FOR months now, the sense of something brewing in the region has been palpable. As has so often been the case in the past, the catalyst for the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians centred on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque which was raided by Israeli police last week, sparking unrest in the contested capital and outrage across the Arab world.

The compound at Al-Aqsa – known to Jews as the Temple Mount – is the third ­holiest site in Islam and the ­holiest in ­Judaism. For decades, it has been one of the most sensitive places in the ­Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ­clashes there have often sparked broader ­conflagrations, including an 11-day war between Israel and militants in Gaza two years ago.

Last week saw the same thing happen again as events at Al-Aqsa spiralled into cross-border strikes in Gaza and ­Lebanon some of the heaviest and most serious ­violence since Israel’s 2006 war with ­Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants.

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The violence surged again on Friday when an Italian tourist was killed and five people were wounded in a car-ramming in Tel Aviv that came hours after two Israeli sisters were killed in a shooting attack in the occupied West Bank.

“Our enemies are putting us to the test again,” declared Israel’s prime ­minister Benjamin Netanyahu after visiting the site of the attack with defence ­minister Yoav Gallant. Netanyahu, of course, has been under tremendous political ­pressure of late from an altogether different ­direction following mass protests by ­Israelis against his proposed law changing the country’s judiciary that many see as a threat to ­democracy and growing authoritarianism in the Jewish state.

Now Netanyahu faces fresh pressure – albeit a more familiar one – in the shape of Israeli-Palestinian tensions which underscore the breadth of the security challenges facing Israel’s hardline new government. Since taking office with ­ultranationalists in key security posts, it has pledged an even tougher stance against the Palestinians.

The latest spasm of violence comes too at a time of rare convergence with the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, the ­Jewish Passover holiday and Easter all currently under way.

Such is the seriousness of the ­situation that the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, General Herzi Halevi, has ordered the mobilisation of reservists. While not ­specifying the number of soldiers who will be called up for service, the Israeli press revealed that emphasis will be placed on members of the Air Force (IAF), including fighter pilots and drone operators.

Some observers have noted that for ­Netanyahu, there is a side advantage to this too.

As Amos Harel, political analyst of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has ­pointed out, any current military ­escalation would temporarily halt threats by army reservists to freeze their ­military service in ­objection to Netanyhau’s judicial reforms.

In March, alongside reservists, almost 650 members of army special forces, ­cyber and intelligence units, and combat pilots threatened to refuse to serve if ­Netanyahu carried on with his plan, which was put on pause after weeks of protests.

While in the past security threats have usually unified Israelis and temporarily healed domestic divisions, some ­regional watchers say too great an ­escalation could trigger the opposite effect for the Israeli government.

“The public is always supportive when these things begin, there is always a ­rallying around the flag phenomenon,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy ­national security advisor in Israel and senior fellow at Institute for National ­Security Studies (INSS) in ­Israel. ­Speaking to US broadcaster CNN, ­Freilich added that while limited ­tension may ­divert ­attention away from the ­controversy over the ­judicial ­overhaul, any further ­escalation risks damaging ­Netanyahu’s image, especially as it is ­taking place over the Passover holidays.

He also noted that it might be in the ­interests of the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza and the Lebanon-based Shia ­militant group Hezbollah – both backed by Israel’s long-time foe Iran – to “take ­advantage of Israel’s disarray”.

Even before the latest flare-up the West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations in the past several months, with ­frequent Israeli military raids and escalating ­Jewish settler violence amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians. Grim as the ­prospect of ­another round of bloodletting is for ­Netanyahu, it might just buy him the ­reprieve he needs from that other ­domestic political crisis he has faced of late.

United States

IT’S been a tumultuous time for Americans this past week. First, there was that unprecedented matter of Donald Trump becoming the first former US president to face a criminal charge.  

Then there was the fallout from Republican fury at the administration of President Joe Biden for largely blaming Trump for the shortcomings of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

As if both these issues were not enough for Americans to dwell upon, along came the controversy surrounding the vote by Tennessee politicians to expel two members from the state legislature after they and a third member – all Democrats – took part in a protest against gun violence from the floor of the chamber.  

The National: Donald Trump became the first former US president to face criminal chargeDonald Trump became the first former US president to face criminal charge

The votes held last Thursday resulted in Justin Jones and Justin Pearson being expelled from the Tennessee State House of Representatives, while Gloria Johnson kept her seat by one vote.  The expulsion of what has become known as the “Tennessee Three,” comes after hundreds of protesters gathered at Tennessee’s state capitol in Nashville on March 30, calling for tighter gun control laws after three nine-year-olds and three adults were killed in a shooting at The Covenant School in the city.  

As the protesters entered the galleries of the House and Senate chambers, Jones, Pearson and Johnson brought proceedings to a halt by joining the protests – their participation resulting in the expulsion of Jones and Pearson. A move to expel the third Democratic member, Johnson, failed by one vote.  “You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today. Two young black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not. That’s a statement in and of itself,” Pearson told reporters after the vote. 

