A war of words and glory, Gaza is grappling with catastrophic hunger, ICJ: South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide, Israeli cabinet discussions on post-war Gaza, Qatari mediation bringing positive steps on a deal for a hostage exchange and month-long truce, US sinks Houthi boats in the Red Sea, Waiting for Nasrallah’s speech, Iran accelerates its nuclear program, The first Israeli conscientious objectors sentenced to military jail, Licences to carry weapons suspended in all Lebanon, Prisons without food, AUB seminar “Lebanon in its Second Century” discusses good governance in economics, Episcopal Committee for Catholic Schools concerned over the management of Lebanese schools’ budgets
If the end of the year is the period in which we usually look back – as the numerous published reviews of 2023 demonstrate -, the events of the last week all seem to force us to turn our gaze to the uncertainty of tomorrow.
It is the beginning of January, the exordium of a new year, the period in which the possibilities of renewal and revolution open up. The sowing of political processes, negotiations, and economic reforms will bear fruit: not guided by hope, assuming there is any left, but, more likely, by shame.
Shame is a revolutionary feeling, Marx wrote in a letter to Arnold Ruge in March 1843. Not meaning that revolutions are made by shame: but rather that shame is, in itself, a revolution. And he added: “if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring.”
Now that the cries of injustice, corruption and inequality have been aborted, and a new genocidal war has brought the Middle Eastern region back to the center of the international debate, it is in the name of shame that we move. Without shouting, of course, because the perverted nature of governments hides its face in shame. We feel ashamed of the world, of the wealth of the powerful when it becomes indecent. Of the hypocrisy of European humanism, of double standards, of the claimed universality of rights and the particularization of racist practices. Of the criminal complicity of distraction and silence, of hypocrisy, of those who don’t stop talking about humans even though they massacre them wherever they meet them. Of the food left to spoil or go to waste on days of hunger. Of a planet that we have exploited till the point it turns against our species. We are ashamed of the rain that kills four children in northern Lebanon and of the fact that their names have already been forgotten. That to alleviate the economic crisis, the government puts pressure on contract teachers, that its negligence threatens to interrupt the food supply to the country’s prisons. That weapons are withdrawn close to the holidays, that in the midst of a war we risk dying of joy. Even that there could be, during a genocide, something to celebrate for.
Revolutionary, hopefully, will be the shame of settlers, hit by the recoil of their own colonial violence. The Israelis of tomorrow, no longer confusing the violence of the oppressed with the rhetoric of antisemitism, will realize that they are its primary cause, and will perhaps be ashamed of having presented themselves to the world as the victims of history – even when they were the executioners. The new generations will be ashamed of the crimes of their fathers; they will think, re-reading a story of which they will have become the object, that it is better to be a native in the most atrocious moment of your people’s misery, than a colonial settler. That the worst place to be born today is not in Gaza; it is more atrocious and shameful, today, to be born on the wrong side of history: on the renamed land that decades of ethnic cleansing have not yet erased the Palestinian blood from.
It is perhaps moved by this feeling that thousands of young people protested in front of the Knesset: in the name of radical shame, the expression of an anger that is powerful, and takes on a transformative value; signifier of new struggles, central – and global – feeling of our sad era.
Waiting for Nasrallah: Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, will speak tomorrow, January 3, 2024, at 6:00 pm, during the commemorative ceremony held by the party on the fourth anniversary of the killing of IRGC top commanders General Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, both targeted by a US drone strike ordered by former president Donald Trump. In addition to the commemoration of the aforementioned commanders and that of the recently killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi – the IRGC senior commander in Syria killed on December 25 in an Israeli air strike in Damascus -, Nasrallah will likely discuss the latest developments of the Israeli war on Gaza and the ongoing military confrontations on the Lebanese southern borders.
In this regard, Reuters reported, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to Hezbollah and Iran, saying that “if Hezbollah escalates attacks, it will suffer blows that it has not dreamed of,” and that “so will Iran,” being now committed to resettle the internally displaced citizens of the northern regions of the Jewish state, emptied since October 8, when border clashes erupted. Earlier on Sunday, in fact, Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting that they are “working to restore security in the north and return the residents to their homes,” this currently necessitating the “continuation of the fighting there,” and that “if we don’t achieve it politically, we will achieve it militarily.”
