The New York Times 2024-07-04 12:10:45

Middle East Crisis: Israeli Strike Kills Hezbollah Commander in Lebanon, Adding to Fears of Broader War


Hezbollah responds to the killing of a senior commander with a cross-border rocket barrage.

Israeli forces killed a senior Hezbollah commander in a drone strike in southern Lebanon on Wednesday, prompting the Lebanese militia to retaliate with a heavy rocket barrage across the border as international diplomats scrambled to prevent an all-out war.

The commander, Mohammad Naameh Nasser, also known as Abu Naameh, was among the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters to have been killed since the militia began firing on northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas, the armed group at war with Israel in Gaza. He led Hezbollah’s Aziz unit, one of the group’s main fighting forces along the Lebanese border, according to the Israeli military and a senior Lebanese intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Hezbollah said it had fired 100 rockets at military targets over the border as part of an “initial response,” setting off sirens in communities across northern Israel. The Israeli military said that most of that barrage had fallen in open areas. The Iran-backed militia continued to claim retaliatory attacks into the evening.

The death of Mr. Naameh, which Israel’s military confirmed in a statement, was the latest in a string of Israeli killings of Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon, one of which led to an escalation in cross-border exchanges of fire last month that the Biden administration has since battled to contain. With tensions already high, analysts warned that the tit-for-tat strikes could trigger a further escalation and risk open war.

Amal Saad, a lecturer at Cardiff University who researches Hezbollah, said that although the powerful militia was unlikely to allow itself to be dragged into an all-out war over the killing, recent threats by Israeli officials would not deter Hezbollah from responding with strength.

“I don’t think Hezbollah will downplay this,” said Ms. Saad, adding that the rocket barrage was only “a small teaser of what is to come.”

The border flare-up on Wednesday took place as a top U.S. official was in Paris to discuss with French officials how to defuse the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Amos Hochstein, a senior White House adviser who has become the de facto U.S. envoy in the quest to resolve the border conflict, met with Jean-Yves Le Drian, President Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy to Lebanon, according to a person close to the talks, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

Lebanon was a French protectorate after World War I, and France still has some influence there. The White House had no immediate comment about Mr. Hochstein’s visit.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has so far remained contained, but as exchanges of cross-border fire have intensified in recent weeks, Israeli officials have spoken publicly of shifting their military focus from Hamas to Hezbollah, a far more advanced military threat.

More than 150,000 people have already been displaced on both sides of the border. If a full-scale war were to break out, analysts say, it would likely prove catastrophic, leaving swaths of Lebanon in ruins, causing Hezbollah to unleash its arsenal of precision-guided missiles on cities across Israel and potentially setting off an even wider regional war. Israel’s military leadership has been pressing for the government to reach a cease-fire with Hamas so that Israeli fighting forces can prepare for the possibility of a war with Hezbollah, according to Israeli security officials.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Wednesday that Israeli forces were prepared to take any action necessary against Hezbollah but that they preferred a diplomatic settlement.

“We are striking Hezbollah very hard every day and we will also reach a state of full readiness to take any action required in Lebanon, or to reach an arrangement from a position of strength,” said Mr. Gallant, according to a statement from his office.

“We prefer an arrangement, but if reality forces us we will know how to fight,” he added.

key developments

An Israeli soldier is killed in a stabbing attack in northern Israel, and other news.

  • An Israeli soldier died after a stabbing attack in a shopping mall in the country’s north, the Israeli military said on Wednesday. The military identified the soldier as Sgt. Aleksandr Iakiminskyi, 19, and said that another soldier was severely injured in the attack, in the city of Karmiel. The Israeli police said the attacker died at the scene. Security footage posted on social media and in Israeli news media showed the soldiers walking in the mall with coffee cups in hand when someone approached from behind, then the soldiers throwing down their coffee cups and one firing repeatedly at the attacker. The Israeli military separately said that one soldier, Captain Elay Elisha Lugasi, 21, was killed in fighting in Gaza, on Wednesday. Israeli news media reported that security officials later identified the assailant as Jawwad Omar Rubia, an Israeli citizen from the nearby Palestinian town of Nahf, noting that Muhammad Zuri, the mayor of Nahf, condemned the attack.

