Israel denies strike on camp near Rafah, another 21 killed

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Wednesday, 29th May 2024.

Israel’s military denied striking a tent camp west of Rafah on Tuesday after Gaza health authorities said Israeli tank shelling had killed at least 21 people there, in an area Israel has designated a civilian evacuation zone, Reuters reports.

Earlier, defying an appeal from the International Court of Justice, Israeli tanks advanced to the heart of Rafah for the first time after a night of heavy bombardment, while Spain, Ireland and Norway officially recognised a Palestinian state – a move that further deepened Israel’s international isolation.

But Israel’s military later said in a statement: “Contrary to the reports from the last few hours, the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) did not strike in the Humanitarian Area in Al-Mawasi.” Israel had asked the million Palestinian civilians displaced by the eight-month-old war to evacuate to Al-Mawasi when it launched its incursion in Rafah early this month. Around that many have fled Rafah since then, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA reported on Tuesday.

In central Rafah, tanks and armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns were spotted near Al-Awda mosque, a city landmark, witnesses told Reuters on Tuesday. The Israeli military said its forces continued to operate in the Rafah area, without commenting on reported advances into the city centre.

International unease over Israel’s three-week-old Rafah offensive has turned to outrage after an attack on Sunday set off a blaze in a tent camp in a western district of the city, killing at least 45 people. Israel said it had targeted two senior Hamas operatives and had not intended to cause civilian casualties. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the harm to civilians occurred when “something unfortunately went tragically wrong”.

Global leaders voiced horror at the fire in a designated humanitarian zone of Rafah where families uprooted by fighting elsewhere had sought shelter, and they urged the implementation of a World Court order last week for a halt to Israel’s assault.

Algeria to present UN resolution on end to Rafah ‘killing’

Algeria will present a draft UN resolution calling for an end to “the killing” in Rafah as Israel attacks Hamas fighters in the crowded Gaza city, its ambassador said yesterday after a Security Council meeting.

Defying pressure from the United States and other western countries, Israel has been conducting military operations in Rafah, which is packed with people who have fled fighting elsewhere in Gaza. An Israeli strike Sunday killed 45 people at a tent camp for displaced people, said the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, drawing a chorus of international condemnation.

“It will be a short text, a decisive text, to stop the killing in Rafah,” Ambassador Amar Bendjama told reporters. It was Algeria that requested Tuesday’s urgent meeting of the council after the Sunday strike. Another strike on a displacement camp west of Rafah on Tuesday killed at least 21 more people.

The Algerian ambassador did not say when he hoped the resolution might be put to a vote. “We hope that it could be done as quickly as possible because life is in the balance,” said Chinese ambassador Fu Cong, expressing hope for a vote this week. “It’s high time for this council to take action. This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of emergency,” the French ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said before the council meeting.

After passing two resolutions centred on the need for humanitarian aid to people in Gaza, in March the council passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire – an appeal that had been blocked several times before by the United States, Israel’s main ally.

Washington, increasingly frustrated with how Israel is waging the war and its mounting civilian death toll, finally allowed that resolution to pass by abstaining from voting. But the White House said Tuesday that Israel’s offensive in Rafah had not amounted to the type of full-scale operation that would breach President Joe Biden’s “red lines” and said it had no plans to change its policy toward Israel. Asked about the new Algerian draft resolution, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “We’re waiting to see it and then we’ll react to it.”

Spain, Ireland, and Norway recognise Palestinian state

Spain, Ireland and Norway formally recognised a Palestinian state yesterday in a coordinated decision slammed by Israel as a “reward” for Hamas, more than seven months into the devastating Gaza war. The three European countries believe their initiative has strong symbolic impact that could encourage others to follow suit. After Ireland’s government formally approved the measure, Prime Minister Simon Harris said the aim was to keep Middle East peace hopes alive.

