Three US service members killed in Jordan drone attack, Constructive progress on the Israel-Hamas negotiations’ path, Tough night across Lebanon’s southern borders, Western countries halted funding for UNRWA, South Lebanon’s layers of displacements, Syrians forced to flee shelling in Lebanon’s south are facing new challenges, The ICJ ordered Israel to take action to prevent acts of genocide in the Gaza Strip, Lebanese Parliament discusses the state budget dossier, The prolonged vacancy of Lebanese presidency, The World Bank suspends funds to the AMAN project, AUB calls for reforming Lebanese health and education sector, Khan Younis’ hospitals under attack, Washington raises with the Israelis “every specific incident of concern”, Drug smuggling rises tensions at the Syrian-Jordanian border, Iraq resumes unlawful mass executions, Sudan plunged into darkness of a long war
Memory is a battlefield, Lokman Slim, Lebanese publisher, political activist and commentator, repeated in an interview conducted in 2013 on the relation between the Syrian civil war and the prospects of renewed violence in Lebanon – eight years before being assassinated, on February 3, 2021. In a few days, Lebanon will commemorate his assassination’s third anniversary – on a date which has also become the controversial field for disputed narrations on parastatal powers, accountability and absurd right to kill. Wishing to discard the role of memory in fueling conflicts, his words sound the most actual, visionary and precise as we look at these days of ongoing atrocities against the Palestinian population of Gaza, of growing global indifference, blind application of double standards and manipulation of dissent, history and remembrance.
What is underway is a war of memory, which is fought within the present, but on the past – on how to narrate it, to exploit it, to put history at the service of current interests. Slim referred to the battlefield of the Lebanese post-war period; to the prospects of devastation that neighboring Syria would have gone through in the years to come – and from which it has not yet freed itself; to the heavy heritage of violence; to the necessity of accountability as the basis of any political system which would like to be based on the rule of law. “This is what the Lebanese failed to do, and therefore today we are living in a kind of jungle,” he said to the camera of Dutch TV, more than ten years ago now.
Looking at last Saturday, the seventy-ninth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland – freed by the Red Army on January 27, 1945 – the impression is that even remembrance – and the sad remembrance of genocide – has turn into a battlefield.
On selective memory: Beyond the paradoxical Israeli defense at the Court of The Hague, where, to defend itself from the South African plea’s accusation of genocide, the Zionist state has attempted to obvert the narratives, reversing the roles of victim and aggressor; beyond the exploitation of anti-Semitic discourses to silence any anti-Zionist struggle; beyond the inconsequent assimilation of the October 7 attacks to the history of the persecution of Jews in Europe: the silencing of anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian dissenting voices – which in some parts of the world are still illogically accused of anti-Semitism – reached its peak on January 27, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, during which police authorities of some European countries – such as Italy and Germany – have imposed a ban on protests in support for the civilian population of Gaza.
What is most absurd is the current act of repeating history as if it never took place, and the inability of those same countries whose history is opaque and steeped in guilt and genocidal violence to recognize the dynamics of attack and defense, the roles of executioner and victim, when it comes to Israel.
In Italy’s capital, however, pro-Palestinian supporters took to the streets in defiance of the ban to show their support for the Palestinian cause, gathering under the banner “genocides are all the same,” and claiming that Saturday’s ban has added a further reason to be in the square. “We are not only protesting against the genocide taking place, but also against the repression of struggles,” activists said, highlighting how “the Holocaust Remembrance Day has no meaning if you don’t look at the present and at the future.” Memory, indeed, is an evolving concept that progressively takes shape on the current reality.
On legal accountability: On the same day, several Western countries decided to suspend funding to UNRWA, after twelve employees of the UN Agency – less than 0.1% of the personnel – were accused of taking part in the October 7 attacks. The decision – undertaken by the United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Scotland – came only a few days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on South Africa’s petition accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza, marking a crucial moment for legal accountability worldwide.
The Court, while not calling for a halt to hostilities, issued six orders to Israel regarding its actions in the conflict with Gaza. The measures include preventing and punishing acts within the scope of genocide, ensuring the military avoids specific actions, addressing incitement to genocide, preventing the destruction of evidence of war crimes, allowing fact-finding missions access, submitting a report on compliance, and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid – an order which has been shockingly obstructed by the Western countries’ decision.
According to UN experts, in fact, countries defunding the UN Agency for Palestinian refugees are breaching an International Court order to provide effective aid in Gaza and could be violating the Genocide Convention. Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, warned that the decision to pause funding to UNRWA at this critical time “overtly defies” the order by the ICJ to allow effective humanitarian assistance to reach Gazans. In what seems like a calculated effort to intensify starvation in the Palestinian enclave, the media attention has rapidly shifted away from the ICJ unprecedented orders, ignoring yet another collective punishment of a starving population, and the fact that UNRWA lifesaving assistance – on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza – is about to collapse.