  • Israeli forces killed at least four Palestinians in a drone strike in the West Bank late Tuesday, according to the Israeli military and the Palestinian Health Ministry. The Israeli military said in a statement that the dead were militants who were planting an explosive device in Nur Shams, a densely populated residential area. Once rare, Israel drone strikes in the West Bank have become increasingly common. A drone strike on Sunday killed a local Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander identified as Saeed Jaber, whom Israel blamed for attacks on troops and civilians.

  • An evacuation order by the Israeli military this week covering roughly a third of the Gaza Strip came as people there are less and less equipped to handle repeated forced displacements, after nearly nine months of war that have left tens of thousands dead and injured and put the territory at risk of famine. “It’s an endless cycle of death and displacement,” said Louise Wateridge, a spokeswoman for the main U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, in voice messages from central Gaza on Wednesday. “People express here that they are losing hope. They are losing the willpower, faced with another forced displacement and absolutely no certainty of safety.”

Israel says it is weighing Hamas responses to Qatar’s latest proffer on a cease-fire proposal.

Mediators are working to revive indirect talks on a cease-fire in Gaza that collapsed last month, focusing on terms based on a proposal backed by the United Nations and the United States, officials said on Wednesday.

Qatar last week sent Hamas new potential amendments to the proposed deal, according to two senior officials from different countries involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

On Wednesday, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Israel had received Hamas’s response to the latest proposal, was examining it and would convey a response to mediators. He did not provide a timeline.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that wide gaps between the sides remained but that Hamas’s response left potential to move forward in the talks. The official declined to offer further details.

In a statement on Telegram on Wednesday night, Hamas said it had “exchanged some ideas” with mediators “aiming to stop the aggression against our Palestinian people.” It did not provide any further details.

For months, Israel and Hamas, alongside mediators including Qatar, Egypt and the United States, were in negotiations over the potential deal, which called for a three-stage truce in Gaza and the release of the remaining 120 living and dead hostages held there. However, wide gaps remained on major issues, and the talks had been largely at a standstill since June.

The main stumbling blocks that need to be resolved center on a major difference: Hamas wants an end to the war and a full withdrawal of Israeli forces, while Israel has vowed to keep fighting until Hamas is destroyed and seeks control over postwar security in Gaza.

According to the two senior officials, the disagreements now largely center on two points, both related to talks on a permanent cease-fire outlined in the three-phase U.S.- and U.N.-backed deal. Those talks would take place during the first phase, a proposed six-week truce, during which some hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas wants to limit those talks to the number and identity of Palestinian prisoners to be released for each remaining hostage, while Israel wants to leave it open-ended, so more topics could be added into the discussions, according to the two senior officials.

Hamas fears Israel might torpedo the talks by expanding them to deal with other, effectively irresolvable issues, which would allow Israel to continue the war, the officials said. The latest Qatari proposal negotiators offers Hamas three potential alternatives for the talks, according to the two senior officials, though they did not give further details. The U.S.- and U.N.-backed proposal stipulates that if Israel and Hamas cannot reach a deal on a permanent cease-fire before the six-week truce expires, negotiations will continue until they do. The two senior officials said Hamas wanted language that guaranteed Israel could not unilaterally declare that the talks had collapsed and return to battle.

In recent weeks, the United States has pushed Qatar — which hosts Hamas’s political leadership — to pressure Hamas to reach a deal with Israel, according to one of the two officials and a senior Israeli official. Qatar has now begun exerting more pressure on Hamas, said the two senior officials involved in the talks.

For months, Hamas’s and Israel’s demands have appeared irreconcilable, each reflecting their desire to shape the future of postwar Gaza. Hamas officials say they will only agree to a hostage-release deal if Israel commits to ending the war and totally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, allowing Hamas to maintain its rule of the Palestinian enclave.

