Israeli tanks reach central Rafah as strikes continue

Rushdi Abu Alouf,David GrittenShare

Reuters A man and a young boy walk among ruins in Rafah

Israeli forces have reportedly reached the centre of the southern Gaza city of Rafah and seized a strategically important hill overlooking the nearby border with Egypt.

Witnesses and local journalists said tanks were stationed at al-Awda roundabout, which is considered a key landmark.

They also said tanks were on Zoroub Hill, effectively giving Israel control of the Philadelphi Corridor – a narrow strip of land running along the border to the sea.

The Israeli military said its troops were continuing activities against “terror targets” in Rafah, three weeks after it launched the ground operation there.

Western areas of the city also came under intense bombardment overnight, residents said, despite international condemnation of an Israeli air strike and a resulting fire on Sunday that killed dozens of Palestinians at a tented camp for displaced people.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the possibility that the fire was caused by the explosion of weapons stored by Hamas in the vicinity.

It also denied reports from local health and emergency services officials on Tuesday afternoon that tank shells had hit another camp in al-Mawasi, on the coast west of Rafah, killing at least 21 people.

Reuters news agency cited local health officials as saying the blast occurred after Israeli tank shells hit a cluster of tents in al-Mawasi on Tuesday. An official in the Hamas-run civil defence force also told AFP there had been a deadly Israeli strike on tents.

Videos posted to social media and analysed by BBC Verify showed multiple people with serious injuries, some lying motionless on the ground, near tents and other temporary structures.

There was no clear sign of a blast zone or crater, making it impossible to ascertain the cause of the incident. The location – verified through reference to surrounding buildings – is between Rafah and al-Mawasi, and lies south of the IDF’s designated humanitarian zone.

The IDF said in a statement: “Contrary to the reports from the last few hours, the IDF did not strike in the humanitarian area in al-Mawasi.”

Israel has insisted that victory in its seven-month war with Hamas in Gaza is impossible without taking Rafah and rejected warnings that it could have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

The UN says around a million people have now fled the fighting in Rafah, but several hundred thousand more could still be sheltering there.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began what they called “targeted” ground operations against Hamas fighters and infrastructure in the east of Rafah on 6 May.

Since then, tanks and troops have gradually pushed into built-up eastern and central areas while also moving northwards along the 13km (8-mile) border with Egypt.

On Tuesday, they reportedly reached the city centre for the first time.

The al-Awda roundabout, which is only 800m (2,600 ft) from the border, is the location of major banks, government institutions, businesses, and shops.

One witness said they saw soldiers position themselves at the top of a building overlooking the roundabout and then begin to shoot at anyone who was moving.

Video posted online meanwhile showed tank track marks on a road about 3km west of al-Awda roundabout and 300m from the Indonesian field hospital, which was damaged overnight.

Reuters A Palestinian girl sits on top of possessions being transported by a cart in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (28 May 2024)
The UN says around a million people have fled Rafah since the start of the Israeli ground operation in the city

Earlier, residents told the BBC that tanks seized Zoroub Hill, about 2.5km north-west of al-Awda roundabout, after gun battles with Hamas-led fighters.

The hill is highest point along the Egyptian border and its seizure means the entire Gazan side of the border is now effectively under Israeli control.

Zoroub Hill also overlooks western Rafah, where residents said there had been the heaviest air and artillery strikes overnight since the start of the Israeli operation.

A local journalist said the bombardment forced hundreds of families to seek temporary shelter in the courtyard of a hospital, while ambulances struggled to reach casualties in the affected areas.

At dawn, thousands of people were seen heading north, crammed into cars and lorries and onto carts pulled by donkeys and horses.

“The explosions are rattling our tent, my children are frightened, and my sick father makes it impossible for us to escape the darkness,” resident Khaled Mahmoud told the BBC.

“We are supposed to be in a safe zone according to the Israeli army, yet we have not received evacuation orders like those in the eastern [Rafah] region,” he added. “We fear for our lives if no-one steps in to protect us.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did not comment on the various reports but put out a statement saying that “overnight troops operated on the Philadelphi Corridor while conducting precise operational activity based on intelligence indicating the presence of terror targets in the area”.

“The activity is being conducted as efforts are continuing to be made in order to prevent harm to uninvolved civilians in the area,” it added.

“The troops are engaging with terrorists in close-quarters combat and locating terror tunnel shafts, weapons, and additional terrorist infrastructure in the area.”

