Middle East Crisis: Abbas Expected to Name Insider as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister

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President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has signaled his desire to appoint Muhammad Mustafa, a close economic adviser, as prime minister.Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority intends to appoint Muhammad Mustafa, a close economic adviser, as prime minister in the coming days, according to two Palestinian officials, a European Union diplomat and a fourth person with knowledge of the matter.

If Mr. Abbas officially appoints Mr. Mustafa, it would amount to a rejection of international efforts to encourage the octogenarian Palestinian leader to empower an independent prime minister who can revitalize the sclerotic authority, officials and analysts said.

While Mr. Abbas was set on appointing Mr. Mustafa, a longtime insider within the authority’s top ranks, he was still holding final consultations with Arab countries before signing a presidential decree entrusting Mr. Mustafa with putting together a new government, one of the Palestinian officials and the European Union diplomat said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to communicate with the media.

Mr. Abbas could change his mind, and a decision to appoint Mr. Mustafa will only be final if Mr. Abbas signs a decree. After the Palestinian Authority president appoints a prime minister, that person has three weeks to form a government, but can take an additional two weeks, if needed, according to Palestinian basic law.

In late February, Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh tendered the resignation of his cabinet, citing the need for a new government that “takes into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip.” Mr. Shtayyeh’s government has continued in a caretaker capacity.

Hamas led a deadly assault from Gaza into Israel on Oct. 7, and Israel has answered with intense bombardment and an invasion, vowing to break the group’s grip on the enclave. But those events have raised difficult questions about how a postwar Gaza will be governed and rebuilt.

The Palestinian Authority has limited governing powers on the West Bank. It lost control of Gaza to Hamas in a 2007 power struggle.

The United States has been calling for reforming the widely unpopular Palestinian Authority in recent months, hoping it could eventually assume the reins of governance in Gaza after the war. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has rejected any such role for the Authority.

Much of the Palestinian public sees the Palestinian Authority as tainted by corruption, mismanagement and cooperation with Israel. With no functional parliament within the areas controlled by the authority, Mr. Abbas, 88, has long ruled by decree, and he exerts wide influence over the judiciary and prosecution system. There has been no presidential election in the Palestinian territories since 2005, and no legislative election since 2006.

While the Biden administration has not told Mr. Abbas whom to appoint as prime minister, it has conveyed that it hopes for an independent figure who is acceptable to ordinary Palestinians, the international community, and Israel, according to Western diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media.

In the Palestinian Authority, the prime minister is supposed to oversee the work of ministries, but Mr. Abbas often intervenes in decision-making, according to analysts.

Nasser al-Qudwa, a former foreign minister whose name was floated as a possible prime minister, said appointing Mr. Mustafa would represent “no real change.”

“It would be replacing one employee named Mohammed with another employee named Muhammad, while Abbas continues to hold all the cards. What’s the change?” said Mr. Qudwa, a fierce opponent of Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. “Abu Mazen wants to keep the status quo. He wants to keep all of the power in his hands.”

In addition to serving as Mr. Abbas’s adviser, Mr. Mustafa, an economist educated at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., runs the Palestine Investment Fund, whose board is appointed by the president of the authority. He has previously been the authority’s economy minister and deputy prime minister.

For weeks, Mr. Abbas has been signaling his desire to appoint Mr. Mustafa. In January, he sent Mr. Mustafa to the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, where heads of state and foreign ministers gather to discuss global affairs.

At the conference, Mr. Mustafa said he thought the Palestinian Authority could improve its governance. “We don’t want to give any excuses for anyone,” he said in a wide-ranging discussion with Borge Brende, the forum’s president. “The Palestinian Authority can do better in terms of building better institutions.”

Any future Palestinian prime minister will likely face enormous challenges, which may include trying to reconstruct the devastated Gaza Strip and improving the credibility of the government.

Jehad Harb, a Ramallah-based analyst, agreed that appointing Mr. Mustafa would be an indication Mr. Abbas has no intention to give up power, but he said judgment on a new government should be reserved until the public learns the identities of its ministers, and how much authority and independence they can wield.

“It’s possible that there’s an opportunity, but we might also see a lost opportunity as we usually do,” he said.

