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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 27 MAY 2024

EU calls for more support for Palestinian reform plan; Israeli military presses ahead with Rafah operations

EU calls for more support for Palestinian reform plan; Israeli military presses ahead with Rafah operations
Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on 24 May. (Photo: Haitham Imad / EPA-EFE)

Major donors committed to stepping up support to the Palestinian Authority as its new prime minister presented a reform plan to improve the situation in the territories hit by the Israel-Hamas war.

Israel’s military was pressing ahead with its operations against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah despite a ruling from the International Court of Justice ordering it to halt such activity in the name of sparing civilians.

The University of Toronto plastered trespassing notices around a sprawling pro-Palestinian encampment on Friday, warning it would take “all necessary legal steps” to remove protesters if they don’t clear out soon.

EU calls for additional support for new Palestinian reform plan

Major donors committed to stepping up support to the Palestinian Authority as its new prime minister presented a reform plan to improve the situation in the territories hit by the Israel-Hamas war.

The European Union, already the largest donor, has to do more, Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign affairs official, said ahead of the meeting, which took place on Sunday.

“I call on donors to increase the support for your efforts to implement the necessary reforms, including the macro-financial and democratic renewal and strengthening of the rule of law,” Borrell told Palestinian Premier Mohammad Mustafa, who took office in March.

The ministerial meeting, hosted by Borrell and chaired by Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s foreign minister, came as international pressure was building on Israel to halt its offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Operations continued this weekend despite a ruling from the International Court of Justice on Friday.

Read more: Israeli military proceeds into Rafah despite court ruling 

Last week, European countries including Norway, Ireland and Spain moved to recognise a Palestinian state, triggering a diplomatic row with Tel Aviv.

The donors were planning to discuss with the Palestinian Authority how the international community can best support the government’s reform agenda, as well as the strengthening of Palestinian institutions and their capacity.

Mustafa told reporters that the Palestinian Authority’s priorities were to support the people in Gaza and speed up a ceasefire. Additionally, Mustafa wants to improve the performance of their institutions to pave the way to statehood and stabilise their economic and financial situation.

Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister José Manuel Albares said on Sunday that a ceasefire was needed to avoid a “humanitarian catastrophe of bigger proportions” in Rafah and the entire Gaza strip. Spain stood by its decision to recognise Palestinian statehood, Albares told reporters.

Eide said Israel must transfer the money collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority from donors to their accounts.

EU foreign affairs ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss efforts to stop Israel’s operations in Rafah and plans for a peace conference.

They’re expected to be joined by foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, as well as the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States.

Recent coordinated moves by European nations to recognise Palestine underscores how Israel’s war against Hamas is focusing global attention on the issue of statehood.

More than 140 nations already recognise a Palestinian state, but only a few in Europe, including Hungary and Sweden. The US, Israel’s most important ally, backs a two-state solution but says it can only come about through negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli military proceeds into Rafah despite court ruling

Israel’s military was pressing ahead with its operations against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah despite a ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordering it to halt such activity in the name of sparing civilians.

Officials in Israel said they interpreted Friday’s ruling in The Hague as permitting the incursion to continue as long as it’s done with care, adding that the military was carrying out targeted strikes in Rafah, far short of a full invasion.

At the same time, negotiations over a Gaza ceasefire seemed set to resume this week following a meeting in Paris among Israel’s intelligence chief, the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, and the Qatari foreign minister.

The talks, aimed at exchanging Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners and reaching an extended pause in combat, have fallen apart over Hamas’ insistence that they lead to an end to the war. Israel says the war can only end with the defeat of Hamas. The mediators are seeking language that both sides can accept.

In a ruling on Friday, the ICJ said that “Israel must immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

The wording of the sentence has led to diverging interpretations. Many regard it as as an order to stop the offensive, and that’s how it was widely reported on Friday. But Israeli officials say the order is conditional — that their military must stop any action which could destroy civilians.

The campaign in Rafah would not “lead to the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population”, Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said in a joint statement with the Foreign Ministry’s legal advisers. Speaking later on Israel’s Channel 12, Hanegbi said, “What they are asking us is to not commit genocide in Rafah. We did not commit genocide and we will not commit genocide.”

Some liberal legal scholars in Israel agree.

“The ICJ didn’t prohibit all Israeli operations in Rafah,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a specialist in international law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Israel Democracy Institute. “Israel was ordered to avoid operations that inflict harm on the Palestinian population in Gaza and avoid conditions that could bring about its physical destruction.”

He added that his interpretation was bolstered by the fact that the court didn’t order Hamas to release hostages and stop firing missiles at Israel, and it was not reasonable that the court was ordering one side to stop but not the other.

Sirens sounded around Tel Aviv on Sunday, driving residents into bomb shelters after eight missiles were shot from Rafah, according to the military. Hamas claimed responsibility. Israel’s air defence system intercepted them all.

It was the first such volley of missiles to reach Tel Aviv in months, a sign, military spokespersons said, that Hamas has been smuggling new weapons into Rafah from Egypt  — a key reason Israel contends it needs to send its forces there.

Whatever the majority meant in their 13-2 ruling, member countries can take their case to the United Nations Security Council, which could order Israel to stop its military incursion into Rafah at the risk of sanctions.

To avoid that, Israel would rely on the US veto in the Security Council. Given recent tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Joe Biden, there’s concern in Jerusalem that Washington may not rush to its aid, although it seems likely to issue a veto in the end.

The tension with the US, which has built over the course of the seven-month war in Gaza, has intensified over Rafah. Some 1.4 million Palestinians were sheltering in Rafah when Israel said they should move to safer areas within the coastal enclave in preparation for its invasion, which is aimed at taking out what it says are the four remaining Hamas battalions there.

Read more: Gazans flee danger of Rafah for uncertainty of crowded camps 

The US said there was no safe place for those internal refugees to go and that the flow of badly-needed humanitarian goods into Gaza would again be halted if the Rafah operation went ahead.

Nearly a million Palestinians have indeed fled Rafah to parts of Gaza that are at least partly destroyed, many without proper sanitation or water supplies.

David Satterfield, a senior adviser for Gaza to the US State Department, said that as a result of the Rafah operation, a humanitarian crisis that was slowing down was again at risk of spinning out of control.

Among the problems has been the stoppage of aid from Egypt since the Rafah operation began. On Sunday, some of that aid was starting to enter Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, according to an Israeli military spokesman.

The war began on 7 October after thousands of Hamas operatives crossed into southern Israel, killing 1,200 and abducting 250 more. Israel’s counterattack has killed some 35,000 Gazans, according to Hamas officials who don’t distinguish between civilians and fighters. The US and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.

University of Toronto tells pro-Palestinian potesters to leave campus park

The University of Toronto plastered trespassing notices around a sprawling pro-Palestinian encampment on Friday, warning it would take “all necessary legal steps” to remove protesters if they don’t clear out soon.

Protesters had until Monday at 8am. to take down their tents and leave, according to the notices. If they aren’t gone by then, the university says it will seek a court order to remove the encampment with the assistance of police, and that students may face disciplinary action including suspensions. Dozens of students have been sleeping in tents in the University of Toronto encampment, and some have begun hunger strikes.

The deadline represents an escalation in the school’s approach to the protests, which have occupied a large, circular park in the middle of campus since 2 May. While some protests across US and Canadian universities have been met with police force in recent weeks, the University of Toronto — one of Canada’s most prestigious universities — has largely avoided any confrontation.

University President Meric Gertler struck a harsher tone this week, however, saying the encampment “must end” and that he hadn’t ruled out calling police to clear the tents if the students don’t disperse on their own. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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