World roundup: November 28 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, North Korea, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
November 28, 1814: The Times of London is published via a new steam-powered printing press, making it the first major newspaper so produced. The use of the faster steam press took newspapers from a niche business to a mass market one, in the process boosting efforts to increase literacy.
November 28, 1943: Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin begin the Tehran Conference, the first of three major World War II meetings between the leaders of the UK, US, and USSR. The main outcome of Tehran was that Roosevelt and Stalin managed to get Churchill to commit to an invasion of France, in part to force Germany to pull forces away from their eastern front with the Soviets. They also discussed the eventual partition of Germany and creation of the United Nations.
Hamas and the Israeli government, thanks primarily to Qatari mediation, finally agreed on the terms of a detainee exchange and temporary ceasefire deal last week. The accord, which went into effect on Friday morning, was originally intended to involve the release of some 50 hostages being held by Hamas and other Gazan militant groups and some 150 Palestinians in Israeli custody. Hamas has also been releasing a number of Thai and Filipino nationals under a separate arrangement negotiated by the Qataris. The arrangement was to have been implemented in stages over four days, ending Tuesday morning local time. The process appeared to be faltering on Saturday, as Hamas delayed its hostage release while accusing the Israelis of violating the terms of the agreement, before some additional Qatari diplomacy apparently salvaged things.
The reason I referred above to what the deal “originally” involved is because it’s since been extended. The Israelis and Hamas have agreed to continue the ceasefire and daily detainee releases for at least two more days, though Thursday morning, albeit amid new accusations from both sides about ceasefire violations. I’m not entirely certain about the details but Israeli officials have said they’re expecting Hamas to release at least 10 hostages per day, which at current exchange rates suggests around 30 Palestinians released per day. Efforts are underway to extend this arrangement beyond Thursday morning, though it goes without saying that at some point all the hostages will be released and it’s unclear what will happen then. It’s true that conflicts at rest have a tendency to stay at rest, but Israeli rhetoric has indicated a clear intention to resume pulverizing Gaza once the detainee exchanges are no longer part of the equation.
In other items:
Some of the freed Israeli hostages have talked to media and describe being treated poorly, which is not surprising. There have been claims of treatment that seems outright cruel though I’m unaware (which to be clear does not mean they haven’t been made) of any claims of physical cruelty (apart from the cruelty of their initial abductions, of course). Several of the hostages seem to indicate that their access to food and water diminished over time but that may be related to deprivations across Gaza caused by the Israeli blockade and the minimal amount of aid that has entered the territory. Palestinians released from Israeli custody, who have been described as “prisoners” though many of them have never been charged with anything under the West Bank’s rigged military justice system, have described harrowing treatment including torture. This is consistent with claims made by Palestinians swept up in Israeli mass arrest operations since the October 7 attacks and subsequently released.
On the subject of aid, the ceasefire is/was intended in part to facilitate a surge of aid into Gaza and its distribution throughout the territory—including across the heavily battered northern area. That effort does appear to have been successful, though as United Nations officials have said even this temporary surge isn’t enough to meet the need. The Biden administration is sending three military planeloads of humanitarian aid to Egypt this week for distribution into Gaza.
Over the four days of the initial detainee exchange, under which Israeli authorities released somewhere around 150 Palestinians, they detained 133 Palestinians in the West Bank. Make of that what you will. As Spencer Ackerman noted yesterday, with events in Gaza getting most of the attention the Israeli government and its settler proxies are continuing to kill (including at least two more on Tuesday), arrest, and displace Palestinians in the West Bank at unprecedented rates. Unlike Gaza, where Israeli leaders have at least articulated the barest inkling of a goal (the “destruction of Hamas,” ostensibly), there’s no indication what, if anything, might stop the violence in the West Bank.
The Biden administration has dispatched CIA Director and de facto Secretary of State William Burns to Qatar to participate, along with Egyptian, Israeli, and Qatari officials, in talks on extending the current “pause” (the administration is still refusing to call it a “ceasefire”). Burns is there mostly so that the administration can claim credit for the ceasefire/exchange deal even though its embrace of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has left it unable to contribute all that much to this diplomatic process. Actual Secretary of State Antony Blinken is undertaking another European-Middle Eastern tour this week, mostly (from what I can tell) in order to look busy.
