EU foreign ministers meet on Ukraine, Hamas, Russia

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 19th March 2024

EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine, Belarus, the situation in the Middle East and other current affairs, including sanctions against Hamas and Russia. The meeting was led by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who earlier on Monday had an informal discussion via video conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “A solid compromise has been agreed at the working level and I hope that this will be continued until full adoption soon, but the political agreement is there,” Borrell told reporters afterwards.

The bloc agreed to impose further sanctions on Hamas and to introduce sanctions against violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank for the first time. The measures, which had previously been blocked by Hungary, include travel bans and asset freezes on certain individuals. They follow in the footsteps of the US and UK. Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are considered illegal under international law. There has been an explosion in acts of violence carried out by the settlers in the territory against the Palestinian population since October 7. The EU also said it would add to previous sanctions imposed on Hamas, with diplomats saying those would came into effect first on the request of members such as Germany who are keen to make clear that they are not comparing Hamas and Israeli settlers. The bloc remains divided between members who strongly support Israel and those who are more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Borrell, who is closer to the latter group, said earlier on Monday that the war in Gaza has become a “graveyard for many of the most important principles of humanitarian law”.

Russians sanctioned over Navalny death

The EU foreign ministers also agreed to impose sanctions on 30 Russian officials over the death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison last month. “We agreed to sanctions on those responsible for the murder of Alexei Navalny,” Borrell said following the meeting. Again, following in the footsteps of the UK and the US, the EU said it would impose travel bans and asset freezes on the prison officials who it considers responsible for the opposition figure’s death. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, had called for President Vladimir Putin to no longer be considered the legitimate leader of Russia – a step that the EU was not willing to take.

The foreign ministers, together with their Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, who participated over video conference, addressed the issue of Russia’s continuing aggression against Ukraine. Considering the ongoing support of Belarus for Russia, the ministers were expected to discuss the latest developments in Russia’s neighbouring country, particularly the deteriorating human rights situation. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza was also  high on the agenda.

EU allocates €5 billion to support Ukraine militarily

Top diplomats representing the EU’s 27 countries agreed to increase its support to Ukrainian armed forces by €5 billion under the European Pace Facility (EPF) for military assistance to Ukraine in 2024. For this purpose, they have set up a special Ukraine Assistance Fund (UAF) within EPF, the European Council said in a statement. The newly-established fund will allow the EU to further support the evolving needs of the Ukrainian military through the provision of both lethal and non-lethal military equipment and training, it added. “With the fund, we will continue to support Ukraine defend itself from Russia’s war of aggression with whatever it takes and for as long as we need to,”  Borrell said.

Biden warns Netanyahu against ‘mistake’ of invading Rafah

The United States has issued its strongest public warning yet to Israel against invading the crowded city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, saying that such a ground operation would deepen the humanitarian crisis in the besieged enclave. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that, while President Joe Biden remains committed to the goal of defeating Hamas, he communicated to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a major assault on Rafah would be a “mistake”. The US president reportedly told the Israeli prime minister that a ‘coherent strategy’ was needed to defeat Hamas in Gaza. “It would lead to more innocent civilian deaths, worsen the already dire humanitarian crisis, deepen the anarchy in Gaza and further isolate Israel internationally,” Sullivan said. The Israeli military has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians in Gaza since the start of the war on October 7, following a deadly attack on southern Israel that killed at least 1,100 people. According to Sullivan, Biden asked Netanyahu in a phone call to send a team of intelligence and military officials to Washington, DC, to hear concerns about any potential invasion of Rafah. Throughout the war, Israel has ordered Palestinian civilians in Gaza to move south as it invaded the territory from the north. Many residents were first displaced to the middle part of the enclave and then moved to the southern city of Khan Younis. They were ultimately forced to flee again to Rafah, situated on the Egyptian border. Over the past five months, Rafah’s population has ballooned to more than 1.5 million people, up from about 300,000 before the war.

