery on Thursday ends a three-day period during which no aid arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to rebel-held areas of northern Syria – just 300 bodies, according to the administration that controls the only access point between the two countries.

“How are roads okay for cars carrying bodies, but not for aid?” Mazen Alloush, Bab al-Hawa’s frustrated spokesperson had asked CNN.

The bodies were of Syrian refugees who died in Turkey and were being repatriated for burial. (No, probably aid groups don’t want to risk sending food aid through in body bags, because life isn’t usually a movie.)

Even before the earthquake, northern Syria was in terrible shape, with as many as 15.3 million people needing assistance there, according to UN Resident Coordinator for Syria El-Mostafa Benlamlih.

In Aleppo alone 100,000 people are believed to be homeless, with 30,000 of that number currently sheltered in schools and mosques.

“Those are the lucky ones,” he said.

The remaining 70,000 “have snow, they have cold and they are living in a terrible situation,” he added.

The weather is also making survival even more difficult in both countries, with much colder temperatures than normal in the region, as CNN notes. Aleppo normally has chilly 36 degree Fahrenheit lows in February, but this weekend’s low temperatures are forecast to be between 27 and 28 degrees F.

Now that UN aid has started arriving, there’s hope that NGOs will be able to get aid to northern Syria; most of the big groups are already helping in Turkey. If you can spare the money, you might consider giving to the International Rescue Committee, to Doctors Without Borders, or to Mercy Corps, all of which have special appeals for the Turkey/Syria crisis.

[CNN / Al Jazeera]

Yr Wonkette is funded entirely by reader donations. For this post, we’re going to direct you to the humanitarian aid NGOs listed above. But sure, if you also want to keep us funded too, we’d appreciate that.

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