Israel-Hamas truce has begun: hostages releases, aid delivery and temporary ceasefire will be extended for two days, More civilian victims on Lebanese southern border, 80 years of unsettled independence, AUB seminar “Lebanon in its Second Century” concludes its second day, Families of Beirut blast’s victims urge a swift resolution of the inquiry, Violence and repression tighten in the West Bank, No freedom of press in ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, Syrian government attack kills nine civilians in rebel-held stronghold, Egypt’s speculations on the future of Gaza, The diplomatic game of Arab leaders, US retaliatory attacks against Iran-proxy allies in Iraq and Syria, A new war front opened in the Red Sea
15,000 deaths in a month and a half reappraise the meaning of mourning and death, which in Gaza has ceased to be a private matter. 48 days of bombing reappraise the meaning of a 96-hour pause, where the sounds of drones and explosions were replaced by that of ambulances and rescue services. 2.3 million Palestinians at risk of malnutrition downsize the significance of 200 trucks of humanitarian aid per day: knowing that those that have entered through the Rafah crossing since the start of the offensive do not even reach 21 percent of those insured before the crisis. Thousands of people emerging from the schools and hospitals where they had taken shelter reappraise the meaning of fear. 50 released hostages reappraise the value of 150 returned: and 150 liberated re-establish the value of tears, of embrace, of home. The release of Israa Jaabis, convicted of detonating a gas cylinder in her car at a checkpoint in 2015, reappraises the meaning of steadfastness; the liberation of dozens of women and children, that of motherhood and childhood.
After the temporary ceasefire between Hamas and Israel went into effect, on Friday, November 23, at 7am, the meaning of life and death in Gaza seems to have changed. The cease-fire was set to last for four days, during which 150 Palestinian prisoners in total were expected to be released in four consecutive groups as well as 50 Israeli ones. However, Qatari and Egyptian mediators managed to postpone the truce’s end on Wednesday, extending it for additional two days, under the same conditions of the past four ones: one hostage will be freed by Hamas in exchange for the release of three Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons.
Fraught releases: While Hamas stated it was working to extend the truce beyond the end of the four days, seriously seeking to increase the number of hostage releases as provided for in the truce agreement, mediators in Qatar and Egypt confirmed already on Saturday that they had received positive signals from all parties about possibly extending the truce. Israel has in fact offered to extend the pause by one day for every additional 10 hostages released, and Hamas later announced that it was seeking to extend the truce as well, claiming it is possible to secure the release of a further 20 to 40 Israeli prisoners, in addition to the 50 agreed-upon.
Hamas released 24 hostages on Friday, 13 others on Saturday and an additional 17 people on Sunday, most of whom were Israeli women and children as well as US, Thai, Filipino, German and Russian nationals. Hamas is estimated to have taken around 240 people hostage on Oct. 7, some of whom the group said were killed by Israel’s relentless shelling since then, although the militant group has previously released other hostages for medical reasons. Israel successively released 117 women and children detained in its prisons over the past three days. As part of the Qatar-Egypt-US-mediated exchange, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has ferried Hamas-held hostages, sometimes via Egypt, for their handover to Israeli authorities.
However, during the truce, raids and arrests in the occupied West Bank are intensifying. According to the Palestinian Authority, as reported by CNN, the total number of Palestinians held by Israel has now risen to more than 8,300, including some 350 children and 72 women: a number that does not include prisoners from Gaza, which Israel allegedly refuses to disclose.
Insufficient aid: On Saturday evening, Hamas delayed the second hostage-release, claiming Israel had not fulfilled its obligation to allow aid trucks to reach northern Gaza. The pause in fighting included in fact an increase in aid delivered to Gaza, comprising 200 trucks of food, water, medicine, fuel and cooking gas per day. However, as of Saturday, 340 of the negotiated 400 aid trucks had entered the Gaza Strip: among them, only 65 had reached the north of the enclave, less than half of what Israel had agreed upon.
Access to aid is vital. Only four of northern Gaza’s hospitals remain operational according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA), while the enclave’s overall bed capacity is less than half of what it was before October 7.
After an hours-long delay, the exchange went ahead, and Israel released the agreed-upon second slot of 39 Palestinian prisoners and detainees. The delay raised fears that subsequent releases would be similarly fraught.