The IDF has told civilians in eastern Rafah to evacuate for their own safety to an “expanded humanitarian area” stretching from al-Mawasi, a coastal area just north of Rafah, to the central town of Deir al-Balah.

EPA A Palestinian woman reacts next to tents destroyed by a fire triggered by an Israeli air strike in western Rafah on Sunday, in the southern Gaza Strip (28 May 2024)
Israel’s prime minister said the killing of civilians in an air strike and resulting fire in Rafah on Sunday was a “tragedy”

On Sunday night, at least 45 people – more than half of them children, women and the elderly – were killed when an Israeli air strike triggered a huge fire in a camp for displaced people near a UN logistics base in the Tal al-Sultan area, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Hundreds more were treated for severe burns, fractures and shrapnel wounds.

The IDF said it was targeting two senior Hamas officials in the attack, which happened hours after Hamas fighters in south-eastern Rafah launched rockets towards the Israeli city of Tel Aviv for the first time in months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a “tragic incident” had occurred “despite our immense efforts to avoid harming non-combatants” and promised a thorough investigation.

IDF chief spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday that the strike had targeted a structure used by the Hamas commanders which was away from any tents, using “two munitions with small warheads”.

“Following this strike, a large fire ignited for reasons that are still being investigated. Our munitions alone could not have ignited a fire of this size,” he said.

Rear Adm Hagari added that investigators were looking into the possibility that the fire was caused by the explosion of weapons or ammunition stored in a nearby structure, and played what he said was an intercepted telephone conversation between two Gazans suggesting that. The audio recording could not immediately be verified.

Sam Rose of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, told the BBC from western Rafah that the killing of so many civilians could not be dismissed as an accident.

“Gaza was already one of the most overcrowded places on the planet. It is absolutely impossible to prosecute a military campaign involving large-scale munitions, strikes from the sky, the sea, the tanks, without exacting large-scale civilian casualties,” he said.

“It seems like we are plumbing new depths of horror, bloodshed and brutality with every single day. And if this isn’t a wake-up call, then it’s hard to see what will be.”

Last week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to “immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza to destroy Hamas in response to the group’s cross-border attack on southern Israel on 7 October, during which about 1,200 people were killed and 252 others were taken hostage.

At least 36,090 people have been killed in Gaza since then, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Russian plot to kill Zelensky foiled, Kyiv says

Telegram/SBU Footage shows a man being arrested
Ukraine said it arrested two Ukrainian officials who worked with the Russian security services

The Ukrainian security service (SBU) says it has foiled a Russian plot to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky and other high-ranking Ukrainian officials.

Two Ukrainian government protection unit colonels have been arrested.

The SBU said they were part of a network of agents belonging to the Russian state security service (FSB).

They had reportedly been searching for willing “executors” among Mr Zelensky’s bodyguards to kidnap and kill him.

Ever since Russian paratroopers attempted to land in Kyiv and assassinate President Zelensky in the early hours and days of the full-scale invasion, plots to assassinate him have been commonplace.

The Ukrainian leader said at the start of the invasion he was Russia’s “number one target”.

But this alleged plot stands out from the rest. It involves serving colonels, whose job it was to keep officials and institutions safe, allegedly hired as moles.

Other targets included military intelligence head Kyrylo Budanov and SBU chief Vasyl Malyuk, the agency added.

The group had reportedly planned to kill Mr Budanov before Orthodox Easter, which this year fell on 5 May.

According to the SBU, the plotters had aimed to use a mole to get information about his location, which they would then have attacked with rockets, drones and anti-tank grenades.

One of the officers who was later arrested had already bought drones and anti-personnel mines, the SBU said.

Telegram/SBU An anti-tank grenade
The SBU said it found various ordnance, including an anti-tank grenade, on the plotters

SBU head Vasyl Malyuk said the attack was supposed to be “a gift to Putin before the inauguration” – referring to Russia’s Vladimir Putin who was sworn in for a fifth term as president at the Kremlin on Tuesday.

The operation turned into a failure of the Russian special services, Mr Malyuk said.

“But we must not forget – the enemy is strong and experienced, he cannot be underestimated,” he added.

The two Ukrainian officials are being held on suspicion of treason and of preparing a terrorist act.

The SBU said three FSB employees oversaw the organisation and the attack.

One of them, named as Dmytro Perlin, had been recruiting “moles” since before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Another FSB employee, Oleksiy Kornev, reportedly held “conspiratorial” meetings “in neighbouring European states” before the invasion with one of the Ukrainian colonels arrested.

