Possible Successor to Abbas Warns Israel, but Works with It

Newly appointed secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Hussein al-Sheikh gives an interview to The Associate Press, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP)
Newly appointed secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Hussein al-Sheikh gives an interview to The Associate Press, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP)
TT

Possible Successor to Abbas Warns Israel, but Works with It

Newly appointed secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Hussein al-Sheikh gives an interview to The Associate Press, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP)
Newly appointed secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Hussein al-Sheikh gives an interview to The Associate Press, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP)

Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official increasingly seen as a successor to the 86-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, says relations with Israel have gotten so bad that Palestinian leaders cannot go on with business as usual.

But even if they are serious this time around, they have few options. And they appear unlikely to do anything that undermines their own limited power in parts of the occupied West Bank, which largely stems from their willingness to cooperate with Israel.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Monday, al-Sheikh defended the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, saying it was doing the best it could under the difficult circumstances of Israel’s 55-year-old military occupation. As the point man in charge of dealing with Israel, he said there is no choice but to cooperate to meet the basic needs of Palestinians.

"I am not a representative for Israel in the Palestinian territories," he said. "We undertake the coordination because this is the prelude to a political solution for ending the occupation."

Al-Sheikh saw his profile rise further last month after Abbas named him the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The appointment has generated speculation that al-Sheikh is being groomed for the top job - as well as criticism of Abbas, who has not held a nationwide election since 2006, is once again ignoring the wishes of his people.

Al-Sheikh, 61, declined to say whether he wants to succeed Abbas. He said the next president should be chosen through elections, but that they could only be held if Israel allows voting in all of east Jerusalem, effectively giving it a veto over any alternative leadership.

"The Palestinian president cannot be appointed, or come to power by force, or come because of some regional or international interest, or arrive on an Israeli tank," he said.

Al-Sheikh recited a familiar litany of complaints: Israel’s government is beholden to right-wing nationalists, its prime minister opposed to Palestinian statehood. Settlements are expanding, Palestinians are being forcibly relocated, and the US and Europe seem powerless to stop it.

"The Palestinian leadership is on the verge of making major and difficult decisions," al-Sheikh said, when asked about Abbas’ threat to cut security ties or even withdraw recognition of Israel, a cornerstone of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. "We have no partner in Israel. They don’t want a two-state solution. They don’t want to negotiate."

But the Israelis meet with al-Sheikh all the time.

As head of the Palestinian body that coordinates Israeli permits - and a close aide to Abbas - he meets with senior Israeli officials more often than any other Palestinian.

Israeli officials view him as "a very, very positive player in the Palestinian arena," said Michael Milshtein, an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs who used to advise COGAT, the military body in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank.

"Because of his close relations with Israel, he can achieve a lot of positive things for the Palestinian people," including permits and development projects, he said. But most Palestinians "cannot really accept this kind of image of a Palestinian leader who actually is the one who serves Israel’s interest."

Al-Sheikh’s career follows the trajectory of his generation of Palestinian leaders - aspiring revolutionaries transformed into local power brokers by the failed, decades-long peace process.

His official biography says he was imprisoned by Israel from 1978-1989 and took part in the first intifada, or uprising against Israeli rule, upon his release. After the Palestinians secured limited self-rule in Gaza and parts of the occupied West Bank through the 1993 Oslo agreements, al-Sheikh joined the nascent security forces, rising to the level of colonel. He says he was a wanted man during the second and more violent intifada in the early 2000s.

He is a lifelong member of Fatah, a movement launched by Yasser Arafat in the late 1950s. Today Fatah dominates the PLO, which is supposed to represent all Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security.

Abbas, who was elected in 2005 after Arafat’s death, is opposed to armed struggle and committed to a two-state solution. But during his 17 years in power the peace process has become a distant memory, the Palestinians have been split politically and geographically by the rift with the Hamas movement, and the PA has become increasingly unpopular.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who used to advise the PA, said Abbas believes "that the future of the Palestinian people is tied up to him as an individual," surrounding himself with loyalists who won't challenge him.

Abbas called off the first elections in 15 years in April 2021, a vote in which his Fatah party was widely expected to suffer a humiliating defeat. He said he was delaying the vote until Israel explicitly allowed voting in all of east Jerusalem. But only a small number of voters in the city require Israeli permission, and the PA refused to consider alternative arrangements.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its unified capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem - which includes major holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims - to be the capital of their future state.

"If the price of elections is that I concede on Jerusalem, it is impossible. You won’t find a single Palestinian who will agree to that," al-Sheikh said.

That may be true, but it could also effectively prevent the Palestinians from replacing the current leadership, leaving it entrenched for years to come.

Dimitri Diliani, a senior member of Fatah who supports an anti-Abbas faction, said none of the president's inner circle are electable, pointing to recent polls showing that nearly 80% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign.

Diliani described al-Sheikh as "an active, smart person," a pragmatist who who seizes opportunities - but who was also short-sighted. "Abu Mazen is a sinking ship, and whoever is on it is going down with him," Diliani said.

Still, al-Sheikh has a unique lever of power that could prove more important than electability - access to Israeli permits.

He has been in charge of the General Authority of Civil Affairs since 2007. That’s where Palestinians must apply if they want to enter Israel for work, family visits or medical care; to import or export anything; or to get national ID cards.

