HomePoliticsBriefingThe tightrope walkers

The tightrope walkers

This photograph taken on January 5, 2024 from the southern Lebanese village of Dhayra along the Israeli border, shows buildings in the Lebanese town of Tair Harfa as smoke billows over northern Israel, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by AFP)

War on journalists, The future of Gaza, Lebanon on the brink, Hamas deputy leader al-Arouri’s assassination challenges Lebanese sovereignty, Cairo freezes negotiation efforts over captives’ exchange, Qatari Prime Minister al-Thani met with families of Israeli hostages, UN warned Gaza to have been turned into an “uninhabitable place of death”, Hassan Nasrallah speaks twice in a week, EU Josep Borrel in Beirut, Israel will face South Africa’s genocide case to the ICJ, Islamic State claims responsibility for Iran’s deadly terror attack, Tensions on key shipping routes in the Red Sea continue to rise, The first civil suit against Israel’s security forces, Beirut blast victims’ families gather for the first 2024 sit-in, UAE relationship with Lebanese banks remains unchanged

The question that geopolitical analysts are trying to answer, in the agitated hours following the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, does not seem to concern the effects that the first attack on the Lebanese capital since the beginning of the war will produce on the regional scene: rather, those it will not produce. Or, in other words, why the death of the number two in the Hamas political bureau will not lead to a total war in the Middle East. Not yet, at least.

What drives experts to believe that there will be no large-scale repercussions – nor that we will see a symmetrical response from Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran – is the belief that today, for these powers, bombing Israeli cities would have devastating effects for their own interests, despite it being technically possible. In this situation, the game of roles resembles that of a tightrope walker, in a constant and precarious balance on the edge of conflict.


In Israel: On the Israeli front, despite the absence of an official claim – as in the practice of Israeli intelligence – the attack on Saleh al-Arouri was defined as a surgical attack against the Hamas leadership. Danny Danon, former Israeli envoy to the UN, welcomed the raid and congratulated the Israeli army, the Shin Bet, the security services and the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, for eliminating al-Arouri. “Anyone who was involved in the 7/10 massacre should know that we will reach out to them and close an account with them,” the diplomat posted on X. Therefore, there is no doubt that the drone attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs was the work of Israel. Despite having killed nearly 23 thousand civilians in Gaza, Tel Aviv has demonstrated that – if willing to – it can hit its targets with maximum precision without causing innocent victims.

In a moment where, three months after the start of its military campaign in Gaza, Israel remains far from its objective of wiping out the Islamist movement, the killing of Hamas’ number two helped Israel in selling to its public a form of victory, without posing the question of possible escalation: or, maybe, seeking it, if it’s true that permanent warfare makes political renewal extremely difficult in the Jewish state. In fact, while Israel boasts of having destroyed numerous Hamas tunnels, its preferred targets in Gaza, such as Yahya Sinwar and Mohammad Deif, have not been brought down. With the recent attack, the Israeli government can claim a strategic victory, while justifying the continuation of the war, and enforcing its narrative of success at a stage of rising internal discontent. Moreover, with this attack, as experts highlighted, Benjamin Netanyahu can also seek to reassure his ultranationalist partners by reaffirming his independence from American support.

Yet, Tel Aviv did not claim responsibility for the raid. Mark Regev, advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, told the US news outlet MSNBC that Israel does not assume any responsibility, adding however that “whoever did it, it must be clear: this was not an attack on the Lebanese state,” avoiding an immediate and proportionate response from Hezbollah. 

Israel would certainly have made the calculation that Hezbollah and Iran do not wish to move towards the eventuality of a full-scale war. If it really wanted to provoke an all-out war as a response from the Axis of Resistance, Israel wouldn’t have limited to targeting a Hamas official – already on its black list – but it would have, at least, launched a ground invasion of south Lebanon, or heavily bombed Dahieh: a counterproductive measure, in light of its major aim of resettling internal displaced citizens from the country’s northern region. Accusing Hezbollah of having initiated the escalation on the Israel-Lebanon border, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz claimed that “Israel is interested in a diplomatic solution, but if one cannot be found – Israel and the IDF will remove the threat.” In other words, it is in Israel’s hand to escalate the conflict: the other parts, otherwise, would not likely initiate.


