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Humanitarian placebo

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian (L) and his Lebanese counterpart Abdallah Bou Habib hold a press conference in Beirut on February 10, 2024. (Photo by Anwar AMRO / AFP)

The failure of the emergency humanitarian response, One year after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, Unprecedented bombing in Rafah, Jadra’s attack marks the second deepest Israeli strike inside Lebanese territory, Saad Hariri’s reemergence in the Lebanese political realm, Iranian diplomatic chief Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visits Beirut for the third time since the start of the war, Israel announces new plan to evacuate Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, Protests for salary adjustments on the rise amid Lebanon’s economic crisis, Mikati reconsiders the issue of public employees’ compensation, UNRWA activity in Lebanon to possibly end by March, Netanyahu rejects Hamas ceasefire counterproposal, A new round of ceasefire negotiations, Egypt’s Sisi begins new term with law expanding military’s power to arrest civilians, Homs under attack, Sudan’s warring sides agreed to meet in United Nations-mediated talks, Lebanese judge Nawaf Salam elected as new ICJ president, AUB seminar ‘Lebanon in its Second Century’ discusses the demise of technology and banking sectors

Exactly one year after the earthquake that devastated southern Turkey and north-west Syria on the night between February 5 and 6, 2023, with tremors felt as far away as Beirut, the humanitarian response allocated to the affected communities – especially in Syria, a country torn by the still ongoing 13-year-long war and an unprecedented financial collapse – has demonstrated its complete failure.

In the aftermath of last February’s earthquake, the United Nations launched a funding appeal to assist the affected communities in Syria, totaling 397 million US dollars, with donations exceeding that amount. However, the scale of humanitarian response based on the number of trucks that entered northern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing following the disaster – corresponding to less than 5000 trucks throughout 2023 -, resulted in a quarter less than the response rate registered during the previous year, which exceeded 7500.

As a result, a report entitled ‘The Earthquake in an unresponsive world,’ published by Syrian independent media Al-Jumhuriya showed that the humanitarian agencies’ response mechanisms were unable to increase the flow of aid after the earthquake: rather, numbers revealed that the response system was disoriented and unprepared to deal with the disaster.

As the imminent threat of famine looms over the Gaza Strip and Sudan – with the UN seeking 4.1 billion US dollars in aid for civilians and UNICEF warning that 700,000 children are likely to suffer from malnutrition and tens of thousands could die -, as well as among the Palestinian refugees’ communities in Lebanon – now that UNRWA’s offices might halt their activities in the country -, there is surely a critical need for increased help. However, mere humanitarian assistance – based on the misleading idea that the provision of aid could mitigate the effect of war, natural disasters, and the multiple trauma of displacements – risks leading to a fallacious placebo effect, of inevitable death and suffering, but on a full stomach, and the crapshoot of probabilities of survival depending on the donors’ political sympathies.

In fact, while humanitarian aid is indispensable during emergencies, in prolonged and cyclical sufferings like Syria’s, Palestine’s, Lebanon’s, and Sudan’s – to mention only some -, over-reliance on such aid, without initiatives that foster economic recovery and enhance living conditions, can cause unsustainable and perilous dependencies: and north-west Syria’s example is, in this matter, eloquent. 

Prior to the earthquake, in fact, the United Nations described the humanitarian response in Syria as one of the most complex emergency responses in the world: however, the continuation of this response for more than a decade – since the outbreak of the civil war – under a paradoxical state of ‘stabilized emergency’ has had a clear impact, making Syria heavily reliant on aid and rendering it extremely vulnerable in the face of yet another disaster. During the past twelve months, much has been said about the recovery of the affected communities and the reconstruction of what the earthquake destroyed, as if this was possible regardless of the destruction after years of war, the continuous bombardment by Assad and his allies, and the displacement campaigns that dismantled the country’s population structure. Or as if the aid system after the earthquake would be different from the last thirteen years of emergency response.


Cuts amidst rising humanitarian needs

On the contrary, it proved to be reduced, when not completely dismantled. For instance, the UN World Food Program’s (WFP) recent decision to terminate its primary aid initiative across Syria, effective since January 2024, is a significant and wide-reaching development: prompted by financial constraints, the decision will effectively sever a vital lifeline for the 3.2 million beneficiaries who heavily rely on these essential food distributions to alleviate malnutrition, especially in the Idbil region, where 2 million people live in over 1500 internal displacement camps, with women and children constituting nearly 80% of aid recipients, and 2.6 million individuals at risk of hunger across the country.

