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World roundup: November 11-12 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Russia, and elsewhere
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Happy Diwali to those who are celebrating!
THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
November 11, 1918: Marshal Józef Piłsudski becomes Chief of State of the first Polish nation to have existed since Austria, Prussia, and Russia carved up the previous one in the “Third Partition” in 1795. The German and Austrian governments had formed a Polish Regency Council the previous year, and with Germany defeated, Austria-Hungary defeated and disintegrating, and Russia in chaos following its 1917 revolution, the council availed itself of the opportunity to declare independence in October 1918. But it’s Piłsudski’s appointment that’s considered the foundation of the modern Polish state and it’s therefore this date that’s commemorated every year as Polish Independence Day.
November 12, 1893: Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan agrees to accept the boundary drawn by British Foreign Secretary for India Sir Mortimer Durand as the new border between Afghanistan and British South Asia. The Durand Line, which ran through the traditional homelands of both the Pashtun and the Baluch peoples, has for better or worse (usually worse) remained the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the present day.
November 12, 1942: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal begins. The battle ended three days later with a decisive US victory over Imperial Japan that ensured the Japanese would be unable to provide significant support to their soldiers on Guadalcanal itself. It thus marks a decisive turning point in the Guadalcanal Campaign and, at least for some historians, marks the overall turning point in World War II’s Pacific Theater.
With the official death toll in Gaza since October 7 now at 11,180, with some 28,200 wounded, the focus of both the war and international attention this weekend was the safety of Gaza City’s hospitals and in particular Shifa Hospital (which Israeli officials have alleged to be hiding an underground Hamas command center). That facility, Gaza’s largest hospital, began refusing new patients on Sunday citing a combination of deteriorating conditions—shortages of medicine, generator fuel, etc.—and intensifying Israeli military (IDF) attacks in and on the hospital. Gaza’s second largest hospital, al-Quds, also closed to new patients over the weekend. According to Reuters, personnel at Shifa have been forced to remove newborns from the hospital’s incubator, and so far three of them have died as a result. Israeli officials claim they’ve offered to supply the hospital with fuel and to evacuate babies. Hospital personnel have denied the fuel offer and I’ve seen no indication whether any evacuation effort is underway or even being considered.
Saudi Arabia hosted a joint Arab League-Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit on Saturday to discuss the situation in Gaza. The session was perhaps more notable for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s attendance than for anything that might have been accomplished. As you probably could have predicted, attendees were not actually able to agree on a response to the Gaza carnage. Calls for economic sanctions against Israel and for members who have diplomatic relations with Israel to break them off were rejected (feel free to speculate as to why), and so the final summit statement offered only rhetorical criticism of Israel and its Western supporters along with a feeble call for the United Nations Security Council to Do Something. I feel pretty confident in predicting that it will not do anything. But it was Raisi’s first visit to Saudi Arabia as president of Iran, so I guess that’s…something?
In other news:
The official death toll should at this point come with a big caveat, in that as Gaza’s largest hospitals start shutting down it will significantly hamper efforts to determine how many people are dying. With potentially hundreds of unaccounted bodies still trapped under rubble this count was always likely to be lower than the actual death toll, but it will probably be even further under moving forward.
Evacuations of foreign nationals and a handful of badly wounded Gazans into Egypt resumed on Sunday. Some 500 foreign passport holders and seven wounded Palestinians were able to pass through the Rafah checkpoint. Those evacuations had been paused on Friday and Saturday for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but may have had something to do with the fact that the IDF was attacking the area.
HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed and Rowaida Abdelaziz reported on Friday that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been fibbing a bit about the humanitarian relief that’s been entering Gaza via Rafah. Blinken has apparently been insisting that the daily inflow of aid has been near or over the UN’s stated 100 truckload per day minimum, when in fact on most days it hasn’t been anywhere close. For example, Ahmed and Abdelaziz note that Blinken claimed that over 100 trucks entered Gaza on November 3 and “about a hundred” entered on November 5. In reality the figures were 47 and 25, respectively. When pressed, the US State Department acknowledges that the relief effort isn’t meeting expectations, so I think you have to assume that Blinken knows he’s lying when he peddles those phony numbers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has poured cold water over Blinken’s fantasy of a restored Palestinian Authority resuming governance of Gaza after the Israeli campaign is over. He rejected the idea in a news conference on Saturday and then opined to NBC News on Sunday that “we need a different authority.” This is morbidly funny. Netanyahu is not wrong—the PA is spent as a political entity. But the Israeli government, which Netanyahu has controlled for 16 of the past 27 years, has done more than anyone else to ensure the PA’s failure. Presumably it would do the same thing to any successor authority.
Israeli forces killed at least three more Palestinians in the West Bank on Sunday—one in Jenin and two more in the nearby town of Arraba. This makes at least 185 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7.
