Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: October 21-22 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Switzerland, Argentina, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
October 21, 1600: Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army defeats the “Western Army” of Ishida Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara. The victory left Ieyasu in virtually uncontested control of Japan and is generally marked as the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, even though Ieyasu wasn’t officially appointed shōgun until 1603.
October 21, 1805: Though outnumbered, a British Royal Navy fleet under Horatio Nelson (who was killed in action) decisively defeats a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, near Cape Trafalgar in southern Spain. Britain had established naval supremacy over France years earlier through engagements like the 1798 Battle of the Nile. Trafalgar confirmed that naval supremacy and was the last major naval engagement of the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon’s plan to build a great new navy that would finally defeat Britain’s was derailed by his defeat on land years later.
October 22, 1884: The International Meridian Conference, which was a real thing, designates the line of longitude running through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich as the international Prime Meridian. Previously most major seafaring countries, at least, designated their own separate prime meridians that often ran through their capital cities (Germany used the “Berlin Meridian,” for example, and France used the “Paris Meridian”). But such was the ubiquity of British map-making that the UK/Greenwich prime meridian had become the international standard by default even before this conference made it official. Nowadays the international Prime Meridian is the IERS Reference Meridian, which still runs through Greenwich but is around 100 meters east of the previous one.
There are, unsurprisingly, several items to cover here:
According to Gaza health authorities, Israeli airstrikes killed at least 80 people overnight, many of them in the especially hard-hit town of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. Another Israeli attack on Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp reportedly killed at least 30 people late Sunday, and overall the bombing campaign seemed to be intensifying overnight Sunday into Monday if that’s even possible. These killings bring the death toll over two-plus weeks of bombing to well over 4600. According to the United Nations—at least 29 of whose staffers are among the dead—the pace of killing is so fast that many bodies have been buried in mass graves, which will make identifying them potentially impossible. There’s no way to preserve those bodies because the Israeli siege has left Gaza without the electricity needed to power refrigerated storage units.
Hamas fighters reportedly killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three others during a ground operation in Gaza on Sunday. The Israeli military has been making raids into Gaza ahead of its expected ground invasion, ostensibly to recover hostages though I suspect they’re at least as concerned with scouting and potentially destroying militant defensive positions. Israeli officials now estimate that militants are holding more than 200 people hostage inside Gaza, though some of them may have been killed in airstrikes.
The question of whether the ground invasion is coming soon, or even coming at all, loomed through the weekend without much clarification. I will note that the Israeli military on Saturday dropped leaflets over northern Gaza warning that anyone who hasn’t obeyed its previous demand for civilians to evacuate that area will essentially be considered an enemy combatant. The evacuation order thus becomes the military’s justification for high casualty numbers—we told these people to leave, so if they stay they must be ready to fight. I wonder if that logic will apply to hospital patients, for example, who can’t evacuate.
Pressure from the hostages’ families and internationally may be one reason why Israeli officials haven’t begun the invasion yet, though there’s also pressure on Hamas to release those people and if it doesn’t do that the pressure to start the invasion is going to win out eventually. Interestingly Hamas is claiming that it tried to release two Israeli hostages on Friday alongside the two US hostages it freed that day, but that Israeli officials “refused to accept them.” The Israeli government called that assertion “false propaganda” and I have to say it’s hard to believe without additional detail. If Hamas wanted to release these people it could presumably just hand them over to the Red Cross without Israeli input.
In addition to killing more people in Gaza, the Israeli military had a busy weekend striking targets all over the region. We’ll get to those in a bit but this would be the right place to mention the Sunday airstrike that destroyed a mosque in the West Bank city of Jenin, killing at least two people. According to Israeli officials the mosque was being used as a Hamas/Palestinian Islamic Jihad headquarters and the airstrike somehow prevented an “imminent” attack.
Humanitarian aid did finally get into Gaza over the weekend, and as you probably could have predicted it was pretty underwhelming. A first shipment on 20 trucks passed through the Rafah checkpoint from Sinai on Saturday and a surprise second shipment on 14 trucks entered on Sunday. For reference, the UN says it needs to bring about 100 trucks into Gaza per day to meet basic humanitarian needs, so 34 over two days is just slightly inadequate. As expected the aid doesn’t include fuel, which means it can’t be trucked much further into Gaza than the checkpoint and means that Gaza’s power plant will remain inoperative, while fuel continues to run out for the generators providing power to, e.g., hospitals.