Similarly, the Western countries’ decision to defund the UN Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East – following the Israeli allegations that twelve of the Agency’s 13,000 staff in Gaza may have been involved in Hamas’s Al-Aqsa Flood Operation – comes at a very critical time, amid warnings of a rapidly approaching famine due to Israel’s onslaught on the besieged population. As a result of these funding suspensions, UNRWA will lose almost 60 percent of its funding, and offices around the region are at risk of ceasing their activities, as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the West Bank claimed to fear yet another abandonment. 

The discontinuation of food aid caused by these cutbacks will likely exacerbate the humanitarian and financial challenges for the most vulnerable communities across the region, intensifying the risk of famine and driving more people to consider unhealthy coping mechanisms – such as  child labour and drastic reductions in their daily food intake – or leaving towards safer country in illegal and deadly-like ways. Challenges that the advocacy for mere aid provision can clearly not solve, but only superficially alleviate, in a sort of humanitarian placebo, which will only perpetuate these communities’ reliance on donors’ assistance year after year, fatally preventing local communities from recovering and standing on their own feet – and for reasons which are purely political.


In Lebanon

So long, Saad: Saad Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, has once again emerged at the forefront of political discussions in the country, as his annual visit to Beirut nears, coinciding with the anniversary of his father’s assassination, Rafiq Hariri, on February 14. This comes amidst a political crisis and concerns over the widening circle of violence with Israel, as well as the economic crisis in the country, and rising sectarian tensions due to the Sunni community underrepresentation-

Interviewed for NOW, political analyst Rabih Dandachly underlined the issue of Sunni underrepresentation in the Lebanese realm, as, following the 2022 elections, no Sunni leader has emerged with the same influence and widespread appeal as Saad al-Hariri, leaving a significant political vacuum for the community which constitutes one-third of the population, in a country governed by a delicate sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Dandachly further explained that the Sunni share of ministries and official positions diminished without the proper representation and backing, leaving the community feeling abandoned in a country characterized by sectarianism and divisions.

Since the assassination of his father Rafiq in February 2005, Saad Hariri has emerged as a prominent Sunni political figure in Lebanon. He garnered widespread respect in Western capitals and played a pivotal role in directing the Cedar Revolution, which resulted in the cessation of Syria’s enduring occupation. As the leader of the Future Movement, he steered the ‘March 14’ coalition, renowned for its pro-Western stance and opposition to Hezbollah, to electoral victories in both 2005 and 2009.

Despite Saad’s current visit, however, Dandachly suggested that there is little prospect of Hariri returning to politics, as the reasons for his departure remain relevant and prominent. In this regard, Mustapha Allouch, a Lebanese politician and former member of Parliament, told NOW that the Lebanese media has been overly emphasizing Hariri’s visit, suggesting that people’s expectations may lead to disappointment.


Ongoing: In a significant escalation, an Israeli drone strike on a car in the town of Jadra in the Chouf district has killed two people according to the head of Jadra’s municipality, Joseph al-Azzi, and a military source. Situated between Saida and Beirut, 70 kilometers inside Lebanese territory, the target marked the second deepest strike inside Lebanon and the first attack in the Chouf district since the beginning of the hostilities across the Lebanese southern borders on October 8.

According to L’Orient-Le Jour local correspondent, Muntassar Abdallah, two Lebanese brothers were killed, while a Syrian civilian who was driving a motorcycle near the targeted car died from injuries. Hezbollah, moreover, announced that one of its members, Khalil Fares, has also been killed. Other reports, including one from Al-Arabiya, indicate the targets were members of Hamas in Lebanon, maybe the senior Hamas operative Basal Salah, whom AFP and Reuters both report managed to escape the strike.


Abdollahian in Beirut: On Friday and Saturday, Iranian diplomatic chief Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Beirut for the third time since the start of the Hamas-Israel war, holding talks with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday and with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah early on Saturday, in the presence of Iranian Ambassador Mojtaba Amani. Abdollahian also met Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, as well as his counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Abdullah Bou Habib.

