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.



Death of Iran’s Raisi Could Stir Race for Khamenei Succession, Insiders Say 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei receives President Ebrahim Raisi and members of the government in August. (dpa)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei receives President Ebrahim Raisi and members of the government in August. (dpa)
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Death of Iran’s Raisi Could Stir Race for Khamenei Succession, Insiders Say 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei receives President Ebrahim Raisi and members of the government in August. (dpa)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei receives President Ebrahim Raisi and members of the government in August. (dpa)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's death in a helicopter crash upsets the plans of hardliners who wanted him to succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and will stir rivalries in their camp over who will take over the country when he dies.

A protege of Khamenei who rose through the ranks of Iran's theocracy, Raisi, 63, was widely seen as a leading candidate to take over from the 85-year-old Supreme Leader - though it was far from being a foregone conclusion in Iran's opaque politics.

His rise to the presidency was part of a consolidation of power in the hands of hardliners dedicated to shoring up the pillars of the Islamic Republic against the risks posed by dissent at home and powerful enemies in a turbulent region.

Raisi had enjoyed staunch backing from Khamenei, who had himself held the position of president before he became Supreme Leader in 1989 following the death of the Islamic Republic's founder, Khomeini.

The Supreme Leader holds ultimate power in Iran, acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and deciding on the direction of foreign policy, defined largely by confrontation with the United States and Israel.

While Khamenei has not endorsed a successor, Iran watchers say Raisi was one of the two names most often mentioned, the second being Khamenei's second son, Mojtaba, who is widely believed to wield influence behind the scenes.

Raisi, backed by a group that wanted to see him become Supreme Leader, clearly wanted the role, said Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"Now they don't have a candidate, and that opens the door for other factions or other figures to emerge as serious contenders," he said.

For Raisi, a mid-ranking Shiite cleric, the presidency had been a vehicle to reach the supreme leadership. "There's no other candidate right now (with) that kind of a platform and that's why the presidential elections in Iran, however they unfold, will be the first decider about what comes next," Nasr said.

'BLOW TO THE ESTABLISHMENT'

Raisi's views echoed Khamenei's on every major topic and he enacted the leader's policies aimed at entrenching clerical power, cracking down on opponents, and adopting a tough line on foreign policy issues such as the nuclear talks with Washington, two Iranian insiders said.

The hardliners maintained their grip in a parliamentary election held in March, but turnout sunk to the lowest level since the revolution.

Critics saw this as reflecting a crisis of legitimacy for the clerical elite, amid mounting economic struggles and dissent among Iranians chafing at the social and political restrictions which drove months of protests ignited by the death of a young woman arrested by the morality police in 2022.

Though his name has often been cited, doubts have swirled over the possible candidacy of Mojtaba, a mid-ranking cleric who teaches theology at a religious seminary in the city of Qom.

Khamenei has indicated opposition to his son's candidacy because he does not want to see any slide back towards a system of hereditary rule in a country where the US-backed monarchy was overthrown in 1979, an Iranian source close to Khamenei's office said.

A regional source familiar with the thinking in Tehran said Khamenei's opposition to hereditary rule would eliminate both Mojtaba and Ali Khomeini, a grandson of the Islamic Republic's founder who is based in Najaf, Iraq.

A former Iranian official said powerful actors including the Revolutionary Guards and influential clerics in Qom are now expected to step up efforts to shape the process by which the next supreme leader is picked.

"Raisi's death is a blow to the establishment that has no other candidate now," the official said, adding that while it was believed Raisi had been groomed to succeed Khamenei, nobody knew for sure what Khamenei's intentions were.

UNCERTAINTY IN THE SUCCESSION

Khamenei had not been a clear favorite for the role in 1989 and only emerged after backroom dealings among the clerical elite.

Under Iran's constitution, the Supreme Leader is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member clerical body that supervises and in theory can sack the Supreme Leader.

While the Assembly is chosen in an election, another hardline watchdog body comprising clerics and jurists aligned to Khamenei has the power to veto laws and decide who may stand.

Two sources familiar with the matter said the Assembly of Experts had taken Raisi off a list of potential successors some six months ago because of his sagging popularity, reflecting economic hardship caused by US sanctions and mismanagement.

One of the sources said intensive lobbying had been underway by influential, pro-Raisi clerics to get his name reinstated.


What's Next for Iran's Government after Death of its President in Helicopter Crash?

The Iranian flag is seen flying over a street in Tehran, Iran, February 1, 2023. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
The Iranian flag is seen flying over a street in Tehran, Iran, February 1, 2023. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
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What's Next for Iran's Government after Death of its President in Helicopter Crash?

The Iranian flag is seen flying over a street in Tehran, Iran, February 1, 2023. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
The Iranian flag is seen flying over a street in Tehran, Iran, February 1, 2023. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights

The death of Iran's president is unlikely to lead to any immediate changes in Iran's ruling system or to its overarching policies, which are decided by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

But Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash Sunday, was seen as a prime candidate to succeed the 85-year-old supreme leader, and his death makes it more likely that the job could eventually go to Khamenei's son, The AP reported.

A hereditary succession would pose a potential crisis of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic, which was established as an alternative to monarchy but which many Iranians already see as a corrupt and dictatorial regime. Here's a look at what comes next.

HOW DOES IRAN'S GOVERNMENT WORK?

Iran holds regular elections for president and parliament with universal suffrage.