In Lebanon: Hezbollah, on its side, has no interest in changing the course of events as they unfold in Gaza. Its retaliation, following the two speeches that Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered in less than 48 hours – between Wednesday and Friday, after nearly two months without doing so -, would likely be in line with what the group and its allies have done following the assassinations of figures such as Iran’s Soleimani, where Iran fired several ballistic missiles on an American airbase in Iraq, experts predicted.

Moreover, Lebanese public opinion is on alert, and internal opposition is growing – apart from Hezbollah supporters. The government, on the other hand, is moving to avoid the country being fully dragged into a war it would not be able to sustain. Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, in speaking with CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, said that the Lebanese Prime Minister is in constant dialogue with Hezbollah. “We hope they don’t commit themselves to a larger war, but we are working with them on this.” However, “the decision is theirs,” he added, echoed by Sunday evening’s hacked message addressed to Hezbollah by Beirut-based Christian extremist group Saheb el-Kalam reading: “If Lebanon is drawn into war, you will take responsibility.” Bou Habib also emphasized that “all of us Lebanese” do not want to see a broadening of the conflict, with further involvement by Lebanon. “It’s not like we can order them, but we can convince them, and I think it’s working in this direction.”

Therefore, it is predictable that the assassination of al-Arouri would likely not determine a decisive escalation but, rather, an increase in the depth of Hezbollah’s striked in Israeli territory, as the group has shown since Saturday morning, when it fired more than 60 rockets at an Israeli military base, together with al-Fajr Forces, the military wing of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya – yet without targeting major Israeli cities.


In Iran and Palestine: Even for Iran – now engaged on a new front, that of Islamist terrorism – keeping Hezbollah in Lebanon is more important than Hamas, which over the years has seen its leaders killed several times, starting with the famous Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. After each of these killings, Hamas has grown rather than weakened, probably because its very existence depends on the popularity of an ideology, which in turn depends on the conditions in which Palestinians live, especially in the Gaza Strip. 

In these regards, al-Arouri’s death is unlikely to have immediate effects on the Palestinian group’s ability to react or resist in Gaza, but it could compromise its capacity to build relations with Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Syria and Egypt in the coming months.


Main consequences: Therefore, if it is true that the Axis of Resistance wins until it loses, while Israel loses until it wins – and the assassination of al-Arouri has been clearly claimed as a success by Israeli officials – the killing of Hamas’ number two appears to be a victory on all fronts: except for that of negotiations.

The main consequences, in fact, will burden on the exchange of hostages and the ceasefire dialogues. Not only was the value of al-Arouri undoubtedly considered high: Israel killed a person at the top of the Hamas regional structure as well as a serious candidate to succeed Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of the Islamist group within the Gaza Strip. By striking al-Arouri, Israel has struck the operational structure of Hamas, with concrete functions – more than those of Ismail Haniya in Doha – and a fundamental link between the Palestinian resistance and its regional allies.

Primarily, however, the death of Saleh al-Arouri compromised the negotiations’ talks between Hamas and Israel for a ceasefire and the release of the hostages. Already in the hours immediately following the attack, harsh stances were taken from Egypt, which suspended the talks to obtain a truce and criticized Israel’s action, freezing the  already complicated negotiations, at least temporarily, as the situation on the ground in Gaza is far from being eased.


In Lebanon

Targeted assassination: On Tuesday afternoon, in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahiyeh, a drone attack killed the deputy leader of Hamas’ political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, together with Samir Afandi, also known as Abu Amer – the commander of al-Qassam Brigades’ military operation in south Lebanon; Azzam al-Aqra, al-Arouri’s counsellor, deported from Nablus to Lebanon since 1992; Hamas’ member Ahmad Hamoud; and the Lebanese citizens Muhammad al-Rayyes, Muhammad Bshasha and Mahdmoud Zaki Shaheen, affiliated to Lebanese party al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas, on its side, denied the rumors’ of the involvement of Osama Hamdan, senior representative of Hamas in Lebanon and member of the organization’s politburo.

Al-Arouri had been living in Lebanon since 2018. Imprisoned twice, he spent a total of 12 years in Israeli jails, before being released in 2010. He was one of the founding commanders of Hamas’ military wing, al-Qassam Brigades, as well as a key-figure in linking the Palestinian militant group to the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Not by chance, in fact, sources revealed that al-Arouri was to meet Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Nasrallah on Wednesday, January 4, the day after being assassinated.

As one of the main negotiators for the release of captives held by Hamas, in an interview for Al Jazeera released on December 2, al-Arouri stated that “the remaining prisoners in our hands are soldiers and former soldiers, and there will be no negotiations concerning them until the end of hostilities.”

