Saturday, the 15th of May

Talking Points

A demographic earthquake in . PHOTO: Ng Han Guan / AP
  1. China's census reveals the threats of slowing population growth
  2. India uses anti-misinformation laws to quash critical journalism
  3. Coronavirus sweeps over the Indian border into Nepal, killing 1,000
  4. A bombing fails to assassinate the ex-president of the Maldives
  5. A plague of mice in Eastern Australia prompts desperate measures
  6. David Cameron fronts the UK hearing on peddling influence
  7. Russians mourn the dead after a rare school shooting
  8. Pro-Trump Republicans oust Liz Cheney from the party leadership
  9. A court ruling leaves the US National Rifle Association vulnerable
  10. A judge postpones the trials of Derek Chauvin's co-accused

Dive deeper

Airstrikes turn night into day. PHOTO: AFP / Getty

Israel has launched an assault on Gaza with shocking consequence. Fears of a broad uprising are growing across the Occupied Territories, and in Israel itself.

Assault on Gaza

The Israel Defence Forces launched a swingeing assault on northern Gaza late in the week. The combined barrage from airstrikes and howitzers – lined up behind the border of the enclave – has killed at least 107 Palestinians. Among the dead are 28 children who were either crushed by shattered concrete or torn open by super-heated shrapnel. Footage posted online captures the staccato of multiple airstrikes blurring into unbroken thunder – hundreds of shells and missiles landed within just a 10 minute period. One Palestinian journalist described the attack as more ferocious than the strikes that had flattened the enclave in 2014. And in scenes reminiscent of the worst bloodletting of the Syrian civil war, those fleeing the fusillade face mortal peril whether they hide, or risk moving to a new area. There is no escape for the two million Gazans blockaded on all sides by hostile governments.

But the violence was not just one-sided. Rocket-fire poured out of northern Gaza towards Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, and the cities of Sderot, Ashkelon, and Ashdod. Fortunately for the residents, most were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile shield. Even so, at time of writing, 7 Israelis had died and dozens more had been wounded. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks by Hamas will correctly classify them as war crimes. However, a note of context is required: Israeli airstrikes have killed more people in 24 hours than Hamas rockets have in two decades. And it remains unclear whether the IDF will launch a ground invasion as it did in 2008 (1,100 Palestinians killed / 13 Israelis killed) and 2014 (2,250 Palestinians killed / 73 Israelis killed), or attack from above and afar like it did in the 2018 border protests (183 Palestinians killed / 0 Israelis killed).

The timing of the attack on Gaza was also a provocation. Thursday was Eid al-Fitr , a joyous celebration of feasts in the Muslim world to mark the end of Ramadan fasting. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire, "out of respect for the spirit of Eid".

An ongoing catastrophe

This latest conflagration has been months (decades, really) in the making. As we touched upon last week, the steady movement of Zionist settlers into East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood has precipitated demonstrations since early April. Last Saturday, thousands of Muslims marked Laylat al-Qadr (the night of power) amid heightened security at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The next morning, Israelis marked Jerusalem Day (the seizure of the city in the 1967 war) with a flag-waving parade. The demonstrations turned into a riot and Israeli police stormed al-Aqsa mosque, firing tear gas at those praying inside. It is plaintively obvious that an attempt to quell violence by gassing worshippers inside Islam's third-most holy site is destined to fail.

And so it did. In cities across the Occupied Territories, and in areas of Israel annexed since 1948, Palestinians are now marching in solidarity with those standing up to aggression in Sheikh Jarrah or under siege in Gaza. Protests and counter-protests across the region are devolving into violence with businesses and places of worship torched. Incidents of localised violence – stabbings, beatings, and shootings – risk another intifada. But why is Sheikh Jarrah suddenly so controversial when Israeli settlers have been seizing new land for years? That's because its dispossession is near identical to that of al-Nakba ("the Catastrophe"), the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. The expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from villages and cities by residents of the then-new state of Israel has not yet been forgotten. Now, in Sheikh Jarrah it is happening all over again.

Palestinians the world over mark al-Nakba with a day of mourning, which as it happens, is today.

