With the World’s Eyes on Gaza, Attacks Are on the Rise in the West Bank, Which Faces its Own War 

Bashar al-Qaryoute, a Palestinian Red Crescent medic, displays bullet casings that he says he has collected from attacks by Israeli settlers and soldiers on his ambulance in the village of Qaryout in the northern West Bank, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (AP)
Bashar al-Qaryoute, a Palestinian Red Crescent medic, displays bullet casings that he says he has collected from attacks by Israeli settlers and soldiers on his ambulance in the village of Qaryout in the northern West Bank, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (AP)
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With the World’s Eyes on Gaza, Attacks Are on the Rise in the West Bank, Which Faces its Own War 

Bashar al-Qaryoute, a Palestinian Red Crescent medic, displays bullet casings that he says he has collected from attacks by Israeli settlers and soldiers on his ambulance in the village of Qaryout in the northern West Bank, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (AP)
Bashar al-Qaryoute, a Palestinian Red Crescent medic, displays bullet casings that he says he has collected from attacks by Israeli settlers and soldiers on his ambulance in the village of Qaryout in the northern West Bank, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (AP)

When Israeli warplanes swooped over the Gaza Strip following Hamas militants’ deadly attack on southern Israel, Palestinians say a different kind of war took hold in the occupied West Bank.

Overnight, the territory was closed off. Towns were raided, curfews imposed, teenagers arrested, detainees beaten, and villages stormed by Jewish vigilantes.

With the world’s attention on Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there, the violence of war has also erupted in the West Bank. Israeli settler attacks have surged at an unprecedented rate, according to the United Nations. The escalation has spread fear, deepened despair, and robbed Palestinians of their livelihoods, their homes and, in some cases, their lives.

“Our lives are hell,” said Sabri Boum, a 52-year-old farmer who fortified his windows with metal grills last week to protect his children from settlers he said threw stun grenades in Qaryout, a northern village. “It's like I'm in a prison.”

In six weeks, settlers have killed nine Palestinians, said Palestinian health authorities. They've destroyed 3,000-plus olive trees during the crucial harvest season, said Palestinian Authority official Ghassan Daghlas, wiping out what for some were inheritances passed through generations. And they've harassed herding communities, forcing over 900 people to abandon 15 hamlets they long called home, the UN said.

When asked about settler attacks, the Israeli army said only that it aims to defuse conflict and troops “are required to act” if Israel citizens violate the law. The army didn't respond to requests for comment on specific incidents.

US President Biden and other administration officials have repeatedly condemned settler violence, even as they defended the Israeli campaign in Gaza.

“It has to stop,” Biden said last month. “They have to be held accountable.”

That hasn't happened, according to Israeli rights group Yesh Din. Since Oct. 7, one settler has been arrested — over an olive farmer's death — and was released five days later, the group said. Two other settlers were placed in preventive detention without charge, it said.

Naomi Kahn, of advocacy group Regavim, which lobbies for settler interests, argued that settler attacks weren't nearly as widespread as rights groups report because it's a broad category including self-defense, anti-Palestinian graffiti and other nonviolent provocations.

“The entire Israeli system works not only to stamp out this violence but to prevent it,” she said.

Before the Hamas assault, 2023 already was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in over two decades, with 250 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire, most during military operations.

Over these six weeks of war, Israeli security forces have killed another 206 Palestinians, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, the result of a rise in army raids backed by airstrikes and Palestinian militant attacks. In the deadliest West Bank raid since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, of the 2000s, Israeli forces killed 14 Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp Nov. 9, most of them militants.

While for years settlers enjoyed the support of the Israeli government, they now have vocal proponents at the highest levels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. This month, Netanyahu appointed Zvi Sukkot, a settler temporarily banned from the West Bank in 2012 over alleged assaults targeting Palestinians and Israeli forces, to lead the subcommittee on West Bank issues in parliament.

Palestinians who've endured hardships of Israeli military rule, in its 57th year, say this war has left them more vulnerable than ever.

“We’ve become scared of tomorrow,” said Abdelazim Wadi, 50, whose brother and nephew were fatally shot by settlers, according to health authorities.

Conflict has long been part of daily life here, but Palestinians say the war has unleashed a new wave of provocations, disrupting even their grim routine.

THE SETTLERS IN FATIGUES Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. Settlers claim the West Bank as their biblical birthright. Most of the international community considers the settlements, home to 700,000 Israelis, illegal. Israel considers the West Bank disputed land, and says the settlements' fate should be decided in negotiations. International law says the military, as the occupying power, must protect Palestinian civilians.

Palestinians say that in nearly six decades of occupation, Israeli soldiers often failed to protect them from settler attacks or even joined in.

Since the war's start, the line between settlers and soldiers has blurred further.

Israel’s wartime mobilization of 300,000-plus reservists included the call-up of settlers for duty and put many in charge of policing their own communities. The military said in some cases, reservists who live in settlements replaced regular West Bank battalions deployed in the war.

Tom Kleiner, a reservist guarding Beit El, a religious settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, said the Oct. 7 Hamas attack's brutality cemented his conviction that Palestinians are determined to “murder us.”

“We don’t kill Arabs without any reason,” he said. “We kill them because they’re trying to kill us.”

Rights groups say uniforms and assault rifles have inflated settlers' sense of impunity.

“Imagine that the military supposed to protect you is now made of settlers committing violence against you,” said Ori Givati, of Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group of former Israeli soldiers.

Bashar al-Qaryoute, a medic from the Palestinian village of Qaryout, said residents from the nearby settlement Shilo, now wearing fatigues, have blocked all but one road out. He said they smashed Qaryout’s water pipeline, forcing residents to truck in water at triple the price.

“They were the ones always burning olive trees and creating problems,” al-Qaryoute said. “Now they're in charge.”

THE CURFEW “Close it!” a soldier barked at Imad Abu Shamsiyya when he met the young man's eyes through his open window. Then, he pointed his rifle.

Over 52 years, Abu Shamsiyya has witnessed crises strike the heart of Hebron, the only place in which Jewish settlers live amid local residents, not in separate communities.

He thought life in the maze of barbed wire and security cameras couldn't get worse. Then came the war.

“This terror, these pressures,” he said, “are unlike before.”

The Israeli military has barred 750 families in Hebron's Old City — where some 700 radical Jewish settlers live among 34,000 Palestinians under heavy military protection — from stepping outside except for one hour in the morning and one in the evening on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursday, said residents and Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

Schools have closed. Work has stopped. Sick people have moved in with relatives in the Palestinian-controlled part of town. Israeli settlers often roam at night, taunting Palestinians trapped indoors, according to footage published by B'Tselem.

Checkpoints instill dread. Soldiers who in the past just glanced at Abu Shamsiyya’s ID now search his phone and social media. They pat him down, he said, gawking and cursing.

“Hebron is a blatant microcosm of how Israel is exerting control over the Palestinians population,” said Dror Sadot, of B'Tselem.

The Israeli military didn't respond to a request for comment on the curfew.

THE SETTLER RAID The grinding of a bulldozer's gears. The crack of a gun. With a glance, parents let each other know the drill: Grab the children, lock the doors, keep away from windows.

Palestinians say settlers storm the northern village of Qusra almost daily, covering olive orchards in cement and dousing cars and homes in gasoline.

On Oct. 11, settlers tore through dusty streets, shooting at families in their homes. Within minutes, three Palestinian men were dead.

