Sudanese Head North to Egypt Seeking Brighter Future

Malaz Al-Bakr Ibrahim, 23, who has worked as a babysitter in Egypt since 2020 because of the economic and political situation in Sudan, poses for a photograph at Ain Shams district area in Cairo, Egypt September 13, 2022. (Reuters)
Malaz Al-Bakr Ibrahim, 23, who has worked as a babysitter in Egypt since 2020 because of the economic and political situation in Sudan, poses for a photograph at Ain Shams district area in Cairo, Egypt September 13, 2022. (Reuters)
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Sudanese Head North to Egypt Seeking Brighter Future

Malaz Al-Bakr Ibrahim, 23, who has worked as a babysitter in Egypt since 2020 because of the economic and political situation in Sudan, poses for a photograph at Ain Shams district area in Cairo, Egypt September 13, 2022. (Reuters)
Malaz Al-Bakr Ibrahim, 23, who has worked as a babysitter in Egypt since 2020 because of the economic and political situation in Sudan, poses for a photograph at Ain Shams district area in Cairo, Egypt September 13, 2022. (Reuters)

At downtown Khartoum's al-Souq al-Arabi, travel agencies helping young Sudanese seek a brighter economic future in Egypt are replacing once-packed hardware stores in a corner of the capital's main commercial hub.

The exodus reflects growing despondence over prospects at home, where the economy has been in free fall and the UN says food shortages affect a third of the population. Power and water cuts are common. Anti-army protests have rocked the streets since a coup a year ago.

Following the military takeover, which toppled a civilian-led government that had promised a new economic dawn, the number of those leaving has accelerated, travel agents and migrants say.

Egypt, already home to a Sudanese community estimated at 4 million, offers few of the lucrative jobs that Sudanese migrants.

And while some do travel onward on treacherous Mediterranean trips to Europe, Egypt has notable advantages.

Young Sudanese can travel there cheaply and hunt for work, while families seek healthcare, education for their children and a stable life.

"All us young people want to build a future, but you can't do that here," said Munzir Mohamed, a 21-year-old trying to book a bus trip to Egypt at one of the travel agencies.

The owner of a Khartoum bus company said as many as 30 buses were taking around 1,500 passengers to Egypt from Sudan daily, which he said was up 50% from last year, despite sharp ticket price increases. Two travel agents estimated the number of young men seeking to make the journey had doubled in the last year.

There are no publicly available figures to show recent migration trends from Sudan to Egypt. But an Egyptian diplomat said numbers travelling had been on the rise since 2019, when an uprising led to the overthrow of former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir.

"Movement of Sudanese people into Egypt has been increasing ... gradually and proportional to the deterioration of the situation in Sudan," he said.

Taxes and fees

In al-Souq al-Arabi, laborers, electricians, and others who would typically be at building sites idle away the time drinking tea and playing board games while they wait for work.

"We used to hope for five minutes to take a seat. Now I'm sat here all day," said the owner of one hardware store still operating in the market.

Much of the paltry income that shopkeepers and stall-holders can still make goes to higher taxes, dues, and license fees introduced by a government that lost billions in external economic support after the coup, they say.

The finance minister, Jibril Ibrahim, said on Sunday the country would rely on its own internal resources for a second year to fund the budget, despite the government struggling to provide basic services.

Taxes and fees have risen by 400% or more in some instances, business owners say.

"It's impacted us hugely," said the hardware store owner.

Traders shut down main markets in the cities of Sennar and Gedaref this month in protest at the charges. Further closures are due in the city of El Obeid this week. The government, with no new prime minister appointed since the coup, is juggling strikes by electricity and sewage workers as well as trainee doctors over low wages.

The finance ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Official inflation has eased from a high of 423% last year to 117% in August, which businessmen and analysts say reflects economic stagnation. It is still one of the highest rates globally.

The Sudanese pound depreciated by 950% over the past four years, while fuel, once subsidized, has become more expensive than in many wealthier countries.

Business owners say most people can no longer afford much beyond basic goods, causing traders and factories to slow down or close up shop.

That may push more people to leave. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), "anticipates that more people will consider migration as an option," a spokesman for the U.N. agency said in reference to Sudan.

