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World roundup: November 2 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
November 2, 1917: The Balfour Declaration is issued.
November 2, 1964: Saudi King Saud bin Abdulaziz is ousted in an internal family coup. Saud and his brother/crown prince, Faisal, had been engaged in a power struggle since their father’s death in 1953, one that Faisal really won earlier in the year when he and the rest of the ruling family stripped Saud of most of his authority and forced him to name Faisal as his regent. Saud’s mismanagement of the country, along with concerns that he was losing the “Arab Cold War” to Gamal Abdel Nasser and republicanism, led to his marginalization and ultimately removal from power. Finally in November the ruling family officially deposed Saud and made Faisal king.
With Gazan health officials reporting a death toll of 9061 people, more than 3700 of them children, and over 32,000 wounded since October 7, “phase two” of the Israeli operation in Gaza continued on Thursday with reports of heavy fighting on the outskirts of Gaza City. The AP chose to headline this as an Israel “advance” on the city, which is a bit strange in that Israeli forces aren’t really “advancing” on the city yet, they’re encircling it. That’s what Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi told reporters on Thursday and media outlets are now beginning to report that they’ve completed that encirclement. This is probably not good news for any civilians still in the city, whether they’ve been unable to evacuate or evacuated and returned, though there is a slim chance the Israeli government will throw a bone to the US (see below) and agree to some kind of humanitarian adjustment in its campaign once it has the city fully invested.
Also continuing on Thursday was the operation to evacuate foreign nationals from Gaza. The Egyptian government claimed that 344 of them had passed through the Rafah checkpoint on Thursday, 74 of them US nationals according to US President Joe Biden. The Egyptians are estimating around 7000 foreign nationals will be able to leave Gaza in this operation. The two day total is 708, which puts them on a pace to take nearly three weeks to accomplish this unless the process is somehow sped up. Some 60 seriously wounded Gazans and their companions were expected to make the crossing into Egypt on Thursday, after 46 did so the previous day.
Incredibly, the IDF attacked another Gazan refugee camp on Thursday. This time the target was a residential building in the Bureij camp and the strike killed at least 15 people. Even more incredibly, the IDF bombed the larger Jabalya refugee camp again on Thursday for the third day in a row. Casualty figures there are not yet available but as of yesterday the repeated bombings in Jabalya had killed at least 195 people and wounded 777 more. A more cynical person might suggest the IDF is flaunting its impunity in the wake of the international backlash to the initial Jabalya attack on Tuesday. Not me though, I’m not cynical.
Halevi suggested on Thursday that the Israelis may allow fuel shipments into Gaza to support hospital generators. Answering questions from reporters, Halevi said that “for more than a week now, they [Gazan health officials] have been telling us that 'tomorrow the fuel in hospitals will run out'. So far it has not run out.” This is factually untrue for a number of Gazan hospitals. There are still some facilities that have some generator capacity left, though for example Gaza’s Indonesia Hospital is now down to a backup generator and has had to shut down a number of vital systems. If the Israelis wait until every hospital in Gaza has lost power before they start allowing fuel shipments that’s still a potential death sentence for, say, babies in incubators or anybody on a ventilator.
Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor, told German media on Thursday that the Israeli government has asked other countries to send hospital ships to Gaza to provide additional medical support. The French military has dispatched a helicopter carrier, the Tonnerre to Gaza—not a hospital ship but a vessel that could help evacuate wounded Palestinians to hospital ships or elsewhere.
Israeli security forces killed at least three Palestinians in multiple West Bank raids on Thursday. Also on Thursday, Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli settler in the northern West Bank. This triggered an inevitable IDF-protected settler mob to undertake another pogrom, this time in the nearby Palestinian village of Dayr Sharaf. I have not seen any word as to casualties there.
Responding to a heckler at a campaign event in Minnesota on Wednesday, Biden called for a “pause” in the Israeli campaign to allow “time to get the prisoners out.” This wasn’t entirely coherent, shockingly. The Biden administration has been using the term “humanitarian pause” to describe some very nebulous scenario whereby it would be possible for Gazan civilians to obtain humanitarian relief without the Israelis having to stop their air campaign. Administration officials have adopted this terminology in order to seem Reasonable without using the verboten word “ceasefire,” which is what is actually required. The way Biden used the term “pause” here seemed more like a straight euphemism for “ceasefire,” but I have no idea if that’s what he meant. I also have no idea what “get the prisoners out” means or whether he’s referring to Hamas’s hostages, to the foreign nationals who are trapped in Gaza, or to both. Or maybe neither! Who really knows at this point?
