Israel delays Rafah offensive

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 16th April 2024

Israel was set to take its first steps toward a ground offensive in Rafah this week, but has delayed those plans as it mulls a response to Iran’s attack, two Israeli sources have told CNN. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long stressed the importance of invading Rafah to dismantle Hamas’s remaining battalions, despite significant international pressure to call off an all-out ground offensive. But, a military response that risks escalating the conflict with Iran further would pull the military’s attention and resources away from Gaza.

Israel’s war cabinet was engaged Monday in a heated debate about how and when to respond to Iran’s weekend attack on their country. Officials reviewed military plans for a response to Iran, and are united in their belief they must act quickly – but it is not clear at this point if a decision has been made. Israel vowed to respond to Tehran’s missile and drone attack against the Jewish state. “The firing of so many missiles, including cruise missiles, and drones at the State of Israel’s territory, will be responded to,” Lt. Gen. Herzl “Herzi” Halevi, Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces, said on Monday night as he spoke at the Nevatim Air Force base in southern Israel, which Iran targeted and partially hit on Sunday. “We are weighing our steps,” he stated.

Halevi spoke as Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Chairman Yuli Edelstein said that once a decision was taken, it would be of such a nature that it would be clear to Iran that Israel had taken action.

Two senior Israeli ministers have signalled that retaliation is not imminent and that Israel will not act alone. “We will build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us,” centrist minister Benny Gantz said. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel had an opportunity to form a strategic alliance “against this grave threat by Iran”.

US President Joe Biden is focusing on preventing Iran’s attack from spiraling into a wider regional conflict, spokesperson John Kirby said, adding that ultimately the US wanted tensions to de-escalate. Biden’s sentiment is echoed by various countries who are urging Israel and Iran to avoid further confrontation that could plunge the area deeper into conflict. Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Germany, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia – among others – have all expressed concern about rising tension in the region.

Iran maintains its attack on Israel was a “legitimate” and “responsible” reaction, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said. Iranian army chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri has warned Israel not to retaliate, and told Washington that US bases could be attacked if it helps Israel do so. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States that the attack on Israel would be limited and for self-defence, and that regional neighbours had been informed of the planned strikes 72 hours in advance. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, however, that no pre-arranged agreement was made with any country prior to the weekend attack. US officials said Tehran had not warned Washington.

The attack marked the first time Iran had launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of hostilities, going back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Tensions between the two countries have been at an all-time high in recent months, following the October 7 attack in which Hamas militants stormed into Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds of hostages.

World leaders are urging Israel not to retaliate.

US National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby told reporters in Washington that the extraordinary defensive military action taken by coalition forces to thwart over 300 incoming missiles and drones sent a powerful statement to Iran. “The United States has never before so extensively and directly defended Israel from attack,” Kirby stated as he described the operation that revealed for the first time a new regional architecture of US, Israel, Jordanian, British, and French forces. “Going forward we will be further working to isolate Iran internationally,” he stated. Iran intended to wreak destruction in Israel and it failed, Kirby said. It did so because it was “defeated by Israel, by the United States and by a coalition of other partners committed to Israel’s defence”. It would not have been clear until this weekend, that it was possible to halt an attack with so many ballistic missiles, he stated. “Much of the world is standing with Israel,” he stated, adding that the US has remained committed to Israel’s defense.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday that Iran’s failed attack on Israel over the weekend was “pretty telling” about Tehran’s weapons capabilities. A reporter had asked Ryder what lessons the US learned from the attack and what they said about the capabilities of Iran and those of the US. Ryder said the US had “learned a lot from this,” but declined to go into specifics. “I’m sure you can appreciate I’m not going to be in a position to do an after-action report from the podium today, other than to say it’s pretty telling that Iran launched over 300 air threats, and, as I highlighted, 99 per cent of those were knocked down,” he said. “So, it is demonstrative of that close coordination and synchronisation between the United States and coalition partners when it comes to addressing air defence threats in the region.” Only seven ballistic missiles reached Israeli territory, causing minor damage to an air base. Israeli and coalition forces shot down the rest.