"If you need anything, absolutely anything, in Palestine, he’s your go-to man. He’s actively hated among Palestinians, but he’s also very, very much needed for that reason," said Tahani Mustafa, a Palestinian analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"If succession was to happen through legitimate channels, there’s no way Hussein al-Sheikh would withstand a popular vote," she said. "If you are to impose that kind of leadership on Palestinians, then absolutely you are going to face pushback."

Al-Sheikh says there’s no alternative to the coordination. "The movement of Palestinians, the crossings, the borders, are all under Israeli control," he said. "I’m an authority under occupation."



Gaza Truce Is Not Enough, Say Residents of Bombed-Out Neighborhood

Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed in Israeli strikes during the conflict, amid the temporary truce between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, at Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. (Reuters)
Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed in Israeli strikes during the conflict, amid the temporary truce between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, at Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. (Reuters)
TT

Gaza Truce Is Not Enough, Say Residents of Bombed-Out Neighborhood

Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed in Israeli strikes during the conflict, amid the temporary truce between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, at Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. (Reuters)
Palestinian children walk among the houses destroyed in Israeli strikes during the conflict, amid the temporary truce between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, at Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 29, 2023. (Reuters)

Returning home to find their neighborhood wrecked by bombs, residents of Abu Ta'imah on the outskirts of Gaza's Khan Younis said the Palestinian territory needed a permanent ceasefire, not just an extension of the truce between Israel and Hamas.

Local people fled the area on the eastern edge of the city at the start of the war and did not return until the truce, which was in its sixth day on Wednesday.

"We were shocked to see this destruction. We were shocked to see our homes, our streets, our lands, our yards and everything demolished," said Gihad Nabil, who was recently married and had been living in Abu Ta'imah with his wife.

Standing on a roof with a view of ruined buildings and mounds of rubble as far as the eye could see, he said the area had been home to about 5,000 or 6,000 people before the war. He asked where they would go.

"My house is completely destroyed. My brother's home, my uncle's my neighbor's, all of them destroyed. We don't need this truce, we need a complete ceasefire," he said, likening what he was seeing to an earthquake zone.

As Nabil and another man sat on the roof, talking and smoking a shisha pipe, a group of children down below sat around a small fire built on a pile of rubble and warmed up bread, which they shared.

Three of the children climbed onto the carcass of a car whose pockmarked blue metalwork looked like crumpled paper and posed for a Reuters camera, framed by twisted cables and jagged chunks of concrete.

Militants from Hamas, the group that runs Gaza, triggered the war on Oct. 7 when they rampaged through southern Israel, killing 1,200 people including babies and children and taking 240 hostages of all ages, according to Israel's tally.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and launched an assault on Gaza that has killed more than 15,000 people, four in 10 of them children, according to health officials there.

Gone in a moment

The war has displaced 80% of Gazans from their homes, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who on Wednesday described the situation as an epic humanitarian catastrophe.

Abdelrahman Abu Ta'imah, a member of the clan that gave the area its name, searched through his bombed-out apartment, pulling clothes and a pink mattress from the debris.

"I have been struggling and working for 30 years in this country," he said, adding that even before the war life was hard because of the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave.

"Money doesn't come easy, then all of a sudden, all the work and effort of 30 years disappeared in a moment. One rocket makes all this go away. Why is that?" he asked.

From the start of its attack, Israel told Palestinians living in northern Gaza to move to the southern part of the strip, which includes Khan Younis and its environs.

However, Israeli forces have also pounded the south, though less intensively than the north. Israel says it targets Hamas infrastructure, and accuses Hamas of putting civilians in harm's way by using them as human shields.

Diplomatic efforts were underway on Wednesday to prolong the truce, which has allowed more aid trucks to enter Gaza and some Israeli and foreign hostages to be released, as well as some Palestinian detainees to be freed from Israeli prisons.

But Abu Ta'imah said a short truce was not enough and he longed for a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Ever since we were born, we've been enduring wars and destruction. Every time we rebuild, there comes a fiercer war than the one before," he said.


From the Israel-Gaza War to the Moon Race: Events that Defined 2023

A picture taken from the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 25, 2023, shows smoke ascending over the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP
A picture taken from the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 25, 2023, shows smoke ascending over the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP
TT

From the Israel-Gaza War to the Moon Race: Events that Defined 2023

A picture taken from the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 25, 2023, shows smoke ascending over the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP
A picture taken from the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 25, 2023, shows smoke ascending over the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP

From Hamas's brutal attacks in Israel, and the fierce retribution it provoked, to the kiss that caused a revolt in Spanish football, here are 10 events that marked a tumultuous 2023:
Israel-Gaza war
On October 7, hundreds of Hamas gunmen pour across the border from Gaza, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 240 people hostage in the worst attack in Israel's history, traumatizing the country and stunning the world.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to "destroy" Hamas and Israel launches air bombardments followed by a ground offensive that reduces entire neighborhoods in the densely packed Palestinian territory to rubble.
As Gaza's destruction and death toll mount, international pressure grows on Israel to pause it's offensive.
Seven weeks into the war, the two sides agreed to a four-day truce. Gaza's Hamas-run government estimates around 13,000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians and including thousands of children.
Hamas releases 50 women and child hostages in return for 150 Palestinian prisoners, all women and minors, leading to emotional reunions.
On November 27, the two sides agreed to extend the ceasefire by two days.
Ukraine's labored fightback
Sixteen months after Russia invaded its neighbor, Kyiv launches a highly anticipated counteroffensive after amassing billions in powerful Western-made weapons and training new recruits.
But the pushback fails to make much of a dent in Russia's deep defensive lines.
In late November, Ukraine announced it has made inroads along the Russian-held left bank of the Dnipro River, its first major success in months.
But as winter sets in, both sides still appear largely dug in.
Devastating quakes
In the early hours of February 6, one of the deadliest earthquakes in a century flattened entire cities in southeast Turkey, killing at least 56,000 people, with nearly 6,000 others killed across the border in Syria.
Two images come to define the devastating 7.8-magnitude tremor: that of a father holding the hand of his dead 15-year-old daughter, protruding from under a collapsed building in Kahramanmaras, the epicenter, and that of a newborn baby rescued from the rubble while still umbilically attached to her dead mother.
Seven months later, on September 8, Morocco suffered the deadliest quake in its history, centered on the Atlas mountains. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.
- More coups in Africa -
The spate of coups that have marked a brutal democratic backsliding in francophone Africa continues in 2023, with Niger and Gabon the latest countries to overthrow an elected president.
An unpopular France is forced to withdraw both its ambassador and counter-terrorism troops from Niger -- the third time its forces are sent packing by a former African colony in under two years.
In August, meanwhile, Gabon's president Ali Bongo Ondimba, heir to a dynasty that ruled for 55 years, is deposed after a presidential election which the army and opposition declared fraudulent.
- Hollywood on strike -
The existential dread caused by generative AI in the creative economy spreads to Hollywood in 2023, where writers go on strike in May to demand curbs on the use of the technology in films as well as a pay rise.
Hollywood actors join the biggest work stoppage in Tinseltown since the 1960s in July, saying that it has become almost impossible to earn a decent living for non A-listers and fear AI could be used to clone their voices and likenesses.
The strike cripples the entertainment industry and delays hundreds of popular shows and films before the studios and actors agree a deal in November, two months after the writers went back to work.
- Deadly fires -
The year goes out with a sizzle, with the European Union's climate monitor predicting 2023 will be the hottest on record.
Drought made worse by climate change was cited as one of several factors behind the deadliest wildfire in the US in a century that claimed at least 115 lives on the Hawaiian island of Maui in August.
Tourists and residents also fled huge fires on the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu but the worst-affected country, in terms of area consumed by fire, was Canada, with over 18 million hectares of forest going up in smoke.
- Moon, the new frontier -
The space race heats up in 2023, with rising star India becoming the first nation to successfully land an unmanned craft on the Moon's south pole in August, just days after a Russian lunar vehicle crashed into its surface.
Over half a century after US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, several countries are jostling to return humans to the celestial body.
NASA is aiming for a crewed mission by 2025, China for 2030 and India for 2040.
Forced Spanish kiss
Spain's victory over England in the women's football World Cup final in Sydney on August 20 triggers scenes of wild rejoicing at home.
But the euphoria quickly gives way to outrage when Spanish football chief Luis Rubiales is caught planting a kiss on the lips of captain Jenni Hermoso minutes after the game -- a kiss she says later she saw as "an assault".
A defiant Rubiales insists the kiss was consensual but faced with a huge outcry, he eventually resigns.
Caucasus exodus
The breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh winds up its three-decade push for independence in September after being recaptured by Azerbaijan in a lightning offensive that empties the mountainous region of most of its ethnic Armenian population.
Karabakh residents flee to Armenia, fearing violence and not wanting to be ruled by Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis with whom ethnic Armenian separatists fought two wars over the territory since the 1990s.
- Argentina lurches right -
In November, Argentina lurches to the right with the election of libertarian wild card candidate, Javier Milei, on a promise to "blow up" the central bank, dollarize the economy, privatize health and education and hold a vote on repealing abortion laws.
The economist and TV pundit known for his foul-mouthed rants against the political "caste" rides a wave of fury over decades of economic decline and double-digit inflation under the long-dominant Peronist (center-left) coalition.
His vow to return Argentina to its "golden age" at the dawn of the 20th century draws comparisons with former US president Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.


Sudanese Grave Digger: War Adds Strain

 Babakr Hamidah Al-Tayeb (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Babakr Hamidah Al-Tayeb (Asharq Al-Awsat)
TT

Sudanese Grave Digger: War Adds Strain

 Babakr Hamidah Al-Tayeb (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Babakr Hamidah Al-Tayeb (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Sudanese Babakr Hamidah Al-Tayeb, 73, dedicated his life thirty years ago to volunteering in washing and burying the dead.

He spent his days between hospitals in the city of Wad Madani, approximately 200 kilometers southeast of Khartoum, and its cemeteries.

However, the outbreak of war seven months ago has burdened and increased his responsibilities.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Tayeb says that burying decomposed bodies has intensified his suffering and exhaustion.

He adds that over three decades of burying the dead, he has become immune to the smell of corpses to the extent that he “never wears a mask.”

Since the outbreak of the war in Sudan between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, Al-Tayeb’s responsibilities have increased.

His city has become overcrowded with thousands of displaced people, including a significant percentage of elderly individuals or those suffering from chronic diseases.

In the absence of medication and medical care, the number of deaths among the displaced has risen.

The displaced in Wad Madani face harsh conditions.

According to Al-Tayeb, when someone dies in hospitals or shelters, their relatives struggle with how to bury them. Many cannot even afford the cost of a shroud.

Faced with this dilemma, they are advised to contact Al-Tayeb to take charge, especially since some of the displaced are unaware of burial arrangements due to their young age or the trauma of war.

Millions of Sudanese have fled Khartoum to escape death under the rain of bullets, but many have died either from chronic diseases and the lack of medication or as a result of epidemics stemming from deteriorating living and humanitarian conditions.

