Iran on high alert as Biden mulls response

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Wednesday, 31st January 2024

Iran has told the US through intermediaries that if it strikes Iranian soil directly, Tehran would itself hit back at American assets in the Middle East, drawing the two sides into a direct confrontation.

The Guardian reports the warning comes as Iran waits on high alert to see how President Joe Biden responds to the death of three US servicemen deemed by Washington to have been killed by a Tehran-backed militia based in Syria. US bases in Syria and Iraq have suffered more than 160 attacks of varying seriousness since Hamas’s 7th October assault on Israel. Tehran reiterated that the strike was the work of independent “resistance groups” – Iran’s standard response to US accusations that it proliferates military turmoil across the region by arming and training the groups. Hamas is designated a terrorist group by the US and the EU.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday told reporters he had decided on a US response to Sunday’s deadly drone attack on a US base in Jordan which killed three American soldiers and injured 35 others. At least another 34 personnel were being evaluated for possible traumatic brain injury. Asked whether he’d settled on how to respond to the attack as he departed the White House for a fundraising trip to Florida, Biden replied: “Yes”. The President also told reporters that he holds Iran responsible for the attack because that country’s government is “supplying the weapons to the people who did it”, though he declined to say whether a direct link between Tehran and the attacks has been established by US intelligence.

In the days since the drone attack, some Republicans have been calling for the US to respond by attacking targets within Iran’s borders, while Biden administration officials have been contemplating several different response scenarios, including strikes on Iranian proxies and a strike on an Iranian naval ship in the Persian Gulf. But Biden said he did not want to see the situation escalate into a broader regional conflict.

Iranian-backed fighters in eastern Syria have begun evacuating their positions in fear of US air strikes, according to Omar Abu Layla, a Europe-based activist who runs the Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet. The Iranian government on Monday distanced itself from the kamikaze drone attack. Tehran says the US claims are an “unfounded accusation” aimed at “dragging” Washington into a conflict.

Israelis raid a West Bank hospital, killing 3 Palestinian militants

Israeli forces working undercover – dressed as women and medics – have killed three Palestinian militants, including a Hamas commander, in a raid on a hospital in the occupied West Bank, where violence has surged since the outbreak of the war in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military said forces entered the Ibn Sina hospital in the northern city of Jenin early on Tuesday and shot the three men, who Hamas claimed as members. The military said the men were using the hospital as a hideout and that at least one was planning an attack. The Palestinian Health Ministry said the Israeli forces opened fire inside the hospital’s wards and called on the international community to stop Israeli operations in hospitals. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated once again there would be no military withdrawal from Gaza or release of thousands of jailed militants – two of Hamas’ key demands in ongoing ceasefire talks.

On the other side of the pendulum, Islamic Jihad said it would not negotiate Israeli hostage deals unless there was a “comprehensive ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza,” according to the secretary general of the organisation, Ziad al-Nakhala. The Islamic Jihad, which holds the Israeli hostages in the Strip, is a Palestinian Islamist paramilitary organisation, formed in 1981, active in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Its financial backing has historically come mainly from Syria and Hezbollah. The group calls for the military destruction of Israel and rejects a two-state solution.

Photo: Zain JAAFAR / AFP

Canada announces new aid for Gaza

Canada has announced C$40 million (€27.5 million) in new funding to provide food, water, and other humanitarian assistance to Gaza. The funds will be allocated to international agencies including the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the World Health Organisation, Global Affairs Canada said in a statement. The announcement comes days after Canada and several other countries paused funding to the UN refugee agency for Palestinians UNRWA following allegations by Israel that some of its staff were involved in the 7th October Hamas attacks.

Meanwhile, The Times of Israel quotes an Israeli official saying Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government does not support the immediate discontinuation of UNRWA as this might lead to humanitarian crisis that would force the Israeli military to halt its offensive against Hamas. “This would not be in Israel’s interest and it would not be in the interest of Israel’s allies either,” he said in a briefing to The Times. This is the first time a message defending UNRWA’s continued operation has been voiced by an Israeli official since the UN agency announced on Friday that it had terminated the contracts of several employees after receiving evidence from Israel that they participated in the 7th October attacks during which some 1,200 – mostly civilians – were massacred and 253 were taken hostage into Gaza. A second Israeli official separately confirmed a Wall Street Journal report revealing that, in addition to the 12 UNRWA staffers who allegedly took part in the 7th October onslaught, roughly 1,200 employees, – or 10 per cent – of the Gaza staff, are either tied to Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to Israeli intelligence.

Also on Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Matt Miller said that roughly $300,000 earmarked for UNRWA had been withheld following the Biden administration’s decision to suspend funding to the agency. American Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said they need to see “fundamental changes” before they can resume providing funding directly to UNRWA. “We must look at the organisation, how it operates in Gaza, how it manages its personnel and ensure that people who commit criminal acts are held immediately accountable so that the agency can continue the essential work it is doing,” she said.

Photo: REUTERS/Hossam Azam

“Stopping UNRWA funding catastrophic for Gaza”

Cutting funding to UNRWA will have “catastrophic consequences” for Gaza, the heads of several United Nations bodies said in a joint statement yesterday. “The withdrawal of funds from UNRWA is dangerous and would lead to the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, with far-reaching humanitarian and human rights consequences in the occupied Palestinian territories and across the region,” reads the statement from the heads of the organisations form the United Nations Inter-Agency Permanent Commission (IASC).