Tough night: Late on Friday, a series of heavy missiles were fired from Lebanon, striking at least five Israeli military sites, including barracks and gatherings, within a span of less than two hours, Al Mayadeen’s correspondents reported. As per the correspondent, one of the heavy missiles was directed towards a military target near Shlomi, while another targeted the Hanita barracks in the Galilee region, subsequently causing the launch of a barrage of rockets towards the same barracks.
In a related development, Israeli media outlets have disclosed that a helicopter, transporting four injured soldiers, landed at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, alluding to a “security incident” in a settlement on the border with Lebanon. The outlets, constrained by strict military censorship, refrained from providing further details – although it acknowledged a challenging night along the front with Lebanon. On the same day, Hezbollah announced the killing of four of its fighters, later identified as Taleb Yahya Balhas, Ali Fawzi Melhem, Mohammad Ali Mazeh, and Islam Mohammad Zalzali.
Amid the ongoing Israeli aggression against southern Lebanese towns and villages, local correspondent reported Israeli artillery shelling targeting the outskirts of the town of Tayr Harfa, where several business were damaged, as well as the towns of Marwahin, al-Bustan, Zibqin, Majdal Zoun, Umm al-Tout and Chihine, in the Sour district, all over the weekend. On Sunday, the outskirts of Houla – in the Marjayoun district – were targeted by fresh Israeli airstrikes that, according to residents, hit several houses and cars, as well as damaging tombs in the town’s cemetery.
Layers of displacement: Amidst a state of ongoing tension and fear of escalation, south Lebanon is facing an unprecedentedly dire humanitarian situation, with nearly 87,000 people displaced from border areas. As of January 24, the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health reported a total of 151 people killed and 686 wounded by Israeli shelling and airstrikes, including at least 25 confirmed civilian deaths, among whom three journalists.
With the southern city of Tyre – just about 20 km north of the Israeli border – having seen the highest influx of internally displaced people since hostilities broke out in October, witnessing around 200 to 300 new people coming each day and the displacement shelters stretched to their maximum capacity, local authorities are struggling to meet growing needs. Some who first fled north to Beirut are also finding further shelter in Tyre, unable to afford expensive rent costs in the country’s capital, rights organisations said.
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has recently published a report entitled ‘Death, Displacement and Trauma: The Human Cost of War in Southern Lebanon,’ addressing the main challenges of almost four months of ongoing conflict for southern Lebanese. “It is often the most vulnerable segments of the population that are forced to stay behind. There are no systematic government evacuation plans that people can rely on. The elderly, poor, and disabled are those who are physically unable to flee their homes, and therefore become victims of Israeli shelling and bombs,” the report reads, alleging the case of Aitarun, a village in the southeastern tip of Lebanon, where three young girls and their grandmother were killed by an Israeli airstrike as they were evacuating, in what Human Rights Watch called an “apparent war crime.”
While aid organizations and individuals are providing some immediate relief, especially for those in shelters, the Lebanese government’s emergency plan is reportedly inadequate – as it has not helped with evacuating its displaced, and it has made some temporary shelters available for only a little over a thousand IDPs (internally displaced persons) by opening up some schools and other public buildings. However, it has prepared its health sector to receive and treat the wounded, and provide healthcare at reduced cost to the displaced.
Furthermore, the report addressed the gravity of the financial burden on the displaced in the midst of Lebanon’s most severe economic crisis. A great proportion of the southern Lebanese inhabitants are in fact farmers and day laborer’s, depending on their land for sustenance, especially since the economic collapse. The current conflict hit in the midst of the olive harvest season, on which many depend for at least part of their livelihoods, while December and January mark the season in which tobacco farmers sell their dried and packed up tobacco – not to mention Israel’s indiscriminate use of white phosphorus bombs, which is further taking a vast environmental toll that will likely take years to recover from.
In addition, a report published on Friday by independent media organization Syria Direct showed the heavy challenges and a lack of support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, while displacement and bombardment stirs painful memories of war in Syria. Before the latest fighting, nearly 90,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) lived in Lebanon’s South and Nabatieh governorates bordering Israel, according to figures provided to Syria Direct. The agency did not have detailed information about how many of those displaced since October 2023 are Syrian.
However, Syrians in Lebanon faced challenges even prior to the recent violence and displacement that affected both refugees and citizens in the southern region. The estimated 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon – 815,000 of whom are registered with the UNHCR – face increasingly coercive measures aimed at pushing them to return to Syria, including an ongoing, government-led deportation campaign, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Amid Lebanon’s severe economic crisis, some 90 percent of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty, largely due to systemic discrimination and a lack of legal residency papers, which prevents access to higher-paid jobs.