Adam Rasgon Reporting from Jerusalem

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Israeli soldiers at the border between Israel and Gaza, on Tuesday.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel has allowed a convoy carrying food aid to enter northern Gaza directly from an Israeli crossing for the first time since the war began, as global pressure intensified to let more desperately needed aid into the territory.

The United Nations’ World Food Program said on Tuesday that it had delivered food for 25,000 people to Gaza City in its first successful convoy since Feb. 20 to the northern part of the enclave. Warning that northern Gaza was “on the brink of famine,” the agency called for “deliveries every day” and “entry points directly into the north,” in a signal that the convoy would provide only limited relief for hundreds of thousands of people facing extreme hunger.

Aid officials and some governments have called for Israel to open more border crossings into Gaza in order to alleviate the humanitarian crisis touched off by its five-month war against Hamas. Israel has maintained strict control over aid to Gaza, allowing aid to enter from only two border crossings in the south.

Little aid had reached northern Gaza for weeks after major relief groups suspended aid operations there, citing lawlessness, poor road conditions and Israeli restrictions on convoys.

Weeks after the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7, Israel invaded Gaza from the north and hundreds of thousands of Gazans fled south seeking shelter. Those who remained in the north have struggled to find food, many resorting to eating animal feed or wild plants. Thousands have converged on the few aid trucks that have gotten through.

Israel described the convoy it allowed into the north on Tuesday as a pilot project, but has not specified when more trucks might be let in through that crossing. Shimon Freedman, a spokesman for COGAT, the Israeli agency overseeing aid deliveries into Gaza, called the initiative a “success” and said that “hopefully soon” more trucks would enter northern Gaza directly from Israel.

The Israeli military said that it had allowed six trucks to enter through a crossing point in southern Israel, not far from the Be’eri kibbutz. The convoy cleared Israeli inspection and crossed into the territory through a gate on the security fence that had not previously been used for aid deliveries, the Israeli military said.

Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said the aid was distributed quickly and close to the fence to avoid the risk of crowds jumping on the convoy to grab supplies. The convoy included one truck full of flour and five others carrying food parcels.

The delivery came after six days of constant negotiations, Ms. Etefa said.

“The significance of this is that it revives the hope of continued access to northern Gaza over land,” she added. “It’s a good step, but we just hope that it doesn’t end up being a one off.”

Multinational efforts have started to deliver food and other necessities by sea and air, though aid organizations and others have said that sea shipments and airdrops are cumbersome, inefficient and cannot come close to matching the amount that can come in by road.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and other governments said last week that they would establish a maritime corridor to take aid to Gaza from Cyprus, and the U.S. military has announced plans to build a floating pier to facilitate the deliveries because Gaza does not have a functioning port.

On Wednesday, Germany said it would join other countries — including the United States, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France — in airdropping aid packages into Gaza. Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, acknowledged the risks of such drops, with dangers posed by failed parachutes and falling pallets.

“The airdrop is not without danger,” Mr. Pistorius said in a post on social media announcing the country’s effort. But he added that “the crews responsible are trained for such operations and are very experienced.”

About 100 trucks carrying food and other supplies entered Gaza each day in February, on average, through two open land routes. But that is a fraction of what was going in by land before the war began in October.

Isabel Kershner and Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting.

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said the incident killed at least one of their workers and injured several others.CreditCredit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Israeli forces hit an aid warehouse in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, on Wednesday, killing at least one staff member of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and injuring 22 others, the agency said.

UNRWA is the largest aid group on the ground in Gaza and the chief lifeline for its 2.2 million residents, more than half of whom have been forced by Israeli military orders or fighting to cram into Rafah, at the enclave’s southernmost edge.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the agency, said in a statement that the “attack on one of the very few remaining UNRWA distribution centers in the Gaza Strip comes as food supplies are running out, hunger is widespread and, in some areas, turning into famine.”

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The UNRWA facility, in eastern Rafah, serves as both a warehouse for aid supplies and as a food distribution center. It was not distributing food to civilians on Wednesday, but more than 50 staff members were working at the facility when it was hit by Israeli forces around noon, said Juliette Touma, the agency’s director of communications.

