HomePoliticsBriefingFrom hunger or fire

From hunger or fire

A Lebanese army soldier inspects the wreckage of a car that was targeted in Israeli strike early on March 2, 2024, near the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura. Three Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah members were killed on March 2 in an Israeli strike that targeted a car in southern Lebanon, a Lebanese security source told AFP. (Photo by AFP)

Negotiations for a ceasefire in Gaza resume as Ramadan approaches, The flour massacre, Jordan Air Force’s attempt to airdrop food to starving Gazans, Israel strikes deeper into Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, US envoy due in Beirut to continue de-escalation talks, Hamas claims border strikes from south Lebanon, Palestinian PM resigns as pressure grows over post-war Gaza plans, The Lebanese caretaker cabinet increased public sector compensation, Tehran to vote with lowest turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Over a decade after their construction Syrian regime objects to Lebanese border watchtowers, The Ambassadors of the Arab-International Quintet Committee pushing towards Lebanon’s presidential elections, At least 25 million Sudanese are suffering from hunger as the war continues to decimate the country, Syrian Network for Human Rights reports 16 torture deaths in the last three months, Lebanese-operated Rubymar cargo ship attacked by Yemen’s Houthis has sunk, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon announce anti-narcotics cooperation, AUB seminar discusses Lebanon’s conflicting identity crisis

Day 150, Palestinian death toll above 30,400, about 250 in Lebanon. Habit of the eyes at the sight of mutilated bodies, whitened by the dust of explosions and rubble, inability to react to the destruction. No one in Beirut took to the streets for the flour massacre. Other protests filled the capital’s public spaces: the state budget for the year that has just begun, the salary increase for public workers, the issue of pensions for retired military personnel: apparently resolved with the last parliamentary session. When it comes to ceasefire negotiations and talks, however, the application of resolution 1701, and a definitive demarcation of land and maritime borders, the right to live in peace, the right to live, the issues seem suspended, entrusted to a shapeless body that defines itself as diplomatic, and whose existence people begin to doubt – having noted its ineffectiveness. The excuse: the presidential vacuum. Or rather – the inertia with which it is accepted in Lebanon.

Yet, Israeli bombings continue to shock the southern region of the country, intensifying their power, their range of action and the number of victims, civilians and not. While the villages of the districts of Tyre and Nabatieh mourn their fallen, Beirut sleeps. Perhaps this is why Aaron Bushnell’s immolation left the world so shocked. It has established – in the land of the colonizer – a new language with which to say no, a different alphabet of protesting, the extreme gesture of affirmation of a freedom which, denied in life, is expressed in death. In the geographical distance from the scene of the massacre, surrounded by clean streets, erect buildings, intact bodies, its act has claimed the eloquence of the symbol: a military uniform, the Israeli embassy, Washington, DC. To those who say that it does not concern us, that the war is far away, that selling weapons doesn’t involve blood, it has responded that the weight of complicity in the genocide is unbearable – and that the stain remains.

The reaction of the security forces: pointing a gun at the man on fire. What remains of a body on its way to the ash, faced by the mechanical gesture of a secret service officer. The logic of power against the irrationality of extreme protest. Weapon held sternly as the only conceivable gesture of repression of dissent under the excuse of defending public order, the very emblematic scene of legitimization of genocide for the so-called prevention of terrorism. You ask to be free, they block access to the exit routes and blindly bomb your houses. You ask to be burned to death, they threaten to shoot you. The absurdity of the image speaks for itself: Aaron, burning for Gaza, won. The last words spoken: “free Palestine.”

In a world whose dynamics are dictated by the logic of conquest and profit, it seems that the only freedom left – for dissidents – is that of choosing how to die: if hunger doesn’t upset enough public consciences, perhaps fire will. The tenacious resistance to death of the population of Gaza apparently made acceptable the absurd logic of humanitarian aid raining from the sky, while the world continues to allow the occupying power in the form of brazen soldiers to cook in the occupied kitchens of displaced people while starving them to death, dance on their rubble while thousands of people are still missing, be photographed surrounded by a selection of underwear belonging to probably dead women – shoes from girls whose lower limbs have perhaps been amputated. It seems that the completion of the last colonial project in history is being realized before the sleeping eyes of the world, in the absolute failure of the organizations founded for its prevention. Perhaps this is what Israeli President Isaac Herzog meant when he said that the purpose, the objective of this war is to save Western civilization, “to save its values.” Selling weapons, de-financing humanitarian aid organizations, collectively punishing a starving population to control their resources, appropriating their spaces, claiming them for themselves after having razed them to the ground.