Israeli forces sent to disperse armed settlers and Palestinian stone-throwers fired into the crowd, killing a fourth villager, Palestinian officials said.

The next day, settlers heeded social-media calls to ambush a funeral procession the village coordinated with the army. They cut off roads and sprayed bullets at mourners who sprang from cars and sprinted through fields, attendees said.

Ibrahim Wadi, a 62-year-old chemist, and his 26-year-old son Ahmed, a lawyer, were killed. The funeral for four became one for six.

Settlers’ online posts rejoicing at the deaths, shared with The Associated Press, stung Ibrahim's brother, Abdelazim, almost as much as the loss.

“The mind breaks down, it stops comprehending,” he said.

THE GHOST TOWN Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Israel should “wipe out” Palestinian town Hawara after a gunman killed two Israeli brothers in February, sending hundreds of settlers on a deadly rampage.

Another far-right religious lawmaker, Zvika Fogel, said he wanted to see the commercial hub “closed, incinerated."

Today, Hawara resembles a ghost town.

The army shuttered shops “to maintain public order” after Palestinian militant attacks, it said. Abandoned dogs roam among vandalized storefronts. Posters with a Talmudic justification for killing Palestinians adorn road blocks: “Rise and kill first.”

From the war's start, much of the West Bank's main north-south highway has been closed to Palestinians, said anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now. Commutes that took 10 to 20 minutes now take hourslong detours on dangerous dirt roads.

The restrictions, said Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti, “have divided the West Bank into 224 ghettos separated by closed checkpoints.”

The 160,000 Palestinian laborers who passed those checkpoints to work in Israel and Israeli settlements before Oct. 7 lost their coveted permits overnight, said Israel's defense agency overseeing Palestinian civil matters. The agency allowed 8,000 essential workers to return to factories and hospitals earlier this month. There's no word on when the rest can.

“My grandfather relies on me, and now I have nothing,” said Ahmed, a 27-year-old from Hebron who lost his barista job in Haifa, Israel. He declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

“The pressure is building. We expect the West Bank to explode if nothing changes.”

THE OLIVE HARVEST Palestinians wait all year for the autumn moment that olives turn from green to black. The two-month harvest is a beloved ritual and income boost.

Violence has marred the season. Soldiers and settlers blocked villagers from reaching orchards and used bulldozers to remove gnarled roots of centuries-old trees, they say.

Hafeeda al-Khatib, an 80-year-old farmer in Qaryout, said soldiers shot in the air and dragged her from her land when they caught her picking olives last week. It's the first year she can remember not having enough to make oil.

In a letter to Netanyahu this month, Smotrich called for a ban on Palestinians harvesting olives near Israeli settlements to reduce friction.

Palestinians say settlers' efforts have done the opposite.

“They've declared war on me,” said Mahmoud Hassan, a 63-year-old farmer in Khirbet Sara, a northern community. He said reservist settlers have surrounded it. If he ventures 100 meters (yards) to his grove, he said, soldiers standing sentry scream or fire into the air. He needs permission to leave home and return.

“There is no room anymore for talking to them or negotiating,” he said.

The military said it “thoroughly reviewed” reports of violence against Palestinians and their property. “Disciplinary actions are implemented accordingly,” it said, without elaborating.

THE EVACUATION Rights groups say the goal of settler violence is to clear Palestinians from land they claim for a future state, making room for Jewish settlements to expand.

The Bedouin hamlet of Wadi al-Seeq was pushed to its breaking point by three detained Palestinians' ordeal over nine hours Oct. 12. The harrowing accounts were first reported by Israel’s Haaretz daily.

Weeks of vigilante violence had already forced 10 families to flee when masked settlers in army uniforms barreled through that day, slamming a Bedouin resident and two Palestinian activists onto the ground and shoving them into pickups, villagers said.

One of the activists, 46-year-old Mohammed Matar, told AP they were bound, beaten, blindfolded, stripped to their underwear and burned by cigarettes.

Matar said reservist settlers urinated on him, penetrated him anally with a stick, and screamed at him to leave and go to Jordan.

When released, Matar left. So did Wadi al-Seeq’s 30 remaining families. They took their sheep to the creases of the hills east of Ramallah and abandoned everything else.

The Israeli military said it fired the commander in charge and was investigating.

Matar said that to move on, he needs Israel to hold someone accountable.

“I'd be satisfied with the bare minimum,” he said, “the tiniest shred of justice.”



Beirut: ‘Laundering’ Hub for Fake Iraqi University Degrees

Amal Shaaban is seen at her office at the Ministry of Education after her release. (Shaaban's Facebook page)
Amal Shaaban is seen at her office at the Ministry of Education after her release. (Shaaban's Facebook page)
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Beirut: ‘Laundering’ Hub for Fake Iraqi University Degrees

Amal Shaaban is seen at her office at the Ministry of Education after her release. (Shaaban's Facebook page)
Amal Shaaban is seen at her office at the Ministry of Education after her release. (Shaaban's Facebook page)

On Dec. 27, Lebanese security forces arrested a prominent official at the Ministry of Education to investigate suspicions of corruption in equating the certificates of Iraqi students. Around 20 days later, Amal Shaaban, head of the ministry’s Equivalency Department, was released, only to be informed of her dismissal based on a decision signed by Minister of Education Abbas Al-Halabi.

Iraqi sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Shaaban’s dismissal came “in response to pressure exerted by Lebanese and Iraqi parties that threatened several times to stop the aid they provide to the ministry and public schools.”

The incident revealed why Iraqis were clamoring to study at Lebanese universities, sparking a debate about whether Shaaban was a “scapegoat” used to put an end to illicit dealings between influential powers in Baghdad and Beirut.

Suspicions in the case arose at two instances: The first relates to accepting forged high school certificates issued in Baghdad and validated in Beirut, and the other pertains to granting of university and higher education certificates without students attending classes, in exchange for sums of money.

The story began in Iraq, when Shiite parties that assumed power after 2003 discovered that they did not have administrative teams qualified enough to hold advanced government positions.

Iraq’s interests coincided with interests of influential forces in Lebanon that were trying to maximize educational resources as part of an agreement between the two countries that allowed the delivery of oil in exchange for medical and educational services. Thus, Iraqi students poured into Lebanon, which opened more branches of Lebanese universities, and established others specifically for this purpose, while a network of Iraqi brokers arose in Beirut to handle the illegal paperwork.

In Beirut, Amal Shaaban is trying to prove that the decision to dismiss her from her position is illegal, while it is difficult to confirm her innocence or involvement in this file that has lingered for years.

A source close to Shaaban’s legal team explained that she is not seeking to return to her job, “but all she wants is to show that the Minister of Education’s decision is illegal, and then she will submit her resignation from the post.”

A legal source informed of the investigations expected that a decision by the investigating judge will reveal “dozens of forged Iraqi certificates that passed through the Ministry of Education under the influence of political pressure.”

According to the source, the investigations will not be limited to the Ministry of Education, but will include a number of universities where Iraqi students were enrolled before the high school certificates they obtained in their country were equated. Many of those certificates were forged.

The source pointed to a university close to the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, which attracted the largest number of Iraqi students and granted them - within a period of two years - certificates in graduate studies and doctorates that exceeded the total amount of certificates issued across the country in that period of time, raising suspicions.

