BBC 2024-02-14 00:01:39

UN warns attack on Rafah could lead to ‘slaughter’

A top UN official has warned an Israeli assault on Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, could lead to a “slaughter”.

Humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said Palestinians in Gaza were already suffering an “assault that is unparalleled in its intensity, brutality and scope”.

The consequences of an invasion of Rafah would be “catastrophic”, he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to defeat Hamas gunmen he says are hiding in the city.

In an unusually strongly worded statement, Mr Griffiths said over a million people were “crammed in Rafah, staring death in the face”. He said civilians in the city had little food or access to medicine and “nowhere safe to go”.

An Israeli invasion of the city, he added, would “leave an already fragile humanitarian operation at death’s door”.

A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the BBC’s Newshour programme the UN had not received any Rafah evacuation plans from Israel and would not participate in any forced evacuation.

Stephane Dujarric said: “The United Nations will not be party to any forced displacement of people.”

  • Israel’s Rafah assault looms, but with no plan yet for civilians
  • Palestinians sheltering in Rafah fear Israeli offensive
  • Israel-Gaza war: Death and Israel’s search for ‘total victory’

Rafah is a small city in the south of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. Before the war it was home to around 250,000 people, but since Israel ordered civilians to evacuate south its population has swelled to an estimated 1.5 million.

Many are living in tents in desperate conditions and say they have nowhere to go.

Rafah has come under heavy Israeli air strikes in recent days, with at least 67 people killed there on Monday according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Mr Griffiths also said humanitarian workers working in Gaza had been “shot at, held at gunpoint, attacked and killed” because of the breakdown in law and order.

His statement came as negotiations for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza resumed in Cairo.

Senior officials from the US, Israel, Egypt and Qatar met on Tuesday, as pressure mounted on Israel from the international community not to invade Rafah.

Mr Guterres said that hoped the talks would be successful so as to avoid an Israeli attack on the city.

US President Joe Biden has warned Israel that civilians must be protected. UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron has told Israel to “stop and think seriously” before attacking Rafah.

At least 1,200 people were killed during attacks in Israel by Hamas-led gunmen on 7 October last year.

In response, Israel launched a military campaign in the Gaza Strip. More than 28,400 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed and more than 68,000 wounded since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Biden slams Trump criticism of Nato as ‘shameful’

President Joe Biden has blasted criticism of Nato by his likely 2024 election challenger, Donald Trump, as “dumb”, “shameful” and “un-American”.

The Democrat assailed Mr Trump for saying he would “encourage” Russia to attack any Nato member that did not meet its defence spending quota.

Mr Biden said the remarks underscored the urgency of passing a $95bn (£75bn) foreign aid package for US allies.

The bill just passed the Senate, but it faces political headwinds in the House.

At the White House on Tuesday, Mr Biden said a failure to pass the package – which includes $60bn for Ukraine – would be “playing into Putin’s hands”.

He said the stakes have risen because of Mr Trump’s “dangerous” remarks over the weekend.

“No other president in history has ever bowed down to a Russian dictator,” Mr Biden said.

“Let me say this as clearly as I can. I never will. For God’s sake. It’s dumb. It’s shameful. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American.”

At a rally on Saturday in South Carolina, Mr Trump, a Republican, criticised “delinquent” payments by Nato members.

He recounted a past conversation he said he had had with the head of “a big country” about a potential attack by Russia.

Mr Trump said the official had asked if the US would defend a Nato member that had not met its financial obligations.

“I said: ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?'” Mr Trump told the crowd. “‘No I would not protect you, in fact I would encourage them to do whatever they want. You gotta pay.'”

Mr Biden said his predecessor was treating the military alliance like a protection racket.

“As long as I’m president,” he said, “if Putin attacks a Nato ally, the United States will defend every inch of Nato territory.”

Mr Biden noted that the only time Nato has invoked Article 5 – part of its charter stipulating that an attack on any member state requires collective defence by all – was after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

In a message aimed at House Republicans, the president said: “Are you going to stand with Ukraine or are you going to stand with Putin? Will you stand with America or Trump?”

