BBC 2024-03-03 16:32:19

Israel-Gaza war: Israel demands names of hostages still alive for deal on new ceasefire

Mediators and Hamas have arrived in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, for talks on a new ceasefire, as Israel is reported to be demanding reassurances on the hostages’ fate before attending.

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

But Israeli media say Hamas is refusing to confirm which of its hostages are still alive, so Israel will not attend.

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.

On Sunday, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Rear Adm Daniel Hagari said an initial review had been completed “of the unfortunate incident where Gazan civilians were trampled to death and injured as they charged to the aid convoy.

“Our initial review has confirmed that no strike was carried out by the IDF towards the aid convoy,” he said. “Several looters approached our forces and posed an immediate threat to them.”

He said a full investigation would be conducted by “an independent, professional and expert body” of the army, and updates would be shared in the coming days.

The Israeli account is disputed. BBC Verify spoke to witnesses, who described being shot at.

Dr Mohamed Salha, interim hospital manager at al-Awda hospital, where many of the dead and injured were taken, told the BBC: “Al-Awda hospital received around 176 injured people…142 of these cases are bullet injuries and the rest are from the stampede and broken limbs in the upper and lower body parts.”

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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.

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

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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Calls for ceasefire come as aid organisations have warned 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.

However, according to British military intelligence, this has come at a huge cost. In its latest update, it said February had been the deadliest for the Russians since the start of the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022 – with 983 killed and wounded per day.

“Today, Russia has highly likely lost over 355,000 personnel killed or wounded during the Ukraine war,” it said. It is not clear how the figure was reached.

Russia does not provide a record of casualties. A few days ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine had lost 31,000 troops since February 2022.

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

On Saturday, a Russian drone hit a block of flats in the Ukrainian city of Odesa, killing at least 10 people, including three little children.

On Sunday, Russia targeted the southern Kherson region, killing one person and injuring another three, according to Ukrainian officials.

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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.

With its airbases, troop concentrations, training grounds and the Black Sea fleet, Crimea has been a key target for the Ukrainians.

At one point last year, it was thought that it intended to launch a full-scale attack to retake the peninsula.

In particular, Ukraine has repeatedly hit Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Satellite images last year showed many of the Crimea-based warships had left the peninsula for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

Last month, the Russian landing ship Caesar Kunikov was sunk off the coast of Crimea, according to Ukraine’s armed forces.

Its sister ship Novocherkassk was hit while in port in Feodosiya in December last year.

In one of the biggest strikes on the Black Sea fleet, last September Ukraine attacked naval targets and port infrastructure, using as many as 10 missiles and three unmanned boats. It caused a large fire at a Sevastopol shipyard.

Ukraine has also targeted the Kerch bridge several times as it is an important resupply route for Russian forces occupying parts of the country’s south.

Kyiv has repeatedly said it plans to retake Crimea and all territories seized by Russia.

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.

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Chicago’s best sandwiches from hot beef to subs

The Sandwich King of Chicago, Jeff Mauro, shares his picks for his favourite sandwiches, from hot Italian beef at Village Tap to the Chicago Puerto Rican Original at La Bomba.

Chicago’s culture is deeply embedded in its working-class, immigrant history – including that of its food. While the city’s culinary scene offers plenty of fine dining options, food preferences lean toward hearty, practical and just plain good. A stroll down Chicago’s streets reveals too many sandwich joints to count; tucked into buildings on every corner of the 77 community areas that make up the city, the third largest in the US.

As Chicago’s Sandwich King Jeff Mauro describes it, “Chicago has a no-nonsense palate – we don’t need our food highfalutin and fancy. It is a combination of necessity – hardworking people who build and maintain the city who need something quick, quality and handheld – coupled with the sheer number of immigrants over the generations who bring their cuisine to the city.”

For Mauro, the sandwich is also a comfort that everyone can understand. “As a kid, it’s one of your first foods, carried in a brown bag lunch, your first connection to becoming independent and socialising at the lunch table. You develop an affection for it you don’t get with other foods. And it can be eaten every single day – how many foods do you see like that?”

