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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 23 OCTOBER 2023

US orders non-emergency staff to leave Baghdad; second aid convoy crosses Rafah to Gaza Strip

US orders non-emergency staff to leave Baghdad; second aid convoy crosses Rafah to Gaza Strip
People search for victims in buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on 21 October 2023. (Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images)

A second convoy of trucks carrying aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip crossed through the Rafah border point on Sunday, even as Israel stepped up air strikes on Gaza, including one it said killed the deputy head of the Hamas regional artillery array. A hospital in Gaza said it had received 170 bodies of Palestinians killed in the latest round of strikes.

Israel’s military and its prime minister warned that Iran-backed Hezbollah risks dragging neighbouring Lebanon into war and said it responded after anti-tank missiles were fired from Lebanon. An airbase in Iraq that hosts US and international forces was targeted overnight by rockets in an ongoing escalation of hostilities drawing in regional militia. The US late on Sunday said it had ordered non-emergency staff to leave its embassy in Baghdad.

Israel’s military said it would embark on the next phase of the Gaza campaign, without giving a time frame for its widely expected ground invasion against Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and EU.

Latest developments

Egypt reports minor injuries from Israeli tank misfire 

Egypt said some of its personnel received minor injuries after being hit by shell fragments when an Israeli tank accidentally fired at a border post in the area of Kerem Shalom on Sunday.

The incident is under review by Israel’s military, which expressed “immediate” regret.

US orders non-emergency staff to leave Baghdad embassy 

The State Department ordered non-emergency staff and eligible family members to leave the US embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region “due to increased security threats against US personnel and interests”.

A Level 4, do-not-travel advisory remains in effect for US citizens in Iraq due to the risk of terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest, and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to US citizens.

Israeli jets strike Hezbollah infrastructure  

Israeli jets hit Hezbollah infrastructure in Lebanon late on Sunday, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said, in response to an attempt by Hezbollah to launch an anti-tank missile into Israeli territory.

Gaza hospital says it received 170 bodies on Sunday 

The main hospital in the central Gaza Strip said it had received the bodies of about 170 Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikes since Sunday morning on areas where refugees had been sheltering. Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah also reported treating more than 300 people wounded from Israeli shelling.

Central Gaza Strip is located beyond the stream that separates Gaza City and the northern areas of the coastal enclave, from which the Israeli military has instructed Gazans to evacuate. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said the death toll had risen to more than 4,650 Palestinians, including 1,873 children and 1,101 women.

Hostage talks may delay ground invasion

Israel supports diplomatic efforts to get Hamas to release hostages from Gaza quickly and in large numbers, a move that could delay and possibly alter its ground war, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Read more: Israel’s support for hostage talks may delay invasion of Gaza

Hezbollah fires rockets after five members killed

Hezbollah said it fired guided missiles and artillery shells at four Israeli sites after it announced that five members were killed while carrying out “jihadist duty”, the militant group’s Al Manar TV reported. Hezbollah also launched missiles at another Israeli site, claiming “direct hits” from its operation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Iran-backed Hezbollah not to join the war during a meeting with military officials in northern Israel.

“We will strike it with force it cannot even imagine and the ramifications for it and for Lebanon would be devastating,” Netanyahu said.

Blinken warns Iran’s proxies

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US would “respond decisively” if Iran-backed groups attacked US forces. “We are concerned at the possibility of Iranian proxies escalating their attacks against our own personnel,” Blinken said on CBS News on Sunday.

In a separate interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Blinken referenced a “likelihood of escalation”.

Blinken declined to say whether an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza was imminent. US military advice to Israel was “focused on both how they do it and how best to achieve the results that they seek,” he said on CBS without elaborating. While citing human suffering on both sides of the war, “Hamas is an active threat and that needs to be dealt with,” Blinken said.

Forty aid trucks proposed for Monday, says WFP chief

Forty more trucks carrying aid to Gaza could cross Egypt’s Rafah border with Israel on Monday, said Cindy McCain, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP).

UN officials have said that Gaza needs closer to 100 trucks a day in humanitarian aid for its roughly 2.3 million residents. The 20 trucks that crossed the border on Saturday with food and medical supplies were the first since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October.

“We were able to get 17 more trucks in just now,” McCain said on ABC’s This Week. “And there is a proposed 40 more tomorrow. But this dribbling of the system is not going to work.”

France’s Macron expected to visit Israel on Tuesday 

Emmanuel Macron will visit Israel on Tuesday, according to the office of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Macron’s office declined to comment on the potential trip.

The French president would be the latest in a string of world leaders, diplomats and lawmakers to travel to Israel since the 7 October attacks by Hamas, including US President Joe Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian PM Giorgia Meloni.

Israel disputes report that fuel aid trucks entered Gaza

An Israeli official disputed a report that fuel trucks had entered the Gaza Strip on Sunday along with vehicles carrying other aid.

The news agency Agence France Presse reported that six trucks carrying fuel to power generators at two hospitals in Gaza had entered from Egypt, citing an official at the Rafah border crossing and an eyewitness report from an AFP journalist.

The Israeli official said the trucks photographed on Sunday were transporting fuel within Gaza, from a UN fuel depot to hospitals.

UN in Gaza says aid convoys ‘far from enough’

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) serving Palestinian refugees said it would “run out of fuel, critical for our humanitarian response across the Gaza Strip” in three days and that the aid convoys rolling into Gaza were “far from enough”.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini called on all parties to immediately allow fuel supplies into Gaza. “Without fuel, there will be no humanitarian assistance,” he said. The agency is hosting more than half a million people out of nearly one million displaced across the Gaza Strip.

Second aid convoy crosses Rafah to Gaza 

A second convoy of trucks carrying aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip crossed through the Rafah border point Sunday, according to footage on Egypt’s ExtraNews TV. Local media had reported earlier that 17 trucks were being prepared to cross the border.

The trickle of aid that entered Gaza this weekend — 20 trucks on Saturday and an estimated 17 on Sunday — falls far short of meeting the needs of the territory’s 2.3 million residents.

Israel says Hezbollah dragging Lebanon towards war 

Israel said Hezbollah risked dragging Lebanon into a wider regional war after another night of intense cross-border fire with the Iran-backed militant group.

In one of its most serious warnings yet, the military said Hezbollah was “playing a very, very dangerous game” and “dragging Lebanon into a war that it will gain nothing from but stands to lose a lot”.

More than 60,000 people in Israel have been evacuated along the border with Lebanon, and residents of an additional 14 communities are set to leave, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

Israeli stocks fall again amid fears of widening conflict 

Israel’s benchmark TA-35 Index fell again on Sunday as increasing attacks from Iran-backed Hezbollah militants prompted a warning from Israeli authorities that neighbouring Lebanon could be pulled into the war. The decline was broad-based and led by Nova, a maker of measurement systems for the chip manufacturing industry. The gauge has fallen more than 10% since the 7 October attacks by Hamas and is down almost 9% for the year to date.

Russia’s Lavrov will visit Iran  

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov would travel to Iran on Monday, ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters. The main purpose of the trip would be the Armenian-Azerbaijani “normalisation process,” with ministers from Turkey and Georgia also on hand.

Israel army intercepts drone from Lebanon

The Israeli military said that anti-tank missiles were fired from Lebanon and that it intercepted a drone from its northern neighbour. The Israel Defence Force responded with fire to an attempted missile launch. Israel said its aircraft struck earlier in the day a cell planning to launch anti-tank missiles from Lebanon.

Army says next steps in Gaza await government guidance 

The Israel Defence Force awaits guidance from the government before embarking on the next phase of the military campaign in Gaza, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said in a briefing.

In the meantime, the army has stepped up its aerial strikes over the Gaza Strip in what it described as “part of the preparations for the next phase”, which is widely expected to include a ground invasion.

“Overnight, dozens of terrorists were killed, including the deputy commander of the Hamas rocket fire array,” Hagari said in a televised statement.

Cathay Pacific suspends flights to Tel Aviv for rest of 2023 

Hong Kong-based carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said it had cancelled all flights between the Asian financial hub and Tel Aviv for the rest of this year, citing “the ongoing situation in Israel”.

The company first stopped flights there earlier this month, along with many other airlines, after Hamas launched its attack on Israel on 7 October. Cathay Pacific until then offered three flights a week to Hong Kong, according to the flight data company Cirium.

Rockets target Iraq’s Ain Al-Asad airbase, says Reuters 

Katyusha rockets targeted the base, which hosts US and international forces, and one blast was heard inside the base, Reuters reported, citing army officials it didn’t identify.

On Saturday, defence systems at the base in the western Anbar province intercepted and shot down two drones.

India sends humanitarian aid for Gaza 

An Indian Air Force flight carrying nearly 6.5 tonnes of medical aid and 32 tonnes of disaster relief material departed for Egypt, according to a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi.

The supplies include life-saving medicines, surgical items, tents, sleeping bags, sanitary utilities, water purification tablets and other items, Bagchi said in a post on X.

Syria says Israel attacked its airports 

Israel conducted simultaneous airstrikes, targeting Damascus and Aleppo airports and putting them out of service, Syria’s state-run Sana news agency reported. Both facilities had been hit earlier in the Israel-Hamas war.

Al Jazeera reported Syria was diverting flights to the airport at its Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Israel to evacuate more communities in the north 

Israel will evacuate 14 additional communities that are close to its northern border following exchanges of fire with Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Israel had already evacuated 50,000 residents from about 30 communities along the border last week, including Kiryat Shmona, the area’s largest city and service hub.

In southern Israel, 70,000 residents have already been evacuated from communities following the 7 October attacks by Hamas.

US strengthens Middle East defence posture  

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said he had taken steps to strengthen the department’s posture in the Middle East after talks with President Joe Biden.

The government would add more Patriot battalions to locations in the region and activate a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence battery to increase protection for US forces. Additional staff had been placed on “prepare to deploy orders” to increase readiness, Austin said. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East Crisis News Hub

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