BBC 2024-03-03 10:32:23


Israel-Gaza war: Hopes rise of new temporary ceasefire deal in Cairo talks

A Hamas delegation has reportedly arrived in Cairo, Egypt, raising hopes of a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war.

An unnamed US official has said Israel has “more or less accepted” the deal.

The US says the six-week pause would see the release of more Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

Pressure for a deal intensified after Thursday’s incident outside Gaza City in the north of the territory where at least 112 people were killed as crowds rushed an aid convoy.

Hamas has accused Israel of shooting at civilians as they attempted to get food. Israel has denied this, and on Sunday it said an initial review had concluded that Israeli troops had shot against “several individuals” who approached them, but that most of the deaths were caused by the crush of people.

Egyptian officials, who have been running the talks with Qatar, said delegations from both Hamas and Israel were expected to attend the negotiations.

Hamas is reported to have said that an agreement on a truce could be reached within the next 24 to 48 hours, with a source from the group telling Egyptian media a deal depended on Israel agreeing to its demands.

Expectations of a deal were raised after a senior US official said Israel for its part had “basically agreed” a framework for a six-week ceasefire.

The Israel military launched a large-scale air and ground campaign to destroy Hamas after its gunmen killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October and took 253 back to Gaza as hostages.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says at least 30,410 people, including 21,000 children and women, have been killed in Gaza since then with some 7,000 missing and 71,700 injured.

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Pressure for a ceasefire has grown after warnings from aid organisations that there is a risk of famine in northern Gaza.

Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has just returned from a three-day visit to the territory.

“I was prepared for nightmare, but it is worse, much worse,” Mr Egeland told the BBC on Sunday.

“People want to take your hand… saying ‘we are starving, we are dying here’.

“I think there is famine in the north,” he said, adding that there had been no aid for 300,000 people living in ruins, with Israel not allowing any through.

After Thursday’s aid convoy incident, the US carried out its first airdrop of humanitarian aid for Gaza, with more than 30,000 meals parachuted in by three military planes on Saturday.

Elsewhere, Israel said on Sunday it carried out an intensive wave of air strikes in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. The number of casualties is not known.

At least 11 people were killed in an Israeli air strike at a camp for displaced people in Rafah in southern Gaza on Saturday, according to Hamas.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the attack “outrageous”.

The Israeli army said it had carried out a “precision strike” against Islamic Jihad militants in the area.

Gazans crowdfund thousands for uncertain escape

As deadly Israeli bombardments and acute food shortages continue, and a threatened Israeli military operation in southern Gaza looms, more and more Palestinians are seeking a way out – if they can find the money for it.

This uncertain exit requires people to pay thousands of dollars and navigate scammers and misinformation to get their names onto a list of people approved to leave via the Rafah crossing to Egypt.

The crossing is closed to the vast majority of people under an Egyptian-Israeli blockade against Hamas. Only some foreign passport holders and their dependents have been able to leave, as well as some seriously wounded and sick people and those accompanying them.

However, a parallel system exists whereby Gazans pay Egyptian brokers to get on a list of people who can leave. Depending on who you talk to, prices range from $6,000 (£4,800) per person to over $12,000 – exorbitant sums for most of Gaza’s population.

Yet increasing numbers of people are trying to raise the money to flee, with the help of friends and family in the US and Europe. Among them are the Hammads, currently displaced along with more than a million others in Rafah next to the Egyptian border.

Their 15-year-old son Ibrahim has Down’s Syndrome. For him, the Israeli bombardment is particularly traumatic. Video posted by the family shows him shaking in distress after each thunderous boom from nearby airstrikes. His father Abed Alqader says they have had to artificially resuscitate him three times after he stopped breathing due to severe panic attacks.

He says Ibrahim has been begging for the family to leave, saying “Please father, I cannot continue”.

“For the last five months, all you hear are sounds of bombs, heavy bombing,” Mr Hammad added. “You just sit home and pray you will not be next.”

Their online fundraising page, like most, is being managed outside Gaza, in their case by another son Amjad, who lives in Europe. It is one fundraiser among thousands, appealing for donors to assist Gazans to “survive”, “evacuate” and “escape genocide”.

Some campaigns have been successful, raising over $100,000. However, the BBC spoke to several of these account holders who, even after achieving their fundraising goals, said their desperate attempts to help loved ones were mired in chaos and confusion.

In the words of one fundraiser, a New Jersey woman who asked to remain anonymous to avoid risking the chance of hindering her cousin’s way out: “Every day is a toss-up.”

Complex route out

The first challenge is determining the cost to leave. Fundraising account holders who spoke to the BBC said the most common price was $6,000 per person, allowing people to leave within 72 hours. Some people fundraise toward the goal of $12,000 per person, the price said to get an exit within 24 hours.

