World roundup: November 30 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, China, Argentina, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
November 30, 1853: The Battle of Sinop
November 30, 1947: Palestinian gunmen attack several buses carrying Jewish passengers across Mandatory Palestine. The attack was a response to the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of its partition plan for Palestine the day before and began a five and a half month period of paramilitary clashes and terrorist attacks between Jews and Arabs, essentially a “civil war” within the British colony. That conflict “ended,” along with the UK’s mandate, in May 1948, when joint Arab League forces invaded Israel-Palestine and the civil war became the Arab-Israeli War.
COP28, the latest iteration of the United Nations’ annual climate summit, kicked off in Dubai on Thursday. This year’s conference has already generated a fair amount of attention, predominantly of the negative variety given the awkward decision to hold a climate meeting in a major fossil fuel producing country that appointed the head of the state oil company as conference president. While UAE officials are (allegedly) hoping to use the summit to close some sweet new oil and gas deals, expectations on the climate front are unsurprisingly muted. That said, the conference got off to a semi-promising start with an agreement to create a new climate loss and damage fund to help compensate countries that have been impacted by climate change. This is a significant development, though it very much remains to be seen whether wealthy nations will finance the fund at a level that is actually commensurate with the need.
Turning from the people who are ostensibly trying to address climate change to the folks who are definitely causing it, members of the OPEC+ group met on Thursday and decided to reduce global oil production in the first quarter of 2024 in an attempt to arrest falling prices. The aggregate 2.2 million barrel per day cutback is voluntary and includes an extension of a current 1.3 million bpd cut by two member states, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The 900,000 in new cuts will come from Russia and six other OPEC+ members. The Gang also agreed to let Brazil join, though the Brazilian government isn’t planning to participate in any output caps for now.
Before we get into Thursday’s news, Yuval Abraham of Local Call and +972 Magazine has written a blockbuster report that may reveal the Israeli military’s (IDF) intentional effort to inflict maximum pain on Gaza’s civilian population:
The Israeli army’s expanded authorization for bombing non-military targets, the loosening of constraints regarding expected civilian casualties, and the use of an artificial intelligence system to generate more potential targets than ever before, appear to have contributed to the destructive nature of the initial stages of Israel’s current war on the Gaza Strip, an investigation by +972 Magazine and Local Call reveals. These factors, as described by current and former Israeli intelligence members, have likely played a role in producing what has been one of the deadliest military campaigns against Palestinians since the Nakba of 1948.
The investigation by +972 and Local Call is based on conversations with seven current and former members of Israel’s intelligence community — including military intelligence and air force personnel who were involved in Israeli operations in the besieged Strip — in addition to Palestinian testimonies, data, and documentation from the Gaza Strip, and official statements by the IDF Spokesperson and other Israeli state institutions.
Compared to previous Israeli assaults on Gaza, the current war — which Israel has named “Operation Iron Swords,” and which began in the wake of the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel on October 7 — has seen the army significantly expand its bombing of targets that are not distinctly military in nature. These include private residences as well as public buildings, infrastructure, and high-rise blocks, which sources say the army defines as “power targets” (“matarot otzem”).
The bombing of power targets, according to intelligence sources who had first-hand experience with its application in Gaza in the past, is mainly intended to harm Palestinian civil society: to “create a shock” that, among other things, will reverberate powerfully and “lead civilians to put pressure on Hamas,” as one source put it.
There’s a term for violently terrifying a civilian population in order to further political aims, but of course it doesn’t apply to the IDF since the IDF is one of The Good Guys. There’s far more in this piece than I can productively summarize, but a couple of points especially stand out. The first is that the IDF has a pretty thorough understanding of how many civilians it’s going to kill in any given strike, which makes their deaths more intentional than its “human shields” and “Gaza is so densely populated we can’t help it” justifications would suggest. The IDF’s willingness to countenance higher numbers of civilian casualties stems in part, according to Abraham, from senior officers’ sense of embarrassment that they didn’t prevent the October 7 attacks (more on this below) and their desire to give a vengeance-minded Israeli public what it wants in order to distract from that security failure.
The second has to do with the aforementioned AI system, called “Habsora,” whose main contribution to the war appears to be determining the likelihood of a Hamas or other militant operative being inside a given residential building at any given time. Habsora is the reason the IDF hasn’t run out of places to bomb even though it’s already bombed all of the overtly military and power targets in Gaza, because it keeps suggesting new houses to strike. Isn’t technology great?
On to the news:
Overnight, Israel and Hamas agreed very nearly at the literal last minute to extend their detainee exchange and ceasefire arrangement for at least one more day, through Thursday. According to the Egyptian government negotiations are continuing on a two-day extension, but as I suggested yesterday challenges have emerged as Hamas is running out of civilian women and children to release and its leaders are having to weigh the value of a short extension against their reluctance to free combatants and/or men. Hamas may want more in return for releasing those hostages, but it’s unclear whether the Israeli government would be willing to go beyond what it’s already been doing.