“We had wanted to recognise Palestine at the end of a peace process. However, we have made this move alongside Spain and Norway to keep the miracle of peace alive,” he said in a statement, urging Israel to “stop the humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza. Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide hailed the move as “a special day for Norway-Palestine relations”. And after Spain’s cabinet backed recognition, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said “we know that there is still a long way to go, and Spain is willing to walk its part of the path to peace.” He will receive the foreign ministers of Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Madrid on Wednesday to celebrate Spain’s recognition of a Palestinian state.

The plans, unveiled last week by the three countries, sparked a furious response from Israel. Last week, Yolanda Diaz, a far left member of the government, hailed the proposed recognition, saying: “We cannot stop. Palestine will be free from the river to the sea”. Israel’s ambassador in Spain slammed the comments as a “clear call for the elimination of Israel”. The slogan refers to the British mandate borders of Palestine, which stretched from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea before Israel was created in 1948.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz went further. “Sanchez, as long as you don’t fire your deputy and you recognise a Palestinian state, you are participating in the incitement to commit genocide and war crimes against the Jewish people,” he wrote on X. On Sunday, Katz posted a video on X splicing footage of the October 7 attacks with flamenco dancing, saying: “Sanchez: Hamas thanks you for your service.” Spain condemned the post as “scandalous and revolting”.

The Palestinian ambassador in Madrid, Husni Abdel Wahed, thanked the three nations for taking this “very important step”. He urged other European countries that support the two-state solution to “demonstrate their commitment and act in accordance with their values.” Tuesday’s move will mean 145 of the United Nations’ 193 member states now recognise Palestinian statehood. 

Recognising Palestinian statehood has provoked sharp disagreement within the 27-nation European Union. For decades, formal recognition of a Palestinian state has been seen as the endgame of a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Washington and most Western European nations have said they are willing to one day recognise Palestinian statehood, but not before agreement on thorny issues like the status of Jerusalem and final borders.

The Gaza bloodshed has revived calls for Palestinians to be given their own state. On October 7, Hamas fighters stormed into southern Israel in an assault that killed more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures. The Palestinian militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza. The Israeli army says 37 of them are dead. Israel’s relentless retaliatory offensive has killed more than 36,000 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Houthis attack Greek ship off Yemen

Yemeni Houthi rebels from the Ansar Allah movement attacked a Greek ship, according to the United States Central Command (Centcom). “The Iran-backed Houthis have launched five anti-ship ballistic missiles from Yemen’s Red Sea areas. The Marshall Islands-flagged merchant ship ‘Laax’, owned and operated by Greece, reported being hit by three missiles but continued its journey. No injuries were reported by US, coalition or merchant ships,” the statement said.

Belarus suspends Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has signed the law on the suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, according to Interfax. Last April, Lukashenko agreed to submit the Bill “On the suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe” to parliament. The CFE Treaty had been ratified by Belarus and entered into force in 1992. It provided limits on total levels of conventional weapons and equipment in five main categories (tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, artillery, attack helicopters and fighter aircraft), as well as mechanisms to verify compliance with obligations (information exchange and inspections).

Putin warns of ‘serious consequences’ if Western arms strike Russia

President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that there would be “serious consequences” if Western countries allowed Ukraine to use their weapons to strike targets in Russia, as sought by Kyiv. The warning came as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday spoke in favour of allowing Ukraine to attack Russian positions inside Russia with Western weapons to “neutralise” Russian military bases from where Kremlin troops are firing missiles into Ukraine, and as President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the world not to be tired of the war.

Putin’s comments came after some Nato members as well as the alliance’s chief Jens Stoltenberg have called to allow Ukraine to use their arms to step up attacks on Russian soil, after more than two years of war. “This constant escalation can lead to serious consequences,” Putin said during a visit to Uzbekistan. “In Europe, especially in small countries, they should be aware of what they are playing with,” he said, noting that many European countries had “small territory” and a “dense population”. “And this factor, which they should keep in mind before they talk about striking deep into Russian territory, is a serious thing,” he said. He added that even if Ukraine’s forces carried out the strikes, responsibility for them would lie with Western suppliers of the weapons.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said after a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brussels that European countries remained split on sending military instructors to Ukraine. Countries including Germany oppose taking a step they fear could potentially drag them closer to direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia. EU countries have trained 50,000 Ukrainian troops outside the war-torn country under a bloc-wide mission set up in 2022.

