Al-Alimi to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Support and Encourage Saudi Mediation with Houthis

Dr. Rashad al-Alimi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat during an interview in Brussels. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Dr. Rashad al-Alimi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat during an interview in Brussels. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Al-Alimi to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Support and Encourage Saudi Mediation with Houthis

Dr. Rashad al-Alimi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat during an interview in Brussels. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Dr. Rashad al-Alimi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat during an interview in Brussels. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Chairman of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) Dr. Rashad al-Alimi said the country’s political problems can be summed up in two words: exclusion and marginalization, while they can be resolved through consensus and partnership.

In an exclusive interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, he underscored his support to the Saudi mediation with the Iran-backed Houthi militias with Oman’s participation. He confirmed that the Yemeni government is receiving constant updates from the Saudis about the progress of the talks, adding that ultimately, any final agreement will take place between the government and Houthis.

Alimi is currently in Brussels, the first leg of a European tour.

Saudi mediation with Houthis

Asked about the progress in the Saudi mediation with the Houthis, he remarked that this was not the first time that the Kingdom had sought to contact the militias. He cited the Dhahran al-Janub understandings and how the militias reneged on them. He noted that channels of communication had also been open when he was aide to former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

“We believe that the discussions and communication are positive because they will serve the peace process and stability in Yemen,” Alimi remarks.

Moreover, he revealed that the “brothers in the Kingdom explained that there won’t be a Saudi-Houthi agreement, but that should a deal be struck, it will take place between the Yemeni government and the coupists.”

Any agreement on a roadmap, which begins with the extension of the nationwide truce, a ceasefire, kicking off comprehensive consultations on political, security and military affairs, will take place between the government and Houthis, he added.

“We support and encourage the Saudi efforts because we are seeking peace and stability in Yemen and ending the war,” he stressed.

Ties between the govt and coalition

The relationship between the Yemeni government and Saudi-led Arab coalition had been criticized and some figures had addressed the issue, both directly and indirectly, during the 2022 consultations in Riyadh.

Alimi noted that the coalition was formed at the behest of the former president to restore the Yemeni state and constitution from the Houthis.

He said some of the criticism has said that eight years of joint work between the coalition and government has not yielded the desired result of reclaiming the state. “On the contrary, were it not for this intervention, the Houthis would now be in control of the whole of Yemen. Iran would now be in control of the Bab al-Mandeb and Arabian Sea straits,” stated Alimi.

“Everyone seems to forget this fact,” he continued. “A large part of Yemen has been safeguarded, so has the legitimacy of the state, which is national interest.”

“Why is it a national interest?” he asked. “Take a look of Somalia. For 30 years, it remained without an identity and its citizens did not have passports or a government. At least the Yemenis today have passports and international recognition.”

“Hypothetically, if the Houthis had taken over the whole of Yemen, I am certain that the international and regional communities would not have recognized their government. The suffering of the Yemeni people would probably have been worse than it is now if it weren't for the intervention of the coalition,” stressed Alimi.

“Setting aside the negatives, one of the greatest achievements [of the coalition] was preventing the Houthis from taking over the entire country. The Yemeni government is still in control of the straits and the identity of the Yemeni nation has been preserved,” he added.

He did, however, acknowledge errors that have been committed by the government and coalition. “Mistakes happen during work. Everyone recognized the errors and made them right.”

Moreover, Alimi praised the financial and development support provided by the members of the coalition to Yemen, the latest of which was Saudi Arabia’s deposit of one billion dollars this week in the country’s central bank.

He thanked the Kingdom, saying its gesture was an “example of solidarity and a reflection of the Kingdom’s responsible vision of Yemen, its identity and people.”

Political process

Alimi believes that the root of Yemen’s problems is the obstruction of the political process. Its economic problems, war, internal conflicts, deep poverty and unprecedented humanitarian disaster can all be traced to the obstruction of the political process.

