The World Today for November 22, 2023

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New Beginning


In a surprise announcement in July, after 13 years in office, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he would retire from politics, after disputes with his leftist allies in government over migration to the Netherlands caused the government to collapse, triggering an election for Nov. 22.

As Le Monde reported, Rutte proposed limiting asylum rights in the country. Migrants fleeing war, he proposed, could only bring their families with them if they had the financial resources to support them. Only 200 people a month could be exempted from the rule.

But Rutte faced other problems, including rising costs of living and an affordable housing crisis, that have made “bestaanszekerheid,” a Dutch term meaning “livelihood security,” the leitmotif of the election season, according to EUobserver.

Now a sense of a new beginning has set in, with voters going to the polls to decide whether Rutte’s liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, his former allies on the left, or his rivals on the right will lead the country, wrote the BBC.

If they cast ballots for the People’s Party, their prime minister will likely become Dilan Yesilgöz, the daughter of Turkish refugees who would become the Netherlands’ first female premier. She has vowed to crack down on immigration. Many Dutch communities feel as if asylum seekers, foreign laborers, and foreign students are flooding their neighborhoods, testing the traditionally tolerant country, Voice of America added.

If they vote out the People’s Party, Pieter Omtzigt, the leader of the new centrist New Social Contract political party, which Omtzigt established in August, is a favorite to become prime minister. An economist, the Financial Times noted, he has promised to curb corruption – he helped expose a scandal where the government withheld child benefits from 20,000 families – and pursue reforms to improve good governance.

Frans Timmermans, a former climate chief in the European Union and the leader of the Labour and Green Left alliance, is running third, Politico reported. Timmermans wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change by 65 percent through 2030, or more than half as much as the EU’s current target. He also has proposed hiking the minimum wage and hiking taxes on high earners. Around 70,000 people marched in Amsterdam 10 days before the vote to express their support for Timmermans’ climate agenda.

In fourth place is right-wing Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom, who are calling for a ban on mosques and using the Koran in schools, and abolishing Islamic schools.

It’s a matter of how the Dutch balance their desire and antipathy to change.


A Little Respite


Israel and Hamas agreed Wednesday to free 50 Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for a four-day pause in fighting, a deal that once implemented will be the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since the war began on Oct. 7, Axios reported.

Both sides confirmed the agreement in separate announcements, which comes after weeks of difficult negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States. The Israeli government approved the deal following hours-long discussions that went into the early hours of the day.

Qatar’s foreign ministry said early on the day that the temporary halt will be announced “within the next 24 hours and last for four days, subject to extension.” It added that humanitarian convoys and relief aid, including fuel, will be allowed to enter Gaza during the pause.

Officials familiar with the deal said it will be carried out in two phases: The first will see Hamas release 30 children, eight mothers and 12 other women over a period of four days. The hostages could be freed as early as Thursday, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In exchange, Israel will order the release of 150 Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli prisons during the pause.

In the second phase, Hamas could release up to 30 captives over a three-day period, with Israel saying it would prolong the pause for every additional 10 hostages released.

Ahead of the announcement, the Israeli government noted that it will persist in its conflict with Hamas despite the pauses, aiming to secure the release of all hostages, fully eliminate Hamas, and prevent any renewed threat from Gaza to Israel.

Even so, analysts and officials hope that the freeing of these hostages could lead to the release of others, including those held by other groups, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The exchange addresses mounting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure the release of around 240 individuals held in Gaza. In return, Hamas hopes to achieve its longstanding goal of freeing Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, seen by many Palestinians as unjustly detained.

Once a ceasefire is in place, security analysts suggested that Israel may face increased pressure to engage in talks, potentially leading to a permanent pause. This could also intensify calls for negotiations to release the remaining hostages and may impact the government’s plans to entirely eliminate Hamas.

Meanwhile, US officials noted that a temporary halt might reduce tensions near Lebanon, where the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah have been engaged in conflict. The US is particularly worried about the possibility that the conflict in Gaza could spread to other parts of the Middle East.

The agreement comes as a growing number of world leaders worry about civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave since fighting began last month. More than 11,000 people have been killed in Israeli airstrikes as of Nov. 10, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which says that continued fighting has made it unable to determine the exact number of casualties.

The Israeli military countered it has taken precautions to minimize civilian harm and accused Hamas of using civilians as shields, a claim denied by Hamas.

Israel launched its military campaign on Gaza following a surprise attack by Hamas and its affiliated groups on Oct. 7 that left around 1,200 people dead and saw the capture of around 240 hostages, including a number of US citizens.

(Not) Aiding and Abetting


A diplomatic row between Canada and China over the detention of two Canadian citizens resurfaced this week after one of the individuals claimed he was arrested for unintentionally passing on intelligence to Ottawa and its allies, the Guardian reported.