In a released interrogation with one of the suspects, they can be heard describing how they were paid thousands of dollars directly by parcels or indirectly through their relatives. It is not clear whether he was speaking under duress or not.

Investigators insist they monitored the men throughout. We are unlikely to know how close they came to carrying out their alleged plan.

The plot may read like a thriller but it is also a reminder of the risks Ukraine’s wartime leader faces.

Last month, a Polish man was arrested and charged with planning to co-operate with Russian intelligence services to aid a possible assassination of Mr Zelensky.

At the weekend Ukraine’s president appeared on the Russian interior ministry’s wanted list on unspecified charges.

The foreign ministry in Kyiv condemned the move as showing “the desperation of the Russian state machine and propaganda”, and pointed out that the International Criminal Court had issued a warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest.

Australian PM calls Elon Musk an ‘arrogant billionaire’ in row over attack footage

Reuters Elon MuskReutersElon Musk (pictured) has accused Anthony Albanese of censorship

Australia’s leader has called Elon Musk an “arrogant billionaire” in an escalating feud over X’s reluctance to remove footage of a church stabbing.

On Monday, an Australian court ordered Mr Musk’s social media firm – formerly called Twitter – to hide videos of last week’s attack in Sydney.

X previously said it would comply “pending a legal challenge”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s criticism followed Mr Musk using a meme to accuse his government of censorship.

On Tuesday, Mr Albanese told ABC News that Mr Musk “thinks he’s above the law but also above common decency”.

Last week Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, an independent regulator, threatened X and other social media companies with hefty fines if they did not remove videos of the stabbing at the Assyrian Christ the Good Shepherd church, which police have called a terror attack.

X has argued the order is “not within the scope of Australian law”.

The commissioner sought a court injunction after saying it was clear that X was allowing users outside Australia to continue accessing footage.

“I find it extraordinary that X chose not to comply and are trying to argue their case,” Mr Albanese told a press briefing.

In a subsequent series of online posts, Mr Musk wrote: “I’d like to take a moment to thank the PM for informing the public that this platform is the only truthful one.” Another depicted a Wizard of Oz-style path to “freedom” leading to an X logo.

Earlier, he also criticised eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant personally, describing her as the “Australian censorship commissar”.

Mr Albanese defended Ms Inman Grant, saying she was protecting Australians.

“Social media needs to have social responsibility with it. Mr Musk is not showing any,” he said.

The platform will have 24 hours to comply with Monday evening’s injunction, with a further hearing into the matter expected in the coming days.

Russians abroad have no faith in this presidential election – and are divided on what they can do about it

People line up outside the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, to vote in the 2018 Russian presidential election.

People line up outside the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, to vote in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Joerg Carstensen/picture-alliance/dpa/APCNN — 

Sergey Kulikov booked the first flight available out of Russia within days of the Kremlin announcing forced conscription and harsh punishments for wartime deserters in September 2022.

As a lawyer, Kulikov was concerned about how quickly the legislation was forced through. He felt there was no “fair court anymore” to seek legal protection, after Russia was excluded from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Now living in Dubai, he’s preparing to vote in Russia’s presidential election, despite the knowledge it will be marred by the same lack of fairness.

Still, Kulikov says voting is “the only available liberal and effective way to express protest both within Russia and from outside the country.”

“When people don’t show up at the ballot stations, it makes the job of falsification and stealing the votes so much easier,” he added.

Kulikov is one of hundreds of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, ballooning the population of Russian nationals around the world.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that expatriates – even those who left for states deemed “unfriendly” – will be allowed to vote in the presidential election on March 15-17. Russia’s Central Election Commission said that overseas voting will take place at 288 polling stations in 144 countries, Russian state media TASS reported.

During the 2018 presidential elections, 401 polling stations operated abroad and more than 475,000 people voted, according to the Central Election Commission as quoted by RIA Novosti. But this year, many overseas polling stations that operated in 2018 have been closed. It is unclear how many expatriates will turn up to vote, but the numbers are expected to be higher due to the mass exodus from Russia, with the potential for longer lines at overseas polling stations.

CNN spoke to several overseas citizens, all of whom were united in their unfavorable opinion of Putin – saying his regime was authoritarian, propagandist and abusing human rights.

But they said they had mixed feelings on the utility of voting when there is no real viable alternative.

Russian citizens at the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, look at a list of candidates in the 2018 Russian presidential election.