But the supreme leader has final say on all major policies, serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and controls the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

The supreme leader also appoints half of the 12-member Guardian Council, a clerical body that vets candidates for president, parliament and the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of jurists in charge of choosing the supreme leader.

In theory, the clerics oversee the republic to ensure it complies with Islamic law. In practice, the supreme leader carefully manages the ruling system to balance competing interests, advance his own priorities and ensure that no one challenges the Islamic Republic or his role atop it.

Raisi, a hard-liner who was seen as a protege of Khamenei, was elected president in 2021 after the Guardian Council blocked any other well-known candidate from running against him, and turnout was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. He succeeded Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who had served as president for the past eight years and defeated Raisi in 2017.

After Raisi's death, in accordance with Iran's constitution, Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, a relative unknown, became caretaker president, with elections mandated within 50 days. That vote will likely be carefully managed to produce a president who maintains the status quo.

That means Iran will continue to impose some degree of Islamic rule and crack down on dissent. It will enrich uranium, support armed groups across the Middle East and view the West with deep suspicion.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SUCCESSION?

Presidents come and go, some more moderate than others, but each operates under the structure of the ruling system.

If any major change occurs in Iran, it is likely to come after the passing of Khamenei, when a new supreme leader will be chosen for only the second time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khamenei succeeded the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989.

The next supreme leader will be chosen by the 88-seat Assembly of Experts, who are elected every eight years from candidates vetted by the Guardian Council. In the most recent election, in March, Rouhani was barred from running, while Raisi won a seat.

Any discussion of the succession, or machinations related to it, occur far from the public eye, making it hard to know who may be in the running. But the two people seen by analysts as most likely to succeed Khamenei were Raisi and the supreme leader's own son, Mojtaba, 55, a Shiite cleric who has never held government office.

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE SUPREME LEADER'S SON SUCCEEDS HIM?

Leaders of the Islamic Republic going back to the 1979 revolution have portrayed their system as superior.

The transfer of power from the supreme leader to his son could spark anger, not only among Iranians who are already critical of clerical rule, but supporters of the system who might see it as un-Islamic.

Western sanctions linked to the nuclear program have devastated Iran's economy. And the enforcement of Islamic rule, which grew more severe under Raisi, has further alienated women and young people.

The Islamic Republic has faced several waves of popular protests in recent years, most recently after the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly not covering her hair in public. More than 500 people were killed and over 22,000 were detained in a violent crackdown.

Raisi's death may make the transition to a new supreme leader trickier, and it could spark more unrest.

 

 

 

 

 

 


What Happens after ICC Prosecutor Seeks Warrants in Israel-Gaza Conflict?

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to his Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 20, 2024 (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to his Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 20, 2024 (Reuters)
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What Happens after ICC Prosecutor Seeks Warrants in Israel-Gaza Conflict?

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to his Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 20, 2024 (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to his Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 20, 2024 (Reuters)

The International Criminal Court prosecutor's office has requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense chief, and also for three Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Here is a look at what happens next, and how the ICC prosecutor's move might impact diplomatic relations and other court cases focused on Gaza.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT AT ICC?

Prosecutor Karim Khan's request goes to a pre-trial chamber. The chamber will be composed of three magistrates: presiding judge Iulia Motoc of Romania, Mexican judge Maria del Socorro Flores Liera and judge Reine Alapini-Gansou of Benin. There is no deadline for judges to decide whether to issue arrest warrants. In previous cases, judges have taken anywhere from just over a month to several months.

If the judges agree there are "reasonable grounds" to believe war crimes or crimes against humanity have been committed, they will issue an arrest warrant. The warrant must name the person, the specific crimes for which an arrest is sought and a statement of facts which are alleged to constitute those crimes.

Judges can amend arrest warrant requests and grant only portions of what the prosecutor is seeking. Charges can also be changed and updated later.

Israeli and Hamas leaders have dismissed allegations of committing war crimes, and representatives of both sides criticized Khan's decision.

WILL NETANYAHU AND THE HAMAS LEADERS BE ARRESTED?

The ICC's founding Rome statute combined with jurisprudence from past cases involving arrest warrants against sitting heads of state oblige all 124 ICC signatory states to arrest and hand over any individual subject to an ICC arrest warrant if they set foot on their territory. However, the court has no means to enforce an arrest. The sanction for not arresting someone is a referral back to the ICC's assembly of member states and ultimately a referral to the U.N. Security Council.

CAN AN ICC INVESTIGATION OR WARRANT BE PAUSED?

The court's rules allow for the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that would pause or defer an investigation or a prosecution for a year, with the possibility of renewing that indefinitely.

In past cases where a state has ignored its obligation to arrest an individual facing an ICC warrant, they have received a procedural slap on the wrist at most.

CAN NETANYAHU AND HAMAS CHIEF YAHYA SINWAR STILL TRAVEL?

Yes they can. Neither the application for a warrant nor the issuance of an ICC arrest warrant curbs an individual's freedom to travel. However, once an arrest warrant has been issued, they risk arrest if they travel to an ICC signatory state, which may influence their decision-making.

There are no restrictions on political leaders, lawmakers or diplomats from meeting individuals with an ICC arrest warrant against them. Politically, however, the optics of this may be bad.

WILL THIS APPLICATION FOR WARRANTS INFLUENCE OTHER CASES?

Not directly, but perhaps indirectly. The ICC application is a separate matter to, for example, court cases demanding an arms embargo against Israel or South Africa's attempts at the International Court of Justice to seek a halt to Israel's offensive on Rafah.

