World roundup: May 15-16 2021

Stories from Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Italy, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

May 14, 1560: The Battle of Djerba ends

May 14, 1796: English doctor Edward Jenner administers an experimental smallpox vaccine to the eight year old son of his gardener, inoculating the boy with pus from a woman who was infected with cowpox. This technique was already in use, but Jenner then intentionally exposed the child to smallpox and is thus credited with proving that the vaccine actually worked.

May 15, 1811: Paraguay’s May 14 Revolution, a military coup against Governor Bernardo de Velasco, succeeds in forcing him to create a three man governing junta including himself and two military appointees. The junta was the first in a series of governments that increasingly substituted local rule for colonial control from Spain. Although it was a very long road from here to Paraguay’s formal declaration of independence in 1842, May 14 and 15 are commemorated as Independence Day (well, “days”) in Paraguay today.

May 15, 1940: Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald open a small restaurant called “McDonald’s Bar-B-Que” in San Bernardino, California, serving mostly, as the name says, barbecue. A few years later they streamlined the operation to focus on their most popular item, hamburgers. Since as far as I know there are no McDonald’s Bar-B-Que restaurants in existence anymore, I can only assume this disruptive change was the death-knell of their company, and it just goes to show you that innovation isn’t always a panacea. That’s today’s business tip.

May 15, 1948: The Arab-Israeli War begins.

May 16, 1916: The British government ratifies the Sykes-Picot Agreement, establishing it as the Allied blueprint for the post-war remains of the Ottoman Empire.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for May 16:

  • 163,707,191 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+533,630 since yesterday)

  • 3,392,888 reported fatalities (+9523 since yesterday)

  • For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 23,738 confirmed coronavirus cases (+45)

  • 1698 reported fatalities (+5)

Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb reports that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is expanding and professionalizing its recruitment efforts in northwestern Syria. Interestingly, increasing the number of fighters under its command seems to be only part of the reason. HTS also, apparently, wants to clamp down on child recruitment/conscription, not so much because it’s reprehensible as because it’s not good for the organization’s image, which hurts HTS’s standing both locally and internationally. HTS reportedly pays its fighters at least double what the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army is offering, so in that sense it has a clear leg up on the competition.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 839,119 confirmed cases (+2) in Israel, 303,827 confirmed cases (+169) in Palestine

  • 6382 reported fatalities (+1) in Israel, 3428 reported fatalities (+5) in Palestine

Sunday was the deadliest single day yet in Israel’s non-stop bombardment of Gaza, with at least 42 people killed (ten of them children). Naturally none of the killings were the Israeli military’s fault. The Israelis were trying to destroy part of Hamas’s tunnel network, you see, and apparently had no idea that all the civilian residences sitting above it might collapse along with the tunnels. Who could have predicted, really. Gaza’s health ministry now puts the number of dead since this conflict began on Monday at 188 (as of Monday morning that figure stands at 197). I don’t have numbers on wounded but that figure was at 950 on Friday and must be well over 1000 by this point. Ten people have been killed in Israel by Gazan rocket fire.

Saturday’s death toll was lower, though the Israelis did welcome US Israel-Palestine envoy Hady Amr to Tel Aviv by killing at least ten people in a single airstrike on Saturday morning. The day’s biggest incident really involved the Israeli destruction of an evacuated office tower containing the Gazan offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. This strike raised howls of outrage among Western media and establishment Democrats in Washington, the same sorts of people who didn’t really seem to care all that much about the war in Yemen until Mohammed bin Salman murdered a journalist. My cynicism aside, it also raised understandable and serious concerns about the intentional targeting of journalists. Here too, though, it’s not Israel’s fault. Hamas was using that tower, you see, for nefarious but unspecified reasons. The reporters using the facility never reported on that seemingly newsworthy state of affairs, either because they’re very bad at their jobs or because they’re somehow in cahoots with Hamas. It’s all very simple and believable, but no the Israelis can’t actually show you any of the evidence for these claims because that evidence is classified. Still. Even though the building is destroyed.

Gaza’s infrastructure has unsurprisingly been pulverized, with power lines down and broken sewer lines leaking refuse into the open air. Israeli authorities have closed of Gaza’s fishing zone and are blocking the delivery of animal feed into the enclave, while the Israeli military reportedly targets Gazan farms. Humanitarian relief agencies are also being barred from operating in Gaza, which is becoming a more critical problem as more people are displaced by Israeli attacks. And this is all apparently going to continue for awhile, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he hasn’t seen enough carnage just yet. As if to punctuate the sentiment, Netanyahu’s address on Sunday was followed shortly thereafter by a new round of Israeli airstrikes.

Elsewhere, Israeli police killed one Palestinian in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Sunday. The Palestinian man apparently rammed a roadblock with his car, injuring six police officers in the process.

