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World roundup: October 28-29 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Ecuador, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
October 28, 312: Constantine defeats his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This battle is perhaps most famous for the religious vision that Constantine allegedly received the night before, which in later accounts was said to have been the “Chi-Rho,” the interlocking Greek letters that are the first two letters of “Christ” and thus became an emblem of Jesus. The battle left Constantine as the unquestioned ruler of the Roman west, with his fellow Augustus Licinius as ruler of the Roman east, and marks the end of Diocletian’s (d. 305) four emperor “Tetrarchy” system. Constantine’s vision is regarded as the impetus behind the 313 Edict of Milan, in which he and Licinius declared Christianity a religion (with the protected status that imparted) under Roman law. Naturally the two Augusti eventually went to war with one another, with Constantine emerging as sole Roman emperor in 324.
October 28, 1922: Sticking with Rome, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party begins the two day March on Rome that would end with its takeover of the Italian government. As Mussolini’s blackshirts approached the city, Prime Minister Luigi Facta called for martial law, but Italian King Victor Emmanuel III opted instead to get rid of Facta and make Mussolini his new prime minister.
October 29, 1923: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declares the founding of a Turkish Republic, replacing the by-now obviously defunct Ottoman Empire. Although Atatürk’s Grand National Assembly had been functioning as a republican government since 1920, this day is annually commemorated as “Republic Day” in Turkey.
October 29, 1929: The “Crash of ‘29,” which began with “Black Thursday” on October 24 and continued with “Black Monday” on October 28, ends with “Black Tuesday.” Over those final two days the US stock market lost roughly a quarter of its value. By July 1932 the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at just over 40 points, down from roughly 380 in September 1929. The crash signaled the onset of the Great Depression, a global economic collapse that especially hit industrialized Western nations and those countries dependent on the West for trade and investment and that wouldn’t really end in many places until after the onset of World War II.
October 29, 1956: The Suez Crisis begins
The Israeli military (IDF) has now clearly moved into what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials have characterized as the “second phase” of its operations in Gaza. What exactly that phase entails is still emerging but so far it’s involved more extensive Israeli incursions into Gaza—though it seems like they’re still holding off on a sustained ground operation—and more intensive bombardments that include large, penetrating munitions meant to destroy the extensive network of tunnels that Hamas and other militant groups have dug below Gaza. Israeli leaders may be reluctant to send their forces into Gaza on anything other than in-and-out raids until they feel they’ve destroyed a significant part of that network.
Hamas leaders have said their forces are engaged in “heavy fighting” with Israeli units but it’s difficult to know what that really means amid a particularly heavy fog of war made foggier by the Israeli decision to knock out internet and cellular service in Gaza on Friday. The fog lifted somewhat over the weekend when those services were at least partially restored, apparently in response to a demand from the US government. Even with some communications back up by Sunday it’s still been difficult to track what’s happening except to say that it’s been devastating for Gaza’s civilian population. Health officials say the death toll in Gaza has now risen above 8000 since October 7, more than 3300 of them children.
For those Gazans who are still alive, the International Red Cross called the humanitarian situation in Gaza “intolerable” over the weekend. The IDF dropped more leaflets over Gaza City on Saturday once again advising residents to move south, while COGAT, the IDF office that manages the occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, is now claiming that it is “planning to increase dramatically the amount of assistance” entering southern Gaza in the coming week. Just 94 truckloads of aid have passed through the Rafah checkpoint from Egypt over the past week, which is still less aid than the United Nations says it needs to bring in per day. International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan suggested on Sunday that an Israeli failure to permit aid to enter Gaza could be a crime under ICC jurisdiction, which would be more interesting if Khan had any conceivable way to enforce such a determination.
While he continues to enable and support the violence that’s created this humanitarian disaster, Joe Biden has allegedly been pushing for increased aid flows in discussions with Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Israeli officials say they’ve marked out a “humanitarian zone” in southern Gaza but it remains far from clear whether, say, they intend to stop bombing in that zone or whether people who evacuate northern Gaza will ever be allowed to return. Chances of the latter are probably slim, Israeli rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.