Zelensky has been pressing Western allies to provide longer-range missiles and other material for striking deeper into Russia in a bid to cripple its military and industrial capacity. So far Kyiv’s partners have demanded that their arms not be used to attack Russian soil, which Kyiv forces have instead been doing with local-made explosive drones.

Zelensky is also trying to whip up support for a peace conference due to be held in Switzerland next month, without Russia, and on Tuesday urged US President Joe Biden to attend. “If (Biden) is not present, it will be just like applauding Putin: personally applauding and doing so standing,” Zelensky said at a press conference with Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. Putin is “very scared” of the peace summit aimed at agreeing the terms needed to end the conflict, Zelensky said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any such conference was “hopeless” without Russia’s participation.

Venezuela withdraws invitation to EU to observe July vote

Venezuela has withdrawn its invitation to the European Union to observe presidential elections in July. National Electoral Council head Elvis Amoroso told reporters that it would be “immoral” to allow an EU mission to observe the election, “knowing their neo-colonialist and interventionist practices against Venezuela”.  Amoroso also called for the “total lifting” of the asset freeze and sanctions ratified by the EU two weeks ago against 50 Venezuelan government officials. Caracas last March invited the EU to send a team of observers for the July 28 elections in which President Nicolas Maduro will seek a third term, with his main rival disqualified from running.

Defence, prosecution present closing arguments in Trump’s trial

The defense and prosecution delivered closing arguments Tuesday in Donald Trump’s historic New York criminal hush money trial as both sides made final pitches to the 12-person jury before these are expected to begin deliberations today, Wednesday.

After the defense tried to shift blame from Trump to Michael Cohen, the prosecution used its closing arguments to cut down their claims and walk the jury through documents that allegedly tied the former president to the hush money scheme. Prosecutors accused Trump of taking part in an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 election and an unlawful plan to suppress negative information, which included concealing a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the 34 felony counts for falsifying business records and denied the affair with Daniels. A felony conviction of a former president, and presumptive GOP nominee, would be unprecedented.

If Trump is found guilty, it will likely be weeks or months until he is eventually sentenced. While the charges carry a maximum of four years in prison, experts generally agree he is more likely to face a fine, probation or community service.

Melinda Gates to donate $1 billion to women’s rights

Philanthropist Melinda Gates, Bill’s former wife, announced that she will donate $1 billion over the next two years to support women and families, including reproductive rights threatened in the United States by a wave of state bans. She announced it herself in an editorial in the New York Times, explaining that she will dedicate herself to this new mission on June 7, once she leaves the Foundation that she founded with her ex-husband 25 years ago.

Vatican apology after pope’s derogatory remark on gay men

The Vatican on Tuesday issued an apology after Pope Francis’ use of an offensive word in Italian regarding seminarians who identify as gay. Italian media reported that Pope Francis had met with the Italian bishops on May 20 in the Vatican’s Synodal Hall. At that meeting the pope was asked about the admission of declared gay men to the seminary. Telling the bishops that gay men should not be admitted to priestly formation, the pope argued “there is too much ‘frociaggine’ in seminaries” – a slur translated as “faggotry” or “faggotness.” Matteo Bruni, the Holy See spokesman, said on Tuesday the Holy Father was “aware of the articles recently published about a conversation, behind closed doors, with the bishops” of the Italian Episcopal Conference. He told journalists that the pope “never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms, and he apologises to those who felt offended by the use of a term reported by others”. Quoting several unnamed bishops, Corriere della Sera suggested that the pope did not understand the gravity of the term in Italian.

Photo: Reuters

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