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World roundup: November 4-5 2023
Stories from Myanmar, Ukraine, Colombia, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
November 4, 1979: The Iran Hostage Crisis begins
November 4, 1995: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated by a right-wing Israeli radical named Yigal Amir. Rabin’s murder is often seen as the reason for the failure of the Oslo peace process, which he’d begun a couple of years earlier with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Oslo’s internal flaws probably doomed it to failure anyway, but Rabin’s killing did hasten the shift of Israeli politics to the right and led indirectly to Benjamin Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister.
November 5, 1556: At the Second Battle of Panipat, the army of the would-be Hindu ruler of northern India, Hemu (or Hemchandra Vikramaditya), is defeated by the Mughal Empire under the young Emperor Akbar and his regent, Bayram Khan. A wounded Hemu was brought before Akbar to be executed, but it’s said the 13 year old emperor refused, so instead he touched Hemu with his sword while Bayram Khan actually did the killing. The Mughal victory ended a string of successes by Hemu, a Hindu notable who became the de facto ruler of the remnants of the Suri Empire. His death collapsed his kingdom and left the Mughals as the unchecked power in northern India.
November 5, 1605: Guy Fawkes is arrested by English authorities for his role in the “Gunpowder Plot,” a scheme by a group of Catholics to blow up the House of Lords with King James I in it and install James’ young daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic monarch. Fawkes became the symbol of the plot, and his arrest is celebrated annually as “Guy Fawkes Day” or “Guy Fawkes Night.” Fawkes’ image went from reviled would-be assassin in the years following the foiled plot to something more sympathetic (depending on your perspective) by the 19th and into the 20th centuries.
The AP, citing “Israeli media reports,” speculated on Sunday that Israeli ground forces would enter Gaza City within 48 hours. Probably not coincidentally, the Israeli military (IDF) appears to have knocked out internet and cellular service in Gaza for the third time since it began attacking the territory on October 7. Cutting connectivity in theory could hamper communications among the militants defending Gaza, though Hamas and company tend to use lower tech communications methods and one assumes they were prepared for a communications outage when they launched their initial attacks in southern Israel. The other benefit of cutting communications from Israel’s perspective is that it becomes far more difficult to get information as to what the IDF is doing or how it’s doing it, which can obfuscate war crimes and military setbacks alike.
The IDF said on Sunday that it was hitting Gaza with “significant” airstrikes and reiterated that its ground forces have surrounded Gaza City and bisected the territory into a “north Gaza” and a “south Gaza.” That second bit may be significant, in that one of the many endgame scenarios here is a permanent bisection, with “south Gaza” becoming just “Gaza” and “north Gaza” becoming…well, who knows? Part of Israel proper? A no-man’s land? A wasteland? All options appear to be on the table. It’s believed there are around 350,000 civilians remaining in “north Gaza” and the IDF says it is opening timed corridors in its siege lines to allow people to move south if they wish. This offer would probably sound better if the IDF hadn’t (probably) bombed an evacuation convoy on Friday (more on that below).
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made another visit to the Middle East over the weekend, carrying the Biden administration’s plea for the Israelis to make some “humanitarian pauses” in their pummeling of Gaza so as to create the illusion of concern for Gazan civilians. I know that sounds cynical but it’s pretty close to the literal message Blinken delivered to Israeli leaders, according to Axios’s Barak Ravid. Complaining that the Israeli operation was drawing a lot of heat for the US, Blinken reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a “humanitarian pause” would reduce international pressure and buy the IDF more time to continue said pummeling. His message, again according to Ravid, was “we don't want to stop you, but help us help you get more time.” As ever it’s really impossible to be too cynical about what the US government is doing. Anyway, Netanyahu publicly told him to get bent and said a pause could only be possible if Hamas releases the hostages it’s holding. Supposedly his private message to Blinken on this subject was more “nuanced,” whatever that means.
In other items:
The IDF attacked another Gazan refugee camp overnight, killing at least 47 people in al-Maghazi camp in central Gaza. That death toll may rise—there were fears that many more victims would be found trapped under rubble. This is the third camp the IDF has targeted in less than a week, including multiple strikes on the Jabalya and Bureij camps. Gazan health officials said on Sunday that the death toll since October 7 has risen to 9770, some 4800 of them children.