With even the President of the United States publicly talking about the need for a more robust humanitarian response and his administration now “exploring” the “pause” concept—though they’re still insisting that they aren’t calling for a ceasefire or anything approaching one—the international pressure on Israel is growing a bit. As I noted above, there could be an opening after Gaza City is surrounded for the Israelis to say “stage two (one/three/eighteen) is complete and we’re going to hold here while we reassess the tactical landscape” or some other word salad in order to concede time for some increased humanitarian activity. That’s not to say they will, just that they could.
The Bahraini government has apparently recalled its ambassador from Israel and says the Israeli ambassador is no longer in Manama. The Bahraini parliament on Thursday claimed that the country had severed diplomatic and economic ties with Israel but the government has so far only confirmed the ambassadorial news and Israeli officials are saying there’s been no fundamental change in the bilateral relationship. Bahrain and Israel normalized relations under the “Abraham Accords” framework and I doubt the Bahrainis really want to cut ties over Gaza, so they may be hoping that recalling their ambassador will be enough to quell any public outrage until the current moment passes. Bolivia remains the only country to cut ties with Israel over Gaza but Chile, Colombia, and Jordan have all recalled their ambassadors.
Spencer Ackerman has a piece at Forever Wars picking up on the US military’s announcement earlier this week that it has deployed US Special Forces personnel to Israel. They’re on the typical “training and advising” mission but the Pentagon has said that they could join IDF hostage rescue operations. As Spencer points out, this means it’s conceivable that US forces could be put into active combat in Gaza. This would if course be the death knell for the Biden administration’s already feeble efforts to pretend that the United States is just a concerned third in this situation and not a direct participant.
Maybe those special forces personnel will wind up being deployed as peacekeepers. Apparently the US and Israeli governments are discussing the idea of putting an international peacekeeping force in Gaza after the Israelis have finished doing whatever it is they’re trying to do. This force could include US soldiers though White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that the Biden administration has “no plans or intention to put US military troops on the ground in Gaza, now or in the future.” I have no idea whether the peacekeeping option is being considered instead of ethnic cleansing or as a fallback in case the Israelis cannot convince the Egyptian government to accept ethnic cleansing.
With Iranian-backed militias having attacked US forces in Iraq and Syria multiple times in response to the situation in Gaza, The Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein offers an important reminder that there are US Special Forces personnel in Yemen for counterterrorism purposes. They could wind up being targeted by the Houthis, who have already attacked (or tried to attack) Israel multiple times since October 7.
Hezbollah and the IDF had their most intense exchange of hostilities since October 7 on Thursday, with the former striking 19 IDF targets in one extensive assault and the latter responding with airstrikes and helicopter attacks on southern Lebanon. Lebanese media reported that four people were killed in that Israeli response and Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed (I’m not sure if that’s in addition to the four deaths above). Two people were wounded in Israel. At least 80 people have been killed in these tit-for-tat attacks over the past three-plus weeks, 71 in Lebanon and nine in Israel. Thursday’s escalation came one day before Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is scheduled to deliver his first public speech on the situation in Gaza. If Nasrallah is going to declare war on Israel tomorrow is presumably when he’ll do it, which makes today’s escalation of violence particularly worrisome.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t note Thursday’s Wall Street Journal BOMBSHELL that “US officials” believe the omnipresent Wagner Group is going to send a Russian Pantsir air defense system, also known as the SA-22, to Hezbollah. I know what you’re probably thinking right now: “does the Wagner Group even exist anymore?” My answer is…I guess? In some form? But it’s surely been cowed by the Russian government and I’m not sure it still makes sense to talk about THE Wagner Group like it’s an independent entity. As to whether it’s going to send a Pantsir to Hezbollah, all I can say is that this WSJ report lies at the intersection of two revered US journalistic traditions: regurgitating anonymous US intelligence unquestioned and treating all US “enemies” as one single, undifferentiated super-enemy. The claim is entirely plausible but it should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, and the International Rescue Committee issued a joint statement on Thursday warning of the influx of Afghans returning to Afghanistan under pressure amid the Pakistani government’s new crackdown on undocumented migrants. According to the agencies, upwards of 10,000 Afghans are reentering the country from Pakistan per day now, up from maybe 300 per day before Pakistani authorities announced their stiffened deportation policy. Some of these people have apparently been in Pakistan for decades and are arriving in Afghanistan with nothing, forcing authorities to house them in what are essentially refugee camps.
