Years-Long Struggle Threatens to Split Iraq’s PMF

A photo of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ali Sistani, in Karbala, Iraq. AFP file photo
A photo of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ali Sistani, in Karbala, Iraq. AFP file photo
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Years-Long Struggle Threatens to Split Iraq’s PMF

A photo of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ali Sistani, in Karbala, Iraq. AFP file photo
A photo of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ali Sistani, in Karbala, Iraq. AFP file photo

Around the corner from Iraq's holiest shrines, a years-long struggle over allegiances and resources is coming to a head -- threatening a dangerous schism within a powerful state-sponsored security force.

The growing fissure pits the vast Iran-aligned wing of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) network against four factions linked to the shrines of Iraq's twin holy cities, Karbala and Najaf.

Those factions, dubbed "the Shrine Mobilization" and comprising around 20,000 active fighters, held their first strategic planning meeting earlier this month.

Throughout the packed three days, spokesmen for the shrine groups leaned on two sources of legitimacy: a patriotic, "Iraq-only" discourse, and the blessing of the "marjaiyah," Iraq's Shiite spiritual leadership.

"The Shrine Mobilization are the origin of the broader PMF," Hazem Sakhr, a spokesman for the four factions, told AFP.

"We are committed to Iraqi law and the marjaiyah's orders."

Maytham al-Zaidi, the prominent commander of the largest shrine group known as the Abbas Combat Division, struck a nationalistic, reformist tone.

"The main reasons for establishing the Shrine Mobilization is to serve our country, and to correct both its track record and trajectory," he said.

Ali al-Hamdani, who heads the 3,000-member Ali al-Akbar Brigade, said the meeting -- held in Najaf and Karbala -- was "exclusively" for the Shrine Mobilization, setting their future apart from the rest.

Hamdi Malik, a London-based expert on Shiite factions, said the shrine groups were now publicly insisting on a separation.

"They are escalating with this new conference, and want to accelerate that process," Malik told AFP.

The PMF network was formed in 2014 when Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ali Sistani, issued an edict urging citizens to fight the advancing extremists of ISIS.

His call brought together already-existing paramilitary factions and new formations, including the Shrine Mobilization.

But internal disputes emerged as early as 2016, with Malik pointing to three main fault lines.

Shrine factions began complaining that they were being starved of resources by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the umbrella group's deputy head.

Muhandis died in a US strike in January this year that also killed his friend, top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani.

The Shrine Mobilization had accused Muhandis of prioritizing factions closer to Tehran in the distribution of military equipment and state-allocated salaries.

Malik said the tug-of-war was linked to a second, more profound split: a "real ideological divide" over ties to neighboring Iran, which had long provided support to armed groups in Iraq.

Those factions are even dubbed "the loyalist Mobilization" for their perceived allegiance to Tehran over Baghdad.

At the meeting, spokesmen were careful not to specifically criticize Iran but repeatedly rejected what they characterized as external meddling.

"Foreign intervention is dangerous. The Shrine Mobilization rejects all shapes and sizes it may come in," Sakhr said.

The 90-year-old Sistani, known to be wary of Iran's influence, has not commented publicly on the meeting -- but it would not have gone ahead without his tacit approval, said Malik.

"It's important for Sistani, while he is alive and capable, that he puts his house in order," said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at US think tank The Century Foundation.

Thirdly, shrine-linked groups have looked disdainfully at the PMF's dabbling in politics.

"Sistani had given clear instructions that no PMF member should participate in politics. But pro-Iran factions in the PMF created the Fatah alliance and took part in the 2018 parliamentary elections," Malik said.

Fatah won the second-largest number of seats and wields significant influence in both parliament and several government ministries.

With new elections set to be held in June 2021, shrine factions have said they will stick to Sistani's orders.

"Our members are free to participate as voters but not as candidates," said Mushtaq Abbas Maan, the media head for Karbala's Abbas shrine, which sponsors the factions.

While The Century Foundation's Jiyad said he doubted armed conflict would erupt between the two wings, he said a divorce would likely be messy.