Moreover, the majority of Iraqis, who applied for the equivalency of certificates and enrollment in Lebanese universities, are employees of Iraqi state institutions. They submitted requests for the equivalency without coming to Lebanon in exchange for huge sums of money, as these certificates allowed them to be promoted in their jobs and benefit from a significant increase in their salaries.

On the other hand, Iraqi sources informed of the investigations say that Beirut has turned into a hub for “laundering degrees,” even for ordinary youths who are not affiliated with political parties.

Simultaneously, a network of Iraqi brokers emerged in Beirut to facilitate “the paperwork.” Some of them enjoy political cover from the pro-Iran Shiite Coordination Framework parties in Iraq and work in Lebanon.

A reliable source from the Iraqi Ministry of Education said their mission was to pass on false secondary school certificates brought by Iraqi students to have them equalized in Beirut in preparation for their admission to Iraqi universities.

The source added that Iraqi authorities have always failed to track down the secondary certificates that have been equated in Lebanon, and the authenticity of most of them is difficult to verify.

According to the testimony of the former Iraqi official, the Iraqi brokers developed a wide network of connections in Beirut extending from “Iraqi embassy employees to leaders in the Amal Movement, and junior officials in the Ministry of Education.”

In July 2021, Iraq signed an agreement with Lebanon to sell one million tons of heavy fuel oil at the global price, with payment being in services and goods.

Four months later, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education summoned its cultural attaché in Beirut as part of an investigation into the issue of private Lebanese universities granting fake certificates in exchange for money to hundreds of Iraqis, including representatives and officials, a move that prompted the Lebanese Ministry of Education to open its own investigation.

According to AFP, Iraqi students were enrolled at 14 universities in Lebanon, but the number of students at the Modern University of Management and Science, the Islamic University of Lebanon, and Jinan University alone reached 6,000 out of a total of 13,800 Iraqi students.

The Iraqi investigation ended with a halt to dealing with the three universities, according to an Iraqi statement issued on November 11, 2021.

With the formation of the government of Mohammad Shia Al-Sudani at the end of 2022, Iraqi Shiite parties retreated from the university degree market in Lebanon, and the Ministry of Higher Education, led by Naeem Al-Aboudi, encouraged Iraqi students to study in Iraqi private universities, even as he himself holds a degree from the Islamic University of Beirut.


Israel’s Gantz Tests Netanyahu Partnership in Washington

Benny Gantz speaks at the announcement of former Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot's election bid in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Aug. 14, 2022. (AP)
Benny Gantz speaks at the announcement of former Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot's election bid in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Aug. 14, 2022. (AP)
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Israel’s Gantz Tests Netanyahu Partnership in Washington

Benny Gantz speaks at the announcement of former Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot's election bid in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Aug. 14, 2022. (AP)
Benny Gantz speaks at the announcement of former Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot's election bid in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Aug. 14, 2022. (AP)

Benny Gantz, the Israeli war cabinet member visiting Washington this week, tells a story of how his mother, a Holocaust survivor, once had an operation in Germany performed by a Palestinian doctor from Gaza.

The story encapsulates the hope for reconciliation that motivates optimists in the Middle East but which has been cruelly tested by the war with Gaza that erupted on Oct. 7, the deadliest day in Israel's history.

Gantz, 64, who leads a centrist party that now holds a commanding lead in the opinion polls, joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emergency cabinet last year. He says the fact that he was willing to join a unity government with the right wing Netanyahu and his nationalist religious allies, showed the scale of the crisis facing Israel.

While Gantz has been as adamant as any other leader in Israel that the war can only end when Hamas is destroyed, he is far more open to dialogue with the Palestinians than Netanyahu and his allies from the settler movement like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich or Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Despite the international alarm at the mounting death toll in Gaza, he is unlikely to deviate from the government's path of continuing the war until final victory.

But as US and international pressure grows for a revival of efforts to reach a two state solution, Gantz's willingness to think about a political end to the conflict has brought the divisions more clearly into focus.

Gantz is due to meet both Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the fact that it is he, rather than Netanyahu, who is making the visit has caused a storm. Netanyahu's relations with US President Joe Biden have been so strained that more than a year after taking office, he has still not received an invitation to visit Washington.

Anonymous briefers have told Israeli outlets "there is only one prime minister" and the media have reported that Netanyahu had forbidden Israel's ambassador in the United States from supporting the visit.

"It's a shame this trip wasn't coordinated in advance with the Prime Minister," Smotrich told a faction meeting in parliament on Monday, describing Gantz as a "weak link" in the government and calling on him to openly declare his opposition to a Palestinian state.

"Gantz is playing into the hands of the Biden administration and is actually promoting their plan to establish a Palestinian state," Smotrich said.

While the shock of Oct. 7 has put the normal rules of politics on hold, Netanyahu faces the anger of the majority of Israelis who blame him for the security failures that allowed the devastating attack, that killed some 1,200 people.

Surveys show Gantz's National Unity Party a clear favorite to come out on top in any election held today, with a majority of voters judging that Netanyahu's main motivation for continuing the war was his own political survival, according to a Channel 13 poll on Monday.

Attacks

A strong opponent of Netanyahu's drive to overhaul the judiciary which risked tearing Israel apart last year, Gantz has clashed frequently with his partners on the hard right, including Smotrich and on occasion the prime minister himself.

But he said that the unprecedented threat facing the country after Oct. 7 had prompted him to join forces with his rivals.

"This is not a political partnership I am in," he told a group of journalists in a briefing last year. "There is no way I would stand aside and play with politics under such circumstances."

Alongside Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the other main member of the war cabinet, and Gadi Eizenkot, another centrist former general, he has defended the Israeli military and security establishment from attack by Netanyahu allies.

Critics say such attacks are a means of diverting criticism from the prime minister himself.

A former paratrooper who commanded the elite Shaldag commando unit, Gantz spent most of his career in the military. As army chief of staff in 2012, he oversaw an eight day-operation in the Gaza Strip that began with the killing of the chief of Hamas' military wing in Gaza.

That conflict was part of a series of more or less limited confrontations between Israel and Hamas that had marked Israel's relations with the Palestinians ever since the movement took power in Gaza after a brief factional war in 2007.

The war that began on Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen broke through the security fence around Gaza and tore through the Israeli communities just outside, killing some 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 as hostages, was different.

Israel has responded with a bombing campaign that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, drawing increasing alarm even from firm allies like the United States.

Five months into the conflict, attention has increasingly turned to the situation that will follow the end of the war and here, Gantz's feeling that a political solution would have to be found may make him easier for Washington to deal with.