For its part, Israel has vowed to end Hamas’s rule in Gaza and destroy its military and governing capabilities. Israeli leaders have said military operations there will likely continue for months while Israeli forces chase down the remnants of Hamas’s forces across the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers have fortified a major corridor in central Gaza, appearing to prepare for a protracted struggle.

After President Biden publicly backed the agreement in late May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel neither rejected the proposed agreement nor issued a full-throated endorsement. Two senior members of Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government publicly suggested they could break with his coalition if he went ahead with the deal.

But in mid-June, Hamas demanded revisions, and Israel quickly declared that Hamas had rejected the deal, while the Biden administration agreed that some of Hamas’s demands were unworkable.

Last month, Mr. Netanyahu also said in a television interview that he would only accept a “partial deal” with Hamas to release some hostages but would not countenance a premature end to the war. After fierce criticism from the families of Israeli hostages, Mr. Netanyahu publicly endorsed the deal the following day.

Ephrat Livni contributed reporting.

Israel releases Palestinian Authority funds while claiming more West Bank land.

Israel’s Finance Ministry transferred about $115.5 million in previously withheld tax funds to the Palestinian Authority, the ministry said on Wednesday, a move that might help ease pressure on the financially strapped Palestinian leadership in the occupied West Bank. But it was conditioned on Palestinian territorial losses that further complicated any possibility of a two-state solution.

The West Bank, which has been under Israeli military occupation since the 1967 war, is home to about 2.7 million Palestinians and is partly administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has sought to cripple the Palestinian Authority, withholding hundreds of millions in tax dollars that Israel collects on its behalf in the areas that the authority administers. This week, Mr. Smotrich agreed to release some of the money in exchange for Israeli legalization of five West Bank outposts. He also said he would extend a nearly expired waiver that allows Israeli banks to work with Palestinian financial institutions.

The legalization of the outposts will allow them to grow under Israeli law. Along with far larger and longer established Israeli settlements — all of which are considered illegal under international law — they carve into Palestinian territory that would be needed in any two-state solution.

Palestinians have long argued that the settlements are a creeping annexation, enforced by armed settlers, that is steadily pushing Arabs out of their homes and off their farms.

Israel has made other recent moves to take chunks of West Bank territory. Last week, an Israeli ministry approved the largest seizure of West Bank land since the Oslo Accords in 1993, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settler activity. The appropriation, announced on June 25, covered about five square miles of land in the Jordan Valley. As of July, Israel has seized roughly nine square miles of the territory this year, making 2024 by far the peak year for appropriations, Peace Now said.

Mr. Smotrich is a longtime settler activist who has vowed to legalize a new Jewish outpost in the West Bank for every nation that recognizes a Palestinian state. And he indicated that the five outposts, whose legalization he negotiated, were a response to the formal recognition by Spain, Ireland, Norway, Slovenia and Armenia of an independent Palestinian state in recent months.

While building and expanding the settlements is a major aim of far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the practice has caused conflicts among branches of the Israeli state. Security forces responsible for dismantling illegal outposts have struggled with settlers.

That was the case on Wednesday, when the Israeli military said in a statement that clashes had broken out at a “recently constructed” illegal outpost near Givat Assaf, one of the five scheduled for legalization.

“Masked Israelis” attacked the car of a Civil Administration officer and smashed the windows, the military said. The settlers also hurled a Molotov cocktail at a military vehicle.

Gen. Herzi Halevi, the military’s chief of staff, condemned the clashes and called for the attackers to be punished. “The law must be quickly and swiftly exacted upon the rioters who attacked the security forces as they attempted to carry out their mission,” he said.

Mr. Smotrich has not been circumspect about his intention to expand Israeli’s claim on West Bank territory. In a post on social media on Wednesday, he said he was meeting with the planning authorities to discuss the approval of 5,000 more housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“We’re building the good country and thwarting the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said.

The Conservatives Have Run Britain for 14 Years. How Has That Worked Out?

Since Britain’s Conservative Party took power 14 years ago, most things have not gone the way it planned.

