World

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 26 APRIL 2024

Israel edges closer to war with Hezbollah; Blinken to attend Saudi meeting on Gaza’s future

Israel edges closer to war with Hezbollah; Blinken to attend Saudi meeting on Gaza’s future
A protest outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on 24 April 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Abir Sultan)

Israel is stepping up preparations for a potential all-out war with Hezbollah as the risk of a devastating new phase in the country’s conflict with Iran and its proxy militias grows more acute.

Saudi Arabia plans to host a meeting on Monday to discuss Gaza’s future with foreign officials including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to people familiar with the matter.

Support among swing-state voters for US aid to Israel has plunged in the months since the country launched its campaign to root out Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to the latest Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll.

The US sanctioned more than a dozen Iranian ships, people and companies linked to the country’s drone programme, the latest in a push to punish Tehran over its 13 April attack on Israel and support for proxy militant groups in the Middle East.

Israel prepares forces as conflict with Hezbollah intensifies

Israel is stepping up preparations for a potential all-out war with Hezbollah as the risk of a devastating new phase in the country’s conflict with Iran and its proxy militias grows more acute.   

Israeli forces have been exchanging cross-border fire with the Lebanon-based group almost daily since the start of the campaign against Hamas in October, and are now putting in place measures that would enable an escalation of hostilities — if required. Those include additional military exercises for ground, naval and aerial forces in the north of the country, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

Leaders in the area had been briefed “on the processes to accelerate readiness for continued fighting”, the IDF said. Additional storage facilities were being installed to enable a quick and broad mobilisation of IDF troops to the front line, the armed forces said. 

Israel said it struck about 40 sites linked to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon on Wednesday, an escalation of hostilities after the militant group staged its deepest attack inside Israel the previous day. Tensions between the two have been high since Israel invaded Gaza to try to eradicate Hamas — which like Hezbollah is an Iran-backed group considered a terrorist organisation by the US — but appear to have intensified since Israel and Iran began attacking each other directly earlier this month.  

An Israeli escalation of fighting with Hezbollah would be fraught with danger. The group is considered the most powerful militia in the Middle East and is believed to possess some 150,000 missiles and rockets — some with a long enough range to reach almost anywhere in Israel — according to a senior Israeli official.

Israel has been targeted by about 17,000 rockets, missiles and artillery shells since October — the date Hamas militants invaded the country and killed about 1,200 people — with some two-thirds making it across the border. About 3,000 were fired from Lebanon and the rest from Gaza, with a total of 27 fatalities. Around 350 people have been killed by Israeli strikes on Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters.

If a fully fledged war breaks out in the north, Israel estimates a baseline scenario of as many as 5,000 missiles a day will be fired from Lebanon, on top of several hundred more by other Iranian proxies in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, said the Israeli official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive information.

The sheer volume of rockets could test Israel’s much-vaunted air defence systems to breaking point, increasing the number of casualties and disrupting daily life. Hezbollah was likely to try to hit infrastructure facilities such as power plants and water pipes, as well as sea ports, airports and communication sites, the official said. 

The military effort would come on top of  Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, where the IDF is preparing a potential ground invasion of Rafah, the southern city where more than a million civilians have taken refuge from the months of bombardments further north. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the campaign so far, according to Hamas-run health authorities. 

Saudi Arabia to host Gaza talks with top US, UK and Arab officials

Saudi Arabia plans to host a meeting on Monday to discuss Gaza’s future with foreign officials including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to people familiar with the matter.

The talks in Riyadh may also include UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron and key officials from the European Union, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar, as well as the Palestinian Authority, said the people, who asked not to be identified speaking about private matters. Officials from Israel, which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and Hamas are not thought to be attending.

It was described as a crisis meeting, designed more for initial talks between the sides than anything likely to achieve concrete outcomes.

The discussions will happen on the sidelines of a special edition of the World Economic Forum.

The Saudi government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have been highly critical of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and called for an immediate ceasefire. The US, UK and EU are pressuring Israel to allow more aid into the Palestinian territory to ease its humanitarian crisis and prevent a famine.

They are urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to launch an offensive on the city of Rafah, which the Israeli military says is the last bastion of Hamas.

Washington has also been frustrated by what it sees as a lack of Israeli planning for Gaza’s post-war situation, and by Netanyahu’s unwillingness to discuss steps toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have signalled they’re willing to help fund Gaza’s reconstruction if Israel accepts negotiations on Palestinian statehood, Bloomberg has reported. The plan is broadly backed by US President Joe Biden.

Support for US aid to Israel plummets among swing-state voters

Support among swing-state voters for US aid to Israel has plunged in the months since the country launched its campaign to root out Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to the latest Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll.

Fifty-one percent of registered voters in the seven states that will decide the 2024 presidential election said they either strongly or somewhat support aid to Israel, the poll found. That’s down 10 percentage points from November when 61% of respondents said they supported the aid. 

The drop tracks with growing anger in the US about Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, in the months since its militants attacked Israel on 7 October and killed about 1,200 people. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel’s campaign, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. The war also has sparked a grave humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. 