The New York Times unearthed a little-regarded incident that took place in east Jerusalem at the beginning of Ramadan that offered a sneak preview of the police assaults that ended Ramadan and helped spark the conflict in Gaza. Israeli police apparently entered the vicinity of al-Aqsa Mosque on the first day of Ramadan and cut the wiring to the loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer from the facility’s minarets, to make sure the call didn’t interrupt Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s Memorial Day speech at the Western Wall. Rather than schedule his speech around the call to prayer, Rivlin expected the mosque authorities to adjust to his schedule. When they refused, the cops took care of the conflict.

This mosque incident is a relatively minor thing but it’s a microcosm of the double-standard that pervades the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Israeli events take precedence over Palestinian events. Decades-old Israeli property claims are legally relevant, while similar Palestinian claims are not. Israel has the right to defend itself, Palestinians apparently do not. And so forth. That double standard is on clear display right now in the city of Lod, which has reportedly descended into a virtual mini civil war amid ongoing violence between its Arab and Jewish Israeli communities. The double standard is that one of those communities is operating with the acquiescence if not outright cooperation of Israeli security forces:

Far-right Jewish Israelis, often armed with pistols and operating in full view of police, have moved into mixed areas this week. In messages shared by one online Jewish supremacist group, Jews were called to flood into Lod. “Don’t come without any instrument for personal protection,” one message read.

Amir Ohana, the public security minister, has encouraged vigilantism, announcing on Wednesday that “law-abiding citizens carrying weapons” were an aid to authorities. He made the comments after a suspected Jewish gunman was accused of killing an Arab man in Lod. The minister, without presenting evidence, said it was in self-defence.

Since then, attacks have intensified. One video, apparently taken by an Arab resident, showed two Jewish Israelis filling bottles with petrol at a service station next to a white car. “The police are right next to them,” said a voice off-camera.

Internationally, after a weekend of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in cities around the world the Organization of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement on Sunday strongly criticizing the Israeli war effort and its treatment of the Palestinian people. This is important in that the OIC couldn’t collectively agree that water is wet without Saudi approval, and to a large extent it’s been the Saudis’ willingness to look the other way on the Palestinian issue over the past few years that’s allowed other Arab states, like the UAE and Bahrain, to strike their “Abraham Accords” normalization agreements with the Israeli government. The OIC session apparently involved more than a few heated comments directed toward those states. But in truth, the fact that this crisis has shifted from clearly aggressive Israeli actions in east Jerusalem to something that can be portrayed as a typical exchange of fire in Gaza helps leaders in Abu Dhabi, Manama, etc., who can now offer some token criticism of Israel while mostly blaming Hamas for the violence and ignoring everything that preceded it. Regardless, there’s not much point dwelling on this statement because there’s nothing the OIC could do to affect the course of the conflict anyway.

There’s apparently nothing the United Nations Security Council can do, either, or at least nothing it will do after an emergency session on Sunday produced nothing—not just “nothing of substance,” but nothing at all. That’s mostly because the United States, under President Joe “power of our example” Biden and Secretary of State Antony “champion of human rights” Blinken, is blocking any UNSC statement. A UN Security Council statement is invariably a purely symbolic thing unless there’s someone willing to enforce it, and the US can ensure that doesn’t happen. So blocking such a statement makes it clear that Biden is prepared to go to great lengths, even at the risk of isolating the US internationally and angering a sizable chunk of his political base domestically, to shield Israel from even the most toothless criticism.

IRAN

  • 2,751,166 confirmed cases (+11,291)

  • 76,936 reported fatalities (+303)

Saturday saw the emergence of what I would guess will be the main head-to-head confrontation in next month’s Iranian presidential election, as former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and current Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi both registered as candidates. Larijani is arguably one of the most politically connected people in Iran, and though his politics lean conservative he’s been friendly enough with moderates that he could raw a fair amount of moderate-reformist support—to the extent moderate and reformist voters actually participate in the election at all, which is no sure thing. At the very least he’s likely to get past the Guardian Council’s screening process—though that’s no sure thing—where less conservative candidates may not. Larijani’s main problem, aside from some tensions within conservative circles that have seen corruption charges lobbed at the entire Larijani family, is that he’s operating at “wet blanket” levels of charisma.

We talked about Raisi’s potential candidacy a few days ago when reports first emerged that he might run. He will probably crowd any other hardline candidates from the field, including the several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-related people who registered to run, and should probably be considered the prohibitive favorite, especially in a very low turnout election (as this one is expected to be). Raisi’s victory would somewhat remove the stain of his big 2017 faceplant, which would help bolster his candidacy for the job he really wants—supreme leader—though low turnout would impact his legitimacy at least somewhat.

