Israel making progress in tunnel hunt for Sinwar

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 6th February 2024

The Israeli military has taken control of much of Hamas’ strategic tunnel system in the city of Khan Younis and believes it is making progress in its hunt for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, according to two Israeli defence officials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that the war in Gaza will take months and “must not end” until Hamas’ leadership in the enclave is killed. Netanyahu is facing growing international pressure to end or scale back Israel’s military operations in Gaza as the death toll climbs. The Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza said on Monday that more than 27,400 Palestinians – the majority of whom women and children – have been killed since the war began after the October 7 Hamas attack. US President Biden, who US officials say is growing increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu, pressed the Israeli leader last month to scale down the offensive, saying he was not in it for a year of war.

Israeli intelligence believes Sinwar and other Hamas leaders, including Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, have been hiding in Khan Younis since early stages of the war. Special Israel Defence Forces (IDF) units have been operating in the tunnels in Khan Younis for several weeks in an attempt to catch the Hamas leaders. The IDF recently entered most of the central locations in Hamas’ strategic tunnel system under the city, according to the two Israeli defence officials. This progress has led the Israeli military to believe it is getting closer to Sinwar.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Monday the Hamas’ leaders, including Sinwar, are on the run and moving from one hiding place to another. “He is not running the military campaign but is engaged in personal survival,” Gallant claimed. “The IDF is chasing him above the ground and under the ground.” Gallant claimed that because Sinwar is on the run, he hasn’t been able to communicate with other Hamas officials, which was why the group hasn’t made a clear decision on the most recent proposal of a framework for hostage negotiations. “There are coordination difficulties between Hamas outside Gaza and Hamas inside Gaza. The group is not quick to give answers (regarding the hostage deal) because of the confusions and pressure it is under,” Gallant claimed. Osama Hamdan, the top Hamas leader in Lebanon, said this weekend that Hamas was discussing the proposal but stressed that more time was needed to announce the group’s position. Gallant said the IDF is planning to expand its operation to places it hasn’t entered yet in the centre of the Gaza Strip and in the southern city of Rafah – Hamas’ last stronghold – on the border with Egypt where more than a million Palestinians are currently concentrated. Egypt fears a major Israeli military operation in Rafah could create a massive flow of Palestinian refugees into Egypt’s Sinai.

Blinken in the Middle East as US again strikes Houthis in Yemen

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Saudi Arabia on his fifth trip to the Middle East since October 7. His visit comes as the United States carried out a new attack yesterday afternoon against the Houthis in Yemen, targeting two marine drones loaded with explosives. The US military command said the army carried out “a self-defence attack against two explosive-laden surface marine drones. US forces “identified” these drones in “Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen” and deemed them to pose “an imminent threat to US military and merchant vessels,” a statement said. Monday’s attacks followed those on Sunday when the American military said it had struck a land-attack cruise missile and four anti-ship missiles that “were prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea”. That development followed joint US-UK strikes on Houthi targets – which UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps says his country “will not hesitate” to repeat if necessary. A British-owned merchant ship has been damaged in a drone attack off Houthi rebel-controlled Yemen, British maritime security firm Ambrey said today. The Barbados-flagged vessel “suffered minor damage on the port side”, Ambrey said, adding that there were no injuries. The attack follows continued attacks by the Iran-backed group in the Red Sea on military and commercial ships which it says are linked to Israel. The US also says it is planning more strikes on Iran-linked targets, in response to the drone attack in Jordan which killed three US troops more than a week ago. But Iran says the accusations it was involved are “baseless”. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an Iran-backed militia, claimed responsibility.

Review into ‘neutrality’ at UN’s Palestinian refugee agency

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has appointed an independent review group “to respond to allegations of serious breaches” at UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency. It comes after the agency sacked several staff members over allegations that 12 of its employees were involved in the October  7 Hamas attacks in Israel. The review will be led by Catherine Colonna, the former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, and is expected to report in April. UNRWA said the review will “assess whether the agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality”. At least 18 states or institutions, including a number of countries like the US, Britain, Canada and Germany, have paused funding for the agency over the allegations. The agency is set to lose $65 million (€64.5mn) by the end of February as donors’ funding cuts begin to kick in, according to internal accounting documents reviewed by The New York Times. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that the UN agency had been “totally infiltrated” by Hamas. Three European organisations will work with Colonna on the report. This assessment is separate from an internal probe launched last month by the UN.

