The World Today for October 23, 2023

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Walking the Plank


Around 700,000 Afghan refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan since 2021 when the Taliban assumed power after the exit of the US military and its allies. They brought the total of Afghans in the country to 3.7 million, according to Human Rights Watch, most having already sought refuge there to escape the violence in their Central Asian country. Now the Pakistani government wants to kick out about 1.7 million of them.

Early this month, Pakistani officials unexpectedly announced that migrants without legal status would need to leave by November 1 or face arrest and expulsion, reported CNN. The officials claimed national security was at stake. Afghan nationals, they said, perpetrated 14 of the 24 suicide bombings that occurred in Pakistan this year.

Officials blamed the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a terror group that is “ideologically aligned” with the Afghan Taliban, for the surge in violence, wrote Al Jazeera. They also allege that Taliban officials in the Afghan capital of Kabul offer support and safe harbor to the Pakistani Taliban after their raids in Pakistani regions bordering Afghanistan.

Foisting a humanitarian crisis on the Taliban in the Afghan capital of Kabul is therefore arguably a means to counter the Taliban’s support for terror within Pakistan. “The main objective of this crackdown is to pressure the Afghan Taliban government to stop supporting the Pakistani Taliban,” Pakistan-based political analyst Shahzada Zulfiqar told the Guardian.

Afghan officials have decried Pakistan’s decision, saying it only sets the stage for human suffering and a humanitarian crisis.

It certainly would set the stage for tragedy and also benefit the Afghan Taliban in some instances.

For example, take the case of Mohammad Abed Andarabi, a former prosecutor for the American-backed Afghan government that the Taliban ousted. He escaped the Taliban – only to now be running from Pakistani police, the Washington Post wrote. His visa has expired, so technically he is an illegal immigrant. But he faces death if Pakistani authorities send him back to Kabul.

Andarabi’s return would be a case of “refoulement,” a violation of international law when someone is sent to a country where they would face torture or other inhuman treatment or punishment. The United Nations issued just such a warning to the Pakistani government regarding the Afghan refugees.

But those complaints are falling by the wayside in light of the xenophobic, anti-Afghan climate that has been brewing in Pakistan, the New Humanitarian explained. In September, the Pakistani government offered to pay anyone who could provide information about migrant smuggling rings. Supposed tipsters alerted police to Afghans, leading to roundups that included Afghans living legally in Pakistan.

None of this context means much, of course, to the Afghan families now on the road to the home they wanted to leave behind.


The Containment Conundrum


Israeli warplanes struck targets across Gaza, southern Lebanon, airports in Syria and a mosque in the West Bank over the weekend and into Monday, as the war with Hamas threatened to spiral into a broader conflict, the Associated Press reported.

Israel has traded fire with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group since the war began on Oct. 7 with attacks by Hamas on Israel. But now, tensions are rising in the West Bank, where Israeli forces have battled militants in refugee camps and carried out several airstrikes in recent days.

At the same time, Israel has over the past week been setting the stage for a ground offensive in Gaza with tanks and troops massed at the border, the newswire wrote.

Israel’s military said it had increased airstrikes across Gaza to hit targets that would reduce the risk to troops in the next stage of the war. Hamas, meanwhile, said it fought with Israeli forces near Khan Younis in southern Gaza and destroyed a tank and two bulldozers.

Also, aid began trickling into besieged Gaza over the weekend, Reuters reported. Even so, the United Nations appealed for more aid Sunday after about 40 trucks were allowed to cross the Egyptian border into Gaza in two days. The goods delivered through the Rafah crossing were equivalent to just 4 percent of Gaza’s daily imports before recent hostilities, the UN said.

Aid officials said far more aid was needed to address the spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where half the territory’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes and have been living without food, water, fuel electricity or medical supplies due to the Israeli siege.

At the same time, casualties are mounting in Gaza. Heavy airstrikes were reported across the enclave on Sunday and Monday, the AP reported, including in the southern part, where Israel has told civilians to seek refuge. Airstrikes also smashed through the marketplace in the Nuseirat refugee camp.

Since Oct. 7, more than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and at least 212 were captured and dragged back to Gaza.

More than 4,600 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry.

Syrian state media reported that Israeli airstrikes hit international airports in the capital, Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo, killing one person and putting the runways out of service.

Israel has carried out several strikes in Syria since the war began, the military said, to prevent Hezbollah and other militants from bringing in arms from Iran, which also supports Hamas.

Meanwhile, Israel struck southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah said six fighters were killed Saturday, the AP reported separately.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, 93 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops, arrest raids and attacks by Jewish settlers since the Hamas attacks, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israeli forces have closed crossings into the territory and checkpoints between cities, measures they say are aimed at preventing attacks. Israel says it has arrested more than 700 Palestinians since Oct. 7, including 480 suspected Hamas members.

Among the dead were two killed in an airstrike on a mosque in the town of Jenin, which has seen heavy gun battles over the past year, with the Israeli Defense Force saying the compound was being used by Hamas and other militants.

