US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that the Middle East is at its most dangerous “since at least 1973” and “arguably” even before the Arab-Israeli War. Blinken made the comments at a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, reacting to the drone strike that killed three American soldiers and injured more than 40 the day before. The Pentagon put the blame on proxy groups backed and supported by Iran, in this case the Kata’ib Hezbollah. US troops and bases have been attacked more than 150 times since 7th October, but Sunday’s attack was the first to strike dead American military members.
Republican lawmakers have ratcheted up pressure on the Biden administration to strike hard at Iran, believed to be behind all the previous attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. However, Blinken talked of a US response that “could be multi-levelled, come in stages, and be sustained over time”.
“We want to prevent this conflict from spreading, so we are intent on doing both – that is standing up for our people when they’re attacked, while at the same time working every single day to prevent the conflict from growing and spreading,” Blinken said on Monday.
Republicans accuse Biden of not understanding deterrence and Iran sees weakness. “He left our troops as sitting ducks,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (Republican) said. “The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East.” However, the Pentagon said on Monday the US does not want a war with Iran just as Iran does not want war with the US. “We don’t seek war, but we will take action, and respond to attacks on our forces,” a Pentagon spokesperson said. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US would take “all necessary actions”.
Blinken also said Ukraine will become a member of NATO. However, he did not indicate how or when it might join the Alliance.
Hamas seems to reject new hostage deal offer – reports
Hamas on Monday evening appeared to reject a new framework for a hostage deal that had been agreed to by Israel, saying it would not accept any agreement that did not include an end to the war and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza. Hamas issued a statement alongside the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, insisting Israel must halt its “aggression” and pull out of Gaza before any exchange deal takes place. A senior Hamas official added that they want a “complete and comprehensive ceasefire” in Gaza.
“The success of the Paris meeting is dependent on the Occupation (Israel) agreeing to end the comprehensive aggression on the Gaza Strip,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
UN chief to meet with major UNRWA donors
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will later today meet with key donors to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) after 12 of its staff were accused by Israel of involvement in the 7th October attack. Several countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Germany, New Zealand, and Japan, have announced the suspension of further funding to the agency pending an investigation into the claims.
Guterres has “been engaging with the UNRWA leadership and donors to UNRWA,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Monday. Guterres met earlier with the head of internal UN investigations to ensure that the inquiry into accusations that UNRWA staff took part in Hamas’s 7th October massacre “will be done swiftly and as efficiently as possible,” Dujarric said.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that intel Jerusalem shared with the US indicated that of the roughly 12,000 Gazan employees of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, some 1,200 have ties to either Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Meanwhile, UNRWA has said that “if funding is not restored, it will not be able to continue its services and operations across the region, including Gaza, beyond the end of February”. It is estimated that around two million people depend on UNRWA services.
Gazans “pushed to the brink of starvation”
Displaced Palestinians in Gaza have been “pushed to the brink of starvation” according to the World Food Programme. Speaking to Euronews in Rome, where the WFP has its headquarters, Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau says the situation in Gaza is “really, really desperate. Really dire.” Most people in Gaza rely on international aid, but food deliveries have been facing more restrictions as Israel continues its offensive. An estimated 85 per cent of people living in Gaza are now displaced, with almost the entire population of 2.2 million facing extreme hunger, agencies warn.
“A quarter of the population, 500,000 people, are in catastrophic levels and it’s unprecedented… its scale, its gravity, but also the pace of how things are moving at the moment,” Skau tells Euronews. “We might have a famine around the corner unless we have a major change in terms of how our assistance is reaching the most vulnerable people,” he adds.
The daily number of aid trucks entering Gaza has dropped from more than 500 before the war to just 30. Skau says there is a lot of bureaucracy involved in bringing food aid from either Jordan or Egypt into Gaza which needs to be simplified. “We need to change the situation now in order to save lives on a daily basis,” he adds.
Welsh pensioners being dragged into poverty
More than one in five Welsh pensioners have gone without heating their home at some point this winter, while 13 per cent have gone without a shower or a bath. A survey by the Bevan Foundation, shared exclusively with ITV News, also found that one in 10 pensioners have cut down, or skipped meals altogether, while eight per cent have decided against taking an essential journey like attending a medical appointment.
The figures come as concern grows about a looming pensioner poverty time bomb in Wales, which has the UK’s oldest population. The number of people over 85 in the UK is expected to double by 2050. Nowhere is this felt more keenly than in Wales, where 21.4 per cent of the population is over 65, compared to 18.7 per cent across the UK.
Protesting French farmers plan blockade of Paris
French farmers began moving on Paris on Monday, threatening to choke off major motorways and blockade the capital to press their demands for better working conditions, in an intensifying standoff with the government. In recent weeks there have been a slew of protests in the European Union’s largest agriculture producing country by farmers angry about insufficient income, red tape, and environmental policies they say undermine their ability to compete with less stringent countries.
Farmers said they plan to step up their pressure campaign by establishing eight chokepoints along the major arteries to Paris. In response, the government ordered the deployment of 15,000 police and gendarmes. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told the forces to show moderation, but he also warned the farmers not to interfere with strategic spots. “We’re not going to allow government buildings or tax offices or supermarkets to be damaged or lorries transporting foreign produce to be stopped. Obviously, that is unacceptable,” he said. Darmanin said nor would protests be allowed to affect operations at the airports, or at the Rungis international wholesale food market south of the city.