According to a report in the Financial Times, Nato will announce on Wednesday that 18 of its 31 members will this year hit their targets of spending 2% of gross domestic product on their defence budgets.

Of Nato members, only one – Poland – spends a greater share of its GDP on defence than the US.

In 2016, only five Nato members met the same target, prompting harsh criticism from Mr Trump, who repeatedly suggested the US might withdraw from the alliance.

The spat between Mr Biden and Mr Trump over Ukraine aid and US-Nato relations highlights what could be one of the defining divides in the upcoming presidential election.

Mr Biden has frequently presented the US as a key participant in a generational global conflict between democratic nations and autocracies.

In his view, Ukraine is one of this conflict’s pivotal battlegrounds, and European allies, both in Nato and the EU, are key partners.

During his four years as president, Mr Trump frequently downplayed US participation in multilateral alliances of any kind, instead focusing on direct relations with other nations and their leaders, with less of a defined global outlook beyond putting “America First”.

If Nato and other US allies did not directly advance American interests, he has been comfortable suggesting that they are expendable.

The package approved by the Senate early on Tuesday includes $60bn earmarked for Ukraine, $8bn for Taiwan and other US allies in Asia, $14bn for Israel’s war against Hamas and another $10bn for humanitarian aid in conflict zones, including Gaza.

It had the support of 22 Republican senators but met considerable resistance from conservative lawmakers who are against additional funds being sent abroad until the government tackles rising numbers of migrants at the southern US border.

A previous attempt to pass an $118bn aid package that included border security provisions collapsed after being criticised by Mr Trump.

Imran Khan’s rivals reach deal to form government

Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto’s parties in Pakistan have reached a deal to form a government.

Mr Bhutto’s PPP said it would help Mr Sharif’s PML-N elect a prime minister after last week’s election.

The two parties were previously in a coalition that ousted Imran Khan from power in 2022.

This time, independent candidates backed by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party unexpectedly won the most seats.

PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari told a press conference that although his party and PML-N had contested elections against each other, they had come together in the interests of the nation.

“It is not necessary that [we fight] forever,” Mr Zardari said.

The PML-N said in a statement that both parties had agreed to cooperate in the interests of political stability.

The results – in which independents backed by the PTI took 93 out of 266 directly elected seats – had left voters uncertain about which parties would form the next government.

Mr Sharif’s PML-N won 75 seats while Mr Bhutto’s PPP came third with 54 seats.

In addition, parties will be allocated more seats from the 70 reserved for women and non-Muslims. These additional seats are not available to independent candidates.

According to PML-N official Marriyum Aurangzeb, party leader Mr Sharif plans to nominate his brother Shehbaz to be prime minister. Both men have previously served as prime minister.

While Mr Bhutto says his party will help elect a PML-N prime minister, he earlier said it would not take any cabinet positions.

Imran Khan and his party have continued to emphasise that they believe the elections were rigged against them and plan to challenge the results.

He said: “I warn against the misadventure of forming a government with stolen votes.

“Such daylight robbery will not only be a disrespect to the citizens but will also push the country’s economy further into a downward spiral.”

The reinvention of a loaded US symbol

From “Marlboro Man” and John Wayne to Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams – the cowboy hat, the ultimate US emblem of rugged masculinity, is now being subverted.

For Beyoncé fans, Sunday’s Super Bowl was a joyous affair. Appearing in an advert for a mobile phone company, the singer teased new music, before dropping two new singles – Texas Hold ‘Em and 16 Carriages – and the release date for her second album in the Renaissance trilogy later that night. Both the singles and their cover art – which show the star decked in two different black cowboy hats – confirmed suspicions that the Houston-born artist would adopt a country theme for her newest release, due on 29 March.

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Of course, the cowboy hat is not a new accessory for Beyoncé: the Renaissance tour has become synonymous with the mirror-ball iteration she sported both for the live show and its promotional shots, while archive photos of Destiny’s Child show her taste for the ten-gallon hat dates back to the start of her career.