However, considered by Israel as one of the main orchestrators of October 7 attacks, his death marked “a seismic event” in the organisation’s leadership, as Israeli media group I24NEWS said immediately after the assassination. In fact, in line with Israel’s aim to target Hamas officials not only in Gaza but also abroad, Tel Aviv issued threats against al-Arouri earlier in August 2023, two months before the war began. Moreover, on November 22, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared at a press conference that he instructed Mossad, the foreign intelligence service, “to act against Hamas leaders wherever they may be.”


Circumstances and responses: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, mourning his deputy Saleh al-Arouri, described the killing as a “violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and an expansion of the circle of Israel’s aggression against our people.” Lebanon, on its side, filed a complaint to the UN Security Council over the targeted killing, calling it “the most dangerous phase” of Israeli attacks on the country. The complaint, dated January 4, said Israel used six missiles in the attack that killed al-Arouri and added that Israel used Lebanese airspace to bomb Syria.

On the other hand, Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack, despite publicly congratulating on its success. During an MSNBC interview about the alleged Israeli assassination of Hamas’ deputy leader, Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesman Mark Regev stressed that the strike only targeted Hamas officials, in an apparent attempt to coax Hezbollah into limiting its response. “Obviously in Lebanon, there are many Hezbollah targets, but whoever did this strike was very surgical and went for a Hamas target because Israel is at war,” Regev said, ensuring that “whoever did this, it’s not an attack on the Lebanese state. It’s not an attack on the Hezbollah terrorist organization. Whoever did this, it’s an attack on Hamas, that’s very clear.”

As for the circumstances that made the attack possible, analysts suggest there could have been a potential presence of infiltrators within the Axis of Resistance, who might have supplied the Israelis with information, facilitating their attacks. However, speculations are mainly focused on Israel’s technological sophistication, evident from its ability to hack surveillance cameras and communication devices, leading to the establishment of a comprehensive information system.

However, the most crucial aspect of this whole situation lies in Israel’s violation of all rules of engagement by attacking, for the first time since the war in 2006, the southern neighborhoods of Beirut. This issue represents a serious threat for Hezbollah, especially considering Israel’s propensity to conduct these kinds of operations in phases, with sporadic actions interspersed throughout time.

In these regards, the chairman of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, Hashem Safieddine, said on Sunday his party’s attack on an Israeli air base in Meron on Saturday is just the first of many attacks it will carry out, confirming that the targeting of the airbase is a response and a “direct message” to the drones that attacked Beirut’s southern suburbs. During a commemoration of the death of one of Hezbollah’s fighters in Burj al-Chamali, Safieddine threatened that “there will be other responses, and the enemy should wait for it.”


Twice in a week: Delivering a televised address for the second time in 48 hours after nearly two months without speaking, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah predicted on Friday that Lebanon will be exposed to more Israeli operations if his armed group does not respond to the killing of al-Arouri.

As for the response promised by Hezbollah, Nasrallah said it is “inevitable,” claiming that the group “cannot be silent about a violation of this level.” Until now, the Iran-backed militant group has carried out about 670 operations in south Lebanon, a war that, as Secretary-General claimed, “is not only for Palestine: it is also for Lebanon and its south, particularly the region of Litani.”

The speech came on the occasion of one-week since Muhammad Hassan Yaghi, also known as Abu Salim, died from a long illness: he was one of the party’s founders in 1982, and executive assistant to Nasrallah, having previously served in the Lebanese Parliament. Other major events, however, marked the past few weeks, introducing the long-awaited intervention scheduled for Wednesday, January 4, which had to be cut in two parts due to the load of topics to cover. The sequence of events began with the Israeli strike on December 25, in Damascus, assassinating the highest-ranking general in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Quds Force, Razi Moussavi. Subsequently, Israel killed al-Arouri on Tuesday, without mentioning the deadly attack – whose responsibility was later claimed by the Islamic State – that on Wednesday killed more than a hundred people in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman, at a memorial for IRGC top commander Qassem Soleimani.

In his Wednesday’s speech – delivered on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of General Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, both targeted by a US drone strike in Iraq -, Nasrallah warned Israel against expanding its war, saying there would be “no ceilings” and “no rules” to Hezbollah’s fighting, if Israel chose to launch a war on Lebanon: a choice that it will surely regret, according to Secretary-General. 

Meanwhile, during Friday’s commemoration of late official Mohammad Yaghi, Nasrallah announced that Lebanon has an opportunity ahead – contingent upon the cessation of aggression against Gaza – to reclaim the remaining portions of its land, from the B-1 point, passing through Ghajar, and the villages of Kfar Shuba and Shebaa. He emphasized that there is a genuine opportunity to establish an equation that would prevent Israel from encroaching upon the sovereignty of Lebanon. However, he asserted that any talks, negotiations, or dialogue will only occur or yield results after the aggression against Gaza has ceased.

Explaining that the consequences of not responding to this violation are more significant than any potential risks associated with a response, Nasrallah added that Israel has been secretive about its casualties and threatened the possible takeover of any Israeli border post, suggesting that the response will come in different forms: either by carrying out a major operation inside enemy territory to restore the balance of deterrence and prevent the Israelis from carrying out similar attacks in the future, either by broadening the scope of the confrontation in accordance with the principle of unity of fronts, the war will continue on its attrition’s dynamics, yet without leading to an extended or all-out conflict.

Nasrallah also mentioned the centrality of Lebanon’s southern front, as well as the consequences of the war in Gaza on Yemen, asserting that these are bringing benefits to his Houthi allies.


Borrell in Beirut: The European Union’s foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell arrived in Beirut on Saturday to attend meetings “on the impact of the Gaza war on Lebanon and the region,” the diplomat posted on X, announcing that “the priority is to avoid regional escalation and to advance diplomatic efforts to create the conditions for a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine and the region.”

Scheduled to meet with Lebanese officials, after being briefed on the current risks of escalation along the Blue Line in southern Lebanon during a meeting with UNIFIL force commander General Arnoldo Lazaro, Borrell reaffirmed the European Union’s “strong support for the UN mission, which plays a crucial role in preventing and mitigating the risks of escalation,” the EU head of diplomacy said on the X platform following the meeting.

He later met with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and expressed great concern about the continuation of the war in the Gaza Strip and his fear that this conflict could spread to Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported, stressing that the end of the war in Gaza is a “gateway to a return to calm in Lebanon,” and calling for the full implementation of Resolution 1701.

In turn, Speaker Berri praised the participation of European Union countries within the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces and their role over the decades as a witness to the Israeli violations and attacks on southern Lebanon and its people, reaffirming to Borrell Lebanon’s commitment to international legitimacy and its relevant resolutions, particularly Resolution 1701, stressing that “the prelude to its implementation begins with stopping Israel’s aggression and its withdrawal from the entire occupied Lebanese territories.”

On the internal political level, Berri stressed “the importance of completing the presidential entitlement regardless of the repercussions of the aggressive war waged by Israel,” revealing that he is always ready to cooperate with the efforts of the Five-Year Committee to accomplish this entitlement.

During the meeting with caretaker Prime Minister, on the side, Mikati touched the topic of 2 million refugees in Lebanon, most of whom escaped from the neighboring Syria, and he stressed that “the issue of displaced Syrians must be resolved by supporting them in their country to encourage them to return,” while, concerning the hundred of thousands of Palestinian refugees of 1948, he called for “working to establish a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue by giving the Palestinians their just rights.”


Same old blast: Dozens of people, relatives of victims of the August 4, 2020 Beirut port blast, came together once again on Thursday afternoon for their first monthly sit-in of the year, at the scene of the disaster, as reported by Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour. The gathering, held consistently on the fourth of every month for over three years, took place on January 4, 2024, amid the violent escalations from the conflict between Israel and Hamas, further into Lebanon, a day after the first attack in Beirut southern suburbs since the beginning of the war.

Displaying photos and portraits of their lost loved ones, families of the victims of the blast protested to urge the swift resolution of the inquiry into the incident, which claimed over 220 lives, wounded more than 7,000 individuals and displaced an estimated 300,000 people. In a statement, they reiterated their “fight against corruption and against all politicians who prevent the truth from being revealed,” a campaign now nearing its fourth year.

As the authorities themselves admitted, the catastrophic blast was triggered by a fire in a warehouse, where hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had been unsafely stored for years. The investigation has been at a standstill for months due to blatant interference by political and security officials, some of whom are being prosecuted by the investigative judge Tarek Bitar in connection with the case. The explosion’s victims have seen justice delayed, with the investigation stalled since December 2021. Lebanon’s political class has repeatedly intervened in the work of the judiciary.