The expulsions ordered by Tennessee’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives have reverberated at the highest level in American political circles with President Joe Biden decrying the proceedings, tweeting that they  were “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent”. 

Meanwhile, former president Barack Obama also criticised the move, saying: “This nation was built on peaceful protest. No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”   The whole affair has one again focused the minds of many Americans on those two issues that haunt the country, gun control and race. 

Tennessee is a state with some of the nation’s most permissive gun laws, as well as the highest rate of gun theft and perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the highest rates of gun deaths.  

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Writing in The New York Times, columnist Margaret Renkl who specialises in the American South denounced what she described as our state government having “doubled down on its love affair with guns”.  

Meanwhile one of those expelled, Justin Jones accused the Republicans of trying to take the state backwards pointing to Tennessee’s history of white supremacy and being the birthplace of the ultra-violent  Ku Klux Klan.   “What happened… was an attack on our democracy and overt racism,” said Jones, highlighting once again the toxic divisions that continue to bedevil America. 


THE drills have been dubbed “United Sharp Sword”. So began three days of military exercises yesterday by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) encircling Taiwan amid apparent anger in Beijing over Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting in California with the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. 

The People’s Liberation Army will “conduct Taiwan encirclement combat readiness, patrol and joint sharp sword exercises” in the Taiwan Strait and waters and airspace north, south and east of Taiwan from Saturday until Monday, the PLA Eastern Theatre Command said  China, which claims Taiwan as its own after the island split away following a civil war in 1949 and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its aims, has previously unleashed week-long manoeuvres following the then-US speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last August. 

Responding to the start of yesterday’s drills, the Taiwanese military said missile defence systems were activated and air and sea patrols sent to track the Chinese aircraft.  “We condemn such an irrational act that has jeopardised regional security and stability,” Taiwan’s defence ministry said in a statement. 

Defence analysts say Beijing’s timing of the military drills may have been delayed by political considerations. Tsai’s stopover in California coincided with a visit to China by French president Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who met President Xi Jinping to push for co-operation on ending the war in Ukraine.  

Of late too Beijing has also been courting Taiwan’s main opposition party the Kuomintang ahead of presidential elections in the country next January.  Tsai’s presidential predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou was recently hosted by China, who said after his landmark visit that Taiwan will in future have to choose between “peace and war,” giving rise to fears of political division within the island as elections loom next year.   Meanwhile, during a visit to Taipei the chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, has pledged to help provide training for Taiwan’s armed forces and speed up the delivery of weapons. 

“We are doing everything we can in Congress to speed up these sales and get the weapons that you need to defend yourselves,” McCaul said. “And we will provide training to your military – not for war, but for peace… projecting weakness only invites aggression and conflict. Projecting strength provides deterrence and promotes peace.”  For Taiwan, it seems, only time will tell which will ultimately prevail – peace or war. 


IT was four years ago now that protesters massed at the gates of Sudan’s military to demand the removal of the widely detested  ruler of three decades President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. 

With Bashir finally consigned to a jail by the Nile, the Sudanese people believed they were entering a new era of political freedoms. Then 18 months ago, along came two powerful generals army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (inset), and a powerful paramilitary commander, Lt. General Mohamed Hamdan, who joined forces to seize power in a coup.  

Led by the United Nations, international powers appeared – in theory at least – to have persuaded the generals to hand power back to the civilians by April 11, the fourth anniversary of al-Bashir’s ouster. 

According to a draft of the deal obtained by the Associated Press, the military would withdraw from politics and be barred from non-military businesses. Political parties would form a civilian administration to lead the chaos-stricken nation through elections in two years. They are to name a prime minister who would form a cabinet and chair the Defence and Security Council, which decides on security issues. 

The deal would also include an overhaul of the security apparatuses that will eventually lead to a unified, professional and non-partisan military.   Now, as that deadline for the signing of the deal looms on Tuesday, there are fears that this will not happen and that indeed the generals and their respective forces might start fighting among themselves.  Security reforms have been a key point of contention in negotiations held in the past weeks.

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Regional observers say the sticking point in the proposed reforms is the integration into the regular army of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group led by al-Burhan’s deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”, who heads the ex-militiamen of the Darfur War known as the Janjaweed who are now amalgamated into the RSF. 

The two men have been at loggerheads over the timetable for the RSF’s integration, and analysts have pointed to a deepening rift between them  As talks have dragged on in recent days, tensions between the rival military camps have only increased and groups of soldiers are positioned across the capital Khartoum. 

Meanwhile those civilians and their leaders who made the ousting of President al-Bashir possible insist they will not have his rule replaced by a military one. For now, at least, Sudan is in political limbo and potentially dangerous days still lie ahead.