Hunger desperately grows in Gaza, The renewed memories of the siege of Yarmouk, The hindered path of Qatar-Israeli negotiations, Wounded patients at the Kamal Adwan Hospital reported buried alive, IDF deadly raid hit the city of Jenin, The heavy price of reporting, Lebanese army commander’s mandate to be extended by one year, Israeli leaflets dispersed over southern Lebanese regions, UNICEF report ‘Trapped in a downward spiral’ warns against psychological distress of south Lebanon’s children, The House of Parliament approving new laws, Mikati calls for the return of Syrian refugees, AUB seminar “Lebanon in its Second Century” discusses possible solutions for the Lebanese economic crisis, Al-Sisi confirmed president of Egypt, The World Food Programme will halt primary support program for northwest Syria, Bashar al-Assad is back on the Arab fold’s track, The beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era
For twelve years, every day in Syria has been the anniversary of a death, an injustice, a loss. Ten years ago, days like these – perhaps colder -, marked the interruption of the quarterly siege of Yarmouk, the first of many.
Once the hub of the Palestinian exile, with more than 160,000 Palestinians living in it in 2010, and the most flourishing market of Syria, the camp of Yarmouk was established in 1957 in the outskirts of Damascus. Firstly a neutral space in the Syrian civil war that erupted in 2011 – after the ill-fated decision to take sides during the Lebanese civil war and the first Gulf war, which each led to the persecution and expulsion of Palestinians – Yarmouk soon became the scene of intense fighting between the Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian ally Liwa al-Asifa on the one hand, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) supported by Syrian Army government forces on the other. Its harsh siege by the forces of Bashar al-Assad, which started in the summer of 2013, changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, discrediting the regime as a champion of the Palestinian struggle.
From August through December 2013, nothing got into Yarmouk and no one came out: people began eating weeds and boiling cacti for sustenance, an imam issued a fatwa allowing people to eat dogs and cats to prevent starvation, while malnutrition, dehydration, and treatable diseases killed over a hundred people. With few supplies left, the price of foodstuffs skyrocketed, with a kilo of rice costing 70 dollars by December 2013.
In the 2021 documentary “Little Palestine,” filmmaker Abdallah Al-Khatib showed the brutality of that hunger, yet without degrading the dignity of the subjects – like him, steadfast inhabitants of Yarmouk that resisted and did not leave. Depicting the survival ritual of walking under siege as “the final weapon to defend the details of a place against loss,” or “the ultimate practice of freedom,” Al-Khatib showed people endlessly searching for food among the weeds that grew secretly in the corners of pavements, swallowing nothing but water with spices, the leftovers of a tahini jar, or the non-yet-blooming sprouts to make salads or soups with. “Under siege,” his voice recites in the movie, “walk as much as you can. But don’t trample on anything you might have to eat one day. Walk on air.”
Looking at the images of that hunger, feeling the fast pace of that desperation, today, it seems that nothing has changed: and that little Palestine has returned to the motherland, transplanted to Gaza: yet more suffering, more hungry, more neglected – because devastated live streaming before the eyes of the world.
In the Gaza Strip, aid trucks carrying food are being intercepted by hungry Palestinians, some who haven’t eaten for days, desperate for a bite of anything to eat. Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, told reporters people are taking food from the trucks and eating it right away, begging for bread, paying 50 times more than usual for a single can of beans and slaughtering a donkey to feed a family, as food aid trucks are unable to reach most parts of the bombarded Palestinian territory. This means that hundreds of thousands of people in overcrowded UN shelters in southern Gaza are sometimes deprived of food because it is intercepted before they arrive, Lazzarini said at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva.
In what has turned to be a war of starvation, Israel controls the flow of aid into the enclave: all aid trucks are in fact entering Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, but first they have to be inspected by Israel. Since deliveries began on October 20, inspections have been taking place at the Nitzana crossing between Israel and Egypt, forcing trucks to loop from Rafah to Nitzana and back, hence causing obstructions. And even with the opening of Kerem Shalom crossing on Sunday, at the junction of the Gaza Strip–Israel border and the Gaza–Egypt border, delivered supplies are a fraction of what they were before the war, which has caused two million people to be displaced. The UN World Food Programme announced that half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is starving as Israel’s military assault on the southern part of the enclave expands – at risk of prolonging for “more than several months,” as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated, and cutting people off from food, medicine, and fuel.
Back in 2013 Yarmouk, as a response to the siege, the camp’s residents disseminated poignant images of the crisis via social media to hold their leaders and the international community accountable. Images of starving babies went viral on the Internet, provoking the solidarity of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and shaming Arab leaders and the international community into advocating for a humanitarian corridor, until a trivial amount of food and medical supplies arrived in December, and a tenuous truce was granted in January. The siege – during which 181 Yarmouk inhabitants starved to death – would have lasted until 2015, when ISIS took control of the camp, before it was completely destroyed by Russian planes and the Syrian army in 2018.