At the end of the meetings, the Iranian diplomat reiterated his country’s support for “the stability and security of Lebanon,” castigating attempts by some “to stir up trouble between the government, the people and the resistance in this country.” For him, “developments on the ground in Gaza today are moving towards a political solution, even if Netanyahu wants war,” believing that it is up to the Palestinians to decide on the post-war situation in their country.

According to a statement from the party, relayed by the al-Markazia agency, the talks focused on “the latest political and security developments in the region, particularly in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, as well as on other Resistance fronts.” At the end of the meeting, Nasrallah declared that “the resistance is now an important factor in regional equations,” believing that the victory of the Palestinian resistance is “inevitable” and that the Israeli army is experiencing “a strategic crisis.” Abdollahian agreed that “the Palestinian resistance is working with wisdom and strength.”

“Any action by the Zionist regime to launch a large-scale attack on Lebanon would mark the end of Netanyahu,” Amir-Abdollahian told a news conference at the end of the talks, strongly believing that “the Zionist regime will never be able to fight on two fronts.” Last, after the Iranian diplomat’s talks with the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Berri and the Lebanese Foreign Minister Bou Habib, during a joint press conference with his counterpart, the latter asserted that “Lebanon does not seek war,” reiterating the need to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and stop Israeli aggression.

According to Abdollahian, for Iran and Lebanon “war is not a solution,” he said, assuring that the two countries had never sought to extend the war. He also said Tehran was in talks with Saudi Arabia on a political solution to hostilities in Gaza, and that during this war and in the recent weeks there was an exchange of messages between Iran and America. The Iranian diplomat is now set to travel on to Syria, according to Syrian media, and will meet top officials there.


Difficult decisions ahead: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)’s office in Lebanon is at risk of closing amidst the funding crisis that stemmed from Israel’s allegations that a dozen Agency staff were involved in the October 7 attacks. Several major donors, the United States and Germany among them, suspended funding to the agency pending the UN’s investigation into the matter.

With 30,000 staff employed across the region, serving almost six million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, UNRWA operates like government services would, reaching – only in Lebanon – a quarter of a million Palestinians with such essentials as education, healthcare and garbage collection in some of the refugee camps. But “the Agency will no longer have funding as of the end of February, so that means our operations would come to a halt during March,” said Dorothee Klaus, UNRWA Director in Lebanon, describing the “severe impact” of fresh budget cuts.

As reported by UN News, UNRWA in Lebanon employs around 3,500 staff, which also contribute to the incomes of an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the Palestine refugee population that is relying directly on the investments that UNRWA makes in the country, a total that amounts to, on average, about $180 million every year. The UN Agency also provides cash assistance to 65 percent of Palestine refugees, which has enabled it to bring down poverty from a staggering 93 per cent to currently 80 percent.

The Agency has maintained all of its core services since the outbreak of war in Gaza and amid escalating tensions on Lebanon’s southern border. “We have enacted a contingency plan, we have prepared 12 of our schools to potentially host displaced persons that have no other place to go, and we have made provisions in terms of pre-positioning food and medical supplies,” Klauss said, adding that if education facilities were closed, 38,000 children in grades one to 12 would be unable to continue their schooling.

The Lebanese government cannot take up that task, the Director explained, emphasizing that its already overcrowded classrooms could not handle the influx of new students and are already being used to teach Syrian refugees in the afternoons. Indeed, without funding, “all that would fall away,” forcing the Agency in the very difficult position of reflecting on what would be more essential then something else. “The questions would be: do we keep the children in school or do we have 600 cancer patients potentially dying? Do we close health centers that immunize newborn babies? Do we not collect the garbage? All of this is indispensable,” Klauss concluded, raising serious concerns on the future of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon.


To the streets: On Tuesday morning, Lebanese Army retirees held a protest at the Finance Ministry’s VAT building and the Port of Beirut, which they threatened to close in the latest demonstration demanding improved compensation. The retirees said they were protesting the government’s failure to correct wages and give salary increases to what remains of the public sector, in seeming solidarity with other public sector’s employees whose wages have fallen sharply since the start of the economic crisis in 2019. 

Interviewed by Lebanese media channel LebanonFiles, a number of the protesters confirmed that their first and last demand was to “live in dignity,” and that “the thieves must return what they stole.”  They demanded, “at the very least 500 US dollars a month,” also calling on the government to abolish “privileges and designations such as social assistance, salary advances, and transportation allowances that are constitutionally illegal and to replace them with a series of ranks and salaries that are fair and equal for all.”