In other news:
We’re regularly told that one of the reasons that 3000-plus kids (and counting) needed to die here is because of the hostages Hamas and other military groups seized during their rampage through southern Israel on October 7. What an unchecked aerial bombardment of Gaza and some heavy ground raids are supposed to do to secure the freedom and/or safety of those hostages is beyond me (indeed Hamas has claimed that the Israelis have killed some 50 hostages so far), but it may be worth noting that the hostages’ families don’t seem all that thrilled with Netanyahu and company right now. Hamas has reportedly offered an “everyone for everyone” prisoner swap—the hostages for the thousands of Palestinians being held by the Israelis—and at least some of the family members seem to be pressing the Israeli government to accept. Needless to say that seems like an extreme long shot.
According to The Washington Post there’s a “senior US official” telling reporters that the reason none of the US nationals currently trapped in Gaza have been allowed to leave is because Hamas isn’t allowing it. This is interesting, because in interviews with the foreign nationals who have been massing at Rafah for days now waiting to be allowed out, there’s been no mention of Hamas fighters or any other militants blocking the way, and the Egyptian government has blamed Israeli bombardments of the checkpoint for blocking an evacuation. Apparently those foreign nationals should believe Washington instead of their lying eyes.
Switching focus to the West Bank for a moment, Israeli security forces killed at least five Palestinians in multiple raids on Sunday morning, including two in one assault on a refugee camp in Nablus. At least 110 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7 and Israeli authorities say they’ve arrested over 1000 alleged militants, including a whopping 700 alleged Hamas operatives. At least seven of those deaths have come at the hands not of security forces but of Israeli settlers, including one murder in a village outside of Nablus on Saturday. Settler violence has skyrocketed since October 7. A settler mob reportedly drove out all the residents of the village of Wadi al-Siq near Ramallah earlier this month and there have been additional reports of settlers ordering the evacuation of Palestinian villages near Hebron. Israeli security forces are by all accounts enabling these activities and protecting the settlers.
I think it’s worth mentioning the rhetoric Netanyahu employed this weekend to discuss this “second phase” of the war. On the prosaic side he’s referred to this conflict as Israel’s “second war of independence.” This is fairly absurd—as horrific as the October 7 attacks were there’s nothing about them that suggests an existential threat to the Israeli state, let alone something from which Israel needs to establish its already established “independence.” But it may be an instructive comparison, in that Israel’s actual “war of independence” involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and it now seems like that’s at least one possibility that awaits Palestinians in Gaza.
On the religious side he’s invoked the Biblical tale of Amalek, a mythic (as in there’s no historical evidence for their existence) people whose total destruction God orders in the Book of 1 Samuel. Without dwelling too much on this, let’s just say that if Netanyahu wants to convince the rest of the world that his military is not committing a genocide this is a strange story to invoke. I guess the charitable interpretation is that he’s only comparing Hamas to Amalek rather than everyone in Gaza or the Palestinians as a whole, but in 1 Samuel God commands the annihilation of the entire Amalekite people, not just a warrior subset. The parallel is not especially reassuring. Netanyahu, who doesn’t normally display much public religiosity, does seem to be a fan of the Amalek story because he’s invoked it a number of times in reference to Iran.
Netanyahu got into a little trouble early Sunday morning when he tweeted something that appeared to blame the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies for failing to warn him about the October 7 attacks. He deleted the tweet and apologized after taking significant criticism. Netanyahu’s popularity has crashed amid understandable anger that his government failed to prevent the attacks, and I think he’s a bit shaken by that. Which probably means he’s the wrong person to be in charge of a war right now, but I digress.
The Israeli government summoned Russia’s ambassador on Sunday to protest Moscow’s decision to host a Hamas delegation on Thursday. I don’t know that Israeli officials want to damage their relationship with Russia any more than Russian officials want to damage their relationship with Israel, but it’s a geopolitical priority for the Russians to stake out a position on Gaza that is a) opposed to the US and b) aligned with much of the “global south,” so some damage may be unavoidable.