In the aforementioned documentary, Al-Khatib witnessed its people’s ability to resist, avoid the risk of getting addicted to the idea of the siege and forgetting life out of it, thus filling the void with meaning as much as they could.
“Find meaning in a clean road, after the destruction caused by an aircraft. Pick up a broom. Find meaning in a child whose smile withstands the siege. Make a paper plane. Find meaning in details you fear will disappear. Pick up a camera. Find meaning in a fleeting moment of joy one evening. Sing.” And he adds: “Don’t worry and have no regrets. Trust that you’ve won because you’ve been united with the siege, for you might have to survive death in an even greater siege. Where people die from indigestion and servility, not from hunger and dignity.” So seems capable of doing the steadfast people of Gaza: as long as their siege ends before they do.
The future of the Lebanese army: On Friday, in a long-awaited decision, Lebanon’s Parliament voted to extend the term of army chief General Joseph Aoun by one year, after weeks of political discourse over the legitimacy of his mandate’s prolongation in a country witnessing a year-long presidency vacancy. Along with Aoun’s extension, Parliament approved a one-year postponement of the retirement of all generals in charge of security services, including Director General of the Internal Security Forces General Imad Osman, who is due to step down next May.
The most debated issue, however, concerned the future of the commander-in-chief. General Aoun, whose mandate was scheduled to end on January 10, 2024, will now remain in office, despite the stiff resistance from the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader Gebran Bassil.
On the other hand, the Parliament’s decision was welcomed by Lebanese Forces’ leader Samir Geagea, who, at a press conference on Friday, ensured that he will enter the holiday season “with a clear conscience, having extended the mandates of the only two institutions that were still standing despite the crisis,” and adding that the battle to obtain this mandate’s prolongation was not meant to be against any political faction, referring to the FPM’s opposition.
By extending General Aoun’s term of office through Parliament, the Lebanese Forces succeeded in obtaining an important commitment from Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, that ensured Parliament would meet after a Council of Ministers session initially scheduled for midday on Friday, being able to vote on a bill extending the mandate of the most senior military official regardless of the outcome of the scheduled Ministers’ meeting. The ministerial session, however, was cancelled due to a lack of a quorum after only eight ministers, including caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, showed up: at least 17 ministers in fact needed to be present at the meeting for it to have a quorum. In a statement by the Prime Minister’s office, the meeting was said to be postponed to next Tuesday, December 19.
Moreover, an hour before the meeting was due to start, former soldiers in the Lebanese army gathered outside of the Grand Serail to demand an increase in their pensions.
Geagea criticized the fact that the speaker of Parliament had passed several so-called ‘urgent’ bills during the plenary sessions on Thursday, despite that, according to the constitution, it should only meet as an electoral college to elect a new President of the Republic. Lebanon has been without a head of state since October 31, 2022, following the end of Michel Aoun’s term of office: since then, 12 parliamentary sessions have been devoted to the election of a new President, but they have all failed due to a lack of political agreement.
As a matter of fact, the current caretaker government, responsible only for current affairs, does not have the right to make appointments, nor to designate a successor to the army chief. However, the exceptional circumstances, as violent clashes across the southern borders did not seem to cease, convinced the Lebanese Forces to break with their precedent position of rejecting any parliamentary session held in the midst of a presidential vacancy, in order to extend Aoun’s mandate.
During Thursday’s Parliament plenary session, moreover, Hezbollah deputy Hassan Fadlallah asserted that the priority was to avoid a vacuum at the head of the military institution, following the Progressive Socialist Party’s sentiments.
Warning: An Israeli aircraft on Friday dispersed leaflets over southern Lebanese regions, on the town of Kafr Shouba, cautioning residents about “potential infiltration by Hezbollah.”
The content of the leaflets highlighted “the group’s exploitation of civilian spaces for terrorist activities, urging locals to exercise vigilance for their safety,” reading: “We would like to inform you that the terrorist organization Hezbollah is taking advantage of the opportunity to infiltrate your homes, your sacred lands, and the areas around your work and places of livelihood. It does so to act against the state of Israel and exploit your properties for its terrorist schemes. It is essential for your safety to stop this terrorism by exercising caution in the area.” The warning also emphasized “the danger posed by Hezbollah’s presence in civilian areas and the threat it poses to the residents’ well-being.”
It was the first time, since the beginning of the southern borders’ clashes between the Israeli Forces and Hezbollah’s militias, that an enemy aircraft dispersed leaflets over Lebanese towns to warn against an imminent threat. The strategy is often used by Israel over Gaza to warn the population of the Strip to flee – spreading terror of further bombardments.