Circumstances in Egypt are also difficult with inflation running at its highest in almost four years, and almost a quarter of youths unemployed, according to the International Labour Organization.

Sudanese youth often end up working menial jobs in factories, gold mines, or as domestic help, travel agents and migrants say. But they have a community to lean on, and can earn more than at home.

"My whole family in Sudan worked and we still weren't making much, and it would all go towards food," said 23-year-old Malaz Abbakar, who moved to Egypt two years ago.

Now, she says, she's able to send her family up to 120,000 Sudanese pounds ($208) per month working as a babysitter.

Stores selling Sudanese foods have cropped up in Cairo, private schools advertise Egyptian branches on billboards in Khartoum, and many travel to Egypt for healthcare that's become expensive or unavailable back home.

For some, like 23-year-old Adam from war-stricken Darfur, Egypt is a stopover before the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

"It's dangerous but it's better to risk it and have a good life than to suffer in poverty and hopelessness," he said as he queued for a visa at the Egyptian consulate in Khartoum, along with dozens of other would-be migrants.



Fears Grow in Israel of War with Lebanon's Hezbollah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cross-border Cyber Blackmail Spreads without Effective Deterrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between Baghdad, Damascus and Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Arab diplomat and a third party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Formation, Focus on Prisoner Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct. 7, Triggering a Catastrophic Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Qassam Brigades: A Flexible Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bakeries Smashed in Israel Bombardment Key to Gaza Hunger Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aid supplies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do Tensions in the Red Sea Affect Egyptian-Iranian Rapprochement?

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Iran meet in Geneva. (Egyptian Foreign Ministry)
The foreign ministers of Egypt and Iran meet in Geneva. (Egyptian Foreign Ministry)
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Do Tensions in the Red Sea Affect Egyptian-Iranian Rapprochement?

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Iran meet in Geneva. (Egyptian Foreign Ministry)
The foreign ministers of Egypt and Iran meet in Geneva. (Egyptian Foreign Ministry)

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Tuesday on the sidelines of the high-level meetings of the Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.

The two ministers met as part of efforts to continue rapprochement between their countries. They discussed bilateral relations and developments related to Israel’s war on Gaza.

Shoukry conveyed Cairo’s “deep concern over the expansion of military tensions in the southern Red Sea region, and the direct harm to the interests of a large number of countries, including Egypt,” according to a statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

The statement raises questions about the extent the impact the tensions in the Red Sea will have on rapprochement efforts between Cairo and Tehran.

The attacks in the Red Sea are being carried out by the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed Iran.

A number of official Egyptian-Iranian meetings have taken place recently, including talks between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the joint Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh in November.

Regarding the ongoing war in Gaza, Shoukry told Abdollahian that tensions in the Red Sea have resulted in an unprecedented threat to international shipping navigation in the Suez Canal, leading to direct harm to the interests of a large number of countries, including Egypt.

He emphasized the need for cooperation to support stability and peace and eliminate hotbeds of tension and conflicts, according to the Ministry statement.

In January, Bloomberg reported that navigation traffic in the Suez Canal declined by 41 percent from its peak in 2023, amid escalating tensions in the Red Sea due to the Houthis’ targeting of ships as part of what they say is support to Gaza.

The official spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Ahmed Abu Zeid, said Shoukry and Abdollahian underscored their countries’ determination to restore the normal bilateral relations.

Expert in Iranian affairs at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Mohammed Abbas Naji told Asharq Al-Awsat that despite the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement, Cairo was for now monitoring Iran’s behavior in the region, which does not seem to have changed.

He expressed Egyptian reservations and fears over Tehran’s approach in the region and the ongoing threats posed by its proxies in the Red Sea.

These concerns were also voiced in the official Ministry statement following the meeting between Shoukry and Abdollahian.

In May, the Iranian president requested his country’s ministry of Foreign Affairs to take the necessary measures to strengthen relations with Egypt. The two countries had severed diplomatic relations in 1979. They were reestablished after 11 years, but at the level of Chargé d’Affaires.


