HomePoliticsBriefingThe arduous path of accountability

The arduous path of accountability

UMAM Documentation & Research, alongside the Lokman Slim Foundation and Dar Al-Jadeed observed the third anniversary of Lokman Slim’s untimely assassination

US new equation for the Middle East, Actors at odds in ceasefire negotiations, Israel plans ground attack on Rafah, The beginning of America’s retaliation, US fresh strikes hit IRGC targets in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s Guards pull officers from Syria after Israeli deadly strikes, Escalation meets escalation in the Red Sea, Beirut commemorates the third anniversary since Lokman Slim’s assassination, Death and disappearance toll in the central and eastern Mediterranean on the rise, Berri voices agreement with quintet countries on Lebanon’s presidential election, The fate of the children of Gaza, Seeking a complete peace in south Lebanon, Sudan’s warring parties secretly meet in Bahrain amid critical starvation, Syria receives first UAE Ambassador since 2011, The first indictment in Belgium for war crimes under Assad’s regime, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron pledges £10 million in aid to Lebanon, Schools reopen in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, AUB weekly seminar discusses demarcation plans and the future of Lebanese oil sector

Sometimes justice is a giant lie. The bureaucratic structures of laws, courts, international conventions – nothing more than fetishes of absent institutions and denied rights. And sometimes, a glimmer of hope ignites entire populations awaiting a sentence, sometimes, for a single indicted person, a sigh of relief is breathed, and a kind of smile is drawn on faces contorted by disenchantment. 

Someone in Syria must have smiled when, last Monday, National Defense Militias’ Hossin A. was charged in Brussels with serious violations of international humanitarian law over crimes specifically committed during the ongoing 13-year-long civil war. The same international law that for a moment, in The Hague, deluded the Palestinian nation and the peoples victims of genocide that the seek of accountability can, perhaps, cease indiscriminate massive killing. But what is a smile compared to decades of hegemony of injustice, death, submission to impunity.

What is one judicial act – some might wonder – when compared to the more than half a million Syrians who died, the nearly 20 million who have been displaced or forced to flee; what can one person indicted represent when compared to the 155,000 who have been forcibly disappeared or remain in the country’s prisons since 2011. What can an international arrest warrant do with respect to the growing normalization of the Assad regime in the Arab fold. What does the South African determinate stance mean in face of Israel’s brutal ongoing oppression against the Palestinian people – and the International Court of Justice’s order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid in face of Western countries’ defunding of UNRWA. How much can the slow time of justice and courts compete with the lightning-fast devastation of a bombing, the instant it takes for a mother to lose her child – for a child, a limb – for a people, a future. How does a sanction against four settlers in the West Bank punish and stop the longest colonialist project in history. What is a sentence compared to the idea of justice and accountability, to the idea of Palestine, of liberation, of the inviolable right for a nation to live in peace, for children to play, and young men to grow old.

Surely not yet smiling nor sighing with relief are the families of Lokman Slim and the victims of the Beirut port’s blast – killed for one first time, respectively on February 3, 2021 and August 4, 2020, by a volley of bullets to the head and the explosion of 552 tons of ammonium nitrate; and a second one, by the failure of local and international justice. Yet determined to proceed in their path towards accountability, reunited at MINA Image Center, not far from the site of the destroyed port, all who advocate for the rule of law gathered united against the absence of political will to demand urgent justice. “Because if we don’t ask for justice for Lokman, if we don’t have a real investigation, then we are giving the killers a green card to continue,” Slim’s spouse, Monika Borgmann, said on the occasion of the third year commemoration since Lokman’s political assassination.


In Lebanon

Remembering Lokman Slim: On Saturday, February 3, UMAM Documentation & Research, alongside the Lokman Slim Foundation and Dar Al-Jadeed, observed the third anniversary of Lokman Slim’s untimely assassination. In the event titled “Justice for Lebanon, Justice for Lokman,” the discussion shed the light on the topic of political assassinations, bringing attention to the pervasive impunity enveloping these crimes. The broader issue lies within Lebanon’s weakened justice system and the troubling absence of accountability.

Lokman Slim, well known for his strong positions, was found shot and killed in his car in southern Lebanon on February 4, 2021. His assassination is a stark reminder of the broader issues afflicting Lebanon and serves as a symbol of the countless crimes committed to silence those who defend freedom of expression and rule of law in the country. Attempts to harness the judicial system in Lebanon have shown the system’s lack of independence, political will, and genuine means to achieve justice. Lokman’s case therefore has followed the same path of impunity as other political assassinations and events such as the August 2020 Beirut Port Blast, all of which reflect the challenges and disastrous political situation that Lebanon faces when attempting to implement justice.