The Shrine Mobilization still lack a legal or administrative framework to govern their forces outside the broader network's by-laws, and government decrees linking them to the prime minister's office have been slow to take hold.

At the conference, Maan appealed to the premier, who is Iraq's commander-in-chief, to "urgently" bring shrine factions under his wing, thereby finalizing their split from the wider network.

But shrine factions also fear that if they peel away, "loyalist" groups could monopolize the PMF's budget, fighting force and political influence, Malik said.

Their moves have already irked the Iran-linked PMF, whose commanders declined AFP's requests for comment.

But the sharp-tongued Qais al-Khazali, who heads a powerful Mobilization faction known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, told state media last month that a secession by shrine groups could prompt other wings to strike out on their own, too.

"The PMF will be divided into three. That means the end of the PMF," he warned.



'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.


Gazans Strive to Study as War Shatters Education System

 A boy looks on as Palestinians prepare to flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
A boy looks on as Palestinians prepare to flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
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Gazans Strive to Study as War Shatters Education System

 A boy looks on as Palestinians prepare to flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
A boy looks on as Palestinians prepare to flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 12, 2024. (Reuters)

Pupils sitting cross-legged on the sand take classes in a tent near Khan Younis in Gaza. Two sisters connect online to a West Bank school from Cairo. A professor in Germany helps Palestinian students link up with European universities.
After watching their schools and universities be closed, damaged or destroyed in more than seven months of war, Gazans sheltering inside and outside the territory are doing what they can to restart some learning, Reuters said.
"We are receiving students, and we have a very large number of them still waiting," said Asmaa al-Astal, a volunteer teacher at the tent school near the coast in al-Mawasi, which opened in late April.
Instead of letting children lose a whole year of schooling as they cower from Israeli bombardment, "we will be with them, we will bring them here, and we will teach them," she said.
Gazans fear the conflict between Israel and Hamas has inflicted damage to their education system, a rare source of hope and pride in the enclave that will outlast the fighting.
Gaza and the occupied West Bank have internationally high literacy levels, but Israel's blockade of the coastal Palestinian enclave and repeated rounds of conflict left education fragile and under-resourced.
Since the war began on Oct. 7, schools have been bombed or turned into shelters for displaced people, leaving Gaza's estimated 625,000 school-aged children unable to attend classes.
All 12 of Gaza's higher education institutions have been destroyed or damaged, leaving nearly 90,000 students stranded, and more than 350 teachers and academics have been killed, according to Palestinian official data.
"We lost friends, we lost doctors, we lost teaching assistants, we lost professors, we lost so many things in this war," said Israa Azoum, a fourth-year medical student at Gaza City's Al Azhar University.
Azoum is volunteering at Al Aqsa hospital in the town of Deir al-Balah to help stretched staff deal with waves of patients, but also because she doesn't want to "lose the connection with science".
"I never feel tired because this is what I love doing. I love medicine, I love working as a doctor, and I don't want to forget what I have learnt," she said.
Fahid Al-Hadad, head of Al Aqsa's emergency department and a lecturer at the faculty of medicine at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), said he hoped to start teaching again, though he had lost books and papers accumulated over more than a decade when his home in Gaza City was destroyed.
Online instruction will be complicated by weak internet, but could at least allow students to complete their degrees, he said. The buildings of IUG and Al Azhar stand badly damaged and abandoned on neighboring sites in Gaza City.
"We are ready to give in any way, but much better inside Gaza than outside. Because don't forget that we are doctors and we are working," Hadad said.
'LIFESAVING ACT'
Tens of thousands of Gazans who crossed to Egypt also face challenges. Though living in relative safety, they lack the papers to enroll their children in schools, so some have signed up for remote learning offered from the West Bank, where Palestinians have limited self-rule under Israeli military occupation.
The Palestinian embassy in Cairo is planning to supervise end-of-year exams for 800 high school students.
Kamal al-Batrawi, a 46-year-old businessman, said his two school-aged daughters began online schooling after the family arrived in the Egyptian capital five months ago.
"They take classes every day, from 8 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., as if they were in a regular school. This is a lifesaving act," he said.
In southern Gaza, where more than a million people were displaced, UN children's agency UNICEF has been organizing recreational activities like singing and dancing with some basic learning. It is planning to create 50 tents where 6,000 children will be able to take classes in three daily shifts.
"It's important to do it, but it remains a drop in the ocean," said Jonathan Crickx, head of communications for UNICEF Palestine.
Wesam Amer, Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Languages at Gaza University, said although online teaching could be an interim solution, it could not provide the physical or practical learning required for subjects like medicine and engineering.
After leaving Gaza for Germany in November, he is advising students on how to match up their courses with options at universities in the West Bank or Europe.
"The challenges of the day after the war aren't only about the infrastructure, university buildings. It is about the dozens of academics who have been killed in the war and the tough task of trying to make up for them or replace them," he said.
Those killed include IUG president Sufyan Tayeh, who died with his wife and all his five children in a strike on his sister's house in December.
Tayeh, an award-winning professor of theoretical physics and applied mathematics, had a "great passion" for science, his brother Nabil told Reuters.
"Even in the middle of the war, he (Tayeh) was still working on his own research," he said.
The UN estimates that 72.5% of schools in Gaza will need full reconstruction or major rehabilitation.
Mental health and psychosocial support will also be needed for children to "feel safe in going back to a school that might have been bombed", Crickx said.