Yet, Gaza fights its battle, and the Palestinians prepare with their survival a world without colonialism while the whole world prepares with its complicity a world without Palestinians. It is on this field that the war is fought. There is no return to a time before the genocide. What needs to be determined is whether it is the Palestinians who’ll disappear or instead the last colonial project in history, remembering that the first option is a condemnation, and that a world without Palestinians is a place where injustice is the ruling law and the only possible freedom is measured in the cause of death. Devin Atallah and Sarah Ihmoud wrote in an article published in The Massachusetts Review, ‘A World Without Palestinians,’ that “Palestinians teach a fundamental decolonial truth, which the current world is still unable to comprehend – that Gaza has liberated us all. This truth invites all who wish to build a new world to become Palestinian, to cast their lot with the wretched of the earth as a radical subject position that refuses colonial brutality and imagines something different. We Palestinians are already on the other side – surviving, persisting, and insisting on life in the face of our own vanishing.” If so, the death of Aaron Bushnell marked the first rite of passage to the other, the right, just side of history.


In Lebanon

Truce ahead: On Monday, March 4, US envoy Amos Hochstein visited Beirut to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at de-escalating the conflict across the Lebanese-Israeli border and bringing stability, a senior Lebanese official and a White House official told Reuters on Sunday, after Hezbollah and Israel have been locked in hostilities for months in parallel to the Gaza war.

Lebanon deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab, one of the officials due to meet Hochstein, was quoted as saying that he believed the timing of his visit pointed to progress in efforts to secure a Gaza truce “within the next few hours or days.” “If this happens,” he added, “I believe that Hochstein’s visit this time will be of great importance to follow up on the truce on our southern borders and to discuss what is needed for stability and ending the possibility of the expansion of the war with Lebanon.”

The Lebanese Parliament Speaker claimed that Hochstein had “serious ideas that may provide the beginning of a sustainable solution, stability, and banishing the specter of war that will not be in anyone’s interest,” after caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Reuters on Thursday that a halt to fighting in the Gaza Strip as early as this week would trigger indirect talks to end hostilities along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.

Hochstein, who visited Beirut earlier in January, previously brokered a rare diplomatic deal between Lebanon and Israel in 2022 to delineate their maritime border. Further border negotiations would culminate France’s multi-phase suggestion made last month to calm clashes between Hezbollah and Israel, beginning with a cease-fire followed by the former’s withdrawal 10 kilometers from the border region, a shorter distance than the buffer zone where the Lebanese Army and United Nations peacekeepers hold a force monopoly, delineated to end the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war in UN Security Council Resolution 1701. That would be the first step of a 10-day plan involving bolstering the Lebanese Army’s border presence and gradual resumption of talks on disputed border areas. 

Recalling a ceasefire which ended a war between Hezbollah and Israel in 1996, and also the already mentioned UN Resolution 1701 of 2006, the French plan was formally rejected by Hezbollah, which opposes negotiating a de-escalation until the war in Gaza ends. Emphasizing Lebanon’s preference for peace, then, caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib reiterated Lebanon’s preference for a diplomatic solution: however, responding to repeated Israeli threats, he claimed that if a war is “imposed” on Lebanon, the country would be ready. 


Striking deeper: Israeli warplanes struck Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley on Monday, killing at least two Hezbollah members in its deepest attack into Lebanese territory since hostilities erupted with the Iran-backed group last October, sources in Lebanon said, as reported by Reuters’ news agency. Hitting part of the Beqaa Valley region near the Syrian border, a political stronghold of the Shiite party – and targeting an area located some 18 km from the city of Baalbek – the attacks marked an intensification of the worst violence between Hezbollah and Israel since their 2006 war, fueling concern of the potential for further escalation and regional spillover of the Gaza war.

Underlining the risks of escalation, Hezbollah responded by firing 60 rockets at an Israeli army headquarters in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the group’s al-Manar television reported. The Israeli attack was presumably in response to the downing of an Israeli drone, which Hezbollah said it had shot down with a surface-to-air missile earlier on Monday.

In a separate strike, an Israeli drone hit a car in the town of Mjadel in southern Lebanon, killing a Hezbollah field commander, that Israel’s military claimed to be Hassan Hossein Salami, responsible for activities including missile launches directed at Israel, as well as levelling homes in the district of Bint Jbeil, killing an elderly couple in Kafra and injuring several others, while the US raised their calls for a diplomatic solution to the cross-border clashes. To respond, Hezbollah said it had targeted the Israeli Meron air control base “with a large salvo of rockets from several launchers,” with the confirmation of the IDF, which later stated that about 40 rockets had been launched towards Israel from southern Lebanon. 

Moreover, on Wednesday, for the first time in months, Hamas claimed responsibility for rocket launches towards Israel from southern Lebanon. The group said the strikes were in retaliation for Israel’s massacres in Gaza and its assassination of Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri in a January drone strike on Beirut’s southern suburbs, while Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh urged the Iran-led and backed Axis of Resistance to step up its support for Gaza through political leverage, money and weapons.

