Hostage release agreement in sight – report

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 28th January 2024

American-led negotiators are edging closer to an agreement in which Israel would suspend its war in Gaza for about two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas – a deal that could be sealed in the next two weeks and would transform the conflict consuming the region, according to The New York Times. Negotiators have developed a written draft agreement merging proposals offered by Israel and Hamas in the last 10 days into a basic framework that will be the subject of talks in Paris today, Sunday. While there are still important disagreements to be worked out, negotiators are cautiously optimistic that a final accord is within reach, according to US officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

Netanyahu laments hostages families’ protests

During a televised news conference on Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu accused the hostages’ families of “reinforcing Hamas’ demands” with demonstrations in favour of the release of their loved ones. “I understand that you cannot control your emotions, but it does not help and from what I see this only serves to strengthen the demands of Hamas”, he said again, referring to the protests of the relatives of the hostages. “There’s no need to encourage me, I deal with it all the time. It doesn’t help,” he added, as thousands of people demonstrated in Tel Aviv for the release of the hostages.

Dozens of people, including many family members of hostages, had earlier protested outside the private residence of the Israeli prime minister in Caesarea. The protesters, the Times of Israel reported, showed photos of the 136 abductees still in Gaza, shouting the slogan: “Bring them home, now!”.

Netanyahu should think “about repairing the mistakes” of 7th October instead of “scolding the relatives of the victims”, the Hostages’ Families Forum replied to Netanyahu regarding the demonstrations. “The families meet with world leaders, lead efforts to transfer medicine to the hostages, brought the President of the International Criminal Court to Israel, and mobilised the media and key influencers in support of Israel and the hostages,” the Forum said, according to the Times of Israel.

Netanyahu on TV with Mein Kampf in Arabic found in Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu appeared on televsion showing an Arabic copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf found in Gaza. This is how “the new Nazis” educate their children, he said at the news conference, the Times of Israel reports. “We will never forgive what Hamas did to our children – there is no alternative to complete victory,” he said. On 7th October, “if they could, they would have massacred us all”; if we don’t destroy Hamas “the next massacre is only a matter of time”.

Netanyahu called South Africa’s request to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to try Israel for genocide “outrageous”. The fact that the Court agreed to rule “proves that many in the world have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust … We have learned it. The main lesson is that we will defend ourselves”.

Clashes and arrests during anti-Netanyahu protests

There were clashes in Tel Aviv between police and anti-government protesters after some 200 protesters tried to block traffic on Kaplan Street. According to Haaretz, police officers tried to forcibly remove the demonstrators, some of whom were arrested. Times of Israel released a video of police officers on horseback dispersing the protest. The clashes occurred after some of the demonstrators gathered in Habima Square spilled onto adjacent Kaplan Street to block traffic.

Palestinians slam suspension of UNRWA funding

Top Palestinian officials and Hamas have criticised the decision by some Western countries to suspend funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and called for an immediate reversal of the move that entails “great” risk. UNRWA had earlier said it had opened an investigation after Israel alleged that some of its employees were involved in the 7th October attacks that triggered the current conflict. This has prompted several Western countries to withdraw or temporarily pause funding to the agency, a move the head of UNRWA called “shocking”.

“Suspension of funds threatens humanitarian work in the region, especially in Gaza,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said late on Saturday, urging countries who have frozen funding to “reconsider their decisions” as Gaza faces the risk of mass starvation. Earlier, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General, Hussein al-Sheikh, said the countries’ decision “entails great political and humanitarian relief risks”.

Australia, Canada, Italy, and the United States said they would halt funding to the agency, while European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-member bloc would “assess further steps and draw lessons based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation”. Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom then also joined the list of countries pausing financial aid to the UN agency, whose facilities where displaced Palestinians sought shelter have been repeatedly attacked in Israeli air raids. Ireland and Norway, however, expressed continued support for UNRWA, saying the agency does crucial work to help Palestinians displaced and in desperate need of assistance in Gaza.

Hamas slammed Israeli “threats” against the agency, and asked “the UN and the international organisations to not cave in to the threats and blackmail” from Israel. Encouraging more donor suspensions, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said UNRWA should be replaced once fighting in the enclave dies down and accused it of ties to militants in Gaza. He said on X: “In Gaza’s rebuilding, @UNRWA must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development.”

