Intense Israeli artillery shelling across Rafah

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 28th May 2024.

Israel’s army continued to pound Rafah, targeting the Tal as-Sultan, Saudi, Tal Za’roub and al-Hashashin areas of the city, killing and wounding many Palestinians and arresting others, including women.

Al Jazeera reports the Indonesian Field Hospital in the area has been hit, causing damage to the hospital’s upper floors. It says medical staff and patients are trapped inside the facility as well as in the Tal as-Sultan clinic because of the intense attacks. Many Palestinian families have also taken shelter there. Ambulances are also facing difficulties reaching the wounded due to the bombings.. 

The ongoing attacks come one night after Israeli forces bombed a tent camp housing displaced Palestinians in a designated safe zone in Rafah, killing 45 people, most of them women and children. The attack led to further international outcry for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to Israel’s military operation in the city.

Israel said it was looking into the “tragic accident” and its impact on civilians after the latest mass casualty event in the Gaza war, which has raged since October 7. Israel’s military said Sunday evening’s attack in the southern Rafah area had targeted and killed two senior Hamas operatives – but it also sparked a fire that Palestinians and many Arab countries condemned as a “massacre”.

“There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres posted on social media, as diplomats said the UN Security Council will convene today in an emergency session to discuss the attack.

A US National Security Council spokesperson said Israel “must take every precaution possible to protect civilians”. The Israeli military said it was launching an imvestigation.

Israel launched the attack on Rafah late Sunday, hours after Hamas unleashed a barrage of rockets at the Tel Aviv area, most of which were intercepted. Israel’s army said its aircraft “struck a Hamas compound in Rafah” and killed Yassin Rabia and Khaled Nagar, senior officials for the militant group in the occupied West Bank.

Gaza’s civil defence agency said the strike ignited a fire that tore through a displacement centre in northwestern Rafah near a facility of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. “We saw charred bodies and dismembered limbs … We also saw cases of amputations, wounded children, women and the elderly,” said civil defence agency official Mohammad al-Mughayyir. AFP quotes one survivor, a woman who declined to be named, saying: “We heard a loud sound and there was fire all around us. The children were screaming.”

Footage from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society showed chaotic nighttime scenes of paramedics racing to the attack site and evacuating the wounded. Mughayyir said the rescue efforts were hampered by war damage and the impacts of Israel’s siege, which has led to severe shortages of fuel and “water to extinguish fires”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was investigating the “tragic accident” which he told parliament occurred “despite our best efforts” to protect civilians. Relatives of captives held in Gaza, who have increased pressure on Netanyahu’s government demanding action to secure a hostage release deal, heckled him from the public gallery as he was speaking, and raised posters of their loved ones.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths has responded to Netanyahu’s claim that Israel’s deadly attack on displaced Palestinians in Rafah was the result of a “tragic mistake”. “Whether the attack was a war crime or a ‘tragic mistake’, for the people of Gaza, there is no debate. What happened last night was the latest – and possibly most cruel – abomination,” Griffiths said in a statement. “To call it ‘a mistake’ is a message that means nothing for those killed, those grieving, and those trying to save lives.”

The Israeli attack also sparked strong protests from mediators Egypt and Qatar, as well as from other regional governments. Egypt deplored the “targeting of defenceless civilians”, calling it part of “a systematic policy aimed at widening the scope of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip to make it uninhabitable”.

Jordan accused Israel of “ongoing war crimes”, Saudi Arabia condemned “the continued massacres”, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to hold these barbarians and murderers accountable”. Qatar condemned a “dangerous violation of international law” and voiced “concern that the bombing will complicate ongoing mediation efforts” towards a truce.

French President Emmanuel Macron used the strike as an opportunity to again call for a cease-fire in the conflict. “These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians,” Macron wrote in a post social platform X. “I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire.”

The African Union chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said on X that “Israel continues to violate international law… in contempt of an ICJ ruling two days ago ordering an end to its military action in Rafah.” The top world court, the International Court of Justice, on Friday ordered Israel to halt any offensive in Rafah and elsewhere that could bring about “the physical destruction” of the Palestinians.

The war started after the October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures. Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead. Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,050 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA which has been central to aid operations in the besieged territory during the war, said on X that “with every day passing, providing assistance & protection becomes nearly impossible”. “The images from last night are testament to how Rafah has turned into hell on Earth,” he said, citing “heavy movement restrictions”, Israeli strikes and Hamas rocket launches, and other “challenges … that do not allow us to distribute aid”.

Dr Suhaib al-Hams, acting director at Rafah’s Kuwait Speciality Hospital, said yesterday it was now out of service and being evacuated after Israeli shelling hit the gate and “killed two medics”.

Today, Spain, Ireland and Norway are due to formally recognise a Palestinian state – a step so far taken by more than 140 UN members, but few western powers. Israel opposes the move and yesterday announced punitive steps against Madrid, ordering its consulate in Jerusalem to stop offering services to Palestinians from June 1.

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people are believed to be sheltering in Rafah, and more than 80 per cent of the territory’s population overall are displaced from their homes. The UN said famine has begun in parts of the region as civilians struggle to get access to humanitarian aid. More than 120 aid trucks entered the city Sunday from Egypt, the first since the Israeli military seized the crossing earlier this month. It was not immediately clear if local aid groups could access the humanitarian supplies, however, The Associated Press reported, as fighting in the area has made humanitarian work difficult. Much of southern Gaza, including Rafah, has been mostly cut off from aid since the Israeli military began what it described as a limited operation into the area early this month. An American-built floating pier has begun to deliver some aid to the area, though aid groups say it is much less than promised and that there are not enough trucks to adequately distribute supplies.