This week, Canadian media reported that Michael Spavor is seeking a multi-million-dollar settlement with the Canadian government, saying that he was “unwittingly” providing intelligence on North Korea to fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig. Kovrig then relayed that information to Canada and its Five Eyes intelligence network allies.

In 2018, Chinese authorities arrested the two men on espionage charges, which coincided with the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada in connection with possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran.

Officials alleged Spavor – who lived near the North Korean border and arranged cultural exchanges – supplied intelligence to Kovrig, who had taken leave from his diplomatic role in Canada’s Beijing embassy.

In August 2021, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years for spying, while Kovrig’s verdict remained undisclosed after a secret trial in March. Both men were released in September 2021, following Wanzhou’s deal with US prosecutors, concluding a standoff that lasted more than 1,000 days

At the time, Canada and its allies had accused Beijing of engaging in “hostage diplomacy.” But Spavor’s recent claims prompted Chinese officials to reiterate claims that both men were “suspected of committing crimes endangering China’s national security”.

Even so, the Canadian government denied the allegations, while former diplomats and analysts gave mixed reactions to Spavor’s claims.

The latest dispute adds more tension to the already strained ties between Canada and China, Agence France-Presse noted.

Recent allegations of Beijing trying to intimidate Canadian lawmakers resulted in the expulsion of a Chinese diplomat in May. Canada also launched a public inquiry to investigate claims of Chinese interference in Canadian elections, which Beijing has dismissed as “groundless.”

Desperate Measures


Colombia began sterilizing its hippopotamuses this month, the animals descended from the specimens brought into the country by drug lord Pablo Escobar, the Associated Press reported.

The government announced a plan to sterilize 40 hippos a year, starting last week with two males and one female, to address a population currently estimated at 169 but is continuing to grow.

In the 1980s the mammals, native to Africa, were illegally brought into Escobar’s Hacienda Nápoles, his private zoo. After the so-called “king of cocaine” was killed in 1993, his estate and hippos became a tourist attraction, as the animals were left to roam in nearby rivers. An attempt to remove them had failed because of their large size, NBC News explained.

Hippopotamuses rank amongst the highest species in the food chain of the Colombian ecosystem, so their reproduction is not naturally tamed. Their number in Colombia could grow to 1,000 by 2035 if nothing is done to control the population.

Last year, the Colombian government declared them as an invasive species. An early proposal to deal with the problem was to hunt the mammals, but it faced the opposition of animal rights activists.

The alternative currently being carried out entails a hectic and dangerous process, the AP explained. Hippos are aggressive and hard to capture. Recent heavy rains have provided them with more food, which makes baiting even more difficult. Observers also noted that hippos can react negatively to surgical operations, which can in some cases lead to death.

The sterilization will also mark a significant cost for the state: Sterilizing one animal costs around $10,000. However, exporting the hippos would be far more expensive, NBC News reported.


Living Fossils

Paleontologists in northern China made discoveries redefining the history of the evolution of lampreys, a carnivorous fish, after unearthing two, 160-million-year-old fossils of the species, Science Alert reported.

Lampreys are one of the most ancient living types of animals on Earth. They have been around for at least 360 million years and appear to have undergone little evolutionary change.

They are famous for their feeding behavior, using their circular mouth covered in small sharp teeth to scrape tissues or suck blood from the fish they either prey on or cling onto.

In their paper published in Nature Communications, researchers explained that ancient lampreys only left a “meager fossil record,” and highlighted that the fossils found in the Chinese Yanliao Biota were “superbly preserved”.

The study of these fossils provided new crucial insights into the life and biological evolution of lampreys in the Jurassic era.

Modern lampreys can grow up to three feet in length, but ancient ones used to be just a few inches long and are believed to have primarily fed on algae found on other sea animals.

However, the team found the Jurassic creatures were larger than expected and measured around 25 inches – making them the largest lamprey fossil ever found.

And they were no simple bloodsuckers: Remnants of fish bones in their intestinal tracts indicated that Jurassic lampreys were carnivorous, the oldest noticeable evidence of the animal’s feeding behavior.

Researchers added that the size and other fossil elements might also be evidence that lampreys had already developed a three-stage life cycle that contemporary specimens also have.

The findings also challenge the geographical origin of lampreys, suggesting that modern lampreys may have originated in the Southern Hemisphere.

Clarification: In Tuesday’s THE WORLD, BRIEFLY section, we said in our “A Tragic Tally” item that 102 women lost their lives in Italy this year. We would like to clarify that the figure represents 102 women who were murder victims. We apologize for the confusion.

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