A 4-year-old Gaza Boy Lost His Arm – and His Family. Half a World Away, He’s Getting a Second Chance

People gather around a truck carrying humanitarian aid that was hit in a reported Israeli airstrike on the main coastal road in Deir El-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by AFP)
People gather around a truck carrying humanitarian aid that was hit in a reported Israeli airstrike on the main coastal road in Deir El-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by AFP)
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A 4-year-old Gaza Boy Lost His Arm – and His Family. Half a World Away, He’s Getting a Second Chance

People gather around a truck carrying humanitarian aid that was hit in a reported Israeli airstrike on the main coastal road in Deir El-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by AFP)
People gather around a truck carrying humanitarian aid that was hit in a reported Israeli airstrike on the main coastal road in Deir El-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by AFP)

Omar Abu Kuwaik is far from his home in Gaza. The 4-year-old’s parents and sister were killed by an Israeli airstrike, when he lost part of his arm.
He’s one of the lucky ones.
Through the efforts of family and strangers, Omar was brought out of Gaza and to the United States, where he received treatment, including a prosthetic arm. He spent his days in a house run by a medical charity in New York City, accompanied by his aunt.
It was a small measure of grace in a sea of turmoil for him and his aunt, Maha Abu Kuwaik, as they looked to an uncertain future. The grief and despair for those still trapped in Gaza is never far away, The Associated Press said.
Abu Kuwaik is glad she could do this for her beloved brother’s son, whom she now considers her fourth child.
But it was a terrible choice. Going with Omar meant leaving her husband and three teenage children behind in a sprawling tent camp in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah. With Israel carrying out strikes in areas where it told civilians to take shelter, including Rafah, Abu Kuwaik knows she might never see her family again.
“My kids love Omar so much,” she said. “They told me, ‘We’re not children anymore. Go, let Omar get treated. It’s what’s best for him. It’s his only chance.’”
Omar was an outgoing boy, she said, and he’s clever like his late father, an engineer. Now he’s often withdrawn and breaks into tears easily.
Ask Omar a question, and he covers his ears with his right hand and the stump of his left arm, declaring, “I don’t want to talk.”
“Kindergarten was nice,” he eventually admits, “and I was happy on the first day.” He started school just weeks before the war. But he doesn’t want to go to kindergarten anymore. He’s afraid to leave his aunt’s side.
Flying to New York may have given him a new dream, though.
“When I grow up, I want to be pilot,” Omar said, “so I can bring people places.”
Omar was the first Palestinian child from Gaza taken in by the Global Medical Relief Fund. The Staten Island charity’s founder, Elissa Montanti, has spent a quarter-century getting hundreds of kids free medical care after they lost limbs to wars or disasters.
Each child started out as a stranger. Each one joined what she calls her “global family,” and will come back to the US for new prosthetic limbs as their bodies grow. Her charity sponsors everything except the medical treatment, which is donated, primarily by Shriners Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The deadliest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades was sparked Oct. 7 when a Hamas-led group broke through Israel’s security barrier around Gaza and stormed into Israeli communities. Around 1,200 people were killed and some 250 taken hostage.
Israel has laid waste to much of Gaza in response. In five months of war, 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people fled their homes.
The death toll in Gaza topped 30,000 Thursday, with more than 70,000 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed. Israel blames civilian deaths on Hamas, saying they operate among the population.
Two weeks into the war, Omar and Abu Kuwaik narrowly escaped death. The two families evacuated their Gaza City apartments just before Israeli airstrikes flattened the buildings.
With only the clothes on their backs, the families split up to stay with different relatives. But in wartime, seemingly trivial decisions — like where to seek shelter — have outsized consequences.
On Dec. 6, two Israeli airstrikes slammed into Omar’s grandparents’ home in the Nuseirat refugee camp. The explosion peeled the skin from his face. His left arm could not be saved below the elbow. He had burns on his leg and torso. His parents, 6-year-old sister, grandparents, two aunts and a cousin were killed.
Omar was pinned beneath the rubble. Rescuers dug until they found his little body, still warm, bleeding but somehow alive.
“Our view was, anywhere is better for him than being in Gaza,” said Adib Chouiki, vice president of Rahma Worldwide, a US-based charity, who heard about Omar from the group’s team in Gaza.
Israel tightly restricts movement of people out of Gaza, allowing just a few hundred to exit each day, mostly those with foreign citizenship. The World Health Organization says 2,293 patients – 1,498 wounded and 795 ill – have left Gaza for medical treatment alongside 1,625 companions. Yet roughly 8,000 patients remain on a waiting list to go abroad, according to the UN refugee agency.
Chouiki began reaching out to contacts in the Palestinian, Israeli and Egyptian governments. He got new passports for Omar and Abu Kuwaik, and Israeli security clearance for them to travel to Egypt.
An ambulance brought them to the border, where an Egyptian ambulance whisked them across the Sinai desert.
Inside an Egyptian military hospital, Omar and his aunt waited for weeks until US Customs and Border Protection gave them the green light to fly to New York on Jan. 17.
At Shriners Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Omar had skin graft surgery for the burn on his leg. He was eager to get his new prosthetic arm Wednesday, smiling mischievously as he reached out to touch it. “My arm is nice.”
Omar and his aunt boarded a plane to Cairo the next day, accompanied by a member of her extended family. They'll stay at his home in Egypt while seeking more permanent housing.
“I almost don’t sleep,” Abu Kuwaik said. “I think about Omar and I think about my kids, and the conditions they’re living in back there in the tents.”
Food is scarce. Israel’s near-total blockade of Gaza has pushed more than half a million Palestinians toward starvation and raised fears of imminent famine. The flimsy tent her family shares with 40 other people offers little protection from rain and wind, she said. When one person gets sick, illness spreads like wildfire.
The war has repeatedly knocked out cellphone and internet service in Gaza, but Abu Kuwaik keeps in touch “when there’s network.”
With their return to Egypt, Omar and his aunt’s futures are unclear; they might be stuck in exile.
For Abu Kuwaik, though, there’s no home for Omar to go back to.
“I cannot imagine ... that I go back to Gaza,” she said. “What would his life be? Where is his future?


As Biden Prepares to Address the Nation, More Than 6 in 10 US Adults Doubt His Mental Capability 

United States President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters as he departs the White House for a weekend trip to Camp David in Washington, DC, USA, 01 March 2024. (EPA)
United States President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters as he departs the White House for a weekend trip to Camp David in Washington, DC, USA, 01 March 2024. (EPA)
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As Biden Prepares to Address the Nation, More Than 6 in 10 US Adults Doubt His Mental Capability 

United States President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters as he departs the White House for a weekend trip to Camp David in Washington, DC, USA, 01 March 2024. (EPA)
United States President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters as he departs the White House for a weekend trip to Camp David in Washington, DC, USA, 01 March 2024. (EPA)

A poll finds that a growing share of US adults doubt that 81-year-old President Joe Biden has the memory and acuity for the job, turning his coming State of the Union address into something of a real-time audition for a second term.

Roughly 6 in 10 say they're not very or not at all confident in Biden's mental capability to serve effectively as president, according to a new survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That's a slight increase from January 2022, when about half of those polled expressed similar concerns.

By the same token, nearly 6 in 10 also say they lack confidence in the mental capability of former President Donald Trump, the 77-year-old Republican front-runner.

For many voters, this year's election looks like a showdown for the world's toughest job between two men who are well beyond the standard retirement age. The next president will probably need to steer through global conflicts, fix domestic emergencies and work with a dysfunctional Congress.

Biden is likely to address those challenges and more in his State of the Union address on Thursday as he tries to convince Americans that he deserves another term.

Going into the big event, just 38% of US adults approve of how Biden is handling his job as president, while 61% disapprove. Democrats (74%) are much likelier than independents (20%) and Republicans (6%) to favor his performance. But there’s broad discontent on the way Biden is handling a variety of issues, including the economy, immigration and foreign policy.

About 4 in 10 Americans approve of the way Biden is handling each of these issues: health care, climate change, abortion policy and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But people are less satisfied by Biden’s handling of immigration (29%), the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians (31%) and the economy (34%) — all of which are likely to come up in the speech before a joint session of Congress.