Russian citizens at the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, look at a list of candidates in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Joerg Carstensen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

‘No good candidates’

This election is not about choosing the right candidate. We all understand perfectly well which candidate will be chosen,” said Luba Zakharov, a 35-year-old data analyst who moved to Hamburg, Germany in March 2022. He’s planning to go all the way to Berlin to vote, given that the polling station in Hamburg will be shut. “Most likely I will spoil the ballot.”

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Spoiling the ballot has become a popular strategy to show discontent, essentially voting for “none of the above” by marking the ballot incorrectly.

“There is no good solution in this election. There are no good candidates,” Zakharov added.

In February, the only anti-war candidate openly critical of Putin’s policies who gathered unexpected momentum, Boris Nadezhdin, was barred from running by the Central Election Commission. Thousands of Russians queueing across the country and abroad to sign in support of his candidacy proved a growing public demand for an alternative.

RELATED ARTICLEDespite scenes of defiance, plenty of Russians support Putin as election nears

All three remaining candidates running against Putin on the official ballot – Vladislav Davankov, Nikolai Kharitonov and Leonid Slutsky – are widely considered to be reliably pro-Kremlin, leaving few options for voters looking for an alternative to the status quo.

The death of Russian opposition figure and outspoken Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny in prison last month punctuated a merciless crackdown on dissidence in Russia that has accelerated during its war with Ukraine. His death has been met with an outpouring of grief across the world, and inside Russia, where many viewed him as a symbol of hope for a different future. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, urged Russians last week to gather at polling stations on the final day of the elections, in a show of defiance.

Zakharov told CNN that in the wake of Navalny’s death, his motivation for showing up to the polls was to build connections with other opposition voters in Germany – ties that could one day be used to build a stronger system of support for Russians both inside and outside of the country.

“It is more important to demonstrate protest actions than to vote as it would be in a democratic election,” Zakharov said.

“Sometimes solidarity requires very little: just showing up,” he said. “For people abroad, there are no risks. We have nothing to lose.”

He said living abroad grants him the freedom to express opinions more openly and even assist political prisoners and Russians inside the country who are afraid to speak up.

A mourner lays flowers on the grave of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny at the Borisovo cemetery in Moscow on March 2, 2024, the day after Navalny's funeral.

A mourner lays flowers on the grave of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny at the Borisovo cemetery in Moscow on March 2, 2024, the day after Navalny’s funeral. Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

‘Elections are all for show’

Other overseas citizens, like 35-year-old academic Anna, whose Jewish roots allowed her to move to Be’er Sheva, Israel, in 2022, prefer to opt out of voting altogether.

Anna, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of retribution, said participating in the poll only helps the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is a democracy.

She believes a higher number of ‘stolen’ votes will highlight the blatant illegitimacy of the election.

“If Putin wins 96% of votes in this election, it will obviously be a totalitarian election,” Anna said. “Let them give my vote to Putin… I want the world media to come out with the headlines: There is a totalitarian regime in Russia.”

Putin is relying on this election to demonstrate that his war in Ukraine has the country’s support, even as the Russian economy is faltering under the weight of sanctions and hefty defense spending, according to Callum Fraser, a research fellow specializing in Russian foreign policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank.

“Elections in authoritarian regimes are often used as a symbolic representation of the leader’s mandate to rule,” said Fraser. “This election is gearing up to be potentially the most manipulated in Russian history. While there will almost certainly be lower than 80% turnout, we can expect the official rhetoric to show figures within this ballpark.”

Fractured opposition

Fraser estimates that about 10% to 15% of Russia’s population are “extremely discontented with the system and are prepared to show it” but there is a much larger, apolitical segment of society that will stay home because they believe their vote is pointless.

“The true opinion of many Russians remains in their heads,” he said.

Even protests in the wake of Navalny’s death have not reached a level of “discontent that would worry Putin,” Fraser said, noting that Russia’s opposition “remains fragmented.”

There is no unified strategy for voters who oppose Putin, which reflects the long-standing absence of a consensus among the opposition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen during a meeting with his confidants for the 2024 election at Gostiny Dvor in Moscow, Russia January 31, 2024. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

RELATED ARTICLEOpinion: Vladimir Putin’s sham election

Modern Russia’s opposition has struggled to coalesce into a unified force and tended to gravitate towards charismatic leaders. Alexey Navalny’s team currently stands out as one of the most popular wings of the opposition, yet it has largely been operating independently.

Meanwhile, some of the Kremlin’s most outspoken critics, such as opposition figures Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, have been incarcerated, while others, like politician Boris Nemtsov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed.