Campus Gaza Rallies May Subside, but Experts See Possible ‘Hot Summer of Protest’

 Protesters stand and link arms during a demonstration in support of Palestinians, at the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado, US May 7, 2024. (Reuters)
Protesters stand and link arms during a demonstration in support of Palestinians, at the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado, US May 7, 2024. (Reuters)
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Campus Gaza Rallies May Subside, but Experts See Possible ‘Hot Summer of Protest’

 Protesters stand and link arms during a demonstration in support of Palestinians, at the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado, US May 7, 2024. (Reuters)
Protesters stand and link arms during a demonstration in support of Palestinians, at the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado, US May 7, 2024. (Reuters)

About a dozen students arrested by police clearing a sit-in at a Denver college campus emerged from detainment to cheers from fellow pro-Palestinian protesters, several waving yellow court summons like tiny victory flags and imploring fellow demonstrators not to let their energy fade.

Just how much staying power the student demonstrations over the war in Gaza that have sprung up in Denver and at dozens of universities across the United States will have is a key question for protesters, school administrators and police, with graduation ceremonies being held, summer break coming and high-profile encampments dismantled.

The student protesters passionately say they will continue until administrators meet demands that include permanent ceasefire in Gaza, university divestment from arms suppliers and other companies profiting from the war, and amnesty for students and faculty members who have been disciplined or fired for protesting.

Academics who study protest movements and the history of civil disobedience say it's difficult to maintain the people-power energy on campus if most of the people are gone. But they also point out that university demonstrations are just one tactic in the wider pro-Palestinian movement that has existed for decades, and that this summer will provide many opportunities for the energy that started on campuses to migrate to the streets.

Signs spelling the word "Divest" hang among white flags symbolizing each child killed in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza, at a protest encampment at the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado, US, May 10, 2024. (Reuters)

EVOLVE OR FADE AWAY

Dana Fisher is a professor at American University in Washington, DC, and author of several books on activism and grassroots movements who has seen some of her own students among protesters on her campus.

She noted the college movement spread organically across the country as a response to police called onto campus at Columbia University on April 18, when more than 100 people were arrested. Since those arrests, at least 2,600 demonstrators have been detained at more than 100 protests in 39 states and Washington, DC, according to The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization.

"I don't see enough organizational infrastructure to sustain a bunch of young people who are involved in a movement when they are not on campus," Fisher said. "Either the movement has to evolve substantially or it can't continue."

Following the initial arrests at Columbia, students there occupied a classroom building, an escalation of the protest that led to even more arrests. Similarly in Denver, police on April 26 arrested 45 people at an encampment protest at the Auraria campus – which serves the University of Colorado-Denver, Metropolitan State University and the Community College of Denver.

Then on May 8, Auraria protesters staged a short-lived sit-in inside the Aerospace and Engineering Sciences building, developed in part with a $1 million gift from arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Students in Denver say the movement's spread from the coasts to the heartland and to smaller universities shows it has staying power. Student protests also have flared outside the US.