A pair of Hamas gunmen killed at least three people and wounded eight others at a bus stop in Jerusalem on Thursday morning. Police and an “armed civilian” killed both of the attackers. To the extent it’s capable, Hamas may attempt further attacks outside of Gaza as the situation in that territory continues to deteriorate, in hopes of sparking a wider Palestinian uprising. Its efforts in that regard—in which I think we can probably include the October 7 attacks—have not been particularly fruitful so far.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in the Middle East to perform the Biden administration’s public concern for civilian casualties again. I hesitated to even mention this because a) it’s purely for show and b) if you heard anything Blinken said the last time he was in the region then you already know what he’s saying and you know Israeli leaders will ignore it.
The Israeli government on Thursday recalled its ambassador from Spain after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez gave an interview in which he said he had “serious doubts” that the IDF’s campaign in Gaza comports with “international humanitarian law.” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called Sánchez’s comments “outrageous” and “baseless” in a social media post. Sánchez has been among the most outspoken European leaders in criticizing the Israeli war effort.
A new report from The New York Times claims that “Israeli officials obtained Hamas’s battle plan for the Oct. 7 terrorist attack more than a year before it happened.” Apparently the document, which the Israelis dubbed “Jericho’s Wall,” described what happened on October 7 in great detail. Rather than preparing, however, those officials dismissed the whole thing as “aspirational.” They were so dismissive that even when a “veteran” IDF intelligence analyst reported in July that Hamas fighters were drilling on the scenarios outlined in the plan, they ignored it. It’s unclear whether any Israeli political leaders ever saw the “Jericho’s Wall” document, but reporting like this is certain to fuel domestic discontent at the failure of Israeli security services.
Members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted 69-10 (with 45 abstentions) on Thursday to prevent the Syrian government’s acquisition of precursor elements and equipment that could be used in the production of, you guessed it, chemical weapons. In a statement announcing the vote, the OPCW cited what it said was the Syrian government’s “continued possession and use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic, and its failures to submit an accurate and complete declaration and to destroy all its undeclared chemical weapons and production facilities” by way of an explanation. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons amid the Syrian civil war but those denials have not had much effect on Western consensus. Like most other international bodies, the OPCW can only urge members to follow this decision, it can’t enforce compliance.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet announced on Thursday that his government is scrapping a $1.5 billion coal power plant project and swore off any plans to build hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River. With respect to the coal plant he cited Cambodia’s “responsibility for the world’s shared environment and climate” in light of the start of the COP28 summit (see above). As to the dams, Hun Manet argued that their potentially “huge impact” on the river’s ecology as his rationale. The Cambodian government may turn to liquefied natural gas to offset the power it won’t be getting from the defunct coal plant, which at least in the abstract should be a marginal improvement in terms of emissions.
While US media coverage of the big Joe Biden-Xi Jinping summit earlier this month has suggested that Biden got the better of their exchange, having secured agreements to restore military-to-military dialogue and to tackle global fentanyl trafficking, Foreign Policy’s James Crabtree says Beijing is pretty happy with the meeting as well:
China had three main objectives at the meeting, all of which it achieved. First was the simple fact of the summit itself. This provided a stage on which domestic and international audiences could view Xi as a global leader on par with Biden. As the rising and still less powerful nation, it matters to China to be seen as the United States’ peer.
The second, more important issue was Taiwan. China is nervous about Taiwan’s national elections in January, where polls suggest that the most likely outcome is a victory for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which has frosty relations with Beijing. Xi is also likely alarmed by Biden’s repeated statements that the U.S. military would come to Taiwan’s defense if China decides to invade. For Xi, reinforcing China’s red lines on Taiwan to Biden face-to-face was therefore a central objective. And while Biden ruffled Chinese feathers in San Francisco by calling Xi a dictator, he crucially did not repeat his promise to defend Taiwan. Beijing, which never rules out the option of invading the island if it refuses to “reunify” voluntarily, will have been pleased by what it is likely to view as Biden’s backing down.
The third successful result for Beijing is that defusing tensions with Washington will give it more room to maneuver in the South China Sea and elsewhere around the region, by at least temporarily slowing down the rebalancing that has seen many countries across the Indo-Pacific inch closer to each other and the United States.
The Washington Post’s Katharine Houreld reports, based on interviews with refugees, that the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces group are both forcibly conscripting fighting age Sudanese males (including teenage boys) into their ranks to replenish their manpower. Compounding this problem, many men who have fled Sudan to refugee camps in surrounding countries have found those overwhelmed facilities so unbearable that they’ve returned to Sudan despite the likelihood that they’ll wind up as conscripts. The combatants have also reportedly been abducting medical personnel, men and women, putting them to work treating wounded fighters.
Islamic State West Africa Province fighters attacked a security convoy in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state on Tuesday, killing at least four people. On Sunday a convoy of ISWAP fighters hit a landmine in Borno that killed at least 50 of them. It’s likely that ISWAP itself was responsible for planting the mine.