“I wash the dead in hospitals, in cemeteries, or even in my home at any time, and my children assist me with this task after obtaining permission from the deceased's relatives,” Al-Tayeb told Asharq Al-Awsat.

There are no companies or entities in Sudan that handle burial services. Typically, the burial task falls on the people of the village, neighborhood, or region, considering it a religious ritual.


Palestinian Family in Lebanon Grieves for Dead Gaza Relatives

Fatima al-Ashwah, 61, a Palestinian refugee living at the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs, shows on November 24, 2023 a picture of six-year-old Nour al-Moqayyed, who was killed in Gaza together with her mother Sanaa Abu Zeid and sisters in Israeli bombing earlier this month. (AFP)
Fatima al-Ashwah, 61, a Palestinian refugee living at the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs, shows on November 24, 2023 a picture of six-year-old Nour al-Moqayyed, who was killed in Gaza together with her mother Sanaa Abu Zeid and sisters in Israeli bombing earlier this month. (AFP)
TT

Palestinian Family in Lebanon Grieves for Dead Gaza Relatives

Fatima al-Ashwah, 61, a Palestinian refugee living at the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs, shows on November 24, 2023 a picture of six-year-old Nour al-Moqayyed, who was killed in Gaza together with her mother Sanaa Abu Zeid and sisters in Israeli bombing earlier this month. (AFP)
Fatima al-Ashwah, 61, a Palestinian refugee living at the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs, shows on November 24, 2023 a picture of six-year-old Nour al-Moqayyed, who was killed in Gaza together with her mother Sanaa Abu Zeid and sisters in Israeli bombing earlier this month. (AFP)

From Lebanon, Palestinian Fatima al-Ashwah has been praying for relatives in Gaza, but received grim news that Israeli bombing killed around 12 of them days before a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas.

"They bombed their house," leaving some of them "in pieces," said Ashwah, drained by weeks of anguish and days of grief.

She is among an estimated 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, most of them in poverty, according to the United Nations.

When AFP first spoke with Ashwah, 61, earlier this month from southern Beirut's Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, she had expressed grave fear for the safety of about 70 extended family members in the Gaza Strip whom she had visited in July.

She was later told that Israeli bombardment had killed her cousin's daughter Sanaa Abu Zeid, 30, along with Abu Zeid's daughters aged 12, eight and six, and other relatives who were in the same building.

"Around a dozen people were killed," she said.

The Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, when fighters from Palestinian militant group Hamas broke through Gaza's militarized border and attacked southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians and taking around 240 hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

It was the worst attack in the 75-year history of Israel which retaliated with air, artillery and naval bombardments alongside a ground offensive. Nearly 15,000 people, also mostly civilians, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian territory's Hamas government.

'Under the bombs'

Abu Zeid and her family had taken refuge in a school in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip.

But they returned to their home in northern Gaza -- still standing, unlike those of some other family members -- because the children weren't coping at the shelter, Ashwah said.

Abu Zeid's husband and their three other children survived because they had been wounded in bombing the day before, one losing a leg, and were in hospital when the house was hit, Ashwah said.

"They buried them together in a mass grave," Ashwah said, with Abu Zeid's devastated mother unable to pay her final respects.

Ashwah showed photos and video taken before the bombing of smiling members of the family, including Abu Zeid's daughter Nour al-Moqayyed, aged six, dancing.

Abu Zeid's husband and the surviving children fled back to Rafah "under the bombs" to reunite with Abu Zeid's mother, Ashwah said, and were staying in a garage.

Beirut's Burj al-Barajneh camp and others like it in Lebanon were set up after what Palestinians call the Nakba, or "catastrophe", when more than 760,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes by the 1948 war over Israel's creation.

A fragile four-day truce between Hamas and Israel was renewed for two more days on Tuesday, the day it was set to expire. Ashwah expressed hope that it would last, saying the family "can't take it anymore."

"We've seen wars, but like this? My God, not like this."


Disease Stalks Somali District Ravaged by Floods

This aerial view shows a general view of the Ladan IDP Camp in the outskirts of Dolow on November 25, 2023, where hundreds of families are temporarily living after being displaced by devastating floods. (AFP)
This aerial view shows a general view of the Ladan IDP Camp in the outskirts of Dolow on November 25, 2023, where hundreds of families are temporarily living after being displaced by devastating floods. (AFP)
TT

Disease Stalks Somali District Ravaged by Floods

This aerial view shows a general view of the Ladan IDP Camp in the outskirts of Dolow on November 25, 2023, where hundreds of families are temporarily living after being displaced by devastating floods. (AFP)
This aerial view shows a general view of the Ladan IDP Camp in the outskirts of Dolow on November 25, 2023, where hundreds of families are temporarily living after being displaced by devastating floods. (AFP)

The floodwaters in the southwestern Somali district of Dolow may have started to recede -- for now -- but distraught families who have lost their homes, their livelihoods in the muddy deluge are now at risk of potentially fatal disease.

Shukri Abdi Osman, a 34-year-old mother of three, is sheltering in a camp for the displaced in Dolow with her children, among around 700 families forced to flee as flash floods engulfed many parts of town.

"I have never seen such devastating floods before, everything happened quickly. When we realized the water was coming it was too late to collect all our belongings. We left our houses at midnight and all we were able to grab was our children," she told AFP.

As the family breadwinner, Osman said she thought she had a bright future, with plans to expand her flourishing fruit and vegetable kiosk in the Garbolow neighborhood of Dolow, which lies on the Juba River near the Ethiopia border.