The weekend saw a continued outpouring of support for Gaza in the form of protests all over the world. Many of them took place in predominantly Muslim countries but several very large demonstrations were held in major Western cities and in India, among other places. None of this is likely to change the course of the war but it does mean something for a US government that has at least expressed interest in improving its image in the “global south.”
This war doesn’t appear to be especially popular among “global south” citizens and I think Vox’s Jonathan Guyer is correct that it’s being viewed as Joe Biden’s war even as his administration tries to dodge responsibility for it. The Biden administration has fueled that perception with its public indulgence of every Israeli military excess, its at-times revolting rhetoric, and its efforts to ride shotgun for Israel at the United Nations. Members of the administration really pushed the “Israel must protect civilian lives” line over the weekend but that’s beyond too little, too late. It’s hard for them to disclaim any responsibility for the war when they’re simultaneously leaking to The New York Times that the Israelis are following their advice as they wage it, when it’s clear that the US government can muscle the Israelis into changing policy as it did with respect to the internet blackout (see above), and when even people inside the administration are increasingly unhappy with what they’re being asked to support.
One of the largest “pro-Palestine” demonstrations this weekend took place in Istanbul on Saturday, where hundreds of thousands of people turned out for a rally led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I haven’t seen definitive figures on the number of attendees—Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party suggested that over 1 million people were present, but even if that’s an exaggeration aerial photos show clearly that this was an absolutely massive event. I put pro-Palestine in quotes above only because this weekend is also the centennial of the founding of the Turkish Republic (see above) and Erdoğan seems to have played on that a bit by reorienting the centennial festivities toward events in Gaza. Which I assume is OK by Erdoğan, whose relationship with Atatürk’s legacy is uneasy to say the least.
In a fiery speech on Saturday, Erdoğan accused the Israeli government of “openly committing war crimes for 22 days” and of trying to “eradicate” the Palestinians, and lambasted Israel’s Western backers for doing nothing to stop it. His remarks were harsh enough to prompt Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to order the withdrawal of Israeli diplomatic personnel from Turkey for what he termed “a reevaluation of the relations between Israel and Turkey.” Israeli staffers had already been recalled from Turkey for safety reasons but this means they’re not going back anytime soon.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says it now believes that the Israeli attack that killed Reuters reporter Issam Abdallah and wounded six other journalists in southern Lebanon earlier this month was deliberately targeted. Their investigation has determined that Israeli forces fired twice on the same location in short order, suggesting intentionality. To be sure this doesn’t mean the Israelis knew they were firing on journalists but that is one possibility. For the record, RSF’s report concludes that it’s “unlikely” Israeli forces mistook the journalists for combatants.
Armita Geravand, the teenager who fell into a coma after a possibly-violent encounter with Iranian morality police in Tehran earlier this month, died on Saturday according to Iranian state media. Geravand’s case is so similar to that of Mahsa Amini, who likewise fell into a coma and died after a murky (to say the least) interaction with morality police last fall, that it’s raised speculation about a revival of the Amini protest movement. Nothing like that has occurred, presumably because the heavy-handed government crackdown against those protesters has discouraged it.
Pakistani security forces killed at least one unspecified “militant” and arrested two others during a raid late Friday in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Some time later, in the same province, a roadside bomb killed two Pakistan soldiers. The Pakistani Taliban was presumably involved in both of these incidents.
A bombing at a convention center in India’s Kerala state on Sunday killed at least one person and wounded another 36. The target appears to have been a gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There is no indication as to responsibility as far as I know.
A protest organized by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina turned violent on Saturday, resulting in the death of one police officer and injuries to more than 100 people. The BNP wants Hasina—who has a reputation for authoritarian tendencies—to resign and turn things over to an interim government to oversee January’s general election. She’s refused. Protest organizers are accusing police of causing the violence by firing tear gas into crowds of hitherto peaceful protesters.
Members of the rebel “Brotherhood Alliance” reportedly continued the offensive they began on Friday through the weekend. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army claimed on Saturday that their fighters had captured a combined eight military outposts across Shan state. There’s no comprehensive word on casualties. Shan is situated along the Chinese border and Chinese officials said on Friday that they were monitoring the new offensive.
