Thousands protest Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza war

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 31st March 2024

Anti-Israeli government protests sprung up in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Saturday as the war in Gaza approaches the six-month mark and more than 100 hostages remain in captivity.

Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked the city’s ring road while demanding early elections as well as calling for the release of hostages by Hamas. Police clashed with protesters, calling the action illegal and using water cannons to disperse them. Smaller protests were also reported in smaller cities around the country.

In Jerusalem, hundreds of protesters picketed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence, blaming his far-right government for failing to secure the release of the around 130 hostages believed to still be in Gaza – 33 of whom are presumed dead. Relatives of some of the hostages were also present at the demonstrations. Israeli media reported that 16 people were arrested. The anti-government protesters are planning a series of demonstrations starting on Sunday in Jerusalem. Some protesters called for the resignation of the far-right government, which includes some of the most extremist elements in Israel’s history, while others demanded a “broad mandate” for Israel’s negotiating team to secure the release of the hostages in ongoing talks in Cairo.

Truce talks to resume today

Meanwhile, truce talks between Israel and Hamas are set to resume in Cairo today, Sunday, Egypt’s Al Qahera News TV reported, citing a security source. Speaking to Reuters, an Israeli official confirmed that Israel will send a delegation to Cairo. A Hamas official however told Reuters the group would wait to hear from Cairo mediators on the outcome of their talks with Israel first. The warring sides have stepped up negotiations, mediated by Qatar and Egypt, on a six-week suspension of Israel’s offensive in return for the proposed release of 40 of the 130 hostages still held by the Palestinian militant group in Gaza. Israel had recalled its ceasefire negotiators from Qatar on Tuesday, accusing Hamas of sabotaging the diplomacy “as part of a wider effort to inflame this war”. The deadlock had come after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Israel had said it pulled a high-level delegation due to travel to the US in response to the US abstaining from the security council vote.

At least 12 people killed in Gaza aid delivery

An aid delivery in Gaza has descended into chaos with shots fired and 12  people reportedly killed, as almost six months of Israeli bombardment has left hundreds of thousands in the Palestinian territory in desperate need. A Palestinian Red Crescent paramedic at a nearby hospital said 12 people were killed and dozens injured by gunfire and a stampede, during a rare aid distribution in north Gaza. Witnesses told AFP shots were fired by both Gazans overseeing the aid delivery and Israeli troops nearby, and panicked lorry drivers drove away quickly, hitting people trying to get the food. The Israeli military told AFP it had “no record of the incident described”.

UN warns famine is imminent in northern areas

Aid deliveries have become increasingly fraught as the needs of Gazans increase. The United Nations and partners have warned that famine could occur in largely isolated north Gaza as early as this month. The US also says famine is imminent, but an official on Friday told Reuters it might already be present. “While we can say with confidence that famine is a significant risk in the south and centre but not present, in the north it is both a risk and quite possibly is present in at least some areas,” the official said on condition of anonymity. On Friday, the World Court ordered Israel to “take all necessary and effective” action to ensure access to food and medical supplies for Gaza’s Palestinian population. Humanitarian officials say deliveries by sea and air are not enough and that Israel must allow far more aid by road. Israel said it respected international law and would “expand” the current flow of aid in Gaza. Foreign countries have ramped up airdrops of aid in the meantime, but several people have been killed by falling crates or drowned trying to retrieve packages from the sea.

Second aid shipment leaves Cyprus

Two charities have also organised aid deliveries by sea, with their second mission in just over two weeks setting sail from Cyprus on Saturday. World Central Kitchen, one of the charities, said two ships and a barge will deliver 400 tonnes of food to prepare more than one million meals. The deliveries will take about 65 hours to reach Gaza. Separately, the United States plans to construct a floating pier off Gaza to receive aid. A military ship carrying equipment to build the temporary port arrived earlier this month. The target for completion is May 1, but it could be ready by April 15, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said on Friday, citing briefings with US officials. UN agencies have repeatedly said that overland deliveries are the only way of supplying aid in the volume needed.