The latest rise in hostilities revives concerns that the war in Gaza threatens escalation across the region, especially after on Sunday, February 25, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no decline in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if a ceasefire were agreed upon in the Palestinian enclave.


Compensating: On Wednesday afternoon, the caretaker cabinet convened to tackle a 27-point agenda, including public sector compensation and bank restructuring. The meeting was set to address, respectively, a draft law containing exceptional measures to rebalance banks’ balance sheets and the requirement to restitute up to 100,000 dollars of foreign currency funds deposited before October 2019 – and up to 36,000 dollars for sums placed after; the provision of “temporary compensations to all public sector employees and retirees,” which, despite repeated salary adjustments, have seen their wages withered by the lira’s depreciation; the Foreign Ministry’s request to suspend work at certain diplomatic and consular missions; and a Justice Ministry request to appoint a French lawyer to represent the Lebanese state in France for the prosecution of former Banque du Liban chief Riad Salameh – that would help maintain Lebanon’s claim over assets seized in case Salameh is convicted. 

The government’s last scheduled meeting was set to take place on Friday but was postponed after Lebanese Army retirees blocked access to the Grand Serail to protest low pensions and perceived unfairness in public sector compensation. Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, depositors and retired military personnel furtherly demonstrated. To address their stances, the caretaker cabinet granted three additional salaries to current and retired Lebanese Army personnel’s salaries and two additional salaries to administrative civil servants, totaling an adjustment of nine salaries for each category which will be effective retroactively starting from December 1, 2023. The government also approved productivity bonuses as well as daily attendance payments to civil servants and public sector retirees. In addition, along with the increase of public sector’s compensation, the cabinet convened on the approval of a feasibility study for a Beirut-Bekaa highway, while discussions on bank restructuring were postponed to the next few weeks. 


Pushing towards presidential elections: On Friday, caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, met with the Ambassadors of the Arab-International Quintet Committee at the Grand Serail, state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported. The Ambassadors include Saudi Ambassador Walid Bukhari, French Ambassador Hervé Magro, Qatari Ambassador Sheikh Saud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Egyptian Ambassador Alaa Moussa, and US Ambassador Lisa Johnson. 

During the meeting, the Prime Minister commended the efforts of the committee members and “encouraged them to continue working towards unifying visions and pushing towards the election of a new president for the country, with the president being a sponsor of dialogue and a supporter of economic and social reforms, as well as the cornerstone in implementing the constitution and the Taif Agreement.” Voicing Lebanon’s appreciation for the Quintet countries’ efforts for the country’s security issue, Mikati expressed hope that “MPs would shoulder their responsibilities in electing a president.”

Following the meeting, the Egyptian Ambassador stressed the imperative need to expedite the election of a Lebanese president – an issue that has been tackled during discussions and round of talks which have already began with Lebanese officials and “a number of political bloc leaders,” adding that “sometimes, we operate as a Quintet committee and at other times, engage bilaterally. However, we always represent the viewpoint of the Quintet.” “There is a renewed spirit and desire, albeit to varying degrees, and this is what we will work on in the coming period to reach a unified position and roadmap to complete the presidential election process,” he added. 

As for the timing, the Egyptian diplomat stressed that the process is complex, subject to the surrounding circumstances – though, without assuming the dependence of Lebanon’s presidential elections on the end of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. Therefore, he stated, “there is no delay compared to the period when we all began waiting for the election of a president.” “The coming period will not have a significant impact but will help create the atmosphere,” as, he added, “the movement of political forces and what is currently happening truly reflects the authenticity of political forces, parliamentary blocs, and a group of deputies who are moving, all aiming to facilitate and create a common ground for everyone to work on to facilitate the election of the president.” 

Responding to a final question about whether the committee has been discussing names, the Egyptian diplomat confirmed that Quintet does not discuss names, stressing it to be a fundamental and exclusive right of Lebanon and Lebanese political forces.


The watchtowers’ issue: Over the past week, the issue of surveillance towers installed by the British government in 2014 along the border between Lebanon and Syria stirred up discussions in the country. While the Syrian regime had previously maintained a low profile on the matter, it suddenly emerged with strong condemnation a decade later, expressing the regime’s objections to these watchtowers through a memorandum from the Syrian Foreign Ministry addressed to Lebanon’s caretaker government, on what it deemed a hostile function by some 40 watchtowers situated on Lebanese territory.