"But I ended up here in this IDP settlement hopelessly waiting for the situation to change. My business is gone, my property is destroyed, and my house engulfed in water," she said, as she struggled to light firewood to cook a meal for her children.

'Leaking septic tanks'

And now disease is posing a threat to her family.

"The toilets were destroyed and even the tap water is now mixed with the dirty flood water which includes leaking septic tanks," she said.

"The situation is very tough now in this camp with my daughter feeling unwell, she might have already contracted malaria and typhoid."

Somalia's government has declared a state of emergency over what the United Nations has called "once-in-a-century" flooding, with almost 100 lives lost across the country and 700,000 people made homeless.

Torrential rains linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon have lashed the Horn of Africa on the heels of the worst drought in 40 years that drove millions to the brink of famine in Somalia.

It is considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, locked in a vicious cycle of drought and floods.

But is particularly ill-equipped to cope with the crisis as it battles deep poverty and a deadly extremist insurgency.

In one of the worst El Nino episodes, in late 1997 and early 1998, at least 1,800 people died in Somalia alone when the Juba River burst its banks.

The latest floods have washed away homes, schools, farmland, roads and bridges, leaving many without shelter, food or clean drinking water.

'Children covered in mosquito bites'

Mohamed Dahir, water and sanitation officer with US charity Mercy Corps, told AFP that humanitarian agencies are now concerned about those vulnerable to disease.

"The possibility for malaria outbreak is high due to the mosquitos, and there are also concerns about watery diarrhea breaking out due to the possible contamination of the water system."

"We still don't know exactly the level of contamination but what we have seen is the leaked septic tanks and destroyed toilets of the affected neighborhood which contaminate the water wells."

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said in an update last week that 33 districts of Somalia had been deluged, with a significant increase in cases of Acute Watery Diarrhea (AWD) or cholera and a rise in malaria cases.

It said there were concerns that contaminated stagnant water around schools poses a "serious risk" of waterborne diseases for school children.

Sadia Sharif Hassan, a 40-year-old mother of seven, sits in a makeshift shelter in a Dolow IDP camp, begging her neighbor for a container so she can fetch water.

"The most important thing is to save the lives of our children," she told AFP, saying the family barely had enough food to eat each day.

"The mosquitos are relentless and several of my children are already feeling unwell, they are suffering from fever... all their bodies are covered with bites now."

'Ran away with our lives'

In Garboolow, 70-year-old Owliyo Mohamed Abdirahman almost slipped and fell in the mud as she tried to rescue belongings from her damaged corrugated metal home but found everything had been swept away.

"This is what is left of my house in which I lived with my son who is sick now, his children and his wife," she said in despair. "We ran away with our lives and carried nothing else."

She and her family are having to rely on the kindness of well-wishers who have provided food and clothing.

Somalia has been locked in an endless cycle of drought and floods.

In one of the worst El Nino episodes, in late 1997 and early 1998, at least 1,800 people died when the Juba River burst its banks.

Garboolow commissioner Mursal Mohamed Adan said the authorities are waiting anxiously for help from aid agencies.

"God knows better what is next, but we are still concerned if rains continue to cause more flooding it will only make the situation worse."


Released Palestinians Reveal Conditions in Israeli Prisons after Oct. 7

Raghad Al-Fanni (center) was released from Israeli prison during an exchange deal with the Hamas movement. (AFP)
Raghad Al-Fanni (center) was released from Israeli prison during an exchange deal with the Hamas movement. (AFP)
TT

Released Palestinians Reveal Conditions in Israeli Prisons after Oct. 7

Raghad Al-Fanni (center) was released from Israeli prison during an exchange deal with the Hamas movement. (AFP)
Raghad Al-Fanni (center) was released from Israeli prison during an exchange deal with the Hamas movement. (AFP)

Raghad Al-Fanni did not expect to be among the liberated Palestinian women, as part of the first phase of the exchange deal between Israel and Hamas on Oct. 24.

The 25-year-old woman from the city of Tulkarm was arrested by the Israeli authorities in Oct. 2022 on her way to Ramallah at the Tayyara checkpoint, according to Arab World Press.

She remained under detention without charges, in Damoun prison, for 13 months.

Raghad said the conditions of detention changed drastically after Oct. 7. She told Arab World Press that Palestinian female prisoners were subjected to oppression, isolation, and beatings.

She added: “They sprayed us with gas, beat many female prisoners, and held many in solitary confinement.”

The freed detainee went on to say that the prison administration prevented female prisoners from buying food from the “cafeteria,” and took away all their belongings. She continued: “We were deprived of clean drinking water,” and it was clear that the prison administration was “taking revenge on us.”

Raghad does not know to this day why she was arrested: “All I know is that my arrest is based on a secret file.” She added that administrative detention is renewed without charge or trial, and is a “precautionary measure due to certain suspicions.”

At 8.30 a.m. on Friday, Raghad Al-Fanni was released from prison in a hurry without being allowed to take any of her belongings. She said: “I could not say goodbye to the female prisoners who remained in the detention center. They took us out and searched us thoroughly, and took our fingerprints and DNA samples.”

Before their release, Palestinian female prisoners were threatened by the Israeli authorities with re-arrest if they participate in any festive ceremonies or speak to the media.

Qusay Taqatqa, from the city of Bethlehem, was arrested last year when he was 16 and sentenced to 20 months in prison.

