BBC 2024-02-15 18:01:40

Israel special forces raid Gaza’s Nasser hospital

Israel’s special forces have launched a raid on the besieged Nasser medical complex, the main hospital in southern Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Hamas fighters were hiding inside and that Israeli hostages’ bodies might also be there.

A spokesperson for Hamas denied that, calling it “lies”.

The hospital’s director has told the BBC that conditions are “catastrophic and very dangerous”.

“Since the midnight hours, violent shelling and severe explosions have continued in the vicinity of the complex,” Nahed Abu-Teima told BBC Arabic.

He said the patients who had remained at the facility were “piled up in wards” with critical injuries and appealed to the UN and Red Cross to “save” them and the staff.

Video footage verified by the BBC shows medical staff rushing patients on stretchers through a corridor filled with smoke or dust.

One patient – who is still in their bed – can be seen being moved through a corridor where the ceiling is damaged.

Other patients can also be seen, including one person being carried away in what looks like a blanket.

In another clip, people can be seen placing furniture and other items against a door as a narrator states in English that Israeli forces are about to enter.

A nurse inside the hospital told the BBC that a “large number of dogs” had been released inside the hospital during the operation.

Nasser hospital, in Khan Younis, is one of the few still functioning in Gaza. It has been the scene of intense fighting between the IDF and Hamas for days.

IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said forces were aiming to reach Hamas fighters inside, “including those suspected of involvement in the 7 October massacre”.

Rear Adm Hagari said there was “credible intelligence from a number of sources, including from released hostages” suggesting Hamas held hostages at the hospital, and that there may be bodies of some of them there.

He said a number of suspects had been detained at the hospital since the start of the operation.

Thursday’s operation came a day after the IDF ordered thousands of displaced people who had been sheltering at the site to leave.

Israel’s military said it had assured Nasser hospital staff that patients and staff were not obliged to leave, and that medics could continue treating Gazan patients.

Dr Ashraf al-Quadra, a spokesperson for the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, denied that was the case, saying Israeli troops had forced the hospital management to “keep intensive care patients without medical equipment”.

A pharmacist who works in the hospital, Rawan Al-Mughrabi, was among those evacuated by Israeli forces on Wednesday.

She told BBC Arabic there was “a state of panic that made people [being evacuated] stand on top of each other and scream. Many people were harmed, and others returned to the hospital.

“As soon as we left the hospital gate and reached the checkpoints, the entire hospital and departments were stormed by police dogs, and while we were standing at the checkpoints, many people were arrested.

“Most of the medical cases were evacuated from the hospital, and only the very critical cases remained,” she said.

On Wednesday, the UN’s humanitarian office said there were allegations of sniper fire at the complex, putting the lives of doctors, patients and displaced people at risk.

The medical charity Medicins San Frontieres said those ordered to evacuate faced an impossible choice – to stay “and become a potential target” or leave “into an apocalyptic landscape” of bombings.

Israel launched its military offensive after waves of Hamas fighters burst through Israel’s border on 7 October, killing about 1,200 people – mainly civilians – and taking 253 others back to Gaza as hostages.

The Hamas-run health ministry says more than 28,600 people, mainly women and children – have been killed in Israel’s campaign. Israel says its aim is to destroy Hamas and secure the return of the hostages.

Israel is facing increasing international pressure to show restraint. On Wednesday France’s President Emmanuel Macron phoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say Israel’s operations in Gaza “must cease” and that the human cost of the Gaza operation was “intolerable”.

But Mr Netanyahu insisted his troops will advance on the Gazan city of Rafah, which has already come under bombardment. Some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in the area.

The prime ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand issued a joint statement expressing their “grave concern” that a military operation in Rafah would be “catastrophic”.

Watch: Patients rushed through smoke at Gaza hospital

BBC Verify looks at Gaza hospital raid

The Israeli military says it is carrying out a “precise and limited mission” at Nasser hospital in southern Gaza after receiving intelligence that bodies of hostages taken by Hamas were held there. The director of the hospital describes the situation as “catastrophic”.

BBC Verify’s Merlyn Thomas analyses verified footage and what we know so far.

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Trump’s first criminal trial set to begin next month

Trump’s rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley, has reacted to his day in court.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Haley outlines Trump’s current and upcoming legal battles and says he is “spending millions of campaign donations on legal fees”.

Haley adds: “All of this chaos will only lead to more losses for Republicans up and down the ticket”.

Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and the next big vote is the South Carolina primary on 24 February.

‘Moth to a flame’: Science debunks an old theory

New research finds that artificial lights confuse rather than attract insects.