Al-Akhbar newspaper, known for its connections to Lebanese Hezbollah, reported that Syrian officials claim these towers have surveillance capabilities extending deep into Syrian territory. They allege that the British have access to this data, which is then shared with Israel, aiding Israeli airstrikes in Syria. However, in a recent interview, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib stated that “in no way will these towers become sources of hostile acts against Syria,” explaining that their main purpose is to monitor the border and curb infiltration and smuggling activities.

Lebanese politicians and commentators have suggested that the Syrian regime’s recent complaints about the towers, which were built back in 2013 – at a time when Lebanon was engaged in a conflict against the Islamic State (ISIS), only a few weeks before ISIS attacked the Army in Arsal, in the Bekaa region, in August 2014 – are linked to a new offer from the British Foreign Secretary to construct similar structures along the Lebanon-Israel border. Along with the issue of bolstering the role of the Lebanese Army in the area, in fact, recent discussions about erecting additional surveillance towers have emerged. When questioned about the timing of the Syrian Foreign Ministry’s letter, moreover, Bou Habib said that it “could be explained by the recent proposal from London to install similar equipment in South Lebanon,” as only a few weeks ago, London proposed duplicating the watchtower experiment on the Lebanese-Israeli border under the supervision of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Hezbollah officials immediately denied having been consulted on the matter.


Antagonistic poles: Economist Maan Barazy reported for NOW about the new central questions raised in Lebanon’s national debate, especially around its culture and identity. To address the issue of the nature of Lebanese society’s establishment, as the country faces the worst economic crisis in its modern history, and as part of the project ‘Lebanon in its Second Century: A Vision for the Future,’ the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of History and Archaeology held its third seminar in the cultural track at the American University of Beirut. The seminar, titled “What History and Identity for Lebanon’s Second Centennial?” was attended by a number of experts in cultural and media affairs.

Moderated by Lebanese journalist Diana Moukalled, the seminar underscored that in the midst of sharp political and cultural polarization that is perhaps the most challenging in Lebanon’s history, themes of identity, culture, and freedom are more pressing than ever. In the wake of several human rights violations, with the dominance of armed factions and border violations, Lebanese society is being drawn into a destabilized state of affairs as questions of identity are emerging as a starting point for any future discussion on culture and identity.

In the first session entitled “Scattered Identity,” Lebanese writer and researcher Dalal El-Bizri considered that people have lost the stamina to even participate in a national demonstration. Referring to the Palestinian people, she said “despite all violence, they have demonstrated a will for change as ferocity against the population did not refrain them from taking to the streets,” citing it as an example Lebanon should take inspiration from. In the second session, researcher and history professor Charles Hayek stressed that the second centennial is a product of two antagonist poles: that of an identity crisis, or liberating history from its givens. He pointed out that Lebanon has recently witnessed a terrifying escalation in the discourse around identity issues. “It is a nation without direction searching in the past for a role that justifies its existence and defines its present and future,” he believes, adding that the country’s disruption led to a return to the creation of narrow and small identities in the political and cultural arenas. 

Last, Lebanese writer and political commentator Hazem Saghieh’s discussion stressed the clear connotation of Lebanese people’s conflicting identity crisis. Stretched between two factions, the faction of the fighter and the faction of the slain, according to Saghieh the murder of society is not necessarily material: it is done, instead, by depriving citizens of freedoms and denying them the determination of their destiny. Indeed panelists agreed that there is a deep and justified doubt that the country can have a vibrant second century where aspiration of governance and united culture and identity can prevail.


In The Region 

The flour massacre: On Thursday, at about 04:30 local time, at least 112 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 wounded after Israeli troops opened fire on hundreds waiting for food aid at Harun al-Rashid street, southwest of Gaza City, where aid trucks carrying flour were believed to be on the way. “Even after close to five months of brutal hostilities, Gaza still has the ability to shock us,” UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said in response to the incident. 

A convoy of aid trucks passed through the checkpoint, heading north, as people started gathering in large groups. According to the Israeli military, a convoy of 31 trucks entered Gaza – but nearly 20 entered the north on Monday and Tuesday. As people gathered in large groups waiting for much-needed aid, they were shot at by all kinds of military equipment, with people pulling boxes of flour and canned goods off the trucks, according to a report by the Associated Press. After the first round of shooting stopped, people returned to the trucks, only for the soldiers to open fire once more.

The massacre happened in northern Gaza, where food deliveries have been scarce, and the first deliveries in over a month arrived last week, only one day after Carl Skau, deputy executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), told the United Nations Security Council more than 500,000, or one in four people, were at risk of famine, with one in every six children below the age of two considered acutely malnourished. “The risk of famine is being fueled by the inability to bring critical food supplies into Gaza in sufficient quantities, and the almost impossible operating conditions faced by our staff on the ground,” Skau said.