Sources from the Islamic faction told Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz, Hamas has told mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the US that it would not participate in negotiations for a truce and hostage exchange agreement due to the Israeli raid on Rafah.

Macron makes case for European unity in Dresden speech

French President Emmanuel Macron said authoritarianism posed a serious threat to Europe’s future in a speech delivered in the eastern German city of Dresden on Monday.

The French president pointed to the rise of far-right political parties as one key source. “Everywhere in our democracies these ideas thrive, pushed by the extremes and in particular the far right. This ill wind is blowing in Europe, so let us wake up,” Macron said.

Citing the ongoing war in Ukraine, Macron said that Europe is at a crossroads. He made this point by speaking in German – a gesture that was met with applause from the large audience.

“Europe is a history of peace, prosperity and democracy,” he said, adding that this was all was under threat if leaders did not act.  “Europe is a guarantor of peace. For many of us, this argument long sounded outdated, but war rages again in Europe.”

Macron said he was the first French president to visit Dresden since the reunification of East and West Germany. It comes on day two of his state visit to the country.

Earlier on Monday, Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier each laid wreaths with flowers in the colors of their national flags at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Holocaust saw the Nazis murder more than 6 million Jews across Europe.

Later today, Macron will wrap up his state visit in the western German university city of Münster, where he is set to be awarded the International Peace of Westphalia Prize, a private sector award which recognises individuals or institutions for their efforts toward sustained peace. Afterwards, the governments of both countries will hold talks at the Meseberg Palace.

Zelensky gets more air defence missiles from Spain

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky secured a pledge of additional air defence missiles and military support from Spain on Monday. The support is a much-needed boost for Ukraine, which Zelensky says will help fight some 3,000 bombs that Russia launches every month at his country.

Zelensky and Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez signed a bilateral security agreement that allocates €1 billion of military aid to Ukraine in 2024, and €5 billion by 2027. More Leopard tanks and artillery ammunition are also featured in the package.

“After more than two years (of war), Russia’s aggression continues, and that’s why it is more necessary than ever to redouble our support,” Sánchez told the joint news conference.

Zelensky had been due to visit Spain earlier this month, but he postponed all foreign trips after Moscow launched a cross-border offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region that left Ukrainian troops reeling. That push has further strained Ukraine’s already depleted army, which in recent months has been fighting Russia’s intense drive deeper into the partially occupied eastern Donetsk region.

Zelensky told reporters Ukraine still urgently needs another seven US-made Patriot air defence systems to stop Russia hitting its power grid and civilian areas, as well as military targets. “If we had these modern Patriot systems, (Russian) aeroplanes wouldn’t be able to fly close enough to drop the (glide) bombs on the civilian population and the military,” Zelensky said at the news conference in Spain’s capital.

Re-elected Lithuanian president calls for higher military spending

Lithuania’s newly re-elected President Gitanas Nausėda on Monday called for a further increase in the Baltic country’s military spending. “I think we should aim for at least 3.5 per cent of GDP in the coming years,” said Nausėda at a news conference in Vilnius. Nausėda, who secured a second five-year term with a landslide win in a run-off election on Sunday, said the modernisation of the Lithuanian army, the implementation of universal conscription and the stationing of a German brigade in Lithuania would require extra financial resources. Vilnius currently spends 2.7 per cent of its GDP on the military, with the figure set to reach three per cent in 2025 under proposals submitted last week by the Finance Ministry. “In my opinion, this is insufficient,” said Nausėda, who has repeatedly called on other NATO states to increase military spending.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German government pledged to permanently station a combat-ready brigade of up to 5,000 German soldiers in Lithuania. Lithuanian Defence Minister Laurynas Kasčiūnas has said the German force could cost the country €800 million in the coming years.

‘More than 2,000 killed in PNG landslide’

A Papua New Guinea government official has told the United Nations that more than 2,000 people are believed to have been buried alive by last Friday’s landslide and has formally asked for international help. The government figure is roughly triple the UN estimate of 670 killed by the landslide in the South Pacific island nation’s mountainous interior. In a letter to the United Nations resident coordinator, the acting director of the country’s National Disaster Centre, Luseta Laso Mana, said the landslide “buried more than 2,000 people alive” and caused “major destruction” in Yambali village in Enga province.

Meanwhile, authorities said they were evacuating around 8,000 people from villages near the landslide site in a mountainous and almost inaccessible area.

US storms kill at least 21 across four states

Tornado-spawning thunderstorms that swept the Southern Plains and the Ozark Mountains have killed at least 21 people across four US states as of yesterday afternoon and wrecked hundreds of buildings, as forecasters warned of more severe weather. The death toll over the three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend included at least eight fatalities in Arkansas, seven in Texas, four in Kentucky and two in Oklahoma, according to tallies by state emergency authorities.

A severe thunderstorm watch was issued for parts of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania until Monday evening, the National Weather Service said. The watch was in effect for more than 30 million people in the Northeast, as the storms were expected to move to that part of the East Coast. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency early yesterday.

‘Pope used vulgar Italian word to refer to LGBT people’ report

Pope Francis used a highly derogatory term towards the LGBT community as he reiterated in a closed-door meeting with Italian bishops that gay people should not be allowed to become priests, Italian media reported on Monday. La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest circulation dailies, both quoted the pope as saying seminaries, or priesthood colleges, are already too full of “frociaggine”, a vulgar Italian term roughly translating as “faggottness”. The Pontiff’s severe intervention on this topic did not fail to surprise those present, says Ansa.

La Repubblica attributed its story to several unspecified sources, while Corriere said it was backed up by a few, unnamed bishops, who suggested the pope, as an Argentine, might have not realised that the Italian term he used was offensive.

Photo: Reuters

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