Cologne police have searched Germany’s landmark cathedral with sniffer dogs on Saturday and say worshippers attending Christmas Eve Mass today would have to undergo security screening before being allowed in, amid reported fears of an Islamist attack. In Austria, police in the capital Vienna also said they were taking heightened security measures around churches and Christmas markets, deploying both uniformed and plainclothes officers. The German daily Bild reports that officials in Austria, Germany, and Spain all received indications that an Islamist group was planning several attacks in Europe, possibly on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. According to the newspaper, the targets of these attacks could be Christmas masses.
Christmas in the dark for Betlehem
F or the first time in recent history, Christmas has been cancelled in Bethlehem. Although churches in this birthplace of Jesus will still hold religious services, the twinkling decorations that usually light up this West Bank city will remain dark this holiday season. Bethlehem’s officials have scrapped the annual Manger Square Christmas tree lighting and fireworks display, Christmas parade and holiday market. The festivities of Christmas seem out of step with the gravity of war, they said.
Biden did not ask Netanyahu for Gaza ceasefire
United States President Joe Biden said he did not ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in a telephone call between the two leaders. “I had a long talk with Netanyahu today and it was a private conversation,” Biden told reporters on Saturday. “I did not ask for a ceasefire,” he said, in response to a shouted question.
In a statement later, the White House said Biden and Netanyahu discussed Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, including its “objectives and phasing”. Biden “emphasised the critical need to protect the civilian population including those supporting the humanitarian aid operation, and the importance of allowing civilians to move safely away from areas of ongoing fighting,” said the statement. “The leaders discussed the importance of securing the release of all remaining hostages.”
The Israeli prime minister, in his part, made it clear once again that Israel would continue the war “until all its objectives are achieved”. His office said that, during his phone call with President Biden, Netanyahu “expressed appreciation for the US position at the UN Security Council”.
136 UN personnel killed in Gaza in 75 days
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Saturday in a tweet that, in the 75 days of war in Gaza, 136 United Nations workers were killed – something “never seen” in the history of the UN. “Many of our staff have been forced to flee their homes,” he said, adding: “I pay tribute to them and the thousands of humanitarian workers who risk their lives helping civilians in Gaza.”
Hamas’ weapons manager eliminated
The Israeli army and the country’s secret service, the Shin Bet, said they had killed Hassan Atrash, responsible for trading, manufacturing, and smuggling weapons for Hamas. Atrash was killed in a targeted air strike yesterday while he was in a vehicle in Rafah, in the south of the Strip. Two other people were killed with him. According to the same sources, the man was also involved in smuggling from various countries to the Palestinian enclave and had also played a role in the supply of weapons to the West Bank.
‘Israelis were airbone, ready to strike Hezbollah’
Israel reportedly had warplanes in the air ready to carry out a major pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon four days after Hamas’s 7th October onslaught, but President Biden managed to convince Prime Minister Netanyahu to stand down at the last minute. The Wall Street Journal reported that Israeli officials urgently reached out to their American counterparts on 11th October, relaying that they had compiled intelligence pointing to an imminent Hezbollah cross-border attack akin to the one carried out by Hamas in which some 1,200 people were massacred in Israel and roughly 240 were taken hostage. Recognising that the IDF could not pull off such a major strike against Hezbollah on its own, Israel was asking the US for assistance, WSJ said. Upon being briefed on what was unfolding, Biden phoned Netanyahu to relay Washington’s skepticism over the Israeli intelligence and urged the premier throughout the 45-minute call not to move forward with the strike, saying that a two-front war was still avoidable but an IDF attack of this sort would make it inevitable.
Since hostilities began in October, more than 140 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also more than a dozen civilians, three of them journalists, according to an AFP tally. On the Israeli side, four civilians and eight soldiers have been killed. On Saturday, senior Hezbollah official Nawaf Musawi told Lebanon’s al-Manar TV network that Hamas believes another major front on the northern border would not stop Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip.
Iran threatens to ‘close the Mediterranean’
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said the Mediterranean could be “closed” if the United States and its allies continued to commit “crimes” in Gaza. Iran’s state-owned Tasnim News Agency quoted Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the Pasdaran, a multi-service primary branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, saying: “They should expect the closure of the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Gibraltar and other waterways soon.” Iran has no direct access to the Mediterranean and observers opined it is unclear how it might try to close it, although Naqdi spoke of “the rise of new resistance powers and the closure of other waterways”.