He described dangerous conditions for WFP trucks trying to get food to the north earlier this month. “There were delays at checkpoints; they faced gunfire and other violence; food was looted along the way; and at their destination, they were overwhelmed by desperately hungry people,” he added.

A month ago, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague said Israel must do everything to prevent genocidal acts in the territory. But according to human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Israel “failed to take even the bare minimum steps to comply.” The number of trucks decreased by 40 percent since the ICJ ruling, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). And as international agencies continued to warn of the growing risk of famine starving more than 2 million people in Gaza, ramped-up aid deliveries, hostage releases and a respite from the daily atrocities have been postponed beyond last Monday, Biden said revising an earlier prognosis as truce talks again faltered. 


Resuming negotiations: Gaza ceasefire negotiations resumed in Cairo on Sunday, Reuters reported, citing Egyptian security sources it spoke to, though another source briefed on the talks said Israel would not send a delegation until it got a full list of hostages who are still alive. The parties have agreed on a duration of Gaza truce, hostage and prisoner releases, the news agency said, adding that the completion of the deal still requires an agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from northern Gaza and a return of its residents.

The United States announced Israel has endorsed a framework for a proposed Gaza ceasefire and a captive release deal, and it was now up to the Palestinian group Hamas to agree to it. The comments on Saturday came hours before mediators were expected to reconvene in the Egyptian capital to find a formula acceptable to Israel and Hamas for a lasting ceasefire in Gaza. “There’s a framework deal. The Israelis have more or less accepted it,” a senior US official in the administration of President Joe Biden told reporters on a conference call. “Right now, the ball is in the camp of Hamas,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The framework proposal includes a six-week ceasefire, as well as the release by Hamas of captives considered vulnerable, which includes the sick, the wounded, the elderly and women, the US official said – despite Hamas having stated this week that in total around 70 captives had been killed in Gaza due to Israel’s military operations. A deal would also likely allow aid to reach hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinians in northern Gaza, which humanitarian officials say are under threat of famine.

Eventually, though, Israel boycotted Sunday’s talks after the Palestinian militant group rejected its demand for a complete list of hostages that are still alive, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Hopes for the first pause in fighting since November rose this week after a previous round of talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt in Doha and indications from US President Joe Biden that an agreement was close, likely to be reached before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10 or 11 this year. Hamas, on its side, has not backed away from its position that a temporary truce must be the start of a process towards ending the war altogether. However, the Egyptian sources quoted by Reuters said assurances had been offered to Hamas that the terms of a permanent ceasefire would be worked out in the second and third phases of the deal. The duration of the initial pause, a phase expected to last about six weeks, had been agreed upon, the sources confirmed.


Flying over Gaza: Jordanian Air Force pilots dropped 33 tons of medical supplies, food and other necessities on Gaza on Thursday, a vital support for those it reached, but nowhere near enough to meet the widespread need in the besieged enclave of more than 2 million people. “I think the airdrop is a last-resort, extraordinarily expensive way of providing assistance,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the principal UN Agency for Palestinian affairs, told reporters Thursday in East Jerusalem, as quoted by The Washington Post. “I don’t think that the airdropping of food in the Gaza Strip should be the answer today. The real answer is: open the crossings and bring convoys and medical assistance into the Gaza Strip.”

Airdrops often prove to be inefficient, inaccurate, expensive and dangerous. Not just because only small amounts of aid can be dropped at a time – pallets of food being parachuted off the back of planes – but also as there is no control over precisely where the aid will land. In addition, aid drops could hit people as they land and cause stampedes on the ground, as a video released by Al Jazeera clearly showed. Usually, in fact, aid is distributed with the coordination of aid officials on the ground. But after repeated Israeli targeting of local police and other civil servants who attempted to maintain law and order and coordinate aid distribution in northern Gaza, Middle East Eye learned that the IDF has approached some Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip and asked them to coordinate future aid entry to sidestep the Hamas-run government and UN Agency, adhering to the instruction provided by the Israeli authorities. It was not immediately clear whether the two families had taken up the offer and there are no signs that such coordination has taken effect as of yet.

Therefore, the needed attempt of the Jordanian Air Force to deliver aid to the starving population of Gaza tells a lot about how desperate the situation is.

Jordan has been airdropping crates of humanitarian aid, affixed with GPS-guided parachutes provided by the United States and Britain, to the hospitals it operates in Gaza since early November. But this week it began a new operation: airdropping smaller crates of food, diapers, sanitary products and other items along the strip’s Mediterranean coast. Each plane, reports read, can carry 16 such crates – wrapped in protective plastic and fitted with parachutes and shock-absorbing bases, each about a quarter the size of the packages headed to the hospitals, to maximize reach to civilians. However, “the amount of aid that’s reaching Gaza is not enough, whether by air or by truck,” a spokesman for the Jordanian Armed Forces said. “So any possible method that allows us to bring in aid, we resort to, to fulfil the humanitarian need.” Officials declined to discuss how much the flights cost, or how they’re coordinated with Israel.