King Charles diagnosed with cancer

Britain’s King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer and has begun treatment, Buckingham Palace said Monday. Less than 18 months into his reign, the 75-year-old monarch will suspend public engagements but will continue with state business, and won’t be handing over his constitutional roles as head of state. The palace didn’t disclose what form of cancer the king has, but said it’s not related to his recent treatment for a benign prostate condition. The king personally called both his sons, William and Harry, as well as his siblings Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, to share news of his health. TGoday’s Timesquotes the Palace saying “Charles is ‘wholly positive’ as William prepares to take on more commitments and Harry will fly back to see his father”. Harry, who quit royal duties in 2020, has spoken to his father about the diagnosis and “will be travelling to UK to see His Majesty in the coming days”, said the office of Harry and his wife, Meghan. UK political leaders and President Biden sent messages of support.

Anti-rape directive divides EU

The ongoing negotiation on the European Directive – designed to unify the regulations on rape throughout the Union and facilitate the protection of women – has stalled in the EU Council, lacking unanimity of views among the 27 countries on some points. The main obstacle is linked in particular to article 5 of the text, which defines rape as “sex without consent” and favours its criminalisation in the laws of all states. The Directive will be examined today, Tuesday, in the EU Council. The European Parliament wants the new legislation to contain a definition of this criminal offence applicable to “any non-consensual sexual intercourse” and in all 27 member states. However, some countries are still not convinced and are blocking the text’s progress. The 27 EU countries are split almost in half. France, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, among others, demand that victims must prove the use of force or threat; while the position of 13 others, including Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden and Italy, is in line with the slogan: “No means no”. The risk of backward steps has caused associations to protect victims of violence to rise up. Trade unions in particular are concerned by the elimination of the definition of “sexual harassment in the world of work”.

EU backs down on agricultural emissions after farmers’ protests

Brussels has scrapped a recommended target for cutting agricultural greenhouse gas emissions as EU governments seek to quell protests from farmers against the bloc’s ambitious green agenda. A road map on how to cut emissions by 90 per cent by 2040, due to be published by the European Commission today, Tuesday, no longer includes a reference to a 30 per cent reduction target in methane, nitrogen and other gases linked to farming, three EU officials involved in the discussions told the Financial Times. The move follows widespread demonstrations by farmers in France, Germany, Belgium and, most recently, Italy involving roadblocks, statues being torn down and riot police being deployed. Resistance to Brussels’ environmental rules has been fuelled by a perception that urban policymakers are ignoring rural areas – a sentiment on which the far right has sought to capitalise in the run-up to elections for the European parliament in June. Italian farmers marched to Rome last evening in protest against imports of cheap food from outside the EU and called for tax breaks to be reinstated. The ferocity of the protests has taken governments by surprise – including during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels last week.

Qatargate: ‘We know that Panzeri is lying’

The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office would not comment on the statements of the Brussels police chief inspector, Ceferino Alvarez-Rodriguez, which emerged in the context of the so-called Qatargate from the audio of a conversation that took place in May with Francesco Giorgi, one of the main suspects in the investigation into the alleged corruption network within the European Parliament. In the recording filed by Giorgi’s defence, the chief investigator questions the reliability of the repentant former MEP, Pier Antonio Panzeri, considered the deus ex machina of the illicit money transfer between Brussels, Doha, and Rabat and on whose declarations he supports part of the accusatory hypothesis. He makes harsh criticisms of the Belgian justice system, describing it as “driven by strings, by politicians” and stating that he has no confidence in the entire national and European judicial system. “We will not make any comments”, the audio will be “used in the context of the examination, which will end in May”, said the spokesperson of the prosecutor’s office, Eric Van Duyse, interviewed by Ansa. “The approach of Giorgi’s lawyer” is already questionable, we don’t want to get into this game. Let’s leave it to the Prosecution Chamber (the Court of Appeal responsible for the review) to decide”, he underlined.