Later on Monday, moreover, former Israeli defense minister, and right-wing opposition politician, Avigdor Lieberman, has called for the Israeli army to control parts of southern Lebanon, in order to create a security buffer zone. In his comments, Lieberman proposed that Israel’s military must “close off” parts of southern Lebanon, and that “everything between the Litani and Israel must be under the control” of the Israeli army, suggesting that this zone could be there “until a government is established in Beirut that is able to exercise its sovereignty over the entire territory.” This follows a similar suggestion made by the current Israeli Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, that the Israeli army could push Hezbollah north of the Litani river, to enable communities in northern Israel to return to their homes.
Meanwhile, waiting for Hezbollah Secretary-General’s speech, the party’s deputy leader Naim Qassem, during a memorial event on Sunday, affirmed Hezbollah’s commitment to a proportional state of war against Israeli aggression on the southern front, disregarding Netanyahu’s threats, and highlighting that “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood marked the beginning of a new era, centered on cultural and political rejuvenation, and expanding support for the resistance movement.”
Qassem stated that halting the Gaza war is crucial to end hostilities in Lebanon, and he warned for a stronger response if Israel persists in bombing Lebanese civilians, saying that, although Israel claims to have options and plans to return settlers to the northern regions, it has to “confront the resilience of the resistance against aggression.” Qassem clarified that “Israel cannot relocate settlers to the north amidst this battle and cannot gain any advantage in this fight or its aftermath. It must first halt the Gaza war to cease hostilities in Lebanon. Persisting in bombing civilians in Lebanon means the response will be stronger and proportionate to Israeli aggression.”
The party’s deputy leader said Hezbollah recognizes that the “sacrifices” its fighters make are significant, “yet they are necessary and essential to defy a perilous project over Palestine and the region.” Since October 8, in fact, Hezbollah has lost nearly 140 fighters, explaining in their statements that they were “martyred on the path to Jerusalem,” without providing further information. Nasrallah’s speech, on Wednesday, will likely dedicate a tribute to them.
Weapons suspended: The Lebanese caretaker Minister of National Defense Maurice Slim decided on Tuesday to freeze the validity of licenses to carry weapons in all Lebanese territories, according to state-run National News Agency.
“Licenses to carry weapons in all Lebanese territories will be suspended, as of December 28 until further notice,” the report reads, exempting from this decision those who have a diplomatic or official permit to carry weapons, as well as those who accompany ministers, current and former MPs, heads of political parties and sects.
It is common for such measures to be taken in Lebanon before big holidays; especially since some people are known to shoot in the air as a way of celebrating, which often leads to casualties and injuries.
Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour has dedicated a special series named ‘Lebanon’s invisible killer: Stray bullets’ to openly denounce the culture of shooting firearms into the air. Journalists have collected the stories of Wassim Hafezeh, 13, shot in the arm; Veh Christ Harboyan, also 13, shot while playing football; Zeinab al-Maoula, 60, shot in the shoulder; Mariam Ibrahim, 41, shot in her stomach, and many other victims of Lebanon’s invisible killer: while some walked away with injuries, only in 2023, 7 died of their wounds.
Interviewed by L’Orient-Le Jour, Fadi Abi Allam, founder of the Permanent Peace Movement, which has been working for over 20 years on arms control and the prevention of armed conflict, has claimed that the issue of celebratory gunfire in Lebanon can only be resolved through a combination of legal and educational actions. Next to sanctions and penalties, he said, “we should try to prevent it,” involving the active participation of educational figures such as parents, teachers, religious leaders, local authorities and the tribal chiefs, as well as the media, through the involvement of public figures.
Prisons without food: Companies supplying food to Lebanese prisons threatened to cut deliveries by the end of the year due to the government’s unpaid bills from the last three years, L’Orient-Le Jour reported, citing a statement released by the state-run National News Agency.
Six food suppliers for the Roumieh, Zahle, and Tripoli prisons, as well as the Baabda women’s prison, said they will “stop supplying food to several Lebanese prisons by December 31, 2023, as the contractual period with the Lebanese authorities has ended without a new tender and without the allocation of funds necessary for us to continue our work,” reads a letter sent to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces, denouncing overdue payments since 2020. The companies had already issued a similar ultimatum in March, sending a similar letter to caretaker Minister of Interior Bassam Mawlawi.