With a near-total military control of most of the Strip, Israel controls the aid that gets into Gaza, which comes in through just two crossings in the south: the Erez crossing in the north of the Strip, where people are said to be close to starvation, is shut, despite Israel’s army, with its own supplies, passes in and out of Gaza daily through several crossings.


Resigned: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on Monday his resignation from the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, which rules parts of the occupied West Bank, urging “new political measures” given the changing reality in Gaza, as well as the recent PA’s interest to build support for a possible expanded role following Israel’s war against Hamas in the besieged enclave.

The move comes, in fact, amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Authority, as international efforts intensified to stop the fighting and began work on a political structure to govern the enclave after the war. President Abbas, on his side, accepted Shtayyeh’s resignation but asked him to stay on as caretaker until a permanent replacement is appointed.

“I submit the government’s resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas,” Shtayyeh said, adding that the decision comes in the wake of the “developments related to the aggression against the Gaza Strip and the escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” and anticipating that “the next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political measures that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip,” the outgoing Prime Minister said in a brief speech announcing the resignation. He called for inter-Palestinian consensus and the “extension of the Authority’s rule over the entire land of Palestine.”

The Palestinian Authority, created about 30 years ago as part of the interim Oslo Peace process – exercising limited governance over parts of the occupied West Bank after it lost power in Gaza following a factional struggle with Hamas in 2007 – has been badly undermined by accusations of ineffectiveness and corruption and the prime minister holds little effective power. In addition, Abbas has faced mounting anger since war erupted on October 7, with many criticizing the Palestinian president for not severely condemning the Israeli offensive in Gaza and the rising violence in the West Bank. Yet, it remains the only leadership body generally recognized by the international community.

In this regard, Shtayyeh’s departure marks a symbolic shift that underlines Abbas’ determination to ensure the Authority maintains its claim to leadership as international pressure grows for a revival of efforts to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

No successor has been appointed yet, but Abbas is widely expected to name Mohammad Mustafa, a former World Bank official who is chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) with experience of rebuilding Gaza after a previous war in 2014. There has been no word on elections, which have not been held since 2006.


Tehran to vote: In Iran, some 15,000 candidates competed for the 290-seat Iranian parliamentary election, and 144 ran for the 88 seats of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint the Supreme Leader, the highest political authority in the country. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is more than 84 years old, therefore the incoming Assembly will likely select his successor.

Voter turnout was expected to be at record lows, with candidates opposed to the current hardline government disqualified amid a widespread crackdown on dissent, which rights groups say only intensified after the 2022 protest movement sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Authorities have been nonetheless eager to bring people to the polls, trying to inspire a sense of duty and resistance among Iranians. Across the region, in fact, Iran is facing several challenges, particularly in regards to the war on Gaza: progressively, Tehran’s regional assets, particularly in Syria, are being targeted. For this reason, Supreme Leader Khamenei urged people to vote – considering that turnout has been a source of legitimacy, crucial for the establishment’s maintenance. 

Last month, Khamenei called on Iranians to show up to polling stations, writing on X that “elections are the main pillar of the Islamic Republic.” He warned Iranians that their enemy would seek to discourage them from voting, and so casting one’s ballot was their responsibility and a form of resistance. “Everyone should note that fulfilling these duties and responsibilities is an act of jihad in confronting the enemy, because they do not want these duties to be fulfilled,” the Supreme Leader was reported as saying in the Tehran Times.

More than 61 million of Iran’s 87 million people were eligible to vote, according to Iran’s Election Supervisory Board. While few opinion polls have been publicly released ahead of this year’s election, the results of those that were made public predict a record low turnout. In a December interview with Iranian state news agency ISNA, Hassan Moslemi Naeini, the head of the state-run Academic Center for Education, Culture and Research, said only 27.9% of respondents in his latest survey said they “will definitely participate in the elections.” Meanwhile 36% said there is “no way they will participate in the elections.”

Unofficial reports shared in Iranian media on Saturday estimated turnout in Iran’s parliamentary election at about 40%, which would be the lowest turnout since the 1979 Islamic revolution. With heavyweight moderates and conservatives staying out and reformists calling the election unfree and unfair, the contest was essentially among hardliners and low-key conservatives who proclaim loyalty to Islamic revolutionary ideals. President Ebrahim Raisi was re-elected for the third time to the Assembly of Experts with 82.5% of the vote, the interior ministry announced on Saturday.