High up in the mountains of Monteverde, Costa Rica, a team of researchers lug heavy equipment including two high-speed cameras deep into a dream-like cloud forest. As the cool mist rolls in along with the darkness of twilight, they set up a light source and cameras a few metres away, then power up their computers, sync them to the cameras and wait, letting their eyes adjust.

The team in Costa Rica spent several weeks huddled under a tarp in thick jumpers, getting bitten by mosquitoes and horseflies all in the name of answering a question that’s eluded science for hundreds of years – why do insects flock to light at night?

Some scientists believed they were simply attracted to the light source. Others thought it might be the warmth of the light pulling them in. Even more felt they were mistaking artificial light for the light of the sky which they use to navigate. The unusual flight patterns the field researchers observed, however, pointed to a different hypothesis: the insects are trapped by artificial light because they think it will help stabilise them.

The scientists from Imperial College London and Florida International University used motion-sensor cameras which allowed them to see how the insects were traveling in 3D space. This revealed a strange behaviour: the insects appeared trapped in orbit around the light source with their backs to it. This is called a dorsal light response – where animals keep their top side, or back, facing the brightest object in their range of vision. Since insects are too lightweight to use ground reaction forces (the force exerted by the ground on a body) to orient themselves in space as humans do, and are often in flight, they need to rely on a different stable source to know which way is up. At night, that used to be the moon and stars – until humans invented artificial light.

“The insects treat a point light source at night very much in the same way as they would treat the sky during the day. And so the sky, no matter where you are, is always overhead,” says Samuel Fabian, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate in bioengineering at Imperial College London.

Motion-sensor cameras revealed that the insects appeared trapped in orbit around the light source with their backs to it (Credit: Samuel Fabian)

A point light source, such as a lamp, however, forces insects to keep reorienting to face away from it and continue to curve around it in an endless loop. Think of it like a plane when it tilts to turn — the force of the forward acceleration and lift of the plane creates a curving motion. So what normally helps keep insects aligned with the horizon ends up turning them on their heads, literally.

Fabian participated in both the field study in Costa Rica with his research partner Yash Sondhi, a postdoctoral research associate in entomology at the University of Florida, and the lab study. The lab study was conducted similarly but in a large flight arena with eight high-speed, infrared cameras. Rather than just observe insects’ behaviour in their natural habitat, he could essentially turn the smaller bugs into data points by putting 1mm markers on their backs.

“Since the cameras have strobe lights that are firing at the same time as they’re taking pictures, the tiny little markers [become] bright spots for the camera,” says Fabian. This allows the cameras to then send what they read as data points straight to the computer, leading to what Fabian calls “crazy levels of accuracy”.

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Despite the discrepancies in methodology, the researchers saw the same sort of behaviour over and over again, across dozens of different types of insects, from dragonflies to fruit flies. The back-facing orbiting seems to disprove previous theories on why insects congregate by artificial light at night (ALAN), even one of the most popular theories – that insects were mistaking ALAN for the moon, which scientists argue they use as a sort of compass.

“The way you navigate by the moon is it’s so far away that when you walk, the moon just appears to hover in the sky for you and so it’s a good indication of whether you’ve turned or not, especially for flying,” says Jamie Theobald, a co-author of the recent study and associate professor of biological sciences at Florida International University.

This theory, however, doesn’t explain all the peculiar patterns the researchers observed during their field and lab work. Aside from orbiting, Fabian says they witnessed stalling (where an insect appears to fly straight up around the side of the light, then loses momentum and falls back down as if it were a pendulum), and flying directly over the light while inverted.

That last behaviour is why Fabian and Sondhi consider flood lights to be the worst light pollution offenders – the beams of light that fill a large area cause insects to flip upside down abruptly, leading to a lot of catastrophic crash landings. (Read more about how light pollution affects plants’ senses).

Light pollution can confuse insects and divert them from mating, pollinating and evading predators (Credit: Getty Images)

ALAN is bad for insects across the board; it diverts them from the activities that keep them healthy and alive – pollinating or eating, mating, and evading predators. “Artificial light can also confuse an insect’s sense of time and make it difficult to know where they are within a day or a year, which has all sorts of ramifications for activity and development, respectively,” says Avalon Owens, an entomologist and research fellow at the Rowland Institute at Harvard University.

A review of 229 studies on light pollution found that ALAN is a major driver of insect population loss. And, as light pollution continues to grow in tandem with ever-expanding urbanisation (about 10% annually), increasing losses will follow. This could severely impact crops that rely on insects for pollination, hobbling food supplies for larger animals, including humans.