Short testimonies, moderated by Makram Rabah, included the voices of Monika Borgmann Slim, spouse of Lokman Slim; his sister Rasha Al-Ameer; lawyers of the Slim family, Moussa Khoury and Diala Shehadeh; Nayla Bejjani, spouse of Joseph Bejjani; May Chidiac and Marwan Hamadeh, former Ministers and survivors of attempted assassinations; Mohammad Matar, lawyer of families of victims at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; Michel Helou, general secretary of National Bloc; Parliament Members Georges Okais, Elias Hankash, Marc Daou, Michel Mouawad, and former Parliament Members Fares Souaid, and Mustapha Allouch.

Previously, the memorial service for Slim took place in the garden of his family’s residence in Haret Hreik, which he refused to leave despite continuous and serious threats against him. This year, however, the commemoration of his life, death, and legacy was held in collaboration with the MINA Image Centre to symbolically take place near the destroyed port, reflecting the urgency of the ongoing struggle for justice that Lokman and all advocates of the rule of law are striving for amid Lebanon’s ongoing and current tragedy, in the context of the unprecedented regional violence. 

In pursuit of justice: Interviewed for NOW, Lebanese journalist Ghinwa Yatim highlighted that keeping the memory of Slim alive is vital in light of the current carelessness of the Lebanese judiciary that still has not issued a charge. “Lokman is one of many examples of how injustice still prevails in Lebanon. He was one of those who fought against it until, unfortunately, he became a victim. One should not stop believing that change can happen even if it’s slow,” Yatim said, adding that it is the duty of journalists, lawyers, and diplomats who believe in freedom of expression and who also have similar thoughts and beliefs to those of Lokman to participate in keeping his message alive.

The condition of the Lebanese judiciary has been precarious since well before the civil war, as there has been a notable absence of serious accountability in both political cases and those directly affecting public interest. This is largely attributed to the fact that those in power, shielded by persistent impunity, often end up being the perpetrators of such crimes. Additionally, the significant role played by politicians in appointing high-ranking judiciary officials, responsible for dispensing justice on behalf of the people, creates a conflict of interest, undermining the judiciary’s independence.

According to experts, a viable solution to this predicament would be the establishment of an independent judiciary. During a press conference held by the Lebanese Coalition for the Independence of the Judiciary on March 28, 2023, nine members of Lebanon’s parliament introduced two draft laws aimed at strengthening the independence of judicial investigations and preventing political interference with the judiciary. However, these proposed laws are yet to be put into effect.

On a different note, members of the judiciary have not been immune to the repercussions of the Lebanese crisis, marked by the rapid devaluation of the local currency. This has had evident implications on their professional lives as they contend with the challenges of making ends meet.


Seeking permanent solutions: Hezbollah’s parliamentary wing declared on Thursday that it has adopted “appropriate deterrent measures,” following an earlier announcement claiming it has “intensified its qualitative operations” against Israel, amid ongoing cross-border fighting. In a statement issued at the end of its regular meeting, led by Parliament Member Mohammad Raad, the parliamentary group observed that the escalation of tensions between Israel and the ‘Islamic Resistance’ at the border is “the result of the enemy’s insistence on dictating new ground realities to impose its conditions on Lebanon in a way that violates its sovereignty and the security of its people.” But in the face of “the enemy, the Resistance adopts appropriate deterrent measures,” Raad said, reiterating “the legitimate right of the Islamic Resistance to defend its country and its people.”

A qualitative operation, in military terms, would imply an improvement in the operation’s quality through enhanced tactics and equipment or better training exercises.

Regarding Gaza,  according to the party statement, following current diplomatic attempts in France toward a ceasefire, Hezbollah emphasized the importance of considering Hamas’ stance, which demands a total cessation of hostilities as a precursor to any agreement, which would also address the release of Israeli hostages. In this regard, Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Beirut, said the multistage proposal that officials from Egypt, Israel, Qatar and the US put forth this week is unacceptable because it does not include a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

“Whatever the content and outcome of this project, the objective to be achieved, in our opinion, is to put an end to the aggression, lift the siege, exchange prisoners and detainees, ensure the reconstruction of Gaza and approve a formula for the administration” of the enclave, Hezbollah’s statement reads, as reported by Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour.

On a similar path, Caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Abdallah Bou Habib, on Thursday declared Lebanon’s stance against partial solutions in southern Lebanon, asserting the country’s pursuit of a comprehensive solution, delineating borders based on the 1923 demarcation affirmed in the ceasefire agreement.

During a conversation with journalists, Bou Habib emphasized that the Israeli project aims for Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the north to enable settlers’ return – “a proposition Lebanon rejects.” “We seek the restoration of Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills, which are Lebanese territories, and demand Israel cease its aerial, maritime, and land violations,” Bou Habib stated.