He told the Arab World Press that the inmates heard about the Oct. 7 operation on the news, after which the prison administration removed television and radio equipment from inside the cells.

“The treatment of the prison administration has been barbaric for 50 days. They took all our belongings and visits or even communication with the family were prohibited,” he recounted.

Qaddoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Prisoners and Ex-Detainees Authority, described what has been happening in Israeli detention centers since Oct. 7 as “war crimes as part of an act of revenge.”

“The repeated brutal attacks against prisoners led to the death of six of them and the injury to hundreds,” he noted, adding: “Collective punishment is practiced against detainees in the occupation prisons, and a meal sufficient for two people is served to ten.”


Netanyahu’s Two-Front War Against Hamas and for His Own Political Survival 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet minister Benny Gantz, speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, 28 October 2023. (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet minister Benny Gantz, speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, 28 October 2023. (Reuters)
TT

Netanyahu’s Two-Front War Against Hamas and for His Own Political Survival 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet minister Benny Gantz, speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, 28 October 2023. (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet minister Benny Gantz, speaks during a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, 28 October 2023. (Reuters)

Inside Israeli defense headquarters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu monitored the first release of Hamas-held hostages while outside, their families in a Tel Aviv square gathered around Benny Gantz, his leading challenger for the top job.

On camera Gantz, a former army chief and opposition leader who joined Netanyahu's war cabinet last month, pointedly asked a TV crew to leave him alone with the families. Photos published later showed him hugging individuals in the crowd.

Facing a huge wave of criticism over his failure to prevent the shock Hamas infiltration of Israel on Oct. 7, Netanyahu has largely avoided the limelight while conducting a two-front war, one against Hamas and the other for his own political survival.

Netanyahu, 74, has long maintained an image as a security hawk, tough on Iran and backed by an army that ensured Jews would never again suffer a Holocaust - only to experience on his watch the deadliest single incident in Israel's 75-year-old history.

Israelis have shunned some of Netanyahu's fellow cabinet ministers, blaming them for failing to prevent the Palestinian Hamas gunmen from entering from Gaza, killing 1,200 people, abducting 240 more and engulfing the country in war.

In separate incidents, at least three of his ministers were subjected to derision and abuse when they appeared in public, underscoring the scale of public fury over the failures that paved the way for Hamas to carry out the attack.

Over the weekend, his office issued videos showing him in the Defense Ministry situation room. On Sunday, Netanyahu visited Gaza. His office issued photos afterwards showing him in a helmet and flak jacket meeting soldiers and commanders.

Known by his nickname "Bibi," Netanyahu stands to gain from a war that further delays his 3-1/2 year-old corruption trial and puts off an expected state inquiry into why Israel under his leadership was caught off guard.

Huddling with generals, he may also hope to salvage his reputation through his conduct of the war and the return of hostages while refusing to accept responsibility and dismissing a question at a rare press conference asking if he would resign.

But his biographer Anshel Pfeffer said: "No matter how long Netanyahu manages to hold on to power, he won’t salvage his reputation.

"He is now tainted irretrievably by the failure to prevent the Oct. 7 massacre, by his own strategy of allowing Hamas to remain in control, with its military arsenal, in Gaza and by the utterly inept civil relief efforts of his government since the Oct. 7 attack."

The author of the 2018 book "Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu," Pfeffer said surveys in recent weeks showed Israelis trusting the security establishment to lead the war effort, but not Netanyahu.

"The failure of Oct. 7 is his legacy. Whatever success Israel will have in the aftermath will not be ascribed to him."

NETANYAHU VOWS TO CONTROL SECURITY IN GAZA INDEFINITELY

Netanyahu has vowed to control security in Gaza indefinitely, adding uncertainty to the fate of an enclave where for seven weeks Israel was on the attack before forging a temporary truce with Hamas and the freeing of hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian detainees from Israel.

Some 14,800 Palestinians have been killed in the war, Gaza health authorities say, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Israel's longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu has survived many a political crisis, staged several comebacks, and need not face another election for three years if his coalition remains in tact.

"I know him very well and he concentrates on what he is doing, he is really a very hard-working person and now he is running a war and he is holding, like a juggler, half-a-dozen balls in the air - and to keep them only in the air he must concentrate," said Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"To go out and face people who shout at you and really hate you, there is no benefit of doing that, so he decided to give it up," Diskin said.

GANTZ IN CABINET OFFERS NETANYAHU STABILITY

Slim, tall and blue-eyed with an easy way about him, Gantz, 64, joined an Israeli war cabinet that Netanyahu formed days after the Hamas attack to unite the country behind a campaign to destroy Hamas and retrieve the hostages.

With nearly 40 years in the military, the centrist Gantz offers Netanyahu and his rightist Likud party a more stable government that reduces the influence of the far-right and religious coalition partners on the fringes of Israeli society.

United in war perhaps, they are at odds politically.

He, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud have together held press conferences. A photo of one such event that went viral on social media captured Netanyahu alone, and Gallant and Gantz standing together off to the side.

A Nov. 16 opinion poll found the Netanyahu-led coalition that won 64 seats in a November 2022 election would garner 45 in the 120-member Knesset today compared with 70 seats of parties led by Gantz's National Unity Party, enough to assume power.

The survey for Israel's Channel 12 took place a week before Qatar announced the hostage deal and was conducted among 502 respondents by pollster Mano Geva and the company Midgam and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Gantz has little of Netanyahu's experience or flair on the world stage, and critics say his laid-back manner shows indecisiveness and a lack of principles. Gantz has described himself as having more grit than varnish.