The Conservative Party has dramatically reshaped Britain since 2010, orchestrating its exit from the European Union, slashing spending on public services and cutting welfare spending. Time and again, British voters have returned the party to power.

But Britons say their country is worse off now than when the Conservatives took office. Their dissatisfaction emerges on almost every issue they are asked about, from the economy to education to the National Health Service.

With the Conservatives facing the possibility of a crushing defeat in Thursday’s election, we took a look at how Britain has changed since they came to power. To do so, we chose the metrics that voters — and the party itself — say matter the most.

No single measure can capture the Britain of 2024, of course, but taken together, these metrics offer a snapshot of decline.

The Economy Has Stagnated

Britain’s economy has been stagnant ever since the 2008 financial crash, and the pandemic also hit it hard. Many of its peers, including Germany and the United States, managed to recapture pre-crisis levels of economic growth, but Britain never regained its momentum.

Productivity, a measure of economic output for every hour worked, was growing at about 2 percent per year in the decade before the financial crash. Since the Conservatives took power, it has grown by only about 0.5 percent per year.

One consequence of stagnant productivity is stagnant wages: The average British worker earns just £20 more per week than 14 years ago, after adjusting for inflation.

Austerity budgets explain a lot of the stagnation.

The new Conservative government, intent on reducing the deficit, cut deep and broad, slashing spending not just on party bugbears like welfare but also on public budgets for investment.

Following the vote to leave the European Union, private investment also ground to a halt amid economic uncertainty. The U.K. has the lowest rates of investment among G7 countries, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank based in London.

The Conservatives took power bemoaning the “debt crisis” and saying deep cuts were necessary to reduce the public debt. But even after a decade of austerity, it continued to rise, and then jumped sharply because of the pandemic.

The Conservatives also positioned themselves as a party of low taxation, pledging to reduce taxes in every election manifesto since 2010. The opposite happened.

More people have been dragged into higher tax brackets, and those at all income levels were hit when the nationwide sales tax was raised to 20 percent from 17.5 percent.

The Conservatives argue that the taxation is needed to reduce debt and cover the cost of measures introduced to counter economic shocks like the pandemic and the energy price crisis tied to the war in Ukraine.

The party did fulfill one of its pledges.

Unemployment has roughly halved since 2010, when the U.K. was just emerging from recession. Conservative policy makers argue that their welfare changes, aimed at making benefits less attractive and employment more rewarding, motivated people to return to the workforce. Some researchers found that the changes did modestly encourage people to work.

Public Services Are Struggling

The picture the Conservatives painted of Britain in 2010 was of a country living beyond its means. They detailed £6.2 billion, or about $9 billion, of spending cuts within their first two weeks in office, and severe cuts continued for the next decade.

Fourteen years later, despite record debt and the highest tax burden in 70 years, many of Britain’s public services are greatly diminished.

Local councils, which run services like social care, libraries, waste management, and local infrastructure, bore some of the deepest cuts, with their spending power dropping almost 30 percent by 2019.

Even the National Health Service, which was ring-fenced from cuts, has been under intense pressure. Its budgets have not risen in line with the increasing demands of Britain’s aging population, and cuts to the social care sector forced more vulnerable people into hospitals.

Britons rank health care as the second-most-pressing issue facing the country. Going into the election, four times as many voters believe Labour is better placed to manage the National Health Service as the Conservatives.

Outside the N.H.S., almost no department was spared from cuts. Troop numbers in the armed forces were reduced by more than 40,000.

Policing was also cut significantly, but during the 2019 election Boris Johnson pledged to stand for the “law abiding majority” and restore the 20,000 police officers that had been lost — a promise he fulfilled.

Record Levels of Immigration, Despite Conservative Pledges

The Conservative party long promised to reduce immigration, and the pledge to “take back control” of Britain’s borders was one of the top reasons many Britons voted to leave the European Union.

But legal immigration has soared in recent years. Net migration — the number of people who moved to Britain minus those who left — reached 764,000 in 2022, almost three times as high as when votes were cast for Brexit.