The state budget dossier: Lebanese Parliament convened on Thursday, January 25, for its third session discussing the 2024 budget, ahead of another meeting to vote on the text scheduled for Friday.
The initial day, along with a portion of the second, was dedicated to presenting the preliminary budget. Originally prepared by the government and submitted to Parliament in September, this initial draft has undergone substantial modifications by the parliamentary Finance and Budget Committee, notably reducing levies placed by the government, and levelling various criticisms, chief among them the lack of vision and allotments for investment in the text. While failing to address the much-needed social and economic reforms, the $3.3 billion government budget said little about increasing investment in public services or fixing the country’s ruptured social contract.
The ministry, in fact, did not initially provide the macroeconomic indicators and assumptions used in the draft budget, such as real GDP growth, the inflation rate and nominal GDP, Al-Arabiya reported. Given such a scenario, the chances of approving the draft budget in its initial form looked scarce, unless a major adjustment was made to this bill.
Before the session, on Wednesday, Deputy House Speaker Elias Bou Saab declared that “breaking free from populism and prioritizing citizens’ interests is challenging,” adding that “if we don’t discuss this budget, we risk reverting to the 2022 budget,” the state-run National News Agency reported. Bou Saab then emphasized the Finance Committee’s efforts to introduce reforms to the budget, but acknowledged that it is not deficit-free and fails to meet the demands of crucial sectors, namely healthcare, education, institutions, and the security and military forces. He also criticized Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s handling of the conflict between the Defense Minister and the Army Commander, suggesting that without dialogue and the election of a president, it might be preferable for the parliamentary council to resign, leading to early parliamentary elections.
But speaking to legislators at Friday’s session, caretaker Prime Minister Mikati said the government “stopped the collapse that had been happening, and we began the recovery phase.” Around 40 of Parliament’s 128 members requested to comment on the budget, with many objecting to his remarks.
The draft of the 2024 budget used an exchange rate of 89,000 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar to calculate most tax revenues, while other calculations were set at a rate of 50,000 pounds, after last year the central bank had devalued the official currency rate from the longtime peg of 1,500 to a rate of 15,000 pounds to the US dollar.
As reported by Reuters, the Policy Initiative think tank said the draft budget “disproportionately burdens middle and lower-income households compared to affluent ones” by lowering the threshold for businesses to pay VAT and offering tax exemptions for big businesses, while Sami Zoughaib, a Lebanese economics expert at The Policy Initiative, commented that the budget “serves no economic purpose and serves no particular vision beyond repeating a cycle of entropic decay for the state, the economy, and society.”
Parliament members have until the conclusion of January to cast their votes on the document, and if they do not, the government reserves the option to enact the original draft through a decree. If the budget is passed, it will be the first time in nearly 20 years that the process is completed within the constitutional deadlines, as a briefing through 30 years of chaos realized by L’Orient-Le Jour showed. In fact, underlining the significance of approving the state budget within the constitutional timeframe, Mikati emphasized the government’s commitment to stabilizing the economy. He revealed ongoing efforts by the Central Bank to unify multiple exchange rates and prevent adverse consequences.
Funds suspended: On Friday, January 19, the World Bank announced that, until further notice, it will halt funding to the ministry’s Emergency Social Safety Net Project (ESSN), also known as AMAN, launched in January 2021 to help Lebanon addressing the impact of the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic on the poor and vulnerable population.
The project, financing $246 million, benefited from a first additional financing of $4 million in May 2022. Later in May 2023, the World Bank Group’s Board of Executive Directors had approved another $300 million additional financing to the project, aimed at expanding and extending the provision of cash transfers to poor and vulnerable Lebanese households, which survey revealed were mostly spent on food (43% of spending), followed by healthcare (12% of spending). Around 99% of beneficiary households, moreover, reported improved living conditions after the transfers, while 66% of beneficiary households with children reported that the transfers facilitated school attendance. Overall, the ESSN project and its additional financing were providing cash transfers to 160,000 households for 24 months; eligible households were receiving monthly a $25 flat amount, in addition to $20 per household member, within a maximum monthly amount of $145 per household.
Announcing the decision of funds’ suspension, caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar, clarified that families who have been receiving aid for 18 months will not be able to continue to benefit from it for the time being, while those who have benefited from the aid more recently will continue to be paid for 18 months from the start of payment. As soon as the new $300 million in loan is officially approved by Parliament, he stated, funds will be paid to all beneficiaries of the program, up to 24 months as of the start of aid.
Hajjar added that an international donation, planned as part of another aid program to help the most vulnerable Lebanese, would be reduced by three quarters for 2024, from $147 million to $33.3 million, ensuring that within a few days, the new aid mechanism for vulnerable households will be announced. In fact on Tuesday, Hajjar met with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, claiming urgent measures would begin the following week to resolve the World Bank’s objection to Parliament’s modification of the loan agreement text.