Musician Lil Nas X sported a bright pink cowboy hat at the 2020 Grammy Awards (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet Beyoncé’s current embrace of the Western aesthetic both galvanises and plays into a wider trend, one that journalist and cultural critic Brittany Luse described last year as “a collective and proud reclamation of the cowboy for those who have traditionally felt threatened or excluded by the archetype of the white, patriarchal, ruggedly individualistic gunslinger”.

The Marlboro Man was defined by his cool yet commanding attitude – and his wide-brimmed hat

Because the truth is that the cowboy archetype – as embodied by John Wayne and Buffalo Bill – is little more than a myth, perpetuated by mid-20th-Century Hollywood Westerns. In these films, the “goodies” are almost exclusively white Stetson-sporting “cowboys”, while the “baddies” are most commonly Native Americans whom the cowboys wish to conquer. The macho cowboy paradigm was further galvanised by the arrival of the “Marlboro Man” in 1954: that emblem of rugged masculinity dreamed up by the US cigarette company. Of the various Marlboro Men, the almost-always white cowboy was the most recurrent and renowned, defined by his cool yet commanding attitude – and his wide-brimmed hat.

Historically, however, one in four cowboys was black, while many others were of Mexican origin, and their stories were largely written out of US history and imagery. And it is this fact, paired with the iconic nature of the Western aesthetic and the undeniably romantic notion of the cowboy as a self-determined lone ranger, that has rendered the cowboy so ripe for reclamation and reinterpretation across popular culture.

Yeehaw agenda”

This isn’t exclusive to today, of course. In the 1940s and 50s, actress Dale Evans showed that women could be cowboys too, donning her hat on the back of her head so that it framed her curls like a halo and taking the male-dominated Western genre by storm. Dolly Parton later claimed the mantle, giving the cowboy hat a rhinestone-embellished spin, while high fashion has long referenced and subverted the cowboy trend, from Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein through to Moschino and Chanel.

I feel like when you see cowboys portrayed, you see only a few versions – Pharrell Williams

But it wasn’t until 2019 that we officially entered the new age of the cowboy. This was the year that Telfar launched its autumn/winter 2019 collection championing the black cowboy, and that black queer artist Lil Nas X released his chart-topping single Old Town Road, and wore a neon pink Western ensemble, replete with a matching cowboy hat, to the Grammys. Soon, other black artists from Solange and Lizzo to Cardi B and Kelela were reclaiming and reframing the look in cowboy hats, boots, chaps and fringing, giving rise to the trend dubbed the “Yeehaw Agenda” on social media.

Pharrell Williams embraced the cowboy hat in his recent collection for Louis Vuitton (Credit: Getty Images)

And it’s still going strong: earlier this year, Pharrell Williams threw his Stetson in the ring, offering up his take on the movement at the presentation of his sophomore collection for Louis Vuitton in Paris. There, models stomped the runway in looks that gave an urban twist to ranch style, almost every one wearing a version of the cowboy hat, be it in soft suede, traditional felt or slick leather. “I feel like when you see cowboys portrayed, you see only a few versions,” the designer said backstage. “You never really get to see what some of the original cowboys really look like. They look like us, they look like me, they look black, they look Native American.”

Beyoncé, meanwhile, has taken the trend – and its important implications – to even bigger heights. In 2021, she launched a black rodeo-inspired Adidas x Ivy Park collection, explaining to the Houston Chronicle that it was inspired by “how much of the black, brown and Native cowboy stories are missing in American history”.

Moreover, Luse argues in her essay, in adopting the guise of “an intergalactic disco cowboy” for the tour – an image reinforced by the Texas Hold’ Em song artwork – “Beyoncé, a black Texan woman, is both imagining a radical black future and recalling the truth of the past”. And she’s doing so cowboy hat in hand – turning all its associations with white patriarchal colonisers upside down, with no signs of slowing down.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

How unhealthy air changes your body and mind

The air we breathe can have profound effects on our physical and mental health. Is there any way of protecting yourself from this pervasive problem?