The Pakistani government announced on Thursday that it’s putting off its forthcoming parliamentary election until at least February 8. I say “at least” because this is the second time this vote has been postponed. Legally it should take place this month, but officials put it off until January by citing the need to redistrict based on the results of Pakistan’s latest census. Now they’re delaying again for…some reason. They may keep delaying it until polling stops predicting a major victory for former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which could be a while.
Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army fighters have reportedly seized control of Chinshwehaw, a key border town through which a substantial portion of Myanmar-Chinese commercial activity flows. This is the biggest success so far in the MNDAA’s latest offensive, which it undertook on Friday as part of the “Brotherhood Alliance” rebel coalition. It’s believed that the fighting has displaced thousands of people, many of them into China, though it’s hard to know with any degree of certainty given the media environment in Myanmar. The Chinese government has called for a ceasefire.
At Foreign Affairs, Michael Davidson examines China’s complicated relationship with coal:
For years, environmentalists and energy policymakers have seen China’s reliance on coal as a major impediment to reducing global carbon emissions. Burning coal is the world’s single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and half of all coal-fired power stations are located in China.
Despite insisting that the country will turn away from coal, Chinese officials have wavered. In September 2021, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China would no longer fund coal-fired power plants abroad. But today coal use is on the rise domestically. In the past year, Chinese provincial governments have greenlighted more coal power capacity than they did in the previous six years combined. If these plants are built and operated as usual, China would blow past its climate change commitments, putting global temperature goals out of reach.
The odd truth about China’s coal addiction is that it makes little financial sense. China insists on investing in coal even though coal plants have posted record losses in the past few years. Several factors, including the need for energy security, the structure of China’s climate goals, and the local interests of local governments, help account for this uneconomical behavior. The costs of China’s commitment to coal, however, could be very steep as the planet tries to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
Final results from last month’s parliamentary election in New Zealand show that the conservative National Party-Act New Zealand alliance will need additional support to form a government. The parties won a combined 59 seats in the 122 seat parliament. They will undoubtedly turn to the far right New Zealand First party, which won eight seats, to make up the difference.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Thursday that Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group is planning an “imminent large-scale attack” on the city of al-Fashir, capital of Sudan’s North Darfur state. A major attack on al-Fashir could be catastrophic, because the city has become home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced from other parts of Sudan by the RSF’s conflict with the Sudanese military. There’s a significant risk of high casualties and/or further displacement. It’s unclear why Blinken issued the warning but the fact that he did it personally suggests the US government is fairly sure this attack is being planned.
The last column of United Nations peacekeepers to leave Mali’s Kidal region struck a roadside bomb on Wednesday. At least eight peacekeepers were wounded. UN officials have complained that the pace at which Mali’s ruling junta is demanding that their forces withdraw is putting those forces at risk.
Amnesty International paints a grim picture of the jihadist conflict in Burkina Faso:
Amnesty International estimated that at least 46 locations across Burkina Faso were under siege in July 2023 by armed groups. The tactic, first used in 2019 but a defining feature of the conflict since 2022, is characterized using checkpoints on main exit routes, the laying of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to limit traffic, and occasional attacks against civilians, soldiers, and supply convoys. The sieges have affected an estimated one million people.
The leader of a civil society organization told Amnesty International: “These days, a town or village falls under siege every day. Arbinda has been under siege since 2019. The situation is similar in Gorgadji, Sollé, Mansila and Titao and there are real risks for the inhabitants.”
On the first anniversary of the peace deal that ended the 2020-2022 war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a group of ten governments, the European Union, and Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement on Thursday decrying continued human rights abuses in the Tigray region. Of particular note, the statement makes it clear that there are still Eritrean military forces in Tigray long after they should have headed home. They continue to be implicated in some of the worst alleged abuses. The Eritrean government dismissed the HRW statement as part of a “smear campaign.”
