World

UNRWA aid paused. ICJ makes initial ruling. Biden responds after troops attacked. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Paris talks see Israel and Hamas edge closer to a truce

A man standing by the ruins of his home.
Hamada Abu Salima at the ruins of his house, in Rafah, Gaza, which was destroyed by Israeli raids, killing 10 members of his family.
Credit: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

Ceasefire talks

Israel and Hamas were reportedly close to agreeing on a ceasefire deal this week that would involve an initial 45-day truce in Gaza during which Hamas would release about 30 to 40 hostages and Israel would free thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel reportedly backed the plan, negotiated in Paris last weekend by officials from Qatar, the United States and Egypt and intelligence chiefs from Israel. On Tuesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who is based in Qatar, said the group was considering the proposal but demanded Israel withdraw its forces and agree to a permanent ceasefire – conditions Israel rejected.

The agreement would reportedly involve a series of ceasefires that would lead to the release of all Israeli hostages, starting with women, children, the elderly and the sick. The initial group of 40 hostages would be released in return for up to 250 Palestinian prisoners per hostage, though greater numbers of Palestinians would be released as the deal progresses and as Hamas starts to free Israeli soldiers. About 136 Israelis are believed to still be in Gaza; another 105 were released during a week-long truce in late November.

Israel’s government has come under growing public pressure to try to free the remaining hostages, particularly as the war has continued with little prospect of a swift conclusion.

Israel said this week its military campaign could take months, or longer. “We’re in a long war, but in the end, we will break Hamas,” defence minister Yoav Gallant said on Monday.

Despite Israel’s relentless attacks in Gaza, Hamas’s leaders remain in hiding and the group is still able to fire rockets at Israel. According to a report this week in The Wall Street Journal, US and Israeli officials believe as much as 80 per cent of Hamas’s tunnel network remains intact.

Israel vowed to topple Hamas after militants from the Iran-backed group entered Israel on October 7 and killed almost 1200 people and took about 240 hostages. As of Wednesday, Israel’s attacks in Gaza had killed 27,270 people, including 10,000 children, according to local officials. Israel said it had killed more than 10,000 militants. More than 200 Israeli soldiers have died during the ground invasion. 

UNRWA aid paused

About 20 countries – including Australia – cut funding to the United Nations aid agency in Gaza this week following allegations its staff participated in the October 7 attacks, raising concerns about the future of aid deliveries to the devastated enclave.

The UN said this week it was investigating allegations that 12 employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which oversees aid to Palestinians across the Middle East, took part in the attacks in Israel. It said nine of the workers had been sacked, one was dead and two were missing.

The allegations were raised by Israeli officials, who claim about 190 UNRWA employees double as militants for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed group. An Israeli intelligence document, shown to reporters, named 12 UNRWA employees, saying they helped abduct a woman from Israel on October 7 and transfer a soldier’s corpse into Gaza. The US, the largest donor to UNRWA, said the allegations were “highly credible” and suspended funding, but said the work of the entire agency should not be impugned due to the acts of a small number of its staff. UNRWA employs about 13,000 people in Gaza.

Other countries to suspend funding included the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Sweden and New Zealand.

Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, told ABC Radio on Monday the government hoped to resume funding to UNRWA but wanted assurances the money “goes to the right purpose”.

But aid groups warned the suspension of funding would affect UNRWA’s capacity to provide food, shelter and healthcare in Gaza and to address the dire needs of its 2.3 million residents. About 1.9 million residents have been displaced in Gaza, which is facing severe shortages of food, water, medication and tents.

Ahmed Al-Nahal, a Gaza resident, told Al Jazeera this week: “If UNRWA stops operating in the Gaza Strip, we will die. We will starve in the streets.”

ICJ makes initial ruling

A much-anticipated ruling by the International Court of Justice last week ordered Israel to ensure its military did not conduct genocide in Gaza and to report on its efforts to allow aid deliveries and comply with its international obligations.

The case, which included hearings in The Hague that aired grim accounts of the October 7 attacks and the devastation in Gaza, was brought by South Africa, which accused Israel of committing genocide. Israel said it was acting in self-defence and was trying to limit harm to civilians.

The court, by a 15-2 majority, found there was a risk genocide had been occurring but did not order Israel to cease its military operations, as South Africa requested. It said Israel had to report by February 26 on measures it was taking to comply with the court orders.

The case threw a spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as well as spurring Israel to curb inflammatory rhetoric by politicians. But it also highlighted the deep schism in perceptions of the war by the two sides and their supporters. In Israel, the case was widely seen as part of long-running attempts by the international community to smear it as a pariah and prevent it responding as other states would to the attacks of October 7. In contrast, Palestinians, who commonly believe Israel commits widespread atrocities and is allowed to act with impunity by its allies such as the US, viewed the case as an opportunity to hold Israel to account.

The court’s orders are part of an interim ruling, but it has not made a finding on whether Israel has committed genocide – a process expected to take about four years.

Biden responds after troops attacked

US President Joe Biden promised this week to retaliate against an attack by Iran-backed militants that killed three American troops in Jordan but said he wanted to avoid an all-out war.

Following the attack, in which a drone hit a barracks at a US base near the Jordanian border with Iraq and Syria, Biden held two meetings with security officials and discussed potential targets in Iraq, Syria and Iran.

An Iran-backed group in Iraq, which has conducted many of the 160 attacks on US forces in the region since the start of the Israel–Hamas war, claimed responsibility for the attack in Jordan. But the group said on Tuesday it was suspending future attacks, apparently after coming under pressure from the Iraqi government, which is trying to negotiate a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The US has about 2500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria as part of efforts to prevent Daesh regaining a foothold in the region. A further 3000 troops are based in Jordan, which have various roles, including supporting troops in Iraq and Syria.

Iran-backed proxies across the Middle East have become increasingly active in recent months as part of a demonstration of opposition to Israel’s operations in Gaza. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has attacked military installations and towns in northern Israel, prompting fears of a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah. In Yemen, the Houthis have attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea that it says have links to Israel, leading to the formation of a US-led coalition to try to protect the region’s maritime trade.

On Monday, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, warned the Middle East was at its most “dangerous” moment since the Yom Kippur War between Israel and its neighbours in 1973.

“This is an incredibly volatile time in the Middle East,” he told reporters.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Jonathan Pearlman".

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