If the judges decide there are reasonable grounds to believe Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza, it could strengthen legal challenges demanding an arms embargo elsewhere as numerous states have provisions against selling arms to states who might use them in ways that violate international humanitarian law.


Iranian FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a Hard-Line Diplomat, Dies in Helicopter Crash

The Iranian national flag flies at half-mast at the Iranian consulate, following the deaths of Iran's President Raisi and Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, in Karachi, Pakistan, 20 May 2024. (EPA)
The Iranian national flag flies at half-mast at the Iranian consulate, following the deaths of Iran's President Raisi and Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, in Karachi, Pakistan, 20 May 2024. (EPA)
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Iranian FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a Hard-Line Diplomat, Dies in Helicopter Crash

The Iranian national flag flies at half-mast at the Iranian consulate, following the deaths of Iran's President Raisi and Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, in Karachi, Pakistan, 20 May 2024. (EPA)
The Iranian national flag flies at half-mast at the Iranian consulate, following the deaths of Iran's President Raisi and Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, in Karachi, Pakistan, 20 May 2024. (EPA)

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran's foreign minister and a hard-liner close to the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard who confronted the West while also overseeing indirect talks with the US over the country's nuclear program, died in the helicopter crash that also killed the country's president, state media reported Monday. He was 60.

Amir-Abdollahian represented the hard-line shift in Iran after the collapse of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers after then President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the accord. Amir-Abdollahian served under President Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and followed their policies.

He was close to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, once praising the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, slain in a US drone strike in Baghdad in 2020.

Amir-Abdollahian served in the Foreign Ministry under Ali Akbar Salehi in 2011 through 2013. He then returned for several years under Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was a key player in the nuclear deal reached under the administration of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

But Zarif and Amir-Abdollahian had a falling out, likely over internal differences in Iran's foreign policy. Zarif offered him the ambassadorship to Oman, but he refused.

He became foreign minister under Raisi with his election in 2021. He backed the Iranian government position, even as mass protests swept the country in 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained earlier over allegedly not wearing a headscarf to the liking of authorities. The monthslong security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw more than 22,000 detained.

In March, a UN investigative panel found that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

During the Israel-Hamas war, Amir-Abdollahian met with foreign officials and the leader of Hamas. He also threatened retaliation against Israel and praised an April attack on Israel. He also oversaw Iran's response to a brief exchange of airstrikes with Iran's nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan and worked on diplomacy with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with whom Iran had tense relations.

Amir-Abdollahian is survived by his wife and two children.


'Can't Leave': 10 Years on, Thousands Forgotten in Syria Desert Camp

A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP
A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP
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'Can't Leave': 10 Years on, Thousands Forgotten in Syria Desert Camp

A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP
A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP

In a no-man's land on Syria's border with Iraq and Jordan, thousands are stranded in an isolated camp, unable to return home after fleeing the government and militants years ago.

When police defector Khaled arrived at Rukban, he had hoped to be back home within weeks -- but eight years on, he is still stuck in the remote desert camp, sealed off from the rest of the country.

Damascus rarely lets aid in and neighbouring countries have closed their borders to the area, which is protected from Syrian forces by a nearby US-led coalition base's de-confliction zone.

"We are trapped between three countries," said Khaled, 50, who only gave his first name due to security concerns.

"We can't leave for (other areas of) Syria because we are wanted by the regime, and we can't flee to Jordan or Iraq" because the borders are sealed, he added.

The camp was established in 2014, at the height of Syria's ongoing war, as desperate people fled ISIS and government bombardment in hopes of crossing into Jordan.

At its peak, it housed more than 100,000 people, but numbers have dwindled, especially after Jordan largely sealed its side of the border in 2016.
Many people have since returned to government-held areas to escape hunger, poverty and a lack of medical care. The United Nations has also facilitated voluntary returns with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The last UN humanitarian convoy reached the camp in 2019, and the body described conditions there as "desperate" at the time.
Residents say even those meagre supplies risk running dry as government checkpoints blocked smuggling routes to the camp about a month ago.

Mohammad Derbas al-Khalidi, who heads the camp's council, said most families survived on scarce remittances that are funnelled in and largely smuggled aid, while about 500 men working with the nearby US base receive salaries of around $400 a month.

Around 8,000 people remain at the camp, some of whom are shown protesting for outside help in this picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force
The father of 14 said he was wanted by the government for helping army defectors flee early in the war.

Only a safe passageway to Syria's opposition-held northwest or its Kurdish-administered northeast could "save the people who remain in Rukban", Khalidi said.

"If I didn't fear for myself, my children... I wouldn't put up with this life of disease and hunger," he told AFP.

Despite dire conditions, a handful of people keep arriving -- but not by choice.

The council and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said several dozen Syrians released from Jordanian prisons have been deported to Rukban in recent years.

Most have been convicted of crimes from drug trafficking to illegally entering Jordan or other security infractions, according to council data, with 24 people sent to the camp so far this year.

Mohammed al-Khalidi, 38, a mechanic not related to the camp chief, said he was deported from Jordan after serving time on drug-related charges.

He expressed anger at being dumped at the camp, and said he feared arrest if he returned to his home in Homs province, now in an area under government control.

"My relatives are all in Jordan. Everyone who was in Syria has either been killed or left. And our homes in Homs have been razed," he said.