Asked about Katz’s remarks, Deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said: “We are not responding to rhetoric. UNRWA overall has had a strong record, which we have repeatedly underscored.”

Pro-Palestine demonstrations throughout Italy

Pro-Palestine demonstrations took place throughout Italy on Saturday despite the request for postponement to another date by the Ministry of the Interior because of Holocaust Day. As planned, however, there were demonstrations in Milan, Rome, and Naples, as well as a sit-in in Cagliari. There ensued clashes between the police in Milan and demonstrators who used flag poles to try to close ranks and threw bottles and other objects at the police.

The carabinieri and police tried to contain the demonstrators with shields and brandishing batons. For 90 minutes, the demonstrators, with Palestinian and Italian flags, ‘Free Palestine’ slogans, requests for a ceasefire in Gaza, and a few words against Israel, put ‘pressure’ on carabinieri and policemen in riot gear. A youth displayed a sign outside the window of a building in Via Padova in Milan stating ‘Free Gaza from Hamas’, which the 1,200 demonstrators found provocative and they booed and shouted “get down”.

Red and green smoke bombs, in the colours of the Palestinian flag, were lit in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Rome, where the pro-Gaza demonstrators met. Palestinian flags were waving, with phrases against Israel but also quotes from Primo Levi on the banners and placards. There were around a thousand, according to qualified sources, at the sit-in in support of Gaza in the capital. “We reiterated that it was inconceivable that Remembrance Day would erase what is happening in Gaza, where the Holocaust is taking place amidst the indifference of governments.” The demonstrators called for a “ceasefire and a clear and clear position for Italy”.

Survivors remember the victims of the Nazis at Auschwitz

A group of survivors of Nazi death camps have marked the 79th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during World War II in a modest ceremony Saturday in southern Poland. About 20 survivors from various camps set up by Nazi Germany around Europe laid wreaths and flowers and lit candles at the Death Wall in Auschwitz, where the Nazis executed thousands of inmates, mostly Polish resistance members and others. Later the group, along with state officials and other participants gathered for a ceremony by a brick women’s barrack at Birkenau that has recently undergone conservation. Next, they prayed and lit candles at the monument in Birkenau, near the crematoria ruins. They were memorialising around 1.1 million camp victims, mostly Jews. The memorial site and museum are located near the city of Oswiecim.

Observances were also held in many other countries on Saturday. Nearly six million European Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust – the mass murder of Jews and other groups before and during World War II. The theme of the observances of International Holocaust Remembrance Day was the human being, symbolised in simple, hand-drawn portraits that were beamed on a screen during the observances in Birkenau. They were meant to stress that the horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau lies in the suffering of people held and killed there.

Germans hold anti-right rallies on Holocaust Remembrance day

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in several German cities on Saturday, as part of an ongoing protest movement against far-right extremism, and fears of the growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Saturday’s protests were reported in some 30 cities, with police reporting up to 100,000 people in the North Rhine-Westphalia state capital, Düsseldorf. Other protests were also reported in the northern city of Kiel, as well as in Frankfurt, Lübeck and several other smaller cities and towns nationwide. The demonstrations coincided with Germany’s observance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

New party promises Germans “more pensions, fewer weapons”

Promising to rescue Germany from the far right, a new leftist party offered a populist recipe of high pensions, low defence spending, and an end to expensive climate policies in its first outing ahead of regional and European elections this year. The Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), named after its leader, a popular former leader of the Left party, held its first national congress Saturday, with delegates turning their fire on the entire political spectrum from left to right.

With the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gaining around 20 per cent support in national opinion polls as it lures some voters away from the traditional parties that dominate government and opposition, many analysts speculate the BSW, on 8 per cent in polls in one eastern state, could burst the AfD bubble. The AfD remains behind the opposition conservatives on 31 per cent but is still well ahead of all the three parties in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left coalition, who together were polling 32 per cent.

Russia marks 80th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a native of the Leningrad, now re-named St Petersburg, lead the commemoration events on Saturday marking the end of the Nazi blockade of the city. People marked the 80th anniversary of its complete liberation from the Nazis and the end of one of the most brutal sieges in history.