Once enough money is raised, the next challenge becomes getting tens of thousands of dollars into Gaza. There are few wire services like Western Union left in the devastated territory, and the line to enter is days-long. Some people have used cryptocurrency exchanges. Others have relied on PayPal accounts registered elsewhere, as the firm doesn’t provide services to people in Gaza or the occupied West Bank.

Most people, however, wire the money to someone outside of Gaza – a relative or friend in Europe – who then withdraws the cash, and travels to Egypt to wait in a separate days-long line at the offices of Hala Travel in Cairo, an agency that facilitates travel between Egypt and Gaza. Footage from outside the Hala offices shows crowds thronging the street.

Hala has not responded to requests for comment from the BBC.

However, the BBC has obtained a copy of a receipt from Hala Travel dated 13 February for $6,000. The person’s name on that receipt also appears with four others on a separate ticket indicating they have been cleared for entry into Egypt. Visas and onward travel to Cairo are included.

The final step is to check for approval online. Places like the Gaza Ministry of Foreign Affairs Facebook account publish daily lists of up to 250 approved names. All have paid thousands to get out, according to the person who provided the receipt, who asked to remain anonymous.

People whose names appear on the official list must leave the same day. However, due to spotty WiFi service and rolling blackouts, some people miss their window to exit and have to repeat the entire process, including paying again, this person says.

The man who provided the Hala receipt told the BBC that the names of those on the official list to enter Egypt only appear after they’ve been vetted by Egyptian intelligence.

“Is this new? No. It’s not really new, but the price before the war was $600. Now it’s 10 times higher,” he says.

“Gaza is not only under bombardment, but people are profiting from their suffering.”

Hamas, the Palestinian group which was governing Gaza and launched the attack targeting civilians in southern Israel that triggered the current war, has also accused “companies, individuals and people with influence” of exploiting Gazans by “making them pay exorbitant amounts to coordinate their travel”.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has told Sky News that his country is investigating.

We will take whatever measures that we need so as to restrict it and eliminate it immediately,” he said, without giving further details.

In January, Egypt’s State Information Service head Diaa Rashwan “categorically denied the allegations related to the collection of additional fees from travellers from Gaza, as well as claims that an unofficial entity collected fees for the passage to Egyptian lands”.

Egypt was trying to help Gaza’s Palestinians, he added, and did not want to impose extra burdens on them.

Large sums raised

Much of the crowdfunding is being led by friends and relatives who live abroad and have looked on helplessly as Israeli bombardment kills whole families and reduces neighbourhoods to rubble.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch,” says Shahd, a woman in the US state of Virginia who asked only to go by her first name.

She helped organise a campaign for her friends, two brothers, whom she met on TikTok in 2021. Her own relatives in Gaza were killed in October, she says.

Shahd felt compelled to aid her friends after witnessing their narrow escapes from death – on one occasion being hit by flying masonry as a nearby building exploded. Since then, they have been struggling to survive amid Gaza’s deepening humanitarian crisis and, they say, navigating the gang rule that has replaced social cohesion.

“There’s moments where [the brothers] are like, ‘We really can’t do this anymore. It might be better if we were killed’,” Shahd says. “They’re basically like family to me at this point. If anything were to happen to them, I’d probably lose it.”

The fundraising page for Shahd’s friends and some of their family has reached over $105,000. But sending it to them has been difficult. Their fundraising account was frozen for several days in February, blocking her from transferring the money. And the brothers’ PayPal accounts were locked for weeks without explanation.

Multiple users raising money to aid people in Gaza have complained about having their accounts frozen. “People are literally trying to escape death,” one New Jersey woman told the BBC. “It’s just mind-blowing that every single corner we turn there’s a new obstacle.”

Having raised $36,000, she says she missed a window to get her cousin and his family on the list while the company froze her account for several days in early February and asked for more information. She said the request, the first she’s had in a decade of using the platform, felt “discriminatory”.

Nearly every person told the BBC they had the same experiences with delays, and multiple said they had to resort to legal threats before getting a response.

GoFundMe, one of the platforms people are using to raise money, told the BBC its priority was “protecting the generosity of donors”.

“GoFundMe has already helped deliver tens of millions of dollars to individuals and organizations supporting those in both Israel and Gaza, and we will continue to do so as quickly, securely, and safely as possible,” spokesman Jalen Drummond said.

“Any suggestion of discrimination is wholly without merit, baseless, and contrary to the values that guide our platform.”

Jordan, from Brooklyn, New York, has hit his fundraising target of $50,000 and plans to wire it directly to his friend’s bank in Gaza. His friend’s family must leave to access life-saving medicine.