Where the warehouse was struck

Source: Satellite image by Planet Labs, captured March 9

By Leanne Abraham

Photos and video taken by Reuters photographers at the scene showed blood splashed in several locations around the facility: smeared on a warehouse floor surrounded by stacks of aid, soaked into the side of a box of medical supplies for babies and pooled on the ground outdoors.

At least 165 UNRWA staff members have been killed while working in Gaza since the start of the war, according to the agency. It also said that more than 400 people had been killed while sheltering at UNRWA facilities that had collectively been hit more than 150 times during the war.

Mr. Lazzarini said that UNRWA shared the coordinates of all of its facilities in Gaza on a daily basis with the “parties to the conflict,” and that the Israeli military had received the coordinates of the food distribution center on Tuesday, a day before it was hit.

“Attacks against U.N. facilities, convoys and personnel have become commonplace, in blatant disregard to international humanitarian law,” Mr. Lazzarini said.

Martin Griffiths, the top humanitarian chief at the United Nations, condemned the strike on the warehouse on social media, calling it “devastating” for both aid workers and “for the families they were trying to help.”

“They must be protected,” he said. “This war has to stop.”

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Defense Minister Yoav Gallant suggested Israeli forces might invade Rafah in southern Gaza.Credit…Pool photo by Saul Loeb

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he visited northern Gaza on Wednesday, a trip that came amid mounting pressure from allies to let more aid into that part of the enclave as the risk of famine looms.

Aid officials have expressed alarm over the scale of the humanitarian crisis five months into the war, warning that hundreds of thousands of Gazans — particularly those in the north — risk starvation. Aid trucks are not entering by land in sufficient numbers to meet the increasingly desperate need, and almost no aid has reached the north in weeks.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and other governments said last week that they would establish a maritime corridor to bring aid to Gaza from Cyprus, and the U.S. military is moving forward with plans to build a floating pier to facilitate the deliveries.

Mr. Gallant viewed the preparation work for that corridor on Wednesday during his visit, according to a statement from the defense ministry. It said he called “the humanitarian element” — getting aid into Gaza — “a central issue.”

Mr. Gallant shared a photo on social media of him with troops on the beach and appeared to obliquely suggest that Israeli forces might soon invade Rafah in southern Gaza, an offensive that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to carry out despite pleas for restraint from the United States and other allies who say it would have disastrous consequences for civilians.

More than a million Palestinians who have fled from fighting in other parts of the Gaza Strip — many of them obeying Israeli directives to move south for their safety — have crammed into temporary, often squalid shelters in Rafah.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, at a news conference on Wednesday, again warned that Israel should not attack Rafah without a plan to protect civilians there, saying the Biden administration had yet to see such a plan.

“The most important thing is to see it and to make sure that it’s something that can be implemented in a way that accomplishes what has to be accomplished, which is protecting people and supporting people,” Mr. Blinken said. “But right now, that’s all in the realm of hypothetical because we haven’t seen a plan.”

But Mr. Netanyahu has been undeterred, saying on Tuesday that “to win this war, we must destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah.”

While Mr. Gallant did not mention Rafah by name on Wednesday, his statement contained what seemed a veiled reference to reports that allies have urged Israel to delay a ground invasion of the city.

“There is no safe haven for terrorists in Gaza,” he said. “Even those who may think that we are delayed, will soon see that we can reach any region.”

Adam Sella, Johnatan Reiss and Lars Dolder contributed reporting.

Israel’s justice ministry said Wednesday it was questioning an officer who fatally shot a youth accused of shooting a firework at security forces in East Jerusalem.

The shooting took place Tuesday on the second night of Ramadan. Sparklers and fireworks are common in celebrations during the holy month.

The Israeli police said that an assailant, whom they did not name, was shot after he “endangered” officers by launching a firework directly at them during a night of “violent disturbances” in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. He was pronounced dead at a hospital, the police said in a statement.

An investigation has been opened, according to the justice ministry.

The Palestinian Authority’s news agency, Wafa, identified the person killed as Rami Hamdan al-Halhuli, 13. Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, where he was pronounced dead, said he was 12; it was not immediately possible to reconcile the discrepancy in age.