Iran’s last presidential election in 2021, which brought hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to power, saw a turnout of 48.8%, down from 62% in 2016 and 85% in 2009. International watchdogs have also repeatedly slammed Iran for holding elections that are neither free nor fair, marked by a vetting process that restricts the types of candidates permitted to run. For example, this year, Iran’s Guardian Council – a powerful 12-member council charged with overseeing elections and legislation – has disqualified over 12,000 candidates from running for parliamentary seats and barred former moderate President Hassan Rouhani from running for the Assembly of Experts, while authorities have also made clear that boycotts will not be tolerated. In this regard, a Norway-based group focused on Kurdish rights, the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, reported that a Kurdish resident in Sanandaj province was arrested by Iranian security forces after calling for an election boycott.


Sunk: The cargo ship Rubymar, which was abandoned in the southern Red Sea after being targeted by Yemen’s Houthis on February 18, has sunk, a statement by the internationally recognized Yemeni government said on Saturday, as reported by Reuters news agency. The vessel was operated by a the Lebanese company Blue Fleet, marking the first time a Lebanese-operated vessel is targeted in the Red Sea since the start of the war in Gaza. 

Following the strike in late-February, the US military command CENTCOM warned of an “environmental catastrophe” if the cargo aboard the Rubymar, which included some 22,000 metric tons of fertilizer, were to spill into the Red Sea. According to the IMDG classification (International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code) – an international guide for the transport of dangerous goods in packages – class 5 substances designating oxidizing substances, which, when combined with a fuel, cause the latter to burn, include ammonium nitrate and preparations containing ammonium nitrate. However, interviewed for L’Orient-Le Jour, CEO of Blue Feet, Roy Khoury – which has an office in Beirut and headquarters in Athens – denied that the cargo stored on the vessel contained any hazardous materials. “The ship is carrying non-hazardous fertilizers,” he was quoted as saying by the Lebanese newspaper.

In two separate reports on Saturday the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) agency said it had received a report of a ship being attacked 15 nautical miles west of Yemen’s port of Mokha. “The crew took the vessel to anchor and were evacuated by military authorities,” the UKMTO said in an advisory note. Separately, it reported a ship sinking, without mentioning the Rubymar, although both incidents occurred in the vicinity of where the Rubymar was last seen.

Houthi attacks have prompted shipping firms to divert vessels on to the longer, more expensive route around southern Africa. They have also stoked fears that the Israel-Hamas war could spread, destabilizing the wider Middle East, after the United States and Britain began striking Houthi targets in Yemen in January in retaliation for the attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab Strait and Gulf of Aden.


Against drug trafficking: Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari recently announced the creation of a coordination cell among Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, aimed at fighting drug smuggling across these four nations. Speaking at a press conference last Saturday, February 24, al-Shammari revealed that this initiative was part of an agreement made during a meeting of representatives from the four countries held last week in Amman, Jordan.

“We all admit that there is a big problem, which is drugs, and that all of our communities struggle with this issue. The states are working on a national level to handle this phenomenon, but we all agreed today that without a joint coordination effort we will not reach the results that we want,” Jordan Interior Minister Mazin al-Farrayeh said during a joint press conference following the meeting. Jordan in particular has become a transit point of drugs, especially captagon, being smuggled out of Syria which has turned into a Middle Eastern hub for narcotics: in December, Amman carried out a series of airstrikes against suspected drug trafficking positions in southern Syria.

The ministers agreed to continue the meetings and establish a joint communications cell to keep up cooperation on addressing the alarming rise of narcotics in their countries. In this regard, Iraqi Interior Minister Al-Shammari highlighted the cell’s early successes, noting significant achievements including “the arrest of traffickers from neighboring countries and the confiscation of large amounts of narcotics”. “The challenge of drug gangs last year was like a battle, and our measures were harsh on them, and we promise them that this year will be harsher,” he added, as more than 19,000 people were reportedly arrested across Iraq in 2023 on drug-related charges and over 15 tons of psychotropic substances were seized during that year. To respond to this alarming issue, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani has ordered the establishment of rehabilitation centers in all Iraqi provinces, excluding the Kurdistan Region, as part of his cabinet’s commitment to combat growing drug trade and use as seriously as the country fights terrorism.


Defying ICJ ruling: The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) recently reported that, despite an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling mandating temporary measures against human rights abuses, the Syrian government has persisted in severely committing such acts. These include arrests, torture, and deaths due to torture. This report comes three months after mid-November Court’s decision, which aimed to halt forced disappearances and torture amid ongoing legal action initiated by both the Netherlands and Canada – countries that have accused the Syrian government of breaching the Convention against Torture, which Syria ratified in 2004.

The ICJ measures, designed to enforce several obligations under international law while awaiting a final verdict on the case against the Syrian regime, include the cessation of torture and enforced disappearances, and the protection of evidence from destruction or tampering.