The siege began in 1941 when German troops surrounded the city and completely cut it off from supplies for two and a half years before they withdrew. The Nazi siege of Leningrad was finally broken by the Soviet Army on 27th January 1944. Estimates of the death toll vary, but historians agree that more than one million Leningrad residents died of hunger and air and artillery bombardment in one of the most horrifying episodes of World War II.

Ukraine uncovers mass fraud in weapons procurement

Ukraine’s SBU security service said yesterday it had uncovered a corruption scheme in the purchase of arms by the country’s military totalling the equivalent of about US$40 million. The announcement of mass procurement fraud, confirmed by Ukraine’s Defence Ministry, will have a huge resonance in a country beleaguered by Russia’s nearly two-year-old invasion. The SBU said an investigation had “exposed officials of the Ministry of Defence and managers of arms supplier Lviv Arsenal, who stole nearly 1.5 billion hryvnias (€36.5m) in the purchase of shells”.

“According to the investigation, former and current high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Defence and heads of affiliated companies are involved in the embezzlement.” The embezzlement, it said, involved the purchase of 100,000 mortar shells for the military. The SBU said a contract for the shells was clinched with Lviv Arsenal in August 2022 – six months into the war – and payment was made in advance, with some funds transferred abroad. But no arms were ever provided, the statement said, with some funds then moved to other foreign accounts.

The statement said five individuals had been served “notices of suspicion” – the first stage in Ukrainian legal proceedings – both in the ministry and the arms supplier. One suspect, it said, was detained while trying to cross the Ukrainian border. Corruption within the military has been a particularly sensitive issue in Ukraine as it tries to maintain wartime public morale and present its case to join the 27-nation EU.

Trump says he feels mentally sharp

Donald Trump yesterday said he feels “sharper now than I did 20 years ago”, reacting to recent attacks on his age and verbal gaffes by Republican presidential rival Nikki Haley. Trump also said presidential candidates should have to take a cognitive test, apparently a response to a challenge from Haley, who has advocated the same policy, citing the age of Trump, 77, and Democratic President Joe Biden, 81.

Trump was speaking at a rally in Nevada, ahead of the next vote in the Republican presidential nominating race, a caucus in the state on 8th February. In recent days Haley accused former Republican President Trump of being confused and has questioned his ability to be President at his age.

Trump has recently made some verbal slip-ups. During a speech on 19th January he confused Haley with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On one occasion he has appeared to slur his words and he also suggested former Democratic President Barack Obama was still in office. Trump is almost assured of all of Nevada’s 26 delegates because Haley is not competing in the caucus. He attacked both Haley and Biden, trying to knock Haley out of the Republican nominating fight while scoring early points in a likely general election rematch with Biden in November.

Oil tanker crew safe after spending 20 hours fighting fire

The crew aboard the oil tanker off the coast of Yemen spent Friday night and Saturday morning fighting a fire caused by a missile strike by Houthi forces. French forces based in the UAE and Indian Ocean said that it took 20 hours for the fire to be brought under control. A spokesperson for the company said all crew members on the Marlin Luanda, a vessel operated on behalf of multinational company Trafigura, were safe and that the fire had been extinguished. The tanker carries Russian-produced naphtha, a flammable oil.

World’s largest cruise ship begins maiden voyage

The world’s largest cruise ship began its maiden voyage on Saturday as it left the Port of Miami. Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas runs nearly 1,200 feet (365 meters) from bow to stern. The ship, which left South Florida for its first seven-day island-hopping voyage through the tropics, was officially christened on Tuesday with help from football legend Lionel Messi and his Inter Miami teammates.

Icon of the Seas is the culmination of more than 50 years of dreaming, innovating, and living our mission – to deliver the world’s best vacation experiences responsibly,” Royal Caribbean Group President and CEO Jason Liberty said earlier this week. The ship, which can carry 10,000 people, cost $2 billion to build in a shipyard in Turku, Finland.  It is officially the biggest cruise ship in the world, with Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, new in early 2022, trailing close behind at 1,188 feet long.

Main photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

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