The Israeli military had a little oopsie on Sunday and shelled a guard post on the Egyptian side of Rafah, causing minor injuries to several Egyptian border guards. I’m sure it was just an honest mistake.
The Egyptian government’s hastily organized “Summit for Peace” on Saturday doesn’t appear to have made much progress toward peace, sadly. It mostly provided a forum for angry speeches by Arab representatives (angry at Israel) and Western representatives (angry at Hamas) with little common ground on anything beyond the uncontroversial need for humanitarian aid. Again I think the main aim from the Egyptian government’s perspective was to show its angry populace that it’s trying to do something about Gaza. There couldn’t have been much expectation that the summit would actually achieve anything.
Amid an abundance of particularly empty rhetoric about protecting Palestinian civilians, the Biden administration spent the weekend moving US military assets around and warning of a wider conflict if its forces in the Middle East continue to come under attack. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin took those warnings to the Sunday talk show circuit, which suggests their audience may have been more domestic than international. Meanwhile, the Pentagon decided to shift the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its carrier strike group to the Middle East instead of the eastern Mediterranean as a show of force.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that Syrian military shelling killed six children in a rebel-held part of Idlib province on Sunday. According to the SOHR rebel factions in that area attacked nearby military positions in response but there’s no word as to what happened.
The Israeli military apparently attacked the airports in Damascus and Aleppo again on Sunday for the second time since the start of the Gaza war. The airstrikes killed at least one person in Damascus and reportedly forced the closure of both facilities. Israeli officials regard both airports as potential conduits for Iranian weapons being sent to Hezbollah and other militia groups.
Iraqi military forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters reportedly battled over control of three military outposts in Iraq’s Erbil province on Sunday, with at least three people dying as a result. The identities of the dead are unknown as is the specific precursor to the violence. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) apparently announced a few days ago that it was quitting the three outposts and that’s set off a dispute over whether they should be taken over by Iraqi federal security forces or Kurdistan Regional Government security forces.
Elsewhere, AFP reports that Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase was the target of a drone strike on Saturday, though the attempted attack was ineffectual. That facility houses US military personnel and this incident is part of the reason for the aforementioned Sunday show bluster from Blinken and Austin. There’s no indication as to responsibility but at least one of Iraq’s many Iranian-supported militias was presumably involved.
Low-level violence continued to engulf the Israeli-Lebanese border through the weekend. Saturday saw Israeli airstrikes targeting Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and at least one incident of cross-border shelling. At least six Hezbollah fighters were killed and one Israeli soldier seriously wounded. According to The New York Times, the Biden administration has been pressuring the Israeli government against making a large, preemptive attack against Hezbollah that would almost certainly escalate this situation into a full-blown war. The fear is that the Israeli military would lose a two-front war and/or that such a conflict would inevitably bring the US and Iran into the fight directly.
I mentioned the angry Egyptian populace earlier, and according to Al Jazeera part of that anger is being directed at their own government. Apparently that government has been organizing staged protests that attempt to combine support for Palestinians in Gaza with support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which are two tastes that do not necessarily go great together. The degree of cynicism involved in this exercise has apparently offended Egyptians who are actually angry about what’s happening in Gaza but are not being paid to channel that anger into a political show for Sisi’s benefit. Those folks are in reality finding themselves under attack from Egyptian security forces anytime they try to demonstrate. It would be a real trick if Sisi manages to turn the Gaza war into a large-scale protest movement directed at his own government.
Armita Geravand, the teenage girl who fell into a coma earlier this month after an alleged confrontation with Iranian morality police in Tehran, is “brain dead” according to Iranian state media. Given the similarities between her case and what happened last year to Mahsa Amini, another young woman who suspiciously died after being accosted by morality police over an offense against Iranian hijab laws, the possibility of renewed protests over her death cannot be ruled out. This would come at an inopportune time for the Iranian government, which is currently engaged in a back-and-forth with Israel and the US via its clients in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen in addition to the main event in Gaza. Renewed domestic unrest would presumably distract from that effort and that could mean a more sudden and even more violent crackdown than the Mahsa Amini protests received.