More than 1.5 million people are in Rafah, most of whom have fled there to escape the fighting, but only a slim minority have connections to people abroad who can help, a reality Jordan described as “really dark”.

‘I’m pretty much alive’

Ahmad, who lives in Gaza but has a friend in Canada fundraising for him, says he has to leave because of chronic knee inflammation, the medication for which is no longer available in Gaza.

“Me and anyone in Gaza may die in any second,” he said from the rooftop of a building in Rafah, Israeli drones buzzing in the background.

Earlier that day, on 12 February, he sent the BBC a picture of two girls who he said died overnight in a nearby air strike. “I’m pretty much alive,” he said in the same WhatsApp message. “Very depressed bro.”

The 24-year-old has been fundraising for weeks but still hasn’t found a way out of Gaza.

First, his fundraising account was frozen. As a result, he had to borrow thousands of dollars from his parents – who are resigned to staying in the war-zone – to pay some middlemen whom he trusted to facilitate getting him on the exit list.

His plan failed after giving them $5,000, and he had to fork out another $3,000 to resolve the issue. He promised his parents he would pay them back once he got to Cairo and could access the money raised by crowdfunding.

Ahmad is still waiting. On Thursday, reached by text message, he said he was in deep pain and feeling very anxious.

But he felt hopeful he was on the verge of finally getting out of Gaza. It’s happening, he said, “anytime soon”.

Ukraine war: Russia says it intercepts 38 Ukrainian drones attacking Crimea

A series of explosions have rocked Crimea, after a reported Ukrainian drone attack on the peninsula which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Video posted online shows a blast allegedly near a fuel depot in the south-eastern city of Feodosiya.

Russian officials said 38 drones had been shot down. The Kerch bridge which connects Crimea with Russia was temporarily closed.

The attack comes as Ukraine continues to urge allies to boost arms supplies.

Russian troops have recently made gains in Ukraine as Kyiv struggles to sustain its forces with Western-made arms. Moscow took control last month of the key eastern town of Avdiivka.

Russia has not reported any damage from the latest attack on Crimea, although eye-witness have reported windows shaking and car alarms going off. Kyiv has not confirmed its forces were involved.

The Crimea attack comes a day after a Russian drone hit a block of flats in the Ukrainian city of Odesa, killing at least 10 people, including a four-month-old baby.

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Russian forces have launched thousands of Iranian-made drones at Ukrainian targets since they invaded the country more than two years ago.

In retaliation Ukraine has targeted Russian sites, notably oil facilities.

On Saturday a drone struck a residential building in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. About 100 people were evacuated and there were no reports of casualties.

Ukraine is critically dependent on weapons supplies from the US and other Western allies to keep fighting Russia – a much bigger military force with an abundance of arms and artillery.

Ukrainian troops have been running out of ammunition as supporters of former US President Donald Trump in Congress refuse to approve a $61bn (£48bn) military aid package.

Horner situation can’t continue – Jos Verstappen

The controversy surrounding Red Bull boss Christian Horner is “driving people apart”, says the father of the team’s F1 champion Max Verstappen.

An anonymous email including messages purporting to involve Horner were leaked on Thursday, a day after Red Bull dismissed a complaint of inappropriate behaviour against him.

Horner has refused to say if the leaked messages are genuine.

“It cannot continue this way,” said former F1 driver Jos Verstappen.

“The situation is not good for the team and is driving people apart.”

Verstappen also denied that he was the source of the leaks concerning Horner.

The 51-year-old, who was talking to the De Telegraaf newspaper in the Netherlands, said: “But why would I do that? Max has a contract with Red Bull until 2028, is performing great and feels at home here. I have no interested in that at all.”

Verstappen made similar comments to the Daily Mail, saying Red Bull would “explode” if Horner remained in his position, adding: “He is playing the victim when he is the one causing problems.”

Verstappen told BBC Sport he had made the comments to the two newspapers after a falling out with Horner in Bahrain.

He added that Max had seen the comments and did not say anything.

BBC Sport has approached Red Bull for comment.

Verstappen’s intervention is potentially significant because his son wields major influence within Red Bull as a result of his success on the track.

It also reflects internal tensions known to exist within Red Bull, between Horner, the team principal, and the company’s motorsport adviser Helmut Marko; and between the Thai majority owners and executives at the headquarters in Austria.

Last year, the Verstappens backed Austrian Marko after he had a falling out with Horner.

The company ownership is split, with 51% owned by the Thai Yoovidhya family and 49% by Red Bull in Austria, under Mark Mateschitz, the son of co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who died in October 2022.

Max Verstappen started his campaign for a fourth consecutive world title with a dominant win at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday.

In the build-up to the race in Bahrain, the defending champion was asked four times whether he had full confidence and faith in Horner as Red Bull team principal and each time he gave only qualified support.

