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World roundup: May 8-9 2021
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: Substack has added a new feature called “sections,” which allows people to create “sub-newsletters” (a term I may have just coined) within their main newsletter. I’m using it to categorize the types of content on offer here at Foreign Exchanges, and if you go to the homepage you’ll see a few headings at the top indicating different kinds of posts. If you navigate to your “My Account” page you can opt out of (or into) receiving newsletters in those various categories. This should help make the back catalogue more navigable for things like columns and subscriber-only essays. Unfortunately I can’t create a section just for the podcast because it doesn’t appear to be set up for that purpose (creating a podcast section right now seems to require creating a brand new podcast, which I don’t want to do), but I’m hoping this is something Substack will fix at some point. It’s a work in progress and I’m still not entirely sure how it all works, but please feel free to play around with the settings and if you encounter any issues, drop me a line.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 7, 1664: French King Louis XIV kicks off a week-long celebration called Lesplaisirs de l’Île enchantée (“The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island”) to mark the start of the first phase in his project to expand his father’s getaway chateau in Versailles into a massive, opulent royal palace. It is also quite nice if you like looking at extravagant things, especially its extensive gardens.
May 7, 1942: The naval Battle of the Coral Sea reaches its climax, which is…mixed. The Japanese Navy won a tactical victory, sinking several heavy US vessels, including the fleet carrier USS Lexington, while losing comparatively less. But the losses Japan suffered severely curtailed its naval strength, preventing a planned invasion of Port Moresby in Papua and to the Allied victory at the Battle of Midway in June. What’s most noteworthy about this engagement is that it was the first naval battle in history in which the actual ships involved never directly fired on one another. The entire battle was fought via carrier aircraft. Needless to say this had a profound impact on naval warfare moving forward.
May 8, 1429: The Siege of Orléans ends with the withdrawal of the besieging English forces and, therefore, a French victory. This siege was the first victory by the French army under the leadership of Joan of Arc and helped reverse French fortunes in the Hundred Years’ War. This was not a devastating defeat for the English army, but it seemed likely at the time that if England had captured Orléans it would have been able to conquer all of France. The ensuing Loire Campaign was more decisive, opening up the city of Reims to the French army and giving the French Dauphin Charles the legitimacy to have himself crowned King Charles VII.
May 8, 1945: The German high command in Berlin signs its instrument of unconditional surrender, providing for the withdrawal and disarmament of the German military and the ouster of the Nazi-led government and ending World War II in Europe. Because the instrument was signed late into the evening, and thanks to the wonder of time zones, Victory in Europe, or “V-E,” Day is celebrated on May 8 in points west of Berlin and on May 9 in most points east of Berlin, like Russia and Israel.
May 9, 1271: Lord Edward, Duke of Gascony—the future King Edward I of England, AKA “Edward Longshanks”—lands at Acre to begin what historians now regard as the Ninth Crusade. Edward’s Crusader army was far too small to make any serious gains, in part because the French army that was supposed to join him was wiped out besieging Tunis. But with some assistance from the neighboring Mongolian Ilkhanate he was able to win a number of small victories against Mamluk forces and prevented Sultan Baybars from eradicating the Crusader presence in the region. Admittedly this only bought the Crusaders another couple of decades—Acre, the last Crusader state in the Levant, fell to the Mamluks in 1291—but as Crusades go that counts as a success.
May 9, 1865: President Andrew Johnson issues a proclamation declaring that the Confederacy’s armed resistance was “virtually” over and obliging any countries or ships at sea that were harboring Confederate fugitives to turn them over to authorities. There were still small rebel units in the field, so the fighting wasn’t completely at an end, but this date is frequently cited as the formal conclusion of the US Civil War.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for May 9:
158,954,516 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+643,906 since yesterday)
3,306,255 reported fatalities (+9929 since yesterday)
For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here
23,379 confirmed coronavirus cases (+60)
1657 reported fatalities (+9)
The New Arab, citing local Syrian media, is reporting that five Iranian-aligned militia fighters were killed in an apparent drone strike east of Aleppo late Saturday. One of those killed was reportedly a senior figure in Hezbollah. Israel was presumably responsible though that’s unconfirmed.