Last January, Lebanon’s general prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation. The unprecedented move amid rampant political interference bypasses the ongoing criminal investigation into the explosion. In fact, the Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the domestic investigation into the explosion by shielding politicians and officials implicated in the explosion from questioning, prosecution, and arrest. 

In light of this, families called upon the Chief Judge of Beirut’s Court of Appeals, Judge Habib Rizkallah, to urgently proceed with the investigation, placing their trust in “a few honest judges” who stood their ground, remained untainted by national interests and refused to succumb to political and material pressures. The duty of adjudicating the dispute between Oueidat and Bitar falls, in fact, on Rizkallah, the first investigative judge of Beirut, appointed to this position in June: the victims’ families are now demanding the creation of an indictment chamber capable of handling appeals against the expected decision of the judge.

The statement highlighted their commitment to a local inquiry, drawing parallels to the case of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, where, despite billions spent, the expected outcomes were not achieved. They are certain that an “internal and national investigation will yield more benefits than an international one.”


Economy at high risk: Lebanese Central Bank’s Acting Governor, Wissam Mansouri, on Friday denied circulating news and affirming that the relationship between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Lebanese Central Bank, and commercial banks in Lebanon remains unchanged and unaltered. Earlier reports suggested that UAE banks decided to stop bank transfers and financial transactions with Lebanon because of the latter’s classification as a high-risk country.

The rumors notably started after economic journalist Mounir Younis shared the news on X and attached a screenshot of a chat between a customer and an Emirati bank to prove his point. However, he deleted his tweet later.

“Following direct communication with concerned parties in the United Arab Emirates, I confirm that the banking relationship between the UAE, the Central Bank, and commercial banks in Lebanon remains unchanged and unaltered,” Mansouri affirmed in a statement, as reported by the state-run National News Agency. The statement further emphasized that the circulating news “is inaccurate and is not issued by the management of any Emirati bank.”


In The Region 

Iran in the sights: Iranian state media reported on Wednesday that there had been two deadly explosions near the cemetery in the southern city of Kerman during a ceremony held to mark the 2020 killing of Iran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack at Baghdad airport. With nearly 100 dead and 300 injured, the attack marked the deadliest one in Iran since its 1979 revolution.

Later on Thursday, more than 24 hours after the two explosions, the Islamic State (IS) media wing Al-Furqan issued a statement claiming two suicide bombers had detonated their explosive vests as Shiite mourners gathered for the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Soleimani. The statement, titled “And kill them wherever you find them,” taken from Qur’an 2:191, named the two perpetrators and said they targeted a gathering of “polytheists” near the grave of their “dead leader” Soleimani. It also focused on the Israel-Gaza war, reiterating the religious nature of the battle in Palestine and the denunciation of the various nationalist Palestinian factions aligned with the broader Iranian-led resistance axis, which is considered heretical and utilized by Iran as a Shiite expansionist and imperialist project. 

Despite the group having offered no further proof and their account of the blasts differing from that given by Iranian media, Iran’s official state news agency IRNA, as well as its English-language state media outlet Press TV, both reported on the IS claim of responsibility.

Prior to IS’ statement, analysts and a US official had speculated that the blast had the hallmarks of a terror attack. Excluding any possibility of Israel’s involvement in the attack, Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller ensured that the United States have “no reason to believe that Israel was involved in this explosion,” highlighting the Islamic State-type of terror, as had been done in the past. IS, in fact, had previously claimed responsibility for the 2022 deadly attack on a Shiite shrine in Iran that killed 15 people, as well as for twin bombings in 2017 that targeted Iran’s parliament and the tomb of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The country declared Thursday a day of mourning and President Ebhrahim Raisi cancelled a scheduled trip to Turkey. Raisi then said in a statement that “undoubtedly, the perpetrators of this cowardly act will soon be identified and punished for their heinous act by the capable security and law enforcement forces. The enemies of the nation should know that such actions can never disrupt the solid determination of the Iranian nation.” On the other hand, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement saying that “the evil and criminal enemies of the Iranian nation once again created a disaster and martyred a large number of dear people in Kerman,” and stressing that “this disaster will have a harsh response.”


Internal turmoil: In the first civil suit of its kind, a group of injured survivors of the Supernova rave attack, on Monday sued Israel’s security forces for damages over “their alleged negligence leading up to the October 7 Hamas onslaught,” claiming that the tragedy could have largely been averted, The Times of Israel reported.