The Israeli attack on a convoy of ambulances outside of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital on Friday has continued to reverberate through the weekend. Israeli officials continue to insist that the convoy was carrying Hamas fighters, who supposedly have hundreds of kilometers of tunnels dug under every square inch of Gaza so they can move about in relative safety but apparently also like to go joyriding in ambulances mid-airstrike, I guess for fun. The United Nations, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, and other aid organizations are saying that the convoy was carrying patients, as one might expect, with the aim of evacuating them through the Rafah checkpoint into Egypt for medical care. That evacuation operation has been suspended as a result of Friday’s strike.
Blinken’s trip took him to Jordan on Saturday, where a group of Arab foreign ministers pressed him to force the Israelis to accept a ceasefire. In this case it was Blinken’s turn to tell them to get bent, arguing that a ceasefire would be “counterproductive” because it would give Hamas time to “regroup.” One assumes it would not be counterproductive to the thousands of people who are being killed while the US dithers around over terminology and refuses to use any leverage to corral its out of control client, but I digress.
Blinken next turned up in the West Bank on Sunday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a man who has about as much direct relevance to what’s happening in Gaza as I do. The Biden administration seems to be operating under the delusion that the PA will be able to reestablish control over Gaza when this whole catastrophe is over. Let’s leave aside that the Israeli government has done everything in its power to keep the West Bank and Gaza under different management over the past 17+ years and will probably want to continue that policy moving forward. The bottom line here is that there’s no scenario under which PA, which is thoroughly discredited in the West Bank, could stroll back into Gaza as the prime beneficiary of this Israeli conflagration and be viewed as anything other than collaborationist. Even the decrepit Abbas gets this, which is why he’s insisting he won’t go along with it unless it’s part of a “comprehensive” deal that creates a Palestinian state.
The IDF welcomed Blinken to the West Bank by killing at least three more Palestinians there on Sunday. Israeli occupation forces and settlers have killed more than 150 Palestinians in the West Bank since October 7. They’ve also drastically increased the rate at which they’re arresting Palestinians in the West Bank, citing “counterterrorism” as the justification.
The Jordanian Air Force reportedly airdropped medical supplies to a Jordanian field hospital in Gaza early Monday morning, citing the inadequacy of aid shipments coming into Gaza via the Rafah checkpoint from Egypt. It’s unclear if they’re intending to make this a regular thing. On a similar note, Blinken briefly visited Cyprus on Sunday to discuss Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides’ idea to open a humanitarian sea lane from Cyprus to Gaza. It’s unclear how realistic the idea is or how much interest there is in trying to make it happen.
Palestinian day laborers who were expelled from Israel back into Gaza on Friday describe being tortured by Israeli authorities following the October 7 attacks, apparently under the assumption that they knew about the attacks beforehand. Thousands of day laborers who were trapped outside of Gaza when the attacks took place remain missing, meaning they’ve either managed to evade arrest in the West Bank or that they’re still imprisoned.
The weekend saw large protests in cities around the world calling for a ceasefire, including a demonstration in Washington, DC, that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators. I think it’s important to keep mentioning the public outcry even if it’s unlikely to have much substantive impact on policy.
Blinken’s regional tour took him to Turkey late on Sunday. In what has to be considered a snub, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced beforehand that it’s unlikely he’ll speak with Blinken before the latter leaves on Monday. The Turkish government on Saturday became the latest in a slowly expanding list of governments to recall their ambassadors from Israel over the situation in Gaza, with Erdoğan telling reporters that “Netanyahu is no longer someone we can talk to. We have written him off.”
Before he arrived in Turkey Blinken made a stopover in Iraq, where he met with Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaʿ al-Sudani. Blinken was apparently there to complain about recent attacks by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias targeting US military personnel. Which is OK, I guess, but even if Sudani wanted to do something about those incidents it’s unlikely he could. At this point the only thing that’s going to stop those attacks is a US withdrawal from Iraq, which isn’t happening of course so Blinken’s gripes have the same tenor as complaining about rain. I’m sure Sudani appreciated the chance to hang out with Blinken though. Who wouldn’t?