€118-million-EU aid plan for the Palestinian Authority
The European Commission has adopted a 118-million-euro aid package to support the Palestinian Authority. Reuters quotes the Commission saying the aid would help pay salaries and pensions of civil servants in the West Bank, social allowances for vulnerable families, and the payment for medical referrals to East Jerusalem hospitals. The EU is also ready to continue helping the Palestinian Authority in the longer term, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
Iran confiscates Mahsa Amini’s EU Sakharov prize
Iranian security forces have confiscated the plaque of the EU Sakharov Prize 2023, recently awarded to Mahsa Amini. The girl’s family lawyer, Mohammad Saleh-Nikbakht, was reportedly intercepted and interrogated at Tehran’s airport after arriving from France, where he received the award on behalf of the family. The prize, along with the lawyer’s cell phone and passport, were confiscated by security forces. Kurdish human rights activists denounced the action.
Duntsova barred from running against Putin
Former TV journalist Yekaterina Duntsova was disqualified on Saturday as a candidate for Russia’s next presidential election, preventing her from running against Vladimir Putin on a platform of opposition to the war in Ukraine. Members of the central electoral commission voted unanimously to reject her candidacy, citing “numerous violations” in the papers she had submitted in support of her bid. Putin’s critics said the decision showed that no one with genuine opposition views would be allowed to stand against him next March in the first presidential election since the start of the 22-month war against Ukraine.
Sadness, gloom and tears as Czechs mourn shooting victims
Czechia on Saturday observed a day of mourning to mark the 14 people killed in a gunman attack at the Charles University in Prague on Thursday. The national flags flew at half-staff as the public observed a minute of silence. A packed requiem was held in Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral, supervised by Prague’s Archbishop Jan Graubner, and attended by the country’s President Petr Pavel. Hymns were sung and speeches were made on the occasion. Another prayer was offered in the afternoon at Kostel’s Church of St Martin. Religious services and other commemorations were held in other Czech cities, including Pilsen, Brno, Hradec Kralove, Ostrava, and Olomouc. Prague’s international airport also stopped operations to observe a minute of silence. A number of Christmas markets all over the country were either closed or reduced their schedules due to security measures.
19 dead as bus overturns in Nicaragua
At least 19 people, including 10 children aged between four and 16, died after a bus overturned on a bridge in Managua, Nicaragua. The government’s official website said another 40 people were injured, some seriously. Vice President Rosario Murillo told state TV Channel 4 that there were about 70 people on board the bus when the driver lost control of the vehicle, causing it to overturn. The police arrested the driver who was trying to flee immediately after the accident.
700 Airbus employees sick after dinner party
Hundreds of Airbus Atlantic employees reportedly got sick after the company hosted a gourmet Christmas dinner. Ouest-France newspaper says health authorities in France have launched an investigation into the incident after 700 out of the 2,600 people in attendance at the dinner fell sick with “clinical signs of vomiting and/or diarrhoea” earlier this month, with employees getting sick around 24 to 48 hours after the dinner. Airbus Atlantic hosted the party at a restaurant on-site, located in Montoir-de-Bretagne, western France. Dinner included lobster, scallops, gone gars, and tournedos, which included desserts of hazelnut chocolate mousse and ice-cream logs.
Woman with two wombs gives birth to twins
A woman with two uteruses has given birth to twin girls on different days after a “one-in-a-million” pregnancy. Kelsey Hatcher, from Alabama in the US, has a rare medical condition called “uterine didelphys” that leads to a divided reproductive system. After three previous children, Hatcher found out earlier this year that she was carrying two babies, one in each womb, in a medical rarity. Both babies, Roxi and Rebel, were delivered healthy earlier this week during a 20-hour labour, with Roxi born vaginally at 7.45pm on 19th December before a C-section brought Rebel into the world less than 12 hours later on 20th December. Uterine didelphys occurs in about 0.3 per cent of women and is a birth defect that occurs when a female foetus is in the womb. Some women with the condition have only one functioning womb, but Hatcher has two fully functioning uteruses, each with one fallopian tube and ovary, and two separate cervixes.
Rebecca Welch becomes Premier League’s first woman referee
Rebecca Welch made history on Saturday when she became the first woman to referee a Premier League fixture in England. The 40-year-old took charge of Burnley’s 2-0 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage. Welch became a referee in 2010 when she combined it with a job in the NHS, before becoming a full-time official in 2019. In January, Welch became the first woman to referee a men’s fixture in the Championship. She returned to Craven Cottage a month on from serving as the fourth official during Fulham’s 1-0 Premier League defeat by Manchester United. Saturday she was welcomed by applause at the moment of the speaker’s announcement, but she received derision, from the moment she denied a penalty to Fulham after a ‘hand’ from Vitinho. Fulham fans also cheered sarcastically when the hosts were awarded a foul in midfield, then throughout the match there were boos and chants of “I don’t know what you’re doing” from every section of the stadium. But Welch maintained her composure and authority throughout her Premier League debut.
Main photo: X/@morphiaz