This comes at a time when the escalating violence along the Blue Line does not seem to cease. With Hezbollah’s latest announcements, the number of party members killed since October 8 has surpassed the hundred, with one killed from the Amal movement, one from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and 16 from the Lebanese branches of the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) – while the confirmed civilian victims according to the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, as of December 5, are 15, of whom three journalists, and one is the soldier killed. However, other sources estimate the number of civilian victims to be 27.
These figures are to be added to the hundreds of wounded and the almost 65,000 displaced, whose private property and public infrastructure have been severely damaged after the collapse of the humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas, on December 1st, which prompted a resumption and further intensification of hostilities. More agricultural land and forests were impacted by widespread fires caused by the incendiary effect of white phosphorus shelling, prohibited by international law; while livelihood opportunities are diminishing for individuals for whom fulfilling their basic needs has become increasingly difficult, due to the imposition of restrictive measures like curfews and rising rental prices.
Trapped in a downward spiral: South Lebanon’s recently displaced children in shelters are exhibiting significant psychological distress and anxiety, including heightened fear and sleep disorders. An assessment made by UNICEF and released on Wednesday, December 13, showed that the impact of Lebanon’s unrelenting, overlapping crises continues to worsen, increasingly robbing children of their education and forcing many into child labor, as parents struggle with ever-diminishing resources. The survey showed an alarming increase of families sending children out to work to supplement household income, which rose 5 percentage points in the last seven months: from 11 percent in April to the current 16 percent.
This aspect, added to the matter of several schools being closed since October 2023 – due to an intensification of hostilities – rings the alarms about increasing school dropout.
“This terrible crisis is eroding the childhood of hundreds of thousands of children, through multiple crises not of their making. Its severity is crushing children’s dreams, and taking away their learning, their happiness and their future,” said Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF Representative in Lebanon.
With data collected in November, UNICEF analysis revealed significant deterioration in almost every aspect of children’s lives, with emotional burden particularly heavy in conflict-affected southern Lebanon and among Palestinian children.
The deprivations and uncertainty are taking a heavy toll on children’s mental health, with numerous households saying their children are anxious and depressed on a daily basis. The numbers are significantly higher in the South Governorate and in Nabatieh, and especially among Palestinian households, as Palestinian children are affected by the cumulative emotional impacts of poor living conditions, factional clashes, uncertainty about the future, and the shocking images from the war in Gaza, where many of their loved ones have been injured or killed.
UNICEF’s Edouard Beigbeder urged the Government to show a clear commitment to stop the daily suffering of children, by redoubling its efforts to make sure “every child in Lebanon is in school and learning, is protected from physical and mental harm and has the opportunity to thrive and contribute to society,” noting that the negligence of today’s children will inevitably bring to a weakened future society for the country.
Work in progress: Under the chairmanship of Nabih Berri, on Thursday the House of Parliament convened in a session – commenced with a minute of silence to honour the fallen victims of Israeli aggression in Palestine and Lebanon – that focused on retirement reform, renewable energy decentralization and loans for funding road renovation, social protection and Batroun sanitation infrastructure: this latter after endorsing a loan agreement of $59 million between the Lebanese Republic and the Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Development.
Marking a significant step forward in Lebanon’s infrastructure development, during the session, the agenda proceeded as the Parliament approved a draft law focused on the generation of distributed renewable energy. The decentralized energy law will allow private sector renewable electricity producers to sell and distribute up to 10MW of their production through Electricité du Liban’s (EDL) network, which has been exclusively used by public actors.
The Parliament’s general assembly then deliberated on a proposal which aimed to impose temporary and exceptional regulations on bank transfers and cash withdrawals.
The legislative session continued with the approval of two draft laws related to agreements with the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The first law, concerning the approval of a loan agreement with the EIB to contribute to financing the ‘Roads and Labor Project’ in Lebanon for about $165 million, has been passed with amendments; while the second, regarding the legal status of the IFRC in Lebanon, has also been approved.
The Parliament’s General Assembly has also approved a $300 million loan from the World Bank in additional funding for the Social Safety Net Project (ESSN), which provides cash assistance to over 90,000 vulnerable households.
Last, the Parliament discussed and approved a law concerning the amendment of certain provisions of the Social Security Law and the establishment of the retirement and social protection system, the NNA reported. The retirement pension reform draft law will transition from an end-of-service indemnity system to a retirement pension system.
United against them: Despite the deadly risk of the journey, as well as the authorities’ threats of arresting both smugglers and would-be migrants, dozens of people continue to take off from Lebanese northern shores towards a better future in Europe. On Sunday, the Lebanese navy rescued more than 50 people, of whom 49 Syrians and two Palestinians, from a sinking boat off the coast of Tripoli, the army said, suggesting the severity of living conditions in the country in serious crisis.
In this regard, on Wednesday, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati reached the headquarters of the World Forum for Refugees in Geneva to represent Lebanon, together with caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Abdallah Bou Habib. Mikati highlighted the prioritarian importance of addressing the Syrian displacement crisis in the country, underlying Lebanon’s precarious position, that he defined at “the brink of total collapse,” yet surprisingly united in calling on the international community for the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in the neighboring country.
This comes at a time when the vanity of the definition of ‘safe’ or ‘stable’ zones, for countries at war, is the most evident. The undoubted and steadfast support for the Palestinian cause and its right to self-determination, which Mikati reaffirmed in Switzerland, came along with a strong condemnation of Israeli policies and a renewed call for Palestinian refugees’ return under international law.
Addressing Lebanon’s history of hosting Palestinian refugees, Mikati highlighted the country’s limited resources and called for prioritizing the resolution of the conflict as the key to addressing the region’s multiple crises. This, simultaneously with an urgent call to stop violence and protect civilians in the Palestinian territories, does not seem to apply to the Syrian people’s cause, oppressed by similar brutalities during their decade-long civil war.
Despite that, in fact, Mikati called upon the international community to focus on facilitating the return of Syrian refugees, providing aid within their homeland, ensuring voluntary returns, and prioritizing support and reintegration of Syrian refugees within Syria; additionally, he suggested a ‘scientific classification’ distinguishing between Syrian workers and displaced persons, in order to set a national mechanism to determine the legal status of each refugee in Lebanon, and ensure private sector employment conditions that “reduce competition with Lebanese professionals.”
Regarding Lebanon’s economic burdens, it is a shared sentiment among part of Lebanese society to blame the recent influx of Syrian migrants, often depicted as a threat to Lebanese society’s fabric and its sovereignty. Accused of affecting communal security, demographic balance, increased crime rates, and prison overcrowding, the Syrian refugee population consists of 1.5 million, three quarters of the overall refugee population in the country which has the highest demographic ratio of refugees to citizens: one every two.
Expressing concern over new waves of Syrian displacement through illegal channels for primarily economic reasons, and soliciting the international community – particularly European countries – for the urgency of taking measures to prevent new attempts of illegal migration by sea, Mikati emphasized Lebanon’s determination to protect its homeland and its people’s right to live with “dignity and pride.”
At the same time, commenting on the Syrian migrant crisis, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil said that if Lebanon wants to negotiate with Western countries regarding the crisis, Lebanon must not keep its sea “strictly closed” to migrants who are trying to reach Europe illegally. During the Municipal Forum on Syrian Displacement’s conference held by his party on Saturday in Rabweh, the NNA reported, Bassil accused Western countries, through the UNHCR, to work to “stabilize the displaced in the land to which they were displaced and finance their survival,” blaming them for having used Lebanese security institutions as a tool to close the maritime borders to prevent migrants in Lebanon from moving to Europe.
Bassil also said that municipalities are the only ones that “can be relied upon with partial and temporary solutions to alleviate the burden of migrants in light of the increasing governmental, administrative and security deficit, and in light of the foreign conspiracy,” as, according to the FPM leader, it has become the duty of municipalities to carry out “the necessary classification of migrants and take measures against violators, whether by fining them financially, or by closing their shops, homes or illegal work, or by expelling them from their municipal jurisdiction.”
In fact, while Lebanese politicians from all sides regularly call for the expulsion of Syrian refugees – asserting that the security conditions allow for their return, while the UN and other rights groups warn that this is not the case -, since January a massive campaign of forced repatriation has been seriously threatening Syrians’ lives, unmasking the rhetoric of security and voluntariness of return.
Save the economy: However, when experts and academics meet to discuss the possible solutions for the Lebanese economic crisis, the repatriation of Syrian refugees does not fit the suggestions’ list. On the fifth session of the seminar “Lebanon in its Second Century: A Forward Vision,” launched on November 1st through an initiative of the American University of Beirut, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of History and Archaeology, the panellists discussed the topic of the Lebanese economic sector, tackling the outcomes of its collapse, as well as possible ways of reconstructing the country’s productive sectors.
The roundtable, as reported by Maan Barazy, brought forward many concerns on Lebanon’s economic stability, while trying to draw the parable of its bankruptcy. With a heavy legacy at the end of the first century of its institution, Lebanon, according to the World Bank, has experienced one of the top three most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s, which threatens the country’s social peace. The post-war economic development model, thriving on large capital inflows and international support in return for promises of reforms, miserably failed, as the Lira lost 98% of its currency value at an all-time high triple-digit inflation.