Philippine and Chinese vessels collided twice on Sunday near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea’s Spratly Island group. The Philippine military was once again attempting to resupply its makeshift outpost in the shoal when the resupply vessel and another vessel escorting it collided with a Chinese Coast Guard cutter and a second vessel Philippine officials described as part of the “Chinese Maritime Militia” and Chinese officials described as a fishing boat. Neither collision seems to have been particularly catastrophic but this does represent another escalation in the ongoing duel over the shoal.
The South Korean military hosted joint air exercises involving its US and Japanese counterparts on Sunday that marked the first time all three of those militaries had played together. So that’s nice. The diplomatic reconciliation between South Korea and Japan, made possible by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s offer to forget that whole World War II reparations business, has been subsumed by other events but may be one of the more significant under the radar developments in international affairs this year. This drill is another example of that reconciliation.
UN peacekeepers withdrew from their former outpost in Tessalit, in northern Mali’s Kidal region, on Saturday. The UN turned the facility over to the Malian army and later said the withdrawal was conducted in haste due to threats to the peacekeepers. The UN’s withdrawal from Kidal is viewed as especially dangerous because that region is the main stomping ground for the Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA) rebel alliance and CMA leaders are opposed to the Malian military taking over former UN positions.
An al-Shabab car bombing killed at least six people and wounded at least nine more on Sunday at a military facility in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. Four of the dead and five of the wounded were soldiers. The facility is located just outside Mogadishu.
An apparent Russian missile strike hit a mail depot in Ukraine’s Kharkiv city late Saturday, killing at least six people and wounding another 17. Ukrainian officials claimed on Sunday that the previous 24 hours had involved the most intense Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s Kherson oblast to date, while Russian forces also appear to be redoubling their previously weakening efforts to capture the city of Avdiivka in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast.
Exit polling suggests that the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) did quite well in Switzerland’s federal election on Sunday. The survey from Swiss public broadcaster SSR had SVP at 29 percent of the vote, which would be 3.5 percent better than it did in the 2019 election. The Green party, which did comparatively well in 2019, appears to have collapsed this time around, dropping from a bit over 13 percent to less than 10 percent support.
Argentine voters also headed to the polls on Sunday and appear to have gone against polling in the first round of that country’s presidential election. Far-right candidate Javier Milei, who “won” August’s primary election and led said polling ahead of the general, has finished second, with around 30 percent of the vote, behind the Peronist Renewal Front’s Sergio Massa at around 36 percent.
Massa is in no danger of winning an outright first round victory, which means they’ll head to a runoff on November 19. Looking at how this vote shook out it seems like Milei should be considered the favorite in the head-to-head matchup, assuming he can consolidate the 24-ish percent who backed mainstream conservative Patricia Bullrich. Had it been Bullrich who advanced to the runoff, as some polling suggested was possible, she might have been able to take enough support from Massa’s voters to win. In this case, it’s more likely that her voters will gravitate toward Milei than toward Massa.
Finally, at Forever Wars on Friday, Spencer Ackerman offered his take on Joe Biden’s big Israel-Ukraine speech the previous evening:
In frightening ways, people I spoke to yesterday drove home to me how close we are to a regional war. Lebanon already hangs by a thread, beset by an economic crisis the World Bank calls "likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-19th century." Its foreign minister, fearful of where escalating exchanges between Hezbollah and the IDF will lead, went on CNN Friday to ask Israel to declare a 48-hour ceasefire. My former Guardian colleague Raya Jalabi reports for the FT that Hezbollah is under diplomatic pressure, which I assume means pressure from Iran, to deescalate. But, she continues, no one knows Hezbollah's red lines. Meanwhile, Israelis are fleeing from the north in anticipation of a second front opening.
None of this came through in President Biden's speech last night. Biden said laudatory things about the importance of resisting both Islamophobia here at home, following the murder of six-year old Wadea al-Fayoume, and appropriately dwelled on it, appropriately presenting it as a social cancer on the level of antisemitism. But I was more taken by his primacist rhetoric, the way he slipped into the mode that, as I wrote earlier this year, tells itself the world is a grenade and America the pin. "We are the essential nation" he said, before properly quoting Madeleine Albright in calling the United States "the indispensable nation." American leadership, Biden insisted, "is what holds the world together."
Does this look to you like America holding the world together?
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.