“Russia is not a democratic state,” Fraser emphasized. “The elections are all for show and will display a result that suits Putin’s narrative.”

The RUSI fellow does not believe that any votes, “especially those from ‘liberals’ that have fled the country and the SMO [Special Military Operation], will shift the result in any way.”

But that hasn’t deterred voters abroad from holding out hope.

“It is unlikely that anyone will achieve anything,” Kulikov, the lawyer now in Dubai, says. “But this is still an opportunity. There is always hope for a miracle in my heart. I am a Russian person; I believe in miracles.”

In China’s battle of the lattes, Luckin Coffee keeps beating Starbucks

Customers at a Luckin Coffee outlet in Tianjin, China on July 24, 2023

Customers at a Luckin Coffee outlet in Tianjin, China on July 24, 2023 Zhang Peng/LightRocket/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Sign up for CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, which explores what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world.Hong KongCNN — 

Luckin Coffee, the Chinese chain that has been rebuilding its business since a fraud scandal four years ago, has reported a commanding sales lead over rival Starbucks in the important China market.

In 2023, Luckin generated total net revenue of 24.9 billion yuan ($3.5 billion), up 87% from a year earlier, according to its financial results released on Friday.

It didn’t break down its revenue by geography, but the vast majority of its sales come from China. Internationally, it has only 30 outlets in Singapore, the first of which debuted last March.

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Starbucks (SBUX), in comparison, reported total revenue of $3.05 billion in China for fiscal 2023 that ended October 1, according to a CNN calculation based on the company’s quarterly results. The US coffee chain has not reported a full-year figure for China sales.

Xiamen-based Luckin said its unaudited net income for 2023 reached 2.85 billion yuan ($396 million), compared to 488 million yuan ($68 million) in 2022, it said.

Luckin, which already calls itself China’s biggest coffee chain, says it had surpassed Starbucks in mainland China by number of outlets in 2019.

The surge in Luckin’s sales last year was partly driven by its rapid expansion. By the end of 2023, Luckin had 16,218 stores in China, nearly double its 2022 count of more than 8,200.

Starbucks, by contrast, had 6,975 stores in China as of the end of January, according to the company’s latest quarterly result published earlier this year. That number was up 14.5% from a year earlier.

Some of Luckin’s stores are self-operated, while others are run by partners. Starbucks’ outlets in China are entirely company-owned.

Globally, Starbucks is still by far the largest coffee chain, with 38,586 stores worldwide. The United States and China are its two largest markets.

China, once a tea-drinking nation, has become a global coffee industry powerhouse, despite grappling with numerous economic problems in recent years. Data from the International Coffee Organization last year showed that coffee consumption in the country grew 15% in the year ended in September.

Much of this demand is driven by the younger generation. As many as 36% of coffee consumers in the country were between 25 and 34 years old, and 30% were between 35 and 44 years old, according to a 2021 survey by Daxue Consulting, a Chinese market research firm.

The number of branded coffee shops in China jumped 58% in the past twelve months, reaching 49,691 outlets, according to a December report by World Coffee Portal. That helped China overtake the US as the world’s largest branded coffee shop market.

Luckin acknowledged the fierce competition.

“We remain focused on our pricing and expansion strategy to sustain our growth and market share,” said Jinyi Guo, chairman and chief executive officer of Luckin Coffee, in a statement that accompanied the company’s results.

People visit Starbucks booth during the first China International Supply Chain Expo (CISCE) at China International Exhibition Center (Shunyi Venue) on November 28, 2023 in Beijing, China.

People visiting a Starbucks booth at an exhibition in Beijing on November 28, 2023 VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images

Luckin was founded in 2017 and is backed by Chinese private equity firm Centurium Capital. It focuses on catering to young people, with mostly takeout booths and cashless payments. Its beverages are about 30% cheaper than those offered by Starbucks.

Its bare bones stores usually offer only the most basic services, which has allowed the company to expand rapidly at a lower cost. It also requires consumers to use mobile phones to place orders, enabling them to collect extensive costumer data.

Making a comeback

By 2019, the company had outnumbered Starbucks stores in China, with more than 4,500 outlets, according to the company.

In 2019, Luckin went public in New York, where it was welcomed by investors who believed it could be a serious challenger to Starbucks.

But the company was forced to retreat a year later following the admission that its earnings had been fabricated. Luckin was ultimately delisted from the Nasdaq, and its then chairman and CEO were both fired. It was also slapped with a $180 million fine by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

After that, the company pledged to rebuild its businesses. Centurium Capital, an early investor in the coffee chain, became its controlling shareholder.