Armoured police vehicles were deployed to Rungis on Monday after some farmers threatened to “occupy” it. Police and gendarmes are also under orders to prevent any incursion into Paris itself, said Darmanin. In recent weeks, farmers’ protests have also mushroomed in Belgium, Germany, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands.
Germany: local public transit workers to strike on Friday
Local public transport workers in all German federal states, except Bavaria, will go on strike this Friday, trade union Verdi announced on Monday. According to the union, more than 90,000 workers at over 132 local companies operating buses, trams, and underground services are expected to join the walkout. Long-distance and regional trains operated by Deutsche Bahn, which went on strike last week, will not be affected.
Verdi has argued that the workload for employees and the shortage of staff in public transport have been increasing and that work pressure is growing. The trade union demands a reduction in weekly working hours with full pay compensation, shorter shifts, an extension of rest periods, more holidays, or additional days off.
Italy puts its ‘crown jewels’ up for sale
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni once declared Italy’s postal service a “crown jewel” that must stay in state hands, but she is now selling a stake as part of a privatisation programme to tackle a huge public debt. Meloni’s hard-right government aims to raise 20 billion euros by 2026 by selling off a stake in Poste Italiane, which turns big profits through its insurance and banking operations, as well as stakes in rail company Ferrovie dello Stato and energy giant Eni.
Analysts, however, say that the sales will likely do little to reduce a debt mountain that exceeds 2.8 trillion euros – the second highest in the eurozone as a proportion of gross domestic product. The leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, who won 2022 elections on a populist, nationalist ticket, has also vowed to maintain state control. “We can sell some stakes in public companies without compromising public control,” she said.
Nevertheless, the decision to sell a stake in the postal service to foreign investors marks a shift from a statement she made in 2018, four years before becoming prime minister. “No to the privatisation of Poste Italiane. It is a crown jewel that must remain in the hands of Italians,” she had said on Facebook at the time.
UK’s Rwanda plan clears first Lords hurdle as Archbisop attacks Bill
The Archbishop of Canterbury launched a withering rebuke to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s “damaging” Rwanda deportation plan as the Bill passes its first major hurdle in the House of Lords. It came before peers voted 206 to 84, majority 122, against a motion designed to block the government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.
After the Lib Dem-sponsored bid to halt the Bill was rejected, peers gave it a second reading on the nod without the House dividing for a second vote. It comes after the Most Rev. Justin Welby’s impassioned speech, aimed at the scheme which seeks to send asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats on a one-way flight to Kigali. Welby accused the government of outsourcing the country’s “legal and moral responsibilities”. The cleric also argued “a pick-and-choose approach to international law” undermined the UK’s global standing as he signalled he may seek to block the policy at a later date. The archbishop was among some 66 members of the House of Lords listed to speak during the second reading debate of the Bill.
Putin registered as presidential candidate
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been registered as a candidate for the 15-17 March presidential election, the country’s Central Election Commission announced on Monday – in an election he is widely expected to win.
Putin is the fourth registered candidate in the upcoming presidential elections in Russia. Earlier, the Central Election Commission registered as candidates Leonid Slutsky, leader of the nationalist LDPR party, Vladislav Davankov, deputy speaker of the State Duma and member of the New People party, and Nikolai Kharitonov, Duma deputy from the Communist party. In December, the commission rejected the application of pro-peace politician Yekaterina Duntsova, citing “errors in the documents”. That decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. Other hopefuls have until tomorrow to submit their signatures.
$83m defamation award to be spent on “something Donald Trump hates”
E. Jean Carroll says she plans to spend some of the $83.3m won in her defamation case against former US President Donald Trump on something he hates: a “fund for the women who have been sexually assaulted by Donald Trump”.
Dozens of women have accused Trump of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment dating back to the 1970s. He denies wrongdoing. Ms Carroll, now 80, accused Mr Trump of forcing himself on her in a dressing room of the luxury Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan in the 1990s.
The writer – who conducted Monday’s interview seated beside her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan – said she had found it difficult to eat or sleep in the weeks leading up to the trial. But she said her anxiety evaporated when she saw him in court. “I looked out,” she said. “There he was and it was like he was like nothing – like an emperor without clothes.” Ms Carroll told ABC some of the jurors smiled at her as they left court after their decision to award $18.3m for compensatory damages and $65m in punitive damages was announced. “It made me burst into tears because they met my eyes for the first time,” she said. Pending an appeal, Trump, 77, must take steps to pay Ms Carroll, according to her lawyer.
Wizard of Oz ruby slippers robber learns his fate
For a dying mobster who confessed to stealing the iconic ruby slippers worn in The Wizard of Oz there’s no place like home – after he was spared prison time on Monday.
Terry Jon Martin, 76, faced a Minnesota judge who sentenced him to time served for the hare-brained 2005 heist, which saw the reformed thief come out of retirement to pull off “one last score” by breaking into the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids and swiping the sparkly red shoes the actress wore while portraying Dorothy. The ailing Martin remained stone-faced as the judge handed down the punishment: Martin will be required to pay $23,500 in restitution to the museum at a rate of $300 a month.
Martin is in hospice care and is expected to die within the next few months. He also requires constant oxygen therapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. He was physically unable to fully rise from his chair at the end of the hearing. In delivering the verdict, the judge told the defendant he probably would have sentenced him to 10 years in prison if it was still 2005.
Main photo: Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto / Getty