Serious deterioration in access to food for detainees had been flagged by a report from Human Rights Watch since 2019, as families no longer have the means to buy food for their relatives due to the worsened economic crisis. Therefore, statal food distribution – despite providing a lower quality of food and usually insufficient quantities – has become the main provider that detainees are relying on.
The school of tomorrow: On Wednesday, Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Boutros al-Rahi, presided over an educational meeting in Bkerki, discussing the law ratified on December 15, with the participation of Caretaker Minister of Education, Abbas al-Halabi, and other concerned officials, the National News Agency (NNA) reported.
The law, amending certain regulations governing educational authority in private schools and the management of school budgets – which caused over 300 Catholic schools’ open strike – allocates 650 billion Lebanese pounds from the 2023 budget of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to the Indemnity Fund for educational staff in private schools. A second bill, proposed by MP Ali Hassan Khalil, seeks to amend various articles in laws governing private educational institutions, private schools’ budgets and the retirement and service termination of teachers.
The amendments aim to enhance the compensation fund’s revenues, ensure timely payments from private educational institutions and strengthen the state’s oversight role. The proposed changes include the mandatory contribution of contractual teachers to the indemnity fund by deducting a percentage from their monthly salaries, an obligation that previously applied to full-time teachers only.
Other modifications involve increasing the school’s contribution to the fund from 6% to 8% and raising contractual and full-time teachers’ contribution from 6% to 8%. Additionally, private schools must provide an annual clearance certificate to the Ministry of Education to confirm payment of obligations, including contributions of retirees and staff members.
The Episcopal Committee for Catholic Schools in Lebanon strongly opposed the controversial law, expressing concerns that it was passed without previous consultation with relevant stakeholders.
After the educational meeting held earlier in Bkerki, Caretaker Minister of Education, Abbas Al-Halabi, stated that, having exchanged views regarding the private schools’ budgeting, they agreed to form a committee, chaired by himself and composed of all educational body elements, setting a deadline until January 8 to “propose mechanisms and address the gaps so that suggestions can be put forth.” Emphasizing that the educational body is keen on resuming education in schools and private institutions after the holiday break, he also noted that “it is still premature to discuss whether the strike will continue beyond the 8th of January or not,” leaving the future of Lebanese schools uncertain.
Towards a civil state: “Good governance in economics” was the theme of the sixth session of AUB’s seminar series, “Lebanon in its Second Century: A Forward Vision,” which began on November 1 and will run to March 2024 within the “governance and politics” cluster.
As NOW’s Maan Barazy reported, the panel, moderated by An-Nahar journalist Sabine Oueiss and featuring economists Kamal Hamdan and Toufic Gaspard, explored possible ways to recover from the multitude of crises inherited from the first century of Lebanon’s institutions. The banking sector, on one side, has departed from the four key principles of governance: accountability, transparency, fairness, and responsibility; while the ruling class, on the other side, has failed its objectives of maintaining power-sharing arrangements, preserving democracy, and preventing violence and conflicts.
On the edge of Lebanon’s second century, the country is facing the primary dual challenge of lacking accountability and scrutiny, and has lost its competitive position in the region, due to various regional upheavals. According to the panelists, to confront the ongoing challenges, notably the financial crisis since October 2019, Lebanon requires a restructured state supported by a new economic model centered on social justice and transparency.
Particularly, concerning the issue of making banks, it is interesting to note that there is a substantial overlap between the country’s political class and those with financial interests and shareholders in the banking sector, having studies demonstrated that a quarter of all board members of Lebanon’s largest banks meet the internationally recognized definition of a politically exposed person (PEP).
The panel, therefore, proposed strategies to review economic growth indicators and endeavor to revive Lebanon’s competitive role. The model for the next millennium is to address social issues and integrate them into growth trajectories, ensuring that economic development is inclusive and addresses societal concerns.
In The Region
National mourning: Riad Turk, well-known Syrian dissident, known as one the most eminent fighters for democracy in Syria, or “the old man of Syrian opposition”, died on Monday, at the age of 93, in his French exile.
Khuzama Turk, his daughter, told AFP that her father “died peacefully and satisfied with what he has accomplished,” surrounded by his family. For the years he spent in prison due to his firm opposition to the Assad regime, he was widely known as the ‘Syrian Mandela’: totally, he had spent 17 years imprisoned, often without trial, on claims of various offences under Hafez al-Assad, and later his son Bashar, that became Syria’s president in 2000.