Vacant: Former Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Jumblat has expressed his concerns for the future of the country, as Lebanon remains without a President after more than a year of vacuum and political bickering. “We’ve been waiting for the Christians to reach an agreement for two years with no progress,” Jumblat told the daily al-Akhbar, in remarks published on Wednesday, adding that he would accept any candidate to avoid the vacancy.
Without a President since October 31, 2022, Lebanon has been unable to find a successor to Michel Aoun. Members of Parliament have failed twelve times to elect a new head of state.
“I don’t mind electing anyone including Marada leader Suleiman Franjieh or anyone else,” he said, clarifying that this is his personal stance and not necessarily the democratic gathering bloc’s stance. Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement, is backed by the Amal-Hezbollah tandem in the race for the presidency.
“It is not reasonable to continue like this when everything has become in abeyance. We did well by extending the term of the army commander, even though he is not able to travel due to the lack of a chief of staff, as the obstacle lies with the Minister of Defense. I have heard that there were positive developments in this matter in the past two days,” he added, commenting on the recent disputes on the Lebanese Army’s Commander, General Joseph Aoun, and the decision for his mandate’s extension despite the presidential vacancy.
On that matter, the quarrel between the Defense Minister Maurice Slim and the Army’s Commander-in-Chief extended to appointments to vacant positions in the Military Court of Cassation. Reflecting the deep crisis pitting the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), to which Slim is close, against General Aoun – that many believe to be the serious undeclared presidential candidate -, the dispute is hampering the appointments to the Military Council – the Army’s decision-making body – and those to the Military Court of Cassation.
Reforming health and education: Facing shortages in water, electricity, fuel, food, medication, and other essential life-saving services, Lebanon is akin to a state near collapse, with the health and education sectors notably being the hardest hit.
To tackle these urgent challenges, the American University of Beirut’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, along with the Department of History and Archaeology, organized a seminar titled “The Future of Lebanon: Can There Be a Future Without Health and Education?,” part of the ongoing “Lebanon in its Second Century: A Vision for the Future” project, a series of panels running until March 2024. Reported by NOW’s Maan Barazy, distinguished panelists at the seminar – moderated by Raghda Qawas, an expert in the educational and academic field – included Dr. Adnan Al-Amin and Hanin Al-Sayed for the educational sector, and Joseph Otayek and Dr. Fadi Jardali for the health sector.
In the educational sector panel, Dr. Adnan Al-Amin presented an overview of educational policies in Lebanon from independence to post-2019, discussing challenges and prospects for change. He emphasized leveraging factors like societal vitality, educational resources, and academic freedom for future reforms, including the involvement of the diaspora. Hanin Al-Sayyed, from the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, addressed then structural issues in regional education systems, advocating for a decentralized approach in official schools and a partnership with private schools to foster positive change and accountability in the sector.
Education Minister Abbas Al-Halabi also addressed the panel, highlighting the severe challenges facing Lebanon’s education and health sectors, exacerbated by the economic crisis, social unrest, the Beirut blast, and the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasized the economic crisis’ impact on private university tuition costs in dollars, leading to student dropouts and transfers to the underfunded Lebanese University. Al-Halabi noted the strain on the public school system, with a significant influx of students from private to public schools in the previous academic year, and highlighted the need for legislative efforts to keep pace with educational sector development. Additionally, he announced the launch of a secondary education program after a 25-year absence and efforts to address structural issues in higher education.
Concerning the Lebanese healthcare sector, on the other hand, panelists addressed the issue of a significant deterioration, despite it being ranked 23rd globally in healthcare efficiency in 2019. Challenges include a drastic drop in the minimum wage, emigration of healthcare workers, and financial struggles for hospitals. Dr. Joseph Otayek highlighted the unique approach of Lebanon’s health system during the economic crisis, maintaining patient trust and service quality despite income reductions and limitations in specialized units. Dr. Fadi Jardali, then, highlighted the increased burden on citizens for healthcare costs, with less than six percent of budgets allocated to the sector, calling for comprehensive reforms, as well as more inclusive, equitable, and accountable systems, aimed at addressing Lebanon’s compounded crises and ensuring the country’s future development.
In The Region
America in: Three US service members have been killed and at least 34 others wounded in a drone attack in northeast Jordan near the Syrian border, the United States military has said – a number that is expected to change as more people seek care. “While we are still gathering the facts of this attack, we know it was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement released on Sunday. “Have no doubt – we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing,” he said.
Jordanian officials, however, claimed the attack was not on their soil, but in a border area of Syria outside control of the Assad regime.