The Foreign Minister then  expressed readiness for indirect negotiations but insisted on refraining from signing any agreements before the presidential election. He highlighted the potential for negotiation akin to the maritime delineation agreement, advocating for boundary clarity, a request reiterated during discussions with the United Nations Secretary-General and thirteen other foreign ministers in New York. Regarding the potential return of the US envoy, Amos Hochstein, Bou Habib suggested significance in his return, which might hint at undisclosed developments.

In response to claims of Hezbollah’s exclusive control over indirect negotiations, Bou Habib affirmed ongoing dialogue between the Lebanese government and the Iran-backed Shiite party, with the latter acknowledging the state’s responsibility for diplomatic talks.


Made in Lebanon: On Friday, interviewed by Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced that he agrees with the ambassadors of the quintet countries (United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt), with whom he met on Tuesday, on their view that the presidential elections should be “a pure Lebanese” event.

Commenting on Tuesday’s meeting, which Berri described as “useful and promising,” he clarified that the quintet is “nothing but a group of support for the MPs to facilitate the election of a president,” and that “it has no candidate and does not have a veto on any of the candidates.” As a matter of fact, the five countries have been involved in the Lebanese presidential dossier amid the presidential vacuum which started in October 2022 when former President Michel Aoun left office at the end of his term. Since then, twelve parliamentary electoral sessions have occurred and respectively failed – the last of which took place in June 2023.

While Hezbollah and the Amal Movement are supporting the candidacy of Marada leader Sleiman Frangieh, the traditional parties and opposition groups reject this choice, as most Christian parties are backing former Finance Minister Jihad Azour.

A third option is also advocated by the quintet, which has recently resumed meetings with Lebanese officials. However, the Parliament speaker pointed out that the ambassadors did not discuss “the third presidential option” and that he did not present the name of any candidate to them, nor did they object to his invitation to the parliamentary blocs to furtherly meet. “Perhaps we will reach a consensus that will open the door to an immediate call to hold an open parliamentary session with successive sessions,” he said to the interviewer. A meeting of representatives of the quintet, at a higher level of representation, should in fact take place in February to agree on basic criteria and features for the election of the next president, after which open parliamentary sessions will be called within the month of March.


Would-be migrants: Nearly 100 migrants have died or disappeared in the central and eastern Mediterranean since the beginning of 2024, more than double the toll recorded last year during the same period, the UN Migration Agency said on Monday. The comment was made during an Italy-Africa conference in Rome attended by more than two dozen African leaders and European Union officials to discuss economic ties and ways to curb undocumented migration to Europe.

“The latest record of deaths and disappearances is a stark reminder that a comprehensive approach that includes safe and regular pathways is the only solution that will benefit migrants and states alike,” said Amy Pope, director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “Even one death is one too many,” she added.

IOM’s Missing Migrants Project found that 3,041 migrants were dead or went missing in the Mediterranean last year – a significant increase over the 2,411 toll in 2022. Three ‘invisible’ shipwrecks coming from Libya, Lebanon, and Tunisia – which  has recently replaced Libya as a main departure point for Mediterranean crossings for people fleeing poverty and conflict toward the European coasts – within the last six weeks carrying 158 people are unaccounted for, though IOM has recorded 73 of those people as missing and presumed dead.

On Wednesday, authorities rescued a group of 62 migrants off Cape Greco, Cyprus, who left Lebanon on 18 January. Most are hospitalized and described as severely ill, with several children in a critical condition, and one child who has since died. Moreover, seven bodies that came ashore in Antalya, Turkey, in recent days are believed to belong to a group of 85 migrants missing since they set sail from Lebanon on 11 December.


Cameron in Beirut: On Thursday, February 1, UK Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, ended a one-day visit to Lebanon, marking his first official visit to the country as Foreign Secretary, following his previous visit as Prime Minister in September 2015 and his fourth visit to the Middle East as Foreign Secretary. 

David Cameron, accompanied by Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Middle East, met with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander General Joseph Aoun, and Head of Mission and Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon,  Lieutenant General Aroldo Lázaro Sáenz. In his meetings, David Cameron raised his concerns on the rising tensions along Lebanon’s boundary with Israel and underlined the UK’s commitment to support the de-escalation of violence, the state-run National News Agency reported, reaffirmed the Kingdom’s “longstanding and proud partnership” with the Lebanese Army.

The Foreign Secretary announced UK support for the LAF, which has now surpassed 100 million pounds since 2009. To date, the UK has supported the construction of 78 border towers, the provision of 344 Land Rovers, 3450 sets of PPE to soldiers deployed on border operations, 100 Land Rover armored patrol vehicles trained and mentored over 26,500 LAF personnel in border operations and internal security. 