Gazans Count the Cost of War as Death Toll Nears 30,000

 Palestinians pray by the bodies of relatives who were killed in overnight Israeli air strikes on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, at Rafah's Najjar hospital on February 27, 2024, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continue. (AFP)
Palestinians pray by the bodies of relatives who were killed in overnight Israeli air strikes on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, at Rafah's Najjar hospital on February 27, 2024, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continue. (AFP)
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Gazans Count the Cost of War as Death Toll Nears 30,000

 Palestinians pray by the bodies of relatives who were killed in overnight Israeli air strikes on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, at Rafah's Najjar hospital on February 27, 2024, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continue. (AFP)
Palestinians pray by the bodies of relatives who were killed in overnight Israeli air strikes on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, at Rafah's Najjar hospital on February 27, 2024, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continue. (AFP)

Palestinian teacher Iman Mussallam says she is struggling to come to terms with the Gaza war's death toll nearing 30,000 after almost five months of conflict between Israel and Hamas.

But with many victims still trapped under the rubble of flattened buildings, the displaced Gaza woman says she is certain "the real number is greater than that".

"We don't know how many martyrs there will be when the war ends," added the 30-year-old, who has taken refuge at a crowded United Nations shelter in Gaza's far-southern city of Rafah.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war, sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel, has brought a litany of horrors to the Palestinian territory of 2.4 million people.

The death toll is exponentially higher than that of the four previous Gaza wars combined.

Cemeteries are full, stocks of body bags have run short, and one bereaved farmer reported having to bury his three brothers and their five children in a citrus grove.

Some 1.5 million people gathered in Rafah are desperately hoping for a ceasefire, fearing yet more bloodshed if Israel launches its threatened ground assault on the city.

On Tuesday, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said at least 29,878 people had been killed so far, and another 70,215 had been injured.

The toll highlights "the extent of the suffering of the Palestinian people" during the war, the effects of which "will remain for generations to come", said Ahmed Orabi, a professor at the Islamic University of Gaza.

The war erupted with Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israeli border communities that claimed the lives of 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Israel has also been gripped by the desperate plight of about 250 hostages who were taken back to Gaza during the attack, as well as the fate of the estimated 130 still being held.

That attack unleashed an Israeli military offensive of unrelenting scale in a bid to hunt down the Hamas fighters who took part in the assault and the group's leaders.

A 'death zone'

Since the start of the war, the health ministry in Gaza has been tasked with the grueling job of accounting for each of the dead and injured in the 40-kilometre (25-mile) sliver of land on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Hamas government is quick to point out that women and children account for some 70 percent of the death toll.

It has not given the number of militants killed in the fighting. The Israeli army says some 10,000 Hamas fighters have been killed so far.

The Gaza health ministry also breaks down the figures into medical workers, members of the civil defense forces and journalists covering the conflict.

As of February 24, the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 88 media workers had been killed since the war began.

Israel questions the accuracy of the Hamas government figures, and denies deliberately targeting civilians, medical workers or journalists.

Gaza -- described by the head of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as a "death zone" -- has become a place of perpetual mourning.

Not a day has gone by without a funeral in Gaza, though harsh wartime conditions have forced residents to improvise even as they grieve.

Overworked staff at under-equipped hospitals have had to use alternative forms of refrigeration before burials, including an ice-cream truck.

Elsewhere, a mass grave was dug at a dirt football field.

Bodies have been transported by donkey carts because of a lack of fuel.

Even the dead are not totally at peace, with Israel admitting it has exhumed some bodies from cemeteries as part of its efforts to identify hostages who may have been killed in the war.

"Bodies determined not (to) be those of hostages are returned with dignity and respect," the military has said.

Some 31 hostages are believed to have been killed, according to Israeli figures.

Mussallam called what has happened in Gaza "the largest massacre in modern history", but also blamed Hamas for carrying out the attack then retreating to its tunnels under Gaza.

With civilians largely paying the price, she asked, "how is it our fault?"