Vladimir Putin on Thursday signed into law Russia’s revocation of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This is in many ways an empty gesture—the treaty never actually entered into force—but Putin clearly regards it as a point of pride that Russia’s CTBT status be the same as the US (signed but not ratified). The revocation process has given us the chance to watch US officials criticize another country for revoking a treaty the US never ratified in the first place. Washington usually reserves that sort of transparent hypocrisy for matters involving the International Criminal Court.
The US Treasury Department on Thursday imposed sanctions on 130 individuals and entities allegedly involved in funneling banned military or “dual use” items to Russia. The targets are primarily clustered in China, Turkey, and the UAE. The US State Department also sanctioned several actors in the Russian energy and metals sectors.
Russian shelling killed at least two people in Ukraine’s Kherson oblast on Thursday. The Russian military has ratcheted up its bombardments in Kherson over the past week or so amid reports that the Ukrainian military is trying to establish a beachhead on the eastern side of the Dnipro River. Also on Thursday, the Ukrainian military said that its forces successfully defended against another Russian assault on the eastern city of Vuhledar, which is one of at least three eastern cities the Russians are pressuring.
The commander of the Ukrainian military, Valery Zaluzhny, said in an interview and essay in The Economist this week that “just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.” This is the first time a senior Ukrainian official has used the s-word in connection with this war and as far as I know it’s the first time anyone directly connected with the conflict has done so. Zaluzhny suggests that it will take some sort of technological advancement to tilt the playing field but I don’t know what that might look like. Maybe Skynet will come online and sort everything out or something. Asserting that “Russia has lost at least 150,000 dead” since its invasion began, Zaluzhny allowed as to how he had underestimated Moscow’s capacity to accept battlefield losses. Leaving aside that the “150,000” figure is unverifiable, this attempted explanation of Ukraine’s military predicament is equivalent to saying “if I have a flaw it’s that I care too much” in a job interview. As you might expect, the Russian government rejected this “stalemate” talk out of hand.
Stalemate or not, the Biden administration remains committed to throwing more money at this war. It announced another $425 million in military aid on Thursday, primarily featuring anti-drone weaponry and other munitions.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has won over one of the two Catalan separatist parties whose support he needs to remain in his post and avoid a January snap election. The Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party announced on Thursday that it will vote to confirm a Sánchez-led government. The second party, Junts, has not yet committed. Sánchez also needs the support of Basque separatists in parliament but his negotiations with the Catalans are receiving most of the attention are more controversial, since they’re demanding amnesty for Catalan leaders implicated in the region’s 2017 independence referendum and potentially a new referendum.
As it does every year, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to object to the US embargo against Cuba. And as is the case every year, the vote doesn’t matter because nothing the UNGA does matters in any tangible sense. This year’s vote was even more lopsided that it’s been for the past couple of years, with 187 countries voting to denounce the embargo and only the US and Israel voting “no,” with Ukraine abstaining and three countries not voting.
Finally, In These Times reports on a very peculiar stipulation in the bill that’s supposed to fund US support for the Israeli campaign in Gaza:
Buried within the $106 billion supplemental national security funding request the White House sent to Congress on October 20 was a highly unusual exemption. As part of $3.5 billion earmarked for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funding for Israel, the executive branch sought permission to unilaterally blanket-approve the future sale of military equipment and weapons—like ballistic missiles and artillery ammunition — to Israel without notifying Congress.
This means the Israeli government would be able to purchase up to $3.5 billion in military articles and services in complete secrecy. The House included the waiver language in a bill that splits off Israeli military aid from the rest of the package.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Josh Paul, former director of congressional and public affairs for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. Paul recently resigned in protest against the administration’s plans to rush weapons to Israel. “A proposal in a legislative request to Congress to waive Congressional notification entirely for FMF-funded Foreign Military Sales or Direct Commercial Contracts is unprecedented in my experience. … Frankly, [it’s] an insult to Congressional oversight prerogatives.”
If you’re thinking maybe they’ve done this to streamline the arming process, that’s not it. The administration already has the prerogative to approve arms sales to Israel on its own accord—all it has to do is give Congress a justification afterward. It’s the justification part they’re trying to waive. And since this request gives Israel until September 2025 to use the funding, this means the US could be selling weapons to the Israelis without even the pretense of oversight even after the Gaza war is over.
Eh, I’m sure it’s fine. Nothing to worry about.
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