Medics arriving on the scene found him critically injured with a chest wound and performed C.P.R., according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. It said he was transferred to an ambulance belonging to Magen David Adom, Israel’s nonprofit emergency medical service, and taken to the hospital in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Governorate of the Palestinian Authority posted a video on Tuesday that it said captured the moment the youth was shot. After he launches a firework, he falls to the ground. The Times has verified that the video was filmed near the checkpoint of the Shuafat camp; no Israeli troops of police are visible in the brief clip.

Johnatan Reiss and Arijeta Lajka contributed reporting.

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A Lebanese military officer next to a destroyed car in the southern outskirts of Tyre, Lebanon, on Wednesday.Credit…Mohammad Zaatari/Associated Press

The Israeli military said on Wednesday that it had killed a senior Hamas operative in an airstrike in southern Lebanon, the latest in a series of targeted killings there following the deadly Hamas-led attacks against Israel on Oct. 7.

The man, Hadi Ali Mustafa, was “a significant operative in Hamas’s department responsible for its international terrorist activities,” the Israeli military said in a statement. It added that he had been involved in attacks “against Israeli and Jewish targets in various countries around the world.” It provided no further details, and its claims could not be independently verified.

In a statement, Hamas’s military wing confirmed that Mr. Mustafa had been killed but gave no indication of his role within the organization.

The Israeli airstrike, on a car near the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre, also killed a passing motorcyclist, Lebanese state media reported. Video from the scene that circulated on social media shows a body being loaded onto a stretcher and a vehicle burning amid panicked onlookers.

Several killings in Lebanon have targeted people whom Israel has called senior figures from Hamas and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, both of which are backed by Iran. In January, Hamas blamed Israel for a blast that killed Saleh al-Arouri, a senior official in the group, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, although Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility.

As it does in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas has a sizable presence in Lebanon, where it operates largely out of Palestinian refugee camps. Since the war in Gaza began on Oct. 7, Hamas, along with Hezbollah and other allied militant groups, have continued to launch rocket attacks into northern Israel from within Lebanon’s borders.

Euan Ward reporting from Beirut, Lebanon

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A U.N. truck carrying aid to Deir al Balah in southern Gaza last week.Credit…Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

A U.N. official said a truck carrying aid was turned around in Gaza this week because it contained scissors included in medical kits for children, calling attention to what aid groups have said is a laborious Israeli inspection process that is slowing down crucial humanitarian assistance.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the main U.N. agency providing support for Palestinians in Gaza, said the truckload had been refused because medical scissors had been added to a list of items the Israeli authorities consider to be “dual use,” or having both civilian and military purposes.

COGAT, the Israeli agency overseeing aid deliveries into Gaza, accused Mr. Lazzarini of lying, saying that it was in constant contact with the United Nations and had not been notified of the denial. The agency said 1.5 percent of aid trucks trying to enter the territory had been turned away.

Mr. Lazzarini is the latest official to say that the Israeli military’s inspections are keeping aid from getting to Gaza’s 2.2 million people. Last week, Britain’s foreign minister, David Cameron, said during a parliamentary debate that “too many” goods were being turned away for being dual use, including items that are medically necessary.

A member of the British Parliament said this month that Israel had turned away 1,350 water filters and 2,560 solar lights provided by the British government because they were considered a threat.

Miriam Marmur, director of public advocacy at Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that works to protect the free movement of Palestinians, said Israel’s list included broad categories that can encompass thousands of items, making it difficult to know what is prohibited. Many items that have been turned away are not explicitly listed, she said.

“This uncertainty follows years of obfuscation on what exactly qualifies as dual use from Israel’s perspective, as well as when and how those items can be brought into Gaza,” she said.

Mr. Lazzarini said it was critical that supplies for Gaza be cleared faster. “The lives of 2 million people depend on that, there is no time to waste,” he wrote on social media.

Israel has maintained a list of dual-use items that require special permission to be brought into Gaza as a part of its blockade of the enclave, which began years before the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 prompted the current war. For many years, the list and approval process were shrouded from public view. The Israeli authorities disclosed the list only after a legal battle, according to Gisha, which petitioned the court to require that it be released.

Aid groups have said that a single item determined to be of dual use can get an entire truck turned away, and that groups are at times not told what the item was or why it was rejected.

