The World Today for January 23, 2024

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Ever After

ISRAEL/ GAZA

Yossi Sharabi and Itay Svirsky were two of the more than 240 people whom the Palestinian terror group Hamas kidnapped on Oct. 7. In a video released by Hamas, they appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the war in the Gaza Strip, reported USA Today. The video later included footage of their lifeless bodies after an Israeli air strike, causing outrage and grief in Israel.

“The loss and suffering of the families is enormous and unimaginable,” said Kibbutz Be’eri, where the two men lived, according to the Times of Israel. “We call on the war cabinet to do everything to return the members of the Sharabi family home as well as the other abductees.”

Their calls, increasingly echoed by other Israelis, are facing staunch resistance from Israeli settlers and their right-wing representatives in the Israeli government, especially Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who last week publicly dismissed attempts by the US to push a draw-down and a resolution to the war that involves a two-state solution.

“We will not settle for anything short of an absolute victory,” Netanyahu said. “This truth I tell to our American friends, and I put the brakes on the attempt to coerce us to a reality that would endanger the state of Israel.”

However, most of the international community has lost patience. Staunch European allies now are voicing frustration out loud: “Which are the other solutions they have in mind?” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, referring to the Israeli rejection of a two-state solution. “To make all the Palestinians leave? To kill … them?”

Meanwhile, Mexico and Chile on Thursday became the latest countries to refer Israel to judicial inquiry, this time to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes, Reuters reported.

That’s because, on the other side of the Israeli border with Gaza, Gaza is devastated. Few buildings remain intact, almost no civil institutions are functioning, hospitals are often closed, unable to operate because of a lack of drugs, and schools are destroyed.

More than 25,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began in October, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. About 60,000 Gazans have been wounded, wrote the Associated Press. And 80 percent of the strip’s 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes. Most have nowhere to go. Now, tents have become as scarce as safety, Samir Salah, who evacuated Gaza City and now lives with his family in a tent on top of a destroyed building, told NPR.

“I felt this was a safe place because it has already been targeted,” he said. “They won’t hit it again.”

Tents are just one of the necessities lacking in the enclave: water, food, medicine and blankets are now something families ration if they can get them at all.

“My neighbor told me he did not eat for two days. Can you imagine?” said Awni Nejem, who fled to Rafah from the Nuseirat refugee camp, where Israeli airstrikes have hit repeatedly since mid-November. “I understand people can take in suffering, but not this much. This is unbearable.”

As the suffering continues, however, Israel, the US, the European Union, and Arab countries are talking about a possible end to the fighting and what comes after.

A few weeks ago, Israel announced a partial drawdown from Gaza, Al-Monitor explained. The fighting resumed, as Reuters noted, but the statement was an acknowledgment of American and other pressure to curb civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, Israeli lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, for example, recently slammed the Israeli government for reducing troop numbers in Gaza because, he said, Hamas had not been defeated. But he added that there was no “alternative” to Hamas governing Gaza, the Hindustan Times reported.

Israeli officials have frowned on the prospect of the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, resuming its control over Gaza. The Authority has been working hard diplomatically to have a say in the process, however, Bloomberg added, in spite of the fact that their approval ratings in the West Bank are in the teens and many Israelis and others in the region oppose this expansion of its mandate.

Meanwhile, American leaders oppose an extended Israeli presence in the Strip, too. “There will be a post-conflict Gaza, no reoccupation of Gaza,” the White House national security adviser, John Kirby, said after Netanyahu’s remarks. It’s the only way, US officials say, to protect Israel, unify moderate Arab countries and isolate Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran, the Associated Press reported. Without a “pathway to a Palestinian state,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, Israel would not “get genuine security.”

Still, even with Gaza’s future uncertain, the European Union, Egypt, Jordan, and the oil-rich Persian Gulf states have drafted plans to spend billions on reconstruction in Gaza with the aim of helping Palestine become an independent state, wrote the Christian Science Monitor.

As the Atlantic magazine explained, reconstruction will be vital, but a wider-ranging peace deal is necessary to truly make amends for the violence and bloodshed that has occurred between the two sides for generations.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Hussein Safadi, said on Friday how both Israeli goals of eliminating Hamas and Palestinian goals of a life with dignity and self-determination could be accomplished with a two-state solution.

Arab countries, he said, would make sure that Hamas is no longer a problem for Israel. In fact, if Palestinians get what they want, they no longer will need Hamas, Safadi added. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has said the kingdom is ready to establish full relations with Israel as part of a larger political agreement. “But that can only happen through peace for the Palestinians, through a Palestinian state.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

A Controversial Rebrand

INDIA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday opened a Hindu temple built on the site of a mosque razed amid deadly religious riots in 1992, intending to boost his campaign ahead of this spring’s general election, the Associated Press reported.

Thousands gathered in the northern city of Ayodhya, joining a group of high-profile guests, including politicians, cricket stars, and Bollywood actors, to witness Modi consecrating Ram Mandir, dubbed a Hindu “Vatican.”

The prime minister welcomed “a new era” in Indian history. For him and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the temple reaffirmed Hindu pride, which they claimed was suppressed during centuries of Muslim Mughal and British rule.

However, for the 500,000 Muslims in the city, the ceremony revived wounds caused by the 1992 intercommunal riots between opposing Hindu and Muslim communities, in which 2,000 people were killed. Amid the violent confrontation, Hindu nationalist activists destroyed the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque named after Mughal emperor Babur.

The activists claimed the mosque had been built on the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of Hinduism’s major deities. A 2019 Supreme Court ruling settled the dispute, greenlighting the Hindu temple project citing archaeological evidence of a non-Islamic building found beneath the mosque’s site.