In the absence of any stimulus for productive sectors, it seems hard for Lebanon to find a way out of its multiple crises: the debt, banking, and currency one, together with a severe growth collapse.
During the discussion, the economic experts who took the stage tried to foresee possible channels towards: all of them, however, underlined the need for a fundamental change and renewal of the Lebanese economic infrastructure. As moderator and senior economist Aliaa Moubayyed noted, the Lebanese diaspora possesses a network of relationships that can be leveraged to sponsor a shift from a rentier-based economy to a productive one, but the country lacks public policies that enhance competitiveness, hence Lebanon’s model of economy is not attractive for private investment.
Economist Dr. Wael Mansour underlined the need for Lebanon to build a competitive business environment, questioning if it is possible, for a country that has been relying on a rentier-based economy, to shift to a productive model. Mansour’s view is not strange to the policies of international organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF. However, the suggested model – typical of a scenario the World Bank uses to address failing economies – doesn’t take into consideration the current corrupted state of affairs of Lebanon’s governance, nor the vacant public administration, which is impeding any attempt of economic relaunching.
The seminar furtherly explored two optional and potential models for the country’s development: namely, the industrial and the agricultural one.
The reform of Lebanon’s industrial sector, as addressed by Paul Abi Nasr, a board member of the Lebanese Industrialists Association, will never be realized if the industry does not progress according to current worldwide technological developments and guarantees of sales markets. Therefore, he suggested a model based on the full liberalization of the sector with a minimum of state interference, which would bridge the gap between productive and industrial decentralization and establish a connection between individual creativity and the industrial sector to work harmoniously.
Last, another growth model under scrutiny would be the agricultural sector, an aspect tackled by Nizar Ghanem, Research Director at Triangle Foundation. He emphasized that the state’s investment in agriculture accounts for only 0.5 percent of its general budget, and that the agricultural economy could have a significant share of the Lebanese economy, increase its export and capitalize on the potential for improvement in this sector.
Therefore, it is clear that to enter its second century in a better shape, Lebanon needs urgent substantial reforms and investments, along with substantial policy changes.
In The Region
Ongoing violations: Israeli forces bulldozed tents housing displaced Palestinians near Kamal Adwan Hospital on Saturday, according to Al Jazeera’s reporting. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor has demanded an independent inquiry into the incident, stating that some displaced Palestinians were buried and crushed alive.
The Observatory said in a statement that “Kamal Adwan Hospital witnessed terrible violations targeting patients, displaced people, and medical staff during 9 days of its siege by the occupation forces.”
Before they left the medical facility on Saturday morning, it was reported, “Israeli bulldozers buried Palestinian civilians alive in the hospital courtyard, according to testimonies the organization received from media and medical crews on the ground. At least one of the bodies could be seen amid the sand piles, witnesses said, confirming that the victim was injured before being buried and killed.”
According to Euro-Med Monitor, Israeli army bulldozers drove into the hospital and totally destroyed its southern section, leaving behind massive destruction following several days of non-stop attacks and siege. Nine days before, Israeli tanks had besieged the hospital, with Israeli snipers taking over the surrounding buildings and shooting at anyone passing by, the rights group said, citing the testimony of an unnamed eyewitness who claimed that Israeli forces ordered all males – including the medical staff – to congregate in the hospital courtyard, forcing them to remove all of their clothing, except for their boxers. They held the victims outdoors for six hours before arresting about 50 to 60 of them; while about 50 patients, along with their families and five doctors and nurses, were kept in one of the hospital’s departments without food, water, or electricity.
During its 70-day offensive, the Geneva-based observatory estimated in a statement issued on Friday, Israel has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, including about 10,000 children.
The Arab Observatory for Human Rights’ (AOHR) previously reported on Israeli violations in the Gaza Strip, denouncing that over the course of 50 days, from October 7 until November 25, the aggression had already caused the death and injury of 4% of Gaza’s population, 47 thousand citizens either killed, wounded or missing, stressing that what the citizens in Gaza go through is “one of the worst humanitarian disasters” and calling for the prompt establishment of the legal committee adopted by the Arab-Islamic Summit. It also pointed out that 70% of the victims were children and women, and that 1,700,000 people were pushed to displacement, while half of the citizens’ houses and civilian establishments were destroyed, notably hospitals.
The AOHR report indicated that the continuing war waged by the Israeli occupation on the Gaza Strip will have serious repercussions not only for the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, but also for the security and stability of the Middle East region as a whole, and called upon the international community and the International Criminal Court to act urgently and investigate the war crimes committed by Israeli forces. The AOHR also called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish an international fact-finding commission on human rights violations committed in the Gaza Strip, policies of collective punishment, forced displacement and other war crimes.
