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World roundup: October 14-15 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, New Zealand, Ecuador, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
October 14, 1066: Duke William of Normandy’s army defeats the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson and his army at the Battle of Hastings. William claimed that he’d been promised the kingdom of England by Edward the Confessor (who’d died in January), but Godwinson was elected king by the Anglo-Saxon nobility. The Normans invaded and the two armies met outside of the town of Hastings. Accounts of the battle vary, but the general story seems to be that after repelling initial Norman attacks, the Saxons made the mistake of pursuing their retreating foe. At that point William rallied his men and turned the tide of the battle. The Norman victory, along with Godwinson’s death toward the end of the battle, ensured the Norman takeover of England and made Duke William of Normandy into King William I, the Conqueror.
October 14, 1322: A Scottish army under Robert the Bruce defeats the English army of King Edward II at the Battle of Old Byland. This was the largest Scottish victory in battle with English forces since Bannockburn in 1314 and helped secure Scottish independence.
October 15, 1529: The Siege of Vienna ends
The Israeli army is now poised to enter Gaza, waiting for a green light from the government that may be hours away or may be days away. In the meantime, the relentless Israeli bombardment of Gaza has showed no signs of abatement. The death toll from that bombardment at time of writing stood at over 2670 people, according to health officials in Gaza, while Israeli authorities say they’ve raised the death toll from last Saturday’s militant attack in southern Israel to over 1400. Hamas is believed to be holding some 120 hostages taken during that attack. Included among the deaths in Gaza are, according to the Israelis, two senior Hamas commanders who were responsible for the attack. Some 10,000 people in Gaza have been wounded and another 1000 are believed to be missing amid the rubble.
Hundreds of thousands of people have reportedly fled northern Gaza since the Israelis issued their evacuation ultimatum late Thursday-early Friday. Dozens of them have been killed mid-evacuation in a number of incidents alternately attributed to Israeli airstrikes or Hamas terrorism, depending on who’s telling the story. There have been too many reports of airstrikes hitting people trying to evacuate to accept at face value Israeli claims that these deaths were all caused by Hamas. It’s particularly hard to believe that while the Israeli military is essentially carpet bombing the rest of Gaza—including southern Gaza, where Israeli authorities told these people to go—it’s managed to carve out a special little safe zone just for evacuees. That said, I suppose the idea that Hamas would use violence, or the threat of violence, to try to keep people in place can’t be ruled out entirely.
In terms of what those people are fleeing, there have been at least a couple of “what’s next” pieces published this weekend. The New York Times, as you might expect, delivers all the news that the US and Israeli governments want you to know. According to their account the current plan is to move into Gaza City and essentially fight street to street and building to building (or rubble pile to rubble pile) until Hamas is effectively no more. That’s going to take a long time and cost a lot of lives and leaves big questions about what happens to Gaza when it’s all over. At his Substack, meanwhile, Seymour Hersh offers his own reporting (behind a paywall) that has the Israelis invading only after they’ve destroyed every building in northern Gaza and used “bunker buster” munitions to try to destroy underground militant facilities. I know everybody has their own opinions on Hersh these days, but in this case if he’s right we’ll definitely know when those bunker busters start exploding.
The Biden administration on Sunday declared that it had convinced the Israeli government to ease its siege to allow water back into southern Gaza. I’m sure this was the subject of much back slapping and high fiving in the White House but without more detail it’s hard to know how magnanimous this actually is. Water is obviously an existential need, but “turning the water back on” to southern Gaza doesn’t guarantee that anybody can actually get to it. Infrastructure all over Gaza has been pulverized and, lest we forget, the Israelis are still blocking fuel and/or electricity so things like water pumps, assuming they’re still operational, can’t be turned on. Efforts to bring more comprehensive humanitarian aid into Gaza remain stymied by the closure of the Rafah checkpoint between Gaza and Egypt. An agreement seemed to be in place on Saturday to allow foreign nationals trapped in Gaza to evacuate to Egypt through Rafah, but that deal was apparently quashed when Egyptian officials insisted that they also be allowed to move aid into Gaza. Israeli officials refused.
The water development, meager as it seems without any additional context, may have been the result of some unpleasant reactions to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s discussions with Arab leaders on Sunday. Doing some shuttle diplomacy on behalf of the Israelis, Blinken spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who was actually supposed to meet with Blinken Saturday night but made him sweat it out until Sunday morning) and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and I get the sense he was a little cowed by their reactions. He certainly didn’t convince them to embrace the Biden administration’s unconditional support for Israel, and these are two leaders who are generally pretty friendly with the Israeli government. Messaging from the Biden administration made a clear pivot on Sunday, from “we’re behind Israel 100 percent” to “let’s keep the spillover carnage to a minimum,” and Blinken’s experience may have been part of the reason for that.
The Pentagon has deployed a second US aircraft carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the eastern Mediterranean with its strike group. It will join the USS Gerald R. Ford and company in a massive effort to deter anyone (Iran and/or its regional clients like Hezbollah and Iraqi militias) who might be thinking about intervening to stop the Israeli obliteration of at least part of Gaza. The US may also deploy the amphibious assault ship (think small aircraft carrier that can also carry ground forces) USS Bataan to assist in said obliteration, though what form that assistance might take is unclear.
The steep increase in violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continued over the weekend, and as of Saturday Al Jazeera was reporting at least 55 Palestinians killed and over 1100 wounded since the militant attacks a week earlier. According to Palestinian officials Israeli soldiers have been regularly opening fire on civilian cars and, as we’ve been noting, settlers have been attacking Palestinian communities with impunity, often under the protection of Israeli security forces.
I try to avoid the word “genocide” in this newsletter because, like “terrorism,” it’s become a politically loaded term that is losing its specific meaning. Exceptions are made, of course, for clear cut cases like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Rohingya Genocide, and so on. Anyway, while I’ve avoided the term, Israeli Holocaust and genocide scholar Raz Segal has a new piece in Jewish Currents calling what the Israeli military is doing in Gaza a “textbook” example of genocide. Who am I to argue?
Another apparent Israeli airstrike on Aleppo airport in Syria wounded five people late Saturday. The Israelis attacked both Aleppo and Damascus airports on Thursday. This new attack came after the Israeli military and Palestinian militants traded artillery fire in the occupied Golan region earlier in the day. The airport attacks probably reflect Israeli concerns that Iran is flying arms into Syria for distribution to Hezbollah and various other militias that could then use them to attack Israel.
An apparent Turkish drone strike killed at least three members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northern Iraq’s Dohuk province on Saturday. Iraqi Kurdish authorities announced the attack.
The Israeli government has closed the Lebanese border to civilians, due to ongoing exchanges of artillery fire with Hezbollah. A Hezbollah artillery strike killed at least one person on Sunday morning, one day after Israeli fire killed at least two civilians in southern Lebanon and two days after the Israelis killed a journalist and wounded six others. Sunday’s attacks seemed to indicate a bit of an escalation on Hezbollah’s part, though there’s still no indication that either party here is interested in moving beyond artillery exchanges to something bigger. The wild card on the border is Palestinian groups that have active Lebanese branches. At least three Hamas fighters were killed trying to cross the border on Saturday and Israeli efforts to stop potential infiltration may spark a wider conflict.
