Attacks on Ukraine intensify. Power alliances formed in Indonesia. Philippines and China on a collision course. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Israel pushed on Gaza aid as ground invasion looms

A group of men stand beside mountain of debris caused by air strikes. Smoke fills the sky.
Searching the rubble after Israeli air strikes in Gaza City this week.
Credit: Ali Jadallah / Andalou via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Russia intensified attacks in eastern Ukraine this week as it tried to recapture territory it lost last year, as Republican lawmakers in the United States signalled they might oppose plans by the White House to boost aid to Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Russia has initiated several assaults in north-eastern Ukraine as a counteroffensive launched by Ukraine about five months ago appeared to stall.

Russia has deployed additional troops – including special forces and units made up of prisoners – in a bid to encircle the city of Avdiivka and to attack the cities of Kupyansk and Lyman. On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said Russia had switched to air attacks against Avdiivka after suffering heavy losses on the ground.

Britain’s ministry of defence said it believed Russia wanted to create a buffer zone around the Luhansk region, which it largely occupied. But an assessment by the ministry said: “It is highly unlikely Russian Ground Forces will achieve a major operational breakthrough.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine conducted small, surprise attacks as it attempted to gradually overrun Russian military posts.

The US president, Joe Biden, last week unveiled a US$106 billion aid package – including US$61 billion for Ukraine and US$14 billion for Israel – but some Republicans, who hold a majority in the House of Representatives, have opposed the move, saying support for Israel should not be conditional on support for Ukraine.

On Monday, Donald Trump, the frontrunner to be the next Republican presidential candidate, attacked Biden for handing Ukraine a “blank cheque”. 

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: The oldest son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo registered on Wednesday to be the running mate of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a controversial former general who is leading in polls ahead of the election in February.

Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the 36-year-old mayor of Surakarta city, was announced by Prabowo as his vice-presidential candidate last weekend after Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled Raka was eligible to run despite being under the required age of 40 because he had held an elected regional office. That ruling was overseen by the court’s chief justice, Anwar Usman, who is Widodo’s brother-in-law, further fuelling concerns Widodo is attempting to orchestrate a dynasty. Widodo, who has high approval ratings, must step down due to Indonesia’s two-term limit.

Raka will run alongside his father’s former rival, Prabowo, a 72-year-old who twice lost to Widodo. Widodo appointed Prabowo as defence minister in 2019 and is believed to be backing him as president, even though they belong to different parties.

Prabowo, a former special forces commander, has been accused of human rights abuses in Timor-Leste and West Papua and of kidnappings of pro-democracy activists in the 1990s. He has denied the accusations.

Polls indicate Prabowo has a small lead over the two other main contenders: former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. The new tie-in with the Widodo family is expected to strengthen his standing.

Democracy in retreat

Philippines: A Chinese militia vessel has collided with a Philippine coastguard ship in the South China Sea, further inflaming tensions between the two countries.

On Monday, the Philippines accused China of dangerous manoeuvres and “intentionally” hitting its ships, while Beijing claimed its fishing vessels had been targeted and that Filipino ships had trespassed in its territory. The Philippines summoned the Chinese ambassador and has launched an investigation.

Confrontations between vessels from the two countries in the South China Sea have occurred for decades but have increased in recent months. The Philippines has been sending supplies to troops on a rusting World War II-era ship that was grounded in 1999 and has been used as an outpost, prompting China to try to block the vessels. The ship is eventually expected to sink.

The outpost is within the Philippines’ 370-kilometre economic zone and is more than 1000 kilometres from China’s nearest major landmass.

Spotlight: Israel–Hamas war

Israel faced growing international calls to increase aid flows to Gaza and to agree to a truce this week as its aerial bombardment continued ahead of a looming ground invasion aimed at toppling Hamas.

The United States president, Joe Biden, said on Tuesday Hamas had to release hostages before a ceasefire was considered, but backed a humanitarian pause to allow aid to reach Gaza. Asked about the pace of aid reaching Gaza, he responded: “Not fast enough.”

On Wednesday, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, called for “humanitarian pauses” to the fighting, saying the situation in Gaza was “dire”.

“Innocent Palestinian civilians should not suffer because of the outrages perpetrated by Hamas,” she said in a statement.

Israel rejected calls to restore flows of electricity and fuel to Gaza but agreed to limited passage of aid through the border with Egypt. Aid groups said this week hospitals were ceasing to function due to a lack of fuel. But an Israeli military spokesperson said fuel that reached Gaza would be used by Hamas to build weapons, saying Hamas was holding fuel stolen from United Nations aid sites.

Israel began air strikes on Gaza after Hamas, an Iran-backed militant group, fired thousands of rockets and conducted a rampage across southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1400 people and – along with other militants – taking about 220 hostages. As of Wednesday, Israeli strikes in Gaza had killed 5791 people, according to Gazan health officials. Israel says its attacks are targeted at Hamas militants, who operate from residential areas.

Hamas this week released two hostages – 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz and 79-year-old Nurit Cooper – who were abducted from a kibbutz in southern Israel. Lifshitz, whose husband remains in captivity, said she “went through hell”, describing being beaten by her abductors and held in a tunnel network she likened to “a spider web”. She said she was then treated “gently” by her captors and was given food and medical care. Two other hostages, an American–Israeli mother and daughter, were released last week.

Israel, which has committed to “eliminate” Hamas, ordered an estimated one million of Gaza’s 2.4 million residents to evacuate the northern part of the strip as it prepared for a ground offensive. Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israel and attempted several cross-border attacks by land and sea.

The US has reportedly urged Israel to delay a ground invasion, hoping to secure the release of more hostages and to ensure more aid reaches the strip.

The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, this week called for an immediate ceasefire, saying Israel’s bombardment and blockade of Gaza amounted to “collective punishment” and that the Hamas attacks were appalling but “did not happen in a vacuum”.

The comment drew an angry response from Israel, which said Guterres’s words justified terrorism, and called on him to resign.

In northern Israel, clashes escalated between Israel and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and backed by Iran. Israel has evacuated towns across the north, leaving 200,000 people displaced, including those evacuated near the Gazan border. About 20,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon.

The fighting has raised concern that Israel’s war against Hamas could spread to an all-out conflict involving Hezbollah and Iranian proxies across the Middle East, including in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Such a war could draw in Iran and the US.

During a visit to Israel this week, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had sent direct messages to Hezbollah to stay out of the fight, warning a widening of the war could leave the entire region “ablaze”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Israel pushed on Gaza aid as ground invasion looms".

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