Fabian, Sondhi and Owens stress that there is a simple solution, however: use less ALAN. Or, if you must use it, avoid flood lights, use LEDs on warmer settings, and put lights on timers. Sondhi also points to a soon-to-be-published German study that showed shielding or shrouding lights, which minimise glare by shining downwards, “helped reduce insect catch around the light by [about] 70 to 80%”.

Several cities around the world are already taking steps to reduce their ALAN. Middletown, Ohio is converting thousands of street lamp lights to LEDs which can be programmed to cast warmer light. Nineteen other states have laws in place to reduce or shield ALAN, and several countries in the EU have implemented similar, nationwide laws.

The next chapter of this work for Fabian and Sondhi will involve testing the parameters of how far this light effect goes; does it pull insects from kilometres away, or just metres? “I don’t think anyone has explained this satisfactorily to date – which is exciting because there is still much to be learned on this topic,” says Owens.

“The direction of light is really important,” says Fabian. “If we don’t want to influence large amounts of insect populations, we should not have lights shining up into the sky.”

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Why pets are eating as well as humans

As consumers claw for luxury pet food, dogs and cats are eating as well as humans.

When Amy Barkham adopted her dog named Wednesday, she already knew she wanted to feed the German Shepherd-Husky mix premium dog food. She scoured websites, and read labels and reviews to select UK brands of kibble that positioned themselves as grain-free, nutritionally balanced and bursting with the goodness of top-notch ingredients, including free-range chicken and “vegetables and botanicals that match your dog’s ancestral diet”.

Wednesday, whom Barkham describes as “the biggest bundle of energy I have ever come across”, was uninterested in the grain-free kibble her owner had searched for high and low. (She preferred to play with her plush toy pumpkin instead.) After a month, she began refusing the food entirely, dramatically losing weight during her hunger strikes.

Twenty-three-year-old Barkham wasn’t sure where to turn next. These brands were already running her upwards of £50 ($63) for 15kg (33lb) bags of dry food, which lasted about five weeks. What else could her dog possibly want? Would it cost even more?

The answer: human-grade dog pet food, with quite the eye-watering price tag. And as the market offerings grow, this food is increasingly attracting both dog and cat owners.

The term “human grade” is not new. Early definitions were murky: some consumers simply equated it with better quality, or the idea that if it’s good enough for humans, it must be good for their pets. Now, new standards set in the past two years in the US, UK and Europe mean tighter regulations. “Human-grade” encompasses pet food manufactured in a manner consistent with regulations for ready-to-eat human food products.

Barkham discovered the option when she attended a dog show in London in 2022: fresh, gently-cooked dog food by the UK brand Tuggs, which includes recognisable vegetables such as broccoli and carrots as well as proteins including cod, pork, beef, chicken – even insects. She appreciated both the nutritional benefits it touted as well as its sustainability pledge. Although she struggled to envision Wednesday taking to a food containing insect protein when she had rejected kibble, Barkham rolled the dice. Wednesday loved it.

In the UK, Amy Barkham feeds her dog Wednesday human-grade dog food that’s delivered to her door (Credit: Courtesy of Amy Barkham)

Freshly made and then flash frozen, Wednesday’s food now arrives in freezer pouches and insulated packaging. Barkham now sets aside £150 ($190) a month for her direct-debit delivery of Wednesday’s food and treats, with the food alone costing around £90 ($114) for four weeks. It’s a significant price increase, but Barkham says making room in the budget for a high-end food that satisfies all Wednesday’s ­– and her own – needs is worth it, even if it comes with, “a few small sacrifices like less takeaways per month”. The biggest, she says, is, “due to us living in a small flat with a small freezer, we now only get one drawer for human food”.

Many dog and cat owners have seen the adverts from brands across the world – Perfect Bowl, Smalls, The Farmer’s Dog, Elmut and more – touting nutrient-rich pet food that might not look terribly different from what’s on their own plates. Increasingly, owners are ordering these products, largely from subscription-based ecommerce start-ups, and giving into the visceral urge to give their beloved pets the most wholesome, nutritious food they can afford – even if it trumps financial logic. 

From table scraps to pet chefs

The American Pet Products Association estimates Americans spent $58.1bn (£46bn) on pet food and treats in 2022, and UK Pet Food valued the UK expenditure in 2023 at £3.8bn ($4.8bn). But the mind-boggling size of the modern-day pet food industry – and its premium tier ­– is relatively new.