Orbán’s party boycotts parliament call to ratify Swedish NATO bid

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has boycotted a session of parliament called by the Opposition to ratify Sweden’s Nato membership, even as a group of western ambassadors arrived in the building to urge a vote. For months, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán repeatedly promised his counterparts within Nato that the country would not be last to sign off on Sweden’s membership. But Orbán reneged on the pledge when Turkey ratified the Swedish bid last month, leaving Hungary alone holding up Stockholm’s accession. The Hungarian leader then publicly promised Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, that he would urge parliament to “conclude the ratification at the first possible opportunity” – only to also abandon that pledge by not showing up to a session initiated by the country’s Opposition with the aim of voting on Sweden’s accession. In a symbolic move, a group of 16 diplomatic representatives, including the American ambassador in Budapest, David Pressman, arrived at Hungary’s parliament on Monday. Western officials say that they are puzzled by Budapest’s decision-making and within Nato, events in Budapest are seen “with growing frustration and disappointment”, said a second senior European diplomat.

Zelenskyy signals a shakeup of Ukraine’s military leadership

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced he is thinking about dismissing the country’s top military officer as part of a broader leadership shakeup, a possibility that has shocked the nation fighting a war to end Russia’s invasion and also worried Ukraine’s Western allies. Zelenskyy confirmed in an interview with RAI TV late Sunday that he was thinking about removing General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the popular commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces. He said he was contemplating the move to ensure the country remains led by individuals who are “convinced of victory” against Russia. “A reset, a new beginning is necessary,” Zelenskyy said. The review is “not about a single person but about the direction of the country’s leadership.” The potential ouster of the general has already caused an uproar in Ukraine and delighted the Kremlin as the war approaches its second anniversary.

Trump activates ‘Make America Great Again’ caucus

Allies of former US President Trump are trying to maximise public opposition to the border deal “to make Senate leadership sweat”, according to a source familiar with the effort. Trump is once again flexing his dominance within the Republicanb Party to test whether his endorsers will break with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Thune. Trump’s team needs 41 senators to publicly oppose the Bill to successfully tank it in the Senate – and they already have 20. They can also count on some help from Democrats, who  already called the deal “unacceptable”. McConnell defended the deal on Monday, saying “Senate Republicans have insisted – not just for months but for years – that this urgent crisis demanded action,” CNN reported. The Trump allies are counting on all 31 senators who have already endorsed Trump to come out against the border Bill, which also includes billions in foreign aid for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel.

Three killed as record rainfall drenches California

At least three people have been killed by falling trees as a powerful storm moved across California bringing flooding, mudslides and power outages. Fire officials have responded to over 130 flooding incidents and conducted several rescues since the storm began. About six months of rain was expected to fall in Los Angeles and surrounding areas in just 24 hours. Forecasters say heavy rain with life-threatening flash flooding will continue into today, Tuesday.The one-in-a thousand-year storm is due to an “atmospheric river” effect, a phenomenon in which water evaporates into the air and is carried along by the wind, forming long currents that flow in the sky like rivers flow on land. It is the second atmospheric river to hit California in two weeks. The “high risk” designation affected 14 million people. As of Monday morning, about 500,000 customers in California were without power, many of them in central parts of the state and the Bay Area.

‘World has overshot climate limit

Using sponges collected off the coast of Puerto Rico in the eastern Caribbean, scientists have calculated 300 years of ocean temperatures and concluded the world has already overshot one crucial global warming limit and is speeding toward another. However, the CNN reports, these findings, published Monday in the journal ‘Nature Climate Change’, are as controversial as they are alarming. Other scientists say the study contains too many uncertainties and limitations to draw such firm conclusions and could end up confusing public understanding of climate change. Sponges – which grow slowly, layer by layer – can act like data time capsules, allowing a glimpse into what the ocean was like hundreds of years ago, long before the existence of modern data. Using samples from sclerosponges, which live for centuries, the team of international scientists was able to calculate ocean surface temperatures going back 300 years.

Main photo: ANWAR AMRO / AFP

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