For his statement on Al Jazeera television in August 2001 that “the dictator has died”, referring to former president Hafez, Turk was arrested and subjected to a trial widely seen as unfair before a state security court. In June 2002, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means.” This led to international protests, especially given his poor health.
Turk was the longtime leader of the dissident Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau from its foundation in 1973 until 2005, outlawed by Bashar al-Assad and later renamed the Syrian Democratic People’s Party. He supported the anti-government protests which broke out in Syria in 2011, describing them as “peaceful, popular and anti-sectarian,” and backed the Syrian National Council which brought together opponents of Assad as the country’s civil war intensified.
“There will be no compromise nor negotiations about our goal of toppling this despotic regime,” he declared, before being exfiltrated out of Syria into neighboring Turkey, from where he fled to France in 2018.
A long way: On Thursday, for the first time since October 7, the Israeli war cabinet was set to hold a meeting to address Gaza’s port-war future, Israeli media reports. The war cabinet was to discuss a plan presented by the Israeli National Security Headquarters outlining steps to be taken once the conflict ends. Far-right Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote in a post on X that the war Cabinet’s role is to determine post-war policy, stressing that discussions about Gaza’s future belong within this specific cabinet, not the broader conceptual cabinet led by Minister Benny Ganz.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the war cabinet discussions, having faced, according to Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12, “significant pressure” from his coalition partners to cancel the talks, including from two far-right ministers.
Netanyahu’s decision of putting off the discussion angered the Biden administration, which argues that failure to plan for who will govern Gaza after the war will lead to the IDF being bogged down in the enclave indefinitely. Netanyahu has offered scant details on what he would like to see, sharing assertions that Israel will not allow the Palestinian Authority to rule Gaza and that the IDF will maintain overall security control over the enclave.
Meanwhile, a possible plan was proposed by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – a far-right politician and head of the Religious Zionism party -, who said that Israel must drastically reduce the number of Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip in order to control the territory, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. “I ask that the Gaza Strip not continue to be a home where two million people grow up in hatred and aspire to destroy the State of Israel. If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million, all the talk about the day after will be different,” he stated in an interview with Army Radio. He added that to ensure security, Israel must control the Gaza Strip, and that “to control the territory militarily over the long term, we must also be present as civilians,” referring to the possibility of building new colonial settlements in the besieged enclave.
Yet, in the north of Gaza, Monday marked the start of the gradual shift to lower intensity operations, as Israel pulled tanks out of some Gaza City districts in line with its announced plans to shift tactics and cut back on troop numbers, in order to make the war sustainable for many more months. Still, fighting raged elsewhere in the Palestinian enclave, along with intense bombardment.
Answers, though, seem different on the diplomatic level, where the Qatari mediation is apparently bringing positive steps on a deal for a hostage exchange and month-long truce in the Strip. A delegation from Hamas, AFP reported, arrived in Cairo on Friday to convey the response of all Palestinian factions to an Egyptian plan for the release of hostages and a pause in the clashes. This response will be given “in the next few days,” said Muhammad al-Hindi, deputy secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, an armed group fighting alongside Hamas, in a statement.
Also Israeli channels reported on Friday that Hamas agreed for the first time to an exchange deal “without a comprehensive cessation of the war as a condition” for the return of the hostages held in Gaza, while other Israeli media indicated that Israel discussed a proposal from Doha for a hostage exchange in return for a month-long truce. Channel 12, in particular, confirmed the Qatari proposal stipulates a one-month truce in return for the release of 40 to 50 hostages in the first phase, along with an unspecified number of Palestinians held by Israel. The broadcaster added that the second stage is viewed as more complex and it remains unclear what will be agreed, though in principle it includes Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.
Catastrophic hunger: “Gaza is grappling with catastrophic hunger. 40% of the population are now at risk of famine,” UNRWA wrote on X on Saturday, reposting a video released by Thomas White, director of the UN Agency affairs in Gaza, that shows a crowd of people rushing behind and climbing an UNRWA aid convoy. “Every day is a struggle for survival, finding food and water,” the Agency continued, asking for regular supplies and safe and sustainable humanitarian access to the Strip.
The humanitarian catastrophe hitting the Strip is not sparing any area. After the IDF told Palestinian civilians to leave parts of Khan Younis – as fighting has intensified there, an area considered a stronghold of Hamas – about 100,000 people have moved to Rafah, the most southerly city in Gaza which borders Egypt. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this sudden movement of people is causing overcrowding in Rafah, while diseases continue to spread across the enclave.
