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World roundup: October 19 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, the Philippines, Venezuela, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
October 19, 1469: Prince Ferdinand of Aragon marries Infanta Isabella of Castile in the marriage that would eventually unite the two kingdoms and give birth to the nation of Spain.
October 19, 1781: The Siege of Yorktown ends with a French-American victory over the British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis. The surrender of an entire British army marked the effective end of the American Revolution.
A study published in the journal Nature this week suggests that companies and/or governments have “substantially underestimated” the amount of deforestation caused by the rubber industry across Southeast Asia over the past 30 years. According to new data, some 4 million hectares of forest area have been cleared in favor of rubber cultivation since 1993 and much of that clearing has come in areas considered vital for biodiversity reasons. That’s apparently two to three times the level of deforestation previously acknowledged, and the study authors say even their increased estimate may still be lower than the reality.
With the Gazan health ministry reporting that at least 3785 people have now been killed over the Israeli military’s 13 day bombardment of the region, there were indications on Thursday that the forthcoming Israeli ground incursion might be getting more imminent. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reportedly told soldiers stationed just outside Gaza that “they will soon see it from the inside,” which isn’t exactly cryptic. Israeli Economy Minister Nir Barkat, meanwhile, told reporters that the military has a “green light” to enter Gaza when it’s ready. Now, for all I know they’ve been at that point for a week and a half and are still hesitant to pull the proverbial trigger, but still this seems to suggest something is going to happen soon.
You’ll no doubt be excited to know that Barkat’s comments suggested a less than robust Israeli commitment to avoiding civilian casualties or even to avoiding the deaths of Israeli hostages still being held by Hamas and other militants. “Eliminating” Hamas is the first and really only priority, which admittedly is a big policy shift for a government that has spent decades cultivating Hamas as an alternative to the Palestinian Authority and its ruling Fatah party. You may be even more excited to learn that, according to Axios, when Joe Biden asked Israeli leaders what their endgame was for a Gaza invasion during his visit on Wednesday they told him in effect that they don’t have one. Sounds like a recipe for failure and for maximizing civilian harm. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen may have let the proverbial cat out of the bag a bit on Thursday when he suggested in an interview that part of the endgame may be the annexation of at least northern Gaza. Or, in other words, ethnic cleansing—a war crime. Israeli officials are likewise advertising their intention to do war crimes in private conversations with their US counterparts.
Countering some of the rhetoric above, Joe Biden said during the flight that brought him back to the US from Israel that he and other US officials have been talking to Israeli officials about “alternatives” to a full-scale ground operation. An Israeli military spokesperson also talked earlier this week about the possibility of foregoing such an operation and doing “something different.” What, exactly, is unclear. US advice has mostly taken the form of “don’t do what we did after 9/11,” though perhaps not quite as explicit about the myriad failures of the War on Terror. Biden may be trying to mobilize Arab states to encourage/nudge/force Hamas to abandon Gaza, a la the Palestine Liberation Organization’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1982, but there’s a good chance his complete indulgence of Israeli actions to date may have closed the window on that sort of diplomacy. At any rate, the likelihood of a ground incursion in the coming hours is high and it may have already begun by the time you read this.
In other news:
An apparent Israeli airstrike on Thursday damaged Saint Porphyrios Greek Orthodox church in Gaza city, which is or maybe was one of the oldest extant Christian structures in the world. News on this is still developing but the Holy Orthodox Order of Saint George the Great Martyr is claiming it’s heard reports that the church was hit by two bombs and “that 150-200 people are dead,” a number that may rise. If the death toll is that high and the story begins to filter into wide coverage I expect we’ll be in for another round of Actually This Was A Palestinian Rocket, but for now the only indication seems to be that the Israeli military was responsible.
Aid trucks are still idling on the Egyptian side of the Rafah checkpoint, waiting for their own green light to go into Gaza. The Egyptians are reportedly working to repair roads damaged by Israeli attacks over the past two weeks and the trucks may start to move through on Friday (though that’s starting to seem unlikely), but initial progress will likely be slow. There’s no indication as to whether this is going to be a one-time thing or a sustained relief effort. The former will provide some brief respite but the latter is required to avoid the humanitarian catastrophe that aid organizations say is coming.