The 42 plaintiffs filed the claim for 200 million NIS (56 million USD) at the Tel Aviv District Court against the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Police, and the Defense Ministry, alleging multiple instances in which they failed in their duties.

“A single phone call by IDF officials to the commander responsible for the party to disperse it immediately in view of the expected danger would have saved lives and prevented the physical and mental injuries of hundreds of partygoers, including the plaintiffs,” the lawsuit said. “The negligence and the gross oversight is beyond belief.”

Anat Ginzburg and Gilad Ginzburg, the plaintiff’s attorneys, said in a statement that “the disaster could have been very easily prevented,” since, apparently, “on the night between October 6 and October 7, at least two IDF assessments were held due to unusual incidents on the Gaza Strip border, one near midnight and another assessment close to 3 a.m., several hours before the Hamas attack,” the lawsuit read.

The complainants expressed disbelief that despite the fear among security officials that a day of fighting could break out, including attempts to capture soldiers and civilians, no immediate order was given to disperse the event. They said that the IDF was unable to provide adequate security for the event since many soldiers were at home over the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. Attorney Shimon Buchbut, a retired Air Force commander cited as an expert in the lawsuit, said that the IDF was negligent in giving approval for the party and that any reasonable official would not have allowed it to go ahead.

More generally, internal discontent in Israel is rising as, since the beginning of the war, at least 175 Israeli soldiers have died in Gaza, a number without precedents. A large proportion of Israelis are also outraged at the fate of the nearly 130 hostages still held in the Palestinian enclave, some 20 of whom have been declared dead by Tel Aviv, while more than a hundred were released at the end of November under an agreement negotiated indirectly with Hamas. Further stirring controversy, the three hostages mistakenly killed by Israel in the eastern suburbs of Gaza City in mid-December had raised a white flag and were shirtless when they were shot, the Israeli army later said.


Further from the end: The assassination of Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut’s southern suburbs of Dahiyeh risks complicating the possibility of a new round of exchanges of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli hostages. Several Palestinian media have reported that Hamas asked mediators after Tuesday evening to freeze the negotiation efforts that had been progressing in recent days, despite other sources inside the Palestinian movement having previously denied any reports of ceasefire talks in Egypt.

The announced visit of an Israeli delegation to Cairo – one of the mediators alongside Doha and Washington – to discuss a new deal was cut short after the murder of Saleh al-Arouri.

Already at the end of December, the head of the Egyptian General Information Authority, Diaa Rashwan, put out the proposal framework, describing it as an attempt “to bring viewpoints between all concerned parties closer, in an effort to stop Palestinian bloodshed and the aggression against the Gaza Strip and restore peace and stability to the region.” 

Agence France-Presse quoted a Hamas official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as saying that “a high-level delegation from the Hamas political office will visit Cairo to meet Egyptian officials and give the response of the Palestinian factions, including several observations, to their plan.”  

Including a three-step plan and specifying extendable truces and the measured release of dozens of captives held by Hamas in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners, the Egyptian proposal also sought for the parties to commit to a ceasefire “for 48 hours before implementing the proposal so that both sides may agree on the names of those released in the first and second phases, whether from Israel or Hamas.”  

The proposal also suggested that Egypt, Qatar, and the US were responsible for the coordination of the formation of a technocratic government that will manage the Gaza Strip and West Bank once a complete ceasefire is announced.

According to the Axios news outlet, however, negotiations’ efforts were restarted on Saturday, when Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani met with the families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, after the relatives of at least six abductees visited Doha on Friday. Citing a Qatari official and an Israeli source, Axios reported that Thani admitted to the families that talks with Hamas have been complicated by the assassination of al-Arouri and several other leading members of the movement, which Israel is accused of having carried out. 


The future of Gaza: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir brushed off the US State Department’s condemnation of him and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for advocating the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza. “This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a relatively rare and critical statement.

The Israeli response did not wait to come. “I really admire the United States of America but with all due respect, we are not another star in the American flag,” Ben Gvir, who heads the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, said in a statement, calling the United States “Israel’s best friend,” but also stressing that, before everything else, they will continue doing “what is good for the State of Israel: the emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow residents of the border area to return home and live in security and protect IDF soldiers.”