The wealthiest and therefore best humans, billionaires, are apparently putting together a multi-million dollar effort to improve Israel’s public image. They’re donating a lot of money to buy a lot of television ads saying things like “Israel is not an apartheid state.” Multiple international human rights organizations have concluded that it is, in fact, an apartheid state, but those organizations typically don’t have expansive budgets for TV ads so the billionaires will have an edge here.
While it rains collective punishment down on Palestinians in Gaza, back in Israel proper the Israeli government is now arresting people for what they share on social media. You know, because of free speech. Authorities have apparently taken a very expansive view of what sorts of activities constitute “incitement” since October 7—and a somewhat esoteric one, in that sharing posts that express support for the Palestinians or outrage over the Israeli campaign is being deemed illegal while Israelis chanting things like “Death to Arabs” in public are being left alone. This crackdown is the brainchild of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a convicted terrorist and racist, and looks very much like an attempt to fabricate a rationale for arresting Palestinian-Israelis, imprisoning them in inhumane conditions, and potentially revoking their citizenship.
The US military announced on Sunday evening that it had carried out a new round of airstrikes targeting facilities used by Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, its third such attack since late October and second in just the past few days. This time the targets, according to the AP, were “a training location and a weapons facility” in al-Bukamal and Mayadin (I’m not sure which is which). There’s no word as to casualties, nor is there any reason to think these strikes are going to deter future militia attacks on US personnel in Syria and Iraq given that the previous strikes didn’t do that.
Earlier in the day the IDF attacked what it called “terror infrastructure sites” in Syria, in response to rocket fire into the occupied Golan on Saturday. There’s no indication as to casualties here either.
Hezbollah fighters fired anti-tank missiles into northern Israel on Sunday, wounding at least 18 people. Many of the casualties were reportedly workers from the Israel Electric Corporation who were in the village of Dovev repairing power lines. The IDF carried out retaliatory airstrikes, capping another weekend of cross-border violence that also involved Hamas fighters in southern Lebanon.
At a Hezbollah members conference on Saturday, Hassan Nasrallah delivered his second public speech since October 7 and said that his fighters would continue their periodic attacks while still stopping short of announcing an escalation. Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah has been using new weapons in its recent strikes, including drones and a more powerful missile. There were indications in Israeli media on Sunday that the IDF might be preparing its own escalation, though those reports didn’t go into any specifics. Meanwhile, interim Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed tepid support for Hezbollah—he lauded the group for its “rationality” and for acting “very patriotically”—and said that his government had made contingencies for a war with Israel, while stressing that his overriding aim is to avoid such a conflict.
The rebel Karenni Nationalities Defense Force is claiming responsibility for the crash of a Myanmar military aircraft in Kayah state on Saturday. Myanmar authorities have confirmed that the plane did crash but have not said whether it was shot down. According to the AP this would be the first military jet shot down by a rebel group in Myanmar since the country’s February 2021 coup—assuming that it was in fact shot down. Myanmar’s ruling junta has been under increasing pressure from rebel groups across the country’s northern regions since late last month and may be starting to buckle a bit under the weight of the country’s multiple ongoing rebellions.
According to Reuters, when Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits the White House on Monday, US and Indonesian negotiators will be talking about “a potential minerals partnership.” Indonesia’s nickel reserves are apparently the largest in the world, and nickel being a key component in batteries for electric vehicles the US has a keen interest in getting access to some of that stash. Indonesian officials would like their nickel supplies to qualify for EV tax credits under Joe Biden’s “Inflation Reduction Act.” One potential issue is that nickel mining is environmentally destructive and has been particularly so in Indonesia. I assume that won’t be a sticking point.
Philippine and Chinese vessels had another of their regular confrontations near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal on Friday, as the Chinese Coast Guard apparently tried yet again to interfere with the Philippine Navy’s efforts to resupply its makeshift base in that area. Philippine officials accused China of “unprovoked acts of coercion and dangerous maneuvers” after what the AP characterized as a “four-hour faceoff.” The Philippine vessels were able to complete their resupply mission. Both countries claim the shoal, one of several disputed features in the Spratly Islands archipelago and in the wider South China Sea.
Fighting between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group destroyed the Shambat Bridge north of Khartoum on Saturday, with each side naturally blaming the other for it. The bridge spans the Nile River just north of its source point, connecting the cities of Omdurman and Bahri (also known as “Khartoum North”). For whatever it’s worth, back in August there were reports that the military was bombarding the bridge because the RSF was using it as a supply route. Elsewhere, the UN and the Sudanese Doctors’ Union are estimating that RSF fighters killed over 800 people earlier this month in a single attack on the West Darfur town of Ardamata. RSF fighters and their Arab militia auxiliaries reportedly rampaged through the town slaughtering members of the Masalit community. This is the latest in a string of accusations of ethnic violence by the RSF as it appears to be seizing control of the entire Darfur region.