In this context, retired Brigadier General George Nader confirmed that their move is the beginning of a warning to the authority regarding the necessity of adopting the legal review, correcting wages, and making increases the basis of the salary, and threatened that if the state does not respond to their demands, which are a 40% increase in their salaries, they will prevent the Council of Ministers from meeting. 

In fact, protests continued in Downtown on Thursday morning, as the scheduled cabinet meeting got underway, and tensions erupted around the Grand Serail between protesters and the security forces deployed there. Protesters attempted to remove the barriers around the Serail, according to the state-run National News Agency (NNA), and scuffles broke out with the security forces deployed. During the clashes, tear gas was fired by the security forces, causing two cases of asphyxiation among the protesters. Two other demonstrators were also injured in the stampede of people, according to NNA.


On strike: The day before, the Mobile Operators Syndicate Lebanon announced “a complete cessation of work,” which started on Monday afternoon, “until the employees’ salaries are corrected and fully paid in fresh dollars, and the collective labour contract is signed,” according to a statement published by NNA.

The striking employees’ union said the action comes after their employers failed to follow through after months of negotiation and an eventual agreement on employee contracts, and threatened that if salary adjustments are not applied, “it will be forced to resort to escalatory steps, given the seriousness of this issue.” 

The trade union is made up of over 2,000 employees from Alpha and Touch, Lebanon’s only telecommunications companies, according to numbers published on its website: if they do not receive their salaries at their actual value, compounded with the taxes of the recently approved 2024 budget, their salaries risk to decrease even more, the syndicate warned. Contracts have been at the center of mobile telecom employee strikes since at least December 2022 and their demands for improved compensation led to a strike last July, L’Orient-Le Jour reported.

The issue of public sector salary increases was presented on Wednesday, when caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati held a series of ministerial meetings at the Grand Serail, during which the conditions and affairs of the ministries and preparations for Thursday’s cabinet session were presented, the state-run National News Agency reported. During the meetings, Mikati received a delegation from the General Labor Confederation, headed by Dr. Beshara Al-Asmar, with whom the current situation of the public sector was discussed.

At the outset of the session, Mikati announced the approval of the 2024 budget, adding that it will be immediately implemented. “We have decided to hold an extraordinary Cabinet session next Saturday to continue discussions on the situation of retired military personnel and public sector employees,” he added. 


Extraordinary: NNA confirmed on Saturday that caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, at the beginning of the announced extraordinary Cabinet session, requested a reconsideration of the issue of employee compensation in the public and military sectors, as well as the productivity allowance for employees in the public and military sectors and retirees.

“Yesterday I held a series of financial meetings, during which it became clear that there is still a disparity between employees in the public sector and the military. Therefore, I asked to wait to complete the study of this file until all the numbers are reviewed,” Mikati said, adding that further meetings will be held next week with representatives of the army, the internal security forces and retirees, “with the participation of any ministers wishing to attend the meeting.” He continued: “as a result of communications with the Central Bank, I wished to wait to resolve this file until all the numbers were reviewed, to avoid any negative impact on the stability of the exchange rate.”

Expressing his annoyance at being accused of monopolizing the management of the country, the Prime Minister reiterated the call for electing a President of the Republic as soon as possible – in order to reach the desired solutions for all Lebanese, regardless of the sect or group of belonging. “There is a vacuum, so blame should be directed at those who caused this matter, not at those who seek to run the country to prevent the negative impact of the vacuum,” he indicated.


Elected: The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has elected Lebanese judge Nawaf Salam as its new president for a three-year term, starting in February 2023. The appointment, which was made public in a press release on Tuesday, came just a few weeks after the Court issued a preliminary ruling urging Israel to refrain from acts under the Genocide Convention – after South Africa brought the case against the Jewish state.

Salam, who succeeded Judge Joan Donoghue from the USA, has served as a member of the ICJ since 2018 and previously held the position of Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations. His election marks a significant milestone for both Lebanon and the ICJ, the highest existing judicial body worldwide that legislates over legal disputes between member states of the United Nations. Since the ICJ’s establishment, in fact, Lebanon has only had one other judge elected, Fouad Ammoun, in 1965.