The heavy price of reporting: On Friday, Al Jazeera journalist Samer Abu Daqqa was killed in an Israeli drone attack while reporting at Farhana school in Khan Younis. The Qatar-based channel urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate Abu Daqqa from the school where he was trapped to a nearby hospital for medical treatment, but reporters said medics were unable to reach him and the other injured civilians. His colleague, Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Wael Dahdouh, who lost his wife, son, daughter and grandson in a previous Israeli bombing in October, was also wounded.
The funeral was held on Saturday in the city of Khan Younis, with dozens of mourners, including journalists, paying their respects to the cameraman. Journalists in Gaza are carrying a “human and noble message” for the world amid the ongoing war and will continue to work despite Israeli attacks, Dahdouh said in his eulogy. “We will continue to do our duty with professionalism and transparency,” he continued.
Just before the attack that killed his colleague, Dahdouh shared on his social media an interview conducted by NGO Rabet by PIPD saying that the hardest moments in the war, for him, are when the journalists become the news, instead of broadcasting for the news: “and instead of getting the image to broadcast, they become the images.”
Later on Saturday, the news of another targeted journalist spread online: Mohammad Balousha, reporter for Al Mashhad who filmed the premature babies that Israeli soldiers left to die at Al-Nasr hospital, has been shot on his leg by an Israeli sniper and was left bleeding alone in a room for hours.
As of December 15, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 57 journalists have been killed in the ongoing Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip since October 7, while 3 in south Lebanon.
The hindered path of negotiations: The chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, will no longer be heading to Qatar to resume discussions on a second Gaza war’s hostage agreement due to an Israeli government’s decision, The New Arab reported, citing Israeli broadcaster Channel 13.
However, Israel has requested Cairo to proceed with launching new negotiations to reach a new hostage-exchange deal and another humanitarian truce, after a previous week-long pause in hostilities, mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the US, saw the release of over 100 captives held in Gaza and 240 Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Barnea, The Wall Street Journal reported, was set to meet with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Norway’s capital Oslo over the weekend. The meeting would mark the first high-level encounter between Israeli and Qatari officials since the collapse of the temporary ceasefire, which led to an expansion of the Israeli military ground incursion into southern Gaza.
This comes after the IDF troops mistakenly shot and killed three hostages held by Hamas on Friday, identifying them as a threat – despite them waving white flags – during an intense battle in al-Shujaiya. “Together with the entire people of Israel, I bow my head in deep sorrow and mourn the death of three of our dear sons who were kidnapped,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement reported by Reuters. “My heart goes out to the grieving families in their difficult time.”
The military named the dead hostages as Yotam Haim, Samer Talalka, and Alon Shamriz, all abducted by Hamas militants on October 7. The Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, which represents the families of hostages, expressed its condolences and confirmed the names of the three hostages, before family members of captives still held in the Gaza Strip publicly called on the Israeli government to present a new plan for a deal to secure their swift release.
Jenin, Jenin (again and again): As the genocide in Gaza and attacks across the West Bank intensifies, new waves of detentions and killings have hit the city of Jenin, targeting civilians and healthcare, as access to ambulances and hospitals has been repeatedly blocked. The IDF invasion in Jenin refugee camp – which employed drone warfare and house-to-house searches – had been ongoing for 30 hours when they entered The Freedom Theatre, a community-based theatre and cultural centre in the city’s steadfast refugee camp, and arbitrarily arrested some of its members.
The Palestinian health ministry and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that, between Tuesday and Thursday, the Israeli raid killed 12 people – among whom teenagers Rafiq Dabbous, 17 years old, Thaer Abu Teen, 18, Rashad Turkman, also 18, and Ahmed Samar, 13 – and left 34 injured. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said that Israeli forces arrested at least 100 Palestinians in Jenin city and its surrounding area, after earlier on Tuesday they arrested 20 Palestinians in the town of Silwad, northeast of Ramallah.
These numbers have to be added to the alarming list of 300 Palestinians killed in the West Bank and the over 4,500 detained by Israeli forces since October 7, as the spotlight is mainly on Gaza. Only on Sunday, five more were killed in raids on Tulkarm and the Nur Shams camp outside the city, while on Monday three Palestinians were shot dead in Al-Faraa refugee camp in Tubas.
During the invasion of Jenin, a video showing Israeli occupation soldiers taking over a mosque and reciting Jewish prayers inside circulated online, after the location of the videos was verified by Reuters using buildings, the minaret and trees that matched file video, Google Street View and satellite imagery of the mosque.