Reacting to US President Joe Biden’s warning, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he has spoken with Biden “about the latest developments in the war, including Israel’s commitment to achieving all the objectives of the conflict: the elimination of Hamas, the release of all our hostages and the promise that Gaza will no longer represent a threat to Israel”. “And this – he added – while providing the humanitarian aid necessary to achieve these objectives”.

‘Families in Northern Gaza just weeks away from famine’

Children and families in northern Gaza are just weeks away from famine, according to data released today by leading experts on food insecurity and malnutrition, with some of the thresholds needed to declare a famine already exceeded. New data from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) – the global scale to classify food and nutrition crises – says 1.1 million people across Gaza, or at least half of the population, are facing catastrophic food insecurity. With hunger even more extreme in northern Gaza, the IPC projects famine will occur any time between now and May. Even now, children and families are being forced to live off wheat, hay, and animal food, said Save the Children. The already-accelerating child death rate will reach new extremes without an immediate, definitive ceasefire and unfettered aid access, the child rights organisation said. At least 23 children have died because of malnutrition. The impending famine in northern Gaza is an entirely man-made disaster. UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres has reiterated his call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. “We must act now to prevent the unthinkable, the unacceptable, the unjustifiable,” he wrote in a post on X.

Israel denies responsibility for hunger, massacres in Gaza

Israel vehemently denied allegations of genocide and responsibility for hunger and massacres in Gaza in a legal filing to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made public Monday. Its response came after South Africa asked the ICJ to issue emergency orders for Israel to step up humanitarian aid to Gaza to address a looming famine. Rejecting South Africa’s claims that Israel was responsible for the famine and massacres in Gaza, Israel labelled them as “completely unfounded in fact and in law” and accused South Africa of distorting facts and abusing the authority of the Genocide Convention and the ICJ.

Israel also refuted claims that it deliberately created a hostile environment for aid agencies and used humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, asserting that it actively collaborated with the UN and other countries to address the food problem in Gaza. It demanded the rejection of South Africa’s request for additional measures, arguing that the court’s decision on January 26 already encompassed the issues raised by South Africa. It also accused South Africa of seeking political attention.

In response, South Africa urged the ICJ to change or order new measures against Israel, citing persistent violations and the dire situation in Gaza. South Africa emphasised the urgency of the matter, drawing parallels with past genocides and urging immediate action to prevent further suffering in Gaza. The application cited the ICJ’s authority to rule on injunctions at every stage of the case and highlighted significant developments in Gaza since January 26, warranting new measures.

‘20 militants killed, 200 detained at key Gaza hospital’

Israel’s military said 20 Palestinian gunmen were killed  and scores detained during a raid on Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital that targeted “senior Hamas terrorists”. Soldiers rolled in with tanks and air strikes hit the area around the Hamas-ruled territory’s biggest medical centre, a complex crowded with patients and displaced people. “During the operation we arrested more than 200 suspected terrorists and they are currently in investigation,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, said in a televised statement. “We eliminated more than 20 terrorists inside the hospital complex” and another 20 “in the area surrounding the hospital”, Hagari said. Among the dead was Fayq al-Mabhouh, who Hagari said was “head of special operations at the Hamas internal security organisation”. Hagari said Israeli soldiers were “continuing operations inside the hospital complex”. Meanwhile, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed Marwan Issa, number 2 of the Qassam Brigades and ranking member of Hamas, was killed during an Israeli raid in Gaza.

Putin hails illegal annexation of Crimea

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has hailed the “return” of Crimea to Russia at a concert marking the 10th anniversary of the illegal annexation of the territory from Ukraine. He said Crimea had “returned to its home harbour” and that it would move forwards with Russia “hand in hand”. Putin was addressing thousands in Moscow’s Red Square a day after claiming a landslide election win. The vote has been hailed by allies but decried by the West as a sham. Putin told the flag-waving crowd: “Hand in hand, we will move forward and this will make us stronger… Long live Russia!”