Salam served as a member of the Executive Bureau of the Economic and Social Council of Lebanon from 1999 to 2002, and as a member of the Lebanese National Commission of UNESCO from 2000 to 2004. In 1996, he co-founded the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a non-governmental monitoring organization to promote fair and transparent parliamentary and municipal elections.

The ICJ also elected Judge Julia Sebutinde from Uganda as its vice-president, serving a three-year term, after having made headlines for her dissenting opinion in South Africa’s case against Israel, being the only judge to question Israel’s genocidal intent, voting against all emergency measures ordered by the Court, and suggesting that the case was being improperly forced into the context of a treaty.


The demise of technology and banking sectors: In Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, with the country’s banking sector in a limbo condition, the tech and startup ecosystem is seeking a new direction after the many upheavals of the sector. The current reality, in fact, requires innovative solutions to transition towards knowledge-based models. Unfortunately, due to a lack of essential tools and incentives for effective innovation activation and commercialization, the country is in a decline in overall innovation output. 

To address this issue 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 of the American University of Beirut (AUB) held the seminar “The Future of Lebanon: The Demise of the Technology and Banking Sectors.” Reported for NOW by economist Maan Barazy, the conference included three sessions led by Assistant Professor at Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, Dr. Amr Al-Kibbi.

In the roundtable’s first session, the specialist in public finance, tax law, and Assistant Professor lecturing on public budgeting, tax law, tax procedural law, tax disputes, financial law, and international human rights law, Dr. Ghada Ayoub, weighed systems that have progressive taxes and their relationship to investments. “It is a policy issue that requires new attention in Lebanon,” she said, emphasizing that reforms to the tax system have been absent since a decade.

Dr. Sabine Al-Kik, lecturer from the Faculty of Law at the Lebanese University and expert in the field of legal banking and financial research, addressed the second session titled “Redefining the Banking Sector in Lebanon.” She affirmed that “the banking system in its first century, ‘covered and concealed,’ the misfits of banking secrecy as a national creed, a system that helped political entities to illegally bargain with international affiliations for the benefit of the system.” The system needs total reshape with a special attention to medium and small enterprises finance, she said.

Dr. Jihad El-Hokayem, who is a professor at the American University specializing in digital and cognitive economics, and an economic and strategic expert in financial markets, underlined that “our situation in Lebanon is favorable regarding the advance of the digital economy, thanks to the young generation. Lebanese youth have played a role as a lever for the national economy through the digital economy, whether through financial transfers or by outsourcing work to Lebanon. Lebanon has many competencies in the knowledge economy, and salaries are reasonable and good for residents in Lebanon, and, in turn, are acceptable for operating companies.” El-Hokayem expressed hope that “Lebanon becomes a digital hub, but unfortunately, it is moving in the opposite direction due to the expansion of the cash economy. Therefore, we need to develop a digital transformation strategy in tandem with e-government.”


In The Region 

Trapped: More than one million Palestinians, confined in and around Rafah and living in makeshift tents, anticipated Israel’s completion of a plan to evacuate them and initiate a ground assault against Hamas fighters in the southern Gaza city. Aid organizations cautioned of potential civilian casualties in the Israeli offensive, while the UN Palestinian Refugee Agency expressed uncertainty about its ability to operate in such a high-risk scenario. “There is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA. “People have no idea where to go.”

Displaced people driven southwards by more than four months of Israeli bombing of Gaza are packed into Rafah and surrounding areas on the coastal enclave’s border with Egypt, which has recently reinforced the frontier, fearing an exodus – while doctors and aid workers are struggling to supply even basic aid.

On Friday, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the military was ordered to develop a plan for evacuating the population and destroying four Hamas battalions deployed in Rafah, while promising civilians “safe passage,” Washington answered it would not back an assault that does not protect civilians, and briefed Israel on a new national security memorandum reminding countries receiving US weapons to adhere to international law. Setting out the standards that countries receiving American weapons must adhere to, for the first time the administration is required to submit an annual report to Congress on whether countries meet the requirements.

On the same day, however, despite criticism of its offensive – which Biden described as “over the top” – Israel launched a deadly air strike on the enclave’s southern city.