COGAT has said that many of the trucks that are turned away are repacked and enter later, and that any bottleneck is a result of the aid groups’ capacity to handle distribution, rather than Israeli limitations.

In January, two U.S. senators who visited a border crossing between Egypt and Gaza said they saw a warehouse near the crossing filled with rejected items, including tents, oxygen concentrators, water-testing kits, water filters, solar-powered refrigerators and medical kits used for delivering babies.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said after the trip that Israel’s inspections were necessary but that the delays they caused had unacceptable consequences.

“If it takes a week when aid is desperately needed, that means people are shorted food, clean water and medical supplies,” he said on the Senate floor at the time.

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A vendor selling vegetables on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan near the West Bank city of Tulkarem on Monday.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are welcoming Ramadan with little of the usual cheer. Amid Israel’s continuing attacks in Gaza and rising violence in the West Bank, the holy month’s festive decorations and celebratory mood are being replaced by feelings of helplessness and despair.

“There’s no joy,” said Hana Karameh, a mother of five from the city of Hebron.

Ramadan this year will be “incomplete,” she said. Usually, on the night before the first fast of Ramadan begins, they would pray together with their neighbors and gather for suhoor — the pre-dawn meal — while children shot off fireworks.

On Sunday night, as the holy month dawned, she said, “there was none of that.”

Even before Ramadan, Ms. Karameh said she had a hard time sitting down for meals knowing that many people in Gaza were starving. “I keep asking myself, did they eat? Did they drink? ” she said.

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Displaced Palestinians preparing the iftar meal outside a tent in Rafah, Gaza, on Monday.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Karameh said that her husband would usually take their youngest children to the market to buy sweets and stock up on food the night before Ramadan began. Later he would take them to the mosque to pray Taraweeh, a daily Ramadan nighttime prayer. But this year, she said, the family could not do those things.

“We would usually be seven people at our iftar table,” she said, referring to the evening meal that breaks the fast. “But this year we will be five.”

Ms. Karameh’s husband, Jamal, 55, and her daughter Baraah, 19, were detained more than three months ago by Israeli forces and are being held in administrative detention, without charge or trial. They are among the more than 7,500 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem who have been detained by Israeli forces since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks, according to the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited control over the West Bank.

Palestinians in the West Bank are also less likely to host lavish iftar meals this year because their economic situation has worsened over the last five months. Israeli restrictions and closures across the West Bank have left businesses struggling since Oct. 7.

“It’s a very different feeling compared to past years,” said Bassam Abu al-Rub, a journalist from the West Bank town of Jenin, who lives in Nablus. “I went to the supermarket and only bought basic ingredients because when we sit at the table to eat after seeing the scenes in Gaza, we feel heartbroken.”

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A vendor selling qatayef, a traditional Ramadan desert, near Tulkarem in the West Bank on Monday.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

Worsening violence and regular Israeli raids in the West Bank have killed more than 425 people there since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah — and the toll continues to climb. The ministry said on Wednesday that Israeli forces had killed two people overnight near the town of Al Jib. The Israeli military has said that the raids are a part of their counterterrorism efforts against members of Hamas in the West Bank.

“On top of the war in Gaza, the West Bank has been living a war since 2021,” Mr. Abu al-Rub said, referring to the year when Israeli raids, detentions and settler violence began to rise sharply in the occupied territory. “Imagine when you are living this emotional state of daily incursions, sounds of gunfire and gas bombs and regular detentions,” Mr. Abu al-Rub said in a phone call. “Of course you will fear further escalation” during the holy month, he added.

Mr. Abu al-Rub said that every year he would look forward to Israel granting him a permit to visit Jerusalem and pray at Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. But this year, he did not have much hope that he would get to go.

Al Aqsa, which is on a site revered by Jews as the location of two ancient temples, has long been a point of contention, and in recent years Israel has exerted tighter control over it. On Monday, Israel’s agency overseeing policy for the Palestinian territories posted on Facebook that only men over the age of 55, women over the age of 50 and children under the age of 10 would be allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank to pray at Al Aqsa during Ramadan.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

Hiba Yazbek reporting from Jerusalem

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