There was unsurprisingly more violence along the Israeli-Lebanese border over the weekend. Reuters, citing “a Lebanese source,” reported that Hezbollah “fired a powerful missile not yet used in the fighting” into Israel on Saturday, prompting an apparently heavy retaliation from the IDF. On Sunday, the IDF struck what it said was a vehicle “identified as a suspected transport for terrorists” in southern Lebanon. According to Hezbollah and a number of Lebanese officials the attack killed three children and their grandmother. Hezbollah retaliated by firing a rocket barrage toward the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime released a new report on Sunday that finds that Afghan farmers cultivated just 10,800 hectares of opium in 2023, quite a come down from the 233,000 or so hectares they cultivated in 2022. The result was a whopping 95 percent reduction in opium production that presumably has to be credited to the Taliban-led government’s drug crackdown. That’s the plus side. On the minus side, that’s a lot of revenue that Afghan farmers, many of whom were barely scraping by as it was, have lost—with knock-on effects for the rest of the crippled Afghan economy. There’s an opportunity here for the international community to fund projects to build a more legitimate Afghan economy, but that would probably require recognizing the aforementioned government and that’s a long shot at best for Western governments.
The Pakistani military says its forces defeated an attack on an airbase in the Mianwali district of Pakistan’s Punjab region on Saturday, killing all nine attackers. They did report some damage to three aircraft and a fuel tanker. Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan, a relatively new group that seems to be an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban or that has at least emerged from the same Deobandi religious and intellectual milieu, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The constituent members of the rebel “Brotherhood Alliance”—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA)—continued their romp through Myanmar’s Shan state over the weekend. The TNLA said its fighters seized four more military outposts while the MNDAA captured another three. The Alliance has claimed the seizure of several outposts and four towns near the Chinese border, though very little about its offensive can be confirmed. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has launched its own new offensive in neighboring Kachin state, but it’s unclear whether those groups coordinated their plans ahead of time.
Lee Hsien Loong, who has been serving as Singaporean prime minister since 2004, said at a People’s Action Party conference on Sunday that he intends to retire ahead of the 2025 election and turn the keys over to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong. The 71 year old Lee had apparently been planning to retire prior to COVID but the pandemic interrupted things. He didn’t announce a firm retirement date but suggested it would come prior to the party’s 70th anniversary in November 2024.
Upwards of 40 (or more) people were killed in shelling in Sudan’s capital region over the weekend, at least 15 on Saturday when shelling struck a number of homes in Khartoum and over 20 on Sunday when shelling hit an outdoor market in Omdurman. As far as I know there’s no indication who was responsible, as the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces group shell each other in the Khartoum area pretty regularly. Meanwhile, the RSF claimed on Saturday that its fighters had seized a military outpost in Geneina, the capital of Sudan’s West Darfur state. The RSF’s position in Darfur seems to be strengthening in recent weeks.
“A heavily armed commando” may have broken former Guinean military dictator Moussa Dadis Camara out of prison in Conakry on Saturday. Guinean authorities later recaptured Camara and imprisoned him again, and the reason I say this unnamed commando “may have broken” him out is because Camara’s lawyer is claiming that the incident was a kidnapping, not a prison break. Three other men who served as officials in Camara’s 2008-2010 military government also escaped during the incident and as far as I know have not been recaptured. Camara was arrested last year and is being tried for having ordered the massacre of dozens of protesters in Conakry in September 2009.
This slipped through the cracks (I’m sure it’s not the only thing), but the Biden administration on Monday announced its intention to drop four countries from the African Growth and Opportunity Act program—the Central African Republic, Gabon, Niger, and Uganda. For Gabon and Niger this would appear to be another punishment for the coups those countries experienced earlier this year. In the case of the CAR and Uganda the administration cited human rights abuses as its justification, including the draconian anti-LGBT law the Ugandan government adopted back in May. AGOA allows select sub-Saharan African nations to sell products in the US duty free. The whole program is scheduled to expire in 2025 but there have been discussions in Washington about extending it or creating a successor program.