Rejected: During a press conference held on Wednesday evening in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his rejection of Hamas’ ceasefire and hostages exchange counterproposal, drawn up by the Palestinian group in response to the framework deal that Egyptian, Qatari and American mediators discussed in Paris. According to Netanyahu’s statement, “continued military pressure is a necessary condition for the release of the hostages,” news agency Reuters reported.

Israel has been firm to its refusal to completely withdraw forces from Gaza until Hamas is dismantled. Hamas, on the other hand, refused to agree on any hostage-exchange negotiation that does not include a comprehensive ceasefire and total removal of Israeli military presence from the besieged enclave. The Palestinian group’s plan suggested a ceasefire of 4 months and a half, during which all hostages would go free, Israel would withdraw its troops from Gaza and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war.

A text of the proposal seen by Reuters revealed the proposal’s details, including three phases. The first 45 days would have led, respectively, to the temporary halt to military operations, the end of aerial reconnaissance, and the repositioning of Israeli forces far outside populated areas in the entire Gaza Strip; to the release of Israeli civilian women and children aged 19 or under held hostage in Gaza, as well as all elderly and sick hostages; the release of Palestinian women, children, elderly and sick from Israeli jails; an agreement on release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, with Hamas to nominate 500 of them who have been sentenced to long or life sentences; the increase in humanitarian aid into Gaza, including the north, and the return of displaced people to their home districts; the rebuilding of hospitals, homes and other facilities; and UN agencies to provide services and establish shelter camps for population.

Concerning the second 45 days of the proposed truce, then, discussions had to be completed before the end of the first phase, on conditions to maintain the ceasefire. The month-and-half-long period would have included the release of all Israeli male civilian and military hostages in exchange for other Palestinian prisoners; the continuation of humanitarian measures in Gaza; Israeli forces to withdraw outside Gaza Strip; and a comprehensive reconstruction to begin and blockade of Gaza to end.

Last, a third phase of another 45 days foresaw the exchange of bodies and remains from both sides after their identification, as well as the continuation of humanitarian measures in Gaza that were agreed upon in earlier phases.

Calling Hamas’ position “delusional,” Netanyahu renewed a pledge to destroy the Palestinian Islamist movement, saying there was no alternative for Israel but to bring about its collapse. “The day after is the day after Hamas. All of Hamas,” he announced, insisting that total victory against Hamas was the only solution to the four-month-old Gaza war, and repeating his vow not to pull troops out of Gaza until “total victory.”


New round: Despite the delusional mutual statements, however, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed there is still room for negotiation toward an agreement. On Thursday, in fact, several Arab foreign ministers discussed the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza at talks in Riyadh, Saudi state agency SPA  reported, following Blinken’s Middle East tour that stirred hopes for a long-awaited Gaza truce deal.

Called by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Thursday’s meeting included the foreign ministers of Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, along with the Secretary-General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Hussein al-Sheikh. The Arab ministers emphasized the need to reach an immediate and complete ceasefire in Gaza and “the importance of taking irreversible steps to implement the two-state solution,” SPA added as quoted by Reuters, referring to Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state.

The United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, further called for an intensification of efforts to prevent the expansion of conflict in the region during the meeting, the UAE state news agency said on Friday.


One year later: A year after the earthquake that, on the night between February 5 and 6, 2023, devastated Turkey and Syria, humanitarian needs in the war-torn country, particularly in the north, rapidly worsened. The humanitarian funding allocated for the earthquake – approximately 400 million dollars – was offset by a corresponding decrease in humanitarian funding for the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the funding used the same emergency humanitarian response system that has been operating for 12 years, which does not have mechanisms to support the recovery of affected communities, Syrian independent media platform Al-Jumhuriya reported. This has led, year after year, to acute exacerbation of the region’s needs.

In fact, recent months did not witness an increase in response programs; rather, the earthquake revealed that the response system was unprepared to deal with the disaster, as it was clear that the response mechanisms were unable to increase the flow of aid after the earthquake. 

A report published in August 2023, part of a dossier in partnership between SyriaUntold and Orient XXI, exploring the consequences of the devastating earthquake, showed that prior to the catastrophe, the United Nations described the humanitarian response in Syria as one of the most complex emergency responses in the world. The continuation of this response for 12 years under a state of emergency had a clear impact, making Syria heavily reliant on aid and rendering it extremely vulnerable in the face of the earthquake.