“For much of the 20th Century, pets were fed kitchen scraps, such as leftover meat and bones as these foods were low cost and more easily available,” says Natalia Ciecierska-Holmes, a PhD researcher who studies alternative diets for dogs and humans at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the University of Nottingham, UK.

Canned horse meat was a popular food for dogs in the 1920s, she explains, and commercial pet food companies weren’t founded until the 1950s, selling dry kibble that was derived from extruding dry and wet ingredients into a shelf-stable product.

Ciecierska-Holmes points to a defining moment in the shift towards alternative pet foods: a 2007 global recall of commercial pet food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found wheat gluten contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid, had made its way into the supply, leading to the deaths of 14 cats and one dog. “These recalls heightened distrust in the commercial pet food system [and spawned] a desire for increased control over where these ingredients come from,” she says.

Sydney-based pet food brand Perfect Bowl offers fresh, natural dog food with recognisable ingredients (Credit: Courtesy of Perfect Bowl)

Today, many pet food manufacturers tout specialised ingredients and offer up blends for special diets. Many offer wild game, such as “such as venison, rabbit, and kangaroo, which are perceived as more sustainable”, she says.

One of the earliest premium trends to emerge in this upmarket segment was “raw feeding”. According to Ciecierska-Holmes, “raw feeding originated as a homemade diet, with owners sourcing their own ingredients”. Today, the practice has been commercialised as “consumers can choose the convenience of pre-prepared raw food available from specialist raw pet food brands and growing numbers of ‘pet butchers’.”

Only the best for man’s best friend

The way people shop and prioritise certain products in the massive pet food market, says Ciecierska-Holmes, is shaped by changing societal and cultural perspectives around how humans view animals.

Sean B Cash, an economist and associate professor in global nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, US, agrees. Essentially, he says, owners’ growing concern about what they feed their pets boils down to their increasing anthropomorphism or “humanisation” of animal companions.

During his research about the determinants of pet food purchasing decisions, Cash and his colleagues found what they termed a “health prioritisation gap”. In other words, nearly half of the pet owners surveyed placed a higher priority on buying healthy food for their pets than for themselves.

Brands tout unique selling propositions ranging from the creative and research-informed, such as fresh preparation, alternative proteins and transparent supply chains; to the niche, like gluten-free pet food and Kosher foods for Passover

Now, along with tugging at the heartstrings of dedicated pet owners who only want the best for their companions, luxury pet food brands are also leveraging precise positioning to evoke the benefits they’d want for themselves: labelling their products with words such as “human-grade”, “natural”, “grain-free” and “holistic” – even though, says Ciecierska-Holmes, many of these terms are not regulated.

In this quest for differentiation, brands tout unique selling propositions ranging from the creative and research-informed, such as fresh preparation, alternative proteins and transparent supply chains; to the niche, like gluten-free pet food, Kosher foods for Passover and dog food with turkey, spinach and cranberry. (As Cash likes to call it, “Not just turkey, but the whole Thanksgiving spread.”)

Harry Bremner, founder of Tuggs – the brand Barkham feeds Wednesday – says the economic success of “human-grade” pet food mirrors wellness trends in human industries. He adds some consumers say they’re interested in brands that prioritise sustainability to reflect their own lifestyle concerns. Consumers know pets “have a carbon paw print similar to their own… and this is driving [them] to purchase more sustainable products,” says Brenmer.

Experts say humans are increasingly prioritising the health of their pets over their own – including their diets (Credit: Getty Images)

‘It’s dinner time’

Consumers ordering up chef-curated pet food delivered to their doors weekly may feel good about their purchasing decisions, especially when their dogs and cats dig in. And that’s important for peace of mind. Yet experts caution the trend may be more for the owner than their animal best friend.

A more expensive specialty diet doesn’t always guarantee better nutrition, many believe. Some pet food trends, such as a whole-food diet, are rooted in veterinary research. “There are documented [immune system] health benefits to feeding dogs whole-food diets as compared to processed foods like kibble,” says California-based Veterinarian, Patrick Mahaney, referring to a clinical trial published in 2022. But whether human-grade pet food is truly boosting a pet’s nutrition in a way other food can’t – or even creating fewer emissions on its way to the bowl – isn’t as cut and dry.

Still, growing sales and more entrants into the upmarket space show consumers are clawing for it. And for Barkham, the transition has been the right choice, even with the price. Seeing her pup’s consistent weight, shiny coat, healthy stool – and most of all, her happiness – is worth it.

“As soon as it hits 7pm,” she says, “Wednesday starts to sing us the song of her people to make us aware it’s her dinner time.”