Rafah assault looms as airstrikes end weeks of relative calm

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Thursday, 25th April 2024.

Israeli warplanes pounded the northern Gaza strip for a second day on Wednesday in a fierce assault that has shattered weeks of comparative calm, and Israel said it was moving forward with plans for an all-out assault on Rafah in the south. After weeks of reduced fighting following an abrupt Israeli pullback at the start of this month, Palestinians at both ends of the Gaza Strip were again fleeing for their lives from bombing they described as some of the war’s worst. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said Israel was “moving ahead” with its plans for a ground operation on Rafah but gave no timeline. Western countries, including Israel’s closest ally the United States, have pleaded with it to hold back from attacking the city on Gaza’s southern edge, which is sheltering more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people. A senior Israeli defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was poised to evacuate civilians ahead of its attack and had bought 40,000 tents that could house 10-12 people each. All that remained was for Prime Minister Netanyahu to give the order.

At the opposite end of the Gaza Strip, the city of Beit Lahiya came under massive shelling for a second day on Wednesday – a day after the Israeli military ordered residents out of four districts declared a “dangerous combat zone”. Israel said its operations there targeted areas from where the armed wing of Hamas-aligned Islamic Jihad had fired rockets at two Israeli border settlements on Tuesday.  In the past 24 hours, Israeli strikes have killed at least 79 Palestinians and wounded 86, the Gaza Health Ministry said..

Hamas video of Israeli-American hostage ignites protests in Jerusalem

In a recent development that has re-ignited public outcry in Jerusalem, Hamas released a hostage video on Wednesday, showcasing Israeli-American Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was abducted during the militants’ attack on October 7 that sparked the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The footage marks the first indication of Goldberg-Polin’s condition since his capture and has spurred protests demanding more action from the Israeli government for the hostages’ release.

Goldberg-Polin, visibly coerced, accused the Israeli government of neglecting its citizens held captive by Hamas. He further alleged that approximately 70 hostages had been killed due to Israel’s bombing campaigns, a claim that remains unverified due to the circumstances of his statement. The exact timing of this video is unknown, but references to the Passover holiday suggest it was recorded recently. The release of the video prompted hundreds to gather outside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, urging the government to negotiate the hostages’ return. The demonstration saw expressions of fear for Goldberg-Polin’s life and demands for immediate government action.

Rachel Goldberg, mother of 23-year-old Hersh, has engaged with international leaders and addressed the United Nations in efforts to secure her son’s release. Jon Polin, Hersh’s father, echoed these sentiments in a plea for decisive action from negotiating parties including Egypt, Israel, Qatar, the United States, and Hamas.

First EU-wide rules to combat domestic abuse

The European Parliament on Wednesday adopted the first EU-wide rules on combating domestic abuse and violence against women. The new legislation – which passed with 522 in favour, 27 against and 72 abstentions – prohibits female genital mutilation and forced marriage. It also lays down guidelines for offences committed online, like sharing private information and cyberflashing. Under the new rules, European Union member states must improve their reporting and evidence-collection procedures. They will also need to increase public awareness that non-consensual sex is a criminal offence . European Commission data reveal that one in three women in the 27-nation bloc has experienced some type of violence, often from intimate partners. Moreover, 600,000 women in Europe have undergone female genital mutilation. Although these offences are considered crimes in most individual member states, and female genital mutilation is illegal in all member states, there are gaps in national laws of some countries and differences in legal frameworks. The new rules will come into force 20 days after they have been published in the EU Official Journal. Member states then have three years to implement them.

‘US secretly sent Atacms missiles to Kiev’

Last week the United States secretly sent Atacms long-range missiles into Ukraine for the first time in two years of war, and Ukrainian forces immediately used the weapons to attack a Russian military airport in Crimea on Wednesday and Russian troops in southeast of the country during Tuesday night. This was revealed by some US media, including The New York Times and Politico.