Also over the weekend, hundreds of thousands protested around the world, with 100,000 pro-Palestinian protesters in London marching against the war, and protesters across the Muslim world – from Tunisia to Turkey to Malaysia – calling for an end to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. In Berlin, more than 10,000 demonstrated against anti-Semitism which has seen a sharp rise across Western Europe over the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Jordan harshly criticized Israel over its actions in Gaza at a summit in Cairo on Saturday, a sign that the two Western allies that made peace with Israel decades ago are losing patience with its two-week-old war against Hamas, PBS reported.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who hosted the summit, again rejected any talk of driving Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and warned against the “liquidation of the Palestinian cause.” Jordan’s King Abdullah II called Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza “a war crime.”

The speeches reflected growing anger in the region, even among those with close ties to Israel who have often worked as mediators, as the war enters a third week with casualties mounting and no end in sight.

Pain and Gain


The United Kingdom’s Labour Party dealt a crushing blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives, winning two previously safe parliamentary seats in upsets analysts say foreshadow electoral pain in upcoming national elections, Reuters reported.

The double defeat last Thursday underscored a steep decrease in support for the governing Conservatives, who have won the last four national votes. It also suggests Labour is on course to win power for the first time since 2010 in a general election that must be held by January 2025.

While by-elections are often lost by the governing party, the scale of the defeat in two parliamentary seats the Conservatives have held for years piles pressure on Sunak, who took over almost a year ago after his party became embroiled in multiple scandals under previous leaders, the newswire wrote.

Labour won the constituency of Mid-Bedfordshire by overturning a majority of almost 25,000 – the biggest deficit the party has overcome in a by-election since 1945. A majority of almost 20,000 in the seat of Tamworth was also overturned by Labour.

The two seats became vacant after the resignations of two high-profile Conservative members of Parliament.

Tamworth, in particular, was problematic and echoed the problems the party is grappling with at the national level. It was vacated by former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher after he lost an appeal against a proposed suspension from the House of Commons over allegations that he drunkenly groped two men, CNBC reported. Pincher has denied the allegations.

The handling of Pincher’s case by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson triggered a wave of high-level government resignations that ultimately led to Johnson’s ousting from office last year.

The UK will hold a general election in the next 15 months. Currently, Sunak’s Conservatives trail Labour by at least 20 points in most national polls.

Death By Scarves


An Iranian teenager who fell into a coma this month after an alleged encounter with officers concerning the alleged violation of the country’s hijab law is reportedly brain dead, with authorities bracing for new protests, the Guardian reported Sunday.

“Follow-ups on the latest health condition of Armita Geravand indicate that her health condition as brain dead seems certain despite the efforts of the medical staff,” the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, a state news outlet, wrote.

On Oct. 1 the 16-year-old was hurt in a confrontation with officers enforcing the mandatory Islamic dress code on the Tehran metro, a claim the authorities deny.

Instead, government officials maintain that the teenager fainted due to a drop in blood pressure. But Iranian opposition groups say the authorities are only releasing part of the CCTV footage, showing the victim walking toward the train – but not what happened immediately afterward.

The report on Geravand could revive months-long countrywide protests sparked by the death of the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini while in the custody of “morality police” in September 2022 for allegedly violating the dress code, the newspaper said.

Over the past few months, Iran has renewed its push to enforce its “hijab laws” and returned its morality police to the street after a temporary absence, while lawmakers created stricter penalties for those flouting the head-covering requirement.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, an Iranian court handed out long prison sentences to two journalists over their coverage of Amini’s death, Al Jazeera reported.

Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi were sentenced to 13 and 12 years in prison respectively, on charges including collaboration with the US government and acting against national security.

Lawyers for the two journalists have rejected the charges. Hamedi was detained after she took a picture of Amini’s parents hugging each other in a Tehran hospital where their daughter was lying in a coma, and Mohammadi after she covered Amini’s funeral in her Kurdish hometown of Saqez, where the protests began.


The First Word

Scientists recently extracted the first word from ancient scrolls that were charred during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and thought to be lost forever, the Guardian reported.

These scrolls, preserved for centuries at the site of Herculaneum in southern Italy, are part of a collection housed at the Paris-based Institut de France and are believed to have come from a villa owned by a senior Roman statesman.

The discovery was part of “the Vesuvius challenge,” a competition that sought to decrypt these almost indecipherable texts by releasing thousands of 3D X-ray images of these scrolls and employing artificial intelligence to decipher them.

The winning word uncovered from one of these scrolls is “πορφύραc,” which translates to “purple.”

The Herculaneum scrolls have long fascinated researchers due to what they could possibly tell us. Also, most texts found in this collection are written in ancient Greek, but it is suspected that some may be in Latin. The known fragments have already provided glimpses into works by philosophers like Philodemus and details of Hellenistic dynastic history.

The findings represent a significant leap in the ongoing effort to unlock the wealth of knowledge contained within these scrolls. The hope is that these texts may contain lost works of famous authors, historical documents, and other invaluable insights into the ancient world.

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