Nearly 6 in 10 (57%) Americans think the national economy is somewhat or much worse off than before Biden took office in 2021. Only 3 in 10 adults say it’s better under his leadership. Still, people are more optimistic about the state of their own bank accounts: 54% say their personal finances are good.

Many respondents to the survey were deeply pessimistic about their likely choices in November because of age and the risk of cognitive decline.

Paul Miller, himself 84, said Biden is just too old — and so is Trump.

“He doesn’t seem to have the mental whatever to be a president,” Miller said of Biden. He added that Trump is “too old, too, and half crazy.”

The retiree from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said he voted for Trump in 2020 but he wouldn’t do so again.

“I don’t think I’m going to vote for either one of them,” he said. “I hope somebody else is available.”

The president faces added pressure about his age after unflattering descriptions of him contained in a special counsel’s report that did not recommend criminal prosecution of Biden for his mishandling of classified records, unlike Trump who was indicted for keeping classified material in his Florida home. The report said that Biden's memory was “hazy,” “fuzzy,” “faulty,” “poor” and had “significant limitations."

Biden has tried to deflect concerns by joking about his age and taking jabs at Trump's own gaffes. Yet the president's age is a liability that has overshadowed his policy achievements on infrastructure, manufacturing and addressing climate change.

About one-third of Democrats said they're not very or not at all confident in Biden's mental capability in the new survey, up from 14% in January 2022. Only 40% of Democrats said they're extremely or very confident in Biden's mental abilities, with approximately 3 in 10 saying they're “somewhat” confident.

And in a major risk for Biden, independents are much more likely to say that they lack confidence in his mental abilities (80%) compared with Trump's (56%).

Republicans are generally more comfortable with Trump’s mental capabilities than Democrats are with Biden’s. In the survey, 59% of Republicans are extremely or very confident that Trump has the mental abilities to be president. An additional 20% are somewhat confident, and 20% are not very or not at all confident.

But if there is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon, it's that the other party's likely nominee is not mentally up to the task. About 9 in 10 Republicans say Biden lacks the mental capability to serve as president, while a similar share of Democrats say that about Trump.

Part of Biden's problem is that his policies have yet to break through the daily clutter of life.

Sharon Gallagher, 66, worries about inflation. She voted for Biden in 2020, but believes he has not done enough for the economy. She also feels Trump is a bit too quick to anger. The Sarasota, Florida, resident said she doesn't have the bandwidth to really judge their policies.

“I don’t pay enough attention to politics to even know,” Gallagher said. “I have grandchildren living with me and I have children’s shows on all day.”

Justin Tjernlund, 40, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said Biden “seems like he's mostly still there,” but even if he was in decline he has “a whole army of people to help him do the job.” Trjenlund said he voted for Trump in 2020 and plans to do so again because the Republican is “interesting” and “refreshing.”

Still, because of both candidates' ages, Greg Olivo, 62, said he plans to focus on Vice President Kamala Harris and whomever Trump, if he's the nominee, picks for a running mate.

“Keep a close eye on the vice president,” said the machinist from Valley City, Ohio, who voted for Biden in 2020 and would do so again. “Because that person will probably be the president in four years, one way or another.”


Israel’s Wartime Cabinet Is Rattled by a Dispute between Netanyahu and His Top Political Rival

Israeli Emergency cabinet minister and opposition politician Benny Gantz addresses the press in Kiryat Shmona, Israel November 14, 2023. (Reuters)
Israeli Emergency cabinet minister and opposition politician Benny Gantz addresses the press in Kiryat Shmona, Israel November 14, 2023. (Reuters)
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Israel’s Wartime Cabinet Is Rattled by a Dispute between Netanyahu and His Top Political Rival

Israeli Emergency cabinet minister and opposition politician Benny Gantz addresses the press in Kiryat Shmona, Israel November 14, 2023. (Reuters)
Israeli Emergency cabinet minister and opposition politician Benny Gantz addresses the press in Kiryat Shmona, Israel November 14, 2023. (Reuters)

A top Israeli Cabinet minister headed to Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials, sparking a rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to an Israeli official, in a sign of widening cracks in Israel's wartime government nearly five months into its war with Hamas.

The trip by Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival who joined Netanyahu’s hard-line government in the early days of the war following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, comes amid deep disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over how to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and create a post-war vision for the enclave.

The US was prompted to airdrop aid into Gaza on Saturday after dozens of Palestinians rushing to grab food from trucks were killed last week. The airdrops circumvent what’s been a prohibitive aid delivery system, which has been hobbled by Israeli restrictions, logistical issues within Gaza as well as the fighting inside the tiny enclave. Aid officials say the airdrops are far less effective than the aid sent via trucks.

US priorities in the region have increasingly been hampered by Netanyahu’s hard-line Cabinet, where ultranationalists dominate. Gantz’s more moderate party at times acts as a counterweight to Netanyahu's far-right allies.

An official from Netanyahu’s Likud party said Gantz’s visit was without authorization from the Israeli leader. The official said Netanyahu had a “tough talk” with Gantz about the trip and told him the country has “just one prime minister.”

An Israeli official said Gantz had informed Netanyahu of his intention to travel to the US and to coordinate messaging with him. The official said the visit is meant to strengthen ties with Washington, to bolster support for Israel's ground campaign and to push for the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Gantz is set to meet with US Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to his National Unity party.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the dispute with the media.

Netanyahu has tanked in popularity since the war broke out, according to most opinion polls, with many Israelis holding him responsible for Hamas’ cross-border raid that left 1,200 people, mostly civilians, dead and roughly 250 people, including women, children and older adults, abducted and taken into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.

The subsequent fighting has killed at least 30,410 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters. Around 80% of the population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and UN agencies say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

Critics say Netanyahu’s decision-making has been tainted by political considerations, a charge he denies. The criticism is particularly focused on plans for postwar Gaza. Netanyahu has released a proposal that would see Israel maintain open-ended security control over the territory with local Palestinians running civilian affairs.

The US wants to see progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, envisioning a revamped Palestinian leadership running Gaza with an eye toward eventual statehood.

That vision is opposed by Netanyahu and the hard-liners in his government. Another top Cabinet official from Gantz's party has questioned the handling of the war and the country's strategy for freeing the hostages.

Netanyahu's government, Israel's most conservative and religious ever, has also been rattled by a court-ordered deadline for a new bill to broaden military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom are exempted to pursue religious studies. The issue has come up as hundreds of Israeli soldiers have been killed since Oct. 7 and the military is looking to fill its ranks as the war drags on.

Gantz, who polls show would earn enough support to become prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood.

A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost Gantz’s support. Israel has essentially endorsed a framework of a proposed Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal, and it is now up to Hamas to agree to it, a senior US official said Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House to brief reporters.

Israelis, deeply traumatized by Hamas’ attack, have broadly backed the war effort as an act of self-defense, even as global opposition to the fighting has increased.

But a growing number are expressing their dismay with Netanyahu. Some 10,000 people protested late Saturday to call for early elections, according to Israeli media. Such protests have grown in recent weeks, but remain much smaller than last year's demonstrations against the government's judicial overhaul plan.

If the political rifts grow and Gantz quits the government, the floodgates will open to broader protests by a public that was already unhappy with the government when Hamas struck, said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

“There is a lot of anger,” he said, listing grievances that were building well before Oct. 7. “The moment you have that anger and a coalition that is disconnected from the people, there will be fireworks.”