Precarious ceasefire: The IDF also agreed to cease aerial activity over southern Gaza, and limit its activity in the north. Despite the truce, however, Israeli forces have reportedly shot several people in Gaza, notably those attempting to return to northern Gaza.
On Sunday, on the third day of the truce, a Palestinian farmer was killed and another injured after they were targeted by Israeli forces in the Maghazi refugee camp in the center of Gaza, Reuters reports, citing the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Moreover, underlining the fragility of the truce between Israel and Hamas, during his first visit to Gaza since October 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Israel’s army would not stop until it “eliminates Hamas,” “brings back all the kidnapped people,” and “ensures that Gaza does not become a threat to Israel again.” “We continue until the end, until victory. Nothing will stop us,” Netanyahu told Israeli soldiers, according to a video posted by his office and reported in English translation by The Times of Israel.
Therefore, if following the now prolonged six-day ceasefire, the IDF will resume its military operation as is expected, the question still remains on the meaning: whether 48 hours more of respite will be able to reappraise the limit of what is bearable.
Bloody Tuesday: On Tuesday morning of last week, two journalists from the pan-Arab channel al-Mayadeen and their civilian companion were killed in an Israeli bombardment in the border sector of Tayr Harfa, in the district of Sour, along with six other people in Kfar Kila, in the district of Marjeyoun.
Al-Mayadeen, a network known for its pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah stances, confirmed the deaths of its field correspondent Farah Omar, 25, and reporter Rabih Maamari, 39, while the official National News Agency (NNA) identified the civilian accompanying the journalists, also killed in the strikes, as Hussein Akil.
Ghassan Ben Jeddo, CEO of al-Mayadeen, contended that the team was “deliberately targeted; it wasn’t accidental,” as Tuesday’s deaths add to a toll of 57 journalists killed covering the war between Israel and Hamas and its spillover to other parts of the region since October 7, according to the data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Previously on October 13, Reuters visual journalist Issam Abdallah was killed in a similar bombing that injured six other journalists from agencies including AFP, Reuters, and Al Jazeera. A month later, Israeli fire wounded an Al Jazeera cameraman while covering bombardment in south Lebanon with other press correspondents.
“This attack proves once more that there are no limits to Israeli crimes, aiming to silence media that exposes their crimes and attacks,” said Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Israel’s response on its accountability was expectedly negligent. Claiming to be aware of “a claim regarding journalists who were killed as a result of fire,” yet initially denouncing no victims of Tuesday’s attacks, the IDF spokesperson justified the civilian targets in south Lebanon saying that it is “an area with active hostilities, where exchange of fire occurs,” and that “presence in the area is dangerous,” as Reuters reported.
The Israeli military has previously said it cannot guarantee journalists’ safety in areas where it is fighting, although Israeli authorities’ attempt to block Al Mayadeen’s websites and seize equipment linked to the station seems to hint that its ongoing attack on journalists covering its crimes, more than indiscriminate, is indeed deliberate.
An elderly woman, Laiqa Sarhan, 80, was also reported killed by the Israeli strike in Kfar Kila, Marjayoun, earlier on Tuesday, according to the NNA; while later in the same day, another Israeli strike on a car about 11 km from the border and near the southern city of Tyre killed five other people, raising the death toll to nine, including a senior member of the armed wing of Hamas in Lebanon, two Turkish citizens and two Hamas supporters from the northern city of Tripoli.
Uninvited: The last week saw a marked escalation of hostilities along the southern Lebanese border line, making it the period with the most intense exchange of fire since the beginning of the armed clashes.
Israel-Lebanon border violence has in fact rapidly escalated after the killing of Abbas Raad, son of Hezbollah’s parliamentary leader in the Lebanese legislative body, in an Israeli strike in Beit Yahoun on Wednesday, where other four Hezbollah fighters were killed, raising fears of a widening war in the Middle East that could draw in both the United States and Iran.
Hezbollah said on Thursday morning that it fired 48 Katyusha rockets at an Israeli military base at Ein Zeitim, near the town of Safed about 10 km from the border, adding that it also carried out at least 10 other attacks on Israeli positions near the frontier, which it claimed had caused casualties.