He revealed that he met with Belgium’s King Philippe and explained to him the crisis in his country, starting from 2011. He detailed to him the Gulf initiative that sought to end the tensions between the Yemenis that could have devolved into war. He spoke of the national dialogue that the Houthis were a part of, the constitutional committee and efforts to hold a constitutional referendum.

“We were on the verge of electing a new president and parliament when the Houthi coup took place” in 2014, he added. “This is the sum of the situation. The war, humanitarian crisis, and everything else happened as a result of the halt of the political process.”

Yemen’s main problem can be summed up in two words: exclusion and marginalization. They can be resolved through consensus and partnership, stated Alimi.

Houthis and political maturity

The Houthis, lamented Alimi, have “violated all the values the Yemeni people have known throughout their history.” The Houthi actions have struck at the core of the Yemeni social fabric, he went on to say. He believes that should United Nations-sponsored elections be held in Yemen, the Houthis would not win a single vote, citing how back in the 1990s, they had only ever won one seat in parliament.

In 2018, then American Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Toller told Asharq Al-Awsat that a political solution can only be achieved when the Houthis reach “political maturity”.

Asharq Al-Awsat asked Alimi: “When will the Houthis become politically mature?”

“Perhaps after 40,” he quipped, referring to the leader of the Houthis who is under 40 years of age.

More seriously, however, the Houthis may begin to mature politically once they stop sanctifying religious rulers, he said. The Yemenis themselves have always opposed this and some Houthi figures have also criticized this concept.

The other condition is for them to abandon the Iranian-Persian expansionist agenda in the region. The Iranians want to strip Islam of its true values and teachings to further their political goals, Alimi said.

Iran and the European position

Observers have noted that Iran’s providing of Russia of drones in the war on Ukraine has opened the discussion over the dangers of Tehran’s aircraft. Yemen and the entire region have complained about the Iranian drones and agenda in the region.

Alimi said: “We have spoken about this before and none of those countries had listened. But now that the drones have reached Ukraine, the West and Americans have started to think about this problem because their main interests have been harmed.”

“I believe that the European position has changed. This could be a blessing in disguise. We do not support war anywhere in the world, but perhaps this could be a message to the western and international community to sense the dangers that we had previously warned of,” he added.

“Who would have ever thought that European countries would one day demand the terrorist designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards?” he asked.

He revealed that Yemeni officials had held talks in Brussels to that end. Alimi said he had spoken to head of the European Union and praised him on the bloc’s “progressive stance.”

“We are being harmed by the Guards, which are the source of all problems in our region,” he stressed. “There is one command center that is running the situation in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and perhaps other regions.”

Truce

Yemen enjoyed a nationwide ceasefire between the government forces and Houthis from April to October 2022. The Houthis refused to extend the truce for another six months in spite of the efforts of United Nations envoy Hans Grundberg.

The truce called for a ceasefire, reopening Sanaa airport and routes to Houthi-besieged Taiz and allowing the import of fuel through Houthi-held Hodeidah.

The government committed to all articles of the truce and offered several concessions when it could have just as easily impeded it, but it prioritized the people’s interests. The Houthis, on the other hand, did not commit to any articles related to Taiz and the ceasefire was widely violated by the militias on a nearly daily basis, as documented by the government and local organizations.

Even though the truce may have ended, the government still remains committed to the ceasefire and has not stopped Sanaa flights or the flow of fuel into Hodeidah. The Houthis, meanwhile have committed numerous violations, including attacks on oil ports that the UN Security Council, EU and United States have described as terrorist.

Asharq Al-Awsat asked Alimi why the government has continued to allow Sanaa flights because they appear to be a political gain for the Houthis. His reply was surprising, saying that it was not a gain for the Houthis, but rather the government. Moreover, he said he was not thinking about who was gaining what, but was more concerned with the interests of the people.

“Our goal is not the Houthis, but tending to our people because we are a government for all Yemenis. This is not a gain for the Houthis, but one for the government, and more importantly, for all Yemenis,” he stressed.

“We want the people to have an outlet from the Houthi pressure, oppression, and great prison they are held in,” he remarked.