ASIA

AZERBAIJAN

  • 329,843 confirmed cases (+472)

  • 4779 reported fatalities (+11)

Two Azerbaijani border guards were killed in an apparent confrontation with drug smugglers at a checkpoint along the Iranian border on Saturday. Authorities say they seized ten kilograms of unspecified drugs following the incident. There is an overland drug trade that runs from Afghanistan through Iran and into Azerbaijan and beyond.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 63,598 confirmed cases (+114)

  • 2745 reported fatalities (+3)

With the expiration of Afghanistan’s three day Eid ceasefire on Sunday came reports of a renewed Taliban offensive around Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. Laskhar Gah has been a Taliban focus all month. Elsewhere, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for Friday’s mosque bombing in western Kabul, in which 12 people were killed. And the New York Times reports that with the US military on its way out of Afghanistan, Western intelligence agencies are planning to dust off their 1980s playbook:

Western spy agencies are evaluating and courting regional leaders outside the Afghan government who might be able to provide intelligence about terrorist threats long after U.S. forces withdraw, according to current and former American, European and Afghan officials.

The effort represents a turning point in the war. In place of one of the largest multinational military training missions ever is now a hunt for informants and intelligence assets. Despite the diplomats who say the Afghan government and its security forces will be able to stand on their own, the move signals that Western intelligence agencies are preparing for the possible — or even likely — collapse of the central government and an inevitable return to civil war.

Courting proxies in Afghanistan calls back to the 1980s and ’90s, when the country was controlled by the Soviets and then devolved into a factional conflict between regional leaders. The West frequently depended on opposing warlords for intelligence — and at times supported them financially through relationships at odds with the Afghan population. Such policies often left the United States, in particular, beholden to power brokers who brazenly committed human rights abuses.

Among the candidates being considered today for intelligence gathering is the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Afghan fighter who led fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s and then against the Taliban as head of the Northern Alliance the following decade. The son — Ahmad Massoud, 32 — has spent the last few years trying to revive the work of his father by assembling a coalition of militias to defend Afghanistan’s north.

MYANMAR

  • 143,065 confirmed cases (+6)

  • 3212 reported fatalities (+0)

The Myanmar military has apparently taken control of the town of Mindat, in western Myanmar’s Chin state, from the local “Chinland Defense Force” militia. That group, formed in opposition to the country’s ruling junta, had been engaged in a standoff with Myanmar forces for several days in which at least six people were killed. Its fighters reportedly withdrew from Mindat on Sunday.

AFRICA

ETHIOPIA

  • 266,264 confirmed cases (+432)

  • 3996 reported fatalities (+20)

The Ethiopian military claimed on Friday that its forces had “destroyed” a group of “fighters” allegedly linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front who were trying to enter Tigray from Sudan. There’s no confirmation of this claim but it feeds into an Ethiopian state narrative that the remnants of the TPLF are getting support from the Sudanese government. That’s also unconfirmed and unsurprisingly the Sudanese government denies the charge.

The Ethiopian government announced on Saturday that it’s postponing the parliamentary election that had been scheduled for June 5, and before that had been scheduled for last August. Election officials do not seem to have offered any specific reason for the postponement, just a general mention of “delays in opening polling stations and voter registration.” They haven’t rescheduled the vote but say they expect no more than a three week hold-up.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 30,562 confirmed cases (+16)

  • 776 reported fatalities (+0)

The Kivu Security Tracker organization has reported another likely Allied Democratic Forces attack in Ituri province:

EUROPE

ITALY

  • 4,159,122 confirmed cases (+5753)

  • 124,156 reported fatalities (+93)

In a sign that Italy’s unity government is starting to come apart at the seams, League party leader Matteo Salvini said in an interview published Saturday that Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government is “too divided” to implement a package of reforms demanded by the European Union. Draghi has apparently pledged to undertake these reforms, mostly having to do with the Italian tax code and its legal system, in order to secure a hefty €200 billion from the bloc’s pandemic relief fund.

Salvini went on to say that he’s planning to back Draghi to be Italy’s next president in next year’s parliamentary vote, which seems nice except that he’d be doing it in order to trigger the collapse of the government and force a snap election. Polling indicates that Italy’s three-party conservative coalition (the League, Brothers of Italy, and Forza Italia) would win a new election, but it also suggests that the League is on the verge of being supplanted as the largest party in that coalition by Brothers of Italy, in which case Salvini would lose the right to become PM. So he’s got plenty of incentive to collapse the government and trigger the election now, while he’s still the top dog on the Italian right.

AMERICAS

CHILE

  • 1,286,548 confirmed cases (+6296)

  • 27,832 reported fatalities (+98)

Having voted back in October to rewrite their country’s Pinochet-era constitution via a specially elected assembly, Chilean voters returned to the polls this weekend to choose the members of that assembly. It doesn’t appear to be going so well, however. Turnout on Saturday was only around 20 percent, prompting calls for higher turnout on Sunday. A bit over 50 percent of voters participated in October’s plebiscite, so it may not be terribly surprising that turnout for this vote hasn’t been terribly high. Sunday’s figures aren’t available yet.