Israeli attacks continue unabated

The Israeli bombardments continued apace into Saturday, with the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip saying at least 82 people were killed overnight. The Hamas press office said “civilian houses” had been hit by dozens of Israeli strikes. The Israeli military said it had struck dozens of targets including militants and their compounds. There have been reports of heavy clashes in Gaza on Saturday, with the territory’s largest hospital continuing to be the focus of the Israeli military. The Hamas-run healthy ministry estimates 32,705 people have been killed in more than five months of war. The war began with Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack that resulted in about 1,200 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

UN workers injured in Lebanon border strike

Three UN workers, including an Australian, were injured after an Israeli border strike in Lebanon. Lebanese media Naharnet reports an Israeli drone strike targeted UN observers patrolling Lebanon’s southern border, but the Israeli military denies striking a UN vehicle in the area. The UN peacekeeping mission known as UNIFIL, as well as unarmed technical observers known as UNTSO, are stationed in southern Lebanon to monitor hostilities along the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel, known as the Blue Line. Andrea Teneti, a spokesperson for the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, confirmed to the ABC that the four were injured when an explosion occurred nearby and had been evacuated for medical treatment. He said that they were now in a stable condition. “We are investigating the origin of the explosion,” he said. “The targeting of peacekeepers is unacceptable. We repeat our call for all actors to cease the current heavy exchanges of fire before more people are unnecessarily hurt.” The Lebanese armed group, Hezbollah, has been trading fire with the Israeli military across the Blue Line since October in parallel with the war in Gaza. Lebanese media, citing security officials, reported an Israeli drone strike targeted the observers in the southern village of Wadi Katmoun near the border town of Rmeich on Saturday.  The Israeli military has denied striking a UN vehicle in the area.

Pope soldiers through Easter Vigil

Pope Francis presided over the Vatican’s sombre Easter Vigil service, delivering a 10-minute homily and baptising eight people – a day after suddenly skipping the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum as a health precaution. The decision appeared to have paid off, as Francis was able to recite the prayers of the lengthy vigil service, and perform the sacrament of baptism for the eight adults. The baptism is a traditional feature of the Vatican’s Easter Vigil service. In his homily Francis referred to the stone that was removed from Christ’s tomb after his death. Francis urged Catholics to remove the stones in their lives that “block the door of our hearts, stifling life, extinguishing hope, imprisoning us in the tomb of our fears and regrets”. Holy Week is trying for a pope under any circumstances, given four days of liturgies, rites, fasting and prayer. The Colosseum procession is followed today by Easter Sunday Mass in St Pater’s Square and his big noontime ‘Urbi et Orbi’ (to the city and the world) blessing.

Trump, Republicans slam Biden ‘assault’ on Christianity

Donald Trump and fellow Republicans assailed President Joe Biden today for what they called “an assault on Christianity”, after the US leader highlighted the ‘Transgender Day of Visibility’ that this year coincides with Easter. It was the latest skirmish in the culture war shaping the White House race, as Trump seeks support from religious conservatives while Biden stakes his claim as the standard-bearer for an inclusive America. Biden yesterday issued a proclamation recognising Transgender Day of Visibility, falling every year on March 31, which this time is also Easter Sunday. In a statement slamming Biden’s “blasphemous” declaration, Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said the move was part of “the Biden Administration’s years-long assault on the Christian faith”.

Biden wins the Democratic primary in North Dakota

Meanwhile, President Biden won yesterday’s Democratic presidential primary in North Dakota, with over 92 per cent of the vote. Biden’s victory was practically assured, despitethe fact that seven other candidates were at the polling sheet. Donald Trump won the North Dakota Republican presidential caucuses on March 4. Biden and Trump have already secured enough delegates for their respective parties’ nominations for the 2024 US elections next November.

Erdogan battles key rival in bid to reclaim control of Istanbul

Turks go to the polls today  in nationwide municipal elections focused on President Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to reclaim control of Istanbul from major rival Ekrem Imamoglu, who aims to reassert the opposition as a political force after bitter election defeats last year. Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu dealt Erdogan and his AK Party the biggest electoral blow of two decades in power with his win in the 2019 vote. The President struck back in 2023 by securing re-election and a parliament majority with his nationalist allies. Today’s votes could now reinforce Erdogan’s control of Nato-member Turkey, or signal change in the major emerging economy’s divided political landscape. An Imamoglu win is seen fuelling expectations of him becoming a future national leader. Initial results are expected by 10 pm today. Polls suggest a tight race in Istanbul, a city of 16 million people that drives Turkey’s economy, where Imamoglu faces a challenge from AKP candidate Murat Kurum, a former minister. While the main prize for Erdogan is Istanbul, he also seeks to win back the capital Ankara. Both cities were won by the opposition in 2019 after being under the rule of his AKP and Islamist predecessors for the previous 25 years.