National shield

The formation of the “National Shield Forces” was announced in January, sparking a heated debate over its purpose. Alimi explained that the force was supposed to be formed even before the establishment of his Presidential Leadership Council in April 2022.

As part of the PLC, “we were considering our next military plan and the need for a reserve force that would be aligned to the state,” he explained. There have been thousands of martyrs on various fronts, such as al-Jawf, Lahj, Saada, Marib, Taiz, Shabwa, Hodeidah and others.

“There was a need for new blood and the National Shield Forces was that,” he noted. “It is a reserve force that will not replace any other one, such as the republican or presidential guards, rather, it will carry out any mission tasked to it by the PLC,” he added.

Yearning for Sanaa

“Have you missed Sanaa?” Asharq Al-Awsat asked Alimi. He replied: “Of course. Several people have told me that my house has now been seized by the Houthis, to which I respond that once the nation is reclaimed, then houses will be returned to their owners.”

“Several people who have taken an ambiguous stance towards the legitimacy and the Houthis have done so out of their fear over their families and properties,” he went on to say. “I once asked someone if it was possible for them to return to their home in Sanaa and live in freedom and enjoy a normal life, to which they replied that it was not.”

“I told him, of course it wasn’t because the country has been abducted, not the homes. When the nation is restored, so will the homes, which are nothing but piles of rocks that have no value when compared to freedom, equality, rights and justice,” Alimi stressed.



Israeli War Cabinet Member Gantz Says ‘Promising Early Signs’ on New Hostage Deal

 An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
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Israeli War Cabinet Member Gantz Says ‘Promising Early Signs’ on New Hostage Deal

 An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz said on Wednesday there were "promising early signs of progress" on a new deal to release hostages from Gaza amid regional talks to secure a pause in the war.

"There are ongoing attempts to promote a new hostage deal and there are promising early signs of possible progress," Gantz said in a televised press briefing.

"We will not stop looking for a way and we will not miss any opportunity to bring our girls and boys home."

But he added that if no new deal were struck, the Israeli military would keep fighting in Gaza even into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next month.

"If a new hostage deal is not achieved, we will continue operating also during Ramadan," he said.


Israeli Parliament Backs Netanyahu’s Rejection of ‘Unilateral’ Recognition of Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)
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Israeli Parliament Backs Netanyahu’s Rejection of ‘Unilateral’ Recognition of Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)

Israeli lawmakers voted on Wednesday to back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of any "unilateral" recognition of a Palestinian state as international calls have grown for the revival of Palestinian statehood negotiations.

Issued amid the war in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas, the symbolic declaration also received backing from members of the opposition, with 99 of 120 lawmakers voting in support, the Knesset spokesperson said.

The Israeli position says that any permanent accord with the Palestinians must be reached through direct negotiations between the sides and not by international dictates.

"The Knesset came together in an overwhelming majority against the attempt to impose on us the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would not only fail to bring peace but would endanger the state of Israel," said Netanyahu.

The vote drew condemnation from the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, which accused Israel of holding the rights of the Palestinian people hostage by forceful occupation of territories where Palestinians seek to establish a state.

"The ministry reaffirms that the State of Palestine's full membership in the United Nations and its recognition by other nations does not require permission from Netanyahu," it said in a statement.

Little progress has been made towards achieving a two-state solution - a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza alongside Israel - since the signing of the interim Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.

Among the obstacles impeding Palestinian statehood are expanding Israeli settlements in territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries regard the settlements, which in many areas cut Palestinian communities off from each other, as a violation of international law.

The two-state solution has long been a core Western policy in the region. Since the outbreak in October of the Gaza war, the United States has been trying to promote steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a broader Middle East deal that would include other Arab states officially normalizing relations with Israel.