Putin said he plans to create a buffer zone to help protect against long-range Ukrainian strikes and cross-border raids. The Kremlin’s forces have made battlefield progress as Kyiv’s troops struggle with a severe shortage of artillery shells and exhausted front-line units after more than two years of war. The front line stretches over 1,000 kilometers across eastern and southern Ukraine. Advances have been slow and costly, and Ukraine has increasingly used its long-range firepower to hit oil refineries and depots deep inside Russia. Also, groups claiming to be Ukraine-based Russian opponents of the Kremlin have launched cross-border incursions. “We will be forced at some point, when we consider it necessary, to create a certain ‘sanitary zone’ on the territories controlled by the (Ukrainian government),” Putin said late Sunday.

‘Putin’s buffer zone comment is clear sign of looming escalation’

A senior Ukrainian official said today Putin’s idea of creating a buffer zone inside Ukrainian territory was a clear indication that Moscow planned to escalate its war in neighbouring Ukraine. “This is … a direct manifest statement that the war will only escalate,” presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters in a written statement. “All this is direct evidence that the Russian Federation is not ready to live in modern social and political relations, taking into account the absolute sovereign rights of other countries,” he said.

Putin open to Macron’s ceasefire proposal during Paris Olympics

President Putin has said he is open to French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to propose a ceasefire during this summer’s Paris Olympics. Macron said in an interview from Paris, shown on Ukrainian television, that Russia would be asked to observe a ceasefire, in line with the customary host country’s appeal for peace. Putin said Russia’s interests would always take precedence, but he would consider the request.

Trump unable to post $464m bond in New York civil case

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump faced having assets seized in a humiliating blow to his carefully-cultivated image as a self-made tycoon as his lawyers acknowledged yesterday he doesn’t have the cash to appeal a $464-million-fine for fraudulently inflating his wealth. Trump intends to challenge the judgment imposed by a New York civil court in February, which would force an automatic stay of enforcement. But first he must put the money into an account managed by the appeals court or post a bond in the full amount, and 30 insurance underwriters have rejected his pleas for assistance, his lawyers said in a new filing. His cash crunch raises the possibility that the state of New York could begin seizing the former president’s property as soon as next Monday unless the court – known as the First Department of the Appellate Division – agrees to a delay.

Meanwhile, Trump Monday lost a bid to block testimony from Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels at his upcoming trial on charges stemming from hush money that Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, paid Daniels, a porn star, before the 2016 election. Trump had in February asked Justice Juan Merchan to block their testimony, arguing Cohen had a history of lying and would likely lie again, and that Daniels would seek to use the trial to monetise her story. In rejecting Trump’s request to block Cohen’s testimony, Judge Merchan wrote he was unaware of any basis for Trump’s “rationale that a prosecution witness should be kept off the witness stand because his credibility has been called into question”. Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up his reimbursement of Cohen for the payment to Daniels for her silence about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump in 2006. Trump denies an encounter.

Rwanda Bill: MPs reject Lords’ changes

British MPs have overturned all 10 amendments made to the Rwanda Bill by the House of Lords as they accused peers of trying to “wreck” Rishi Sunak’s flagship policy. MPs voted by solid majorities to reject the changes suggested by peers to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. The amendments overturned included an attempt by peers to ensure the Bill complies with domestic and international law, and a requirement that Parliament cannot declare Rwanda to be a safe country until the treaty with its promised safeguards is fully implemented.

Haiti violence continues

At least 10 people were found dead on Monday in a wealthy suburb of Haiti’s capital, as gang violence takes grip of the country amid political instability following the announcement of the Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s resignation. Witnesses reported seeing the bodies, some with bulletholes, in the affluent Petion-Ville neighborhood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Armed gangs attacked homes, a bank and a gas station in the area. There were reports of shooting and looting in the nearby area of Laboule.

According to the United Nations, there are 360,000 internally displaced people in Haiti, while thousands have been killed. There are also reports of sexual violence, torture, arson and kidnappings. UNICEF has also warned of “famine and malnutrition” with aid groups unable to gain access. Over the weekend, one of UNICEF ‘s containers carrying essential supplies was looted by gangs at Haiti’s main port. As the crisis continues unabated, commercial flights have been suspended, and neighbouring countries have bolstered their borders.

Photo: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

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