After tensions escalated, however, Hezbollah committed to abiding by Israel-Hamas truce, even though it was not part of the negotiations. A source from the filo-Iran party said that the group would have adhered to the halt as long as Israel respects the agreement, being ready to respond to any Israeli escalation in southern Lebanon or Gaza during the agreed-upon-four-day truce.
Hezbollah’s response, according to the party’s statements, officially hinged on Israel’s adherence to the temporary ceasefire. The announcement came as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Beirut on an official visit, during which he was scheduled to meet several Lebanese officials. On Wednesday evening, he was received by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, as reported by the official National News Agency. For his part, the Iranian minister welcomed the recently negotiated four-day ceasefire, calling it a “positive step forward,” although “the main objective remains to obtain a permanent cessation of hostilities,” warning against the risk for the region not to return to its pre-war state.
Iran’s top diplomat has also met Hezbollah’s Secretary General in an undisclosed location in Lebanon, discussing efforts to end Israel’s war in Gaza, Al Jazeera reported. The meeting of Amir-Amirabdollahian and Nasrallah happened while Israel and Hamas were still hammering out the details of the Qatar-brokered deal, which wouldn’t have taken effect before Friday.
A fragile truce: Friday saw the longest period without fighting along the Lebanese border since daily clashes began on October 8 after Hezbollah launched rockets “in solidarity” with Hamas’ operation. For the first time since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, residents of border towns who fled south Lebanon, local sources reported, went back to check on their homes and belongings, fearing that the ceasefire could break at any moment.
As expected, the de-facto ceasefire established between Hezbollah and Israel on Friday was broken early on Saturday after a surface-to-air missile from Lebanon unsuccessfully targeted an Israeli drone, prompting retaliatory Israeli shelling.
Israeli media reported that its military shot down the missile and that it responded by targeting Hezbollah infrastructure by the Lebanese border. Warning sirens were later activated due to suspicions of a drone entering airspace over northern Israel, but the border remained otherwise in the hours after the exchange.
During a period of relative calm along the Blue Line, still on Saturday, a UNIFIL patrol was hit by IDF gunfire in the vicinity of Aytaroun, in southern Lebanon. No peacekeepers were injured, but the vehicle was damaged, UNIFIL announced on its Telegram channel. The day before, UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Lieutenant General Lazaro urged those exchanging fire along the Blue Line to halt this cycle of violence, strongly reminding everyone that any further escalation could have devastating consequences.
“This attack on peacekeepers, dedicated to reducing tensions and restoring stability in south Lebanon, is deeply troubling. We condemn this act and underscore the parties’ responsibility to safeguard peacekeepers, preventing unnecessary risks to those striving to establish stability,” reported a UNIFIL official statement.
80 years of independence: One day after the killing of nine people at the southern border, Lebanon celebrated its independence’s 80th anniversary.
Ever since 22 November 1943, when the country gained independence from the French mandate, the question of sovereignty has been a central tenet of its delicate national balance: both a historical achievement and an ongoing challenge in the midst of conflicting influences of external actors. In a time where international involvement and regional dynamics are playing a critical role in shaping Lebanon’s sovereignty, in fact, ongoing tensions, border disputes and historical conflicts have never stopped challenging the country’s ability to fully protect its territory.
However, balancing relationships with various external actors while safeguarding national interests remains only one of modern Lebanon’s sensitive tasks. In recent years, the country has been facing an exacerbated socio-economic crisis, lack of accountability regarding the 2020 Beirut Port explosion investigation, and vacuum in leading positions, including the presidency, which is intertwined with uncertainties in the fate of the Army Commander, General Joseph Aoun, whose mandate should end on December 10.
And it is evidently in the power vacuum that foreign interests come into play.
While pro-Iran Hezbollah militias are taking the army’s duty of protecting the border from a potential Israeli invasion, on Wednesday, Independence Day, the special envoy of French President Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced a forthcoming visit to the country “at the edge of war.”
“Lebanese officials must overcome their rivalries and agree to ensure that there is a constitutional system that works,” he argued, interviewed by France Info, believing that “the sense of responsibility must return to the principal leaders of Lebanon.” “I will go to Lebanon very soon at the request of the President of the Republic to convey this message,” said the French envoy, warning against the lack of authority in the country.