“The desecration of religious sites should not be tolerated and is against common decency, to say the least,” said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General. The Israeli Army later released a statement stating that the soldiers, “acting against codes of conduct within a religious establishment, were immediately removed from operational activity and will be disciplined accordingly.”
Goodbye fossil fuels: The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) closed on Wednesday, December 13, with an agreement that signals the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance.
In a demonstration of global solidarity, negotiators from nearly 200 Parties came together in Dubai with a decision on the world’s first ‘global stocktake’ to ratchet up climate action before the end of the decade, with the overarching aim to keep the global temperature limit of 1.5°C within reach. The stocktake, which contains all elements usable to countries to develop stronger climate actions before 2025, recognizes the need to cut gas emissions 43%, double energy efficiency improvements and triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.
“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”
The realms of analysis of all the initiatives announced in Dubai, Stiell continued, are a climate-action lifeline, not a finish line, adding that “without them we would be headed for close to 5 degrees of warming: an open-and-shut death sentence for our species.” The Executive Secretary then called for “more security, stability and protection for eight billion people; more jobs, greater economic growth, less pollution and better health; more empowerment of women as powerful agents of change; more harnessing of nature and its best custodians.”
The core issue of the global meeting was to finally phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and drive the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, with developed countries taking the lead. New attention was placed on the loss and damage agenda, with an agreement on the canalization of technical assistance to developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, through the coordination of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Finally, increasing climate finances – what Stiell called “the great enabler of climate action” – was announced, as the Green Climate Fund (GCF) received a total pledge of USD 12.8 billion from 31 countries, with further contributions expected. In fact, eight donor governments announced new commitments to the Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund, totaling more than USD 174 million, while new pledges, totaling nearly USD 188 million so far, were made to the Adaptation Fund at COP28.
However, as highlighted in the global stocktake, these financial pledges are far short of the trillions eventually needed to support developing countries with clean energy transitions, implementing their national climate plans and adaptation efforts: in order to deliver such funding, there is a urgent need to reform the multilateral financial architecture, and accelerate the ongoing establishment of new and innovative financial sources.
For these reasons, the next two years will be critical, as governments are asked to establish new climate finance goals, reflecting the scale and urgency of the climate challenge, by COP29 – while by COP30 they will have to provide new nationally-determined contributions, fully aligned with the 1.5°C temperature limit.
No surprises: The presidential election expected to give Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi a sweeping victory and a new six-year term, in the absence of real competition, came to an end, and the results are not surprising. Al-Sisi is the confirmed president of the most populous Arab country, winning 89.6% of the votes with a notable 66.8% participation rate, according to official results.
Other than Sisi, three low-profile candidates have run for the country’s most influential public post: Farid Zahran, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Abdel-Sanad Yamama, head of the country’s oldest liberal party Al-Wafd, and Hazem Omar, head of the People’s Republican Party.
The 2024 elections, held between December 10 and 12 – the fifth multi-party presidential elections that Egypt has witnessed in its modern history – have been conducted amid an unforgiving economic crisis facing the country, also overshadowed by the Israeli ongoing onslaught of the Palestinian Gaza Strip bordering Egypt’s north Sinai province and civil war in neighbouring Sudan. Moreover, a recent threat for Egypt’s stability rose from Libya, where on Tuesday nearly 1,000 undocumented migrants from Egypt and Nigeria were forcibly repatriated. Among them, 664 Egyptians were to be taken by bus to the Emsaed border post with Egypt, nearly 1,400 kilometers east of Libyan capital Tripoli. In similar operations last month, 600 Egyptians were sent home on November 6, French news agency AFP reported citing a government official.
Additionally, the Egyptian pound has lost almost half of its value against the US dollar, making the essential commodities out of the reach of ordinary citizens in a country primarily dependent on importation rather than local production.
However, authorities have sought to address criticism of its record with steps including by opening a national dialogue and releasing some prominent prisoners, despite Sisi’s decennial rule having been marked by a crackdown on dissent across the political spectrum: rights groups say tens of thousands have been detained, including liberal activists, while the government says the crackdown was directed at extremists threatening to undermine the state. On Tuesday, the National Election Authority (NEA) executive director Ahmed Bendary said that the elections were conducted under the judicial supervision of 15,000 judges, whereas 22,340 local observers and 4,218 journalists monitored the vote at 9,376 polling stations nationwide. 528 reporters from 33 countries covered the polls, according to the State Information Service (SIS), which offers accreditation for journalists.
At the same time, though, a massive campaign of pro-Sisi propaganda has been flooding the streets of Cairo, despite the victory of the former president being undoubtedly expected. Businesses were coerced into funding support banners, rallying citizens and paying for their meals; while Mostaqbal Watan and Humat Watan parties, which had early declared their support for Sisi, were mobilized to rally voters: volunteers guided citizens to polling stations, playing patriotic songs on loudspeakers, and in many areas, buses were rented to transport pro-Sisi voters.