Moreover, in light of a claimed continued “support to the most vulnerable in Lebanon,” as British Ambassador Hamish Cowell highlighted, the Foreign Secretary announced 7.35 million pounds of new UK aid funding to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Lebanon Humanitarian Fund, which supports UN agencies and NGOs to provide food, water, shelter and other basic support to vulnerable communities across Lebanon. And a 2.6 million pounds contribution to support the education of vulnerable children through a network of community centers for out of school children as part of UNICEF and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s (MEHE) Transition and Resilience Education Fund (TREF).   


Back to school: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugee (UNRWA) reopened three schools in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, which had been forced shut by deadly clashes since July, L’Orient-Le Jour reported, after two of the Agency’s schools in Saida had been temporarily opened to host those displaced from the camp. 

Classes were held on Tuesday morning for some 1,700 pupils in three of the eight schools managed by the Agency, all located in the same complex in the camp, while another school in the camp reopened on Thursday. In its announcement of the re-opening, UNRWA said that it could not do the same for other schools – namely  the Bissan, Samoa, Naqoura and Safed schools – due to their continued occupation by fighters. 

The assassination of a Fatah security official in July sparked days of clashes and violence which renewed in September reportedly over the Islamist factions’ refusal to hand over the alleged killers. The fighting killed at least 18 people, injured dozens and displaced  some 2,000 of others until a ceasefire brokered in mid-September. 


Demarcation and the oil sector’s future: In the context of the “Lebanon in its Second Century: A Vision for the Future” project, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut (AUB) organized a seminar titled “The Future of Lebanon: The maritime and land demarcation and the future of the oil sector.” The conference, moderated by retired dean and military strategic researcher Naji Malaeb and reported by NOW’s Maan Barazy, tackled the controversial topic of Lebanese-Israeli borders’ demarcation and the ongoing seek for a shared agreement.

During the panel’s first session, retired Brigadier General Khalil Al Gemayel addressed the challenges of the Blue Line: focusing on the area delimited by Ras Naqoura to Mount Hermon, he expressed concerns about the identity of the village of Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms, asserting that changes post the Sykes-Picot Agreement favored Lebanon negatively. 

Brigadier General Mazen Basbous, in the second session, highlighted Lebanon’s maritime border dispute with Israel, originating in 2011 due to a misdelimitation with Cyprus in 2007, when Lebanon’s retreat allowed Israel to trespass on 860 square kilometers of its waters. Basbous criticized flaws in the delineation agreement, including the continued occupation of the Tafavats area and Israeli conditions on Lebanese Block 9, despite its registration as an international treaty at the United Nations.

In the third session, energy governance expert Diana Kaissi highlighted Lebanon’s energy sector crisis, covering issues in electricity, renewable energy, and governance powers – while emphasizing the need for practical reforms, comprehensive problem-solving through stakeholder consultations, and the inclusion of renewable energy in Lebanon’s strategy. The expert also highlighted the urgent need for approving the National Oil Spill Response Plan, criticised ministries’ unpreparedness for oil spills, and called for reconsideration of the flawed Rosenhaft contract for Tripoli’s oil facilities.

Last, in the fourth conclusive session, retired Colonel Nasseef Obeid discussed the criticality of defining national security borders to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty, addressing the complexity of defending national interests against multiple threats and the need for a comprehensive national strategy.


In The Region 

The American retaliation: On Friday night, the United States military launched dozens of airstrikes against more than 85 targets in Syria and Iraq in the first retaliation for a drone attack that on Sunday, January 28, killed three soldiers at a remote US base in Jordan – blamed on Iraq’s militant group Kataib Hezbollah. The American airstrikes killed at least 13 Iran-aligned fighters, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, though the number of casualties might be higher, approaching 40, according to Reuters.

“At my direction, US military forces struck targets at facilities in Iraq and Syria that the IRGC and affiliated militia use to attack US forces,” US President Joe Biden said in an official statement, referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. “Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing,” the statement read, adding that “the United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. But let all those who might seek to do us harm know this: if you harm an American, we will respond.”

Syria’s Defense Ministry confirmed that US air attacks targeted a number of sites and towns in the eastern region near the border with Iraq, stating that civilians and military personnel were killed with others being wounded, and that the attacks caused significant damage to public and private property. “The area targeted by the American attacks in eastern Syria is the same area where the Syrian Arab army fights the remnants of the ISIS terrorist organization,” the ministry said, quoted by Al Jazeera’s news channel, accusing the United States and its military forces to be involved and allied with the Islamic State’s organization. “The aggression of the US occupation forces at dawn today has no justification other than an attempt to weaken the Syrian Arab army and its allies in the fight against terrorism.”