This is in addition to the political decision by donors to freeze development and recovery programs and support stability in areas outside the regime’s control, particularly after the expansion of Islamist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in northwestern Syria, mainly operating in the Idlib area. As the World Food Program (WFP) announced a reduction in its aid to Syria as a result of the decrease in US funding several months after the earthquake, halting in January 2024, the UN, across all its agencies, has not increased its logistical response to the northwest of the country – the area most affected by the earthquake. On the contrary, the number of trucks crossing the border from Turkey has decreased, with no more than 5000 trucks entering in 2023, while the number exceeded 7500 trucks in 2022, before the earthquake. Meanwhile, the regime-controlled areas have benefited from some early recovery programs based on each donor’s policy.

As a result, the annual Humanitarian Needs Overview for 2024 showed an increase in the number of Syrians in need of assistance in different sectors, now exceeding 16 million people – roughly one million people more than the previous year. The amount of funding for Syria in 2023 also showed a decrease from the funding in 2022, as the total figure amounts to 2.3 billion US dollars, the same amount of funding allocated to Syria annually in the previous four years. In reality it has decreased by approximately 20%, since around 400 million US dollars that were allocated to communities affected by the earthquake at the special Brussels Donor Conference were included in that amount. This represents less than 10% of the earthquake damage, since the World Bank estimated the damage caused by the earthquake in Syria to exceed 5 billion dollars.


Arrests on the rise: On Sunday, January 28, the Egyptian Parliament passed a bill on ‘Securing and Protecting the State’s Public and Vital Facilities,’ rights organization Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) reported. The statement reads that “the timing of the legislation and the extensive domestic security powers it grants the military, indicate that Egyptian authorities seek to further transform the military into a police force and to use it to suppress potential public discontent or mass protests through expanding their mandate to arrest civilians and refer them to military courts.”

The new law, which replaces and annuls Law 136 of 2014 – which stipulated that the armed forces may assist police agencies in securing public and vital facilities, including public roads, electricity stations, gas pipelines and railroads, and that crimes committed on the premises of these facilities fall under the jurisdiction of military courts – not only includes the same provision that allows the military to arrest civilians and try them before military courts, but also gives military personnel powers to “face acts and transgressions that undermine the work of the state’s public facilities, or the services it provides, especially crimes that harm the society’s basic needs of goods and commodities.”

President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has repeatedly spoken publicly about how he would deploy the military against popular protests, including when  he stated that “there is a plan for the army to deploy across Egypt in six hours,” after having also often dismissed any potential protest or public show of discontent as ill-intentioned attempts to undermine the state and its stability. 

The law, which effectively turns the military into an internal security and judicial institution “whenever the president deems fit” – solidifying the preexisting de facto martial law in Egypt, that gives the military powers that transcend those of any other institution, including the Supreme Constitutional Court – comes as popular discontent grows amid an economic free-fall with soaring inflation, a severe foreign currency shortage, and record high external debt. Moreover, by using vague wording that ultimately gives discretion to the President, or whomever he delegates, to identify what constitutes basic societal needs, it gives him unrestrained powers to determine the military’s jurisdiction to arrest civilians and refer them to military courts – at an alarming time where in Egypt, since 2014, thousands of civilians have been tried by military courts and denied due process, with at least 363 documented cases of violations to the right to fair trial, and about 65,000 political opponents held in jail, according to estimates conducted by rights organizations. 


Homs under attack: Seven civilians were among eleven people killed in Israeli airstrikes on the central Syrian city of Homs early Wednesday, according to the Britain-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Humanitarian Rights (SOHR). The strikes completely levelled the building in one of the city’s most affluent districts, and also hit other targets linked to Iran-backed groups, Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory, told AFP.

Among the civilian victims, rescue teams found two of non-Syrian nationality and two whose identities are unknown because their bodies were turned into pieces, in addition to the injury of others, as a result of the Israeli bombing. Four students and a woman were among the dead, while two Hezbollah fighters were also killed, together with a Syrian collaborator of Hezbollah and a non-Syrian member of the Iran-backed militias, a source close to the militant group confirmed.

Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes on Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, and it has stepped up its campaign against Iran-backed forces in its northern neighbor since its war with Hamas in Gaza began on October 7. SOHR documented nine attacks in 2024: six airstrikes and three rocket attacks by ground forces, during which Israel targeted several positions in Syria, destroying nearly 26 targets, including buildings, weapons and ammunition warehouses, headquarters, centers and vehicles. These strikes killed 30 combatants and injured seven others.