"Where can I go?" he said.

"Jordan has not and will not force any Syrian refugee to return to Syria," a Jordanian official said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Rukban camp residents "are Syrians and the camp is located on Syrian territory. It is therefore necessary to help them return to their regions inside Syria," he added.

- 'Never getting out'
Medical care in Rukban is almost non-existent.

Camp chief Khalidi said the site had nurses but no doctors, and people seeking medical treatment must be smuggled into government-held areas, with a round-trip costing about $1,600.

Many camp residents making the journey have disappeared into jails, he added.

Mouaz Moustafa, who heads the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force association, said "the number one thing that they need (in Rukban) even more than food is doctors".
He noted a total lack of staff trained even for caesarean section births.

Rukban "has the worst living conditions... I have ever seen in any refugee camp", said Moustafa, whose association has airlifted aid into the camp with help from the nearby US-led coalition base.

Mohammed, 22, who had a liver problem, said that thanks to donations, he was able to be smuggled to government-held territory for surgery, after living in Rukban for years with his family.

He later fled to neighbouring Lebanon to avoid military service and still lives there despite a grinding economic crisis and growing anti-Syrian sentiment.

"Any place on earth is better than Rukban," he said.

Using a pseudonym because he is in Lebanon illegally, Mohammed said he has not seen his mother and older brothers in two years because they are stuck in the camp.

"My family knows they're never getting out... They're not even thinking of fleeing," he said.

"The camp is like a prison."


Israeli Assault Traps Foreign Doctors as They Are Treating Waves of Wounded in Gaza

 Palestinian children gather empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
Palestinian children gather empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Israeli Assault Traps Foreign Doctors as They Are Treating Waves of Wounded in Gaza

 Palestinian children gather empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
Palestinian children gather empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

The 35 American and other international doctors came to Gaza in volunteer teams to help one of the territory’s few hospitals still functioning. They brought suitcases full of medical supplies and had trained for one of the worst war zones in the world. They knew the health care system was decimated and overwhelmed.

The reality is even worse than they imagined, they say.

Children with horrific amputations. Patients with burns and maggot-filled wounds. Rampant infections. Palestinian doctors and nurses who are beyond exhausted after seven months of treating never-ending waves of civilians wounded in Israel’s war with Hamas.

"I did not expect that (it) will be that bad," said Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit with the Syrian American Medical Society. "You hear the news, but you cannot really recognize ... how bad until you come and see it."

Israel’s incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah has exacerbated the chaos. On May 6, Israeli troops seized the Rafah crossing into Egypt, closing the main entry and exit point for international humanitarian workers. The teams were trapped beyond the scheduled end of their two-week mission.

On Friday, days after the teams were supposed to leave, talks between US and Israeli authorities yielded results and some of the doctors were able to get out of Gaza. However, at least 14, including three Americans, chose to stay, according to one of the organizations, the Palestinian American Medical Association.

The US-based non-profit medical group FAJR Scientific, which organized a second volunteer team, could not immediately be reached. The White House said 17 Americans left Gaza on Friday, and at least three chose to stay behind.

Those who left included Ghanem, who said the 15-mile trip from the hospital to the Kerem Shalom crossing took more than four hours as explosions went off around them. He described some tense moments, such as when an Israeli tank at the crossing took aim at the doctors' convoy.

"The tank moved and blocked our way and they directed their weapons (at) us. So that was a scary moment," Ghanem said.

The 14 doctors with the Palestinian American Medical Association who stayed behind include American Adam Hamawy. US Sen. Tammy Duckworth credits Hamawy with saving her life when, as a military helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004, she was hit by an RPG, causing injuries that cost her legs.

"Three of the US citizen doctors in our teams declined to leave without a formal replacement plan for them," the association's president, Mustafa Muslen, said.

The two international teams have been working since early May at the European General Hospital, just outside Rafah, the largest hospital still operating in southern Gaza. The volunteers are mostly American surgeons but include medical professionals from Britain, Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and other nations.

The World Health Organization said the UN, which coordinates visits of volunteer teams, is in talks with Israel to resume moving humanitarian workers in and out of Gaza. The Israeli military said it had no comment.

The doctors' mission gave them a first-hand look at a health system that has been shattered by Israel's offensive in Gaza, triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. Nearly two dozen hospitals in Gaza are no longer operating, and the remaining dozen are only partially working.

Israel's campaign has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 79,000, according to Gaza health officials. Almost 500 health workers are among the dead.

The military's nearly two-week-old Rafah operation has sent more than 600,000 Palestinians fleeing the city and scattering across southern Gaza. Much of the European Hospital’s Palestinian staff left to help families find new shelter. As a result, the foreign volunteers are stretched between medical emergencies and other duties, such as trying to find patients inside the hospital. There is no staff to log where incoming wounded are placed. Medicines that the teams brought with them are running out.

Thousands of Palestinians are sheltering in the hospital. Outside, sewage overflows in the streets, and drinking water is brackish or polluted, spreading disease. The road to the hospital from Rafah is now unsafe: The United Nations says an Israeli tank fired on a marked UN vehicle on the road Monday, killing a UN security officer and wounding another.

When the Rafah assault began, FAJR Scientific's 17 doctors were living in a guesthouse in the city. With no warning from the Israeli army to evacuate, the team was stunned by bombs landing a few hundred meters from the clearly-marked house, said Mosab Nasser, FAJR’s CEO.