Cynicism makes way for realism

Embattled-but-unbowed acting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized the opportunity and floated an "option" of sending the military into mixed Israeli-Arab cities. This a strategically astute move to wedge his political opponents. Deploying the IDF into townships would put the entire country on war footing. Netanyahu's challenger, Yair Lapid, was in the process of cobbling together an anti-Netanyahu 'change bloc' that included Arab parliamentarians. They, of course, would outright refuse any such action. And so the right-wing Naftali Bennett, who is famously partial to collective punishment against Palestinians, appraised the landscape and promptly withdrew his own support for Lapid's bloc . In other words, there will be no anti-Netanyahu government – Israel will go back to the polls for a fifth occasion with Bibi in a position of great familiarity: as a wartime leader.

In years past you might have come across all manner of qualifiers in the above paragraph ("a cynic would argue", "Netanyahu's critics allege"). Not anymore – contemporary discourse has shifted indelibly. It is no longer de rigueur to couch discussions of Israel and Palestine in the morally flattening language of "both sides". This is not a fight among equals. There is an occupying power, and an occupied people. The former has an army with which it wields absolute control over the territory. The latter does not. Israel's largest humanitarian organisation B'Tselem published a landmark report earlier this year accusing its government of apartheid. The renowned international organisation Human Rights Watch concurred just weeks ago. Describing what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah as ethnic cleansing might once have been the preserve of activists; today this is recognised as being definitionally accurate. Terms like "clashes", which insinuate both equal footing and culpability, are disappearing from news reports.

All of this is progress, but of no comfort for those burying children in Gaza.


No-one ever accused Wario of market manipulation. PHOTO: Saturday Night Live

Tesla spins out on the road to Damascus

No doubt still buzzing from his performance on Saturday Night Live last weekend, Elon Musk gave cryptocurrency markets an unwelcome surprise. First he announced that SpaceX would launch a satellite titled Doge-1 into lunar orbit next year. And that it would be paid for entirely with ( EDITOR'S NOTE: We know this is an unbearable level of cringe but please bear with us ) Dogecoin. Then he followed with an announcement that Tesla would no longer accept Bitcoin because of the damaging energy costs associated with the paramount cryptocurrency. Bitcoin shed 15% of its value immediately , no doubt leaving a great many speculators cursing the South African showman's name. It's not Musk's first dangerous swerve on the road to Damascus.

On the other hand, Dogecoin took off on its own little adventure, doubling and then halving in value over the course of a single week. It's a punchline to a joke no-one has actually heard, but it keeps producing laughs. Take the story of authorities in New York which are investigating allegations that Coinseed Inc. illegally sold securities and acted as a broker-dealer by secretly investing clients money in Dogecoin. Sure, it's unlawful, but those unwitting clients actually made bank on the memecoin. There's just no pleasing some people.

Cryptocurrencies have also piqued the attention of slightly more sophisticated criminals. The Eastern European cyber-extortionists DarkSide who crippled Colonial Pipeline (and with it America's oil and gas infrastructure) last week have come good on their promise to unlock the disabled network. It turns out the company saw the lay of the land and coughed up the $5m ransom in a hard-to-trace cryptocurrency. Expect a lot more of this.

Elsewhere, Facebook's Libra project (remember that?) has emerged from self-imposed exile. Clearly the big names behind Libra were scarred by trying to carpe diem last time so they've opted for a new, unambitious title: the Diem Association . Global domination with a unitary digital currency appears beyond them but they are still having a crack at a cryptocurrency backed by greenbacks in a real life American bank.

So long, farewell, aufwiedersehn, adieu, adieu Bennu. PHOTO: The New York Times

Stealing dust and recording the heliopause

If any organisation is good at lifting the eyes and spirits, it's NASA. After two years of close orbit around the asteroid Bennu, it's time for the Osiris-Rex probe to come back home. Safely nestled away inside the spacecraft are dust samples from the distant rock. Even though Bennu is only 290 million kilometres away, it's going to take Osiris-Rex two years and two orbits of the sun before it can drop its cargo back in Utah. NASA has pined for asteroid samples, which compositionally can be keys to unlock the deep past or faraway galaxies. It must be noted that the Japanese space agency has achieved this feat twice already.