The previous item notwithstanding, if anybody is getting their hopes up about humanitarian aid I would caution against it because whatever effort actually does materialize is almost certain to be disappointing. There’s no agreement in place for the Israeli military to stop bombing Gaza long enough to deliver the aid, for one thing, which could render the whole operation unachievable. For another, this aid distribution relies on the goodwill of a serial human rights abusing military dictator in Egypt and a government in Israel that seems fixated on killing as many Gazans as possible. Oh, and the US government that’s supporting the killing to the hilt.
During his visit on Wednesday, Biden announced $100 million in US humanitarian aid for Gaza. I assume this means somebody went through the Pentagon couch cushions again. Before the president breaks his arm trying to pat himself on the back, I should note he’s planning to ask Congress for $14 billion in aid to help the Israeli military create the humanitarian crisis that the aid is somehow supposed to address.
Israeli soldiers killed at least nine Palestinians in two incidents in different refugee camps in the West Bank on Thursday. They bring to at least 75 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and/or settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7.
The US State Department issued an alert on Thursday warning all US citizens currently abroad “to exercise increased caution” as a result of events in Gaza. It also issued specific warnings to US citizens in several Middle Eastern countries, including an evacuation warning for those who are in Lebanon. The German and UK governments also issued similar warnings for Lebanon.
There was a piece in The Washington Post a couple of days ago that cited a “senior Hamas official” named Ali Barakah who said that Hamas “had not anticipated the scale and speed of the collapse of Israel’s defenses and that Hamas was caught off guard also by the ferocity of Israel’s response.” If this is true I think it reveals something about what happened on October 7. I don’t say this to excuse that day’s atrocities in anyway, but to maybe help answer the question “why would Hamas do something this reckless?” Barakah suggests the main goal was to conduct a “limited operation” to take some hostages who could be traded for Palestinian prisoners in Israel. I think it’s very plausible that the Israeli military response to the initial incursion was so unexpectedly slow and haphazard that the operation lost discipline and instead of sticking to the hostage plan fighters began attacking whatever they could. That would explain surprise both at how easy the attacks were to pull off and at the scale of the Israeli response. Just a thought.
Drone attacks hit two facilities housing US soldiers in Syria on Thursday. Two devices attacked the US military outpost at Tanf in southern Syria, causing what the AP said were “minor injuries.” The second attack targeted an oil facility in eastern Syria, where they appear to have blown up a pipeline though details are still sketchy at best. There’s no word as to casualties there.
A US naval destroyer operating in the Red Sea, the USS Carney, reportedly intercepted three cruise missiles and an unspecified number of drones launched by rebels in northern Yemen on Thursday. The projectiles didn’t get all that far but they may have been bound for Israel. Presumably they were not headed toward Saudi Arabia given their trajectory, and it’s hard to see what else the rebels might be targeting.
Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase, which also houses US military personnel, came under rocket and drone attack on Thursday evening. I haven’t seen any more comprehensive reporting yet as to casualties or damage, but according to Reuters a US contractor died of a heart attack at that same facility during what I assume was a separate incident characterized as a “false alarm.” By the way, if you’re picking up on a theme here in the last three items it’s not just you. Groups aligned with Iran are attacking US targets in the region and, potentially, Israel, because of what’s happening in Gaza. This could spiral out of control very quickly.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon is saying that more cross-border shelling killed a civilian on Thursday. This person was one of seven people who were near the border for some unknown reason when they were caught amid what the UN called “a significant exchange of fire.” UN personnel rescued the other six individuals. It’s unclear whose shelling killed this person but since the UN had to ask the Israeli military to cease firing in order to effect the rescue I suppose we could make an educated guess. The Israelis were retaliating after a significant barrage of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets landed in northern Israel.
Wednesday was something of a milestone in that, technically, a number of UN sanctions on Iran’s missile program expired under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. I say “technically” because, since the deal has been scrapped due to US action, the US and the “E3” (France, Germany, and the UK) are maintaining those sanctions of their own accord. They could seek to reimpose the UN sanctions using the 2015 deal’s “snap back” mechanism, but for now it seems they’re waiting to see how the expiration of those sanctions affects Iranian activities.