Israeli Strike Kills Woman and Child in South Lebanon

Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
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Israeli Strike Kills Woman and Child in South Lebanon

Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)

An Israeli air strike killed a woman and a child in south Lebanon on Wednesday, sources in Lebanon said, days after Hezbollah said it would inflict a price on Israel for killing civilians in the conflict across the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The woman and girl were killed in the strike near Majdal Zoun, a village some 6 km (4 miles) from the border, according to two security sources and a medical source.

The father of the six-year-old girl killed said she had asked to visit her village, which they had fled from after the eruption of hostilities last year, in comments broadcast by al-Akhbar newspaper.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has been trading fire with Israel since the Oct. 7 attack by its Palestinian ally Hamas on southern Israel in a campaign Hezbollah says aims to support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said its warplanes had struck three Hezbollah operational command centers in southern Lebanon.

It said Israeli army artillery had also fired "to remove a threat" in the areas of Alma al-Shaab and Dhayra, both villages at the border.

The Israeli army did not respond to a request for comment about reports of the strike in Majdal Zoun.

Hezbollah signaled on Friday it would escalate attacks on Israel in response to the deaths of 10 Lebanese civilians in Israeli attacks last week.

Hezbollah announced more than half a dozen attacks on Israeli positions on Wednesday.

Israeli strikes since Oct. 8 have killed some 50 civilians in Lebanon, in addition to nearly 200 Hezbollah fighters.

Attacks from Lebanon into Israel have killed a dozen Israeli soldiers and five civilians.

The violence has uprooted tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border.


Israeli Airstrike Kills Two People in Damascus, Says Syrian TV

Workers and people stand near a damaged building after, according to Syrian state media reports, several Israeli missiles hit a residential building in the Kafr Sousa district, Damascus, Syria  February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi
Workers and people stand near a damaged building after, according to Syrian state media reports, several Israeli missiles hit a residential building in the Kafr Sousa district, Damascus, Syria February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi
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Israeli Airstrike Kills Two People in Damascus, Says Syrian TV

Workers and people stand near a damaged building after, according to Syrian state media reports, several Israeli missiles hit a residential building in the Kafr Sousa district, Damascus, Syria  February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi
Workers and people stand near a damaged building after, according to Syrian state media reports, several Israeli missiles hit a residential building in the Kafr Sousa district, Damascus, Syria February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi

An Israeli airstrike hit a residential building in the Kafr Sousa district in Syria's capital Damascus on Wednesday, killing two people, Syrian state media and a security source said.

A military source cited by Syrian state TV said the strike at about 9:40 a.m. (0640 GMT) wounded a number of other people, identifying the dead as civilians.

Images published by Syrian state media showed the charred side of a multi-storey building. The security source said the "attack did not achieve its aims".

The neighborhood hosts residential buildings, schools and Iranian cultural centers, and lies near a large, heavily-guarded complex used by security agencies. The district was struck in an Israeli attack in February 2023 that killed Iranian military experts.

Witnesses heard several back-to-back explosions. The blasts scared children at a nearby school and ambulances rushed to the area, the witnesses told Reuters.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.

Iran's semi-official Student News Network said no Iranian citizens were killed in the strike.

On Wednesday afternoon, a Reuters witness heard another large blast in the capital that shook the windows of homes. Local Syrian outlet Sham FM said several explosions were heard in the capital without specifying the cause.

Iran has been a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad during Syria's nearly 12-year-old conflict. Its support for Damascus and the Lebanese group Hezbollah has drawn regular Israeli air strikes meant to curb Tehran's extraterritorial military power.

Those strikes have ramped up in line with flaring regional tensions since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, with more than half a dozen Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers killed in suspected Israeli strikes on Syria since December.

As a result, the Guards have scaled back deployment of their senior officers in Syria and have planned to rely more on allied Shiite militia to preserve their sway there, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier this month.

Iran, a backer of Hamas, has sought to stay out of the conflict itself even as it supports groups that have entered the fray from Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria - the so-called "Axis of Resistance" that is hostile to Israeli and US interests. 


