February 24, 2024

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Blinken says ‘real hope’ for new hostage release deal

Antony Blinken described the proposal on the table for a new hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas as “strong and compelling”.

The US secretary of state noted “the less said the better” in terms of negotiations on a new hostage deal, but that the work that is being done is “important and hopeful”.

He said Hamas “will have to make its own decisions”, and that it is his “strong assessment” that Israel would “very much like to see this process of hostages coming out”. He added:

I can say that very important, productive work has been done, and there is some real hope going forward.

Key events

British foreign secretary David Cameron will travel to Oman on Tuesday where he is expected to call for stability over ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and de-escalating of tensions in the Middle East, the foreign office has said according to Reuters. The news agency writes:

Cameron, on his fourth visit to the Middle East, will travel to Oman to meet his counterpart Badr Albusaidi to discuss how to diminish tensions across the region.

The Houthi attacks on international shipping lines in the Red Sea will be a major focus of his discussions, the foreign office said in a statement.

Cameron will reiterate Britain’s commitment to getting aid into Yemen, and outline the actions Britain is taking to deter the Houthis from targeting ships in the Red Sea.

In an earlier diplomatic tour, Cameron met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and politicians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the western-backed Palestinian Authority is based, and visited Qatar to discuss the situation in Gaza.

In his meetings in Israel, Cameron said he stressed the need for a pause in fighting to secure the release of hostages seized by Hamas militants during a cross-border attack on 7 October.

As we reported earlier, 215 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the past 24 hours, according to the territory’s ministry of health, despite an interim ICJ ruling last week calling on Israel to do all within its power to limit civilian casualties.

Among the dead were six family members of a 6-year-old girl called Hind, who was the only survivor after Israeli forces shot at the car she was in with her family, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). The dead included four children, the agency said.

In a Twitter post, the PRCS said Hind was trapped in the car and “remained for hours pleading for our teams to reach her and evacuate her from the area surrounded by Israeli tanks.” In a series of posts it continued:

For more than three hours, the PRCS team maintained communication with the 6-year-old girl Hind, soothing her amidst her continuous pleas for evacuation from the vehicle.

Coordination was established through the Palestinian Coordination and Liaison Office with Israeli authorities to dispatch A PRCS ambulance to the location.

Around 6:00 PM, our teams reached the area where Hind was trapped inside the vehicle, which had been shot near the Fares petrol station in Gaza. Since then, we lost contact with the team, and as of now, we are uncertain if our teams successfully reached the girl.

Hind, was with her extended family (her mother’s uncle) when the vehicle was shot. She remained alone inside the vehicle after everyone in it, including the mother, father, and four children tragically lost their lives.

It was not possible to independently verify the account.

💔This is a picture of the 6 years old girl Hind who remained trapped inside a vehicle fired upon by the occupation forces, resulting in the martyrdom of everyone inside (6 individuals). Hind remained for hours pleading for our teams to reach her and evacuate her from the area… pic.twitter.com/V3VC1GlhGg

— PRCS (@PalestineRCS) January 29, 2024

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The Israeli military says it has carried out airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.

“The targets included Hezbollah’s infrastructure and an observation post located in the southern Lebanese areas of Markaba, Taybeh, and Maroun al-Ras,” the army said in a statement.

The IDF army also confirmed that several projectiles had been launched from Lebanon and said forces “responded by targeting the launch sites and other locations in Lebanon”.

Israel’s army chief Herzi Halevi said earlier this month that the likelihood of war on the northern border has become “much higher”, Agence France-Presse reports.

“I don’t know when the war in the north is, I can tell you that the likelihood of it happening in the coming months is much higher than it was in the past,” Halevi said.

Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that Israeli troops will “very soon go into action” near the country’s northern border with Lebanon. Gallant told troops near the border with the besieged Gaza Strip that others were being deployed to Israel’s north. “They will very soon go into action … so the forces in the north are reinforced,” Gallant said.

בתוך פחות משעתיים מאז התקיפה האחרונה, מטוסי קרב תקפו פעם נוספת מטרות טרור של ארגון הטרור חיזבאללה בלבנון.

במסגרת התקיפה, הושמדו מספר תשתיות טרור של הארגון לצד עמדת תצפית במרחבים מרכבא, א- טייבה ומרון א-ראס בדרום לבנון>> pic.twitter.com/1ZEhKy9t4W

— צבא ההגנה לישראל (@idfonline) January 29, 2024

The US military (Centcom) have posted on X about the death of US troops in Jordan.