No more aid for Syria: The World Food Programme (WFP) has announced it will halt its primary support program for northwest Syria’s populations at the start of January 2024, due to funding shortages. It will, however, continue to support Syrian families affected by emergencies and natural disasters through smaller interventions, such as school meal initiatives and livelihood support for farming families.
This marks the seventh time the WFP has stated a reduction in aid to Syria. Last June, the Programme cut its aid to the country by half, managing to reach about 2.5 million people – from the previous 5.5 million – also because of limited funds.
At that time, the organization warned about the severe consequences of reduced support for Syrians, who are facing their toughest challenge yet in terms of food access: over 12 million civilians are at risk of hunger, with an additional 2.9 million struggling with food insecurity. Therefore, the approach had been to give smaller amounts of food to try to reach more people overall. Despite that, though, resources remained insufficient, prompting the programme to cease its assistance operation in the region, just as it happened in Yemen.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that northwest Syria is home to 4.5 million people, with 1.9 million living in camps for displaced people. The WFP decision came at the toughest time as winter sets in, a time when camp residents rely heavily on food assistance, so they can use whatever wages they manage to earn to pay for other expenses like heating fuel and firewood, as shown by a reportage from Al Jazeera.
Additionally, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) reported recently that Syria ranks third in the region for food price inflation this year, which adds another element to the country’s spiral of humanitarian and economic disaster, severely hit by a twelve-year-long civil war.
Back on track: After more than a decade of closure, the Syrian Embassy in the Saudi capital of Riyadh has reopened its doors and its services have been resumed, following months of rapprochement between the two countries.
On December 7 – eight months after the Saudi Foreign Minister’s visit to Damascus, which officially restored diplomatic ties with the isolated Syria -, the Syrian regime named assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan as the new Syrian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. However, Ihsan Rumman, the Syrian Consul, began his duties at the Syrian embassy in Riyadh last September, while already in May, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced the resumption of the work of its mission in Damascus.
Riyadh’s reopening to the Syrian regime – interrupted during the outbreak of the war in 2011 in response to the regime’s harsh crackdown on protesters -, was followed by Syria’s reentry into the Arab League and Bashar al-Assad’s participation in the Arab summit, held in in Saudi Arabia’s port city of Jeddah in May, as well as in the joint Organization of Islamic Cooperation-Arab League emergency summit on Gaza held in Riyadh in November. The process of reintroduction into the Arab fold, moreover, seems accelerated by the war on Gaza, which is giving Assad a further opportunity to emerge from his pariah status, despite the war crimes committed by Israeli forces against the Palestinian population being grotesquely similar to the repressive instruments of the Syrian regime.
The decision of a reopening, at first, was met with opposition from Qatar, who said that normalization with Syria can’t occur until a political solution to the country’s conflict is reached. In a joint statement released at the conclusion of the Saudi-Qatari Coordination Council meetings earlier in December, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have jointly expressed their hope for the Syrian regime to take significant measures to address the underlying causes of the Syrian crisis, emphasizing the need for a “just and comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis that ends all its repercussions and contributes to the safe voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their country and the preservation of the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.”
This comes at a moment when Assad is welcomed by Iranian officials to implement and eventually disclose numerous economic agreements between the two countries, as announced during the meetings of the Joint Ministerial Council between Syria and Iran held at the beginning of December. Iran and Syria are in fact accelerating operational measures to implement bilateral accords, proposing the formation of a permanent joint energy committee to follow up agreements concerning gas and electricity cooperation, along with finalizing the establishment of a bank in Syria and a free trade zone between the two countries.
The steps towards normalization, however, risk to overshadow the raising violence inside Syria, especially in the northern region, where ongoing mutual escalations between regime forces and opposition factions persist, after the regime forces have targeted the cities of Idlib and Sarmin, hitting residential and industrial areas as well as a shopping district and resulting in immediate civilian casualties and injuries.
What We’re Reading
Embracing complexity: Political psychologist and researcher Ramzi Abou Ismail suggested for NOW the detailed perspective of tackling Middle Eastern political issues beyond the surface-level perception of black-and-white binarism. Denouncing the simplistic allure of binary thinking, he explored different case studies of global complexity to address a more detail-inclusive and historically-informed method to Middle Eastern politics.
As 2023 comes to its end, The New Arab Voice’s podcast dedicates its last two episodes of the year to look back over the past twelve months and the stories that have shaped the Middle East. For the review’s first episode, they looked back at the months from January to June, remembering the earthquake in Turkey, the normalisation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the protests in Israel, Erdogan’s victory, and much more.