Sudanese Army Strikes Hemedti’s Hometown as Fighting Erupt Again in Khartoum 

Damage is seen following an army attack in El Daein. (Social media)
Damage is seen following an army attack in El Daein. (Social media)
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Sudanese Army Strikes Hemedti’s Hometown as Fighting Erupt Again in Khartoum 

Damage is seen following an army attack in El Daein. (Social media)
Damage is seen following an army attack in El Daein. (Social media)

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) said on Tuesday that at least 11 people were killed and dozens wounded in Sudanese army air raids on the city of El Daein, the capital of the East Darfur state and hometown of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

The army confirmed that it carried out strikes on military targets in El Daein, saying it “hit and completely destroyed a weapons depot belonging to a terrorist militia”

The army’s WhatsApp channel said several “field commanders and Dagalo terrorist mercenaries” were killed in the attack.

In a post on the X platform, the RSF said nine of the victims were members of the same family and included women and children. Dozens of innocent civilians were wounded and hundreds of homes were damaged in the attack.

It accused the army of targeting the “al-Neem” refugee camp, a hospital and water plant in El Daein.

The city is the hometown of the Rizeigat tribe, whose members make up the majority of the RSF commanders and fighters.

The RSF accused the army of repeatedly attacking civilians with explosive bombs in “deliberate cowardly criminal acts.”

“The attack is the latest in the series of crimes committed by [army commander Abdul Fattah al-Burhan's] militia and remnants of the former regime,” it added.

It called on international rights and human rights groups to “condemn these barbaric extremist acts against innocent people.”

The RSF captured El Daein after the army retreated from it in November.

Activists on Facebook said the army’s strikes on Tuesday targeted residential areas, while others said they hit RSF positions, causing losses in lives and damaging military equipment.

Separately, witnesses said clashes erupted again in the capital Khartoum. They said the RSF shelled army positions with heavy artillery in the general command area.


Israel Pounds Gaza as US Vetoes UN Truce Resolution

Israel kept up its deadly bombardment of war-torn Gaza as Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire in the Palestinian territory. SAID KHATIB / AFP
Israel kept up its deadly bombardment of war-torn Gaza as Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire in the Palestinian territory. SAID KHATIB / AFP
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Israel Pounds Gaza as US Vetoes UN Truce Resolution

Israel kept up its deadly bombardment of war-torn Gaza as Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire in the Palestinian territory. SAID KHATIB / AFP
Israel kept up its deadly bombardment of war-torn Gaza as Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire in the Palestinian territory. SAID KHATIB / AFP

Israel kept up its deadly bombardment of war-torn Gaza as Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire in the Palestinian territory.
Global powers trying to navigate a way out of the spiraling crisis have so far come up short, and mediation efforts have so far failed to secure a truce to halt the fighting, AFP said.
Adding to Gaza's woes, the UN's food agency said Tuesday that it had to stop desperately-needed deliveries to the north of the territory after facing "complete chaos and violence" there -- a decision condemned by Hamas.
The World Food Programme had only just resumed deliveries Sunday but said its convoy was met with gunfire, violence and looting, while a truck driver was beaten.
"We are shocked about this decision by the World Food Programme to suspend the delivery of food aid in northern Gaza, which means a death sentence and death for three-quarters of a million people," the Hamas government media office said Tuesday night.
Calling on the agency to "immediately reverse its disastrous decision", it said "we hold the United Nations and the international community responsible".
Since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, Gaza has been plunged into a food crisis, with outside aid severely restricted.
The UN has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, warning that food shortages could lead to an "explosion" of preventable child deaths.
More than four months of relentless fighting have flattened much of the coastal territory, pushing 2.2 million people to the brink of famine and displacing three-quarters of the population, according to UN estimates.
"We can't take it anymore. We do not have flour, we don't even know where to go in this cold weather," said Ahmad, a resident of Gaza city, where streets are strewn with rubble from destroyed buildings and garbage.
"We demand a ceasefire. We want to live," he said.
Ceasefire veto
But in New York, Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution drafted by Algeria, which demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the "unconditional" release of all hostages kidnapped in the October 7 attacks.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Washington's ambassador to the UN, called the vote "wishful and irresponsible" as it could put negotiations to free hostages in Gaza "in jeopardy".
The veto provoked criticism from countries including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and even close US allies France and Slovenia.
Hamas said the US veto equalled "a green light for the occupation to commit more massacres".
As world powers voted, Israeli strikes pounded Gaza early Wednesday as fighting on the ground raged on, leaving 103 people dead, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory.
Witnesses reported heavy fire in areas around Gaza, including the south of the territory's main city Khan Yunis and Rafah near the Egyptian border, where around 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter.
'Graveyard'
Rafah, Gaza's last city to face a ground invasion by Israeli ground troops, is also the main entry point for desperately needed relief supplies via Egypt.
Qatar, which has played a key role in mediation efforts between Hamas and Israel, said Tuesday that medicines sent into Gaza under a deal co-negotiated by France had reached the hostages held by Hamas, in exchange for a shipment of humanitarian aid.
But overall, negotiation efforts have failed to secure a longterm truce and despite international pressure, Israel has insisted that a ground operation Rafah is essential to destroy Hamas.
The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.
Hamas also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,195 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