Sánchez weighing resignation after wife targeted by judicial probe

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez denied corruption allegations against his wife but said he would consider resigning after the launch on Wednesday of a judicial investigation into accusations by a right-wing legal platform that she used her position to influence business deals. Sánchez said in a letter posted on his X account that while the allegations against his wife Begoña Gómez are false, he was cancelling his public agenda until Monday when he would announce whether he would continue or step down. “I need to stop and reflect,” Sánchez wrote. “I must answer the question if it is worth it to continue, given the mud pit the right and far right have made out of our politics, if I must continue at the helm of the government or renounce that highest of honours. Begoña will defend her honour and collaborate with the justice system in every way that is required to clarify that these facts that appear scandalous are in fact nonexistent.” Gómez, 49, does not hold public office and maintains a low political profile.

Earlier on Wednesday, a Spanish judge agreed to probe allegations of corruption made by a private group with a history of filing lawsuits mainly for right-wing causes. The court based in Madrid will consider the allegations and proceed with the investigation or toss it out. Sánchez, 52, has been Spain’s prime minister since 2018. He was able to form a new left-wing coalition government in November to start another four-year term. He is one of Europe’s longest serving Socialist leaders

Macron in last-ditch bid to halt EU vote battering

With Emmanuel Macron’s party badly lagging behind the French far right in opinion polls ahead of June’s European Parliament election, the president hopes a set-piece speech on Europe today, Thursday, can help to close the gap. Returning to Paris’s Sorbonne University, where he made a landmark 2017 speech on driving forward the European Union, Macron is sticking to “his brand” which “remains our base and the base we want to mobilise”, one minister told AFP. With his emphasis on “strategic autonomy” for Europe in the economy and defence, many see subsequent events like the Covid pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine validating Macron’s vision. But the minister acknowledged that the president’s star power might be “less powerful than in 2019”, when voters last picked the Brussels parliament.

Macron’s popularity has been battered by two years of minority government and contentious reforms on issues including pensions and immigration. Polls show that inflation driven by successive crises is also a top concern for people feeling the pinch in their weekly shopping. Surveys point to support in the high teens for Macron’s centrist party, well below the far-right National Rally (RN) at around 30 per cent, while the Socialists are snapping at the presidential camp’s heels for second place. “It would be a real earthquake if the president’s majority came third” in the European elections, said political scientist Bruno Cautres. The head of the governing party’s list for the elections, the little-known Valerie Hayer, is failing to make an impact, especially in the face of high-profile figures leading the rival lists in the shape Jordan Bardella, 28, for the far right and Raphael Glucksmann for the left.

But now it appears Macron is eager to wade into the campaign in person. Heading into the European election, “Macron is hanging on to the core of his base”, said communications consultant Marie d’Ouince, a veteran of French centre-left politics. “It’s still very early” in the campaign, she added, suggesting that support for the president’s party “may crystallise bit by bit, but you need the right arguments”.

German culture scene unites against far-right AfD party

With Germany’s anti-immigrant party set to take more seats in European elections, cultural institutions want to neutralise the “extremist politics” that could upend artistic diversity. As the populist, anti-immigrant AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party was rising fast in the German polls in 2023, national culture collective Die Vielen (The Many) decided to act. The alliance of some 4,500 theaters, galleries and cultural institutions had been on hiatus since the Covid pandemic. But Die Vielen members saw the upcoming European elections, to be held from June 6-9 – along with local and state ballots and a looming 2025 federal vote – as an existential threat to the pluralist democracy that allows artistic expression to flourish. Having initiated protests against the AfD in the run-up to the 2019 European elections, Die Vielen’s new campaign, “Shield & Shine”, brings grassroots art collectives and curators together with high art orchestras, stagehands, opera houses and audiences to create culture events that double as open forums for debate. The goal, as articulated at a campaign launch in April, is to “stretch thousands of democratic protective umbrellas over all federal states” and hence neutralize the “normalisation of right-wing extremist politics in democratic parliaments”. With the AfD remaining second in the polls, swing voters and young people, many voting for the first time, are to be encouraged to join the ‘umbrella movement’ – a metaphor also used by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

Many of the 5,000-odd participants were especially galvanized to sign the “Declaration of the Many” after it emerged that AfD members sat with neo-Nazis at a secret meeting in November and called for the deportation of millions of migrants from Germany – even if they had German passports. Mass protests ensued – also in the name of “protecting democracy” – giving impetus to Die Vielen’s call to fight far-right exclusion through inclusive and creative democratic platforms. Since then, an AfD leader will face trial for using a Nazi slogan.