In the period since the ICJ issued its ruling on November 16, 2023, up until February 21, 2024, the network’s findings documented 246 arbitrary arrests, including of six children and 17 women, with those arrested imprisoned in regime detention centers. Of these, 29 were released, while 217 have been reclassified as enforced disappearance cases, and at least 16 individuals have been killed under torture in regime detention centers. The statement adds that no fewer than seven individuals classified as forcibly disappeared have been registered as dead in the state civil registry records during the last three months, among whom one prominent case was that of the well-known poet and activist Nasser Bunduq, forcibly disappeared in regime detention centers since February 17, 2014, and ultimately registered as dead in the civil registry records. In all of these seven cases, the cause of death was not mentioned, the victims’ bodies have not been returned to their families, and the Syrian regime failed to announce the victims’ deaths at the time they occurred.

Emphasizing the regime’s continued use of torture in various forms, such as severe violence, beatings, and subjecting detainees to inhumane detention conditions, the report also mentions the referral of detainees to special security courts, which operate under conditions similar to those of the security branch investigations. The statement further stresses the massive usage of arbitrary arrest, “which is, in and of itself, a form of torture since it is carried out in a manner more akin to an abduction than a legitimate arrest with no judicial warrant shown,” it reads.


Starving Sudan: At least 25 million Sudanese are suffering from hunger or malnutrition, as the war continues to decimate the country. The humanitarian situation is dire, with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and its warring side, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary, accusing each other of obstructing aid deliveries and cutting access to the internet. In this regard, the army has accused the RSF of cutting off the country’s access to the internet, while the RSF has accused the army of blocking the flow of aid into Darfur – a region serving as the paramilitary group’s power base, where the humanitarian situation is perhaps the worst. There, Sudanese displaced by decades of fighting and living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps face famine, malnourishment and much more. 

Earlier in February, aid organization Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) estimated that in Zamzam camp, in north Darfur, one child dies every two hours and around 13 are dying everyday, as stated by Claire Nicolet, head of MSF’s emergency response in Sudan, who described the situation as “absolutely catastrophic.”

Many more allegations have been reciprocally made by the warring parties, as each side seeks to win the information war that has been raging since the fighting began on April 15 last year, and Sudan has been under an internet blackout for more than a month, prompting thousands of people to use Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet to communicate and use banking apps. Trying to gather further international support, Sudanese public policy research organization and think-tank Fikra for Studies and Development has launched a global call for the announcement of famine in Sudan by aid agencies. 

Meanwhile, on the ground, next to malnutrition and the failure of the harvest season, a raft of diseases, including cholera – there are now more than 10,000 suspected cases in Sudan – have broken out. Doctors, hospitals, and emergency room activists providing aid in local neighborhoods have been attacked. Moreover, at the end of January, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 10.7 million people have been displaced by conflicts in Sudan, nine million of them inside the country. This would leave Sudan with the highest rate of internal displacement in the world, surpassing even Syria’s 7.2 million – as border-crossing attempts to the Egyptian borders are decreasing after Egypt has severely restricted legal routes of entry from the war-torn country.


What We’re Reading

Infrastructure in peril: NOW’s Rodayna Raydan tackled the topic of Lebanon’s building crisis and the risk of more than 16,000 structures to collapse due to water damage, inadequate structural reinforcement, overburdening rooftops, insufficient evaluation of structural integrity, and outdated infrastructure.


Egypt navigating the ties: Political psychologist Ramzi Abou Ismail wrote for NOW about the intertwined roles played by Egypt in reshaping Middle Eastern alliances and conflict dynamic, navigating between the strategic investment of the UAE-Egypt pact for the development of the Ras al-Hikma peninsula, and the development at the Gaza border – where Sisi’s initiative to establish a walled area near Rafah, capable of sheltering displaced Palestinians, raises questions about the country’s role in the conflict’s future trajectory and resolution.


Budget blues: Despite timely preparation, Lebanon’s proposed state budget for 2024 faces criticism for its regressive tax policies and lack of transformative economic reforms. Interviewed for NOW, Professor of Economics and the Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies & Research at the Lebanese American University (LAU) Walid Marrouch and Dr. Patrick Mardini, CEO of the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies, helped unveil the budget’s ineffectiveness, noting that it would impose a negative financial burden on the population, particularly amid looming war and insecurity. 


Lebanon +

The Beirut Banyan’s latest episode, co-hosted by Wael Taleb, journalist at L’Orient Today, tackled the topics of fact-checking and journalism in Lebanon, relative perspectives on public sourcing, a passion for the public sector and other topics ranging from reporting on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff level agreement to recurring civil employee strikes – in a conversation with The Public Source’s Richard Salame.