All but 1% of the world’s population is exposed to unhealthy air that exceeds World Health Organization limits for pollutants. In parts of the world, air quality has rapidly improved through policies that aim to limit pollution. But elsewhere, gains in air quality are at risk of being lost.

More than 25% of the US population is exposed to air considered “unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a report by the climate non-profit First Street Foundation. By 2050, the number of people exposed to “unhealthy” days is set to increase by more than half. The worst days of air pollution (“hazardous” or maroon, under the EPA’s system) are expected to rise by 27%.

Wildfire smoke is one of the factors driving this trend. One study of PM2.5 (see fact box: What is PM2.5?) from wildfire smoke found that levels had increased by up to 5 micrograms per cubic metre in the western US in the past decade – enough to reverse “decades of policy-driven improvements in overall air quality”, the authors concluded.

To put this in context – one study found that a quarter of the US’s PM2.5 pollution was caused by wildfire smoke. In western regions, as much as half was caused by smoke. In 2023, large portions of the US saw significant dips in air quality and visibility as smoke from wildfires north of the Canadian border billowed across the continent. With climate change expected to increase the risk of wildfires around the world, it is likely that air quality will also suffer.

People who have existing respiratory conditions and newborns with developing lungs are the most affected by wildfire smoke. (See factbox: “How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke”.)

As climate change makes wildfires more intense, here are some of the profound and unexpected ways air pollution affects our bodies, and what we can do to minimise exposure.

The far-reaching effects of wildfire smoke

Wildfires are not just a local problem to people who live near forests, peatlands and grasslands. Fires can send plumes of smoke up to 14 miles (23km) into the stratosphere, from where they spread all over the globe. In 2023, Siberian wildfires fuelled by unusually warm temperatures released smoke that travelled across the Pacific Ocean to reach Alaska and Seattle.

Wildfire smoke is contributing a large share of PM2.5 pollution in New York (Credit: Getty Images)

The health risks that come with wildfire air pollution depend in part on what’s on fire – in Siberia, 2020, it was resinous boreal forest and peat, releasing record-breaking quantities of pollution, including high quantities of mercury. Another typical pollutant released in wildfires is PM2.5, particulate matter that measures 2.5 micrometres across or less, linked to respiratory conditions. (Read about the risks of PM2.5 and nanoparticle pollution here, and the link between air pollution and respiratory disease here.)

Wildfire smoke has been found to be harmful to certain immune cells in the lungs, with a toxicity four times greater than particulates from other types of pollution. And it gets worse as smoke ages: one study found the toxicity of smoke doubled in the hours after it was first emitted, reaching a peak of four times greater toxicity.

“Even if someone is far away from a fire source, they may still experience adverse health outcomes from the inhalation of highly diluted and oxidised smoke,” Athanasios Nenes, an atmospheric chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne told Allison Hirschlag for BBC Future.

Read Allison Hirschlag’s full story on the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

How air pollution affects your brain

There is growing evidence that air pollution not only affects our physical health, but also our mental health. It has been linked to impaired judgement, poorer performance in school and even higher levels of crime. Researchers point to prolonged exposure to pollutants such as PM2.5.

But the picture is not a simple one. Exposure to air pollution is far from equal – despite how it might seem, we don’t all breathe the same air. Often the most polluted areas in a city, for example, are in the poorest neighbourhoods. These are areas also afflicted by other problems that affect health, educational achievement and crime levels. Confounding factors such as investment in education, diet, smoking, drug use and alcohol consumption can also have an effect.

Nonetheless, researchers are increasingly concerned about the effect that air pollution may be having on our brains, as Melissa Hogenboom explains in this feature, where you can learn more about the emerging evidence.

Air pollution and weight gain

While the exact mechanism is still debated, it is thought that the inflammation caused by air pollution may also affect the body’s metabolism. Research has linked airborne pollution such as PM2.5 to obesity. Children living in the most polluted areas, for example, are more than twice as likely to be considered obese.