They scrambled out, still wearing their scrubs, and moved to the European Hospital, where the other team was staying.

Dr. Mohamed Tahir, an orthopedic surgeon from London with FAJR, does multiple surgeries a day on little sleep. He's often jolted awake by bombings shaking the hospital. Work is frantic. He recalled opening one man’s chest to stop bleeding, with no time to get him to the operating room. The man died.

Tahir said when the Rafah assault began, Palestinian colleagues at the hospital nervously asked if the volunteers would leave.

"It makes my heart feel really heavy," Tahir said. The Palestinian staff knows that when the teams leave "they have no more protection; and that could mean that this hospital turns into Shifa, which is a very real possibility."

Israeli forces stormed Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest, for a second time in March, leaving it in ruins. Israel alleges that Hamas uses hospitals as command centers and hideouts, an accusation Gaza health officials deny.

The patients Tahir has saved keep him going. Tahir and other surgeons operated for hours on a man with severe wounds to the skull and abdomen and shrapnel in his back. They did a second surgery on him Wednesday night.

"I looked at my colleagues and said, ‘You know what? If this patient survives -- just this patient -- everything we’ve done, or everything we’ve experienced, would all be worth it,’" Tahir said.

Dr. Ahlia Kattan, an anesthesiologist and ICU doctor from California with FAJR, said the hardest case for her was a 4-year-old boy, the same age as her son, who arrived with burns on more than 75% of his body, his lungs and spleen shattered. He didn’t survive.

"He reminded me so much of my son," she said, holding back tears. "Everyone has different stories here that they’re taking home with them."

Weighing heavily on all the volunteers, Kattan said, is "the guilt that we’re already feeling when we leave, that we get to escape to safety."


For Children of Gaza, War Means No School, No Indication When Formal Learning Might Return 

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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For Children of Gaza, War Means No School, No Indication When Formal Learning Might Return 

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Atef Al-Buhaisi, 6, once dreamed of a career building houses. Now, all he craves is to return to school.

In Israel's war with Hamas, Atef's home has been bombed, his teacher killed and his school in Nuseirat turned into a refuge for displaced people. He lives in a cramped tent with his family in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, where he sleeps clinging to his grandmother and fears walking alone even during the day.

Since the war erupted Oct. 7, all of Gaza's schools have closed — leaving hundreds of thousands of students like Atef without formal schooling or a safe place to spend their days. Aid groups are scrambling to keep children off the streets and their minds focused on something other than the war, as heavy fighting continues across the enclave and has expanded into the southern city of Rafah and intensified in the north.

"What we’ve lost most is the future of our children and their education," said Irada Ismael, Atef’s grandmother. "Houses and walls are rebuilt, money can be earned again ... but how do I compensate for (his) education?"

Gaza faces a humanitarian crisis, with the head of the UN's World Food Program determining a "full-blown famine" is already underway in the north.

More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. About 80% of Gaza’s population has been driven from homes. Much of Gaza is damaged or destroyed, including nearly 90% of school buildings, according to aid group estimates.

Children are among the most severely affected, with the UN estimating some 19,000 children have been orphaned and nearly a third under the age of 2 face acute malnutrition. In emergencies, education takes a back seat to safety, health and sanitation, say education experts, but the consequences are lasting.

"The immediate focus during conflict isn’t on education, but the disruption has an incredibly long-term effect," said Sonia Ben Jaafar, of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on education in the Arab world. "The cost at this point is immeasurable."

Before the war, Gaza was home to more than 625,000 students and some 20,000 teachers in its highly literate population, according to the UN In other conflicts, aid groups can create safe spaces for children in neighboring countries — for example, Poland for shelter and schooling during the war in Ukraine.

That's not possible in Gaza, a densely populated enclave locked between the sea, Israel and Egypt. Since Oct 7, Palestinians from Gaza haven't been allowed to cross into Israel. Egypt has let a small number of Palestinians leave.

"They’re unable to flee, and they remain in an area that continues to be battered," said Tess Ingram, of UNICEF. "It’s very hard to provide them with certain services, such as mental health and psychosocial support or consistent education and learning."

Aid groups hope classes will resume by September. But even if a cease-fire is brokered, much of Gaza must be cleared of mines, and rebuilding schools could take years.

In the interim, aid groups are providing recreational activities — games, drawing, drama, art — not for a curriculum-based education but to keep children engaged and in a routine, in an effort for normalcy. Even then, advocates say, attention often turns to the war — Atef's grandmother sees him draw pictures only of tents, planes and missiles.

Finding free space is among the biggest challenges. Some volunteers use the outdoors, make do inside tents where people live, or find a room in homes still standing.

It took volunteer teachers more than two months to clear one room in a school in Deir al-Balah to give ad hoc classes to children. Getting simple supplies such as soccer balls and stationery into Gaza can also take months, groups report.

"Having safe spaces for children to gather to play and learn is an important step," Ingram said, but "ultimately the children of Gaza must be able to return to learning curriculum from teachers in classrooms, with education materials and all the other support schooling provides."

This month, UNICEF had planned to erect at least 50 tents for some 6,000 children from preschool to grade 12 for play-based numbers and literacy learning in Rafah. But UNICEF says those plans could be disrupted by Israel's operation there.

Lack of schooling can take a psychological toll — it disrupts daily life and, compounded with conflict, makes children more prone to anxiety and nervousness, said Jesus Miguel Perez Cazorla, a mental health expert with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Children in conflicts are also at increased risk of forced labor, sexual violence, trafficking and recruitment by gangs and armed groups, experts warn.

