Israeli Hostage Rescue Kills Dozens in Rafah

Welcome back to World Brief, where we’re looking at Israeli hostage rescue efforts in Rafah, protests over Pakistan’s election results, and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments about NATO.

‘Total Victory’ Remains Priority

Israeli forces rescued two hostages in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Monday. Hamas militants kidnapped dual Israeli-Argentine citizens Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, from Nir Yitzhak kibbutz during the Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel. Monday’s mission was Israel’s second successful hostage rescue operation since the war began. Marman and Har are reportedly in stable condition.

The small but symbolic Israeli victory drew criticism for its high casualty count. At least 74 Palestinians were killed in the operation, including women and children. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 68,000 others wounded in the past four months. Around 47 percent of those killed have been children, ministry authorities told The Associated Press.

The plight of Israeli hostages in Gaza remains one of Israel’s top priorities, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under growing public pressure to secure the freedom of the more than 100 people still in Hamas captivity. An Israeli intelligence report released to the New York Times last Tuesday said around one-fifth of the remaining hostages are dead. Netanyahu, however, rejected a Hamas cease-fire proposal last week that would have included the release of all remaining hostages (both alive and killed), arguing that Israel must have the right to completely eradicate Hamas.

“Only the continuation of the military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our captives,” Netanyahu said on Monday.

However, not everyone agrees with the prime minister’s approach. Last month, Gadi Eisenkot, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet and a former Israeli military chief of staff whose son was killed during fighting in Gaza in December 2023, said in a TV interview that whoever speaks of Hamas’s “absolute defeat is not speaking the truth” and that “the hostages will only return alive if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting.”

Israeli forces are expected to launch a ground offensive in Rafah in the near future to combat Hamas’s last alleged stronghold in Gaza. The city currently hosts more than half of the area’s 2.3 million residents, many of whom were forced to flee there to escape Israeli bombardments. The international community, including U.S. President Joe Biden, has urged Netanyahu not to conduct a Rafah assault without a “credible and executable plan” to evacuate civilians, with rights groups warning that an Israeli ground offensive there would be a “bloodbath.” Netanyahu said in a Sunday interview that he is working on a “detailed plan” to move Palestinians north of Rafah but did not provide specifics.

Fearing that a Rafah offensive could worsen the region’s humanitarian crisis, Egypt reinforced its border with the city to prevent Palestinian refugees from entering the country. Two Egyptian officials also warned on Sunday that any actions to destabilize the area could threaten Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

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The World This Week

Tuesday, Feb. 13: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly.

U.S., Israeli, Egyptian, and Qatari intelligence chiefs meet in Cairo to discuss the Israel-Hamas war.

Wednesday, Feb. 14: The World Trade Organization holds a General Council meeting in Switzerland.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosts Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

The U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group convenes in Brussels.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Cairo.

Indonesia holds presidential and legislative elections.

Thursday, Feb. 15: NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva travels to Egypt for a two-day visit.

Friday, Feb. 16: Russia’s central bank determines its interest rate.

Saturday, Feb. 17: African Union leaders begin a two-day summit in Ethiopia.

Sunday, Feb. 18: Galicia, an autonomous region in Spain, holds regional elections.

What We’re Following

Vote-rigging allegations. Thousands of Pakistanis blocked highways on Monday to protest alleged vote-rigging in the country’s Feb. 8 parliamentary elections. According to official results published on Sunday, independents backed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 95 out of 264 seats despite both Khan and the PTI being barred from running. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) secured only 75 seats even with the military’s support.

Both Khan, who is in prison, and Sharif have declared victory, but with no party winning a majority, negotiations are underway to form a coalition government that will select the next prime minister. Sharif’s PML-N and candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, which secured 54 seats, agreed to cooperate following the election, leading some experts to suspect that the two leaders will try to form a coalition government to undermine the PTI’s influence.

Although PTI-backed candidates far outperformed expectations, the party claims that its affiliated candidates won even more seats than the official results showed and has alleged systematic fraud occurred in the counting and recording of votes. The party organized protests across the country at electoral commission offices in constituencies where PTI-backed candidates lost. In several locations, riot police clashed with demonstrators.

A new generation of voters are demanding a break from Pakistan’s status quo, journalist Omar Waraich writes in Foreign Policy. “These voters want to have the power to choose their own leaders, not leave the country in the hands of the powerful military that has maintained a granitic grip on politics for most of its history.”

Not-so-collective defense. Former U.S. President Donald Trump suggested on Saturday that he would “encourage” Russia to attack any NATO member that fails to meet its 2 percent defense spending commitment, adding that he would not defend a nation behind on its payments. Only 11 NATO members met the 2 percent spending threshold in 2023.

“Trump has a long history of making incendiary remarks about the military alliance,” FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Jack Detsch report. “As president, he routinely railed against member states that failed to meet the 2 percent minimum defense spending goal and told aides on a number of occasions that he wanted the United States to withdraw from NATO altogether.” The White House called Trump’s remarks “appalling and unhinged,” and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg added that even the suggestion “undermines all of our security.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate cleared the last remaining procedural hurdle on a bipartisan foreign aid bill on Sunday despite far-right opposition. The roughly $95 billion package includes around $61 billion for Ukraine; $14 billion for Israel; and nearly $5 billion for U.S. partners in the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan; among other areas. The Senate will vote on the package in the coming days. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives must then vote on whether to approve the deal after failing to pass its own emergency spending bill.

Finland’s new president. In a close presidential runoff on Sunday, former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb narrowly beat former Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto with 51.6 percent of the vote. Haavisto conceded that evening, and Stubb thanked the former minister for a “fair, great race.”

Both Stubb and Haavisto campaigned on maintaining a hard line with Russia, which shares an 832-mile border with Finland; strengthening security ties with the United States; and continuing to support Ukraine. Finland joined NATO in April 2023.

Odds and Ends

Thirty Cubans allegedly orchestrated their own Ocean’s Eleven moment in Havana recently, Cuban state TV reported last Friday. But instead of stealing $160 million from a casino vault, Cuban authorities say the gang stole 1,660 boxes (or 133 metric tons) of chicken meat. The heist targeted food earmarked for Cuba’s so-called ration book system at a time when food shortages are sweeping the country. According to one government official, the amount stolen was equal to a month’s chicken rations for an entire medium-sized province. If found guilty, the alleged poultry thieves could face up to 20 years in prison.

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