Al Jazeera journalist Hani Mahmoud reported from Rafah that, despite the latest UN Security Council resolution being supposed to increase humanitarian aid, “we went through Christmas and now the New Year, and the situation has only gone from worse to even worse and more complicated.” He added that “here in Rafah people keep coming in and filling the area, which has not only run out of space but also infrastructure. The area doesn’t have the capacity to receive this large number of displaced Palestinians and has a shortage of food and medicine.”
Images of Palestinians queuing in line for hours just to go through the UNRWA registration process to be able to receive a little bit of food are spreading, while news of aid delivery ships from Cyprus was released on Sunday. Under the arrangement first suggested by Nicosia in November, cargo would undergo security inspection in the Cypriot port of Larnaca before being ferried to the Gaza coast, rather than through neighboring Egypt or Israel. If the plan goes ahead, it would mark the first easing of an Israeli naval blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas seized control of the Palestinian enclave.
Meanwhile, heavy Israeli shelling continued on New Year’s Eve, killing and wounding hundreds of Palestinians, and flattening homes across Gaza, 70% of which are believed to have been damaged or destroyed in Israeli air strikes.
So far, Israeli attacks have killed nearly 22,000 people, including more than 9,000 children, the government media office in the Gaza Strip reported on Sunday, despite health officials in Gaza having repeatedly stated that the number of those killed are far higher than what is being published by the Ministry of Health, due to people being trapped under the rubble and a lack of access to healthcare facilities and hospitals.
To the court: South Africa has filed a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of genocidal crimes against Palestinians in Gaza, after nearly three months of relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed more than 21,500 people, displaced 1.8 million and caused massive destruction in the besieged enclave.
In an application to the court on Friday, South Africa instituted proceedings against the Jewish state and asked the ICJ, also called the World Court, to indicate provisional measures. The ICJ, a UN civil court that adjudicates disputes between countries, is distinct from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes individuals for war crimes. As members of the UN, both South Africa and Israel are bound by the court.
Asking to examine whether Israel had violated the 1948 Genocide Convention, the applicant described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnic group,” including “killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction,” the application said.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has earlier compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank with his country’s past apartheid regime of racial segregation imposed by the white-minority rule that ended in 1994, a comparison that Israel vehemently rejects, despite it being supported by international human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
Israel’s foreign ministry called on the court to dismiss the claims, which it said had no basis in fact or law. “Israel rejects with disgust the blood libel spread by South Africa in its application to the International Court of Justice,” spokesperson Lior Haiat wrote on social media, insisting that “South Africa is cooperating with a terrorist organization that is calling for the destruction of the State of Israel” and that this latter “has made it clear that the residents of the Gaza Strip are not the enemy, and is making every effort to limit harm to civilians and to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.”
War of words: South Africa’s one is not the only strong rhetoric attack that world leaders’ have been publicly hitting Israel with. While in Gaza and in the occupied Palestinian territories the conflict is measured in starvation, massacres, and arbitrary arrests campaigns, on a diplomatic level it seems closer to a verbal war.
The heavy accusation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claiming there is “no difference” between what Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu is doing in the months-long attacks on Gaza and what Nazi leader Adolf Hitler did decades ago in Germany, provoked the early response of Israeli officials.
At a science awards ceremony in the capital Ankara on Wednesday, Erdogan asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “how do you differ from Hitler? These actions will make us look for Hitler as well. Is there anything Netanyahu does that is less than Hitler? No,” the President said, also referring to the persecutions and threats faced by scholars worldwide who are being fired or censured for standing up for Palestinians.
Netanyahu responded to Erdogan’s comment saying Turkish President is the last person “to preach morality” to Israel. “Erdogan, who commits genocide against the Kurds, who holds a world record for imprisoning journalists who oppose his rule, is the last person who can preach morality to us,” he stated, adding that “the IDF is the most moral army in the world that fights and destroys the most abhorrent and cruel terrorist organization in the world, Hamas-ISIS, which has committed crimes against humanity and which Erdogan praises and hosts its senior officials.”