Le Drian is expected to return to Beirut on Wednesday for a fourth visit attempting to mediate a resolution of the presidential impasse, An-Nahar and Asharq al-Awsat reported.
A refuge, a corridor or a residence: On the second day of the seminar “Lebanon in its Second Century: A Forward Vision,” launched last month through an initiative of the American University of Beirut, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of History and Archaeology, the discussion looked at the question of Lebanese sovereignty and the issue of Syrian refugees in the country.
The session, as reported by Maan Barazy, brought forward many concerns on Lebanon’s sovereignty while trying to answer its role in the region as a gateway for refugees or a corridor for cold wars, or if it had fulfilled its role as an independent nation autonomous state. Since 2011, in fact, Lebanon has been facing an unprecedented crisis of Syrian displacement, accompanied by a lack of proper governance from successive Lebanese governments, that have been treating the Syrian crisis in terms of a “conspiracy narrative”, panelist Dr. Al-Sayegh claimed, being stuck between the dilemma of understanding this crisis from an ideological point of view and the lack of a real census on the number of refugees. This situation has been further exacerbated by interference from the ruling powers in Syria, while simultaneously, the international community has failed to establish a political solution that contributes to their return with legal, security, economic, and social guarantees.
Titled “Lebanon a refuge, a corridor or a residence?”, the seminar’s second meeting included three sessions.
Dr. Ziad Al-Sayegh, policy expert in public affairs, asylum, and migration, opened the discussion by tackling the political-sovereign challenges that the Syrian presence incurs on Lebanon, and questioning the rights of Syrian refugees to return to their homeland and country must be acknowledged in a sovereign context, providing protection for their national identity and social fabric.
After Dr. Al-Sayegh, Dr. Abdul Rahman Chheitly, Director-General of Administration at the Ministry of Defense, and former representative of the Lebanese government with UNIFIL, discussed the security challenges and the role of Lebanese governance and institutions in regulating and monitoring refugees. Suggesting the necessity of studying all scenarios – from organizing the displaced individuals’ presence in the country by providing them with identification cards, to establishing a special court for Syrians in order to alleviate pressure on the judiciary -, Chheitly underlined the urgency of dealing with the situation, especially in light of the tension on the southern Lebanese border.
Last, Jozianne Matar, Ph.D. candidate in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, underlined paths of cooperation with the United Nations and the options Lebanon has to manage the exodus, while keeping good governance relations with international organizations. Mentioning that Lebanon should have acted along the 1951 convention on refugees’ rights, based on the core principle of non-refoulment, Matar suggested that Lebanon has adopted a policy of “non-policy”, aiming to ensure support from donor countries amid the Syrian crisis and the European Union’s desire to keep refugees away. Moreover, the displacement problem, according to Matar, seems not to be just between Lebanon and Syria, but within Lebanon itself, due to existing divisions that in times of crisis appear so evident.
Three years later: On Thursday morning, families of the victims of the August 4 Beirut blast protested to urge the swift resolution of the inquiry into the incident, which claimed over 220 lives, wounded more than 7,000 individuals and displaced an estimated 300,000 people.
As the authorities themselves admitted, the catastrophic blast was triggered by a fire in a warehouse, where hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had been unsafely stored for years. The investigation has been at a standstill for months due to blatant interference by political and security officials, some of whom are being prosecuted by the investigative judge Tarek Bitar in connection with the case.
The explosion’s victims have seen justice delayed, with the investigation stalled since December 2021. Lebanon’s political class has repeatedly intervened in the work of the judiciary.
In January, Lebanon’s general prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation. The unprecedented move amid rampant political interference bypasses the ongoing criminal investigation into the explosion.
In fact, the Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the domestic investigation into the explosion by shielding politicians and officials implicated in the explosion from questioning, prosecution, and arrest. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide, Legal Agenda and the International Commission of Jurists have documented a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation, including flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for the fair trial standards, and due process violations.
“The Lebanese authorities have run roughshod over the law, shamelessly bypassing an ongoing criminal investigation and retaliating against a judge who was just doing his job,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “It is patently clear that the Lebanese authorities are determined to obstruct justice. Since the explosion, they have repeatedly blocked the domestic investigation, shielding themselves from accountability at the expense of the victims’ rights to truth, justice and redress.”