The White House has insisted that the United States is not looking for war with Iran, despite launching dozens of air strikes against targets allegedly linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated armed groups. “We do not seek conflict with Iran,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists. “These targets were chosen to disrupt the capabilities of the IRGC and the groups they sponsor. We believe these targets fell into that criteria. The goal is to get these attacks to stop.”

In addition, the US has announced new sanctions and charges targeting the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, targeting six officials in the cyber-electronic command of the IRGC and a network of Iran and Hong Kong-based suppliers providing materials for Iran’s ballistic missile and drone programmes, the US Treasury Department announced in a statement. US prosecutors also announced that they had seized 108 million dollars from an oil laundering scheme used to fund IRGC’s elite Quds Force.


Downsizing: Days before the beginning of US retaliation, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps recalled its senior officers from Syria, pushing it to rely more on regional proxies, five security sources told Reuters, after increased targeted strikes blamed on Israel occurred in the region. Since December, Israeli strikes have killed more than half a dozen of their members, among them one of the Guards’ top intelligence generals.

According to the report, Tehran was also particularly reluctant to be drawn into an all-out war in the Middle East, as a senior regional security official briefed by Tehran told the news agency that dozens of middle-ranking officers were also pulled out, describing it as a “reduction of forces.”

Further clarifying the downsizing, it was described as helping Tehran “avoid being pulled into the Israel-Gaza War,” but that the change would not impact IRGC operations. IRGC will in fact reportedly rely more on its allied Shi’ite militias in the area, managing the operations remotely, primarily with the help of Hezbollah. Moreover, following the drone attack that killed three American soldiers stationed in Jordan, blamed on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, tensions reached higher between the US and Iran.

The report concluded that an intelligence breach, possibly in the Syrian security forces, was to blame for the precise alleged Israeli strikes of January 21 in which five members of the Guards were killed, including a general who ran intelligence for the Quds Force, and a building in Damascus was completely flattened. Additionally, it reiterated that the operations were not over, but a new recruitment drive from Afghanistan and Pakistan was underway for fighters to deploy in Syria.


In Yemen: On the Red Sea front, on Saturday, the United States and Britain hit dozens of Houthi targets in response to repeated pirate attacks on shipping by the Iran-backed group.

Coming the day after the beginning of US retaliation in Syria in Iraq, Saturday’s strikes hit “36 Houthi targets across 13 locations in Yemen in response to the Houthis’ continued attacks against international and commercial shipping as well as naval vessels transiting the Red Sea,” the United States, Britain and other countries that provided support for the operation said in a statement, marking the third time that British and American forces have jointly targeted the Yemeni group.

The joint statement from Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States “on additional strikes against the Houthis in Yemen” reads that “recognizing the broad consensus of the international community, our coalition of like-minded countries committed to upholding the rules-based order has continued to grow,” and that their aim remains to “de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea,” to “remain committed to protecting freedom of navigation and international commerce and holding the Houthis accountable for their illegal and unjustifiable attacks on commercial shipping and naval vessels,” while also reiterating a warning to Houthi leadership: “we will not hesitate to continue to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats.”

Recognizing the Houthis’ now more than 30 attacks on commercial vessels and naval vessels since mid-November as an international challenge, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strikes “are intended to further disrupt and degrade the capabilities of the Iranian-backed militia to conduct their reckless and destabilizing attacks,” announcing that the coalition forces targeted locations associated with the group’s “deeply buried weapons storage facilities, missile systems and launchers, air defense systems, and radars.” 

Separately, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said its forces carried out a strike against a Houthi anti-ship missile “prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea” early Sunday morning after deeming it “presented an imminent threat” against military and commercial vessels in the area. 

Following the Saturday strikes, Houthi spokesman, Nasr al-Din Amer, stated that “either there is peace for us, Palestine and Gaza, or there is no peace and no safety for you in our region.” “We will meet the escalation with escalation,” he wrote on social media.


At odds: Hamas officials said on Friday that the group is studying a proposed ceasefire deal that would include prolonged pauses in fighting in Gaza and swaps of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, but the militants appeared to rule out some key components, AP reported.

Hamas remains committed to its initial demands for a permanent ceasefire, the group’s top political leader Ismail Haniyeh and a senior Beirut-based official Osama Hamdan announced, adding that they seek the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including those serving life sentences – specifically mentioning the name of Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian uprising leader seen as a unifying figure, and marking with this comment the most detailed demands yet raised by the militant group in public. 

Hamdan also highlighted that Hamas wants to free Palestinian prisoners of all factions, not just those affiliated with the militant group, claiming that the prisoner release is a “national cause, not only for Hamas.” In addition to Barghouti, he named Ahmed Saadat, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Both Barghouti and Saadat were convicted of involvement in fatal attacks during the second Intifada, a major Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation.