The Malian military and northern rebels appear to be at war once again in northern Mali’s Kidal region. As of Saturday a Malian army column (reportedly supported by Wagner Group or ex-Wagner Group mercenaries) was approaching the town of Kidal and there were reports that fighting had already begun. By Sunday there seemed to be no question that a full blown battle was underway. Very little in the way of detail has been available, unsurprisingly given the remoteness of the area, the Malian junta’s reticence to release information to the press, and the fact that the rebels severed communications links on Friday ahead of the expected military attack.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least six people were killed on Saturday in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, not due to more fighting between the Congolese military and the M23 militia but because of some sort of violent spat between the military and one of the local Wazalendo militias that have been supporting it against M23. Congolese officials characterized the incident as a “misunderstanding.”
Some enterprising soul used a homemade bomb to derail a freight train in Russia’s Ryazan oblast on Saturday. The train operator and assistant train operator were injured in the incident but as far as I can tell not seriously. Russian authorities are investigating this as an act of “terrorism” and seem to be pointing in the direction of Ukrainian or pro-Ukrainian perpetrators.
Elsewhere, The Financial Times’ Max Seddon reports that the Biden administration is taking its first steps to undercut Russian liquefied natural gas exports:
European countries continued importing Russian LNG even after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, which triggered an energy crisis after Moscow slashed pipeline supplies to the continent. Until recently, the US has sought to avoid disrupting flows so as not to increase the pressure on allies battling a shortage.
But in early November, the US State Department announced sanctions on a new Russian development known as Arctic LNG 2 — in effect blocking countries in Europe and Asia from buying the project’s gas when it starts producing next year, according to officials, lawyers and analysts.
Francis Bond, sanctions specialist at law firm Macfarlanes, said that by targeting the project operator, the US was seeking to “toxify the project in its entirety” and would put “pressure on any non-US companies planning to purchase the flows from Arctic LNG 2”.
Of course this is purely motivated by a desire to slash Russian energy profits and thereby hamper its war effort in Ukraine, and not at all by a desire to knock a competitor to the booming US LNG industry out of the market.
The Russian military fired a missile toward Kyiv on Saturday morning for the first time in 52 days according to Ukrainian officials. Air defenses intercepted the projectile. Russian drone and missile strikes killed at least four people across the country. On the ground, meanwhile, the Russian military continued its offensive around the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka and reportedly intensified efforts to regain territory it’s lost in recent weeks around the city of Bakhmut. And Ukrainian officials claimed that members of a “local resistance movement” were responsible for a bombing in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol on Saturday that they say killed three officers in the Russian National Guard.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post has uncovered a
patsy man believed to have been involved in the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year. He is a Ukrainian special forces colonel named Roman Chervinsky. According to “officials in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, as well as other people knowledgeable about the details of the covert operation,” Chervinsky was the “coordinator” of the Nord Stream operation. His apparent involvement as the operational head of the project may implicate Ukrainian military commander Valery Zaluzhny in the plot—certainly it indicates that people above Chervinsky were involved in planning the bombing, and that chain leads ultimately to Zaluzhny. For what it’s worth, Zaluzhny has in the past denied involvement in the bombing.
I’ve seen a good deal of speculation that there’s a political angle to this story and that Chervinsky, who’s in prison following an apparently botched operation and who has been openly critical of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has been outed as part of a behind the scenes conflict between Zelensky and Zaluzhny. I can’t speak to those sorts of intrigues but long-rumored discord between those two men did pop out into the open earlier this month when Zelensky laid into his top general over the latter’s invocation of the dreaded “s” word—stalemate. So clearly they don’t seem to be getting along terribly well.
Tens of thousands of people protested in several Spanish cities on Sunday to express opposition to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s recently-announced amnesty deal with Catalan separatists. The conservative People’s Party organized the demonstrations with the apparent aim of trying to force a snap election, but that seems unlikely. The amnesty won Sánchez enough parliamentary support to earn another term as PM and he’s got no reason to risk that even if the deal has drawn heated opposition.
Finally, The Nation’s William Hartung crunches some numbers that undermine the Biden administration’s lame insistence that it has no leverage with which to force the Israeli government to show greater restraint in Gaza:
There’s no question that US aid provides a substantial share of Israel’s war costs. A rough sense of the overall importance of US aid to the Israeli war effort can be developed by comparing the $14 billion in military aid proposed by the Biden administration with an estimate by the Israeli financial newspaper Calcalist, first reported by Reuters. Calcalist estimates that the conflict in Gaza will cost Tel Aviv roughly $50 billion if it goes on for eight to 12 months.
If the Calcalist estimate is on the mark, that would mean that if the $14 billion in proposed US aid is approved and disbursed over the next year, it would account for just over one-quarter of the total cost of the war to Israel. About half of the estimate—$25 billion—represents direct military costs, with the additional costs related to negative economic impacts of the war, compensation for businesses, and reconstruction. If US aid is compared only to the estimate of direct military costs of the war, it would amount to more than half of relevant expenditures. No estimate made in the midst of an ongoing conflict will be entirely accurate, but what we do know suggests that US tax dollars are a major factor in sustaining the Israeli war effort.
The Biden administration has leverage. Joe Biden simply doesn’t want to use it.
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