Speaking of potential escalations, various Iranian officials have in recent days been issuing “warnings” of a regional war if/when the Israeli ground offensive begins in Gaza. I think these are empty threats. Some escalation from Iran and its clients is likely but I don’t think the Iranians want what it sounds like they’re threatening. But I’m not feeling terribly confident in my assumptions on this, just to be clear. I try pretty hard not to be alarmist in this newsletter, sometimes to the point of being wrong—I didn’t see the Russian invasion of Ukraine coming until it actually came, to take the most obvious example. But even with that in mind I have to admit the possibility of a regional war, one that could easily escalate into something much bigger given the likelihood of US involvement, is too high for comfort.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev turned up in Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday, raising the Azerbaijani flag over the city I suppose we should start calling Khankendi but that is known to Armenians as Stepanakert and previously served as the capital of the now all-but-defunct “Republic of Artsakh” government. Though this situation has been knocked quite decisively from the public consciousness over the past week, according to POLITICO Antony Blinken earlier this month told “a small group of lawmakers” in the semi-functional US Congress that the Biden administration believes Aliyev could order an invasion of Armenia “in the coming weeks.”
If he does decide to invade—and it must be said that the situation in Gaza, which is commanding the overwhelming majority of international attention, would offer a perfect cover to do so—Aliyev would at a minimum be seeking to create that corridor he’s long desired between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan through southern Armenia. If he’s feeling more ambitious he could even try to make good on all that “western Azerbaijan” rhetoric he keeps spewing, which asserts a claim over all of Armenia. The congresspersons were understandably curious whether the administration has any plan to try to deter Aliyev, and the answer apparently is that the US is going to stop offering military assistance to Azerbaijan. I’m sure that will really shake him up. Don’t expect any US aircraft carriers in the Black Sea anytime soon, if you will. (Yes I realize the Russian government would never allow that anyway—it’s a metaphor.)
The Afghan government is reportedly planning to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Tuesday, another indication of its de facto recognition by the Chinese government and a boost to its overall international profile. The Taliban-led government would love to get some Belt and Road infrastructure investment, particularly in relation to exploiting Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. Thinking bigger picture, Afghanistan could be brought into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, arguably the core Belt and Road project, though instability and tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments might stand in the way.
The Pakistani military raided a militant (presumably Pakistani Taliban) hideout in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province late Saturday, sparking a battle in which six of said militants were killed and eight more wounded. One soldier was also killed. The previous night, unspecified gunmen in Baluchistan province killed six construction workers and wounded two others in the city of Turbat. As I say there’s no indication as to the identity of the attackers, but Baluch separatists have in the past attacked manual laborers who often hail from other parts of Pakistan.
Saturday’s parliamentary election in New Zealand went as polling suggested it would, with the conservative National Party and right-wing ACT party likely eking out a collective victory. Labour Party leader and current Prime Minister Chris Hipkins conceded the outcome not long after the polls closed, with his party having lost at least a couple of dozen seats. The votes haven’t all been counted yet and it’s possible the National-ACT coalition will be short of an outright majority. In that case, they’ll need support from the far-right New Zealand First party.
The Malian junta and the United Nations seem to be on different pages with respect to the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from northern Mali. The UN cautioned on Saturday that renewed fighting between Malian security forces and Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) rebels could delay that withdrawal. By Saturday evening, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop had already responded, saying that Mali’s ruling junta “does not foresee any extension” of the December 31 withdrawal deadline. According to the UN, the junta has not given it approval to remove equipment from the bases its forces are leaving; Diop acknowledged the complaint and insisted that the junta is “working to find solutions.”
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
In the DRC, meanwhile, the UN is repatriating nine South African peacekeepers accused, among other things, of sexual assault and of threatening other members of the peacekeeping force who tried to arrest them. This case adds to a disturbingly long list of alleged sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers around the world, with the DRC having suffered through much of it. Despite the justifiable criticism that record has earned it, the UN doesn’t have much authority to actually do anything to accused peacekeepers beyond what it’s doing here—sending them home.
Various Russian attacks reportedly killed at least six Ukrainian civilians over the weekend. Two of the six were killed in Donetsk oblast, where the intense Russian assault on the city of Avdiivka continued even as a Ukrainian brigade commander, Dmytro Lysyuk, claimed—on what basis I’m not entirely sure—that it was “failing.” Two more were killed in Kharkiv oblast, where Russian forces have reportedly intensified an operation intended to take the city of Kupiansk. With the Ukrainian advance in Zaporizhzhia oblast seemingly stalled, the Russians have stepped up their offensive movements in an attempt to seize one or both of these cities before winter weather begins to make movement more difficult.