During Thursday’s sit-in, the victims’ relatives specifically called for a rapid decision on the complaint filed this past January by the general prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, Ghassan Oueidat, against judge Bitar. In resuming his work last January, judge Bitar ordered the release of five suspects detained between August 2020 and September 2021 and charged others: among those he summoned for interrogation was the general prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat.
The duty of adjudicating the dispute between Oueidat and Bitar falls on Habib Rizkallah, the first investigative judge of Beirut, appointed to this position in June. The victims’ families are now demanding the creation of an indictment chamber capable of handling appeals against the expected decision of Judge Rizkallah.
However, being clear that the domestic investigation will not be allowed to progress and cannot deliver justice, the establishment of an international fact-finding mission mandated by the UN Human Rights Council is the more urgent, as support is amplifying. On the three-year anniversary of the Beirut blast, in fact, more than 300 organizations and individuals, including Human Rights Watch, called for the creation of an international fact-finding mission into the blast, while six UN experts voiced their support for such an international investigation.
After last September’s United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk denounced the lack of accountability for the Beirut port explosion and the repeated interference by Lebanese officials into the domestic investigation. “It may therefore be time to consider an international fact-finding mission to look into human rights violations related to the tragedy,” Türk said, hopefully bringing this resolution forward at the council’s next session in March.
In The Region
The ‘other’ Palestine: While global attention is focused on Israel and Gaza, Israeli authorities are tightening their repression in the West Bank and Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians are surging.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israeli forces have recently killed dozens of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, taking the total number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank to 240 since October 7, more than it has killed in the West Bank in any year since 2005, when the United Nations began systematically recording fatalities.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the record of Palestinians killed in the West Bank had been surpassed even before October 7, as between January 1 and October 6 Israeli security forces already killed 192 people, including 40 children.
Late on Saturday and early Sunday, Israeli forces shot dead five Palestinians in the city of Jenin and killed a sixth in the village of Yatma, near Nablus, and a seventh and near a Jewish settlement outside the West Bank town of El Bireh, medics and local sources said on Sunday, as Reuters reported, while six other Palestinians were injured in the Israeli raid in Jenin. Palestinian news agency Wafa said Israeli forces stormed Jenin “from several directions, firing bullets and surrounding government hospitals and the headquarters of the Red Crescent Society”. During the raid, it was reported, the occupation army besieged the Jenin Public Hospital, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society local branch, and the Ibn Sina Hospital. The occupation forces also deployed snipers on the rooftops of some buildings, and bulldozed several streets in the city and the vicinity of the refugee camp.
Israel is also illegally imprisoning Palestinians in the West Bank at the highest rate in 30 years, often subjecting them to torture and abuse and indefinitely holding the captives without any charge or trial. Since October 7, Israeli forces have arrested more than 3,000 people, as it intensified raids in the West Bank since launching its military offensive on Gaza.
These abuses are a part of Israeli authorities’ crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as documented by Human Rights Watch and other Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights organizations.
During 2022 and the first eight months of 2023, 1,105 Palestinians, including 4 entire communities, were forced to leave their homes, primarily due to settler violence and prevention of access to grazing lands. Nearly the same number – 143 households comprising 1,014 people, coming from 15 herding Bedouin communities in the West Bank – have been displaced since October 7 amid settler violence and access restrictions. Settlers have attacked 92 Palestinian communities during this period, the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din found. Impunity fuels settler violence, which, as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has reported, “serves as a major informal tool at the hands of the state to take over more and more West Bank land.”
The raids come despite the ongoing truce between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas in the war-torn Gaza Strip.
However, “for every Palestinian prisoner [the Israelis] release, there seems to be a continued disregard for the freedoms of Palestinians they continue to detain, a continuous disregard for Palestinian life as they continue to kill people in very violent and endless raids in the occupied West Bank,” said Al Jazeera correspondent Zein Basravi, reporting from Ramallah in the West Bank.
Sisi’s speculations: A future Palestinian state could be demilitarized and have a temporary international security presence to provide guarantees to both it and to Israel, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday, as Reuters reported.