It is the first deadly strike against US forces since the Israel-Hamas war erupted in October, and marks a major escalation in tensions that have engulfed the Middle East. Since then, US forces have come under attack more than 150 times by Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria, causing at least 70 casualties prior to Sunday’s attack, most of them traumatic brain injuries, Reuters reported.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations claimed on Monday that Tehran was not involved in the attack. “Iran had no connection and had nothing to do with the attack on the US base,” the mission said in a statement published by the state news agency IRNA, adding that “there is a conflict between US forces and resistance groups in the region, which reciprocate retaliatory attacks.”
More reactions came after UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, and Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, published a post on X, in which he condemned the drone attack claiming Teheran’s responsibility, writing that “we continue to urge Iran to de-escalate in the region.” Accusation that Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, has called baseless, commenting that “these claims are made with specific political goals to reverse the realities of the region and also indicate that they are influenced by third parties, including the child-killing Zionist regime.”
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an alliance of Iran-backed militant groups, has asserted responsibility for assaults on three bases, including one along the Jordan-Syria border. Amid an escalation of attacks on US military installations in Iraq and Syria, groups supported by Iran claim that their actions are a response to Washington’s backing of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, while also expressing the intention to drive US forces out of the region.
Despite the United States officially maintaining that it is not engaged in war, it has been responding to the Iran-backed groups with retaliatory measures in Iraq and Syria, as well as conducting strikes against the military capabilities of Yemen’s Houthi forces. However, a more forceful retaliation is expected in the region.
On the Jordan-Syria border: A suspected Jordanian air strike on south-western Syria on Thursday, January 18, killed at least ten people, including children, local activists and media said, after war monitors had reported that Amman’s air force had been launching strikes against Syria in December and January to pursue efforts to fight drug smuggling. Several homes were reportedly destroyed in Arman, a town in Al-Suwaidaa province about 20 km from the border, leaving no immediate comment from authorities in Jordan.
On Tuesday, Syrian authorities said there was no justification for the attack Jordan has launched into its territory, warning the raids were ratcheting up tensions between the neighboring countries. The kingdom’s response came on Wednesday, when the spokesperson of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sufian al-Qudah, denied that Amman was a threat to Syria’s border security.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group, confirmed the number of victims, among whom five women and two children, and added a sixth woman was trapped beneath rubble. The Observatory condemned what it called the “massacre” in Arman and said this was the third time this year that Jordanian warplanes had “violated Syrian territory.” In recent years, in fact, the Jordanian kingdom has strengthened its monitoring along the Syrian border, with the armed forces occasionally disclosing operations aimed at thwarting the smuggling of drugs and weapons from its conflict-ridden neighbor.
As a part of security campaigns by Jordanian forces to prosecute drug smugglers and reduce the escalating smuggling operations from Syria to Jordan through Al-Suwaidaa countryside, SOHR reported that three people were killed on January 9, and other five on January 7 – while fifteen smugglers were arrested by Jordanian forces after intermittent clashes along the borders: during the operation, the report noted, large amounts of narcotics, estimated to be 627,000 tablets of Captagon and 3,439 pieces of hashish, were confiscated.
The New Arab reported that Jordanian officials had previously warned Syria that if it did not contain the rising incidences of cross-border drug-smuggling, it would take matters into its own hands. Al-Qudah said that Jordan had provided the Syrian government with the names of smugglers, as well as the locations of drug manufacturing and smuggling routes “under the control of the Syrian government, but no real action was taken to neutralize the danger.”
Talks between Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad established a forum to combat drug smuggling from Syria, which held its first meeting in Amman in July. Fighting drug trafficking from Syria was in fact one of the main issues that drove regional re-engagement with Assad’s government, which was readmitted to the Arab League in May after more than a decade of isolation.
The long path of negotiations: Israel would pause war for two months in a deal to release 100 captives, the AP and The New York Times reported on Saturday, quoting unnamed US officials. The news agencies said that US-led negotiators were getting closer to an agreement whose draft was discussed in Europe on Sunday, January 28. The four-way talks involved CIA director Bill Burns, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency David Barnea.
US officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, told the AP that emerging terms of the yet-to-be-sealed deal would play out over two phases: in the first one, fighting would stop to allow for the remaining women, elderly and wounded hostages to be released by Hamas, in exchange for the release of large numbers of Palestinian security prisoners; during the first 30 days, then, Israel and and Hamas would aim to work out details for a second phase in which Israeli soldiers and civilian men would be released, in exchange for far larger numbers of Palestinian security prisoners.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office called the discussions “constructive,” although meaningful gaps remain, which “the sides will discuss this week in additional mutual meetings,” the office added in a statement released on Sunday.
Collective punishment: The United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Scotland have halted funding to UNRWA, the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, whose facilities where displaced Palestinians sought shelter have been repeatedly attacked in Israeli air raids.
