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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 11 JANUARY 2024

US and allies weigh hitting Houthis in Yemen; Cameron ‘worried’ Israel may have broken international law

US and allies weigh hitting Houthis in Yemen; Cameron ‘worried’ Israel may have broken international law
A display of mock Houthi-made drones and missiles on a square in Sana'a, Yemen, on 10 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yahya Arhab)

The US and its allies are weighing options for retaliation against escalating attacks at sea by Houthis as they struggle to balance their determination to deter further aggression against the risk of sparking a wider Middle East war.

Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, said he was “worried” that Israel might have broken international law during the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and that the country must do more to allow aid to flow.

Germany’s ruling coalition has approved the sale to Saudi Arabia of 150 Iris-T air-to-air missiles, the first weapons shipment to the Gulf nation that the government in Berlin has granted in more than five years.

US and allies consider retaliation against Houthis

The US and its allies are weighing options for retaliation against escalating attacks at sea by Houthis as they struggle to balance their determination to deter further aggression against the risk of sparking a wider Middle East war. 

The Houthis, based in Yemen, launched their largest missile and drone attack to date on ships in the Red Sea on Tuesday, challenging US and UK forces patrolling the critical waterway. US and British jets and warships shot downed 18 drones and three anti-ship missiles, according to the US military. 

The incident highlighted the failure of US and allied actions so far to deter the attacks by the Iran-backed militant group, which has fired missiles at container and military ships on an almost daily basis over the past two months. The White House has been considering military strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, Bloomberg News has reported, despite the risk of a regional escalation.

“We’ve been clear with more than 20 other countries that if this continues, as it did yesterday, there will be consequences,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday during a stop in Bahrain, without spelling out options. 

“This represents a clear threat to the interests of countries around the world, and it’s important that the international community come together to respond.” 

Read more: Hezbollah says top commander killed as tensions with Israel grow

“We’ve made clear, and many other countries have made clear, that there will be consequences for the Houthis’ actions,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday.

 “We’ve also repeatedly tried to make clear to Iran, as other countries have as well, that the support that they’re providing to the Houthis, including for these actions, needs to stop. It’s not in their interest to see the conflict escalate. And we’re not the only ones who have sent this message to Iran.”

The top US diplomat is on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East to try to prevent escalation. He met Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday before going to the West Bank and Bahrain on Wednesday. He’s scheduled to be in Egypt on Thursday.

Other Gulf states share Saudi concerns about attacking the Houthis in Yemen. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani — speaking alongside Blinken on Sunday — rejected a military response and warned it would only escalate regional tensions.

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps warned the Houthis to “watch this space”.  

UK’s Cameron ‘worried’ Israel may have broken international law

Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, said he was “worried” that Israel might have broken international law during the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and that the country must do more to allow aid to flow.

Speaking to a committee of legislators in Parliament on Tuesday, Cameron said: “Am I worried that Israel has taken action that might be in breach of international law because this particular premises has been bombed, or whatever? Yes, of course.”

Cameron’s comments marked a heightened tone of scepticism from the UK, which has otherwise been largely supportive of Israel’s war against Hamas.  

Cameron, a former prime minister, said he had “differences” with Israel over its military campaign, as he publicly pressured Netanyahu to allow aid into the territory.

Earlier: Blinken Urges Israel Not to ‘Undercut’ Palestinian Governance

“Let’s have another pause right now,” Cameron told the select committee hearing, referring to the type of temporary truce put in place late last year to allow the release of hostages and humanitarian assistance to be brought in.  

There was a danger of “really widespread hunger” if Israel did not act, Cameron added, revealing he had urged Israel to open a list of checkpoints and ports and allow aid to be distributed.

Germany revives Saudi arms sales with air-to-air rocket approval

Germany’s ruling coalition has approved the sale to Saudi Arabia of 150 Iris-T air-to-air missiles, the first weapons shipment to the Gulf nation that the government in Berlin has granted in more than five years.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s chief spokesperson, Steffen Hebestreit, confirmed the approval — which was first reported by Der Spiegel magazine — at Wednesday’s regular government news conference in Berlin.

Germany stopped weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia in late 2018 over its involvement in the conflict in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but is now reversing that policy to reward the government in Riyadh for its recent support for Israel. 

Netanyahu draws central bank warning of ‘lost years’ over budget

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron made a last-ditch appeal to Netanyahu a day ahead of a government vote on this year’s revised budget, calling for bolder fiscal action in support of the war effort.

In a letter sent on Wednesday morning to Netanyahu and his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, Yaron urged immediate budget adjustments to reduce expenses and increase revenues over the next two years. Some of the steps he laid out are highly unpopular and for now, appear unlikely to be taken by the government. 

“The order of the day is to undertake a vigorous and decisive activity — despite all the difficulties and challenges involved, which will strengthen the economic and financial strength of the Israeli economy and avoid lost years,” Yaron said.

The plea by Yaron, who was recently appointed to a second five-year term, marks his latest foray into a debate over the costly fiscal response to a three-month conflict with Hamas that the central bank estimates will come at a price of 210 billion shekels ($56-billion). 

Israel gets new AI tools from US firm

Palantir Technologies, the data analysis firm that provides militaries with artificial intelligence models, is seeing high demand from Israel for new tools since the start of the war with Hamas on 7 October. 

“Our products have been in great demand,” Palantir Chief Executive Officer Alex Karp said in an interview in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. “We have begun supplying different products than we supplied before” the start of the war, he said, declining to comment on which technologies were being offered.

The Denver-based firm co-founded by Karp and billionaire Peter Thiel was holding a board meeting in Tel Aviv for the first time, in a gesture of solidarity with Israel as it enters its fourth month of war. The pair met Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and families of hostages being held in Gaza during their visit. 

AI for military purposes is among the emerging technology’s most controversial uses, with autonomous computer systems seen as having the potential to escalate conflicts, start wars or ignore civilian casualties. Israel has previously acknowledged using AI-based systems in battle to help human operators identify targets and propose airstrikes. 

Last year Palantir unveiled its AIP, or Artificial Intelligence Platform, which can serve as an aid in battlefield intelligence and decision-making, including analysing enemy targets and proposing battle plans. In an analyst call in November, the company said Israel was using its new Palantir Government Web Services.

Read More: Palantir sees record demand for new AI Tool: Here’s what it does 

Karp, who has been outspoken in support of Israel, defended the military campaign. Still, he said there was some pushback within the company over its backing of Israel in the war. 

Harvard, MIT tax status probed by Congress over anti-Semitism

The failure of the leaders of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to condemn anti-Semitism could affect their tax-exempt status, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said.

“If anti-Semitic speech crosses the line into unprotected conduct, it must be punished severely,” Representative Jason Smith, a Republican from Missouri, said in a letter to the schools on Wednesday. “If disgusting anti-Semitic speech remains in the protected category, it should be condemned, not coddled. Your words and actions matter.”

Smith noted that the committee has primary jurisdiction over tax-exempt institutions and the treatment of their endowments.

“We are left to wonder whether re-examining the current benefits and tax treatment afforded to your institutions is necessary,” he said. 

The inquiry is the latest probe into the richest colleges after the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas. The schools have accumulated massive wealth because of donations and investments. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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