The Kazakh government has reportedly barred the exportation of some 106 items to Russia, in keeping with Western sanctions seeking to prevent Moscow from acquiring goods that could be put to military use in Ukraine. Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics have been a major conduit for Russian sanctions evasion over the past year and a half, but they’ve been under pressure from Europe in particular to shut that route off despite their close relationships with Russia. If this export ban is actually implemented it could complicate Russian efforts to dodge the sanctions, but even if it isn’t this move still reflects the Kazakh government’s desire to show European governments that it is trying to cooperate.
The Islamabad High Court on Thursday offered former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif temporary protection from arrest should he return to Pakistan from his self-imposed exile in the UK. Sharif fled the country in 2019 to avoid prosecution on corruption charges, though he characterized it as a health-related trip that just never ended. Depending on how his legal situation resolves, he could wind up replacing his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, at the top of the Pakistan Muslim League’s ticket in the forthcoming but still unscheduled election. Shehbaz seems to be pretty unpopular these days due to his lackluster economic performance, so Nawaz’s reinsertion as the party’s leader could help boost its electoral chances.
The Canadian government has withdrawn 41 diplomatic personnel from India after Indian authorities announced plans to revoke their diplomatic immunity. Anyway, if you thought perhaps the dust up over New Delhi’s alleged assassination of Sikh independence leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada earlier this year was over, this would indicate that it is not. Another 21 Canadian staffers apparently have not been threatened with loss of immunity so they’re staying. The sizable cut in staff is forcing the suspension of Canadian consular services in several Indian cities. The Canadian government says it is not planning to retaliate.
A new Washington Post piece examines how growing tensions fueled by overlapping Philippine and Chinese claims in the South China Sea have fundamentally changed the Philippine government’s (and the Philippine public’s) geopolitical orientation:
The water cannon incident probably went further than any other event this year in galvanizing anti-China sentiment in the Marcos administration and in the Philippine public, said political analysts and diplomats.
Almost immediately afterward, the Philippine military significantly increased its overtures to the United States over maritime security issues, including tactics for boosting surveillance of sea activity, said a U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions. While this type of cooperation had long been possible under the existing military alliance between the two countries, Manila had not until recently shown such interest, the official said.
Since the start of the year, the Philippines also has signed or begun negotiations for new defense agreements with Australia, Japan, the European Union and India.
A new Pentagon report contends that China is expanding its nuclear arsenal faster than previously believed and may already be stashing upwards of 500 warheads. It may be on pace to have over 1000 warheads by 2030 and 1500 warheads by 2035. True or not, this report is likely to fuel arguments in favor of spending potentially trillions of dollars modernizing and perhaps expanding the US nuclear arsenal. They don’t call this the “New Cold War” for nothing.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says it has stopped performing surgeries at the Bashair hospital in Khartoum because the Sudanese military is preventing it from bringing in new supplies. The charity has a warehouse in Sudan’s Gezira state, south of the capital, but the military has refused to permit new supply shipments from that facility since September 8. The hospital is now out of surgical supplies. Other MSF-run hospitals in Sudan’s capital region are also running low on supplies and may need to make similar decisions soon. Needless to say medical services are critically needed in and around Khartoum, which has been the epicenter of the military’s conflict with the Rapid Support Forces group since it began.
Niger’s ruling junta is claiming that ousted former President Mohamed Bazoum and his family tried to escape their imprisonment in Niamey overnight but were captured mid-attempt. Junta officials are accusing an unnamed “foreign power,” which may be Nigeria or perhaps France, of attempting to facilitate Bazoum’s escape. It’s unclear whether there’s any plan to punish Bazoum for the attempt.
Speaking of France, the first contingent of French troops to evacuate Niger since the junta requested their departure has reportedly made it across the Chadian border. They’ll be conveyed by the Chadian military to a suitable air or sea port whence to depart for, I guess, France.