The decision – criticized by top Palestinian officials and Hamas, and called “shocking” by the Agency itself – came after Israel alleged that some of the Agency’s employees were involved in the October 7 attacks that triggered the current conflict. Ireland and Norway, however, expressed continued support for UNRWA, saying it does crucial work to help Palestinians displaced and in desperate need of assistance in Gaza.
UNRWA announced it had opened an investigation after what it defined as “extremely serious allegations against several UN staff members,” having activated the United Nations’ Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). Of the twelve people implicated, nine were immediately identified and terminated by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini; one is confirmed dead, and the identity of the two others is being clarified. A statement released by the Agency on Sunday read that “any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution. The Secretariat is ready to cooperate with a competent authority able to prosecute the individuals in line with the Secretariat’s normal procedures for such cooperation.”
UNRWA had also previously announced a full, independent review of the organization on 17 January. Meanwhile, 2 million civilians in Gaza depend on critical aid from UNRWA for daily survival: unfortunately, though, the Agency’s current funding will not allow it to meet all requirements to support them in February.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has called on donor states to guarantee the flow of aid to Gaza, commenting that “while I understand their concerns – I was myself horrified by these accusations – I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations.”
“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences. But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” he added.
Earlier, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General Hussein al-Sheikh said the Western countries’ decision “entails great political and humanitarian relief risks”. “At this particular time and in light of the continuing aggression against the Palestinian people, we need the maximum support for this international organization and not stopping support and assistance to it,” he wrote on X, urging the countries to “immediately reverse their decision.”
The course of justice: On Friday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to take action to prevent acts of genocide as it wages war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, but stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire. Despite not ordering a cessation of hostilities, the Court effectively put Israel on notice over the war, issuing the Zionist state with six orders in relation to its bombardment against the Palestinian population of Gaza – among the nine measures requested by the South African plea.
The emergency measures were announced as the Court began its deliberations on South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, for which it heard evidence earlier this month. South Africa has denounced Israel’s actions in Gaza as genocide but Israel has rejected the allegation, claiming that its activities in Gaza stem from “self-defense,” and are necessary to root out Hamas, adding that the war cannot end until that goal has been achieved.
“The state of Israel shall take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of the Genocide convention,” the Court said, recognizing the right of Palestinians to be protected from acts of genocide, despite not ruling at this stage on the core of the case – whether genocide has occurred in Gaza. “This entails not killing members of a particular group (in this case, Palestinians), not causing physical or psychological harm to members of that group, not inflicting living conditions which are calculated to bring about the end of the existence of a people, and not carrying out actions designed to prevent births within that group of people.”
The ruled orders foresee that Israel must ensure that its military does not carry out any of the above actions; prevent and punish the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip;” ensure the delivery of basic services and essential humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza – in respect of which Israel will no longer allow protesters to block trucks carrying humanitarian aid through the Kerem Shalom crossing; prevent the destruction of evidence of war crimes in Gaza and allow fact-finding missions access; and submit a report on all steps it has taken to abide by the measures imposed by the Court within one month of the judgement, which South Africa will have the chance to respond to.
In the ruling, 15 of the 17 judges on the ICJ panel voted for emergency measures which covered most of what South Africa asked for, with the notable exception of ordering a halt to Israeli military action in Gaza. Rulings by the Court are legally binding and without appeal, but the Court has no way to enforce them. However, with this order, the Court has found that there is a plausible case of genocide for Israel to answer, a reminder to Israel that it has a duty and an obligation to comply, along with all state parties to the convention.
Moreover, South Africa or other nations could also go to the UN Security Council (UNSC), where member states would be asked to vote to require Israel to abide by the emergency measures ordered by the ICJ. Scheduled to meet on Wednesday to consider the ICJ’s ruling, if the UNSC passes a resolution requiring Israel to abide by the orders of the Court, it would have the power to take punitive action against Israel, such as economic or trade sanctions, arms embargoes and travel bans.
Furthermore, the International Criminal Court (ICC), currently examining Israeli practices, is obligated to acknowledge the ICJ ruling and promptly fulfil its mandate with the necessary urgency.
Hospitals under attack: Palestinian medics said Israeli tanks had cut off and were shelling targets around the city’s two main still-functioning hospitals, Nasser and Al-Amal, trapping medical teams, patients and displaced people huddled inside or nearby, Reuters reported.
Commenting on the situation on the besieged Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Abu Azzoum described it as “completely catastrophic,” adding that medical teams have reported bullets striking inside the hospital, that ambulances could not get out of the hospital to reach or evacuate injured people, and that some patients were forced to use donkeys for transportation.