What does not emerge with clarity, however, is the ambiguous issue of the revival of Israel’s civilian settlements within the Gaza Strip as part of its planning for the enclave once Hamas rule is toppled. Earlier in December, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, while denying that any of Gaza’s approximately 2 million residents were innocent, called for Israel to “encourage voluntary emigration” from the territory. He also told Army Radio: “I don’t think there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t want to see Jewish settlements everywhere.”

Speaking to Channel 12 news, the leader of the hard-right Religious Zionism party also doubled down on his refusal to transfer tax payments to the Palestinian Authority over concerns that the  money will find its way to Gaza, sloughing off reported pressure from the United States on the matter and pushing back against insinuations that he and others had propped up Hamas as a convenient foil.

“We will be in security control, and we will need there to be civil control,” Smotrich said. “I’m for completely changing the reality in Gaza, having a conversation about settlements in the Gaza Strip. We’ll need to rule there for a long time. If we want to be there militarily, we need to be there in a civilian fashion.”

Under pressure from Smotrich, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to cancel a scheduled war cabinet debate on shaping post-war Gaza, and said he would hold the discussion instead in the larger security cabinet. Smotrich, who was arrested in 2005 while protesting Israel’s evacuation of its Gaza Strip settlements, is not a member of the tight-knit war cabinet, but he and fellow far-right leader Itamar Ben Gvir, minister of national security, do sit in the security cabinet.

In an Army Radio interview quoted by Al Jazeera, Smotrich returned to that point: “We need to encourage immigration from there. If there were 100,000-200,000 Arabs in the Strip and not two million, the whole conversation about the day after the war would be completely different,” he said. “They want to leave. They have been living in a ghetto for 75 years and are in need.”

Statements like this sound even more terrific if looked at from the perspective of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe, that the UN has warned to have become “a place of death” that is simply “uninhabitable.” Inhabitants of the Strip, the coordinator of humanitarian affairs of the United Nations, Martin Griffiths, denounced, “face daily threats before the eyes of the world.” Moreover, according to Unicef, the UN Children’s Agency, the clashes, malnutrition and health situation have created “a cycle of death which threatens more than 1.1 million children” in this impoverished territory even before the start of the war.

Not to mention the impossible burial operations, which turned Gaza into an open-air graveyard, as the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor documented in mid-December, showing that 125 improvised mass graves have been dug in various provinces of Gaza – within residential neighbourhoods, courtyards, squares, roads, markets, hospitals, schools, wedding halls, and sports stadiums.


War on journalists: An Israeli air strike on a car near Rafah in southern Gaza on Sunday killed two Palestinian journalists who were reporting, according to health officials in Gaza and the journalists’ union there.

AFP reported that, according to medics and the Gaza Health Ministry, the two journalists killed were Mustafa Thuria, a video stringer for the news agency, and the journalist Hamza Wael Dahdouh, son of Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh, who has already lost five family members in Israeli attacks when, on October 25, an airstrike killed his wife, daughter, son and grandson when it hit the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. A third freelancer, Hazem Rajab, was also wounded on Sunday. AFP added that the journalists were travelling in a car at the time of the strike. 

Al Jazeera media network condemned the killing of the two and said it had been a deliberate attack. “We urge the International Criminal Court, the governments and human rights organisations, and the United Nations to hold Israel accountable for its heinous crimes and demand an end to the targeting and killing of journalists,” the network stated, while a statement from the Israeli military said that “an IDF aircraft identified and struck a terrorist who operated an aircraft that posed a threat to IDF troops.” “We are aware of the reports that during the strike, two other suspects who were in the same vehicle as the terrorist were also hit,” the statement said, quoted by Reuters.

The Israel-Hamas war that started on October 7 has been extremely deadly for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international watchdog, said that as of Saturday, 77 journalists and media workers had been killed – 70 Palestinians, 4 Israelis and 3 Lebanese; while, according to the Hamas-run Gaza government’s media office, the two new deaths raised its own tally of journalists killed by the Israeli offensive to 109.


Genocide or not: South Africa embroiled itself into a major legal battle with Israel when it filed a petition at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), backed by Turkey and Jordan, and called on the body to investigate whether Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians since it began its latest assault on Gaza.

The 84-page application is the most significant call for Israel’s actions to be labelled a genocide, and comes as the Palestinian death toll in Gaza nears 23,000, with the majority of the recorded fatalities being women and children. The application says Israel’s actions are “genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnic group.”