Centcom says “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our three Army Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country in Jordan.”

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our three Army Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country in Jordan. Our prayers are with these loyal and courageous Soldiers’ families, friends, and the entire 718th Engineer Company – we honor their selfless…

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) January 29, 2024

Reged Ahmad here picking up the blog from Leonie Chao-Fong

Let’s get more on what Qatar’s prime minister sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al Thani has been saying.

He says he hopes US retaliation for an drone attack that killed three US troops in Jordan won’t undercut progress toward a new Israel-Hamas hostage release deal

I hope that nothing would undermine the efforts that we are doing or jeopardise the process

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al Thani was speaking in front of a Washington thinktank audience and gave the response when asked if US retaliation for the attack by Iran-backed militants could scuttle an emerging deal, Reuters reports.

The Qatari prime minister said US retaliation “will definitely have an impact … one way or another it will definitely have an impact on regional security and we hope things get contained.”

The drone attack was the first deadly strike against US forces since the Israel-Hamas war erupted in October, and marked a major escalation in tensions that have engulfed the Middle East. CIA Director William Burns met sheikh Mohammed, as well as the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service and the head of Egyptian intelligence on Sunday in Paris for talks described as constructive by Israel, Qatar and the US, albeit with significant gaps remaining.

Summary of the day so far

Here’s a recap of the latest developments:

  • The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the US will respond “decisively” to aggression and hold those responsible for the drone attack on a US military base in Jordan that killed three US troops and wounded dozens more to account. The three US service personnel who were killed in the drone strike have been named by the Pentagon as Sgt William Jerome Rivers, 46, Specialist Kennedy Sanders, 24, and Specialist Breonna Alexsondria Moffett, 23. The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, vowed that the US will take “all necessary actions” to defend its troops, while the Pentagon said it did not believe that Iran is seeking a war with the US, and that Washington doesn’t want a war either.

  • The enemy drone that was used in the attack on a US base in Jordan may have been confused with an American drone returning to the US installation, according to a report. In describing the drone attack, the two US officials, who were not authorised to comment and insisted on anonymity, said preliminary accounts suggest the enemy drone that struck the installation known as Tower 22 may have been mistaken for an American drone that was in the air at the same time. An Iranian-made drone was used in the deadly attack on Sunday, according to one US official.

  • The framework for a deal that could lead to a ceasefire and the release of hostages held in Gaza is being put to the Hamas leadership, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said on Monday. Speaking after talks in Paris between officials from the US, Qatar, Egypt and Israel, he said: “We are in a better place than we were a few weeks ago.” The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, also voiced hope. The US believes talks are “moving in a good direction” but there is no imminent deal, the White House said.

  • Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine reiterated that Israel must halt its offensive and withdraw from Gaza before any prisoner exchange takes place. Israel remains opposed to a permanent ceasefire and wants to retain a right to recommence hostilities against Hamas – something the Hamas leadership wants ruled out. A senior Hamas official, Taher al-Nunu, said the Palestinian militant group wanted a “complete and comprehensive ceasefire” in Gaza.

  • The UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has warned it would not be able to continue operations in Gaza and across the region beyond the end of February if funding did not resume. Israel has claimed several UNRWA staff took part in the 7 October attacks or in the aftermath, including a school counsellor who allegedly kidnapped an Israeli woman. A string of western countries including the US and the UK have suspended funding to the agency, which provides aid to more than 5.6 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. The charity ActionAid described the withdrawal of funding for UNRWA as a “death sentence” for the population of Gaza.

  • At least 26,637 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes in Gaza and a further 65,387 injured, according to the latest figures by Gaza’s health ministry on Monday. Two hundred and fifteen Palestinians were killed in the last 24 hours, the ministry reported.

  • The surgical ward at al-Amal hospital in Khan Younis in southern Gaza has completely halted operations due to oxygen supplies running out, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said on Monday. Heavy fighting has continued around hospitals in Khan Younis over the past few days, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said in its latest update on the conflict, noting that only 14 of 36 hospitals in Gaza are now partially functional. Khan Younis’ Nasser hospital, until recently the largest still accepting patients in southern Gaza, is now only “minimally functioning”, OCHA said.

  • Israel has struck an Iran-linked site south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, killing several people on Monday. Iranian and Syrian official media said the attacks came from the Golan Heights and were attributed to Israel. They have not been regarded as a direct response to the attack on the Tower 22 base on Jordan’s border with Iraq and Syria. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes hit a farm housing members of Lebanon’s Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group and other Iran-backed factions. It said seven people were killed, including four Syrians, one of whom was the bodyguard of a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards.