"Not only are children vulnerable to recruitment by Hamas and other militant groups, but living amid ongoing violence and constantly losing family members makes children psychologically primed to want to take action against the groups they consider responsible," said Samantha Nutt of War Child USA, which supports children and families in war zones.

Palestinians say they've seen more children take to Gaza's streets since the war, trying to earn money for their families.

"The streets are full of children selling very simple things, such as chocolate, canned goods," said Lama Nidal Alzaanin, 18, who was in her last year of high school and looking forward to university when the war broke out. "There is nothing for them to do."

Some parents try to find small ways to teach their children, scrounging for notebooks and pens and insisting they learn something as small as a new word each day. But many find the kids are too distracted, with the world around them at war.

Sabreen al-Khatib, a mother whose family was displaced to Deir al-Balah from Gaza City, said it's particularly hard for the many who've seen relatives die.

"When you speak in front of children," al-Khatib said, "what do you think he is thinking? Will he think about education? Or about himself, how will he die?"

On Oct. 7, 14-year-old Layan Nidal Alzaanin — Lama's younger sister — was on her way to her middle school in Beit Hanoun when missiles flew overhead, she said. She fled with her family to Rafah, where they lived crowded in a tent. Since Israel ordered evacuations there, she fled to Deir al-Balah.

"It is a disaster," she said. "My dreams have been shattered. There is no future for me without school."


What to Know about How Much the Aid from a US Pier Project Will Help Gaza 

Members of the US Army, US Navy and the Israeli military put in place the Trident Pier, a temporary pier to deliver humanitarian aid, on the Gaza coast, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, May 16, 2024. (US Central Command/Handout via Reuters)
Members of the US Army, US Navy and the Israeli military put in place the Trident Pier, a temporary pier to deliver humanitarian aid, on the Gaza coast, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, May 16, 2024. (US Central Command/Handout via Reuters)
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What to Know about How Much the Aid from a US Pier Project Will Help Gaza 

Members of the US Army, US Navy and the Israeli military put in place the Trident Pier, a temporary pier to deliver humanitarian aid, on the Gaza coast, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, May 16, 2024. (US Central Command/Handout via Reuters)
Members of the US Army, US Navy and the Israeli military put in place the Trident Pier, a temporary pier to deliver humanitarian aid, on the Gaza coast, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, May 16, 2024. (US Central Command/Handout via Reuters)

A US-built pier is in place to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza by sea, but no one will know if the new route will work until a steady stream of deliveries begins reaching starving Palestinians.

The trucks that will roll off the pier project installed Thursday will face intensified fighting, Hamas threats to target any foreign forces and uncertainty about whether the Israeli military will ensure that aid convoys have access and safety from attack by Israeli forces.

Even if the sea route performs as hoped, US, UN and aid officials caution, it will bring in a fraction of the aid that's needed to the embattled enclave.

Here's a look at what's ahead for aid arriving by sea:

WILL THE SEA ROUTE END THE CRISIS IN GAZA? No, not even if everything with the sea route works perfectly, American and international officials say.

US military officials hope to start with about 90 truckloads of aid a day through the sea route, growing quickly to about 150 trucks a day.

Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, and other aid officials have consistently said Gaza needs deliveries of more than 500 truckloads a day — the prewar average — to help a population struggling without adequate food or clean water during seven months of war between Israel and Hamas.

Israel has hindered deliveries of food, fuel and other supplies through land crossings since Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel launched the conflict in October. The restrictions on border crossings and fighting have brought on a growing humanitarian catastrophe for civilians.

International experts say all 2.3 million of Gaza's people are experiencing acute levels of food insecurity, 1.1 million of them at “catastrophic” levels. Power and UN World Food Program Director Cindy McCain say north Gaza is in famine.

At that stage, saving the lives of children and others most affected requires steady treatment in clinical settings, making a cease-fire critical, USAID officials say.

At full operation, international officials have said, aid from the sea route is expected to reach a half-million people. That's just over one-fifth of the population.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR THE SEA ROUTE NOW? The US plan is for the UN to take charge of the aid once it's brought in. The UN World Food Program will then turn it over to aid groups for delivery.

UN officials have expressed concern about preserving their neutrality despite the involvement in the sea route by the Israeli military — one of the combatants in the conflict — and say they are negotiating that.

There are still questions on how aid groups will safely operate in Gaza to distribute food to those who need it most, said Sonali Korde, assistant to the administrator for USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, which is helping with logistics.

US and international organizations including the US government's USAID and the Oxfam, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee nonprofits say Israeli officials haven't meaningfully improved protections of aid workers since the military's April 1 attack that killed seven aid workers with the World Central Kitchen organization.

Talks with the Israeli military “need to get to a place where humanitarian aid workers feel safe and secure and able to operate safely. And I don’t think we’re there yet," Korde told reporters Thursday.

Meanwhile, fighting is surging in Gaza. It isn’t threatening the new shoreline aid distribution area, Pentagon officials say, but they have made it clear that security conditions could prompt a shutdown of the maritime route, even just temporarily.