“We said that we are ready for this state to be remilitarized, and there can also be guarantees of forces, whether NATO forces, United Nations forces, or Arab or American forces, until we achieve security for both states, the nascent Palestinian state and the Israeli state,” Sisi said during a joint news conference in Cairo with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, claiming that a political resolution which requires a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, has remained out of reach.
However, the idea of replicating the South Lebanon UNIFIL mission model in Gaza in a possible post-Hamas scenario appears highly unlikely to experts. Not only because Israel would hardly accept an autonomous and independent UN force in Gaza: but also because the dissuading force of a possible UN mission has already proved to be very limited, in the face of a state that for decades has not respected international law nor has observed the several UN calls for ceasefire.
In addition, the mandate of the UNIFIL mission in south Lebanon, defined by the UN resolution 1701 of 2006, does not foresee the disarmament of Hezbollah, an objective which is at the core of Israel’s offensive against Hamas.
In a possible post-conflict scenario, with a territory transformed into a wasteland and deprived a local state reference, none of the models suggested by al-Sisi would be likely applicable, especially given the strong feeling of solidarity of the Palestinian population with respect to the Islamic movement and the growing disillusionment with the Arab League.
Moreover, Arab nations themselves have rejected suggestions that an Arab force provide security in the Gaza Strip after the end of Israel’s current military operation there against Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007. As Reuters reported, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told reporters in London this week that Arab states would not want to go into a Gaza Strip devastated by Israel’s military offensive, wondering about the the circumstances under which “any of us would want to go and be seen as the enemy and be seen as having come to clean up Israel’s mess.”
The diplomatic game: While Egypt speculates on the future of Gaza, with the US and a number of western states throwing their unconditional support behind Israel, other Arab countries have found themselves trying to safeguard their interests while appeasing public anger, playing careful diplomatic games ever since the eruption of the latest war.
On November 18, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan announced that a delegation from the Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit, which took place in Riyadh earlier this month, will be going on a tour of the five permanent United Nations Security Council member states to promote an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and work for the achievement of a Palestinian independent state.
The delegation, formed at a summit of the Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Riyadh, includes representatives from Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the secretary-general of the OIC.
It started its tour in China, where it met with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, on Monday in Beijing. The Chinese meeting was followed by one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday and the UK’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, later in London. Wednesday, instead, saw a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Starting with China surprised analysts who speculated on what the delegation was trying to signal to Western powers, while some were less concerned with that and questioned the delegation’s true agenda. “In diplomacy, it is a well-known strategy: When you don’t want to do anything, try to involve the maximum of actors,” Gerard Araud, former French ambassador to Israel, posted on X, commenting on the Saudi Foreign Minister’s former announcement. “It takes time, it gives the impression of activity, and it is useless.”
Shortly after the delegation began its visit, talk of a humanitarian pause gathered steam, and early on Wednesday, it was announced. The deal was a major talking point for the delegation, as they are now pushing for a more lasting cessation of hostilities.
Murdering citizens: Syria’s opposition government said Saturday that government forces shelled the northwestern village of Qaqfin, located in Idlib, Syria. The shelling resulted in the death of nine civilians, drawing further attention to allegations of human rights violations committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government.
In a press release, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) revealed that the shelling targeted areas in Idlib, in northern Syria.
Parts of the north are controlled by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), while Idlib province remains in rebel hands. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by al-Qaeda’s former Syria branch, controls swathes of Idlib province as well as parts of the neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.
Nine civilians lost their lives during the shelling in Qafin, including six women and children. Before the attack, the civilians were engaged in harvesting olives.
Two days before the attack, the SOC urged the international community to enforce the Astana process, formed under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The 2015 resolution called for the international community to prevent any further acts of hostility targeting civilians and public infrastructure, and stresses the crucial importance of a ceasefire in Syria.
Following the attack, the SOC “appealed[ed] to the UN Security Council to condemn the war crime perpetrated” on Saturday. It further called for “a decisive action through legal and political means to halt the crimes of the Assad regime and its allies.”