"We're keeping our protests up and our encampment going until our demands are met, however long that takes," said Steph, a 21-year-old student on the Auraria campus who declined to give their full name for fear of reprisals. "We'll be here through summer break and into next fall if needed."

Fisher, the academic, said the police response to protests has helped ignite a sense of activism in a new generation of students. She thinks the current campus demonstrations foreshadow a "long, hot summer of protest" about many issues, and that the Republican national convention in July and the Democratic national convention in August will be ripe targets for massive protest.

"The stakes have gotten much higher, and that's very much due to the way that police have responded in a much more aggressive and repressive way than they did even back in the 1960s," Fisher said, referring to student-led protests against the Vietnam War.

"And then you just plop right down in the middle of all that the presidential election?" she said. "It's a crazy recipe for one hell of a fall."

Tents are set up at an encampment in support of Palestinians in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, at the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado, US, May 10, 2024. (Reuters)

AFTER GRADUATION, A GHOST TOWN

Michael Heaney, an American lecturer in politics at the University of Glasgow in Scotland whose research and books have focused on US protest movements said the campus demonstrations are just one tactic in the wider movement to support Palestinians, an ongoing effort that goes back decades.

Heaney said that the geographical diffusion of the university encampments to places like Denver is an opportunity to bring the message of the wider movement to places where it may not have been before.

Heaney added that "protests for any movement are episodic" and pointed to the various manifestations of the African-American Civil Rights movement in the US, going back 200 years. Just because one moment of protest ends does not foretell its overall demise.

He said pro-Palestinian protests in American cities this summer could grow if Israel's offensive in Gaza continues, and that such demonstrations would have been stoked by the widespread university activism.

On Denver's Auraria campus, while students were cleared from the classroom building, about 75 tents remain on a grassy quad, where protesters say they serve 200 meals each day in a mess hall tent. One of the student protest organizers, Jacob, 22, said he's convinced the facts on the ground in Gaza are what will sustain the encampment.

"After graduation it may be a ghost town on this campus - but we'll still be here," he said. "We're not going anywhere."


Wary of Wars in Gaza and Ukraine, Old Foes Türkiye and Greece Test a Friendship Initiative

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis leave after speaking to the press following their meeting in Athens during Erdogan's official visit to Greece, Dec. 7, 2023. (AFP Photo)
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis leave after speaking to the press following their meeting in Athens during Erdogan's official visit to Greece, Dec. 7, 2023. (AFP Photo)
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Wary of Wars in Gaza and Ukraine, Old Foes Türkiye and Greece Test a Friendship Initiative

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis leave after speaking to the press following their meeting in Athens during Erdogan's official visit to Greece, Dec. 7, 2023. (AFP Photo)
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis leave after speaking to the press following their meeting in Athens during Erdogan's official visit to Greece, Dec. 7, 2023. (AFP Photo)

Old foes Türkiye and Greece will test a five-month-old friendship initiative Monday when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visits Ankara.
The two NATO members, which share decades of mutual animosity, a tense border and disputed waters, agreed to sideline disputes last December. Instead, they’re focusing on trade and energy, repairing cultural ties and a long list of other items placed on the so-called positive agenda, The Associated Press said.
Here’s a look at what the two sides hope to achieve and the disputes that have plagued ties in the past:
FOCUSING ON A POSITIVE AGENDA Mitsotakis is to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Monday as part of efforts to improve ties following the solidarity Athens showed Ankara after a devastating earthquake hit southern Türkiye last year.
The two leaders have sharp differences over the Israeli-Hamas war, but are keen to hold back further instability in the eastern Mediterranean as conflict also continues to rage in Ukraine.
“We always approach our discussions with Türkiye with confidence and with no illusions that Turkish positions will not change from one moment to the next,” Mitsotakis said last week, commenting on the visit. “Nevertheless, I think it’s imperative that when we disagree, the channels of communication should always be open."
“We should disagree without tension and without this always causing an escalation on the ground," he added.
Ioannis Grigoriadis, a professor of political science at Ankara’s Bilkent University, said the two leaders would look for ways “to expand the positive agenda and look for topics where the two sides can seek win-win solutions,” such as in trade, tourism and migration.
EASY VISAS FOR TURKISH TOURISTS Erdogan visited Athens in early December, and the two countries have since maintained regular high-level contacts to promote a variety of fence-mending initiatives, including educational exchanges and tourism.
Turkish citizens this summer are able to visit 10 Greek islands using on-the-spot visas, skipping a more cumbersome procedure needed to enter Europe’s common travel area zone, known as the Schengen area.
“This generates a great opportunity for improving the economic relations between the two sides, but also to bring the two stable societies closer — for Greeks and Turks to realize that they have more things in common than they think,” Grigoriadis said.
A HISTORY OF DISPUTES Disagreements have brought Athens and Ankara close to war on several occasions over the past five decades, mostly over maritime borders and the rights to explore for resources in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas.
The two countries are also locked in a dispute over Cyprus, which was divided in 1974 when Türkiye invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Türkiye recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the island’s northern third.
The dispute over the exploration of energy resources resulted in a naval standoff in 2020 and a vow by Erdogan to halt talks with the Mitsotakis government. But the two men met three times last year following a thaw in relations and a broader effort by Erdogan to re-engage with Western countries.
The foreign ministers of the two countries, Hakan Fidan of Türkiye and George Gerapetritis of Greece, are set to join the talks Monday and hold a separate meeting.
RECENT DISAGREEMENTS Just weeks before Mitsotakis’ visit, Erdogan announced the opening of a former Byzantine-era church in Istanbul as a mosque, drawing criticism from Greece and the Greek Orthodox church. Like Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia, the Chora had operated as a museum for decades before it was converted into a mosque.
Türkiye, meanwhile, has criticized recently announced plans by Greece to declare areas in the Ionian and Aegean seas as “marine parks” to conserve aquatic life. Türkiye objects to the one-sided declaration in the Aegean, where some areas remain under dispute, and has labeled the move as “a step that sabotages the normalization process.”
Grigoriadis said Türkiye and Greece could focus on restoring derelict Ottoman monuments in Greece and Greek Orthodox monuments in Türkiye. “That would be an opportunity” for improved ties, he said.


Cocaine Trade ... A Threat to West Africa

In this photo released by The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows officials burning seized drugs in Niamey, Niger, Monday, June 26, 2023. (UNODC via AP)
In this photo released by The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows officials burning seized drugs in Niamey, Niger, Monday, June 26, 2023. (UNODC via AP)
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Cocaine Trade ... A Threat to West Africa

In this photo released by The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows officials burning seized drugs in Niamey, Niger, Monday, June 26, 2023. (UNODC via AP)
In this photo released by The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows officials burning seized drugs in Niamey, Niger, Monday, June 26, 2023. (UNODC via AP)

The volume of drugs transiting through West African countries, from Latin America to European markets, has significantly increased in the last decade, a recent UN report revealed.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said authorities in West African countries seized an average of 13 kg per year in the period 2015–2020. The quantity increased to more than 100 times in 2022 with 1,466 kg of seized cocaine.

More worrying, however, is the relationship between drug trafficking networks and terrorist groups in the Sahel region of Africa and the way cocaine trade has become the largest source of funding for terrorism. It has even replaced kidnapping western nationals for ransom.

UNODC’s report raises the alarm about the dangers of drug trafficking in West Africa. It says the conflict-ridden Sahel and sub-Saharan region is becoming an influential route for drug trafficking to European countries.

Network of Routes

While cocaine trafficking routes across African countries are varied and fragmented, reports suggest that the majority is being transported by sea via the coasts of Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal, then trafficked overland from Mali and the Niger then onwards to North African countries as Algeria, Libya and Morocco. The cocaine is then transported across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Also, as drug trafficking networks developed and grew, they began using cargo planes to transport cocaine from countries in South America to the Sahara, and then to the Sahara.

One of the most notorious mega-smuggling operations was uncovered in 2009 when a Boeing 727 aircraft took off from Venezuela allegedly carrying between seven and 11 tons of cocaine.

Smuggling Continues

While chaos engulfs the Sahel and West African countries, drug trafficking networks continue to grow and expand.

In mid-April, Senegal's customs authorities have intercepted a record-breaking haul of cocaine. Over a ton of the illicit drug was confiscated from a truck near the border with Mali.

It was concealed in packets and stashed in bags, and was found in a lorry in a small town of Kidira.

Valued at $146 million, this haul marks the largest inland seizure of cocaine in Senegal.

Also, the Senegalese Customs in 2022 reported seizing 300 kg of cocaine, valued at almost €37 million, from a refrigerated truck in Kidira, Senegal, on the border with Mali.

But the largest shipment was seized in November 2023, when the Senegalese navy has confiscated nearly three tons of cocaine from a ship off the coast of Senegal, marking one of the country’s biggest drug hauls.

In Mauritania, security authorities seized last July a ship carrying 1.2 tons of cocaine, marking the largest seizure of cocaine in the country’s history.

On 18 June 2023, Mauritania seized 2.3 tons of cocaine hidden in a ship intercepted off the country’s coast. Several Mauritanians and people of other nationalities were arrested.

According to UNODC, from an average of 13 kg per year in the period 2015–2020, the quantity of cocaine seized in the Sahel countries increased to 41 kg in 2021 and 1,466 kg in 2022 with the bulk reported by Burkina Faso, Mali and the Niger.

The report said drug seizures have become very common in the Sahel and West Africa, where cocaine is the most commonly seized drug.

It noted that the region has become a “focal point” for smuggling networks to transport drugs to European and Asian markets.

Also, the UN report points to other risks facing the Sahel region, saying it is not just a transit area, but has become a consumer market as well.

Local Market!

In its report, UNODC also revealed that the Sahel region has transitioned from a transit route for illegal drugs headed to Europe from South America to a booming illegal drug market with a troubling rise in domestic users.

Francois Patuel, Head of the Research Unit at UNODC, said the production of cocaine is becoming more and more local in the Sahel region. He said in 2020, law enforcement in the Niger reported the dismantlement of two clandestine drug laboratories producing crack cocaine destined for the local market.

“We've had reports of rising crack cocaine consumption in Agadez, Niger driven by payment in kind,” said Lucia Bird, director of the West Africa Observatory of illicit economies at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. “Smaller traffickers get paid in drugs and offload it onto local markets because they don't have the contacts in more lucrative consumption destinations.”

Spread of Drug Addiction

Fatou Sow Sarr, ECOWAS commissioner of human development and social affairs, said in a policy brief that “the heaviest burden of drug use is shouldered by the age group 10 to 29, thus investing more in mental health among young people is essential to protecting our children and youths against the use of illicit drugs.”

A report said cannabis is the leading cause of treatment for substance use disorder and dominates the list of drug seizures in the region. The amount of cannabis seized increased from 139 tons in 2020 to 631 tons in 2021 to 892 tons in 2022.

According to N’guessan Badou Roger, a treatment, research and epidemiological officer from Côte d’Ivoire, “cannabis dominates West Africa statistics because it grows easily in the climatic condition, has a mode of consumption that is not restrictive smoking, and is more accessible and less expensive than other drugs.”

In Senegal, the most abused drug in 2021 was cocaine, which accounted for more than 60% of the people seeking treatment. In Côte d’Ivoire, nearly 80% of people seeking drug treatment were addicted to cocaine or crack, while more than 46% of the people in treatment in Nigeria used cocaine.

Drugs: Source for Financing Terrorism through Sahel Region

The UNODC report said terrorist groups are now more involved in the drug trafficking market to finance their activities.

It noted that both al-Qaeda and ISIS are involved in transporting shipments of drugs, including cocaine and cannabis gum.

“Drug trafficking in the Sahel undermines stability and development in the region. Armed groups are directly involved in trafficking,” Patuel said.

“They use drug money to sustain their operations and to buy weapons while competing over trafficking routes. Finally drug trafficking fuels corruption and money laundering which undermines the rule of law and the development of resilient economies,” he added.