Israeli ‘heavy bombardment throughout the night’ on Rafah

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 7th May 2024.

Israeli leaders have approved a military operation into the Gaza Strip city of Rafah, and Israeli forces were striking targets in the area since the early hours of Tuesday, officials have announced. The move came hours after Hamas announced it had accepted an Egyptian-Qatari ceasefire proposal, which could end seven months of war in Gaza. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh informed Egyptian and Qatari leaders of Hamas’ “approval of their proposal regarding a ceasefire agreement” during a phone call on Monday, the group said in a statement published on the Palestinian site Shehab News Monday.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that the proposal was “far from Israel’s essential demands”, but that it would nonetheless send negotiators to continue talks on a ceasefire agreement.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israeli officials were studying the proposal late Monday and did not immediately comment. “We examine every answer and reply very seriously,” said Hagari, adding, “At the same time, we continue our operations in the Gaza Strip and will continue to do so.”  During the same address, Hagari said that Israel would reopen a major crossing for humanitarian aid to pass into Gaza as soon as possible, without specifying exactly when. Israel closed the Kerem Shalom crossing Sunday after a Hamas mortar attack in the area killed four Israeli soldiers. An AFP correspondent in the city reported heavy bombardment throughout the night, while the Kuwaiti hospital there said early Tuesday that five people had been killed and several others injured in Israeli strikes on Rafah.

Thousands of Israelis rallied around the country Monday night calling for an immediate deal to release the hostages still held in the Gaza Strip. In Jerusalem, hundreds of protesters called for a hostage deal. They marched toward the home of the Israeli Prime Minister, holding a banner reading “Blood is on your hands”. In Tel Aviv, about 1,000 protesters swelled near Israel’s military headquarters, some blocking the city’s main highway until late into the night. Police tried to clear the road, lifting some protesters off the street and extinguishing fires lit during the demonstration. Other officers on horseback surrounded crowds who chanted “Deal now!” There were also smaller protests in the cities of Haifa, Beersheba and Raanana.

Israel’s war cabinet member Benny Gantz indicated in an earlier statement that the proposal put forward by Hamas was different from what had been discussed. The plan, he said, “does not correspond with the dialogue that has taken place so far with the mediators and has significant gaps”. However, Israel will still be sending a delegation to Egypt “to maximise the possibility of reaching an agreement on terms acceptable to Israel”, Netanyahu’s office said.

The war cabinet also “unanimously decided Israel would continue its operation in Rafah, in order to apply military pressure on Hamas so as to advance the release of our hostages and achieve the other objectives of the war”, the PM statement said. Israel’s military warned about 100,000 Palestinians in the eastern part of the Gaza city of Rafah to evacuate Monday ahead of a ground offensive long threatened by Israeli leaders. The message was delivered with fliers, phone calls, messages and media broadcasts in Arabic after a weekend that saw hope for a new cease-fire dashed yet again.

In the US, asked which proposal Hamas had accepted, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House, “I’m not going to get into that.” The details of Hamas’ response have not been made public. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters Monday that the US was reviewing the Hamas  response now and discussing it with partners in the region.

Rafah invasion ‘intolerable’, says Guterres

The land invasion of Rafah would be “intolerable” due to its “devastating humanitarian consequences and destabilising impact in the region”, said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres while meeting Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Guterres recalled that he had launched a “strong appeal to Israel and Hamas to conclude a vital agreement, an opportunity that cannot be missed”.

New York Times wins Pulitzer Prize for stories on Gaza

New York Times journalists won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, the Israeli intelligence fiasco and Israel’s extensive military response. The 2024 Awards for Excellence in American Journalism were announced Monday in New York. The one that went to the New York Times was for best international journalism.

Ukraine, brandy, EVs top the agenda in Macron-Xi talks

French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday that focused on trade disputes – including lifting immediate tariff threats on Cognac exports – and Ukraine-related diplomatic efforts. Xi is in France for a two-day state visit to open his European tour.