Following the same line, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog also rejected Erdogan’s claims, stating that “in all of human history, the Holocaust stands alone in its horror and enormity, and his words are deeply offensive to every Jew around the world, and to the memory of the millions of Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis,” and that “there is no struggle more just than the war against the terrorist organization Hamas, which brutally and barbarically murdered Jews, as well as Muslims, and those of other faiths and nationalities.”
Previously, Turkish President called Israel’s operation in Gaza a genocide and labeled Israel as a “terrorist state,” while refusing to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization. He also urged the international community to investigate Israel’s alleged war crimes in Gaza.
Race for glory: On Wednesday, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stated that the October 7 attack on Israel was revenge for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a senior IRGC officer responsible for Iran’s external military and intelligence operations, killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in January 2020. The conference, held in the aftermath of the assassination of senior IRGC commander, Seyyed Razi Mousavi, due to an Israeli airstrike in the Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood of the Syrian capital of Damascus, underlined Iran’s forthcoming and appropriate response.
According to the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency, the spokesperson for the IRGC, Ramezan Sharif, said at the press conference that one of the main reasons that the Israeli regime assassinated Mousavi was due to its failure on October 7, when Palestinian resistance movements launched the surprise attack, dubbed Operation Al-Aqsa Storm, into the occupied territories.
Moreover, Sharif stated that “Al-Aqsa Storm was one of the retaliations of the Axis of Resistance against the Zionists for the martyrdom of Qasem Soleimani,” contradicting the Iranian regime’s usual stance of distancing from the attacks, even though it has supported them. Tehran has in fact asserted that Hamas – as well as the other allies of the Axis of Resistance, namely the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis and the Shiite militias in Iraq – all acted independently, in spite of years of huge financial and military support given to the proxy-militants from Tehran.
In a statement published on its Telegram channel, Hamas has reacted to Iranian claims, denying Teheran’s influence in the October 7 operation, and stressing that the operation was a response, among other things, “to the dangers threatening al-Aqsa Mosque.”
Refusenik: The first of the Israeli conscientious objectors was sentenced to 30 days in a military jail after refusing to be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. Tal Mitnick, 18, had written a letter in which he explained his refusal to take part in “this bloodbath” and called for profound political change. To this ‘refusenik’ appeal, the military justice system responded with prison, and the threat of worsening his sentence if he persisted in his pacifist determination.
“This land has a problem – there are two nations with an undeniable connection to this place. But even with all the violence in the world, we could not erase the Palestinian people or their connection to this land, just as the Jewish people or our connection to that same land cannot be erased,” Tal wrote in a statement before he was court-martialed.
Mitnick is part of an organization of conscientious objectors called ‘Merarvot’ (‘We refuse’ in Hebrew), on whose X page, on Tuesday, the video of the young man outside Tel Hashomer base was posted.
Having drafted a record 300,000 reservists in its response to the Hamas attack from Gaza on October 7, Israel requires every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 who is Jewish, Druze or Circassian to serve in the Israeli army. Palestinian Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel and Orthodox Jewish religious students are exempt from compulsory military service.
The government wants to “deepen the occupation and disallow any kind of dissent,” he said on the eve of his sentencing, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, adding that “slaughter cannot solve slaughter.”
This comes at a time when protests in Israel are rising. Hundreds of young Israelis from communities adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip demonstrated on Thursday night outside the Knesset, calling for the release of the dozens of hostages being still held by Hamas. The rally came at the end of a five-day march from re-named ‘Hostages Square’ in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, addressed by Yuval Sharabi, 17, from Kibbutz Be’eri, whose father Yossi and uncle Eli are being held in Gaza.
Speeding up: Iran has resumed enriching uranium at a similar rate as at the start of the year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Tuesday, as the country accelerates its nuclear program while denying it is developing a bomb.
Iran has “increased its production of highly enriched uranium, reversing a previous output reduction from mid-2023,” the IAEA said in a statement, enriching to up to 60%, close to the roughly 90% that is weapons grade, at its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), in Natanz, and at its Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP). In fact, while nuclear weapons require uranium enriched to 90%, 3.67% is enough for nuclear power stations.
“The Agency confirms that, since the end of November 2023, the rate at which Iran has been producing uranium enriched up to 60% U-235 at these two facilities combined has increased to approximately 9 kg per month,” the report to member states said. By the IAEA’s theoretical definition, around 42 kg of uranium enriched to 60% is the amount at which making a nuclear bomb with it cannot be excluded.