Draft EU summit declaration strongly condemns Iran

“The European Council strongly and unequivocally condemns Iran’s attack against Israel and renews its full solidarity with the Israeli people and commitment to Israel’s security,” read the draft conclusions of the leaders’ summit on 17-18 April. An entire chapter on the Middle East has been added to the document. The leaders, asking the parties to “exercise maximum restraint”, also renew their willingness to “work with partners” to put an end to the crisis in Gaza, “reaching an immediate truce and the release of the hostages”.

Europe joins US in urging Israel to show restraint

Israel’s European allies on Monday urged the country to show restraint over Iran’s weekend missile and drone attack, calling on Israeli leaders to step away from “the edge of the cliff” of escalation in the Middle East. Britain, France, Germany and the European Union’s foreign policy chief all joined Washington and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in calling for restraint. “We’re on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. “We have to step on the brakes and reverse gear.” Borrell has called an informal video conference of foreign affairs ministers tomorrow afternoon following recent developments.

French President Macron told BFM TV and RMC radio on Monday his country will do all it can to avoid further escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran in the Middle East, urging Israel to show restraint. “We are all worried about a possible escalation,” Macron said, adding, “We will do all we can to avoid things flaring up, escalating”. He urged Israel to aim to isolate Iran rather than escalate the situation.

On a visit to China, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged Israeli restraint and Berlin summoned Iran’s ambassador on Monday, according to a German foreign ministry spokesperson. Scholz warned Iran not to carry out more attacks and said Israel must also contribute to de-escalation.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron told LBC Radio on Monday Israel had every right to respond to Iran and that Iran’s use of “ballistic missiles” on Sunday, “in a state on-state attack is a very significant move by Iran”. Despite this, he said, “We’re asking [Israel] as their friends to think with their head as well as heart, to be smart as well as tough, to recognise Iran has failed. “The best way to de-escalate the situation is not to attack back,” but rather to pivot back to Gaza to find a way to return the hostages, and conclude the Israel-Hamas war, he said. Cameron said that he has spoken twice to his Iranian counterpart in the last seven days, about the escalating tensions between Israel and Iran. Iran has suffered a failure with Sunday’s attack, Cameron said. “I think the best way to keep people in Israel safe is actually to recognise that an escalation… is not in anybody’s interest not in the interests of people in Israel,” he stated.

Russia has refrained from criticising its ally Iran in public over the strikes but expressed concern about the risk of escalation on Monday and also called for restraint. “Further escalation is in no one’s interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Air travel disruption

Iran’s attack also caused travel disruption, with at least a dozen airlines cancelling or rerouting flights, and Europe’s aviation regulator reaffirming advice to airlines to use caution in Israeli and Iranian airspace. Singapore Airlines stopped using Iranian airspace as ‘precautionary measure’ amid the Middle East tensions. Israel remained on high alert, but authorities lifted some emergency measures that had included a ban on some school activities and caps on large gatherings. Meanwhile, airports in the Iranian capital of Tehran have resumed flights on Monday morning, according to Iran’s state-aligned Tasnim news agency.

Trump trial gets underway in New York

The first criminal trial of a former president in US history officially got underway Monday in Manhattan as prosecutors and defence attorneys began the arduous task of selecting a 12-person jury. During the first day of his criminal trial on charges of falsifying business records, former President Donald Trump apparently “glared” at reporter Maggie Haberman of The New York Times after she wrote that he appeared to be “sleeping” in court. Trump is accused he falsified business documents stemming from a hush-money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Prosecuroe Alvin Bragg last year charged Trump on a 34-count indictment related to the payment, which his office alleges was intended to prevent Daniels from speaking publicly about her claims of having an affair with the former president. Trump, however, has denied having an affair with Daniels and pleaded not guilty to all 34 charges. He has accused Bragg of targeting him for political purposes, calling the trial a form of election interference.