Part of the Chicago sandwich craze rests on a condiment specific to this city – giardiniera. A medley of pickled vegetables, it has risen to the zeitgeist with the popularity of Hulu’s The Bear. But native Chicagoans have been using giardiniera in their dishes since the late 19th Century when Italian immigrants introduced it to the city. Mauro described it as “an explosion of flavour, heat and texture” that “adds more peppers, more colour, more crunch”.

Here are Mauro’s picks for the best sandwiches in Chicago, beginning with the most famous sandwich to come out of this city – the Chicago Italian beef.

In a city known for its Italian beef sandwiches, Chef Mauro heads to Village Tap on Roscoe Street (Credit: Jeff Hoffman)

1. Best Italian beef: Village Tap 

“What pizza is to New York, Italian beef is to Chicago,” said Mauro. This sandwich has a storied history dating back to the early 1900s when Italian immigrants added a spicy broth to tough meat and tenderised it through a slow roasting process. They then threw it on bread for a heartier, more filling meal.

Village Tap, Mauro’s choice for the best Italian beef in the city, is comparatively new to the city. Begun in 1990 as a craft beer taproom, it expanded with a beer garden surrounded by walls trailing in ivy and a fireplace where diners gather during cold Chicago winters. Despite the popularity of its beer and its atmosphere, it’s the Italian beef that has gotten Mauro’s attention. “This neighbourhood watering hole in Roscoe Village has excellent bar food and serves USDA Prime Italian beef that sells out constantly,” he said.  

Website: 2055 W Roscoe St, Chicago, IL, 60618
Phone: (773) 883-0817
Instagram: @villagetapchicago

Chef Mauro’s favourite burger in Chicago is found at The Loyalist; a West Loop eater tucked beneath the Michelin-starred restaurant, Smyth (Credit: Huge Galdones)

2. Best burger: The Loyalist           

The Loyalist – a garden-level casual eatery in the West Loop – is found below Smyth, a street-level Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant, but is worth a visit all on its own. While the Loyalist bills itself a “neighbourhood restaurant and bar”, the burgers here receive as much attention as the elaborate seafood offerings at Smyth.

It’s Mauro’s go to burger choice for the “best beef, best bun, best onions, best cheese, best ratio, in the coolest setting and with unbelievable menu items to go with that burger”. Designed after French brasseries, The Loyalist’s menu includes the French smash patty comprised of chuck (shoulder roast), short rib and bacon topped with escargot butter, cornichon and mornay sauce. The Loyalist OG Cheeseburger is served with pickled and charred onion on a sesame seed bun. And, according to Mauro, no burger is complete without fries – or frites, in this case.                       

Website: 177 North Ada Street, Chicago, 60607
Phone: (773) 913-3773
Instagram: @theloyalistchicago

Gene & Jude’s hot dog stand has been serving up one of Chicago’s finest hot dogs since 1945 (Credit: Nick Holmes)

3. Best sausage: Gene & Jude’s

Stopping at Gene & Jude’s is like taking a (very delicious) bite of Chicago history. It all began in 1945 when Gene Mormino bought a less than impressive hot dog at a Cub’s game at Wrigley Field. Convinced he could do better he opened a roadside stand just a year later. Instant success brought a move to River Grove, where for years, the lack of signage prompted the locals to dub the restaurant River Road Hot Dogs. But it’s always been Gene & Jude’s, and in Mauro’s mind, it’s always been the best.

“I grew up frequenting this hot dog stand as a kid,” he said. “My old man Gus would bring us there to dine al fresco on top of the trunk of his Oldsmobile, to keep the smell out of the car! He would lay out his mustard-stained towel to protect the diamond coat enamel from the grease – salty, hand-cut fries; sport peppers (hot chilli peppers) and onions and condiments – that top this snappy Chicago classic dog.”

The restaurant’s motto? No seats. No ketchup. No pretence. No nonsense.

Website: 2720 N. River Road, River Grove, IL
Phone: (708) 452-7634
Instagram: @geneandjudeschicago

Three Little Pigs in Chicago’s South Wabash area serves Chinese American cuisine, and one of Chef Mauro’s favourite unique chicken sandwiches (Credit: Andy Aguirre)

4. Best unique sandwich: Three Little Pigs

New to the Chicago scene in 2020, Three Little Pigs serves Chinese American cuisine that head chef and owner Henry Cai calls “untraditionally authentic”. Visitors will find dishes like Mongolian beef and fried rice, but it’s the sandwich that Mauro sees as the true star.           