Fighting between rival militias in the northwestern Libyan city of Gharyan left at least four people dead and at least ten more wounded on Sunday. It’s unclear what sparked the clash, which was still going “intermittently” at last check according to AFP.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Suspected Allied Democratic Forces fighters killed two Ugandan soldiers and two civilians late Friday in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. One of the attackers also appears to have been killed in the incident. The attack took place in the town of Kasindi, where ADF has carried out attacks in the past.
A mob of hundreds of people descended on an airport in Russia’s Dagestan region on Sunday in an apparent antisemitic assault on the passengers of a flight from Israel. At least 20 people were injured in the ensuing violence, at least two of them critically. Dagestan is a predominantly Muslim region and several members of the mob were waving Palestinian flags.
A new round of Ukrainian “peace” talks opened in Malta over the weekend, and yes I’ve put peace in quotation marks because Russia wasn’t invited and so there’s no way this event will actually involve real peace talks. Instead, everybody’s gathered to talk about Volodymyr Zelensky’s proposed peace plan, though given that this is the third time one of these conferences has been held it’s unclear to me what’s left to talk about. Mostly it’s about getting other countries to agree with Zelensky’s plan, and in that sense it seems to be working—over the course of three sessions attendance has climbed from 15 to 43 to this weekend’s 66 participants (allegedly). This meeting also comes at an opportune time for Zelensky to remind participants that the war in Ukraine hasn’t ended just because a new war has started in Gaza.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has agreed to offer amnesty to Catalan separatist leaders implicated in the 2017 regional secession referendum, which may be enough to win him the Catalan support he needs in parliament to form a government. Mathematically Sánchez needs the support of two small Catalan separatist parties to win parliamentary confirmation. However, amnesty for 2017 was only one of the demands those parties have been making—they’re also after a new, legal secession vote. Given how unpopular the amnesty alone seems to be, it’s unclear whether Sánchez is prepared to concede the referendum as well. If he can’t get the Catalan parties on board Spain will hold a snap election in January.
Ecuador’s drought-related energy problems are apparently going to be at least partially resolved, as the Colombian and Ecuadorean governments announced a deal on Sunday whereby the former will deliver some 450 megawatts of geothermal power to the latter. The Ecuadorean government says it’s facing a 650 megawatt power deficit thanks to decreased production from its hydroelectric dams, so this deal goes a long way toward filling the gap. Ecuadorean officials have also cut deals to receive some 50 megawatts from Peru and an additional 100 megawatts from thermal producers in Guayaquil. Payment terms for the Colombian deal haven’t been ironed out but may involve an exchange for Ecuadorean energy once the drought ends.
Finally, Jacobin’s Bradley Simpson notes that when Joe Biden accuses Gazan health officials of lying about casualties, he’s upholding a proud US tradition of “atrocity denial” on behalf of our friends and clients:
I wrote my first book on US relations with Indonesia in the 1960s, and in particular the Lyndon Johnson administration’s support for the campaign of mass murder carried out by the Indonesian armed forces in late 1965 and early 1966, when it overthrew Indonesian president Suharto. Scholars estimate that the army and its allies slaughtered half a million Indonesian civilians between October 1965 and March 1966. Even as they provided crucial military and economic backing to Indonesia’s armed forces, Johnson administration officials privately recommended “the desirability of downplaying the extent of the carnage . . . especially when questioned by the press.” The Johnson administration likewise rejected casualty figures of hundreds of thousands in Nigeria’s US-backed war against the Biafran secessionist movement between 1967 and 1970, while emphasizing its support for humanitarian access to the besieged state of Eastern Nigeria.
Washington’s commitment to dismissing allegations of mass murder and atrocities carried out by its diplomatic friends was bipartisan and enduring. When Pakistan launched a war in 1971 to prevent the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, killing hundreds of thousands, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stood by the Pakistani military and sought to suppress or discredit reporting on the horrific civilian toll, leading to a low-level revolt by US embassy officials in Pakistan. Following the US-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and again following a US-backed military coup in Argentina in 1976, Nixon and later Gerald Ford administration officials publicly denied contemporary press, church, and human rights accounts of tens of thousands arrested, murdered, and tortured, accusing regime opponents of being pro-communist.
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