A ship is seen off the coast of Gaza near a US-built floating pier that will be used to facilitate aid deliveries, as seen from the central Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP)

The US and Israel have developed a security plan for humanitarian groups coming to a “marshaling yard” next to the pier to pick up the aid, said US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, deputy commander of the US military’s Central Command. USAID Response Director Dan Dieckhaus said aid groups would follow their own security procedures in distributing the supplies.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces have moved into the border crossing in the southern city of Rafah as part of their offensive, preventing aid from moving through, including fuel.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said that without fuel, delivery of all aid in Gaza can't happen.

WHAT'S NEEDED? US President Joe Biden's administration, the UN and aid groups have pressed Israel to allow more aid through land crossings, saying that's the only way to ease the suffering of Gaza's civilians. They've also urged Israel's military to actively coordinate with aid groups to stop Israeli attacks on humanitarian workers.

“Getting aid to people in need into and across Gaza cannot and should not depend on a floating dock far from where needs are most acute,” UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters Thursday.

“To stave off the horrors of famine, we must use the fastest and most obvious route to reach the people of Gaza — and for that, we need access by land now,” Haq said.

US officials agree that the pier is only a partial solution at best, and say they are pressing Israel for more.

WHAT DOES ISRAEL SAY? Israel says it places no limits on the entry of humanitarian aid and blames the UN for delays in distributing goods entering Gaza. The UN says ongoing fighting, Israeli fire and chaotic security conditions have hindered delivery.

Under pressure from the US, Israel has in recent weeks opened a pair of crossings to deliver aid into hard-hit northern Gaza. It said a series of Hamas attacks on the main crossing, Kerem Shalom, have disrupted the flow of goods.


Palestinians Across the Middle East Mark the Original ‘Nakba’ with Eyes on War in Gaza 

Displaced Palestinians, who fled their house due to Israel's military offensive, shelter in a tent, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 13, 2024. (Reuters)
Displaced Palestinians, who fled their house due to Israel's military offensive, shelter in a tent, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 13, 2024. (Reuters)
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Palestinians Across the Middle East Mark the Original ‘Nakba’ with Eyes on War in Gaza 

Displaced Palestinians, who fled their house due to Israel's military offensive, shelter in a tent, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 13, 2024. (Reuters)
Displaced Palestinians, who fled their house due to Israel's military offensive, shelter in a tent, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 13, 2024. (Reuters)

Palestinians across the Middle East on Wednesday are marking the anniversary of their mass expulsion from what is now Israel with protests and other events across the region at a time of mounting concern over the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” refers to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel before and during the war surrounding its creation in 1948.

More than twice that number have been displaced within Gaza since the start of the latest war, which was triggered by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. UN agencies say 550,000 people, nearly a quarter of Gaza's 2.3 million people, have been newly displaced in just the last week, as Israeli forces have pushed into the southern city of Rafah and reinvaded parts of northern Gaza.

“We lived through the Nakba not just once, but several times,” said Umm Shadi Sheikh Khalil, who was displaced from Gaza City and now lives in a tent in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah.

The refugees and their descendants number some 6 million and live in built-up refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In Gaza, they are the majority of the population, with most families having relocated from what is now central and southern Israel.

Israel rejects what the Palestinians say is their right of return, because if it was fully implemented it would likely result in a Palestinian majority within Israel's borders.

PAINFUL MEMORIES The refugee camps in Gaza have seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. In other camps across the region, the fighting has revived painful memories from earlier rounds of violence in a decades-old conflict with no end in sight.

At a center for elderly residents of the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Amina Taher recalled the day her family’s house in the village of Deir al-Qassi, in what is now northern Israel, collapsed over their heads after being shelled by Israeli forces in 1948. The house was next to a school that was being used as a base by Palestinian fighters, she said.

Taher, then 3 years old, was pulled from the rubble unharmed, but her 1-year-old sister was killed. Now she has seen the same scenes play out in news coverage of Gaza.

“When I would watch the news, I had a mental breakdown because then I remembered when the house fell on me,” she said. “What harm did these children do to get killed like this?”

Daoud Nasser, also now living in Shatila, was 6 years old when his family fled from the village of Balad al-Sheikh, near Haifa. His father tried to return to their village in the early years after 1948, when the border was relatively porous, but found a Jewish family living in their house, he said.

Nasser said he would attempt the same journey if the border were not so heavily guarded. “I would run. I’m ready to walk from here to there and sleep under the olive trees on my own land,” he said.

NO END TO WAR The latest war began with Hamas' rampage across southern Israel, through some of the same areas where Palestinians fled from their villages 75 years earlier. Palestinian gunmen killed some 1.200 people that day, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage.

Israel responded with one of the heaviest military onslaughts in recent history, obliterating entire neighborhoods in Gaza and forcing some 80% of the population to flee their homes.

Gaza's Health Ministry says over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, without distinguishing between civilians and combatants in its count. The UN says there is widespread hunger and that northern Gaza is in a “full-blown famine.”

Israel says its goal is to dismantle Hamas and return the estimated 100 hostages, and the remains of more than 30 others, still held by the group after it released most of the rest during a ceasefire last year.

Israeli troops pushed into Rafah last week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has portrayed the city on Gaza's southern border with Egypt as Hamas' last stronghold, promising victory.

But the militants have regrouped elsewhere in Gaza, even in some of the hardest-hit areas, raising the prospect of a prolonged insurgency.

The fighting in Rafah has made the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing — Gaza's main cargo terminal — mostly inaccessible from the Palestinian side. Israel's capture of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt has forced it to shut down and sparked a crisis of relations with the Arab country. Aid groups says the loss of the two crossings has crippled efforts to provide humanitarian aid as needs mount.