Support among swing-state voters for US aid to Israel has plunged in the months since the country launched its campaign to root out Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to the latest Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll. 

The poll was conducted from 8-15 April, before the latest flare-up in pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses including Harvard, Columbia, Yale and New York University. On Thursday, Columbia University’s governing body backed President Nemat Shafik amid escalating demands for her resignation, spurred by her handling of student-led protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The poll surveyed registered voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The latest results present a tricky calculus for Biden, who says the US commitment to Israel’s defence is “ironclad” and has so far refused to consider placing conditions on US military aid despite pressure from some congressional Democrats. At the same time, he’s pressed Netanyahu to do more to protect civilians. 

Biden’s team has also sought to reach out to Arab and Muslim communities in Michigan, a critical battleground state, over his handling of the war. 

US sanctions Iran-linked ships, firms, people over drone programme

The US sanctioned more than a dozen Iranian ships, people and companies linked to the country’s drone programme, the latest in a push to punish Tehran for its 13 April attack on Israel and support for proxy militant groups in the Middle East. 

The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Sahara Thunder, which it says is a front company for Iran’s military and helps procure drones and other materiel. The group is also active in Russia, where it helped establish a drone factory under a $1.75-billion contract, the Treasury said in a statement on Thursday.

Sahara Thunder relies on a global shipping network to sell Iranian commodities, including in China, Russia and Venezuela, according to the Treasury. As part of that network, the Treasury is sanctioning UAE-based Safe Seas Management FZE. The ships Chem, Dancy Dynamic, KMA and Conrad are being labelled as blocked property due to connections to Safe Seas.

The US is also sanctioning a vessel called La Pearl, also known as Elite, for a ship-to-ship transfer of Iranian commodities in international waters near Singapore, according to the statement. 

US, allies press Hamas for ‘immediate release’ of hostages

The US and 17 other nations pressed Hamas to release their citizens who are missing or held hostage in the Gaza Strip, in a bid to revive ceasefire talks that have stalled in recent weeks and unlock more humanitarian aid.

The countries’ leaders released a joint statement on Thursday intended to reflect mounting concern about the wellbeing of the hostages and to intensify pressure on reluctant Hamas officials to accept a deal, according to a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters on the effort.

“We call for the immediate release of all hostages held by Hamas in Gaza for over 200 days. They include our own citizens,” the leaders said. “The fate of the hostages and the civilian population in Gaza, who are protected under international law, is of international concern.”

Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Thailand, the UK and the US issued the statement. 

The US has been seeking a temporary ceasefire in Gaza that would see Hamas release female, wounded, elderly and sick hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and a surge of humanitarian aid into the war-torn territory.  

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has personally rejected the deal, according to the senior US official, helping scuttle at least for the time being ongoing talks between Israel and Hamas that have been mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar. A top Hamas political official told the Associated Press on Wednesday the group would lay down its arms if a Palestinian state was established along pre-1967 borders.

“We emphasise that the deal on the table to release the hostages would bring an immediate and prolonged ceasefire in Gaza that would facilitate a surge of additional necessary humanitarian assistance to be delivered throughout Gaza, and lead to the credible end of hostilities,” the 18 nations said in their statement.

Under the agreement, “Gazans would be able to return to their homes and their lands” after steps were taken to ensure it could happen safely, the leaders added. 

US presses Israel on claims of mass graves at Gaza hospitals

The US is pushing Israel for information about reports that mass graves were uncovered at two hospital complexes in the Gaza Strip after Israeli forces raided the facilities.

“The allegations are troubling, they are disturbing,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters. “We’re continuing to press the government of Israel for more information.”

Calls for an independent investigation have grown amid claims that about 300 bodies were discovered in the graves near the al-Shifa and Nasser complexes that were destroyed in Israeli raids to root out Hamas. Israel has denied claims that its forces were responsible for the graves. 

“An independent, effective and transparent investigation into the deaths at Nasser and Al-Shifa hospitals must be conducted,” deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said on Wednesday. He cautioned, however, that he did not believe “the situation on the ground is conducive to investigations at this point”. The European Union has also called for a probe.

Claims that the Israel Defense Forces buried Palestinian bodies were “completely false,” Avichay Adraee, a spokesperson for the IDF, said in a post on X on Wednesday. He said Israeli forces exhumed bodies near the hospitals as part of a search for hostages and that the process was “carried out in an organised manner while preserving the dignity of the deceased”. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    Amazing that Israel controls everything in occupied areas including food and water, and if they block anything without the tunnels nothing moves in, them Palestinians are found in mass graves, some buried alive after signs of torture, then Israel want to say they know nothing about, with nearby building bombed by Israel weapons in the same area, Hamas is known for being capable of lashing the same terror used by Israel on civillians but they are still to be accused of being pigs who eat their own children.
    Israel on the other has already killed (ate) it’s own clearly unarmed civillians, using weapons Issued to the IDF to save the hostages.

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