One message the administration is now ostensibly delivering to the Israeli government is that any eventual Israeli military (IDF) incursion into southern Gaza has to be more circumspect than its obliteration of northern Gaza. In particular the administration says it’s insisting that a southern operation must not cause “significant further displacement of persons.” With most of the territory’s population already displaced into the south (where the IDF has continued bombing them), it’s unclear where they would go anyway. And with the IDF already having killed over 15,000 people (probably well over, given that it’s been at least a couple of weeks since Gazan authorities could issue a reliable casualty update), the optics of this situation may finally be testing the administration’s capacity for indulging Israeli war aims.
Israeli media outlets have gotten hold of leaked emails demonstrating that “a highly respected career military intelligence NCO” in the IDF had warned her superiors over the summer that Hamas fighters were training for what looked like an attack on an Israeli kibbutz. Those warnings were, according to the emails, subsequently corroborated but then dismissed further up the chain of command with arguments that the training was nothing more than a staged demonstration. The emails may increase public anger toward the IDF but seemingly give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evidence to bolster his claim that any failure to prevent the October 7 attacks rests with Israeli security forces rather than with his government. Perhaps that’s why they were leaked.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels escalated their attacks on Israeli interests when they hijacked the cargo vessel Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea on November 19. That ship is apparently part-owned by an Israeli businessman, though there was no other immediately apparent connection to Israel and none of the 25 people who were on board—and who are now in Houthi custody—are thought to have been Israeli. The USS Mason, a naval destroyer, reportedly prevented the hijacking of another cargo ship in the Red Sea on Sunday, but US officials now believe the would-be hijackers were Somali pirates rather than Houthi fighters. They have not ruled out the possibility of some sort of Houthi connection. Some Israeli shipping now appears to be diverting around Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which needless to say makes for a significantly longer journey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had told reporters earlier this month that his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, would visit Ankara on Tuesday. Turkish media reported on the planned summit for more than two weeks, even as late as Monday evening, but Tuesday came and Raisi was, uh, not there. It’s unclear whether this was an intentional snub or a miscommunication, particularly since the Iranian government never mentioned any planned summit. Either way it’s somewhat bizarre.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The BBC is reporting, based on “leaked briefing documents,” that UAE officials are hoping to use the COP28 climate change summit, which they’re hosting later this week, as a forum for concluding some new oil and natural gas deals. UAE officials haven’t denied the report but they have said their focus is on achieving “meaningful climate action” at the summit—efforts to undermine that action notwithstanding.
Another investigative report suggests that the Saudi government is pursuing its own oil-forward agenda, something called the “oil demand sustainability program.” This effort aims to use the kingdom’s massive public investment fund and some of its largest companies to sell developing nations on an array of fossil fuel-heavy technologies, including supersonic aircraft, gas-fueled cars, and oil and natural gas fueled power plants. The initiative is primarily aimed at emerging African economies and, as the name suggests, is intended to sustain oil demand even as developed countries move increasingly toward renewable energy. This is completely incompatible with the kingdom’s stated adherence to the international climate agenda, though if you think the Saudis actually mean what they say when they talk about reducing carbon emissions you’re a far more trusting person than I.
The rebel “Brotherhood Alliance” claimed on Monday that its fighters had seized control of another significant commercial outpost close to the Chinese border in northern Myanmar’s Shan state. In that sense the rebels seem to have picked up right where we left them prior to Thanksgiving, on the advance in Shan and several other provinces across the country. With Myanmar’s ruling junta promising to stem those advances without actually demonstrating any ability to do so, the Chinese military conducted multi-day exercises near the border over the weekend. There’s no indication that Beijing is planning to intervene here but it would need to respond to any instability along the border itself.
The Philippine government and communist New People’s Army rebels announced on Tuesday that they will reopen peace talks, under Norwegian mediation. Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte broke off the last round of talks in 2017 but the basic outlines are still in place for a deal that would see the NPA transition from militant to political movement in return for amnesty for its fighters.