Leaders of global humanitarian groups said a ground offensive could turn the Rafah into a "graveyard", warning of the "truly unimaginable" consequences of a full-scale assault.
Israel has said that unless all the hostages are freed by the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, it will push on with its offensive during the Muslim holy month, including in Rafah.
G20 firestorm
On Wednesday, Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa -- is expected to land in Egypt and then head to Israel Thursday to advance a hostage deal.
McGurk will also reiterate US President Joe Biden's concerns about an Israeli operation in Rafah, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Adding to the international chorus of criticism of Israel, Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Tuesday accused Israel of committing a "genocide" of the Palestinians in Gaza -- echoing comments made by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Lula sparked a diplomatic firestorm with his comments ahead of the G20 summit in Rio de Janeiro opening Wednesday, and Israel have declared him "persona non grata".


Aoun Continues to Break from Hezbollah: We Are Not Bound to Gaza by Defense Treaty

This picture taken from an Israeli position along the border with southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing from a site between the Lebanese villages of Odaisseh and Markaba during Israeli bombardment on February 19, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
This picture taken from an Israeli position along the border with southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing from a site between the Lebanese villages of Odaisseh and Markaba during Israeli bombardment on February 19, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
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Aoun Continues to Break from Hezbollah: We Are Not Bound to Gaza by Defense Treaty

This picture taken from an Israeli position along the border with southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing from a site between the Lebanese villages of Odaisseh and Markaba during Israeli bombardment on February 19, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
This picture taken from an Israeli position along the border with southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing from a site between the Lebanese villages of Odaisseh and Markaba during Israeli bombardment on February 19, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)

Lebanese former President Michel Aoun continued to break away from his ally Hezbollah by openly criticizing the party for opening the southern front to wage clashes with Israel in solidarity with Gaza.

He said: “We are not bound to Gaza with a defense treaty.”

He is the latest Christian figure that has been calling for keeping Lebanon away from the war in Gaza.

In a televised interview to his Free Patriotic Movement-affiliated OTV, Aoun said Lebanon was not bound by a defense treaty to Gaza. “However, one segment of the Lebanese people has taken this choice, while the government is incapable of taking a position. A victory would be for the nation, not a portion of it,” he added.

Moreover, he dismissed claims that the decision to go to war was aimed at preempting an Israeli attack on Lebanon. “Getting involved in a confrontation doesn’t lessen the danger, but increases it,” he stressed.

Furthermore, he also dismissed efforts to tie the developments in Gaza and the South to a deal over the Lebanese presidency.

Lebanon has been without a president since Aoun’s term ended in October 2022. Bickering between political parties has thwarted the election of a successor.

The dispute over the presidency is another issue that has driven a wedge between the FPM and Hezbollah. The party backs the nomination of Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, while the FPM does not. Its current leader, Gebran Bassil, has presidential aspirations even though he has not declared his candidacy.

