Following Biden’s demand, Netanyahu met with his military staff and said Israel is “determined to continue” its operation until its aim is met.
Biden Calls for “Significant De-Escalation”
Based on a description from White House aides about a Monday phone call between President Joe Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it appears the U.S. may be changing course and backing off its support of Israel.
Early Wednesday morning, White House aides described to White House reporters that in the phone call, President Biden told Prime Minister Netanyahu he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.” Despite the possible shift in U.S. policy, it comes with some major caveats.
It’s unclear what “significant de-escalation” actually means, and that ambiguity leaves a lot to be desired for people who wish the administration was more active in stopping the violence. Additionally, it’s unclear just how seriously Netanyahu will actually take the warning because he has since made it clear, after meeting with his military staff, that Israel is “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met.”
Additionally, the prime minister told foreign ambassadors Wednesday morning, “You can either conquer them, and that’s always an open possibility, or you can deter them.”
“We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence, but I have to say, we don’t rule out anything. We’re not standing with a stopwatch. We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a timeframe,” Netanyahu later added.
Criticism of $735 Billion Arms Sale
Adding to what has been seen as a mixed-U.S. stance on the situation, the White House approved a $735 billion arms deal with Israel for devices that help make guided missiles; leading many to wonder how serious the administration is about peace.
The missile sale was actually in the works well before the current fighting began and was a routine sale. Per protocol, the White House informed Congress about the sale on May 5, and Congress has 15 days to object. Since then, fighting has broken out, but Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — the group that would need to object — made it clear they aren’t going to.
Even if the sale is routine, the reality on the ground has changed, causing many to point to the negative optics of selling devices to Israel that are believed to be used against buildings, including homes, in Gaza.
This has led to a pretty significant rift within the Democratic Party, with some like Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) tweeting, “We cannot just condemn rockets fired by Hamas and ignore Israel’s state-sanctioned police violence against Palestinians — including unlawful evictions, violent attacks on protestors & the murder of Palestinian children. U.S. aid should not be funding this violence.”
There’s now a concerted effort to have the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee not just rubber-stamp every arms deal to Israel moving forward, but it remains to be seen how effective that will be. However, even if the U.S.’ position on the matter has seemingly been vague or even contradictory, other nations have a more clear stance.
Worldwide Demands For Ceasefire
Since fighting began on March 10, Egyptian and U.N. mediators have been trying to broker a ceasefire. More recently, despite American efforts to block resolutions on the U.N. Security Council, France used its position as a permanent council member to once again demand a ceasefire.
Additionally, Russia warned Israel’s ambassador Wednesday that any further civilian casualties in Gaza were unacceptable while Germany also called for a ceasefire and promised to provide aid to Palestinians once the fighting stops.
Any aid will likely be sorely needed. Since the fighting began, over 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced and nearly 450 buildings have been either destroyed or severely damaged. In total, at least 219 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes and over 1500 wounded. For their part, Hamas has fired over 3,700 rockets into Israel, killing 12 and injuring dozens.
For the time being, it remains unclear if there was a more clear understanding of “de-escalation” between Biden and Netanyahu, and whether or not Israel will follow the demands of the U.S. President.
Hong Kong’s Apple Daily Raided, Top Editors and Execs Arrested
Police claim the paper violated a controversial National Security law by publishing articles that asked foreign countries to sanction the Hong Kong and Chinese government.
Apple Daily Raid
Nearly 500 Chinese police officers carried out a raid on Thursday at the headquarters of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, a tabloid-style paper and one of the largest publications in the city.
During the aid, which was live-streamed by the outlet, police arrested top executives and editors while also seizing journalistic materials over violations of the city’s controversial National Security law. Apple Daily said CEO Cheung Kim Hung, COO Chow Tat Kuen, Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law, Deputy Chief Editor Chan Pui-man, and Online Editor Cheung Chi-wai were arrested and accused of “colluding with foreign forces and external elements to endanger national security.”
Police also froze $1.8 million in Apple Daily assets.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary, told reporters that “this case involves a conspiracy” and added that the police were targeting those who use journalism as a “tool to endanger national security.”
Police claim that since 2019, Apple Daily has published articles calling on foreign countries to sanction the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. Many of those articles were published before the National Security law went into effect, meaning the law is being applied retroactively.
However, China’s Deputy Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said the law wouldn’t be retroactive, so it’s unclear if there’s been a shift in policy and if authorities are seeking to change how they approach violations that occurred before the law was enacted.
Not Meant to Restrict Freedom of the Press
Thursday’s raid could also have repercussions for other Hong Kongers. The city’s Senior Superintendent of the Police’s National Security Department warned citizens not to repost certain Apple Daily articles by saying, “If you have no real reason to share these types of articles, I would advise everyone not to.”
He claimed that this raid wasn’t targeting the press but rather one individual organization that violated the law. He also said Hong Kong’s government values the freedom of the press, a right that is supposed to be enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. Lee concurred with the Senior Superintendent, adding, “Please understand that our actions are not targeting journalistic work. We target perpetrators who use journalistic work as a tool to endanger acts of national security.”
Apple Daily has vowed to carry on with its work while also acknowledging that its fate was out of its hands. In a letter to its readers, the paper wrote, “In today’s Hong Kong, we are unfamiliar and speechless.”