Despite the 2015 resolution, attacks in Syria remain ongoing. The British-based war monitoring organization Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has documented at least 404 operations in Syria’s “de-escalation zone” since the start of this year. These attacks have resulted in the deaths of 202 civilians and 257 combatants, as of the time of Saturday’s attack. Additionally, since the war began in Syria in March 2011, more than 500,000 people have been killed and approximately 6.8 million internally displaced, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The international community has recently taken some action against Assad and his regime beyond the 2015 resolution. On November 15, France issued arrest warrants for Assad and several other high-ranking military officials for their role in perpetrating two chemical weapons attacks in August 2013. The next day, on November 16, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an interim order directing Assad’s government to “take all measures within its powers” to prevent the torture of its own citizens.
Democracies and the Middle East: Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi accused the newspaper Haaretz of “defeatist and false propaganda” against the state of Israel, proposing sanctions on the outlet, according to reports from The Times of Israel.
In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs, Karhi denounced Haaretz for its editorial stance on the war and proposes that the state not enter into any new commercial agreements with the newspaper, halted all advertising in it even if it has been paid for, and blocked any outstanding payments from being made.
“Since the beginning of the war, my office has received numerous complaints that the Haaretz newspaper has taken a harmful line that undermines the goals of the war and weakens the military effort and societal resilience,” Karhi wrote, alleging that some of Haaretz’s articles have “crossed the criminal threshold” and will be examined by the relevant authorities.
In his letter, the minister quoted a few select lines of some recent Haaretz articles published since October 7, including one line from an opinion piece by columnist Gideon Levy, published on October 9, where he wrote: “Behind all this stands Israeli arrogance: our belief that we can harm everyone and that we will never be punished for it… we will gouge out eyes… we will smash faces.”
He also cited a line from an article by another columnist, Amira Hass, published on October 10, who wrote: “In one day, Israeli citizens experienced what Palestinians have experienced and experienced for decades as a matter of routine: military invasion, death, cruelty, children killed, bodies left in the streets.”
Notably, both examples were from opinion pieces that do not represent the paper’s general editorial line, which has been largely supportive of the war effort, though highly critical of the government leading it.
Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, in response, posted on X that the paper remained “committed to reporting without fear or favor” despite Karhi’s proposed resolution, while the Union of Journalists in Israel strongly criticized Karhi’s proposal, saying it harmed the freedom of the press in Israel.
“His new proposal to stop all the government’s commercial agreements with the newspaper is a populist proposal, devoid of all logic and any possibility [to be approved], and its entire purpose is to garner likes from [his] political base, at the expense of dedicated journalists who are working day and night covering the war, and in a deliberate and blatant assault on the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know,” said the union, confident that the journalist of the Haaretz Group won’t be deterred by Minister Karhi’s threats,
Although the threats to Haaretz could be nothing more than a populist maneuver to curry favor with political base, under the push of an almost two-month wartime, Israel has already passed emergency regulations allowing the Communications Ministry to shut down foreign news broadcasts deemed to be harmful for national security and cause incitement, despite the initial draft of the regulations including domestic media as well. It was The Marker, a business daily newspaper published by the Haaretz Group, which first reported on that early draft.
The Israeli Communications Ministry has already shut down the Lebanese al-Mayadeen news channel associated with Hezbollah. Moreover, Karhi initially threatened to shutter the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, but has withheld from doing so in order not to antagonize the Qatari government as it serves as a mediator in hostage negotiations with Hamas, according to reporting by The Times of Israel.
US retaliation: Early on Wednesday, November 22, the US military “conducted discrete, precision strikes against two facilities in Iraq,” US Central Command said on X, striking two targets and killing five pro-Iran fighters in retaliation for repeated attacks on US troops by Iran-backed groups in Iraq, as reported by US and Iraqi sources.
The government in Baghdad has condemned the United States for a series of air raids which violated Iraqi sovereignty, government spokesman Bassem al-Awadi said, as the US did not coordinate the attacks on militia positions south of Baghdad with Iraq.
Pro-Iran militia Kataib Hezbollah, also known as Hezbollah Brigades, claimed that eight of its fighters were killed in the US strikes on Tuesday and early Wednesday, warning in a statement that the attacks “will not go unpunished.”
It was the first time the United States has announced a strike on Iran-backed forces in Iraq since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, when pro-Iran militias launched a flurry of attacks against US targets in response to Washington’s support for Israel. Since the war erupted on October 7, US forces deployed in Iraq and Syria have been attacked at least 73 times, according to Pentagon officials, as reported by CNN.