Netanyahu's government won't collapse if Gantz exits, but it could lose legitimacy in the eyes of much of the public.

Talks aimed at brokering a Gaza ceasefire restarted Sunday in Egypt. International mediators hope to broker a deal that would pause the fighting and free some of the remaining hostages before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins around March 10.

In the meantime, fighting raged on in Gaza with Israeli strikes late Saturday killing more than 30 people, including women and children, according to local health officials.

At least 14 were killed in a strike on a home in the southernmost city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, according to Dr. Marwan al-Hams, director of the hospital where the bodies were taken. He said the dead, including six children and four women, were all from the same family. Relatives said another nine people were missing under the rubble.

Israeli airstrikes also hit two homes in the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense, residential area in northern Gaza, killing 17 people, according to the Civil Defense.


Born and Died During Gaza War, Infant Twins Are Buried in Rafah

Rania Abu Anza (C) the mother of twin babies Naeem and Wissam, killed in an overnight Israeli air strike, mourns their death ahead of their burial in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continues. (AFP)
Rania Abu Anza (C) the mother of twin babies Naeem and Wissam, killed in an overnight Israeli air strike, mourns their death ahead of their burial in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continues. (AFP)
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Born and Died During Gaza War, Infant Twins Are Buried in Rafah

Rania Abu Anza (C) the mother of twin babies Naeem and Wissam, killed in an overnight Israeli air strike, mourns their death ahead of their burial in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continues. (AFP)
Rania Abu Anza (C) the mother of twin babies Naeem and Wissam, killed in an overnight Israeli air strike, mourns their death ahead of their burial in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continues. (AFP)

Born a few weeks into the Gaza war, infant twins Wissam and Naeem Abu Anza were buried on Sunday, the youngest of 14 members of the same family whom Gaza health authorities say were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Rafah overnight.

Their mother, Rania Abu Anza, held one of the twins, its tiny body wrapped in a white shroud, to her cheek and stroked its head during the funeral on Sunday. A mourner held the second baby close by, pale blue pyjamas visible beneath a shroud.

"My heart is gone," wept Abu Anza, whose husband was also killed, as mourners comforted her. She resisted when asked to release the body of one of the babies ahead of burial. "Leave her with me," she said, in a low voice.

The twins - a boy and a girl - were among five children killed in the strike on a house in Rafah, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Abu Anza said she had given birth to them - her first children - after 11 years of marriage.

"We were asleep, we were not shooting and we were not fighting. What is their fault? What is their fault, what is her fault?" Abu Anza said.

"How will I continue to live now?"

Relatives said the twins had been born some four months ago, about a month into the war which began on Oct. 7, when Hamas stormed Israel, in an attack that killed 1,200 people and resulted in another 253 being abducted, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel's offensive has killed more than 30,000 people in the Gaza Strip since then, according to Gaza health authorities, laying waste to the territory and uprooting most of its population.

The members of the Abu Anza family killed in the strike were lined up in black body bags. A man wept over the body of one of the dead, a child wearing pyjamas. "God have mercy on her, God have mercy on her," said another man, consoling him.

Abu Anza said she had been wishing for a ceasefire before Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month which begins around March 10.

US President Joe Biden has expressed hope one will be agreed by then. "We were preparing for Ramadan, how am I supposed to live my life? How?" she said.


Fears Grow in Israel of War with Lebanon's Hezbollah

Ditza Alon and her husband Arye in the Nahal Orvim nature reserve in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights - AFP
Ditza Alon and her husband Arye in the Nahal Orvim nature reserve in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights - AFP
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Fears Grow in Israel of War with Lebanon's Hezbollah

Ditza Alon and her husband Arye in the Nahal Orvim nature reserve in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights - AFP
Ditza Alon and her husband Arye in the Nahal Orvim nature reserve in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights - AFP

In the green hills of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near Lebanon, Arye and Ditza Alon are hiking through a tranquil nature reserve, wondering whether the wider region could become a war zone.

While mediators hope for a truce soon in the Israel-Hamas war raging in Gaza to the south, fears are growing that months of cross-border clashes in the north could escalate into a bigger conflict.

"It's a big question," said Ditza, pondering whether Israel should fight another major war against Lebanon's armed movement Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas.

She argued there is a risk either way, and considered the dilemma as she stood with her husband in the reserve at the foot of snow-capped Mount Hermon.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said this week that a Gaza truce won't stop Israeli military operations in the north -- and many fear a Gaza ceasefire may in fact allow Israel forces to step up northern operations.

Experts say Hezbollah, which has waged past wars against Israel, has many battle-hardened fighters and a formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles -- most of which it has held back from using so far.

As the Gaza war has raged, Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Israeli army have traded almost daily fire.

On the Lebanese side, at least 280 people have been killed, mostly Hezbollah fighters and their allies, along with 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, the army says 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, while tens of thousands of residents on both sides have been displaced.

On Monday, for the first time in years, Israel launched strikes against the city of Baalbek, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the border.

The Lebanese militant group responded with a barrage of rockets against northern Israel.

Gallant, on a visit to the army's Northern Command this week, said a Gaza ceasefire would not change Israel's objective of pushing Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon.

The United States and France have called on both sides to resolve the issue through diplomacy.

Gallant warned that if this is not possible, "we will do it by force".

"If anyone thinks that when we reach a deal to release hostages in the south and the firing stops it will ease what is happening here, they are wrong," he said.

Amir Avivi, a former brigadier general in the Israeli army, also argued that a Gaza truce would change nothing.

"They might respect the truce, but we are not going to respect the truce with Hezbollah," he told AFP.

In the Gaza war, Israel insists it will send troops into far-southern Rafah, the last major city so far spared from a ground assault, either before or after a ceasefire.

After Rafah, said Avivi, the focus would be on Hezbollah.

Israel, he said, wants a diplomatic solution, but he argued that this would be difficult. If it fails, he said, "then war is imminent".

In such a scenario, he said, Hezbollah might consider a conflict inevitable and launch a surprise attack.


Cross-border Cyber Blackmail Spreads without Effective Deterrence

A man passes Interpol signage at Interpol World in Singapore July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
A man passes Interpol signage at Interpol World in Singapore July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
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Cross-border Cyber Blackmail Spreads without Effective Deterrence

A man passes Interpol signage at Interpol World in Singapore July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
A man passes Interpol signage at Interpol World in Singapore July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

An extensive investigation conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat revealed growth in crimes of cross-border blackmail, ranging from financial and sexual extortion to death threats.

The cases examined in the report showed that the perpetrators exploit legal loopholes and lack of jurisdictions, as well as their presence outside the victims’ countries, using “long electronic arms” to evade prosecution.

An Arab Convention on Combating Technology Offences was concluded in 2010 and ratified by several countries. However, the texts and cooperation mechanisms contained therein are not activated, and the investigation proved that some local authorities, who had signed and ratified the agreement, refused to release reports of victims who were subjected to blackmail due to the presence of the perpetrators “outside the borders.”

Among the victims was an Egyptian engineer working in another Arab country. He was subjected to transnational crimes of “death threats, financial blackmail, defamation and insults” since 2013, until he was able to prove them.

Egyptian engineer Mohamed Ahmed, 40, received an urgent message from his son’s school administration while he was on vacation with his family. The school official told him that they had received warning letters accompanied by a picture of his seven-year old son that included “accusations and abuse against the family and the child, as well as extremely serious health allegations.”