Bidens earned $620,000 as 2023 income

US President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden earned $619,976 in 2023, according to their joint tax return released by the White House, in a sign of transparency. This was an increase from the $579,514 the couple earned in 2022. Most of the Bidens’ income comes from the president’s $400,000 salary, along with pensions. The first lady earned $85,985 from her teaching position at Northern Virginia Community College. The Bidens paid $146,629 in federal tax, at a rate of 23.7 per cent, and donated $20,477 to 17 different charities, including $5,000 to the Foundation named after Beau Biden, the president’s late son.

The incomes of Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff were also published, which amount to $450,299. Harris and Emhoff paid $88,570 in federal tax, equivalent to a rate of 19.7 per cent. The couple gave $23,026 to charities, including donations to DC Central Kitchen, Howard University and the University of Southern California.

“President Biden believes that all occupants of the Oval Office should be open and honest with the American people and that the long tradition of annually releasing presidential tax returns should continue uninterrupted,” the White House said, targeting Donald Trump, who never published his tax returns when he was commander-in-chief.

Zelensky asks allies to defend Ukraine as they did with Israel

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Western allies to defend Ukraine the same way they did Israel in the face of Iran’s attack. “By defending Israel, the free world has demonstrated that unity among allies is not only possible but 100 per cent effective,” Zelensky said last night after a meeting with top military and security officials in Kyiv. “The decisive actions of the allies prevented the success of terrorism and the loss of infrastructure and forced the aggressor to calm down. The same can be done to defend Ukraine from terrorism. And Ukraine, just like Israel, is not a member of NATO,” Zelensky underlined.

Ukraine plant in danger of nuclear incident, says IAEA chief

The chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog warned on Monday that the Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine is coming dangerously close to a nuclear incident amid continuing attacks. Drones attacked Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, on Sunday, hitting a reactor building in the worst such incident since November 2022. Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the UN Security Council that the risk of a major accident is possible, even though the reactors are turned off.

‘Rust’ armourer gets 18 months prison time

‘Rust’ armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed sobbed Monday as she was sentenced to 18 months in prison over the fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins, whose mother told the court “time does not heal”. Gutierrez-Reed, 26, was led into court shackled at the wrist and wearing khaki jail scrubs with a white long sleeve T-shirt. Several close friends and family members of Hutchins then gave emotional statements about the impact her death had on them. Hutchins’ death happened on set in 2021 after Alec Baldwin fired a gun which had accidentally been loaded with a live bullet.  Gutierrez-Reed’s sentence for involuntary manslaughter, the maximum possible, was then handed down by New Mexico District Court Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, who made a point of sending her to prison, rather than a lesser sentence in jail. Baldwin, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter, is set to stand trial in July.

Sydney church stabbing declared a ‘terrorist act’

Authorities have designated a knife attack at a Sydney church as a terrorist act. At least four people, including Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, were injured during a service at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in the suburb of Wakeley. Police arrested a 15-year-old boy at the scene and said they were forced to hold him at the church for his own safety after a crowd gathered outside, demanding the attacker be brought out. It was the second major stabbing in just three days after six people were killed at Westfield Bondi Junction on Saturday. Speaking to the ABC, NSW Premier Chris Minns said the stabbing was a “terrorist act”.

Mass brawl breaks out in Georgian parliament

A massive brawl happened inside the Georgian Parliament on Monday, during heated discussions over a law deemed Russian-esque by critics. The legislation under debate will compel media and non-commercial organisations to register as being under foreign influence if they receive more than 20 per cent of their budget from abroad. Hundreds of protesters have been rallying outside Parliament while it discussed the law in the juridical committee.

Great Barrier Reef suffers most severe coral bleaching

The Great Barrier Reef, the colorful and iconic natural wonder off the coast of Australia that spans an area of 344,400 square kilometres, is suffering potentially unprecedented bleaching due to climate change. Bleaching occurs when coral become stressed due to high temperatures or lack of nutrients and expel the algae that live symbiotically within it. This causes it to turn a pale, bone-white colour and eventually kills the coral. More than half of the 1,000 reefs analysed (out of more than 2,900 in total) had different levels of bleaching.

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