The insistence on large-scale prisoner releases and an end to the fighting in Gaza put the Palestinian group at odds with the multi-stage proposal that officials from Egypt, Israel, Qatar, and the United States put forth this week, which does not include a permanent ceasefire. In a statement released on Friday, Haniyeh said that negotiations must “completely end” the Israeli offensive in Gaza and bring the withdrawal of Israeli forces, demands that Israel has rejected.

After days of expressing optimism over progress toward a deal, in fact, mediators were still working to close wide gaps between Israel and Hamas. Alluding to additional points of dispute, Hamdan also said that Israel is carving out a buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border. Despite not having acknowledged such plans officially, satellite photos show new demolition in a 1-kilometre-wide swath within Gaza along the border with Israel, according to an analysis conducted by The Associated Press and expert reports.


A new equation: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the region on Sunday to help push the efforts, making stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank, the State Department announced. This comes after the State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller announced the US is actively pursuing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, while exploring options with partners in the region.

“There are any number of ways that you could go about accomplishing that. There are a number of sequencing events that you can carry out to accomplish that objective. And we look at a wide range of options and we discuss those with partners in the region as well as other partners inside the United States government,” Miller said, quoted by Reuters. He declined to give details on the department’s internal work on the issue, but told a news briefing the effort has been an objective of President Joe Biden’s administration.

Speaking in Davos earlier this month, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said there was a “new equation” in the Middle East in which Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors were prepared to integrate Israel into the region but were equally committed to a pathway to a Palestinian state – after having asked the State Department to conduct a review and present policy options on possible US and international recognition of a Palestinian state after the war in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, is at odds with the Biden administration’s plan, stating at the weekend that he would not compromise on “full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River.”

On the other hand, the White House has recently imposed sanctions on four Israeli men it accused of being involved in settler violence in the West Bank, signaling growing US displeasure with the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The order establishes a system for imposing financial sanctions and visa restrictions against individuals who attack or intimidate Palestinians or seize their property, the State Department announced in a statement released on Thursday under the title ‘Further Measures to Promote Peace, Security, and Stability in the West Bank.’ The indicted are: David Chai Chasdai, responsible of initiating a riot that included setting vehicles and buildings on fire and causing damage to property in Huwara, resulting in the death of a Palestinian civilian; Einan Tanjil, who assaulted Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists by attacking them with stones and clubs, resulting in injuries that required medical treatment; Shalom Zicherman, who, according to video evidence, assaulted Israeli activists and their vehicles in the West Bank, blocking them on the street, attempted to break the windows of passing vehicles with activists inside, and cornered at least two of the activists and injured both; and Yinon Levi, who led a group of settlers that assaulted Palestinian and Bedouin civilians, burned their fields and destroyed their property. 

Earlier in December, the United States began imposing visa bans on people involved in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Israel must do more to stop violence against civilians in the West Bank and hold accountable those responsible for it,” Blinken said in a separate statement to which Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right pro-settlement party Religious Zionism, replied accusing the settler violence campaign of being “an anti-Semitic lie that enemies of Israel disseminate with the goal of smearing the pioneering settlers and settlement enterprise, and to harm them and thus smear the entire State of Israel,” leaving little space for justice and accountability.


Expanding ground attack: The Israeli military plans to expand its ground assault into Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where most Palestinians in the besieged enclave have been forced to seek shelter amid heavy bombardment of the rest of the enclave. This has spread fear among the displaced and concerns from global aid organizations as the last place designated as a “safe zone” by the Israeli army in Gaza comes under threat while Israel continues to hamper the flow of aid.

“The Khan Younis Brigade of the Hamas organization is disbanded, we will complete the mission there and continue to Rafah,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a post on the social media platform X late on Thursday. “We will continue until the end, there is no other way.”

The United Nations and international human rights organizations have been raising alarms as the Israeli military gradually expands its ground operations in southern Gaza, as about 1.9 million of the enclave’s 2.3 million people are crammed into Rafah near the border with Egypt, staying in residential buildings or sleeping in the streets without protection nor basic infrastructure, lacking basics including toilets, sufficient clean water and blankets or suitable winter clothing, putting them at high risk of getting sick. According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, the Israeli army has killed more than 27,000 people, mostly women and children, since the war began on October 7, and Palestinians believe Israel’s latest war plan will mean more death and destruction.

Moreover, in the past few weeks, Israeli soldiers and tanks have been encircling Khan Younis, killing thousands of Palestinians, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee further south, after having heavily sieged Nasser Hospital and al-Amal Hospital.