The Ukrainian parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to advance a bill that, if passed and signed into law, will effectively outlaw the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) in Ukraine. One of two major Orthodox denominations active in Ukraine, the UOC is dogged by accusations that it’s still under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church, where as the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was recognized as an autocephalous church by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople back in 2019. The UOC insists that it is no longer associated with the Russian church, whose leader Patriarch Kiril has been highly supportive of the Russian invasion. But there’s widespread skepticism about that supposed separation and it would seem that most Ukrainian politicians have decided that freedom of worship isn’t worth allowing the UOC to continue operating.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration insists that it can support both Ukraine and Israel, but whether it’s just the heat of the moment or the fact that Congress is currently paralyzed or something else it is apparently already diverting munitions that were supposed to go to Ukraine to Israel instead. In fairness, the US started diverting the specific munition in question, 155mm artillery shells, from Israel to Ukraine earlier this year so this is sort of a “turnabout is fair play” thing. Nevertheless if I were in Kyiv at the moment I would not be feeling terribly confident about the support of my richest and most powerful patron.
The Slovenian government announced on Thursday that it’s suspending freedom of movement along its borders with Croatia and Hungary. Here it is following the lead of the Italian government, which did the same along its border with Slovenia on Wednesday in response to two recent Islamist killings in France and Belgium as well as the firebombing of a Berlin synagogue on Wednesday morning. Concerns stemming from those attacks and further potential for blowback from the Gaza war are rising across the European Union, which means internal border checks are probably going to come back into vogue throughout the bloc.
Czech opposition parties failed to muster the parliamentary majority needed to oust the country’s ruling coalition on Thursday, winning only 85 votes for their no confidence motion in the 200 seat Chamber of Deputies. Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš filed the motion while accusing the coalition of mishandling inflation and immigration.
The Venezuelan government released five prisoners overnight as part of its recent sanctions relief (and deportations) for political reform deal with the United States. All five are apparently considered political prisoners, though the identities of three of them remain unknown from what I can tell. Venezuelan authorities are holding three US nationals in custody and apparently their release is also part of the bargain.
Speaking of the sanctions relief, market analysts seem surprised at how broad the Biden administration’s new waiver for Venezuela’s oil sector turned out to be, but even so the expectation is that it will take some time before the country is a major oil producer again. Venezuela’s oil industry needs a good deal of investment to hire new staff and revive infrastructure that’s fallen into disuse over the past few years, and since this waiver is only temporary (at least for now) and could be revoked more or less at Washington’s discretion it may be difficult to secure financing.
The UN Security Council voted on Thursday to maintain its current Haitian sanctions regime for at least another year. At present the only person on the blacklist is gang warlord Jimmy Cherizier, but there is a sanctions committee that is supposed to be broadening the target package and the sanctions will be meant to complement the international police intervention the UNSC authorized earlier this month.
According to Reuters, Biden will nominate his National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, to replace the retired Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state. I don’t think you need to ponder much beyond his current job title to figure out why Campbell is getting this new gig and what it says about the administration’s foreign policy priorities.
Sticking with the State Department, the now-former director of its Bureau of Political Military Affairs, Josh Paul, resigned on Tuesday in frustration over the administration’s handling of the Gaza conflict. He was apparently not the only person at State who has been frustrated by the full embrace of Israel, as HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported on Thursday that a group of staffers are preparing a “dissent cable,” which is mechanism created during the Vietnam War whereby diplomats can express opposition to government policy via an internal reporting channel. These get sent a few times every year and occasionally wind up going public, though I’m not sure I know of an instance where one went public before it was sent. According to Ahmed, staff inside the Biden administration generally feel like they’re unable to express anything other than full-throated support for Israel for fear of suffering professional consequences.
Finally, we’re already bumping up against email size limits so let me just encourage you to read Spencer Ackerman’s piece on the Gaza war and the US role in it, offering the first couple of paragraphs as a teaser:
PRESIDENT BIDEN SAID SOME LOVELY THINGS in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. One that sticks with me is something he said to the parents of those Israelis whose children Hamas killed: about how there will be times when memories of them become front of mind, but as a comfort, not a painful reminder of their loss. Those memories will fortify parents to be the people their children saw. That rang as wisdom from a man who learned those awful lessons the hard way.
But to the parents of those Palestinians whose children Israel has slain, Biden had no message at all. And to them, I suspect, his administration's actions speak the loudest of all.
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