A Gazan Woman Crafts Warm Clothes for Displaced Children 

Displaced Palestinian woman Shehnaz Baker knits wool clothes which she hands out to displaced people for free to stay warm in winter, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. (Reuters)
Displaced Palestinian woman Shehnaz Baker knits wool clothes which she hands out to displaced people for free to stay warm in winter, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. (Reuters)
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A Gazan Woman Crafts Warm Clothes for Displaced Children 

Displaced Palestinian woman Shehnaz Baker knits wool clothes which she hands out to displaced people for free to stay warm in winter, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. (Reuters)
Displaced Palestinian woman Shehnaz Baker knits wool clothes which she hands out to displaced people for free to stay warm in winter, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. (Reuters)

Shehnaz Baker spends most of her day with yarn and a needle in her hands, making hats, gloves and socks for Palestinian children sheltering in a makeshift camp for the displaced in Rafah, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.

Baker, 65, who fled her home in Gaza City, said she couldn't bear to see young people in the camp without enough warm clothes, so she sent her son to buy second-hand clothes from the market, which she unraveled and transformed into new winter items.

"When I see the smile of a child wearing a hat and smiling at me, (saying) 'thank you auntie, God bless you auntie,'... this is worth all the money in the world to me," she said.

More than half of Gaza's 2.3 million residents have taken refuge in Rafah, most sleeping rough in makeshift tents or public buildings.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas killed 1,200 people in Israel and captured 253 hostages on Oct. 7, by Israeli tallies, triggering a ground assault on Gaza, with nearly 30,000 people confirmed killed, according to Gaza health authorities.


Biden, Trump Will Face Tests in Michigan’s Primaries That Could Inform November Rematch 

Early voting takes place at the Warren City Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Warren, Mich. (AP)
Early voting takes place at the Warren City Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Warren, Mich. (AP)
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Biden, Trump Will Face Tests in Michigan’s Primaries That Could Inform November Rematch 

Early voting takes place at the Warren City Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Warren, Mich. (AP)
Early voting takes place at the Warren City Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Warren, Mich. (AP)

While Joe Biden and Donald Trump are marching toward their respective presidential nominations, Michigan's primary on Tuesday could reveal significant political perils for both of them.

Trump, despite his undoubted dominance of the Republican contests this year, is facing a bloc of stubbornly persistent GOP voters who favor his lone remaining rival, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and who are skeptical at best about the former president's prospects in a rematch against Biden.

As for the incumbent president, Biden is confronting perhaps his most potent electoral obstacle yet: an energized movement of disillusioned voters upset with his handling of the war in Gaza and a relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that critics say has been too supportive.

Those dynamics will be put to the test in Michigan, the last major primary state before Super Tuesday and a critical swing state in November's general election. Even if they post dominant victories as expected on Tuesday, both campaigns will be looking at the margins for signs of weakness in a state that went for Biden by just 3 percentage points last time.

Biden said in a local Michigan radio interview Monday that it would be “one of the five states” that would determine the winner in November.

Michigan has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, and more than 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Nearly half of Dearborn’s roughly 110,000 residents claim Arab ancestry.

It has become the epicenter of Democratic discontent with the White House’s actions in the Israel-Hamas war, now nearly five months old, following Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack and kidnapping of more than 200 hostages. Israel has bombarded much of Gaza in response, killing nearly 30,000 people, two-thirds of them women and children, according to Palestinian figures.

Democrats angry that Biden has supported Israel's offensive and resisted calls for a ceasefire are rallying voters on Tuesday to instead select “uncommitted.”

The “uncommitted” effort, which began in earnest just a few weeks ago, has been backed by officials such as Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, and former Rep. Andy Levin, who lost a Democratic primary two years ago after pro-Israel groups spent more than $4 million to defeat him.

Abbas Alawieh, spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan campaign that has been rallying for the “uncommitted” campaign, said the effort is a “way for us to vote for a ceasefire, a way for us to vote for peace and a way for us to vote against war.”

Trump won the state by just 11,000 votes in 2016 over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and then lost the state four years later by nearly 154,000 votes to Biden. Alawieh said the “uncommitted” effort wants to show that they have at least the number of votes that were Trump’s margin of victory in 2016, to demonstrate how influential that bloc can be.

“The situation in Gaza is top of mind for a lot of people here,” Alawieh said. “President Biden is failing to provide voters for whom the war crimes that are being inflicted by our US taxpayer dollars – he’s failing to provide them with something to vote for.”