There are a few items from Ukraine:
An apparent Russian missile strike killed at least two people and left at least ten wounded overnight in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. At least three people were still missing as rescuers were picking through rubble.
The Russian military now says that its forces have seized the village of Khromove, located just west of the city of Bakhmut. Russian forces have been in control of that city since May, but fighting has continued around its outskirts. Ukrainian forces seemed to have a bit of momentum there a few weeks ago but the tide seems to have shifted in Russia’s direction. According to Reuters, Ukrainian sources were insisting that the village was only partially in Russian hands.
The Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, accused the Russian government on Thursday of putting the kibosh on prisoner exchanges. Apparently what had been a pattern of fairly regular swaps has dropped off in recent months, obliging the Ukrainian government to build new prisoner camps to accommodate a larger captive population. Lubinets alleged that Russian officials want the Russian populace to believe that Kyiv is maliciously refusing to repatriate Russian POWs.
While Argentine President-elect Javier Milei may have a fight on his hands to get the more extreme elements of his economic agenda through Congress, World Politics Review’s James Bosworth notes that he’ll have a much easier time upending Argentine foreign policy:
As a self-described defender of freedom, Milei rejects “communist” countries, by which he means not only China but also Brazil. Milei has called the Chinese government “assassins” and threatened to break diplomatic ties with Beijing, though he has backtracked on that position since winning the presidency. Knowing Milei’s anti-Beijing stance, China bet heavily on Sergio Massa, the losing candidate for the ruling Peronists. When Fernandez visited China in October, China released an additional $6.5 billion in yuan into the two countries’ bilateral currency swap account, hoping to help prop up the Argentine economy and prevent further currency devaluation prior to the election. China has been a major investor in the Argentine economy, and Beijing is concerned that an anti-China administration in Buenos Aires could harm Chinese interests ranging from mining to a secretive space station China operates in Argentina.
Added to those tensions, Milei plans to reject BRICS’ invitation for Argentina to join the grouping. Brokered by Lula and supported by China, the BRICS invitation was a diplomatic victory for the Fernandez government, one that will now be undone before it even becomes official in January. It’s not clear what Argentina would have received from BRICS other than additional financial lifelines, although given the state of its economy, that can’t be dismissed. For BRICS, Milei’s about-face will cost it one of Latin America’s largest economies as a member, although—again—given the state of Argentina’s economy, BRICS is perhaps better off without that potential disaster hanging over the organization. More importantly, it raises serious questions about the stability of what often seems like an ad hoc grouping of countries that already struggles to explain its raison d’etre. If countries now join or leave based on changes in government, it will highlight the group’s lack of cohesion.
Closer to home, Milei’s comments about Argentina’s neighbors during the campaign suggest tensions could flare at any time—starting with Brazil, perhaps Argentina’s most important regional relationship. Milei called Lula a communist with whom he would refuse to speak. For the three years prior to Lula’s inauguration in January, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refused to meet with Fernandez; Milei, who spoke flatteringly of Bolsonaro during the campaign, seems to want to resume that diplomatic freeze. For his part, Lula’s comments on the Argentine president-elect have so far been muted, but other leftwing leaders, including Colombia’s Petro, have spoken out quite harshly against Milei.
Finally, continuing a theme we started yesterday, I’ll leave you with Jacobin’s obituary for the recently departed Henry Kissinger, and specifically with its contrast between the reverence he enjoyed among US politicians and the revulsion he inspired abroad:
Kissinger’s capacity for bipartisanship was renowned. (Republicans Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld were in attendance early in the evening [at Kissinger’s 90th birthday party], and later in the night Democrat Hillary Clinton strode in through a freight entrance with open arms, asking, “Ready for round two?”) During the party, McCain gushed of Kissinger, “He has been a consultant and advisor to every president, Republican and Democrat, since Nixon.” Senator McCain likely spoke for everyone in the ballroom when he continued, “I know of no individual who is more respected in the world than Henry Kissinger.”
In fact, much of the world reviled Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state even avoided visiting several countries out of fear that he would be apprehended and charged with war crimes. In 2002, for example, a Chilean court demanded he answer questions about his role in that country’s 1973 coup d’état. In 2001, a French judge sent police officers to Kissinger’s Paris hotel room to serve him a formal request for questioning about the same coup, during which several French citizens were disappeared. (Apparently unperturbed, the statesman-turned-private consultant referred the matter to the State Department and boarded a plane to Italy.) Around the same time, he cancelled a trip to Brazil after rumors began circling that he would be detained and compelled to answer questions about his role in Operation Condor, the 1970s scheme that united South American dictatorships in disappearing one another’s exiled opponents. An Argentine judge investigating the operation had already named Kissinger as one potential “defendant or suspect” in a future criminal indictment.
But in the United States, Kissinger was untouchable. There, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific butchers died as he lived — beloved by the rich and powerful, regardless of their partisan affiliation. The reason for Kissinger’s bipartisan appeal is straightforward: he was a top strategist of America’s empire of capital at a critical moment in that empire’s development.
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