In a statement on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry accused Israel “distorting the facts” and condemned its “desperate attempts” to blame Egypt for the continued closure of the crossing. Egyptian officials have said the Rafah operation threatens the two countries’ decades-old peace treaty.

Shoukry was responding to remarks by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who said there was a “need to persuade Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing to allow the continued delivery of international humanitarian aid to Gaza.”

Egypt has played a key role in months of mediation efforts aimed at brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and the release of hostages. The latest round of talks ended last week without a breakthrough.


Israeli Forces Back in Old Gaza Battlegrounds as Doubts Over War Aims Grow 

Israeli tanks maneuver, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza Border May 14, 2024. (Reuters)
Israeli tanks maneuver, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza Border May 14, 2024. (Reuters)
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Israeli Forces Back in Old Gaza Battlegrounds as Doubts Over War Aims Grow 

Israeli tanks maneuver, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza Border May 14, 2024. (Reuters)
Israeli tanks maneuver, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza Border May 14, 2024. (Reuters)

Seven months into the war, Israeli troops are back fighting in the north of the Gaza Strip, in areas that were supposed to have been cleared months ago, highlighting growing questions about the government's declared goal of eliminating Hamas.

As tanks have started pushing into the southern city of Rafah, where the military says the last four intact battalions of Hamas are dug in, there has been fierce fighting in the Zeitoun area of Gaza City and around Jabalia, to the north, both of which the army took control of last year before moving on.

The renewed fighting there - amid international pressure for a ceasefire - has underscored concern in Israel that the lack of a clear strategic plan for Gaza will leave Hamas in effective control of the enclave it has ruled since 2007.

A clear end to the war appears as far off as ever.

Hunkered in the extensive tunnel network that runs beneath the ruins of Gaza, Hamas appears to retain broad support among a population scarred by a campaign that has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and forced most Gazans from their homes.

"If we rely on a strategy of ongoing attrition or surgical operations against Hamas, it won't achieve the goal of governmental or military collapse," said Michael Milshtein, a former military intelligence officer and one of Israel's most prominent experts on the Palestinian movement.

US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell declared on Monday that Washington doubted Israel would achieve "sweeping victory on the battlefield".

HARD-RIGHT ALLIES

For the past few weeks, cabinet officials have urged Netanyahu to formulate a clear "day after" policy for Gaza, according to two security officials.

However, Netanyahu has so far insisted on total victory, responding to pressure from hard-right allies such as Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose support he needs to hold his ruling coalition together.

Despite international calls for a revival of efforts to find a solution to the decades-long conflict, talk of a political settlement has been rejected repeatedly by a government that refuses to contemplate any steps towards an independent Palestinian state.

That has left it forced to seek a purely military solution that has complicated the task of the troops on the ground.

This week, Israel's Channel 13 news reported that army commander Herzi Halevi had told Netanyahu that without a serious drive to build an alternative Palestinian government in Gaza, the military faced a "Sisyphean effort" to defeat Hamas - a reference to the character in Greek mythology condemned to endlessly push a boulder uphill.

Israeli officials have previously talked about drawing on local civil or clan leaders not associated with Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, which exercises a limited form of sovereignty in the West Bank, to provide an alternative.

Such efforts had proved fruitless, however, according to Milshtein. "Hamas is still the dominant power in Gaza, including in northern parts of the Strip," he said.

‘WHAT COMES AFTER RAFAH?’

In contrast, the strategic goals of Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, appear clear - to survive the war in sufficient strength to rebuild, reflected in his insistence on a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces as a condition for any ceasefire deal.

"They are survival tactics for Hamas and soon Israel will find itself forced to answer the question, 'what comes after Rafah?'" said a Palestinian official not allied to Hamas who is close to stalled talks brokered by Egypt and Qatar.

How many fighters from Hamas and the other armed militant groups in Gaza have been killed remains unclear. Casualty figures published by Gaza's health ministry do not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Netanyahu himself offered a figure of around 14,000 this week, which would be roughly half the total number of Hamas fighters the Israeli military estimated at the start of the war.

Hamas has said that Israeli estimates exaggerate the numbers of dead and in any case the fighters have adapted their tactics as their organized units have been broken down.

Despite heavy US pressure not to launch an assault on Rafah, its population swollen by hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians, Israeli commanders have begun probing deeper into the city. It remains far from clear what they will face in its narrow streets if they launch a full-scale assault.

"Our fighters choose their battles, they don't allow the occupation to impose the battle time or ground for us because we don't have equal military capabilities," said a fighter from one of the armed factions.

"We don't have to clash face-to-face, but the occupiers and the invaders will lose soldiers and vehicles almost every day, here and there inside Gaza. They will never settle."

How far Israel is ready to go is unclear. Surveys continue to show broad support for the war among a population still traumatized by the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 that killed some 1,200 people and saw more than 250 taken into Gaza as hostages.

But weekly protests by the hostages' families over the failure to bring those still in captivity home have shown that such support is matched by anger at a government most Israelis blame for the security failures that preceded the attack.

Heckling of Netanyahu and some of his ministers at Monday's Memorial Day ceremonies for Israel's war dead show how unhappy the general mood in the country appears to be, said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London.

"You see some representatives of the government coming to the cemeteries, and some of them, quite a few of them, are facing very angry families and others who blame them for what has happened in the last seven months," he said.