Speaking alongside Xi after their meeting at the Elysee presidential palace, Macron said that France hopes China’s influence on Moscow would help to move Russia toward ending the war in Ukraine. “We welcome the Chinese authorities’ commitments to refrain from selling any weapons or aid” and to “strictly control” sales of products and technologies that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, Macron said.

China claims neutrality in the war. “History has repeatedly proven that any conflict can ultimately be resolved only through negotiation,” Xi said. “We call on all parties to restart contact and dialogue.” Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to visit China this month. Last year, Macron appealed to Xi to “bring Russia to its senses”, but the call wasn’t followed by any apparent action by Beijing.

Both leaders also expressed their concerns regarding the situation in the Middle East, where Macron said France and China share the “same goals,” that is “to achieve an immediate cease-fire to release hostages, protect the populations, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, encourage a regional de-escalation and reopen a political perspective.” Xi called the Israel-Hamas war a “tragedy” that is “a test of human conscience”. “The international community must do something. We call for an immediate, comprehensive and sustainable cease-fire in Gaza,” he said. In addition, Xi expressed China’s willingness to work with France “to take the Paris Olympics as an opportunity to advocate a global cease-fire and cessation of war during the Games”. Macron advocates for making the Paris Games “a diplomatic moment of peace” and respect the Olympic Truce.

Trade issues also were at the top of the agenda as Macron denounced the trade practices of China as shoring up protections and subsidies. Macron thanked Xi for his “openness about the provisional measures toward French Cognac”. The remark came after China opened an anti-dumping investigation into Cognac and other European brandy earlier this year. French gifts to the Chinese president on Monday included luxury bottles of Cognac.

EU ready for ‘tough decisions to protect economy’

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday that the EU would not shrink back from taking tough measures to protect its economy and security, amid tense trade relations with China. “China that plays fair is good for all of us,” she said following trilateral talks in Paris with Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron. “Europe will not waver from making tough decisions needed to protect its economy and its security,” she said. “We will defend our companies, we will defend our economies.” Von der Leyen said there were “imbalances that remain significant” and “a matter of great concern”. She singled out Chinese subsidies for electric cars and steel that were “flooding the European market”.

Von der Leyen also said that China was not allowing EU companies fair access to its market. While she was confident of possible progress in talks, von der Leyen also said that “we stand ready to make full use of our trade defence instruments if this is necessary”, adding that “Europe cannot accept market distorting practises”. Macron had earlier already pressed Xi on the Chinese leader’s state visit to France to accept fair global trade rules for EU-China exchanges. “The future of our continent will very clearly depend on our ability to continue to develop relations with China in a balanced manner,” Macron said.

EU to drop action against Poland on ‘rule of law’ concerns

The EU said on Monday it will drop proceedings against Poland launched six years ago over concerns about risks to the rule of law. According to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission no longer believes there is a risk to the rule of law in Poland, after the new centrist government in Warsaw took steps to address the problems. “Today marks the opening of a new chapter for Poland,” von der Leyen said in a post on X.

Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, which headed the government for eight years, carried out a sweeping overhaul of the judiciary that the EU said undermined democratic checks and balances and brought the courts under political influence. However, the situation changed after the PiS lost the parliamentary elections in October to a coalition led by former and current Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who vowed to mend relations with Brussels.

In February, the European Union welcomed Poland’s plan to “restore the rule of law” and dismantle the policies of the former nationalist government that led to the freezing of billions of euros in EU funds over concerns about the independence of the judiciary.

Italian far right leads in Italy ahead of European elections

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party looks set to win the most votes in the EU Parliament elections between June 8 and 9, according to a Euronews poll, which found support for the party remains stable at 28 per cent. The poll also predicted that the centre-left Partito Democratico will come in second place, followed by the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle. However, support for these two parties is on the rise. Both the Democratic Party and Five Star Movement made slight gains compared to the previous month. Right-wing rivals Lega and Forza Italia will have to fight, meanwhile. The poll found they would bag just under eight per cent of the vote.