Moreover, on Thursday, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society posted on X that the Israeli occupation forces have been continuing their targeting of Al-Amal Hospital for four consecutive days, amidst ongoing shelling and gunfire in the hospital’s vicinity. “The occupation forces also impose a complete curfew around the hospital since yesterday afternoon, restricting the movement of ambulance crews to and from the hospital,” the post stated, adding that “thousands of displaced individuals live in constant fear and anxiety due to the ongoing siege and bombardment.” Later on Sunday, the humanitarian Society announced that due to a lack of oxygen, Al-Amal Hospital is unable to carry out surgical operations – saying the shortage is due to the Israeli army’s ongoing siege.
The Islamist group and medical staff deny Israel’s claims that Hamas militants use hospital premises as cover for bases, a narrative they have been fostering since the beginning of the offensive on Gaza.
In addition, thousands of displaced people sheltering in Khan Younis sought to flee to Rafah, 15 km away. After a UN center was hit by shelling on Wednesday, when 13 were killed and 56 injured, Israeli tank forces ordered more than 30,000 civilians inside the compound in Khan Younis to leave. On Thursday, a video posted on X by Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, showed a crowd of people walking en masse on a dirt road. “A sea of people forced to flee Khan Younis, ending up at the border with Egypt. A never ending search for safety that Gaza is no longer able to give,” Lazzarini wrote.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said less than 20% of the narrow enclave – around 60 square km – now harboured over 1.5 million homeless people in the south, where the escalation of fighting “threatens their survival.” More than 26,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza, Palestinian health officials say, with large tracts of the heavily built-up enclave flattened by bombing.
American concerns: Two US officials told Reuters that the US has created a channel with Israel to discuss concerns over civilian casualties of the Israeli military in Gaza, the news agency reported on Thursday.
Through the channel – which has been active for the last few weeks and set up after a meeting earlier this month between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel’s war cabinet – Washington raises with the Israelis “every specific incident of concern,” a US official said, expressing concern about the “constant” reports of Israeli strikes that either hit humanitarian sites or resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths. During the meeting, Blinken conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Minister Benny Gantz that Washington required clarity on the details concerning reported strikes.
The establishment of this channel is a response to increasing pressure on the Biden administration due to the significant impact on Palestinian civilians from Israel’s campaign against Hamas. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, the campaign has resulted in the death of more than 26,500 people and the displacement of millions. The move also highlights Washington’s frustration with Israel’s failure to address the challenges faced by the civilian population in Gaza, which has been deprived of most aid since mid-October. Additionally, there is a concern about the lack of adequate medical care for the more than 64,000 people who have been wounded during this period.
In their first formal push to demand explanations from Israel on the high civilian death toll, the United States set up the process to drive accountability for Israel, that, in some instances, has conveyed additional information that sheds light on an incident, sometimes admitting they “made a mistake,” though without specifying which ones.
The effort falls short of the more robust tools Washington has deployed in the past to investigate allegations of large-scale killings of civilians, such as the atrocity determination process – conducted in 2022 to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as in December 2023 to formally determine that warring parties in Sudan committed war crimes.
The channel works through diplomats in the US embassy in Jerusalem, the State Department’s regional bureau focusing on the Middle East, and President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the region’s humanitarian issues, David Satterfield. Most recently, the United States used the channel to seek details on what the United Nations said on Wednesday was an attack by Israeli tanks on one of its compounds in Gaza sheltering displaced Palestinians. It was not clear how Israel responded, officials said.
Mass executions: In Iraq’s Nasiriyah prison, at least 150 people are at risk of imminent execution, denounced as ‘unlawful’ by rights groups. A new report released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch warned against the resuming of the death penalty in the Middle Eastern country, which has continued to step up its use of execution in recent months.
According to the report and local sources, thirteen men were executed in Nasiriyah prison on December 25, 2023, the first mass execution since twenty-one men were executed on November 16, 2020, and forty-one and thirty-eight people respectively, less than three months apart in 2017. The December 25 executions, the rights group reported, were carried out without regard for the basic rights of those facing the death penalty, as the names of the men to be executed were called out on the prison’s loudspeaker the night before, and the authorities collected them from their cells without letting them call their families or lawyers before being executed in the morning.
The prison of Nasiriyah, in the southern province of Dhi Qar, is usually referred to as ‘al hout,’ or the whale, because it swallows people up and never spits them out, people say. Today, about 8,000 prisoners are believed to be on death row in Iraq: mainly charged with terrorism offences – as Iraqi anti-terrorism legislation allows the death penalty to be applied on the charge of ‘membership of a terrorist organization’ – executions have also focused heavily on crimes related to drug offences. In May, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said that the issue was as important as terrorism to the country, telling the inaugural Baghdad International Conference on Drug Control that drugs were a “serious threat to societies and state entities and the war against drugs is no less dangerous than the war against terrorism,” Middle East Eye reported, mentioning that Iraq has long been a transit country for captagon, the amphetamine-like stimulant plaguing the Middle East.