The North Korean military finally succeeded in putting a spy satellite in orbit last week, sparking an immediate security crisis along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The South Korean government announced shortly after the launch that it was suspending part of the intra-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement in order to increase its surveillance capabilities along the border, which Pyongyang took as an invitation to scrap the rest of the deal and begin restoring border guard posts and moving heavy armaments into the border region. The CMA bans “aerial surveillance,” a category that the South Korean government has decided includes satellites as well as sub-orbital aircraft so they’re accusing North Korea of having violated the accord first. North Korean state media reported on Tuesday that the satellite had taken photographs of the White House and the Pentagon, which puts Pyongyang roughly on par with Wikipedia in terms of its new surveillance capabilities.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio hosted Vietnamese President Võ Văn Thưởng on Monday, at which time the two agreed to upgrade their bilateral relationship to the level of “comprehensive strategic partnership.” That means strengthening economic as well as military ties, which could pull Vietnam further toward the US axis despite its still-strong relationship with China. Tokyo has in the past helped to support Vietnamese activity in the South China Sea, in waters whose ownership Hanoi disputes with China. The upgrade puts Japan’s relationship with Vietnam on an equal footing with China, India, and the US.
The deputy commander of the Sudanese military, Yassir al-Atta, delivered a speech to the Sudanese General Intelligence Service in Omdurman on Tuesday in which he openly accused the UAE government of supporting the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces group. This is the first time a senior member of the Sudanese military/de facto government has leveled that accusation directly and it charges the UAE with complicity in a growing list of (alleged) RSF atrocities, particularly in the Darfur region. Atta further accused the governments of the Central African Republic, Chad, and Uganda of acting as conduits for UAE-supplied arms.
In response, Emirati officials denied supporting the RSF and insisted that they have “consistently called for de-escalation, a ceasefire, and the initiation of diplomatic dialogue” since the military and RSF went to war with one another back in April. Observers have noted that the RSF is using more sophisticated weaponry, especially drones, than it had at the start of the conflict, but the paramilitaries insist they’ve seized those arms from Sudanese military bases rather than obtaining them from abroad. The Ugandan government also responded to Atta’s charges, similarly rejecting them.
Sierra Leonean authorities say that unrest in Freetown early Sunday morning was the result of a “failed attempted coup” involving a number of active duty and retired members of the country’s military and police forces. According to Al Jazeera, they’ve arrested “13 military officers and one civilian” and “have published photographs of 32 men and two women…being sought in connection with the unrest.” The alleged coup plotters attacked a military barracks and two prisons in the capital, killing at least 20 people and releasing some 2200 detainees, an unknown number of whom have been recaptured. Authorities imposed a curfew in the city that they’ve since relaxed. Like most failed coups the rationale behind this one remains unclear, though it presumably involved some combination of political and economic resentment. President Julius Maada Bio’s narrow and heavily disputed victory in June’s presidential election may have ratcheted up some of those resentments.
The official results came out while I was on break, but challenger Joseph Boakai did in fact defeat incumbent George Weah in Liberia’s presidential runoff earlier this month. Weah, to his credit, conceded without incident even before the release of those official numbers.
Some 3000 jihadist fighters attacked the town of Djibo in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, according to Burkinabè state media. Details are very spotty but authorities are claiming that security forces killed at least 400 attackers from the al-Qaeda aligned Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin group, which has kept Djibo blockaded and largely cut off from the rest of the country for more than a year. There’s no definitive word on casualties among security forces or civilians, though the UN says it’s confirmed at least 40 civilians killed and more than 42 wounded.
A Russian court on Tuesday extended the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich through at least January 30. Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich in March on spying charges that they’ve never fully explained, contending that the details are classified. He will presumably be traded back to the US at some point, but Russian officials have said they won’t discuss a prisoner swap until after Gershkovich stands trial, and they continue to delay that process.
A new report from the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the Levada Center shows that domestic support for Russia’s war in Ukraine has not diminished, even as Russians show increasing weariness for the conflict and for the economic hardships caused by Western sanctions. Indeed, the hardship appears to be hardening attitudes toward negotiations, with a number of focus group subjects expressing the view that Russia has sacrificed too much to give up any of the Ukrainian territory it has seized. I bet more sanctions will solve that problem.