The migration spike in 2022 was largely driven by specific events, and it has already shown signs of subsiding. Some of the increase was likely migration delayed by the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and Afghans all fled to Britain on humanitarian visa programs.

Much of the debate around migration is being driven by record numbers of small-boat crossings across the channel, even though they only account for about 2 percent of migration to the U.K.

A huge backlog of unresolved asylum claims has grown under the conservatives. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda for resettlement, but those flights have been delayed by court challenges.

Two-thirds of Britons think immigration is too high, and the disconnect between the Conservatives’ tough talk on immigration and the record levels of migration has opened the party up to attacks from the hard right.

Increases in homelessness, hunger and student debt

The Conservatives tightened up significant parts of Britain’s welfare system, introducing a two-child limit to child welfare payments, stricter limits for disability benefits and a freeze on working-age benefits for four years.

At the same time, food bank use has skyrocketed. A third of the food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust last year went to children.

Housing prices have risen dramatically, and an annual survey also found increasing numbers of people sleeping on the streets. Although the number dipped during the pandemic, when the government moved many homeless people into hotels and temporary accommodation, it is now steadily rising toward record levels again.

The problem is stark in many cities now, where the combination of little affordable housing and reduced support services have left many without a safety net.

The cuts have reshaped all aspects of British life, but especially for young people. The Conservatives’ legacy for many of them will be defined by their rising student debt.

The government cut funding for universities and tripled tuition fees to plug the funding gap, meaning the average student now graduates with about £45,000 of student loan debt.

The overall crime rate peaked in the mid-90s, driven by increases in violence, vehicle crime and burglary, but it has declined ever since. From 2010 to 2023 it dropped by a further 54 percent.

Despite Mr. Sunak’s recent moves to roll back the reduction of carbon emissions, the country his party leaves behind is greener than the one it inherited: Britain is generating 60 percent less electricity from fossil fuels now than it was in 2010.

A Family Loses 3 Generations of Women in India Crowd’s Panic

Reporting from Sokhana village in Uttar Pradesh, India

Vinod Kumar was away from home on Tuesday, as he usually is for days at a time in search of masonry work, when he got the dreadful call.

All the women in his family, three generations of them, were dead, crushed in a stampede.

For the rest of the day, Mr. Kumar and his three sons went from hospital to hospital searching for their loved ones among the bodies of the 121 people who had died when a large gathering of a spiritual guru broke into deadly panic.

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Two Kings Battle for a Millennium-Old Throne in Nigeria

One king has been barricaded in the palace, protected from potential usurpers by hundreds of subjects armed with sticks and machetes.

Another king, evicted from the same palace in May, is living in an annex down the road, dispatching lawyers to courthouses in an attempt to regain the throne.

The battle unfolding for the emirate of Kano — one of West Africa’s oldest and most revered kingdoms — is not just a struggle for an ancient throne, but also part of a wider contest for control over the most populous state in Africa’s most populous country.

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Hurricane Beryl Caused ‘Unimaginable’ Damage in Grenada, Leader Says

Hurricane Beryl Caused ‘Unimaginable’ Damage in Grenada, Leader Says

As the storm headed for Jamaica, officials were assessing what Grenada’s prime minister called “total” devastation on two of the country’s islands.

Reporting from Mexico City

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As Hurricane Beryl headed toward Jamaica and the Cayman Islands early Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 storm, a clearer picture emerged of the devastation it had caused on two small islands in Grenada, with that country’s leader calling the destruction “unimaginable” and “total.”

“We have to rebuild from the ground up,” Grenada’s prime minister, Dickon Mitchell, said at a briefing after visiting the islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique, which were ravaged by Beryl on Monday.

Officials said about 98 percent of the buildings on the islands, where between 9,000 and 10,000 people live, had been damaged or destroyed, including Carriacou’s main health facility, the Princess Royal Hospital, and its airport and marinas. As of Tuesday night, there was no electricity on either island, and communications were down. Crops had been ravaged, and fallen trees and utility poles littered the streets.

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