There is a fear that if the AfD become the country’s second biggest party after the 2025 federal elections, there could be a purge of pro-democratic cultural voices. In the state of Saxony, where the AFD have long topped the polls, arts practitioners are already self-censoring their work in anticipation of wins in upcoming regional and state elections, noted Philine Rinnert, a Berlin-based Die Vielen board member.

Eurozone business activity accelerates in April

Business activity in the eurozone picked up in April thanks to “increasingly robust” growth in the services sector, a closely watched survey showed Tuesday. The HCOB Flash Eurozone purchasing managers’ index (PMI) published by S&P Global registered a figure of 51.4 in April from 50.3 in March. It was the highest in 11 months. Any reading above 50 indicates growth, while a figure below 50 shows contraction. “The eurozone got off to a good start in the second quarter,” Cyrus de la Rubia, chief economist at Hamburg Commercial Bank, said in the statement on the PMI reading. But the survey showed activity was growing “modestly” as manufacturing output continued to fall, although the decline was not as steep as previously. “Increasingly robust service sector growth was nevertheless accompanied by signs of a further moderation of the manufacturing downturn,” S&P Global said.

Economists said the data shows the 20-nation single currency is pulling out of the recent downturn, but the European Central Bank would still cut interest rates in June. “The bigger-than-expected increase… suggests that the euro-zone is coming out of recession, but this will not prevent the ECB from cutting interest rates in June,” Andrew Kenningham of London-based consulting firm Capital Economics. “While these surveys are good news for the economy, we suspect that any growth will be remain quite weak in the near term,” he added. The ECB hiked rates at a record pace to tame red-hot price rises, but there are now growing calls to cut as eurozone inflation approaches the institution’s two-percent target. Inflation slowed to 2.4 percent in March.

The survey also indicated that the situation in the European Union’s two economic powerhouses, France and Germany, is improving. Germany returned to growth in April, which will be welcome news to Berlin after criticism that its economy was slowing down the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, the survey said France came close to stabilising with only a “marginal contraction of output”.

Trump allies indicted for voter fraud in Arizona

Some ten of former US president Donald Trump’s allies and loyalists, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former lawyer Rudy Giuliani, are under investigation for attempting to overturn the result of the 2020 elections in Arizona, accordoingh to CNN. Also among those indicted is Boris Epshteyn, a former White House aide who is still one of Trump’s closest advisors. The tycoon, as in the investigation into false voters in Michigan, is listed as an “unindicted” conspirator.

US to pay $139 million to gymnastics sex abuse victims

The United States Justice Department says it had agreed to pay almost $139 million to victims of sex abuser Larry Nassar, for its bungled investigation into the former USA gymnastics team doctor. For nearly two decades, Nassar subjected hundreds of people to abuse under the guise of performing medical treatment. His victims included Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and other top names in the sport. Despite complaints, the FBI initially did not act, and Nassar continued to act with impunity. He was ultimately convicted in late 2017 and early 2018 of sexually-assaulting hundreds of athletes, and is serving up to 175 years in prison.

Nassar worked as a sports medicine doctor at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University for more than two decades. Biles, Raisman, Maroney and other US gymnasts filed a $1 billion claim against the FBI in June 2022 over its failures. The announcement covers 139 claims, and will distribute a total of $138.7 million, the DoJ said. The resolution comes after a July 2021 report by the department’s Office of the Inspector General that was critical of aspects of the FBI’s response to, and investigation of, allegations against Nassar. The Wall Street Journal had previously reported that this included complaints about Nassar made by USA Gymnastics to the FBI’s Indianapolis field office in July 2015. The failure to act on the complaints allowed Nassar to continue sexually assaulting dozens of victims before his 2016 arrest. Nassar’s victims reached a $380 million settlement with USA Gymnastics in 2021, one of the largest ever recorded for victims of sex abuse. USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018 after a tidal wave of allegations against Nassar swamped the organisation. Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement with hundreds of Nassar’s victims in 2018. Nassar was stabbed by another inmate in July of last year at the prison in Florida where he is serving his sentence, but recovered from his wounds.

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