“It seems that we are powerless to deal with it, and it is difficult to prevent the regime from doing whatever it wants.”
See what others are saying: (AP) (The New York Times) (NBC News)
Hamas Launches Incendiary Balloons Into Israel Over Right-Wing March, Israel Responds With Airstrikes
No casualties were reported and the tentative ceasefire that ended last month’s hostilities largely remains in place.
10 Minutes of Airstrikes
Alleged Hamas training facilities were hit by Israeli airstrikes early Wednesday morning as a response to the group sending incendiary balloons into Israeli territory late Tuesday night.
The airstrikes, which lasted for 10 minutes, destroyed two compounds while the balloons started about 20 fires across southern Israel. There were no casualties on either side and damage was kept to a relative minimum. By Wednesday morning, calm had returned and neither group pursued further hostilities.
Hamas risked breaking a tenuous ceasefire in order to respond to right-wing Israeli demonstrators that marched through Palestinian neighborhoods to commemorate a holiday that is seen as highly provocative. The ceasefire has gone on to its eleventh day, stopping widespread rocket and airstrike campaigns that left hundreds of buildings in Gaza destroyed and dozens in Israel damaged.
The marchers were celebrating Jerusalem Flag Day, a day to mark Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and its holy sites during the 1967 Middle East War. It was originally supposed to occur on May 10 but was delayed as fighting between Hamas and Israel began last month. Hamas actually listed the celebrations as one of its primary causes for starting hostilities and warned that any further Jerusalem Flag Day events in East Jerusalem would be met with violence.
Tuesday’s march proved to be one of the first big tests faced by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who only just started the job this week. As a right-wing figure himself, he supported the marchers and saw rerouting or canceling the event as giving into Hamas’ demands. However, his center and left-wing allies pushed for the event to be canceled. In the end, security forces slightly amended the route to avoid passing through the Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter.
Those same security forces have been accused by Palestinian protesters of violence as they moved to disperse anti-Israel demonstrations and make way for Flag Day marchers. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, at least 33 Palestinians were injured by police in those clashes.
Chants of “Death to Arabs!”
The celebrations by Israelis were largely peaceful, if not extremely provocative. The entire holiday itself is seen as a celebration of what many Arabs lost in the 1967 Middle East War, and hosting events in what is considered occupied territory puts salt in the wound. However, a large group of young Israelis inflamed the situation after video surfaced of them chanting “Death to Arabs!“
Their actions were widely condemned, including by Defense Minister Yair Lapid, who said, “The fact that there are extremists for whom the Israeli flag represents hate and racism is abominable and intolerable.” He added, “It is incomprehensible how one can hold an Israeli flag in one’s hand and shout ‘Death to Arabs’ at the same time.”
The Palestinian Authority, the government of the West Bank, said that there could be ‘dangerous repercussions” because of Tuesday’s right-wing march.
Despite the small rise in hostilities posed by Tuesday’s march and subsequent responses by Hamas and Israel, their ceasefire remains.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Wall Street Journal) (BBC)
India Is Investigating Fake COVID-19 Tests That May Have Fueled Outbreaks
Private facilities testing at a religious festival in April faked at least 100,000 negative tests, leading the public to believe the event wasn’t a super spreader.
Kumbh Mela Super Spreader Event
Authorities in India said Tuesday that they are investigating COVID-19 testing efforts carried out by private facilities during a major religious festival in Uttarakhand state this past April, which led to hundreds of thousands of fake negative test results.
The religious festival, Kumbh Mela, is among the most widely attended events in the world and millions arrived for the celebrations despite health authorities warning that it could become a super spreader event. Pilgrims weren’t deterred as local politicians praised the safety of the event and encouraged people to come without masks. In the end, the return home by festival goers is believed to have led to the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world, with new daily cases rising above 400,000 through April and May.
At the time, however, reported positive cases from those at the festival were shockingly low. One district in Haridwar, where part of the festival takes place, reported that out of 251,000 tests carried out locally during Kumbh Mela, only 2,273 were positive. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state and across India, infections were upwards of 10% of those tested, leading experts to doubt the festival’s results
The narrative that India’s large outbreak wasn’t fueled by Kumbh Mela began to fall apart after a man from neighboring Punjab received a negative COVID-19 test from a private testing facility in Uttarakhand. The private test showed that during his time at the Kumbh Mela festival, he was negative despite never actually attended the festival.
Last week, he complained to the Indian Council of Medical Research, who took the situation seriously and asked local authorities to open an investigation into the matter. Preliminary findings from the investigation show that the situation is possibly worse than predicted. Authorities found that one company testing at the festival forged about a fourth of their results, meaning at least 100,000 tests were faked.
As investigators search the books, they’re finding that private clinics filled testing logs up by putting down random names, numbers, and addresses and sending those people negative test results. The clinics would then use the inflated numbers to charge local authorities more for their services.
Clinics also engaged in other scams, such as using the same unique ID code from a negative antigen test, meant for a single individual, for multiple “recipients.” In one instance, according to Times of India, a single test ID number was used for 700 people.
Because of these findings, Uttarakhand has stopped paying dozens of private testing facilities as it investigates further.
COVID-19 cases in India have fallen drastically in the last month after spiking to over 400,000 new cases every day partially because of Kumbh Mela. More than 377,000 people have died due to COVID-10 in India to date, though many believe authorities are underreporting deaths.