The court granted Muslims land to build a new mosque 15 miles from Ayodhya. To date, construction, led by a BJP official, has not started, CNN reported.

Meanwhile, Ram Mandir is also far from completion. Critics accused Modi of rushing the opening to fit his campaign calendar, wrote World Politics Review. The opening was an “illustration of the mutually beneficial ties between Modi and India’s Hindu nationalist movement, which he and his party have utilized to gain political power and amplified via his government’s policies and rhetoric,” the magazine said.

That’s because one of Modi’s key electoral promises was to build the temple. Monday’s ceremony was described as an attempt to woo India’s Hindu majority, which make up 80 percent of the population, ahead of a general election expected to occur between April and May. Modi is predicted to secure a record third term.

Since he took power in 2014, many BJP-led states have implemented measures favoring Hindus, as part of an ideology called “Hindutva” which aims at achieving a Hindu state in India. The country currently has a secular constitution.

Pakistan reacted to the opening ceremony of Ram Mandir, considered a symbol of Hindutva, warning about the rise of Islamophobia in India and the ideology’s threat to regional peace, the Hindustan Times reported.

The Jobsworths

EL SALVADOR

A Salvadoran court released a woman who had been jailed for seven years after her baby’s premature death, a decision welcomed by human rights groups in a country with one of the world’s strictest abortion policies, Reuters reported this week.

Lilian, 28, gave birth in 2015 to a baby girl who succumbed to health complications three days later. She was given a 30-year prison sentence based on convictions linked to abortion. Prosecutors alleged that Lilian did not take care of the fetus during pregnancy and charged her with aggravated murder.

Lilian was released in December last year, but the news was only communicated last week, her supporters said. They added that the judge’s decision to free her was based on her vulnerable state while giving birth.

In a news conference, Lilian, who has a 10-year-old daughter, said she had never intended to abort her child.

Since 1998, El Salvador has imposed a blanket ban on abortion, disregarding exemptions such as rape or health hazards for the mother. People accused of abortion face up to eight years in prison, but in many cases such as Lilian’s, legal machinations bring the sentence up to 30 years.

Lilian was the last of dozens of women to be imprisoned on abortion charges, according to advocacy groups. Like her, many had not tried to terminate their pregnancies but suffered miscarriages or other instances of childbirth death. More than 70 women have been freed thanks to the efforts of civil rights activists, but more than a dozen are still behind bars.

Campaigning for reelection next month, President Nayib Bukele promised to improve safety conditions in maternity wards, though he emphasized he would not challenge El Salvador’s strict legislation on abortion.

The ban remains popular in the country, which has a Christian majority, believing that life begins at conception.

Doses of Hope

CAMEROON

Cameroon on Monday launched the world’s first regular vaccine program against malaria, a move aimed at fighting the mosquito-borne disease that kills hundreds of thousands of children in Africa every year, the BBC reported.

The World Health Organization (WHO) welcomed a historic moment in the fight against malaria as the first jabs were given to infants under six months.

The disease kills 4,000 people in Cameroon alone and 600,000 across the continent every year, according to WHO statistics. Most of the deaths are children under the age of five.

The medicine rolled out in the program is the RTS,S vaccine, developed by the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline after 30 years of research. It has proven to be effective in one out of three cases.

Despite its arguably low efficacy rate, scientists argued it was an essential part of the struggle against malaria. Combined with tablets and mosquito nets, the jab contributes to up to 90 percent protection in children, they concluded in their study.

Furthermore, pilot campaigns of the vaccines in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi resulted in a 13 percent drop in child malaria deaths.

However, the vaccination program faces challenges.

Some Cameroonians, doubting the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, are hesitant to get inoculated and believe they are being used as “guinea pigs,” according to health specialists. They added that there was a need to educate the public.

Meanwhile, the demand exceeds dose availability, with only 18 million set to be released by 2025.

Nonetheless, the general reaction to the vaccine has been that of relief and hope, further fueled by plans to roll out a second jab developed by Oxford University. The new drug is to be manufactured by an Indian institute at an announced rate of 100 million doses per year, once greenlit by the WHO.

DISCOVERIES

Under The Skin

Paleontologists discovered the oldest known piece of fossilized skin, a find that will allow scientists to better understand how the ancestors of today’s animals evolved to live on land, the Washington Post reported.

The small skin sample – about the size of a human fingernail – was initially found at the Richards Spur limestone cave system, a known fossil site in Oklahoma in 2005.

Recent analysis of the fossil showed that it dates back to the early Permian period, around 289 million years ago. At the time, Earth’s continents were packed into a singular supercontinent surrounded by a global ocean that supported a myriad of prehistoric plants and creatures, such as reptiles and insects.

In their paper, the research team explained that the sample had patterning similar to crocodile skin, suggesting that it was it belonged to the extinct Captorhinus aguti, a species that belonged to an early group of reptiles and their relatives.

These primordial creatures had flexible, tough bands of skin – or epidermal tissue – that likely had protective or movement functions.

Discovering fossilized skin and soft tissues is extremely rare, with the researchers noting that the finding provides scientists with valuable insights into the ancestral animals that ultimately evolved into the life forms we know today.

Although the Permian era concluded with the extinction of around 90 percent of the planet’s species, the emergence of important reptile groups eventually resulted in the evolution and further separation of mammals and reptiles.

“A lot of people don’t think about what comes before the dinosaurs,” said co-author Ethan Mooney, “and in our study, we are able to look back into what some of these ancestors to many of the major groups of (animals) that we know and love today may have looked like.”

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