Human Rights Watch said that the prisoners’ sentences needed only to be confirmed by Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid before they were executed. In a country which has for many years had one of the world’s highest execution rates, despite repeated warnings from lawyers and rights groups, Iraqi media outlets describe the recent ones as “secret executions.” carried out without advance notice nor transparency, in an attempt of the Iraqi authorities to avoid the negative publicity and international condemnation that came with the last round of executions, Human Rights Watch said.
A long war: Four years on from a democratic revolution, Sudanese have seen their country torn apart, with mass killings, lsexual violence and wholesale destruction. After more than nine months of destruction and loss for the county plunged into a new civil conflict, there are no signs of ending, no political solutions are discussed and the stage seems to have been set for a long war.
In April 2023, war broke out in the capital Khartoum between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as ‘Hemedti’. What started as a power struggle between rival warlords has since escalated into a nationwide conflict that has drawn in rebel groups, ethnic militias, and international actors. Over 13,000 people have reportedly died in Sudan since fighting began in April, though this is likely a significant underestimate of the conflict’s human toll, as noticed by the Armed Conflict Locations and Event Data project in January 2024. Additionally, over 7,3 million have been displaced, amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation and claims of ethnic cleansing and widespread human rights violations against the civilian population.
In recent months, the paramilitary group RSF has gained momentum, consolidating its grip on Khartoum – forcing the SAF to relocate to the coastal city of Port Sudan – and seizing new territory, including Sudan’s second-largest city, Wad Madani, in the state of El Gezira, as well as parts of north and west Kordofan, where it has secured its grip over the country’s biggest oil fields and strategic supply routes from and to the capital. Moreover, in the vast region of Darfur, home to Hemedti and where the RSF is allied with ethnic Arab militias, evidence has emerged of mass atrocities perpetrated against non-Arab ethnic groups, sparking accusations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Earlier in November, after the killing of no fewer than 800 people of the Masalit group at the hands of the RSF and allied militias in the Ardamata refugee camps, the European Union High Representative, Josep Borrell, linked the killings to “a wider ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by the RSF with the aim to eradicate the non-Arab Masalit community from West Darfur” and warned of “another genocide” unfolding in the region.
However, despite Hemedti having declared his openness to an unconditional ceasefire as recently as January 2024, civil society activists have expressed doubts over the parties’ genuine commitment to a negotiated end to the war. Meanwhile, foreign meddling, most notably the United Arab Emirates’ support to the RSF, is further prolonging the conflict and hindering the effectiveness of US sanctions. In fact, although the RSF only has about 100,000 men compared to the army’s estimated 200,000, it has been battle-hardened by crushing dissent across Sudan, and fighting for UAE-backed forces in Yemen, Libya and other parts of the Sahel region, making it the more effective outfit.
Aside from its relationship with the Dagalo family – which Hemedti is from – and its use of RSF fighters in Yemen and Libya, an analysis conducted by Middle East Eye showed, the UAE has other long-standing interests in Sudan. They include buying up agricultural land to address food security issues at home, the import of livestock from Sudan, and a series of port projects along the Red Sea coastline, including one $6 billion plan finalized last year for a port north of Port Sudan.
But there is also the political dimension: the 2019 Sudanese revolution that brought an end to Bashir’s three decades in power aspired to bring back democracy to one of the largest countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The UAE has been the most active in preventing the rise of democracy in the region, providing financial support to regimes in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and currently backing the RSF in Sudan, following the effective strategy that senior advocate for East and Southern Africa at Refugees International, Abdullahi Halakhe, has called of “chequebook diplomacy.”
What We’re Reading
Ski season in trouble: Lebanon’s ski resorts and associated industries are facing an uncertain future due to warmer winters and reduced snowfall, driven by environmental challenges and political turmoil, Rodayna Raydan wrote for NOW. The delayed ski season, compounded by ongoing conflicts and security concerns, is adversely affecting tourism-dependent businesses, highlighting the need for ski resorts to diversify offerings beyond winter activities to address the impact of climate change and attract a broader audience year-round.
It’s time: Political psychologist Ramzi Abou Ismail reflected for NOW around Lebanon’s identity crisis, rooted in its complex history of conflicting narratives. Urgent action is needed to pursue a unified national identity and reconcile deep-seated differences, involving a multifaceted approach, a national reconciliation committee, and the formulation of actionable policies to shape the country’s future and prevent the fracture of its social fabric.
In their weekly podcast Sarde After Dinner, Médéa Azouri and Mouin Jaber interviewed singer, poet and writer Hamed Sinno to talk about how a new form white supremacy – pinkwashing – has emerged to justify the genocide in Gaza, as well as the mutual influence between being an artist and being an activist.