6482 confirmed cases (+20)
1271 reported fatalities (+1)
The US Navy is claiming that one of its cruisers in the Arabian Sea seized an unmarked dhow packed with weapons a couple of days ago. There’s no clear indication as to the vessel’s origins or its destination, even after US personnel detained and questioned (and later released) its crew, but given the location chances are fairly good that the weapons were bound for northern Yemen.
1,112,725 confirmed cases (+4167)
15,771 reported fatalities (+30)
An early Saturday morning drone strike damaged a hanger at the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province, according to VOA and the AP. One drone was apparently shot down after the attack, though it’s unclear whether that was the only drone involved. There were no casualties and there’s been no claim of responsibility. The drone may have crossed into Iraqi airspace from Syria, which would suggest one of those Iranian-aligned militias was involved.
An Iraqi protest organizer named Ihab al-Wazni was murdered on Sunday in Karbala, the latest in a long string of activists who have been killed since large-scale anti-government protests began back in 2019. Some 600 have met a violent fate over that time, and while most of them were killed by Iraqi security forces during protests a minority of cases (around 30) have involved these kinds of mysterious killings outside of the context of demonstrations. Wazni’s death has sparked protests in a number of southern Iraqi cities, including Karbala.
838,892 confirmed cases (+7) in Israel, 301,751 confirmed cases (+314) in Palestine
6377 reported fatalities (+1) in Israel, 3358 reported fatalities (+7) in Palestine
Over 220 people were injured late Friday when Israeli security forces fired stun grenades and rubber bullets into a crowded al-Aqsa Mosque on the final Friday of Ramadan. At least 205 Palestinians were reported injured along with 17 Israeli personnel. You’ve undoubtedly seen this incident described as a “clash” or “clashes” between a crowd of angry Palestinians and the Israeli forces. But that phrasing implies some level of parity between the two sides, and if the overwhelming disparity in casualties doesn’t suggest that there was no such parity then perhaps video of the battle would:
That isn’t a “clash,” it’s an assault by a heavily armed policing force against a crowd of unarmed worshipers. It may be true, as some reporting has suggested, that some number of those worshipers threw rocks or other items at the police, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that would warrant what you see in that video. It may inform your decision to know that whatever anger was present among those gathered at al-Aqsa on Friday was the product of generations of occupation and apartheid, currently exemplified by an Israeli attempt to ethnically cleanse and annex east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. No amount of linguistic obfuscation, whether from media outlets or from the US State Department, can cover up what the visual evidence shows.
What I see in that video is a police force that is out of control and looking to provoke an uprising. Are police doing this on behalf of their prime minister, who is currently at risk of losing his job and may be casting around for anything that could undermine the opposition’s efforts to unseat him? It wouldn’t be surprising. But if that’s the case, they seem to have failed. After some ominous talk of a Third Intifada following Friday’s assault, some 90,000 Palestinians journeyed to al-Aqsa on Saturday to commemorate Laylat al-Qadr, the climactic night of Ramadan. Some of them walked several kilometers to get there, in defiance of Israeli roadblocks. They worshiped peacefully. As they did so, Israeli police were injuring another 90 people in another violent assault on protesters in Sheikh Jarrah.
The Israeli Supreme Court was supposed to issue a definitive ruling on whether the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah can be forcibly removed from their homes in favor of Israeli settlers. It has decided to postpone that ruling so as not to add to the tension. It’s unclear when it will revisit the case but probably within the next few weeks.
62,063 confirmed cases (+221)
2698 reported fatalities (+12)
At least 68 people were killed Saturday evening when a car bomb exploded just outside a high school in the predominantly Hazara Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of western Kabul. At least 165 people were wounded and more may still be missing. The school, Sayed al-Shuhada, runs three shifts of classes during the day, two for boys and one for girls. The attack was timed to coincide with the end of the midday shift for girls, and the lion’s share of the casualties were students leaving the building to head home. The Afghan government is blaming the Taliban, but both the intentional civilian carnage and the targeting of the Hazara could be signs that this was an Islamic State operation. IS has carried out attacks in Dasht-e-Barchi in the past.
The Taliban on Sunday announced a three day ceasefire to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan. Eid will likely begin Wednesday evening though Thursday evening is possible depending on moon sightings. Taliban officials say their fighters will reserve the right to protect themselves.