  • Israeli troops will “very soon go into action” near the country’s northern border with Lebanon, the country’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, has said. The Israeli minister, addressing troops near the Gaza border on Monday, also warned that the war against Hamas “will take months”, and claimed that quarter of Hamas fighters have been killed and at least another quarter have been wounded.

  • Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in four different incidents in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the past 24 hours, the Palestinian health ministry said on Monday. Palestinian news agency Wafa reported that 378 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank since 7 October.

  • Israeli politicians and ministers have attended a conference calling for Israeli resettlement of the Gaza Strip and “voluntary migration” of the Palestinian population elsewhere. The prominent role of government figures in the far-right conference on Sunday appears to violate the international court of justice ruling last week that Israel must “take all measures within its power” to avoid acts of genocide in its war in Gaza, including the “prevention and punishment of genocidal rhetoric”. The White House described the comments as “irresponsible, reckless and incendiary”.

  • The US and the UK announced sanctions against individuals who they said targeted Iranian dissidents and activists for assassination at the direction of the Iranian regime. The UK Foreign Office announced sanctions against seven individuals and one organisation who it said were involved in threats to kill journalists on British soil, and others it said were part of international criminal gangs linked to Iran.

  • US government employees are planning a “day of fasting for Gaza” this week to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in the territory and to denounce Joe Biden’s policy toward Israel.

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Philip Oltermann

More than 1,000 musical artists from the Eurovision host country, Sweden, have signed an open letter calling for Israel to be excluded from this year’s edition of the song contest over its “brutal warfare in Gaza”.

Published in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, the open letter says that by allowing Israel to participate, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) “is exhibiting a remarkable double standard that undermines the organisation’s credibility”.

The letter, published late on Monday, reads:

The fact that countries that place themselves above humanitarian law are welcomed to participate in international cultural events trivialises violations of international law and makes the suffering of the victims invisible.

Signatories include internationally successful artists such as the singers Robyn and Fever Ray, the folk duo First Aid Kit, and former Swedish Eurovision contestants such as Eric Saade and Malena Ernman, the mezzo-soprano opera singer who is also the mother of the climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The letter comes after a similar petition signed by about 1,400 artists from Finland and Iceland who also called for Israel to be excluded from the song contest, which will be held in Malmö from 7 to 11 May.

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Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, will meet with families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza at the White House on Tuesday, a US official said.

Several families of the hostages are in Washington DC this week, while others may dial in to the meeting, the administration told CNN.

The meeting comes as the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, voiced hope for a new deal that could lead to the release of hostages and a ceasefire in Gaza.

The framework for such a deal is being put to the Hamas leadership, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said earlier today after talks in Paris between officials from the US, Qatar, Egypt and Israel.

Joe Biden has vowed to hold all those responsible for the drone attack on a US military base in Jordan to account “at a time and in a manner of our choosing”.

The US president shared a picture of a meeting earlier today with his national security team, including the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, on the attack that killed three American service personnel and wounded dozens of people.

Today, I was briefed by members of my national security team in the Situation Room on the latest developments regarding the attack on U.S. service members in northeastern Jordan.

As I’ve said, we’ll hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing. pic.twitter.com/pLScFuXjk2

— President Biden (@POTUS) January 29, 2024

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Eva Corlett

New Zealand will not commit to its $1m NZD (£482,210) annual payment to the UNRWA, following accusations over its staff’s involvement in Hamas’s 7 October attacks, until it is satisfied with the outcome of the UN’s investigation.

Speaking to media on Tuesday morning, the prime minister, Christopher Luxon, said New Zealand would pause its contribution – due in June – until its foreign minister, Winston Peters, is happy to give it the green light.

I mean the allegations are incredibly serious, it’s important they are properly understood and investigated, we won’t be making any further contributions until the foreign minister says it’s good to do so.

Luxon said New Zealand remains committed to supporting the humanitarian response in Gaza, and will continue to call for safe and unimpeded humanitarian access.

What I’d just remind everybody is that our funding is about a million dollars a year, we’ve already offered $10m in humanitarian assistance and we’ve split that money between the International Red Cross and also the World Food Programme.

Helen Clark – a former New Zealand prime minister and former UN Development Programme administrator – has urged western countries to reinstate the funding to avoid “a harsh collective punishment of the Gazan people”.