PERU

  • 1,884,596 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 65,911 reported fatalities (+0)

A new “voter simulation” from Ipsos Peru reinforces the narrative that Peru’s presidential race is virtually tied ahead of the June 6 runoff. The simulation, which is a bit different from a traditional poll in that participants vote anonymously as they would/will in the election and non-votes are discarded, had leftist Pedro Castillo ahead with 51.1 percent support to right-winger Keiko Fujimori’s 48.9 percent. That’s within the poll’s 2.8 percent margin of error. A survey from the Peruvian Studies Institute that was released on Sunday is a bit more favorable to Castillo, giving him a 36.5-29.6 lead over Fujimori.

ECUADOR

  • 410,129 confirmed cases (+609)

  • 19,699 reported fatalities (+7)

Ecuadorean President-elect Guillermo Lasso’s CREO party has managed to cobble together a seemingly unlikely legislative alliance with the indigenous/environmentalist Pachakutik party and the Democratic Left party, which manifested on Saturday with the election of Pachakutik legislator Guadalupe Llori as president of the National Assembly. CREO’s conservative, pro-business agenda would seem to be a bad match for Pachakutik’s environmentalist, ostensibly anti-extraction program, but what do I know? This ad hoc alliance’s purpose seems less to pass any legislation than to prevent the Correaist Union for Hope party, which is the largest in the assembly, from having any influence over the legislative agenda.

VENEZUELA

  • 215,301 confirmed cases (+1070)

  • 2396 reported fatalities (+14)

The Venezuelan government says that eight of its soldiers have been captured in fighting with Colombian militants in Apure state, presumably the 10th Front militia. It’s unclear when they were captured but it’s been at least a week, since authorities say they received “proof of life” on May 9.

UNITED STATES

  • 33,715,951 confirmed cases (+17,834)

  • 600,147 reported fatalities (+289)

Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry told the BBC on Sunday that “50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero” carbon emissions “are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have. That’s just a reality.” I’m not sure Kerry and I have the same definition of “reality,” but anyway this sounds great, and also totally realistic. Maybe we can even adapt some of the unknown technology used in Russia’s unknown brain ray gun to these unknown climate innovations. The United States remains the world’s second biggest overall carbon emitter and, unlike China, is also in the top 20 with respect to emissions per capita.

Finally, the Quincy Institute’s Eli Clifton and the Center for International Policy’s Ben Freeman have produced a new report laying out several ideas for reforming the deeply-in-need-of-reform world of DC think tanks and their financing. I’m planning to have Eli on a future episode of the podcast to talk about the report, but for now here’s their executive summary:

Think tanks produce valuable research reports, opinion pieces, and expert commentary on television and radio; their research fellows and associates testify regularly before Congress. But their work can be compromised by their funders, a lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest. Given public distrust of the U.S. policymaking process, think tanks have a valuable opportunity to take tangible and necessary steps to help reinstill public confidence in the government’s ability to address our nation’s economic, health, environmental, and foreign policy challenges.

Embracing simple standards of funding transparency, complying with the Foreign Agent Registration Act, FARA, and identifying potential or apparent conflicts of interest are necessary steps for think tanks to bolster the credibility of their work and help restore public confidence in the policymaking process. The specific measures explored in this paper are three:

  • Basic standards of donor disclosure and funding transparency must be more widely embraced. Think tanks should be transparent about their funding to preempt potential criticism of undisclosed conflicts of interest involving funders and research products. The long-term benefits of transparency far outweigh the short-term difficulties and publicity challenges that may result from disclosing sources of funding. 

  • Good-faith efforts to disclose activity that may require registration under FARA regulations are essential. This would demonstrate institutional commitments to transparency, avoid any impression of undisclosed conflicts of interest, and serve as endorsements of the Justice Department’s efforts to limit foreign interference in the U.S. political system.

  • Think tanks should proactively identify the appearance of potential conflicts of interest between sources of funding and staff doing work to be offered in the public sphere. Such measures would show that research institutions take seriously the potential for such conflicts and are disclosing when funders — even if funding is not directed to the research product in question — may stand to benefit directly or indirectly from a research product or policy proposal. 

Taken together, these measures are essential to setting think tanks apart from a political system the public does not trust and sees as captured by special interests and dark money, money from opaque sources intended to influence political and policy outcomes. Rebuilding and maintaining credibility in an era increasingly marked by misinformation and public cynicism requires think tanks to actively address the areas in which they have often fallen short: donor transparency and conflict-of-interest avoidance.