The Russian military says that a Ukrainian missile strike on the Zalyv shipyard in the Crimean city of Kerch on Saturday evening damaged a Russian naval vessel. The identity of the ship is unknown but Ukrainian officials suggested that they were attempting to target a ship capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles. The extent of the damage is also unknown. A Russian missile strike in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia oblast on Saturday apparently killed a significant number of soldiers from the Ukrainian army’s 128th brigade, whose leaders had for some reason decided to hold an award ceremony out in the open in an active war zone.
NBC News published a bombshell on Friday evening, reporting that “US and European officials” have been in conversation with Ukrainian officials about what sorts of concessions they might need to be prepared to make in order to reach a peace deal with Russia. These conversations apparently reflect a growing sense in the North Atlantic world that the war in Ukraine is stalemated, as Ukrainian military commander Valery Zaluzhny indicated in an interview a few days ago. With Russia in better shape than Ukraine simply by virtue of its much larger resources of men and materiel, with the massacre in Gaza now sucking up most of the international oxygen, and with political conditions in the West (in the US in particular) no longer all that conducive to writing blank checks for the Ukrainian government, it’s hard to miss the obvious move for the exit.
It’s unclear how far along these conversations have gotten but it sounds like US and European officials are talking about giving the Ukrainians until the end of this year before starting some more serious discussions around negotiating a peace deal. The thing is, there’s no indication that Volodymyr Zelensky is prepared to listen. Even if he is—and to be fair NATO has a lot of leverage to dictate to Zelensky when it’s time to throw in the towel—there’s no indication that the Russian government is interested in talking peace at this stage. Assuming the Russians can be brought around, it will be interesting to see what kind of deal can be reached with Moscow holding most of the leverage. If it’s similar to or worse than (from Ukraine’s perspective) a hypothetical deal that could have been negotiated a year ago, there should be a lot of questions asked about the tens of thousands of lives that will have been lost for no reason.
The FARC-Estado Mayor Central rebel faction announced on Sunday that it is suspending peace talks with the Colombian government. Those talks, along with a ceasefire that the group says is still in effect, began just last month in what at the time seemed like a significant breakthrough for President Gustavo Petro’s peace initiative. The rebels didn’t explain their decision except to make a vague mention of the government’s failure to keep unspecified promises. The ceasefire runs through January 15 so on that basis I suppose there’s time to turn this situation around. Petro’s negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) hit their own bump in the road over the past week when ELN fighters kidnapped the father of Colombian footballer Luis Díaz. The publicity generated by such a high profile abduction has not been especially helpful.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Liz Theoharis highlights the warped priorities of Joe Biden’s war-based economy:
Millions of us tuned into President Biden’s Oval Office speech on his return from Israel, only the second of his presidency. There, he asked Congress to earmark yet another $100 billion mainly for American military aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan (a boon to the war-profiteering weapons makers whose CEOs will grow even richer thanks to those new contracts). Just a year after Congress killed the Expanded Child Tax Credit, which had cut official child poverty in half, Biden’s speech represented a further pivot away from socially beneficial policymaking and toward further strengthening of the ravenous engine of our war economy. After the speech, the Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel offered this compelling instant commentary: “Biden tonight rolled out a version of twenty-first-century military Keynesianism. Let’s call his policy just that. No more Bidenomics. And it consigns the U.S. to endless militarization of foreign policy.”
A decision to organize our economy yet more around war will also mean the further militarization of domestic policy, with dire consequences for poor and low-income people. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once called such steps the “cruel manipulation of the poor,” a phrase he coined as part of his denunciation of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. King was then thinking about the American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam “on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
Today, a similar “cruel manipulation” is playing out. For years, our leaders have invoked the myth of scarcity to justify inaction when it comes to widespread poverty, growing debt, and rising inequality in the United States. Now, some of them are calling for the spending of billions of dollars to functionally fund the bombardment and occupation of impoverished Gaza and a violent Israeli clampdown in the West Bank, not to speak of the possibility of a wider set of Middle Eastern wars. However, polling numbers suggest that a surprising number of Americans have seen through the fog of war and are perhaps coming to believe that our nation’s abundance should be used not as a tool of death but as a lifeline for poor and struggling people at home and abroad.
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