The Ukrainian military’s commander in Avdiivka, Vitaliy Barabash, told a media outlet on Tuesday that the Russian military has intensified its assault there and is now “attempting to storm the city from all directions.” It’s unclear whether the Russians would be able to use Avdiivka as a staging ground for further offensives, particularly in the short term giving the impending onset of winter, but taking the city would at the very least further secure Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk oblast. Elsewhere, Marianna Budanova, the wife of Ukrainian military intelligence head Kyrylo Budanov, has reportedly been hospitalized for heavy metal poisoning and there are indications that a number of officials in the military intelligence service (GUR) have also been poisoned. I’ll leave it to the reader to speculate as to potential suspects.
The Ukrainian government will later this week reportedly unveil a number of changes to its military mobilization system in an effort to reduce the incidence of both draft dodging and of forced conscription. Full details aren’t yet known, but one part of the reform will involve the use of “commercial recruitment companies” to identify potential conscripts who have needed skills (mechanics, for example). These individuals will then somehow be given assurances that they won’t be deployed to the front but will instead be put to work in support roles. Given Ukraine’s need for more front-line soldiers, however, there must be more to it than that.
Polish President Andrzej Duda on Monday swore in a new government led by incumbent Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in a move that has opposition leaders crying foul. Morawiecki has two weeks to form a government that can pass a parliamentary confirmation vote, a task even he acknowledges he’s almost certain to fail given the results of last month’s election. So Duda, who favors Morawiecki’s right wing Law and Justice Party, is simply delaying the opposition’s inevitable takeover for another two weeks. Why, you ask? Well, it seems fairly clear at this point that he’s delaying in order to give Law and Justice more time to appoint party loyalists to important state positions, which could create problems for the government that will presumably take office after this two week period is up.
The Finnish government, which had already closed all but one of its checkpoints along the Russian border, is planning to close the entire border for the next two weeks in hopes of stemming the flow of asylum seekers attempting to enter Finland. Authorities say that 900 such people have tried to cross the border from Russia this month, a hefty increase that they say is the product of a deliberate effort by the Russian government to funnel people to the border.
Confounding polling that suggested a narrow race, the far right Party for Freedom (PVV) handily won last week’s Dutch parliamentary election. PVV came away with 37 seats in the 150 seat House of Representatives, 12 ahead of the second place GreenLeft-Labour alliance. The victory may put party boss Geert Wilders in line to become the next Dutch prime minister, assuming he can moderate his extremist agenda enough to attract coalition partners. That may be easier said than done.
Speaking of far right election victories, libertarian extremist Javier Milei won Argentina’s presidential runoff on November 19. Polling, which had been wrong at every stage of this election, was wrong again, having predicted a tight race only to see Milei win an 11 point victory over Finance Minister Sergio Massa. Milei, whose agenda includes dissolving Argentina’s central bank and ditching the peso in favor of the US dollar, may find himself struggling against a relatively unfavorable Congress once he takes office next month.
Finally, The Nation’s Mohammad Alsaafin finds both US and Israeli plans for the future of Gaza to fall short, for one seemingly basic reason:
Speaking to reporters last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the territory’s governance should be unified with the West Bank, and laid out a series of edits for the future of Palestine.
“Gaza cannot continue to be run by Hamas,” Blinken said. “It’s also clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza…. it is imperative that the Palestinian people be central to the governance of Gaza and the West Bank.
Blinken’s parameters were defied days later by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared, “IDF forces will remain in control of the Strip,” and made clear that he will not allow the Palestinian Authority to play a role there. (Netanyahu then told Fox News that Israel “does not seek to occupy” Gaza, though, given the facts on the ground, it is hard to know how Israel defines “occupation.”)
The back-and-forth over what comes next in Gaza has prompted headlines like this one from NBC News: “The gap between the Biden administration and Netanyahu government over Gaza’s future is widening.”
But there is a glaringly absent party in these conversations: the Palestinian people themselves. Nobody seems particularly interested in what they might have to say about the future of their land.
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