Photo: UNRWA

Houthis ready for long-term confrontation with the US, UK

The Houthis in Yemen are ready for a “long-term confrontation” with the United States and the United Kingdom. International media quote the commander of the Houthi forces, Mohamed al-Atifi, saying: “We are prepared for a long-term confrontation with the forces of tyranny. The Americans, the British and those who coordinated with them must acknowledge the strength of the Yemeni sovereign decision and that there is no debate or dispute over it.”

Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP

Belgian farmers threaten Brussels blockade

Belgian farmers intend to block access roads to the North Sea container port of Zeebrugge for 36 hours, according to the same port authority. Farmers’ protests in Belgium have continued for days now, complicating the situation on the roads throughout the country. On Tuesday morning the first tractors reached the European Parliament area in Brussels and the Walloon regional capital city of Namur was stormed by around 300 vehicles. The Federation of Young Belgian Farmers (FJA) threatened a total blockade of the country’s capital between today and tomorrow, coinciding with the EU summit.

Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman

Spanish farmers join the European protest

Spanish farmers have announced they are joining the European protest movement, calling for mobilisation across the country. The agricultural organisations Asaja, Coag, and Upa have announced a protest calendar to ask for a “change in European policies and a shock plan of government interventions in favour of the territories against the crisis that the sector is experiencing”. This was reported by the Efe agency, underlining that the “protests are in line with those of other European farmers”.

Demonstrators hold banners and wave Spanish flags during a demonstration called by farmers trade unions and hunting federations in Madrid on March 20, 2022. (Photo by Pierre-Philippe MARCOU / AFP)

France announces controls on foreign foods

France’s newly appointed prime minister Gabriel Attal said on Tuesday he is implementing controls on foreign food products in order to guarantee “fair competition” amid farmers’ protests. In his general policy speech at the National Assembly, Attal said “the goal is clear: guaranteeing fair competition, especially so regulations that are being applied to (French) farmers are also respected by foreign products”. He also said food retailers who do not comply with a law meant to ensure a fair share of revenues for farmers will be fined, starting immediately.

Farmers have for days been protesting across France to put pressure on the government to respond to their demands for better remuneration for their produce, less red tape, and protection against cheap imports. With protesting farmers camped out on Tuesday at barricades around Paris, France’s government hoped to calm their anger with more concessions to their complaints that growing and rearing food has become too difficult and not sufficiently lucrative. Attal defended the farming sector in his first big speech to parliament laying out his government’s priorities, calling agriculture “our strength, and our pride – not only because it feeds us in the literal sense but also because it constitutes one of the foundations of our identity, of our traditions”.

Photo: AP/Michel Euler

Germany’s airport security personnel to strike Thursday

Airport security staff at major German airports will go on strike tomorrow, Thursday, trade union Verdi announced on Tuesday, according to several German media outlets. Some 25,000 employees in the aviation security sector have been called upon to stop work from early in the morning, German broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk, which is based in the federal state of Hesse, home to Frankfurt am Main Airport, reported on Tuesday.

Airport security personnel are responsible for baggage, staff and passenger checks, meaning airports cannot function without them. Similar industrial action took place in March last year, shutting down airports across Germany and disrupting air traffic. The union is known to be demanding higher wages for its members. Further talks are reportedly planned for next week.

Photo: Silas Stein/DPA/Getty Images

London police shoot dead suspect armed with a crossbow

A man in his 30s was shot dead by police officers in south London early on Tuesday as he was trying to break into a home and threatening its occupants. The suspect, according to the Metropolitan Police, was reportedly armed with a crossbow and threatened people living in the Southwark home. He refused to listen to officers attempting to speak with him, who called in armed police. He was shot as he got inside the property and died at the scene after officers and paramedics tried to provide first aid. Two of the people inside the home received minor injuries, according to police, but no details about how they got wounded were released to the public.

Photo: Lucy North/Press Association/AP

Imran Khan, wife get four years for corruption

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife were sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption, local media reported. Khan was sentenced yesterday to 10 years in prison in a case in which he was accused of leaking state secrets – the latest in a slew of legal cases that supporters say are meant to sideline the imprisoned politician just days ahead of parliamentary elections. Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in 2022, is not on the ballot because he is already serving a three-year prison term – and more than 150 other cases are still pending against him.

Photo: Getty Images

Berlusconi’s children civil parties in attempted extortion case

The five children of Silvio Berlusconi have constituted themselves as civil parties in the trial against Giovanna Rigato, former ‘olgettina’ accused of attempting to extort one million euros from the deceased senator and leader of Forza Italia. This emerged from Tuesday’s hearing in the Monza Court.

Rigato, who has always denied all charges, is considered one of Berlusconi’s former ‘olgettine’, and is accused of asking Berlusconi first €500,000, then one million euros, in a meeting at his villa Arcore. Berlusconi had already paid her between two and three thousand euros a month. The trial will resume on 17th April.

Main photo: AP Photo/Vahid Salem

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