Until the judicial authorities finally accused a woman of being behind the cybercrimes, the man lived through episodes of “death threats, financial blackmail, defamation and insults,” as it took him nearly 10 years to prove the accusations.

In 2002, Egypt established a department affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior to “combat computer crimes.” The body operated in a semi-centralized manner inside Cairo to later expand through regional offices that serve geographical areas within one governorate. In April 2021, the Interior Ministry announced that citizens can submit reports regarding cybercrimes to all security directorates in any Egyptian governorate.

For nearly seven years, Ahmed tried in vain to file reports of cybercrimes “because of his presence outside the country and his inability to quickly and urgently prove the crime.”

As the pressure grew, the man was forced to take an emergency leave from work and incur “large financial costs” to come to Egypt more than once to fulfill “a number of technical and legal requirements necessary to prove the crime” and file a lawsuit against the perpetrator.

Inside the Mansoura Criminal Court in the Dakahlia governorate, Asharq Al-Awsat attended the trial session of the accused, where the investigations indicated that the woman “committed defamation and blackmail against more than 10 other victims inside and outside Egypt.”

Between Baghdad, Damascus and Berlin

Other cases examined by Asharq Al-Awsat include the story of Iraqi woman “Shams” (a nickname). Her blackmailer holds Syrian nationality and resides in Germany, according to his account, while she lives in one of the governorates of Iraq.

Shams, 32, a divorced mother of five children, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Like everyone, I have accounts on social media, and through them, in early 2021, I met a person who told me that he was a Syrian refugee residing in Germany. Over time, the conversation between us developed and he proposed to me to marry and come to Iraq to get engaged and take responsibility for my children.”

She added: “I decided to talk to him and we got to know each other.”

Over time, the blackmailer began to threaten Shams with her private photos, the woman recounted.

“He started asking me for ‘some things’, and unfortunately I started doing everything he wanted, for a period of 6 months,” she said.

However, the situation developed, and the woman was surprised that her blackmailer, according to her words, asked her to perform “satisfactory sexual acts related to my five-year-old daughter...” She blocked him immediately.

Despite the risk of challenging tribal norms and the fear of stigma if her problem was exposed, Shams carefully tried to take the legal route to stop the threat.

She says: “I contacted the community police in the governorate in which I reside, and they were unable to help me because he [the blackmailer] is outside Iraq. I also contacted National Security, and arrived in Aqaba.”

Then a friend advised Shams to resort to the “Resist Initiative to Combat Electronic Blackmail.” The “Resist” volunteer initiative operates through electronic platforms on social media, and aims to provide support to victims.

Despite the body’s success in supporting the Iraqi woman, the founder of Resist, human rights activist Mohammad Al-Yamani told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We realize that it is not possible to fully rely on the efforts of activists in transnational blackmail cases, as the movement and coordination of the official police and judicial authorities is more powerful and legal.”

Al-Yamani called for implementing agreements pertaining to electronic crimes between Arab countries as a “first stage,” and said: “An executive body must be established to exchange information and prosecute criminals in electronic blackmail cases to protect the victims.”

An Arab diplomat and a third party

A unique type of blackmailers infiltrated a weak spot in the life of an Arab diplomat, through communications that took place in more than one country, including his workplace. Al-Yamani documented the incident and shared its facts with Asharq Al-Awsat, without revealing the identity of the victim.

The diplomat was working in an Arab country, where he had an affair with a female national. After a while, the woman threatened to publish conversations and pictures that she obtained in the context of their relationship, and asked him for a financial reward.

The Arab diplomat responded “twice” to the blackmail. In the third time, he thought about resorting to the judiciary but later backed down after he learned that because of his situation, he must notify his country’s foreign ministry and embassy, which consequently means the case will be exposed and his professional future may be at risk.

The victim later discovered that the woman, who had left her home country to escape a potential prosecution, had carried out the operation on behalf of a third party, who was his own wife.

Al-Yamani recounted that the diplomat’s wife, who was on bad terms with her husband and resided in their hometown, hired the blackmailer, to exert pressure on the man to obtain divorce and financial gains.

In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, former Assistant Minister of the Interior for Information Technology and Internet Crimes, Major General Mahmoud Al-Rashidi, said that technological crimes rely on unconventional means and usually do not involve a direct confrontation between the perpetrator and the victim.

This gives a “relative protection for the perpetrators, and enable them to some degree to hide and evade prosecution, especially when crimes occur across borders,” he said.

The Interpol places cybercrime among its areas of competence, noting that criminals adopt new techniques to commit attacks against governments, companies and individuals, and that crimes do not stop at borders, whether they were physical or virtual and cause damage and pose threats to victims around the world.

The Interpol press office did not respond to questions sent by Asharq Al-Awsat to find out the extent of its participation in operations to pursue, seize, or exchange information in transnational electronic blackmail crimes, especially in Arab countries.

Despite the Arab precedence in establishing a convention to combat transnational information crimes, these crimes are happening and will continue to occur, until the right mechanisms are put into effect and executive entities are formed to overcome obstacles that hinder its implementation. Only then may hundreds and perhaps thousands of victims be saved from extremely bad fates that begin with defamation and stigma and sometimes end with murder.


Al-Qassam Brigades: Militant Force Shaking Israel - What Do We Know?


A boy carries what appears to be an RPG launcher during an event held by al-Qassam Brigades in the city of Gaza last summer (AFP)
A boy carries what appears to be an RPG launcher during an event held by al-Qassam Brigades in the city of Gaza last summer (AFP)
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Al-Qassam Brigades: Militant Force Shaking Israel - What Do We Know?


A boy carries what appears to be an RPG launcher during an event held by al-Qassam Brigades in the city of Gaza last summer (AFP)
A boy carries what appears to be an RPG launcher during an event held by al-Qassam Brigades in the city of Gaza last summer (AFP)

The surprise assault launched by the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, along the Gaza border on Oct. 7 of last year, has heralded a notable shift in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

They caught Israeli forces off guard, resulting in the death of over 1,200 Israelis and the capture of around 240 others.

The attack, resembling scenes from a Hollywood thriller, underscores the ongoing struggle.

Since the Oct.7 ambush, Israeli authorities claim to have dismantled a significant portion of the paramilitary group’s infrastructure and taken out as many as 12,000 of its fighters.

But what do we know about the al-Qassam Brigades, currently locked in a protracted conflict with Israel?

Formation, Focus on Prisoner Release

Al-Qassam Brigades were established in early 1988 under the name “Majd,” later changed to its current name.

The group’s security arm, which keeps the title “Majd” to this day, was tasked with hunting down Israeli agents.

One of al-Qassam Brigades’ key founders was Yahya Sinwar, now the leader of Hamas in Gaza and a prime target for Israel due to his alleged involvement in the Oct. 7 assault.

Al-Qassam Brigades gained attention in 1994 with attempts to abduct Israelis, succeeding in their first capture of soldier Nachshon Wachsman in the West Bank.

Wachsman was killed by Israeli forces along with his captors in a military operation near a village between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Thereafter, the swapping of Palestinian prisoners for kidnapped Israelis became a major goal for al-Qassam Brigades.

This led to intense operations, notably during the group’s “Engineers Phase” in the 1990s, led by Yahya Ayyash.

That phase witnessed several suicide bombings inside Israel, which temporarily halted but resumed strongly during the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.