Tusk warns war in Europe ‘a real threat’

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that Europe was in a “pre-war era” in an interview with European media grouping LENA. He also warned that Ukraine’s loss risked the wider safety of Europe. Poland has been one of its neighbouring Ukraine’s staunchest allies since Russia invaded over two years ago. The Polish Prime Minister recently met with his Ukrainian counterpart Denys Shmyhal in Warsaw, where they discussed solutions on dealing with farmers’ demands over restrictions on Ukrainian imports. The Polish Prime Minister also promised that he would not accept the demands of the most radical Polish farmers who are blocking borders and roads demanding that the border with Ukraine be closed. “These are not demands that can be negotiated. I am not prime minister to take Poland out of the EU or to make Poland a country that blocks its borders with Ukraine. But we are ready to discuss the limits, those proposed by Brussels and Kiev are not acceptable for us”, said Tusk.

Major UK poll predicts Tory election losses

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will release their Easter messages later today, while a major poll has suggested the Conservatives will face one of their worst results in an upcoming general election. Sunak will say Easter is a time to “pause and reflect” and praise the work of Christians in communities across the UK, adding that people would also be “thinking of those in pain and suffering around the world”. However, the Prime Minister’s message coincides with the release of a major survey that suggests the Tories could be reduced to fewer than 100 MPs at the general election. The 15,000-person poll, carried out by Survation and published in the Times newspaper, was used to create a seat-by-seat breakdown, which indicated the Conservatives would be wiped out in Scotland and Wales and hold just 98 seats in England. The survey put Labour on 45 per cent with a 19-point lead over the Tories on 26 per cent. The constituency forecast suggested Sir Keir’s party could be on course for a landslide, winning 468 seats. The poll also suggests the Scottish National Party would pick up 41 seats, the Liberal Democrats 22 and Plaid Cymru two. Meanwhile Sir Keir, who hopes to be in No 10 by the end of the year, will use his Easter message to reflect on a “time of optimism and new beginnings”.

Explosive device found at Austrian Jehovah’s Witness hall

A package containing explosives was discovered at a Jehovah’s Witness meeting in Kalsdorf in Austria,  near the southern city of Graz, police said in a statement on Saturday. With around 50 people at the hall, officials said the device could have “potentially caused great damage”. Police said the suspicious package was discovered at the entrance of the building which led to an emergency call being made at 8.30 p.m. on Friday. When police arrived, a security cordon was established to recover the package in an operation which police said lasted all night. Specialised teams used X-ray machines and a robot to help determine the type of threat presented. Following a thorough investigation, a police spokesman said on Saturday: “It was an unconventional, homemade, but basically functional explosive device.” Police said state security was investigating, but there was no initial information about possible perpetrators or a motive. Additional protective measures have been put in place at all Jehovah’s Witness properties in Austria.

First mangled steel removed from collapsed Baltimore Bridge

Engineers began carefully removing the first twisted hunk of steel from the collapsed part of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge late Saturday, with the help of several massive cranes. The nearly 50-year-old bridge crashed into the Patapsco River in Maryland on Tuesday, after a massive cargo ship smashed into one of its main supports, killing six construction workers and blocking shipping traffic into the Port of Baltimore. It’s not clear how long it will take to completely remove the structure from the water and reopen the economically-vital shipping lanes. The team deployed to remove the crumbled bridge consists of seven floating cranes – including a massive one capable of lifting 1,000 tons – 10 tugboats, nine barges, eight salvage vessels and five Coast Guard boats on site in the water southeast of Baltimore.

Sahara dust cloud smothers parts of Europe

Parts of Europe were clouded on Saturday by an exceptionally rare haze of dust swept up from the Sahara desert. The dust cast an orange tinge in the skies over parts of France, Switzerland and southern Germany. “The Sahara dust has already arrived, which you can see in the yellowish cloudiness in the air,” said Christian Herold, a meteorologist at the German Weather Service. In Germany, the dust is expected to be visible on Easter Sunday as well, Der Spiegel reported.

Photo: JACK GUEZ / AFP

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