However, while US forces have been targeted in both Iraq and Syria, Washington had initially started its retaliatory response by targeting Iran-backed groups only in neighboring Syria, carrying out strikes on three occasions in recent weeks.
In what seems the turning-point to the initial bid to avoid inflaming political tensions in Iraq, which the United States invaded in 2003 and where Iran wields substantial influence, fears of regional escalation are rising, as Iran has warned against the mounting death toll in Gaza, concerning over a considerable increase in the already massive US military presence in the region, which now includes new carrier strike groups, a nuclear submarine and troops, as Al Jazeera reported.
In fact, there were already roughly 2,500 US troops in Iraq and some 900 in Syria as part of efforts to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group: but the attacks by regional armed groups have only intensified in recent years, particularly following the 2020 US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, where Tehran-backed militias hold sway.
The Red Sea front: After demonstrating that their ballistic missiles and drones could reach south Israel, the Yemeni Houthis have expanded their focus to the Red Sea. Since late October, in response to the Gaza offensive, the Houthis vowed last week to target Israeli ships, threatening to strike Israeli and American assets in the Red Sea.
“Our eyes are open to constant monitoring and searching for any Israeli ship,” leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said in a speech broadcast by the group’s Al-Masirah TV station on Monday, claiming Israeli ships being a “legitimate target,” Houthi spokesperson Yahya Saree posted on X.
Last Sunday’s seizure of an Israel-linked cargo vessel, the Galaxy Leader, and the capture of its 25-person international crew, seemed to open a new dimension in the Israel-Hamas war, re-establishing the role of the Iran-backed Houthis. As part of the Axis of Resistance of Iran’s allies and proxies in the region, the Houthis have used an Iran-style method to board the ship, by rappelling or sliding down a rope from a helicopter, as Iran did during previous vessel seizures in the Strait of Hormuz, according to the maritime security company Ambrey. The ship is ultimately owned by the Israeli billionaire Abraham Ungar, but the plea to release the crew is being led by Japan.
Despite Iran’s foreign ministry announcing that “the resistance groups in the region represent their countries and make decisions and act based on the interests of their countries,” as the ministry’s spokesman Nasser Kanani said, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the capture as an “Iranian terrorist attack against an international vessel.”
The US is willing to launch an attack on Houthi military sites in and around Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, as well as its port operations room, unless the Galaxy Leader is released.
Yemen’s coastline overlooks the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a narrow pass between Yemen and Djibouti at the foot of the Red Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and sees the passage of about a fifth of global oil consumption. The threat of disruption to shipping in the wider region is therefore likely to rise, especially considering the lack of alternative routes.
Moreover, the attack could jeopardize Saudi efforts to bring peace in Yemen, as last week the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) – the coalition representing the official UN-recognized Yemen government based in Aden – was summoned for further talks in Riyadh to present a revised roadmap that would lead to foreign forces, including those from Saudi Arabia, leaving in six months. It includes a budget deal under which large sums would be transferred from the oil-rich south to the impoverished north, which is dominated by the Iranian-backed Houthis.
Critics of the deal claim it empowers the Houthis, but Saudi Arabia, eager to exit what has proved to be an ill-judged military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, that is thought to have caused more than 250,000 victims, wants to end its engagement as quickly as possible.
What We’re Reading
Paradigm Al-Khalil: In an interview with the Palestinian human rights activist Muhanned Qafesha, Valeria Rando explored the rapid exasperation of settlers’ violence in the occupied West Bank, analyzing the context of the city of Hebron to underline how the outcomes of October 7’s attack are seriously threatening the survival of Palestinians in the West Bank.
Four days of calm: On Friday, November 24, the temporary ceasefire in Gaza was put into place, allowing for an exchange of hostages and a four-days respite for the population in the southern Strip. Dana Hourany underlined for NOW the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the ceasefire, especially in south Lebanon, highlighting the significance of a temporary truce along the unrested Lebanese-Israeli border.
This week’s episode of The New Arab Voice looked over the last events in Gaza, examining the US relationship with Israel and the view of the conflict from Washington, in light of the recently-signed Abraham Accords.