In November, Iran held 567.1 kilograms of uranium enriched at 20% and 128.3 kilogram at 60%, three times what would be needed to build an atomic bomb if enriched to 90%, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s theoretical definition.
IAEA inspectors first observed a change in production at Fordow on November 25, after which Iran said the change was made on November 22, and that the rate of production was returning to the pre-slowdown level there, the report said. It then re-increased on December 19 at Natanz and on December 24 at Fordow.
Iran’s atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami said there was “nothing new” in an international nuclear watchdog report saying that Tehran had reversed a months-long slowdown in its uranium enrichment programme, Iranian media reported according to Reuters. “We did nothing new and are doing the same activities according to the rules,” Eslami was quoted as saying.
Already in November, a confidential IAEA report seen by AFP indicated that Iran’s enriched uranium stocks were 22 times the limits authorized in the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for lifting sanctions – an accord that fell apart in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump pulled out the United States. His successor, President Joe Biden, has tried to revive the accord through talks in Vienna, but the process has been at a standstill since summer 2022.
Nevertheless, many diplomats believed the months-long slowdown, which had begun by June, was the result of secret talks between the United States and Iran that led to the release of US citizens held in Iran earlier this year. Though, accusing each other of exacerbating the war between Israel and Hamas, animosity between the two countries has intensified in recent months.
Escalation: The United States military announced on Sunday that it had sunk three boats belonging to the Yemeni Houthis and killed 10 members of their their crews in response to the second attack in less than 24 hours on a container carrier in the Red Sea.
The Houthis are launching drone and missile attacks targeting ships near the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea, claiming they want to exert pressure on Israel and its allies.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) communicated on X that American helicopters “responded to a distress call from the Maersk Hangzhou,” a Danish container ship flying the Singapore flag, which said it had been attacked by four Houthi boats. In response to this distress call, helicopters from two warships, the USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely, flew towards the Maersk ship, shooting down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired at the Danish vessel.
Earlier on Sunday, Maersk – that, together with German shipping company Hapag-Lloyd, operates almost a quarter of the world’s shipping fleet – announced that it was pausing all sailing through the Red Sea for the next 48 hours, after it had scheduled several dozen container vessels to travel via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Other shipping firms have also responded to the escalating maritime conflict, as they are planning to avoid the Red Sea and increase the number of ships rerouting around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope rather than the Suez Canal – despite this new route being longer and costlier. Moreover, while these attacks have had a fairly limited impact on the oil market so far, experts postulate that prices could rise if the situation continues.
Despite a multinational coalition agreeing to support the US cause, only the United Kingdom has directly contributed warships. The US, from their side, have not been able to deter the Houthis so far, with the group waging attacks even more frequently and the risk of a serious escalation due to the recent confrontation, which not only sank Houthi boats, but also killed 10 of their fighters.
What We’re Reading
Celebrating amidst chaos: Political psychologist Ramzi Abou Ismail wrote for NOW about the difficult regional, environmental, political and economic circumstances in which 2023 Lebanon is celebrating Christmas, made possible by a collective effort of compartmentalization, which has become a survival strategy.
Trigger for a broader war: As part of Israel’s strategy in Syria, aiming to obstruct any routes for transporting weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the IDF’s efforts to significantly curtail Iran’s ability to support its proxy allies, the recent assassination of IRGC senior commander Razi Mousavi might trigger for a broader regional war, reinforcing the narrative of Iran defending the region.
A tragedy every winter: Every winter season, the rain reveals the fragility of Lebanon’s infrastructure and the authorities’ failure to complete basic road work and proper maintenance. Rodayna Raydan drew for NOW a possible solution for Lebanon’s flooding issue: proper arrangements for land use management, a renewed transportation system, sub-surface drainage facilities, standardized inspection and upkeep mechanisms, together with an active and responsible participation of stakeholders and community members.
On the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Mohamad Chatah, The Beirut Banyan’s Ronnie Chatah dedicated a very special episode to the memory of his father. With appearances by Hoda Shatah, Nadim Munla, Salam Fayyad, Oussama Himani, Said Bakhache, Muhammad Baasiri, PM Fouad Saniora, Asma-Maria Andraos, Nadim Shehadi, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, Zeina Kassem, Ambassador Frederic Hof, Malek Mroue, Toufic Hindi, Ambassador Thomas Fletcher, Samy Gemayel, Samir Geagea and President Michel Sleiman.