Our Revolution, the organizing group once tied to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has also urged progressive voters to choose “uncommitted” on Tuesday, saying it would send a message to Biden to “change course NOW on Gaza or else risk losing Michigan to Trump in November.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a Biden backer who held several meetings and listening sessions in Michigan late last week, said he told community members that, despite his disagreements over the war, he would nonetheless support Biden because he represents a much better chance of peace in the Middle East than Trump.

“I also said that I admire those who are using their ballot in a quintessentially American way to bring about a change in policy,” Khanna said Monday, adding that Biden supporters need to proactively engage with the uncommitted voters to try and “earn back their trust.”

“The worst thing we can do is try to shame them or try to downplay their efforts,” he said.

Trump has drawn enthusiastic crowds at most of his rallies, including a Feb. 17 rally outside Detroit drawing more than 2,000 people who packed into a frigid airplane hangar.

But data from AP VoteCast, a series of surveys of Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, reveals that his core voters so far are overwhelmingly white, mostly older than 50 and generally without a college degree. He will likely have to appeal to a far more diverse group of voters in November. And he has underperformed his statewide results in suburban areas that are critical in states like Michigan.

Several of Trump’s favored picks in Michigan's 2022 midterm contests lost their campaigns, further underscoring his loss of political influence in the state. Meanwhile, the state GOP has been riven with divisions among various pro-Trump factions, potentially weakening its power at a time when Michigan Republicans are trying to lay the groundwork to defeat Biden this fall.

Both Biden and Trump have so far dominated their respective primary bids. Biden has sailed to wins in South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire, with the latter victory coming in through a write-in campaign. Trump has swept all the early state contests and his team is hoping to lock up the delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination by mid-March.

Nonetheless, an undeterred Haley has promised to continue her longshot presidential primary campaign through at least Super Tuesday on March 5, when 15 states and one territory hold their nominating contests.

As Haley stumped across Michigan on Sunday and Monday, voters showing up to her events expressed enthusiasm for her in Tuesday’s primary -- even though, given her losses in the year’s first four states, it seemed increasingly likely she wouldn’t win the nomination.


Bird-feed Loaf and a Date Wrapped in Gauze: What Children Eat in Gaza

Palestinian woman Warda Mattar feeds her newborn dates, instead of milk, amidst food scarcity and lack of milk, at a school where they shelter in Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Doaa Ruqqa
Palestinian woman Warda Mattar feeds her newborn dates, instead of milk, amidst food scarcity and lack of milk, at a school where they shelter in Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Doaa Ruqqa
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Bird-feed Loaf and a Date Wrapped in Gauze: What Children Eat in Gaza

Palestinian woman Warda Mattar feeds her newborn dates, instead of milk, amidst food scarcity and lack of milk, at a school where they shelter in Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Doaa Ruqqa
Palestinian woman Warda Mattar feeds her newborn dates, instead of milk, amidst food scarcity and lack of milk, at a school where they shelter in Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip February 25, 2024. REUTERS/Doaa Ruqqa