How dirty air is polluting our minds

There is also growing evidence that air pollution may also play a role in the development of related conditions such as type 2 diabetes. One major analysis estimated that a fifth of the global burden of type 2 diabetes could be attributed to exposure to PM2.5 pollution. Other studies have suggested that another type of understudied air pollution, airborne microplastics, could also be disrupting the hormones that regulate our metabolism.

Learn more about how city life affects your health and happiness in this feature by William Park.

Air pollution is harming our sense of smell

Exposure to toxic air may also be eroding our olfaction. A 2021 study found that people who suffered from loss of smell, known as anosmia, in Baltimore, Maryland lived in areas with “significantly high” levels of PM2.5. An Italian study found that the noses of teenagers and young adults became less sensitive to odours following exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a component in traffic fumes.

Hazardous air pollution levels in cities contributes not just to respiratory problems, but conditions including type 2 diabetes (Credit: Getty Images)

Scientists say that pollution particles trigger inflammation and slowly wear away the nerves in the olfactory bulbs, which transmit smell information from the nose to the brain.

Anosmia disproportionately affects older people. A Swedish study also identified a strong association between higher pollution levels and poorer olfaction in people aged 60 and over.

Read more in our feature by Tim Smedley on how air pollution is causing us to lose our sense of smell.

Clean air is not an option for everyone

Almost everyone in the world now breathes air that is polluted in some way. But those who are worst hit by air pollution are also those who are least able to be able to protect themselves or escape from it. An estimated 716 million people with the lowest incomes globally live in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution. Even in the relatively wealthy, developed nations of Europe and North America, the toll taken by air pollution is borne predominantly by those who are least well off or from minority communities that face systemic inequalities.

A major source of these fine particulates is the burning of fossil fuels, and in particular petrol and diesel from vehicles. They can penetrate deep into the lungs and can cross into the blood stream where they are thought to increase levels of inflammation. They have been linked to a number of chronic long-term health issues including heart disease, lung problems and cancers.

In the US, PM2.5 pollution is the largest environmental health threat, with black and minority groups facing greater exposure than non-Hispanic white people. The poorest regions in Europe too tend to experience levels of PM2.5 concentrations that are a third higher than the richest. (Read about the young people fighting the worst smog in Europe.)

You can read more about the story of how air pollution creates environmental inequality around the world in this in-depth feature by Kamala Thiagarajan.

Where can you find the world’s cleanest air?

To map the long journeys that air pollution takes in atmospheric currents, scientists rely on monitoring stations that take near constant samples of air quality. One of those is the Zeppelin Observatory above the tiny town of Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway.

The tiny village of Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard, Norway, is one of the few places in the world with extremely clean air (Credit: Alamy)

This settlement, which boasts a population of just 45 people in winter and is 765 miles (1,230km) from the North Pole, grew up around the coal-mining industry in the first half of the 20th Century. Today, it has some of the cleanest air on the planet.

But that is also changing – levels of methane have been growing in the air around the town, while levels of sulphate, particulates and metals are also spiking.

Another candidate for the world’s most pristine air can be found on the north-western tip of Tasmania, Australia. Cape Grim, or Kennaook, where winds whip across the Southern Ocean unimpeded. As it doesn’t pass over any landmasses or populated areas enroute, the air is unaffected by local sources of pollution such as exhaust fumes. Learn more about Cape Grim in this feature by Dani Wright and find out more about how the air around Ny-Ålesund is changing in this feature by Anna Filipova.

Other remote clean air sites around the world include Mauna Loa station in Hawaii, Macquarie Island and Casey Station in Antarctica.

But for those 99% of us who live far from this pristine air, some of the most impactful changes to help bring down air pollution include lowering emissions in cities from road transport, moving to cleaner ways of cooking, rapidly reducing the use of fossil fuels and a range of ways to prevent wildfires in the first place.

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