“Go for the Honey G Chicago Hot Chicken Sandwich,” he said. “It’s topped with a cooling and crisp iceberg slaw and Chinese mustard aioli. The chicken breast is marinated for eight hours and then fried the next day, and it’s the crispiest, juiciest piece of fried chicken dunked into a vat of pepper relish right before serving.”

Website: 1150 S. Wabash, Chicago 60605 (and other locations)
Phone: (312) 300-9866
Instagram: @3littlepigschi

Mauro loves the vegetarian sandwich at Conte di Savoia deli in Chicago’s vibrant Little Italy neighbourhood (Credit: Alamy Stock Photos)

5. Best vegetarian: Conte Di Savoia       

Black and white chequered floors topped with black bistro tables, a cornucopia of Italian fine wines displayed on shelves and in open drawers, and a deli counter where visitors can pick up a packed picnic – the scene screams “Italian-American deli”.Chicago’s Little Italy is a magnet for University of Illinois students, corporate executives, museum patrons and youth soccer players, and when they’re hungry, they go to Conte Di Savoia

The build-your-own sandwich here fits a variety of tastes. “What I love about sandwiches is that they’re very personal,” said Mauro. “Everywhere you go, the sandwich experience is different, customised. And if you create it yourself, you believe that what you customised is the only way to do it. It creates a connection between you and that piece of food, and that connection is dynamic as your tastes develop and change.”

Mauro likes the vegetarian option. “This three-generations-old Italian deli makes its own mozzarella and its own sun-dried tomatoes, which makes this light and bright sandwich like consuming a gooey bite of sunshine with each bite,” Mauro said.

Website: 1438 W. Taylor St., Chicago 60607
Phone: (312) 666-3471
Instagram: @contedisavoia

Tempesta Market sandwich shop on Grand Avenue displays its ethically-sourced meats and cheeses like art (Credit: Tim McCoy)

6. Best sub: Tempesta Market

In a nod to the Windy City, Tempesta Market chose a name originating from strong wind gusts and storms that are characteristic of the lakeside city. An indoor mural depicts a woman with long, dark locks, a breath of wind blowing from her lips. Cold counters showcase deli meats, charcuterie and gelato, and gourmet pantry items line the shelves. Down the hall, various meats hang like artwork in a display case, and rightly so – all of it originates from heritage breed animals raised with grass-fed diets on Midwest family farms; no growth hormones or antibiotics.

“Tempesta serves quite possibly one of my favourite sandwiches on the planet, The Dante” said Mauro of the shop’s spicy, meaty sub offering. “It has the best-cured meats on the best bread topped with the best spread. It’s made with Tempesta’s very own n’duja (a spicy, spreadable cured sausage from Italy’s Calabrian region).” He added: “And get one of their South Johnny pork sandwiches on the side… trust me.”

Website: 1372 W. Grand Ave., Chicago
Phone: (312) 929-2551
Instagram: @tempestamarket

La Bomba Puerto Rican restaurant on West Armitage Avenue is Chef Mauro’s pick for their El Jibarito sandwich, made with fried plantains and steak (Credit: Getty Images)

7. Best for Latin flair: La Bomba

“If you think about it, every country in the world has a version of a sandwich,” said Mauro. The sandwich’s universality is one of the things that drew him to sandwich culture in the first place – just the sheer number and variety that can be created using ingredients from all over the world. In Chicago’s Logan Square, head to La Bomba, a place patrons appreciate for its warm, welcoming Puerto Rican flair that treats every customer like family.

It is well-named – loud, festive music fills a room framed by an island mural and colourful art. Menu items include ham and cheese, blood sausage and breaded steak sandwiches. Mauro goes for the El Jibarito. “This Chicago Puerto Rican original must be eaten to be believed,” he said. “I love the steak version on the golden-fried, flattened tostones (fried plantains), with American cheese and garlicky mayo. It’s an amazing sandwich birthed right here in Chicago not too long ago.” 

Website: 3221 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, 60647
Phone: (773) 394-0106

BBC Travel’s The SpeciaList is a series of guides to popular and emerging destinations around the world, as seen through the eyes of local experts and tastemakers.

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