After surviving on bitter loaves made from animal feed instead of proper flour, three young brothers who fled their home in Gaza City for a tent further south were tucking into a tub of halawa, a sweet crumbly paste.
Seraj Shehada, 8, and his brothers Ismail, 9, and Saad, 11, said they had run away in secret to take refuge with their aunt in her tent in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, because there was nothing to eat in Gaza City.
"When we were in Gaza City, we used to eat nothing. We would eat every two days," said Seraj Shehada, speaking as the three boys ate the halawa straight out of the tub, with a spoon.
"We would eat bird and donkey food, just anything," he said, referring to loaves made from grains and seeds meant for animal consumption. "Day after day, not this food."
Food shortages have been a problem across the Palestinian enclave since the Oct. 7 start of the war between Israel and Hamas, but are particularly acute in northern Gaza, where aid deliveries have been rarer for longer.
Some of the few aid trucks to reach the north have been mobbed by desperate, hungry crowds, while aid workers have reported seeing people thin and visibly starving with sunken eyes.
In central Gaza, the situation is marginally better, but still far from easy, Reuters reported.
At Al-Nuseirat refugee camp, just north of Deir al-Balah, Warda Mattar, a displaced mother sheltering in a school with her two-month-old baby, was giving him a date wrapped in gauze to suck on, for lack of any milk.
"My son is supposed to have milk as a newborn, be it natural milk or formula milk, but I wasn't able to get him milk, because there is no milk in Gaza," said Mattar.
"I resorted to dates to keep my son quiet," she said.
'ONE SMALL LOAF EVERY TWO DAYS'
In the tent in Deir al-Balah, the three brothers said they had lost their mother, another brother and several aunts in the war. They were left with their father and grandmother, and almost nothing to eat apart from loaves made from animal feed, said the eldest brother, Saad Shehada.
"It was bitter. We didn't want to eat it. We were forced to eat it, one small loaf every two days," he said, adding that they drank salty water and got sick, and there was no way to wash themselves or their clothes.
"We secretly came to Deir al-Balah. We did not tell our father," he said.
The boys' aunt, Eman Shehada, was caring for them as best she could. Heavily pregnant, she said she had lost her husband in the war and was left alone with her daughter, a toddler.
"I am not getting the nutrition needed, so I feel tired and dizzy," she said.
She cannot afford even to buy a kilo of potatoes.
"I don't know how to manage our affairs with these three kids, my daughter, and I am pregnant, I can give birth at any moment."


Syrians Vital in Turkish Local Elections

Syrian-owned shops in Türkiye were subjected to acts of vandalism by Turkish nationals due to incitement by the opposition during the May elections (Archive Photo)
Syrian-owned shops in Türkiye were subjected to acts of vandalism by Turkish nationals due to incitement by the opposition during the May elections (Archive Photo)
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Syrians Vital in Turkish Local Elections

Syrian-owned shops in Türkiye were subjected to acts of vandalism by Turkish nationals due to incitement by the opposition during the May elections (Archive Photo)
Syrian-owned shops in Türkiye were subjected to acts of vandalism by Turkish nationals due to incitement by the opposition during the May elections (Archive Photo)

As Türkiye gears up for local elections on March 31, Syrians living in the country are making their mark in the political scene.

Since last year’s elections, where they played a significant role, they’ve become essential in shaping political strategies.

This phenomenon, which initially gained traction during the previous local elections in 2019 when the opposition successfully seized key strongholds of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), continues to shape Türkiye’s political discourse and strategy.

On the government’s side, plans are underway to employ migrants, particularly Syrians, in sectors facing labor shortages.

According to reports from the pro-government newspaper “Sabah,” this initiative draws inspiration from the “guest worker” model previously implemented, benefiting primarily Turkish interests.

This move aims to tackle illegal migration and meet workforce demands. Inspired by past initiatives, this plan involves cooperation with migrants’ home countries under Türkiye’s supervision.

Türkiye’s 2024 budget has stirred controversy with its inclusion of measures concerning foreign employment, particularly targeting Syrians. This move has drawn criticism from the opposition, who view it as entrenching the presence of Syrians in Türkiye and preventing their return home.

Meanwhile, right-wing parties have intensified their rhetoric against Syrians.

Meral Akşener, leader of the nationalist Good Party, pledged tough actions in neighborhoods with large numbers of refugees, including removing non-Turkish signs.

At a rally for her party’s local election campaign, Akşener also announced plans to carry out urban transformation projects in refugee-inhabited neighborhoods, which would involve demolishing their homes and relocating them elsewhere.

Akşener's comments come after previous remarks by Ümit Özdağ, leader of the Victory Party, who is known for his anti-foreigner stance, especially targeting Syrians.

Özdağ promised tough measures against Syrians, including treating them as “guests” in municipalities won by his party, imposing special rates for utilities, and closing down Syrian businesses.

Despite opposition efforts focusing on the Syrian refugee issue in recent elections, they didn't achieve the desired results, leading to tensions in Turkish society.

Syrians, however, are aware of the situation. Mohammed, who runs a bakery in the Syrian-populated “Esenyurt” area, said they’ve faced increased hostility during elections but are abiding by government decisions to avoid trouble.

Despite the political rhetoric, statistics show Syrian integration into Turkish society is progressing, with more Syrians marrying Turkish nationals in recent years.