Tensions deepened between the allies over Hezbollah’s participation in government sessions that approved various state appointments and its MPs’ participation in a parliament meeting that approved the extension of the term of the army commander.

The Christian Kataeb party has been another vocal critic of Hezbollah’s fighting against Israel in the South.

Following a meeting of its political bureau, headed by Kataeb leader MP Sami Gemayel, it slammed the “proliferation of destructive weapons in villages and residential areas and the phenomenon of tunnels that threaten to drag everyone and everything in the country to war that Lebanon and the Lebanese people don’t want.”

The only reasonable option available is for the Lebanese army to seize control of the situation, said the Kataeb in a statement. “Only the army has the authority before the people and international community to defend Lebanon and protect its borders” in cooperation with the United Nations peacekeeping force.

“Deterring attacks should not be entrusted to a militia that has usurped the state. Rather, it is the responsibility of legitimate institutions that operate according to the constitution and laws, and through active and effective diplomacy that supports the Lebanese army, demands a ceasefire and prevents the spillover of the war,” it stressed.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, refuses to discuss any issues related to the war before the conflict in Gaza is over.

Deputy party leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said in recent days: “Let it be clear, we have three ‘nos’: No backing down from supporting Gaza as long as the [Israeli] aggression continues. No to succumbing to Israeli or western threats, because we believe that defense is a duty and without it there can be no stability.”

“And no to any discussion about the future of southern Lebanon, both on the Lebanese and Palestinian side of the border, before the end of the aggression on Gaza,” he added.


UN Aid Agency Says Israel Hasn’t Shown Evidence Its Workers Joined Rampage

Palestinians who fled from the northern Gaza Strip and Rafah town, outside their shelters in Deir Al Balah, southern Gaza Strip, 20 February 2024. (EPA)
Palestinians who fled from the northern Gaza Strip and Rafah town, outside their shelters in Deir Al Balah, southern Gaza Strip, 20 February 2024. (EPA)
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UN Aid Agency Says Israel Hasn’t Shown Evidence Its Workers Joined Rampage

Palestinians who fled from the northern Gaza Strip and Rafah town, outside their shelters in Deir Al Balah, southern Gaza Strip, 20 February 2024. (EPA)
Palestinians who fled from the northern Gaza Strip and Rafah town, outside their shelters in Deir Al Balah, southern Gaza Strip, 20 February 2024. (EPA)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees says the United Nations still has not received any evidence from Israel supporting its claims that 12 of the agency’s employees participated in the Oct. 7 rampage that sparked the war.

Israel released a document last month identifying the 12 workers along with the allegations against them, and accusing some of participating in kidnappings. But it has released little of the evidence collected against the workers.

The allegations prompted key donors, including the United States, to suspend funding to UNRWA. The agency, the main provider of aid in Gaza, has warned it will have to halt its operations if funding is not soon restored.

Philippe Lazzarini, the director of UNRWA, has dismissed the 10 surviving workers; the agency says the other two were killed in fighting. The UN has also opened two investigations into UNRWA’s operations.

In a podcast Tuesday, Lazzarini said Israel still has not presented formal evidence to the UN.

“The UN has never, never, ever received any written dossier, despite our repeated call for cooperation from the Israeli authorities,” he said. He added that agency investigators are looking into the allegations and called on anyone with evidence to share it with the investigation team.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of tolerating Hamas activities in and around UN facilities and in some cases even cooperating with the militant group. Lazzarini has denied this and says his agency has safeguards in place to discipline any employee who violates the UN ideals of neutrality.