Moreover, in the previous week, the United States also carried out airstrikes on Iran-backed groups in Syria and Iraq, killing 45 people in retaliation for a drone attack that killed three US soldiers in Jordan.


In desperate need: Sudan’s warring sides have agreed to meet in United Nations-mediated talks on enabling desperately needed aid delivery in their conflict-torn country, the UN Aid Chief said on Wednesday. Martin Griffiths told reporters in Geneva that he had been in contact with the heads of the two factions in Sudan’s 10-month-long civil war about convening “empowered representatives of the two militaries” to discuss aid access.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, conducted a mission to Sudan from January 31 to February 4, after having visited neighbouring countries to discuss potential truces. Aimed at bringing attention to the ongoing violence and its consequences for the more than seven million displaced people, the UN mission coordinated by High Commissioner Grandi and Emergency Relief Chief Griffiths launched on February 7 the Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan and the Regional Refugee Response Plan for 2024, calling for a combined 4.1 billion USD to meet the most urgent humanitarian needs of some 17.4 million in war-torn Sudan and the neighboring countries.

Griffiths warned the lack of access remained “very, very considerable,” remarking how difficult it is to get attention to Sudan, “a place of as great a suffering as anywhere in the world today. It’s simply also a threat to the stability of the wider region – not just the immediate region, but beyond.”

According to UN data, half of the population of Sudan needs humanitarian assistance, a number of people nearing 25 million, many of whom are children, with 18 million people being acutely food insecure – ten million more than last year. The World Food Programme (WFP) has been issuing warnings that the failure of the agricultural cycle and harvesting, due to the spread of the war, risks increasing the number of food insecure people. 

“So the vectors are going all in the wrong direction,” Griffiths warned, commenting on the alarming numbers. “If we start seeing, like we’ve seen in Gaza, potential famine,” as a result of the failure of people to plant, to harvest, to access food – considering the recent locust plague, just adding to the excitement of events, “if we start seeing famine in Sudan – it won’t be the first time we’ve seen famine in Sudan – to add to this violence, and displacement, lack of access and lack of a political horizon, then I think we can all agree we have no humanity in us that would allow this to happen.”

Concerning diplomatic efforts, Griffiths announced he wanted to get the warring parties to follow up the commitments of the so-called Jeddah Declaration, which the two sides signed last May, agreeing to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure and to let in badly needed aid. Seriously concerned about the destiny of the Sudanese people, however, the UN Aid Chief noticed that he received positive responses from both sides, adding that he was “still waiting for a confirmation on when and where,” but that Switzerland had been suggested as a venue.


What We’re Reading

Success in the midst of crisis: As the Lebanese economy continues to struggle, observers are surprised by the growing number of restaurants, cafes and innovative culinary projects launched by local entrepreneurs. Lebanese-British journalist Rodayna Raydan reported for NOW that, despite various challenges, many Lebanese remain optimistic and are committed to investing in their country, while financial experts are keen to uncover the motivations driving this surge in investment within the restaurant industry.


The struggle of Bou Habib: The action of the Lebanese Foreign Minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, of summoning his British counterpart, David Cameron, during his visit to Beirut, presents a striking irony in the realm of international diplomacy and national governance. Political psychologist Ramzi Abou Ismail noted that, on one hand, Bou Habib’s decision to summon the British ambassador over a perceived diplomatic misstep is a clear assertion of Lebanon’s desire for respect and adherence to international diplomatic norms; but on the other hand, this assertive stance is starkly contrasted by Bou Habib’s own admissions regarding the Lebanese government’s limited influence over Hezbollah, particularly in matters of foreign policy and military engagement, undermining Lebanon’s efforts to assert its sovereignty and command respect internationally. 


Lebanon +

This week, The New Arab Voice’s Hugo Goodridge looked at the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the details of the famine gripping the population, the spread of infectious diseases, and the collapse of Gaza’s healthcare – in light of the decision by Western nations to suspend funding for UNRWA. Why they decided to suspend funding, why they asked for no evidence, why so many pulled out, and why Israel is trying to eliminate the UN Agency in its entirety.