35,815 confirmed cases (+1091)
84 reported fatalities (+1)
Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed appears to be recovering after having been badly wounded by a bomb planted outside his home in Malé on Thursday, and authorities say they’ve arrested three of their four main suspects in the attack. They haven’t gone into detail about any of those suspects but they have blamed “Islamic extremists” for the bombing.
1,101,990 confirmed cases (+7174)
18,472 reported fatalities (+204)
Dozens of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters members, perhaps as many as 200 of them, attacked the town of Datu Paglas on the Philippine island of Mindanao early Saturday. They may have been intending to raid the town’s market for food or simply to rest (that’s the story the BIFF itself is floating), but when security forces responded the fighters dug in and used a truck to block the main road into the town. The Philippine News Agency reported a few hours later that government forces had retaken the town and driven off the BIFF fighters. That report did not go into any detail with respect to casualties.
90,758 confirmed cases (+12) on the mainland, 11,808 confirmed cases (+1) in Hong Kong
4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 210 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong
The rocket that unexpectedly entered a falling orbit late last month, after delivering a segment of China’s new space station to its destination, reportedly crashed down harmlessly in the Indian Ocean early Sunday morning (local time). US officials had warned that the rocket was in an uncontrolled descent, a charge the Chinese government dismissed as propaganda. Regardless, most of the device seems to have disintegrated on reentry and what was left managed to avoid doing any damage.
179,970 confirmed cases (+273)
3070 reported fatalities (+7)
On Friday, a group of Libyan militia fighters reportedly seized control of a Tripoli hotel where the country’s interim government has been operating. Among other grievances, apparently they disapproved of the interim government’s appointment earlier in the week of Hussein Khalifa to head Libya’s new intelligence agency. As it was Friday, the hotel was mostly quiet and there are no reports of any casualties. The fighters relinquished control of the building later in the day, their point presumably having been made.
One of the other grievances those fighters seem to have been harboring involves interim Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush. She is facing demands for her resignation, apparently in addition to threats on her life, over her call for foreign fighters to leave Libya. The departure of those foreign fighters is absolutely imperative if Libya is to have any hope of achieving the political transition it’s attempting this year. But Mangoush’s comments have been taken as a one-sided rebuke of the foreign fighters brought to Libya by Turkey to support the now-defunct Government of National Accord, though she insists she also wants the foreign fighters who have been backing Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” to scram. Mangoush is from eastern Libya, so those western Libyan militias may be harboring some suspicions as to her loyalties. She’s also a woman—the first ever to serve as Libyan foreign minister—and that’s probably a factor here as well.
14,108 confirmed cases (+26)
500 reported fatalities (+1)
A military convoy in Mali’s central Mopti region hit a roadside bomb on Friday, leaving at least three soldiers dead and six more wounded. It’s unclear who was responsible for the bombing and there are both al-Qaeda and IS factions active in parts of Mopti.
13,379 confirmed cases (+2)
162 reported fatalities (+0)
At least three civilians were killed on Saturday when unspecified militants attacked a village in northern Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province. Two people are still missing in the wake of that assault. In a separate incident, at least three Burkinabé soldiers were wounded on Saturday when their convoy struck a bomb along the road between the towns of Mansila and Sebba in the eastern province of Yagha.
165,419 confirmed cases (+49)
2065 reported fatalities (+0)
At least 13 people were killed over the weekend in multiple attacks against police facilities in southeastern Nigeria. On Friday, attackers struck one police outpost and two police stations in Rivers state, killing seven police officers in total. At least two of the attackers were also killed. On Saturday morning, another group of attackers struck a police station in Akwa Ibom state, killing five officers and one of their wives. Violent attacks are on the rise in southeastern Nigeria, which has a history of separatism. Authorities have blamed the Indigenous People of Biafra group for that violence, but IPOB has denied involvement.
4877 confirmed cases (+3)
171 reported fatalities (+0)
The Chadian military on Sunday declared victory in its operations against the rebel Front for Concord and Change in Chad (FACT) group in the northern part of the country. Fighters from FACT, who began a major offensive coinciding with Chad’s April 11 presidential election, are alleged to have killed former Chadian President Idriss Déby last month as he was visiting soldiers on the front line. FACT says it has not been defeated, and this would not be the first time Chadian authorities declared a premature victory over the rebels.