Kidnapping Israelis remained a priority for Hamas, especially in 2006 before consolidating control over Gaza in 2007.

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was then captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid via tunnels near the Israeli border. Hamas held him captive for over five years until his release in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange deal that saw the release of 1,027 Palestinians from Israeli jails.

Despite years of conflict and attempts to pressure Israel, including capturing soldiers during the 2014 war and infiltrating across borders, the al-Qassam Brigades’ efforts for a prisoner exchange deal have largely been ignored by successive Israeli governments.

Oct. 7, Triggering a Catastrophic Conflict

Al-Qassam Brigades’ desire to kidnap Israelis to pressure their government for a prisoner exchange deal is believed to have prompted their surprise attack along the Gaza border on Oct. 7.

This assault resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and the capture of hundreds more, including many soldiers, marking an unprecedented event that Israel likened to its worst experience since the Nazi Holocaust.

In response, Israel launched a massive war on Gaza, resulting in the deaths of approximately 30,000 Palestinians and widespread destruction.

Since the war’s onset, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the objective of “eliminating Hamas” and completely dismantling al-Qassam Brigades.

After about 145 days of conflict, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claim to have killed about 12,000 Hamas fighters and disbanded all brigades except for those positioned in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

However, these figures are disputed, with Hamas initially refuting reports of 6,000 casualties within their ranks.

In the Eye of the Storm: Al-Qassam Brigades’ Situation

Asharq Al-Awsat has tried to shed light on the state of the al-Qassam Brigades using insights from informed Palestinian sources and field reports from Gaza.

According to these sources, Israel has failed to target leaders Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, who are top on the assassination list.

They also haven’t been able to reach leaders of the Khan Yunis, Rafah, and Gaza brigades. Meanwhile, Israel has successfully assassinated leaders from other brigades, along with many frontline fighters.

Sources mentioned that precise figures regarding casualties among al-Qassam Brigades couldn’t be provided.

However, they confirmed Israel's success in targeting the group’s leaders and other activists, sometimes through massacres targeting their families. These sources also questioned Israel’s reported figures, suggesting they were misleading.

According to available information, Israel has so far succeeded in assassinating two of al-Qassam Brigades’ leaders: Ayman Nawfal, commander of the central brigade, and Ahmed al-Ghandour, commander of the northern brigade, who was killed along with four other field leaders.

Ayman Siyam, commander of the rocket unit in al-Qassam Brigades, and other officials in Hamas’ military wing, such as Wael Rajab, Rafat Salman, Ibrahim al-Bayari, and Wissam Farhat, have also been targeted.

Despite details about lower-level leaders being currently unavailable, sources confirmed that many have been killed in assassinations, operations, and clashes.

Al-Qassam Brigades: A Flexible Structure

The al-Qassam Brigades once had divisions, battalions, and other units totaling up to 30,000 before the current Gaza conflict erupted.

According to Asharq Al-Awsat sources, the group’s structure is highly adaptable, even during communication blackouts with leadership. In such cases, deputies are appointed to each commander’s position.

The al-Qassam Brigades have an integrated military system, with five brigades: Northern, Gaza, Central, Khan Yunis, and Rafah.

Each brigade has several battalions, factions, and military formations.

Thousands of fighters have been trained by instructors, some of whom received military training outside Gaza, in places like Lebanon, Iran, and Syria.

Israel says al-Qassam Brigades has 24 military battalions, a claim supported by Asharq Al-Awsat sources.

Each battalion has between 600 to 1200 fighters, organized into brigades, factions, and formations. While the exact number of fighters isn’t clear, al-Qassam Brigades’ recent focus has been on recruiting young people.

Before the war, estimates suggest that al-Qassam Brigades numbered between 25,000 to 30,000 fighters.

Their structure includes various specialized units within each brigade, such as military judiciary, manufacturing, monitoring, combat support, intelligence, and more.

Although they lost some capabilities during the current conflict due to Israel neutralizing many tunnels and hiding spots, fighters in al-Qassam Brigades still display strong combat abilities in ongoing clashes in Gaza.


Bakeries Smashed in Israel Bombardment Key to Gaza Hunger Crisis

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP)
Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP)
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Bakeries Smashed in Israel Bombardment Key to Gaza Hunger Crisis

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP)
Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024. (AP)

The rubble and twisted metal of Kamel Ajour's smashed-up Gaza bakery underscores one reason starving people in the north of the bombarded enclave are reduced to eating raw cactus leaves after nearly five months of Israel's military campaign.

Bread will be critical to any sustained effort to relieve Palestinian hunger, with one in six children in northern Gaza wasting from malnutrition, but most bakeries lie in rubble from Israeli bombardment and aid deliveries of flour are rare.

"We have five bakeries. This bakery was bombed and other bakeries have been damaged. We have three bakeries that can become functional," said Ajour, in a video obtained by Reuters in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City in the north of the strip.

A crane lifted equipment from the ruins that Ajour hoped to salvage. Inside, the metal ovens and trays were piled ramshackle amid the wreckage.

An Israeli truce proposal now being studied by Hamas would allow for the import of bakery equipment and fuel to power the ovens.

"It is most important to have a ceasefire and for bakeries to function again so we can find something to eat, and for our children, our loved ones, our families," said Basel Khairuldeen in Gaza City.

With bakeries destroyed or unable to function for lack of fuel, people have had to bake bread themselves as best they can over fires made with wood salvaged from ruined buildings.

Even small amounts of flour are often impossible to find, or too expensive to buy when available. People make bread from animal feed and birdseed. Most say they can only eat once a day at most.

Sitting by a still intact house in Jabalia, the Awadeya family have taken to eating the leaves of prickly pear cactuses to ward off hunger.

While the fruit of prickly pear cactuses are commonly eaten around the Mediterranean, the thick, sinewy leaves are only ever consumed by animals, mashed up in their feed.

Marwan al-Awadeya sat in a wheelchair, peeling off the spines and slicing off chunks of the cactus for himself and two small children in a video obtained by Reuters.

"We're living in famine. We have exhausted everything. There's nothing left to eat," he said, adding that he had lost 30 kg from hunger during the conflict.

Aid supplies

The war began when Hamas fighters rampaged into Israel on Oct. 7 killing 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Israel's military campaign has killed around 30,000 Palestinians say health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza.

While aid is flowing into southern parts of the strip, though too slowly to avert a hunger crisis even there, it barely makes it to northern areas that are further from the main border crossing and only accessible through more active battle fronts.

On Tuesday, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said a quarter of people in Gaza were one step away from famine, warning that such a disaster would be "almost inevitable" without action.

Israel says there is no limit to the amount of humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza.

However, OCHA told the Security Council that relief agencies face "overwhelming obstacles" including restrictions on movement, crossing closures, access denials and onerous vetting procedures.

The Israeli military branch responsible for aid transfers, COGAT, said on Wednesday that 31 trucks had reached northern Gaza overnight, but had no details on distribution, saying this was up to the United Nations.

Israel has said the failure to get enough aid into Gaza to meet humanitarian needs is due to UN distribution failures.

Rare aid deliveries into northern Gaza have been chaotic, with convoys of trucks often mobbed by desperate people as they arrive.

In Gaza City, Umm Ibraheem said she just hoped a ceasefire could be agreed and food start to flow back to northern Gaza.

"You can see how people are starving, dying of hunger and thirst," she said.