“I want to emphasize our deep concern about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Younis, which has resulted in an increase in the number of internally displaced people seeking refuge in Rafah in recent days,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “Thousands of Palestinians have continued to flee to the south, which is already hosting over half the population of some 2.3 million people. Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what comes next.”

Israel’s attacks on Khan Younis and its planned expansion into Rafah come after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made a provisional ruling last week on measures requested by South Africa in its genocide case against Israel. The ICJ directed Israel to take measures to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and to allow more humanitarian aid into the strip.


Yet another child: The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has renewed its appeal for information regarding the fate of two of their emergency responders who went to rescue a six-year-old Palestinian girl who survived an Israeli attack on a civilian car in Gaza City. The fate of the child, Hind, and the two PRCS ambulance crew members – Yousef Zeino and Ahmed al Madhoun – is still unknown after Israeli forces attacked the car in which the child was travelling with her teenage sister and several relatives.

Hind’s sister survived the initial attack by the Israelis but was killed shortly after while speaking on the phone with PRCS rescuers. Hind remained in the car for hours with the bodies of her sister and dead relatives as the Red Crescent team went to her rescue. “More than 100 hours have passed,” the Red Crescent posted on social media on Sunday night, since none have been heard from yet, and the fate of the colleagues from the PRCS EMS team still “remains unknown.”

Almost all of Gaza’s 1.2 million children are in need of mental health support, UNICEF stated in a report published on Friday – twice as many compared with pre-war estimates, specifying that at least 17,000 of them are unaccompanied or separated from their parents, and that “due to the sheer lack of food, water and shelter, extended families are distressed and face challenges to immediately take care of another child as they themselves are struggling to cater for their own children and family.” 

“Children’s mental health is severely impacted. They present symptoms like extremely high levels of persistent anxiety, loss of appetite, they can’t sleep, they have emotional outbursts or panic every time they hear the bombings,” UNICEF State of Palestine Chief of Communication Jonathan Crickx stated at Friday’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.


Starving Sudan: The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday it was receiving reports of people dying of starvation in Sudan and that the number of hungry people has doubled over the past year as the war has cut off civilians from aid, Reuters reported. According to the reports, nearly 18 million people across Sudan are facing acute hunger, and more than five million are experiencing emergency levels of hunger in areas worst affected by the conflict.

Under a classification agreed by a partnership of UN agencies and NGOs, crisis levels of hunger mean households are suffering from high rates of acute malnutrition or can only meet minimum needs through crisis-coping strategies or using up essential assets, while emergency levels of hunger means households are suffering from very high acute malnutrition or death, or can only cope through emergency measures or liquidating assets.

The organization announced in a statement that it was able to deliver aid to just one in 10 people in those areas, which include the capital Khartoum, the western region of Darfur, and El Gezira state, where the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) recently advanced, adding that “it is becoming nearly impossible for aid agencies to cross due to security threats, enforced roadblocks, and demands for fees and taxation.”

Aid deliveries in Sudan had been limited because 70 trucks had been stuck in Port Sudan for more than two weeks, and another 31 had been stuck in El Obeid for more than three months, both cities controlled by the Sudanese army. 

WFP called on Sudan’s warring factions – the army and the paramilitary RSF, at war since April 2023, when a power struggle over a plan to shift towards civilian role erupted – to provide immediate guarantees for the unimpeded delivery of relief.

Efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting have so far yielded no breakthrough: however, the belligerent factions secretly met in Bahrain for their first such contact in nine months of fighting. Unlike previous talks on war in Sudan, the meeting in Bahrain’s capital Manama was attended by influential deputies from both forces and by officials from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, key supporters of the army and RSF respectively, sources present at the talks told Reuters.

According to one participant, the two sides had tentatively agreed on a declaration of principles including maintaining the unity of Sudan and its military – at a stage where the RSF is in control of most of Khartoum and western Sudan, where it is accused of ethnic cleansing, and has recently pushed further east from its strongholds in Darfur, attacking Babanusa in West Kordofan State; and the army, meanwhile, has made a push to regain territory in the capital, and is recruiting and arming civilians in areas under its control.


Back to Syria: On Monday evening, Emirati Ambassador Hassan Ahmed al-Shahi arrived in Damascus to become the first UAE Ambassador to visit the war-torn country since 2011. Previously serving as the Emirates’ Ambassador to Iraq since 2015 and holding the position of his country’s Ambassador to Sudan, al-Shahi played a pivotal role in the reopening of the UAE embassy in Damascus in December 2018, re-establishing ties after a seven-year hiatus.

According to the Syrian newspaper al-Watan, on Tuesday al-Shahi headed the Emirati diplomatic mission after nearly 13 years without an Ambassador from the Gulf state since the start of the war on Syria, while Saudi Arabia’s Charge d’Affaires Abdullah al-Haris and several other diplomats arrived in Damascus on the previous Saturday to resume Saudi consular services.