Prime Minister Meloni has personally led her party’s election campaign. Analysts say the strategy is to achieve high voter turnout in order to win as many seats as possible in the EU parliament and influence the formation of future coalitions. Her Brothers of Italy party is part of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group in the European Parliament. Meloni’s goal, observers claim, is to hold the key to creating a grand centre-right coalition with the European People’s Party – something also desired by outgoing European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. However, before entering the big European game, Meloni needs to overcome two obstacles in her own country: her rival Matteo Salvini, an influential partner in the European Parliament of Marine Le Pen from France’s far right; and the strengthening of the left. If the Democratic Party, part of the Socialists and Democrats group, can find common ground with the Five Star Movement, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the left and centre-left forces could create a strong structure in Italy’s fractious political landscape.

Russia to practice nuclear strikes and increase missile arsenal

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops based near Ukraine to practice nuclear weapons scenarios in a bid to ‘deter’ adversaries following perceived threats of escalation from Western leaders. Military drills in the undisclosed ‘near future’ will include practice for the preparation and deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons, Russia’s defence ministry claimed. The ministry said the exercises would be carried out ‘in response to provocative statements and threats by certain Western officials against the Russian Federation’, said the Kremlin citing threats to deploy troops in Ukraine. ‘It’s obvious we are talking about statements from Mr Macron and statements from British representatives,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked by reporters what had prompted the drills, adding: ‘This is a completely new round of escalating tensions. It is unprecedented and requires special measures.’

“We are now at the stage of open confrontation, which, I hope, will not result in a direct armed conflict,” Russian Ambassador-at-Large Grigory Mashkov told the state RIA news agency. Mashkov added that it will now be necessary to take “further steps to strengthen the country’s defence capability, including building up the missile arsenal, in order to discourage any potential enemy from testing Russia’s strength”. He added that Russia was already doing a lot in this area but that more was needed given what he said was the growing threat from the West and the technological advances in most types of missiles, from tactical to inter-continental.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is set to spend 7.1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military, or more than a third of total government spending, in 2024.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently told The Economist he ‘absolutely’ stands by pledges to put boots on the ground in Ukraine if push comes to shove. Macron has also called on Europe to reduce reliance on the United States and develop independent capacity to face down hostile foreign actors.

British Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron also received condemnation from Russia after telling reporters in Kyiv that Ukraine could use British-supplied missiles as they saw fit, including firing into Russian territory and lifting a previously held requirement only to fire Storm Shadow missiles within Ukraine.The Kremlin called Lord Cameron’s statement a ‘direct escalation’ of the war in Ukraine deemed ‘dangerous to European security’.

Lib-Dems to submit no-confidence motion in Sunak’s government

Britain’s Liberal Democrat party said Monday it would submit a parliamentary motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government to force a June general election following heavy losses for the ruling Conservatives in local elections. The Conservatives lost 474 local council seats in last week’s elections, according to a BBC tally, with the main opposition Labour Party gaining 186 and the Liberal Democrats expanding theirs by 104. The crushing results have prompted fresh calls for Sunak to call a national election. He has previously said he intends to call a vote in the second half of the year.

Judge threatens Trump with jail… again

The judge presiding over Donald Trump’s criminal trial in New York found the former US president in contempt of court on Monday and warned him that more violations could lead to jail time. Justice Juan Merchan fined Trump $1,000 (€927) for breaching a gag order that prohibits him from making public incendiary comments about jurors, witnesses and others involved in the case. It is the second time since his trial started last month that Trump has been sanctioned for contempt of court. He was slapped with a $9,000 fine last week – $1,000 for each of the nine violations. The judge said the violations amount to ‘attack’ on the law. “As much as I do not want to impose a jail sanction … I want you to understand I will,” Merchan told Trump. “At the end of the day I have a job to do and part of that job is to maintain the dignity of the justice system,” the judge said. Merchan’s ruling came at the start of the third week of testimony in Trump’s hush money trial.

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