The Horner controversy dominated events at the season-opening race.

A day after Red Bull announced that the grievance against him had been “dismissed” following an internal inquiry, an anonymous email including messages purporting to involve Horner was leaked.

Horner said: “I’m not going to comment on anonymous, speculative messages from an unknown source.”

He added that he was “absolutely” confident he would be in his role for the entire season.

“I’ve always been entirely confident that I would be here,” he said.

“There was a full, lengthy internal process that was completed by an independent KC. And the grievance that was raised was dismissed. End of. Move on.”

An attempt to get him to say whether the messages were genuine was shut down by a Red Bull public relations handler.

Red Bull have refused to release the name of the lawyer involved or give any further the details about either the report that was compiled or how they reached their decision.

Horner’s wife Geri visited the Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday in an apparent display of unity after the topic had dominated the days leading up to the race.

Chalerm Yoovidhya, head of the Thai family that co-owns Red Bull, was also at the race. Yoovidhya declined to answer BBC Sport’s questions.

F1’s governing body the FIA said it was discussing the matter with commercial rights holder F1 Management.

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Trump moves closer to Republican nomination with string of victories

Donald Trump won a string of Republican presidential contests on Saturday, edging closer to becoming the party’s candidate in November’s election as he attacked his likely opponent Joe Biden.

The former president won the Missouri, Michigan and Idaho caucuses comprehensively, continuing his clean sweep of states so far.

Mr Trump, 77, told supporters at a rally in Virginia that he was “on a rocket to the Republican nomination”.

He is on track to secure it next week.

His last remaining rival in the race, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, is still seeking her first victory and is without a clear path to the nomination given Mr Trump’s commanding lead.

He is projected to win all of the delegates available in Missouri and all in Idaho, according to the BBC’s US partner CBS news, as well as all of those remaining in Michigan. A third of delegates in that state were awarded earlier this week after a primary that Mr Trump won.

Delegates represent their state or district at the respective party’s national convention, and decide who its presidential nominee will be. So far Mr Trump has secured 247 Republican delegates, according to CBS, far more than Ms Haley’s 24.

In the Virginia capital of Richmond on Saturday, thousands queued for several hours to hear Mr Trump speak. He vowed to “win big” on Tuesday, when 15 states will choose their presidential candidate on a day that could put him within striking distance of the nomination.

“We got numbers today that were unbelievable,” he told the crowd.

But his speech in Virginia – and at an earlier event in Greensboro, North Carolina – largely focused on migration at the US-Mexico border, a message which polls show resonates well with his base. In more than a dozen interviews with the BBC on Saturday, his supporters said the issue was among their primary concerns.

Sharon Roberts, whose son Sean died of a fentanyl overdose in 2018, said she feared an “out of control” border would lead to other families experiencing similar losses. “I’m 100% for Trump, because he’ll get these borders closed,” she said.

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Mr Trump took direct aim at Mr Biden and blamed him once again for the border crisis, after the pair held duelling visits there last week. But he ramped up his attacks by airing a conspiracy that the current president was deliberately encouraging migrants to cross from Mexico.

“Biden and his accomplices want to collapse the American system, nullify the will of the actual American voters and establish a new base of power that gives them control for generations,” Mr Trump said. Of the migrants and the Biden administration, he told supporters: “They’re trying to sign them up to get them to vote in the next election.”

His comments prompted a swift response from the Biden campaign. “Once again Trump is projecting in an attempt to distract the American people from the fact he killed the fairest and toughest border security bill in decades because he believed it would help his campaign,” spokesman Ammar Moussa said, referring to a failed bipartisan immigration bill that Mr Trump vocally opposed.

A New York Times and Siena poll released on Saturday found 48% of American voters would support Mr Trump in a hypothetical match-up with Mr Biden, compared to 43% for the current president. It also found strong levels of dissatisfaction for Mr Biden in both parties.

At the Richmond rally, Mr Trump pointed to the poll and urged his supporters to “send a signal” on Super Tuesday.

The poll, however, showed 45% of voters would back Ms Haley in a contest with Mr Biden, with 35% supporting the current president. “I defeat Joe Biden by double digits in a general election match-up, while Trump is barely outside the margin of error,” Ms Haley said shortly after it was published.

In his speech, Mr Trump criticised Ms Haley and called on her to step aside to allow Republicans to focus on the general election in November.

She has vowed to stay in the race until at least Super Tuesday. But several former Haley supporters at the Trump event said enthusiasm for her had waned in the face of repeated losses.

The former president, meanwhile, urged his supporters to deliver a decisive blow to Ms Haley on Tuesday. “We want you to get out there and vote in big margins,” he said. “We want to send that little freight train going along, because the biggest day in the history of our country is November 5.”

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