Ties between the Syrian regime and other Arab-majority states have been warming in recent years, after several Arab states cut off ties with Damascus after it brutally cracked down on a popular uprising in 2011. More than half a million Syrians have died since, millions more have been displaced, and about 100,000 people are missing, likely killed by regime or regime-affiliated forces. But with the Assad regime maintaining its hold on much of the country, Arab states have in recent years sought to welcome the Syrian regime back into the diplomatic fold – although the country’s position in the League has for some months appeared tenuous, partly because of its refusal to cooperate with efforts by Arab League countries to end the smuggling and trade of  the illegal amphetamine captagon, a report published by The New Arab in 2022 revealed. 


Indicted: The rising Arab normalization with the Syrian regime comes in a moment where international condemnation of perpetuated war crimes is also taking stage, after in mid-November France has issued an international arrest warrants for Syria’s President, his brother and two other senior officials over the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians.

Last Monday, according to Belgian judicial officials, a Syrian man identified as Hossin A. was indicted and detained in Belgium, suspected of having belonged to a militia affiliated to the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, based in the country’s western city of Salamiyah. He is accused of having helped violently suppress opposition protests and movements that swept throughout Syria in 2011, subsequently committing war crimes and crimes against humanity until 2016. According to the information on Syrian Network for Human Rights’ database regarding individuals implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, the indicted took responsibility for supervising the main roads in the city and eastern rural Hama from 2012 onwards, and was involved in the “abduction of civilians in these areas which became commonplace at the time, with the kidnappers demanding massive ransom payments to secure their victims’ release,” as well as in “pillaging through imposing ‘fees’ on commercial cars to allow them to pass, playing a similar role in other criminal practices, including raids, arrests, crushing demonstrations, and attacking protestors along with other militias who were active in al-Salmiya city at the time under the umbrella banner of ‘popular committees’, which the regime later rebranded as the National Defense Militias.”

The case represents the first time someone in Belgium has been charged with serious violations of international humanitarian law over crimes specifically committed during the ongoing 13-year-long Syrian civil war, and was announced by the Belgian Federal Public Prosecutor’s office, Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported in a statement published on Tuesday.

“SNHR welcomes the Belgian judiciary’s issuing of an arrest warrant against a figure who has been implicated in involvement in the Syrian regime’s National Defense Militias, a body responsible for multiple crimes against humanity against the Syrian people, as we believe this is another positive step on the path of accountability,” the statement reads, highlighting that the rights group has been helping to build this case since 2020 by supplying the investigators and the Belgian Prosecutor’s Office with data on the violations as found on SNHR’s database, as well as by finding eyewitnesses and providing additional information on violations in Salamiyah, in eastern Hama governorate. 


On Syria and war crimes: Moreover, recently captured satellite images have shown a ground’s bulldozing and levelling at the site of a mass grave in the Damascus countryside, the independent media platform Megaphone reported. According to the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of Saydnaya Prison (ADMSP), the Assad regime established the mass grave near the headquarters of the army’s third division, where thousands of political prisoners were buried after they were tortured and killed in Damascus prisons. 

Earlier in 2022, The New York Times identified the sites of two mass graves for prisoners who were tortured to death, one of which was al-Qutayfah. The ADMSP considers the destruction of the grave an attempt by the regime to get rid of evidence of its crimes against  prisoners in detention centers, including torture and forced disappearance, as reports show that over 155,000 people have been forcibly disappeared or remain in prison in Syria since 2011, 87% of which were detained by the Syrian regime.


What We’re Reading

Navigating complexities: In the global quest for a solution to the broader Palestinian question, in the face of the war on Gaza, political psychologist Ramzi Abou Ismail explored for NOW Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal involvement in the war’s cessation. Influencing Israel Prime Minister’s approach to the peace process and conflict resolution, such a personalized viewpoint suggests that his strategies might be driven less by the pursuit of long-term security and peace for its citizens, and more by immediate political considerations and the preservation of his leadership position. 


The eyes of Lebanon’s youth: Writing as a young individual striving to make her voice heard in a context where chaos, irrationality, impunity, and injustice prevail, Elissa Bou Nader left an open message for Lebanon: navigating crisis, seeking change, and hoping for a better future, through the perspective of the Lebanese youth.


Lebanon +

This week on The New Arab Voice, Hugo Goodridge and Akila Radhakrishnan looked at the provisional measures imposed by the International Court of Justice, what they are ordering of Israel, whether they will be abided to by Israel, what mechanisms exist if the provisional measures are ignored, and also what the case means for Israel’s allies, namely the US.