While initially rejecting the filing, calling it a ‘blood libel’ –  a reference to anti-Semitic lies that originated in the Middle Ages that Jews murdered Christian boys to use their blood for religious rituals -, Israel did not boycott the proceeding, but decided to “stand up and repel the absurd blood plot against us,” Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said in a statement late on Monday. The Haaretz daily later announced that the Israeli army and the Attorney General’s Office started preparing how to deal with the case at the ICJ.

The case for genocide is often difficult to prove, because according to the definition laid out in the 1948 UN’s Genocide Convention – formalized in response to the atrocities committed during World War II, namely the Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed – the intent to commit the acts must be made clear.

Israel’s military has repeatedly stated throughout its military operation that it does not intend to kill civilians, and that it is only targeting Hamas. South Africa’s application, however, provides numerous statements from Israeli leaders that it says clearly show the country’s intent on “committing genocidal acts or to fail to prevent them.” Among the cited examples is the October 12’s statement from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who said there was no distinction between armed fighters and civilians in Gaza; as well as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s announcement that Israel was imposing a full siege on Gaza, cutting off electricity and water to the enclave, calling the residents of Gaza “human animals.”

Moreover, in the application, South Africa lays out several acts committed by Israel since 7 October that it states are “genocidal in character,” as, for example, the killing of more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza, of whom the majority are women and children; the wounding of nearly 60,000 Palestinians in the enclave, which South Africa says triggers the definition in the Genocide Convention of “causing bodily harm” to a group of people; the targeting of hospitals by bombing them and laying siege to them; the mass forced displacement of civilian population; the deprivation of access to adequate food and water; the imposition of measures intended to prevent Palestinian births; the destruction of residential areas, mosques, churches, and universities, among more than 100 heritage sites targeted by Israeli forces.

While the International Court of Justice has the authority to settle disputes between countries, and despite its decisions being legally binding, it has no power to enforce them. However, they can help shift narratives around the world, and weighing in on whether Israel is committing genocide has the potential to cause serious harm to Zionist international reputation and Israel’s relations with other countries.


The Red Sea front: Tensions on key shipping routes in the Red Sea are continuing to rise as the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards vowed to reach “the enemy” far and near, Reuters reported

“Today, we are facing an all-out battle with the enemy,” said IRGC commander Hossein Salami on Saturday during a ceremony in the southern Gulf port city of Bandar Abbas, where the Guards’ navy unveiled a new ship named Abu Mahdi and 100 missile launchers. Salami did not name the enemy, but 22 nations have agreed to participate in a US-led coalition to safeguard commercial traffic in the Red Sea from attacks by Yemenis Iran-backed Houthi movement.

Tehran’s allies have been attacking vessels in the sea in what they describe as support for Palestinians under Israeli bombardment in Gaza. In response, many major shipping companies have switched to the longer and more costly route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope rather than pass through the Suez Canal, which handles about 12 percent of global trade.

“We need to defend our national interests wherever they extend,” Salami said in a televised speech. “It will be harmful for the enemy to be found near and at a half distance. They should stay away from this area.” The Guards’ navy, he added, had made a “brilliant leap in its offensive and defensive powers” to challenge the world’s naval powers. 


What We’re Reading

Economic crossroads: Economist Maan Barazy wrote for NOW about the Lebanese pound’s managed float in 2024, a move which is expected to have a significant impact on Lebanon’s economic drive toward full dollarization. Seen as an additional step towards unifying exchange rates, the Central Bank’s shift to the actual market rate – 89,500 lira per dollar -, if coupled with the cancellation of the official exchange rate of 15,000, would push banks to pay depositors at the actual dollar rate in the parallel market, helping to solve the country’s market distortion and its consequent widespread poverty.


Democracy beyond majority rule: Political psychologist Ramzi Abou Ismail tackled for NOW the topic of inclusive democratic governance in a world increasingly marked by polarization, extremism, and ongoing conflicts, especially in the Middle eastern region. In times where extreme ideological groups are using democratic principles to cloak their extremism, hiding behind the concept that the majority has the right to rule over the minority, it is essential to revisit and reaffirm the foundational principles of democracy: an ever-evolving interplay of majority decision-making, minority rights, personal freedoms, and tolerance.


Nasrallah has spoken: The new year began with a sharp increase in tensions between Hamas and Israel. A drone strike targeted a Hamas office in Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood, killing senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri along with six others. Israel was the prime suspect in the attack, raising concerns about the imminent future of Lebanon. NOW’s Dana Hourany analysed Nasrallah speeches’ content in light of a possible military escalation in the region.