Often perceived as being every bit as hawkish on Palestinians as Netanyahu, Gantz has stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek, but in the past backed efforts to restart peace talks with them.

Israelis have gone to the polls five times in the last five years. No single party has ever won a simple parliamentary majority, and a coalition of parties has always been required. With a war on, no one is suggesting holding elections again.

But two weeks ago centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said it was time to replace Netanyahu without going to elections.

He suggested there would be broad support for a unity government led by Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, but no one within Likud has emerged to challenge Netanyahu.

"We can't afford another election cycle in the coming year in which we continue to fight and explain why the other side is a disaster," Lapid wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.


Pressure Mounts on Israel for Longer Gaza Pause

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Gaza Strip, during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in this handout obtained by Reuters on November 26, 2023.(Handout via Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Gaza Strip, during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in this handout obtained by Reuters on November 26, 2023.(Handout via Reuters)
TT

Pressure Mounts on Israel for Longer Gaza Pause

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Gaza Strip, during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in this handout obtained by Reuters on November 26, 2023.(Handout via Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Gaza Strip, during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel, in this handout obtained by Reuters on November 26, 2023.(Handout via Reuters)

Israel faces mounting pressure to extend a four-day pause in its war against Hamas, but military officials fear that a longer truce risks blunting its efforts to rout the movement.

After hours of delay and acrimony that underscored the fragility of the truce, a second tranche of 13 Israeli hostages was freed on Saturday by Hamas in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners -- the same number as the previous day.

A total of 15 foreigners have also been released during the ceasefire -- mediated for weeks by Qatar, the United States and Egypt -- that marks the first breakthrough after seven weeks of relentless war.

Under the deal, 50 of the roughly 240 hostages held by the militants will be freed over four days in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, with a built-in extension mechanism to prolong the process as long as at least 10 Israeli captives are released each day.

That increases the number of hostages returned -- and there is strong domestic pressure within Israel to do so -- but gives Hamas a longer window in which to regroup, recover, re-arm and ultimately return to the fight, analysts say.

It also increases diplomatic pressure on Israel from the international community, which will become steadily less willing to countenance a return to the pounding of Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis.

"Time works against Israel as always and against the IDF," said Andreas Krieg, of King's College London, referring to the Israeli military.

"On one hand you want all the hostages out knowing that you can't get them out militarily and on the other you don't want to lose completely the momentum of this war," he told AFP.

And the longer a truce lasted, he said, the more the international community would lose patience with a continuation of the war, he added.

But the Israeli military is determined to pursue its objective of "crushing" Hamas.

Visiting Israeli troops in the war-battered Gaza Strip on Saturday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant insisted the timeline for the truce was "short".

"It won't take weeks, it will take days, more or less," he said, flanked by heavily armed soldiers. "Any further negotiations will take place under fire."

'Dilemma'

The war began after Palestinian militants smashed through the highly militarized border on October 7, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials, and triggering Israel's invasion of Gaza.

Israel has defied international criticism of its Gaza offensive, which its Hamas rulers say has killed more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, and left an unprecedented trail of destruction in the Palestinian territory.

"The real pressure (to prolong the truce) comes from inside Israel -- from the families of the hostages," said Arik Rudnitzky, from Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of Tel Aviv in support of the remaining hostages, chanting "Now, now, now, all of them now!" and clutching banners that read "Get them out of hell".

An Israeli military official said the country was committed to freeing as many hostages as possible but expressed concern that the longer the truce lasts the more time Hamas has to "rebuild its capabilities and attack Israel again".

"It's a terrible dilemma," he told AFP, requesting anonymity.

'You cannot win this'

The lead mediator in the negotiations for the pause in the fighting has been Qatar, whose foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari told AFP there was a need to "maintain the momentum" for a lasting ceasefire.

"That can only be done when you have political will not only from the Israelis and Palestinians but also with the other partners who are working with us."

US President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, on Friday said "the chances are real" for extending the truce, as he urged a broader effort to achieve a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

With a presidential election next year, there was no stomach in Washington for a prolonged intensive operation "for months and months on end", said Krieg of King's College London. "So the Biden administration needs to find an off ramp as well".

"There isn't a military solution to the conflict, you cannot win this," he added.

Senior Hamas official Taher al-Nunu said the group was "ready to search seriously to reach new deals".

But Hamas on Saturday delayed the handover of the second group of hostages for hours, accusing Israel of breaching the terms of the agreement -- claims denied by Israel.

Hamas would "play the long game with the hostages to try to exhaust the card over the longest possible length of time and at the greatest price to Israel," former Israeli intelligence official Avi Melamed told AFP.

It was hoping support within Israel for the Gaza Strip incursion would dissipate, and ultimately "international and internal pressures levied on Israel's government will create the circumstance where Hamas can continue to exist, and rule Gaza even after this war ends."

Independent Middle East analyst Eva Koulouriotis agreed.

"For Hamas, any scenario for this war that does not lead to an end to its presence in the Gaza Strip will be considered a victory," she told AFP. "Regardless of its human and material losses, of the extent of the destruction in Gaza, and of the extent of civilian casualties".


Tea in the Moonlight as Truce Brings Respite but Not Normality for Gazans

Palestinians inspect the damage to their homes and search for belongings upon their return amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Al-Zahra on the southern outskirts of Gaza City, on November 26, 2023 as a truce between Israel and Hamas entered its third day. (AFP)
Palestinians inspect the damage to their homes and search for belongings upon their return amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Al-Zahra on the southern outskirts of Gaza City, on November 26, 2023 as a truce between Israel and Hamas entered its third day. (AFP)
TT

Tea in the Moonlight as Truce Brings Respite but Not Normality for Gazans

Palestinians inspect the damage to their homes and search for belongings upon their return amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Al-Zahra on the southern outskirts of Gaza City, on November 26, 2023 as a truce between Israel and Hamas entered its third day. (AFP)
Palestinians inspect the damage to their homes and search for belongings upon their return amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Al-Zahra on the southern outskirts of Gaza City, on November 26, 2023 as a truce between Israel and Hamas entered its third day. (AFP)

Under a night sky illuminated by moonlight rather than flares and explosions, Gaza resident Ibrahim Kaninch sat by a small bonfire outside his partially destroyed house, feeding the flames with bits of cardboard as he heated up water for tea.

The peaceful scene, on the second night of a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas, was a moment of respite and reflection for Kaninch, who like other Gazans has endured fear and hardship since the war began on Oct. 7.

"We’re living days of calm, where we are stealing moments to make tea," he said, his face lit in warm colors by the glow of the fire.

"These truce days have allowed people to have a bit of social communication and to check on their families and friends and their houses."

Kaninch lives in Khan Younis, a town in the southern Gaza Strip where tens of thousands of people have sought refuge in tents, schools and residents' homes after fleeing heavy bombardment in the northern half of the territory.

However, air strikes have also hit many targets in the south, and Kaninch said the constant terror and the sound of military jets and explosions made it impossible to have a quiet evening whether inside or out, until the truce.

He was enjoying the break from the fear and noise, but with his home badly damaged by a strike the situation was still very far from normal. Kaninch mused that the war had revived aspects of the lifestyle of earlier generations.

"We’ve lost this kind of gathering around the fire years ago, but the exceptional status of war that we’re currently experiencing has brought back some of the heritage and the social culture that our ancestors used to have," he said.

Nearby, a man pushing a bicycle and a woman carrying a baby strolled side by side in the darkened street as the call to prayer could be heard faintly in the distance. The headlights of a passing car briefly lit up piles of rubble on the street and graffiti on the walls.

The war began when Hamas militants broke out of Gaza on Oct. 7 and rampaged through southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, among them babies and children, and seizing 240 hostages.

Vowing to destroy Hamas in response, Israel launched an all-out assault on Gaza which has killed 14,800 people, of whom about four in 10 were children, according to health authorities in the Hamas-controlled territory.

The military campaign has also levelled much of northern Gaza and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, while a tight blockade has caused shortages of food, water, medicines, electricity and other supplies.

"We ask ourselves what's next? There's no electricity or water, there are shortages of all basic human needs," said Kaninch.

"We ask God to let people's lives resume and go back to safety, peace and prosperity."


‘That’s My Son!’ Thai Family Overjoyed as Second Group of Hostages Freed

This undated and unlocated handout photo released on November 25, 2023 by Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows a Thai official (C) posing for a group photo with 10 released Thai hostages in Israel, after they were freed by Hamas. (Handout / Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs / AFP)
This undated and unlocated handout photo released on November 25, 2023 by Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows a Thai official (C) posing for a group photo with 10 released Thai hostages in Israel, after they were freed by Hamas. (Handout / Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs / AFP)
TT

‘That’s My Son!’ Thai Family Overjoyed as Second Group of Hostages Freed

This undated and unlocated handout photo released on November 25, 2023 by Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows a Thai official (C) posing for a group photo with 10 released Thai hostages in Israel, after they were freed by Hamas. (Handout / Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs / AFP)
This undated and unlocated handout photo released on November 25, 2023 by Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows a Thai official (C) posing for a group photo with 10 released Thai hostages in Israel, after they were freed by Hamas. (Handout / Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs / AFP)

The mother of a Thai hostage freed from Gaza late on Saturday said she was indescribably happy her son was among the four most recent Thai nationals confirmed as freed from Hamas captivity.

"My granddaughter called me at 5 a.m. saying my son was among the hostages released and I didn't really believe it," Thongkoon Onkaew told Reuters by phone on Sunday. "Then she sent me the photo and I was like, 'That's my son! My son!'"

Thirteen Israelis and four Thai nationals, freed in a second round of releases by the Palestinian militant group, arrived in Israel on Sunday as part of what is meant to be a four-day truce in the war to allow daily exchanges of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said the Thais in the latest release were in good health and eager to contact their families.

"Everybody is safe, on the whole in good mental health and are able to speak normally," he posted on social media platform X.

A first group of 10 Thai hostages were on freed Friday along with 13 Israelis, in return 39 Palestinians from Israel's prisons.

More than 30,000 Thai nationals work in Israel, mostly as farm workers, making up one of the largest migrant worker groups in the country.

Thongkoon said her son, 26-year-old Natthaporn Onkaew, worked in agriculture and was the family's sole breadwinner, sending remittances each month to support his family, including school fees for his 12-year-old sister.

She said she had identified him in a photo released by Hamas, showing him and several other people in the back of a van, dressed in a green shirt and smiling and waving at the camera.

"I’m so happy, I’m so glad, I can’t describe my feeling at all," she said.

Thailand's foreign ministry estimated 18 Thai nationals remained captive after Israel told it the number abducted had increased by two from the previous tally.

"The Thai government will continue to make every effort towards the safe release and return of those remaining Thai nationals," the ministry said in a statement.