Polish politics may be on the cusp of a sea change, as voters on Sunday appear to have unseated the country’s right-wing ruling coalition. The main party in that coalition, the Law and Justice party, looks like it will retain its status as the largest single party in the Sejm, but with substantially fewer seats than it won in 2019. Meanwhile, exit polling suggests that the centrist Civic Coalition opposition bloc has emerged with a collective 248 seats in the 460 seat legislature, comfortably over the majority threshold. I hesitate to make too much of exit polling and the results may not be ready until tomorrow or Tuesday so I’m going to leave this here for tonight, but suffice to say this outcome would likely have major ramifications for European Union politics, among many other things.
In the wake of Friday’s knife attack in the northern French town of Arras, in which a teacher was killed and three other people were wounded, French officials have raised their terror alert level and have deployed 7000 soldiers to beef up security across the country. The alleged attacker was apparently known to authorities as a potential radicalization threat and it seems like there was an Islamist element to the stabbing. The timing may also suggest some sort of connection to the war in Gaza, though as far as I know there hasn’t been any link firmly established.
Banana empire heir Daniel Noboa has emerged victorious in Sunday’s presidential runoff against leftist candidate Luisa González. Polling had this race fairly close and that seems to be how it shook out, with Noboa taking 52 percent of the head-to-head vote. González’s ties to former President Rafael Correa, who is well-liked by a portion of Ecuador’s electorate but pretty well hated by another portion, may have contributed to her defeat. Noboa will serve out the remainder of outgoing President Guillermo Lasso’s term and can run theoretically for reelection in 2025.
The Israeli government on Sunday summoned Colombia’s ambassador and said it was suspending “security exports” to Colombia. Israeli officials are angry at Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who has spent the past week criticizing the Israeli military operation in Gaza via social media. Petro, for his part, said in response to these Israeli moves that “if we have to suspend foreign relations with Israel, we suspend them.” Colombian security forces use a fair amount of Israeli hardware, so this could force Petro’s government to find a new source for arms and munitions.
The United States on Saturday experienced its first hate crime connected to the Gaza war, when an Illinois man stabbed to death a six year old Muslim boy and wounded his mother. Given the rhetoric that’s been bandied about in the US since last weekend’s attacks in Israel—which has echoes in the weeks immediately following the September 11, 2001 attacks—this may be the first of several such incidents.
Finally, earlier this month Diplomatic’s Laura Rozen published an exposé into the origins of a smear campaign against several prominent figures in the US Iran analyst community that I think is of interest for what it reveals about the media environment around controversial foreign policy issues:
A former senior Trump administration official and an associate were involved in “shopping” an alleged trove of decade-old Iranian emails to media outlets in order to smear American Iran experts and the Biden administration, another U.S. journalist approached about the material told Diplomatic.
Semafor and Saudi-linked Iran International agreed to jointly report and simultaneously publish their individual stories based on some of the material last month, despite the fact that Iran experts maligned in the stories said the emails featured in the reports were taken out of context, misrepresented and misleading, and the stories filled with inaccuracies.
The targets of the stories said the outlets did not show them the alleged trove, but cut-and-pasted a small handful of the emails, making it hard to evaluate and respond to. A U.S. source said Iran International had approached the State Department about the alleged trove in August, but then never sent them the emails. “Someone handed them 10,000 emails, and they did not ask where did it come from,” the person said.
The U.S. journalist, who did not want to be named, said several weeks before the Semafor and Iran International stories appeared, he was approached by someone he described as a cutout and mutual contact to see if he would be interested in the material, and was told that former Trump State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus had it. He did not want to touch it, he said. It was his understanding, he said, that Ortagus had been trying to shop the story to various other media outlets before Semafor agreed to pursue it in coordination with Iran International.
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