Lebanese Warehouse Hit in Israeli Strike Burns for the Second Day Ghazieh

Firefighters extinguish a fire at a destroyed warehouse that was targeted on Monday by Israeli airstrikes, at an industrial district in the southern coastal town of Ghazieh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP)
Firefighters extinguish a fire at a destroyed warehouse that was targeted on Monday by Israeli airstrikes, at an industrial district in the southern coastal town of Ghazieh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP)
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Lebanese Warehouse Hit in Israeli Strike Burns for the Second Day Ghazieh

Firefighters extinguish a fire at a destroyed warehouse that was targeted on Monday by Israeli airstrikes, at an industrial district in the southern coastal town of Ghazieh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP)
Firefighters extinguish a fire at a destroyed warehouse that was targeted on Monday by Israeli airstrikes, at an industrial district in the southern coastal town of Ghazieh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP)

Firefighters in southern Lebanon were battling a diesel fuel fire in a warehouse that was struck by Israeli jets for a second day Tuesday.

The Israeli military’s Arabic spokesperson Avichay Adraee said the attack Monday targeted a weapons warehouse that belonged to the militant group Hezbollah.

The strike that wounded 14 people was one of the largest near a major Lebanese city since clashes between the Israeli military and Hezbollah along the Lebanese-Israeli border erupted after the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7.

Mohamad Khalifa, the owner of the warehouse, denied allegations that the facility belonged to Hezbollah.

“This is a company registered for 11 years that works with electricity generators, open from morning until night, receiving customers all day,” he told The Associated Press. “There is nothing hidden here. The claim that this has weapons is a lie.”

The airstrike reduced the warehouse to scraps, with fuel fires slowly burning.


US Again Vetoes UN Action in Israel-Hamas War, Blocks Ceasefire Call

 Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
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US Again Vetoes UN Action in Israel-Hamas War, Blocks Ceasefire Call

 Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)

The United States on Tuesday again vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution on the Israel-Hamas war, blocking a demand for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire as it instead pushes the 15-member body to call for a temporary ceasefire linked to the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Thirteen council members voted in favor of the Algerian-drafted text, while Britain abstained. It was the third such US veto since the start of the current fighting on Oct. 7.

"A vote in favor of this draft resolution is support to the Palestinians right to life. Conversely, voting against it implies an endorsement of the brutal violence and collective punishment inflicted upon them," Algeria's UN Ambassador Amar Bendjama told the council before the vote.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield signaled on Saturday that the US would veto the draft resolution over concerns it could jeopardize talks between the US, Egypt, Israel and Qatar that seek to broker a pause in the war and the release of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"Demanding an immediate, unconditional ceasefire without an agreement requiring Hamas to release the hostages will not bring about a durable peace. Instead, it could extend the fighting between Hamas and Israel," Thomas-Greenfield told the council ahead of the vote.

The Algerian-drafted resolution vetoed by the US did not link a ceasefire to the release of hostages. It separately demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.

"Simply calling for a ceasefire - as this resolution does - will not make it happen," Britain's UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward told the council after the vote. "The way to stop the fighting, and potentially stop it from restarting, is to begin with a pause to get hostages out and aid in."

Temporary ceasefire

The US has now proposed a rival draft resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and opposing a major ground offensive by its ally Israel in Rafah, according to the text seen by Reuters on Monday. It said it plans to allow time for negotiations and will not rush to a vote.

Until now, Washington has been averse to the word ceasefire in any UN action on the Israel-Hamas war, but the US text echoes language that President Joe Biden said he used last week in conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US draft resolution would see the Security Council "underscore its support for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable, based on the formula of all hostages being released, and calls for lifting all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale."

This is the second time since Oct. 7 that Washington has proposed a Security Council resolution on Gaza. Russia and China vetoed its first attempt in late October.

Washington traditionally shields Israel from UN action. But it has also abstained twice, allowing the council to adopt resolutions that aimed to boost aid to Gaza and called for extended pauses in fighting.

The war began when fighters from the Hamas militant group that runs Gaza attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. In retaliation, Israel launched a military assault on Gaza that health authorities say has killed nearly 29,000 Palestinians with thousands more bodies feared lost amid the ruins.

In December, more than three-quarters of the 193-member UN General Assembly voted to demand an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. General Assembly resolutions are not binding but carry political weight, reflecting a global view on the war.