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Iranian-made drone used in Jordan attack, US official reportedly says

A US official has said that a Iranian-made drone was used in the deadly attack on Sunday against on a US military base in Jordan, according to a report.

The official told CBS that the drone used in the attack wasa “type of Shahed drone”, a one-way attack drone that Iran has been providing to Russia.

Iran has denied it was behind the drone strike, but Islamic Resistance in Iraq have claimed responsibility as part of efforts, galvanised by the Israel-Hamas war, to try to drive US troops out of Iraq and Syria.

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France has condemned a conference held in Jerusalem on Sunday promoting the Israeli resettlement of the Gaza Strip and “voluntary migration” of the Palestinian population elsewhere.

The event, called the “Victory of Israel Conference: Settlement Brings Security”, hosted speeches by members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government including the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich.

In their remarks on Sunday, both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich called for the re-establishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the north of the West Bank, known to some Israelis as Samaria.

The conference was attended by 11 cabinet ministers and 15 members of the Knesset, some of them members of the prime minister’s Likud party.

A spokesperson for the French foreign ministry said:

We expect from the Israeli authorities a clear denunciation of these position.

US still believes genocide charge against Israel ‘without merit’, says Blinken

Antony Blinken was asked about the Biden administration’s response to the international court of justice (ICJ) ruling last week ordering Israel to “take all measures within its power” to prevent its forces from carrying out genocide against Palestinians.

The US continues to “believe clearly that allegations of genocide are without merit”, the secretary of state told reporters.

He said Washington has consistently made clear to Israel about the imperative of taking every possible step to protect civilian life in Gaza, to get humanitarian assistance to those who need it, and to address the “dehumanising” rhetoric from some individuals. Blinken added:

The court in this decision agreed with that. The court’s ruling is also very consistent with our view that Israel has the right to take action to ensure that the terrorist attacks of October 7 never happen again, in accordance with international law.

The US will continue to monitor the UN court’s proceedings as it moved forward with the case, he added.

Blinken says ‘real hope’ for new hostage release deal

Antony Blinken described the proposal on the table for a new hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas as “strong and compelling”.

The US secretary of state noted “the less said the better” in terms of negotiations on a new hostage deal, but that the work that is being done is “important and hopeful”.

He said Hamas “will have to make its own decisions”, and that it is his “strong assessment” that Israel would “very much like to see this process of hostages coming out”. He added:

I can say that very important, productive work has been done, and there is some real hope going forward.

The US will look hard at what steps the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) takes in response to “deeply troubling” allegations that some of its employees took part in the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel, Antony Blinken said.

The secretary of state said he had a “good conversation” with the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who had informed him of these allegations.

Blinken said the US will be “looking very hard” at the steps taken to make sure that the allegations are fully and thoroughly investigated, that there is clear accountability, and that necessary measures are put in place to prevent it from happening. He said:

It is imperative that UNRWA immediately, as it said it would, investigate, that it hold people accountable as necessary, and that it review its procedures.

He noted that while the US has not investigated the allegations, that the claims are “highly credible”.

Blinken said UNRWA has played an “absolutely indispensable” role in getting desperately needed assistance to Palestinians in Gaza, and that no one else can play that role. “It’s more than imperative that that role continues,” he added.

US response to drone attack could be ‘multi-levelled and sustained over time’, says Blinken

US secretary of state Antony Blinken noted that the situation in the Middle East is “incredibly volatile”, adding:

I would argue that we’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region at least 1973, and arguably even before that.

The US will defend its personnel and interests, and has taken significant action to deter groups and degrade their capabilities in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, he said.

President Biden has been “very clear that we want to prevent broader escalation” in the region but has also warned that the US will respond “strongly” to anyone who will try to use the crisis to create further instability or attack American personnel, he said.

Blinken said:

As the president said yesterday, we will respond. That response could be multi-levelled, come in stages, and be sustained over time.

The secretary of state emphasised that the US “does not seek conflict” with Iran but will respond “very vigorously” to the drone attack in Jordan.

Antony Blinken said the US remains focused on its core objectives in the Middle East, ie “To build a truly durable peace and security”.

The US secretary of state noted that it is critical to find a formula for a “durable end to the cycle of violence” in the region, in which Israel can “move forward in peace and security” and a Palestinian Authority “that is reformed and a clear pathway to a Palestinian state”.

The way to durable security is through a region “that is more integrated, where the relations among its countries are normalised, and where the question of the rights of Palestinians are finally answered”, he said.

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