Meanwhile, somewhere out in the deep void of space between this galaxy and the next, a satellite is eavesdropping. The famed Voyager 1, launched in 1977, holds the record for the furthest a human-made object has ever gotten. Onboard the Voyager 1 is a nuclear-powered Plasma Wave System, and it is listening to the universe. It was meant to be quiet out there. But when the probe entered the heliopause (the space beyond the interference of our star) researchers recorded a faint and monotonous hum ; a staticky sound not unlike the space between radio stations.

Back on Earth, while most of us peer into mirrors to glimpse our present selves, NASA is getting mighty close to unfurling a mirror that can peer into the distant past of space. The James Webb Space Telescope underwent one final test to ensure that its 6.5m array actually fits correctly inside the 5m-wide rocket it will be hitching a ride on. It's slated to launch on October 31.

The best of times

Bare hands is best. PHOTO: AFP

Saving Malaysia's pollinators

A team of volunteers in Malaysia is saving the country’s bee population one nest at a time. The ‘My Bee Saviour Association’ relocates nests in places where they’re at-risk, such as in roofs or near trees. Traditionally, fire brigades are called in when nests are spotted, who dispose of the hives by setting them on fire. Instead, the volunteers use their bare hands to gently carry the homes of the vital winged insects to safer places. It's a damn good idea too if the Malaysians want to keep enjoying their durian and starfruit in the future!

The willow, whomped

Researchers have found a better, stronger, and more sustainable material for cricket bats : bamboo. Although players have used willow bats for almost 200 years, its production isn’t sustainable. Willows take a full 15 years to mature – after which replanting is required. Bamboo, however, takes just five years to mature, absorbs more carbon, and can be harvested multiple times. Additionally, bats made out of the woody grass are stronger, deliver more power to the ball, and offer a bigger ‘sweet spot’. Simply marvellous!

The worst of times

A shocking toll for the Hazaras. PHOTO: Reuters

Defenceless in Afghanistan

Violence in Afghanistan has surged as western forces begin a military withdrawal from the country. On Saturday, an attack in Kabul’s west left at least 85 dead and 147 injured , most of whom were students. As a result, a ceasefire deal was announced two days later to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Despite that, 11 people were killed in a spate of bombings across the country on Thursday, the first day of the ceasefire.

Ukraine annexation a success

Russia is attempting to absorb Ukrainian territory despite years of international criticism and ceasefires. This week, two separate reports exposed exactly how the Kremlin is doing this. Firstly, Ukraine claimed 100,000 Russian troops still remain on the border, a month after a military pullback was announced. And second, the EU revealed that Moscow is organising illegitimate elections and handing out passports in areas beyond the control of Kyiv.

Weekend Reading

The image

Archaeologists in Rome stumbled upon a startling find: the remains of nine Neanderthals in a cave. They didn't die together, the youngest are 55,0000 years old, the oldest almost double that. It's believed that some fell victim to a particularly tenacious pack of hyenas. Photograph supplied by The Guardian.

The quote

Sensitivities about sovereignty should surely not delay alerting the world to the threat of a new pathogen of pandemic potential .”

– The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response co-chair and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark uses diplomatic language to give Beijing a whack over the Covid-19 pandemic. A noble sentiment. But arguably a little misguided, considering a vast amount of human misery can be traced directly to “sensitivities about sovereignty”.

The numbers


- The US budget deficit is approaching two trillion dollars. However, it seems like everyone has lost interest in what was once the bugbear of fiscal conservatives.


- The thickness of the atmosphere has reduced by several hundred metres since the 1980s. Our out-of-control carbon emissions are beginning to disrupt the very atmosphere of the planet up to 60km above us.

The headline

"Two planes collide midair above Denver, no one injured" The Independent . A real one-two punch of the clauses there.

The special mention

This curious thing .

A few choice long-reads

  • The pandemic has been challenging for many. Do not count billionaires among them. Their collective wealth has risen from $8tn to $13tn a year. Financial Times with a compelling investigation.
  • There is growing insecurity in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. But don't call it a failed state. Foreign Affairs with a timely argument in Nigeria's favour.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting