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World roundup: October 31 2023
Stories from Yemen, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
October 31, 1517: Martin Luther mails his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, the event that has come to mark the start of the Protestant Reformation. He’s also more famously said to have nailed the text to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, though Luther’s own recounting of events raises questions about whether he did so on October 31 or, really, at all. It’s entirely possible he did—although this event has been cast as a stunning display of rebellion by history, posting disputations in a public place like the door to the city’s church was common practice at the time. Whatever actually happened, it’s safe to say that word got around.
October 31, 1941: The USS Reuben James, a Clemson-class destroyer, is torpedoed by German submarine U-552 while sailing as part of a convoy that had set out from Newfoundland about a week earlier. The attack killed 100 of the 144 people on board and made the Reuben James the first US vessel to be sunk in combat in World War II’s European Theater.
Israeli air strikes decimated the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza on Tuesday. Information is still incoming but medical officials have so far estimated a death toll over 50, with the potential to be far over 50 once all the bodies have been recovered from the rubble. Scores of people have been wounded. This time around Israeli officials didn’t bother insisting that it wasn’t them. Instead, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Richard Hecht told CNN that “there was a very senior Hamas commander” in the camp who was apparently among the dead.
The IDF and its mostly Western enablers will undoubtedly claim that the presence of that senior Hamas figure makes the attack justifiable under international law—the “human shield” defense—but that’s a willful misinterpretation. The “laws of war” oblige combatants to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in strikes against military targets and to consider proportionality. While that is admittedly (and deliberately) subjective, there is no reasonable definition of “proportionate” under which the sacrifice of over 50 civilians (and maybe well over 50) can be justified by the death of one Hamas commander, no matter how senior. The Israelis may also argue that the scale of destruction suggests that their bombs hit some sort of Hamas munitions stockpile. Again, regardless of target the onus is on them to minimize civilian casualties, something it’s very hard to say they would have done here in attacking a known refugee camp.
It’s gotten drowned out by the refugee camp strike, but the second phase of Israel’s Gaza operation continued on Tuesday, with reports of more battles between militants and IDF ground forces in and around Gaza City. At least two Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting on Tuesday. The Israeli military believes that some 800,000 Gazans have evacuated south per the IDF’s orders, but that still leaves some 300,000 civilians in northern Gaza and may not account for people who evacuated and then returned home after finding conditions in southern Gaza were no better or safer. The IDF is at a point where it may simply declare anyone who hasn’t evacuated to be ipso facto an enemy combatant, even though that group includes, for example, hospital patients who cannot leave and medical personnel who refuse to abandon their patients.
Israeli security forces killed at least two Palestinians in separate raids in the West Bank on Tuesday. One Palestinian who was wounded in a raid on Monday died on Tuesday, bringing the total number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 7 to at least 122.
AFP is reporting that the Egyptian government will begin allowing wounded Gazans to pass through the Rafah checkpoint to seek medical care from Wednesday. Plans are apparently for 81 people to enter Egypt initially. They’ll be treated at a field hospital being set up in northern Sinai. There’s still no word at this point whether foreign nationals currently trapped in Gaza will also be allowed to leave. Nor is there any indication that the promised increases in aid shipments into Gaza will materialize. There have apparently been modest increases in daily shipments over the past few days but the Israeli government is still capping those shipments at a few dozen truckloads per day, far below what is required, because it’s insisting on inspecting every truck.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Tuesday fired a barrage of missiles and drones at Israel. The IDF said that its air defenses had intercepted two waves of projectiles heading toward the southern Israeli city of Eilat. You may recall that the Houthis launched a handful of cruise missiles toward Israel earlier this month that were shot down by a US destroyer in the Red Sea. This time around it appears they used ballistic missiles. More importantly, they claimed responsibility for this attack and promised more to come. Houthi activity like this risks restarting the war in Yemen (more on that below) and risks pulling Iran and its other regional proxies into a wider war. And sure, it is possible they’re doing this under orders from Tehran, but they may well be acting on their own volition and it’s impossible to know for certain.
This new Houthi attack raises some interesting questions about the two still-mysterious projectiles that struck the Egyptian towns of Nuweiba and Taba a few days ago. Given their proximity to Eilat the likeliest scenario seemed to be (and still seems to be) that they were stray rockets out of Gaza, but the Houthis offer at least another possibility.
It turns out that the US military has been deploying special forces to Israel since October 7, ostensibly to help in hostage recovery efforts. Taken at face value this seems reasonable, particularly given that there are still believed to be US nationals among Hamas’s captives. But there’s not much reason to believe that this is the only thing they’re doing in Israel, so the real question is how involved they are in the Israeli ground operation. Regardless, the US can’t wash its hands of what’s happening given its material support for the IDF.
On that subject, Hamas officials said on Tuesday that they’re planning to release some foreign hostages “in the next few days.” That’s all vague enough to be essentially meaningless but I suppose time will tell.
The Bolivian government on Tuesday severed its diplomatic relationship with Israel over the war in Gaza, seemingly in response to the Jabalya attack. Bolivia’s interim Foreign Minister, María Nela Prada, characterized Israel’s actions as “crimes against humanity” in explaining the decision. Bolivia cut ties with Israel under former President Evo Morales but restored them in 2020 after the coup that removed him from power. It is the first country to take this step over the Gaza war but may well not be the last. The Chilean and Colombian governments recalled their ambassadors from Israel on Tuesday so they’re probably front of the line to follow Bolivia’s lead.
In other international news, the Japanese government on Tuesday blacklisted nine individuals and one entity allegedly tied to Hamas and its finances.
Although Joe Biden has publicly expressed fairly unambiguous opposition to the idea of resettling Gazan residents elsewhere (i.e., in Egypt), Speaking Security’s Stephen Semler breaks down the Biden administration’s recent $106 billion budget request to Congress and argues that it contains as much as $9.2 billion that could be intended to support a short-term and then long-term relocation. The budget request doesn’t spell this out overtly, but given that we know the Israeli government is internally debating the idea of a mass expulsion Semler’s theory has to be considered plausible at least.
Over at The Intercept, Ryan Grim and Prem Thakker say they’ve been able to check the accuracy of the Gazan Health Ministry’s casualty count, using a subset of the list of dead Gazans it produced last week, and found it to be quite accurate. The Biden administration has, in keeping with tradition, tried to cast doubt on those figures in order to cover for the Israeli campaign, but it has no basis for that doubt and The Intercept’s finding supplements statements from a number of international organizations that say they’ve found the ministry’s figures to be accurate in past Gazan conflicts. The ministry announced on Tuesday that the death toll in Gaza since October 7 has passed 8500, with potentially many more uncounted dead beneath all the rubble the IDF has created.
Bloomberg is reporting that “Saudi Arabia’s military has gone into a state of high alert” after a battle with Houthi fighters along the Saudi-Yemeni border last week left at least four Saudi soldiers dead. They are the first casualties the Saudis have suffered in battle with Houthi fighters since the two sides reached a since-expired ceasefire in April 2022. The Saudis also reportedly intercepted a Houthi missile at some point “in the past few weeks,” but it’s unclear from the reporting whether that missile was heading toward a Saudi target or elsewhere (see above). A Houthi drone strike last month along the border killed four Bahraini soldiers.
Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase came under drone attack again on Tuesday. The facility houses US forces and has been targeted repeatedly by Iraqi militias since the start of the Gaza war. Indeed it was targeted by rockets the previous day. Neither of these latest incidents caused any casualties or significant damage to the facility.
Oil production cuts are taking a bit out of the Saudi economy, which shrank by 4.5 percent in the third quarter of this year. The cuts are meant to keep oil prices high and they’ve worked in that sense, but it seems the high price is not overcoming the decline in sales. Saudi oil activity declined by 17.3 percent year over year, while the rest of the Saudi economy actually grew a bit (3.6 percent).
Militants killed one police officer and wounded two others in two incidents in India’s Manipur state on Tuesday. Authorities believe that members of the Kuki community, which has been engaged in an inter-communal conflict with the majority Meitei community for several months now, were responsible for killing a police officer at a construction site in one incident. The second incident, an ambush of a police convoy that left two officers wounded, seems to be unattributed at present.
Another round of opposition protests calling for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s resignation left at least two protesters dead on Tuesday. Police in the Kishoreganj district of Bangladesh’s Dhaka region are claiming that protesters “attacked” them and say they responded with rubber bullets. It’s unclear how the protesters were killed but it seems reasonable to conclude police were involved. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is demanding Hasina’s resignation and the installation of a caretaker government to minimize the chances of fraud in January’s general election.
The Biden administration on Tuesday partially sanctioned the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, blocking US individuals and entities from engaging in a number of financial transactions but not barring the firm completely from the US financial network. The administration also blacklisted five individuals and three entities said to be linked to the Myanmar military.
Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong visited Myanmar on Tuesday to discuss the emerging security crisis along the Chinese border in Myanmar’s Shan state. The “Brotherhood Alliance” rebel group opened a new offensive in northern Shan over the weekend and has reportedly seized several security outposts.
The Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group claimed on Monday that its fighters had seized control of Belila airport in Sudan’s West Kordofan state. According to the RSF the Sudanese military has been launching aircraft from that facility, so its loss is another blow to the military’s capabilities. The seizure comes just a few days after the RSF captured the city of Nyala in Sudan’s South Darfur state so the group appears to have some momentum building in its favor.
Mali’s Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP) rebel alliance said on Tuesday that its forces had taken control of a newly abandoned former United Nations outpost in the strategic northern town of Kidal. UN peacekeepers had just withdrawn from that facility earlier in the day, their final outpost in the Kidal region. The seizure sets up a potential clash between the rebels and the Malian military, which has been assuming control of these facilities as the UN withdraws and presumably intends to assume control of this one as well.
Islamic State West Africa Province fighters attacked a village in northeastern Nigeria’s Yobe state late Monday, killing at least 17 people. According to AFP villagers had refused to pay taxes to the group. ISWAP raises significant revenue by extorting communities in its stomping grounds for “tax payments.” Yobe borders the group’s main stomping ground, Borno state, but ISWAP fighters have been increasingly active in Yobe as well in recent months.
The director of coordination for the UN’s humanitarian affairs office, Ramesh Rajasingham, told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that some 18 million Ukrainians, or over 40 percent of the country’s population, are in need of humanitarian aid. And that’s now—once winter sets in the need will only grow. Much of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, including power and heat, is still heavily damaged and if the Russian military makes that infrastructure a priority target again this year (and there are indications that it is making it a target) that will also make the situation much worse. Apparently the UN’s $3.9 billion funding request for this year is still 40 percent unfunded, so its operations in Ukraine are limited as a result.
The Montenegrin parliament voted on Tuesday to confirm a new government led by the Europe Now! party and headlined by new Prime Minister Milojko Spajić. Europe Now! won June’s parliamentary election but only took 24 seats, well short of a majority in the 81 seat legislature, hence the extended coalition talks. The coalition that emerged consists of seven parties including the Russia-friendly For the Future of Montenegro party, which is an interesting fit within a government that aims to advance Montenegro’s European Union accession.
The Guyanese government appealed to the UN’s International Court of Justice on Monday to stop a planned referendum in neighboring Venezuela. The referendum will ask voters whether or not Venezuela should annex the Esequiba region, the western portion of Guyana. The Venezuelan government has long held that its “true” eastern border is the Essequibo River, which runs through Guyana north to south. In the late 19th century Venezuela and the UK (Guyana being a UK colony at the time) took the dispute to international arbitration and the UK won. Venezuelan officials rejected the ruling and the issue has been in dispute ever since. The discovery of oil deposits in the region, and the possibility of energy deposits in its coastal waters, have made the dispute more intense in recent years.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Andrea Mazzarino considers the lessons the Israeli government should really take away from the US response to the 9/11 attacks:
Reacting to the terrorist attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, Americans have been remarkably focused on whether we should support Israel or the residents of Gaza. In either case, we act as if Israel’s only possible decision was whether or not to launch a war against Gaza. In the country that waged a disastrous 20-year “global war on terror” in response to the 9/11 attacks, it seems strange that there’s been so little discussion about what such a decision might mean in the long term. Going to war is just that — one decision among many possibilities, including taking steps to strengthen and democratize the states where such armed militias may otherwise flourish.
As a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, it’s become a focus of mine to show just what’s happened to us because our government, more than two decades after the 9/11 attacks, continues to fight a “war on terror” (whatever that may mean) in some 85 countries. Yes, that’s right: 85 countries! We’ve armed foreign militaries, flown our drones in a devastating fashion, run prisons (often in places with far laxer human-rights standards than ours), trained foreign militaries, and sometimes fought directly alongside them.
Over the years, the 2,977 American lives taken by Osama bin Laden and his followers on September 11, 2001, have exploded into nearly one million lives lost globally thanks to our government’s decision to go to war. Framed by the sheer scale of death and destruction wrought by this country’s forever wars, our hasty retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, long seen as a shamefully botched mission unaccomplished, should instead have been viewed as a genuinely courageous act, even if it was just one of dozens of countries where the U.S. hemorrhaged lives and dollars galore.
Imagine the “footprint” our post-9/11 wars created. For one thing, we’ve spent more than $8 trillion dollars (and counting) in that fight, money that could have funded the creation of millions of jobs here at home, provided affordable preschool in all 50 states, and jump-started the transition to clean energy. And now, we’ll probably be sending more than $75 billion in aid, most of it military rather than humanitarian, to Ukraine and Israel in the coming months. Regardless of what you think Israel’s response should be, the fact remains that we could do a lot with that money here at home.
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