Police in N’Djamena, meanwhile, broke out the tear gas on Saturday in response to a protest against the military junta that seized power in the wake of Déby’s death. There have been sporadic protests since the military formed a “transitional” government headed by Déby’s son, Mahamat, suspending regular constitutional order to do so. They’ve been met with a fair amount of violence from security forces. Protest organizers called off another demonstration scheduled for Sunday, due to fears of more violent.
10,637 confirmed cases (+0)
115 reported fatalities (+0)
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir dissolved parliament on Sunday, but lest you assume this is the start of some new political crisis it is actually a positive development. Kiir’s order allows for the formation of a new parliament including representation from former rebel groups. Under the peace treaty Kiir and former (?) rebel leader Riek Machar signed back in 2018, Machar’s faction is entitled to a quarter of the seats in South Sudan’s legislature. The real crisis is that it’s taken so long to get to this point. The United Nations has been warning for some time now that slow progress in implementing that peace deal was threatening to send South Sudan spiraling back into civil war.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
30,323 confirmed cases (+38)
772 reported fatalities (+0)
The Congolese military says its forces killed killed ten Allied Democratic Forces fighters in a battle in North Kivu province on Sunday. That death toll is unconfirmed. Congolese authorities placed North Kivu and Ituri provinces under a “state of siege” on Thursday due in large part to ADF activity. That declaration marked the beginning of a stepped up operation by Congolese security forces in those provinces.
670,613 confirmed cases (+0)
10,706 reported fatalities (+2)
New polling for the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag suggests that most Swiss citizens still support a treaty with the European Union even after negotiations on such an accord broke down last month. Some 64 percent of respondents said they either mostly or entirely favor a deal with Brussels against only 32 percent mostly or completely opposed. Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is currently governed by an unwieldy set of over 100 small agreements, some of which are out of date and others of which may expire. A single, bilateral accord would substantially reduce the level of complexity required to manage that relationship. Public support for a deal in the abstract is not, however, the same as support for an actual deal, which may include terms on issues like free movement that prove unpopular with the Swiss public.
4,434,860 confirmed cases (+1770)
127,605 reported fatalities (+2)
Having done well enough in Thursday’s Scottish parliamentary election to remain in charge of the regional government, the Scottish National Party and its leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, are planning to go forward with plans to hold another Scottish independence referendum. In this effort it will presumably be backed by the Scottish Green Party, though it will not have the support of the British government and that may be enough to prevent a vote from happening. At the very least, Sturgeon and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be heading for a date with the British Supreme Court over the question of whether or not the regional government has the power to hold such a referendum over the federal government’s objections.
33,476,781 confirmed cases (+22,200)
595,812 reported fatalities (+241)
An apparent ransomware attack on Friday, allegedly carried out by a criminal network calling itself “DarkSide,” forced US pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline to shut down its entire system, which is responsible for ferrying roughly half of the fuel that gets transported throughout the eastern and southern United States. The company does not expect operations to be impacted long-term, but Joe Biden declared a state of emergency on Sunday in response to the attack and the shutdown is expected to have an impact on fuel prices—how great an impact depends mainly on how long the shutdown lasts.
Finally, while the Biden administration grandly announced on Wednesday that it now supports waiving intellectual property restrictions with respect to COVID vaccines, questions about the depth of its commitment to ensuring equitable global access to vaccines linger. It remains to be seen, for example, whether the administration is prepared to fight to ensure the waiver is approved by the World Trade Organization, and if it is approved it’s still unclear whether the administration is prepared to follow up with the infrastructure and raw materials needed to help countries in the developing world produce generic vaccines. A report from the Financial Times over the weekend suggested that the administration viewed the IP waiver more as a convenient but potentially hollow diplomatic fig leaf for its lousy record on vaccine equity than as a serious policy option. Not reassuring!
European leaders, who have expressed skepticism if not outright opposition to the IP waiver, are insisting that the US first dig into its oversupply of finished vaccines and start sharing those with the rest of the world before it pursues the necessary but more long-term approach of generics. The administration has shown slightly more willingness to do so in recent days, but only slightly and only after it’s already fallen well behind Europe, China, and Russia in terms of sharing its vaccine surplus.