Despite being surpassed in both store count and now sales, Starbucks still maintains a wide lead over Luckin when it comes to profitability. The Chinese company’s profitability has suffered as a result of its rapid expansion.

In response to the competition, Starbucks announced partnerships with Alibaba (BABA) and Meituan in 2018 and 2022, respectively, expanding its online reach to Chinese consumers.

While Luckin created buzz last year with a collaboration with Chinese liquor brand Kweichow Moutai, Starbucks is also attracting eyeballs with its innovative new drinks.

The American giant launched a pork-flavored coffee earlier this month, in an attempt to cater to local tastes and traditions. Priced at $9.45, the drink combines Dongpo Braised Pork Flavor Sauce with espresso and steamed milk, with extra pork sauce and pork breast meat for garnish.

Egypt is building a new walled buffer zone more than 2 miles wide on Gaza border, satellite images show

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Egypt building a miles-wide buffer zone and border wall along its border with Gaza.

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Egypt building a miles-wide buffer zone and border wall along its border with Gaza. Maxar TechnologiesCNN — 

Egypt is building a massive miles-wide buffer zone and wall along its border with southern Gaza, new satellite images show, as fears grow over Israel’s planned ground offensive in Rafah where more than half of Gaza’s population is sheltering.

The images, taken in the past five days by Maxar Technologies, show a significant section of Egyptian territory between a roadway and the Gaza border has been bulldozed.

If the buffer zone — which stretches from the end of the Gaza border to the Mediterranean Sea — is completed, it will completely engulf the Egyptian-Rafah border crossing complex.

At the actual border, multiple cranes can be seen laying sections of wall.

Additional satellite imagery reviewed by CNN shows that bulldozers arrived on site on February 3, and the initial excavation of the buffer zone began on February 6.

There has been a significant uptick in excavation in the last five days.

Videos released by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights show construction of the border wall, which they claim is five meters (16 feet) high.

The organization, a non-governmental human rights group made up of activists, researchers and journalists, said that two local contractors told them that it was commissioned by the Egyptian armed forces.

CNN has reached out to the Egyptian government for comment on the buffer zone and wall construction.

The construction comes as fears grow that the already horrific humanitarian situation in Gaza will worsen, causing thousands of deaths and a mass exodus of Palestinians to Egypt’s border.

All eyes are on Rafah, situated along the new buffer zone, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are crammed into a massive tent city.

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Egypt building a massive miles-wide buffer zone, and border wall, along its border with Gaza.
This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Egypt building a massive miles-wide buffer zone, and border wall, along its border with Gaza

satellite image Maxar Technologies

Despite international pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated plans for a military ground offensive in the southern Gazan city, saying it is Hamas’ “last bastion.”

Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told CNN earlier this week that the military aims to create a plan that evacuates civilians “out of harm’s way” and differentiates civilians from Hamas militants. However, it has not yet presented its evacuation plan to the government, he told CNN on Tuesday.

The city is the last remaining refuge in Gaza for displaced Palestinians, and panic is soaring as many decide whether to stay or leave ahead of the planned ground offensive. Families struggling with shortages of food, water and medicine are living in tents just meters from the barbed-wire fence separating them from Egypt. Most have trekked to Rafah after being displaced by the war elsewhere in Gaza.

Rajaa Musleh, the Gaza representative for the nonprofit organization MedGlobal, currently based in Rafah, painted a vivid picture of the situation in the besieged town, saying that health workers who are still alive “may still be breathing, but we are dying inside.”

Displaced Palestinians, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, gather as they seek shelter at the border with Egypt, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, January 7, 2024. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

RELATED ARTICLEEgypt on edge as Israel’s war presses more than a million Palestinians up against its border

“The situation we are enduring in Rafah is horrific and getting worse every day. We do not have water to drink or food to eat, and our health care facilities can hardly operate,” Musleh said.

A growing number of countries and international organizations have called on Israel to avoid a ground operation in what is now Gaza’s most populated city, with the International Committee of the Red Cross regional director Fabrizio Carboni saying “countless lives are hanging in the balance.” The leaders of Australia, Canada and New Zealand warned on Thursday that such an incursion “would be catastrophic.”

Egypt has already condemned Israel’s move to push Palestinians southward in the enclave, suggesting it is part of a plan to expel Gazans and that it would spell the end of the Palestinian cause. Egypt has now sounded alarms again as Israel prepares for its military operation in Rafah.

Egypt began boosting its security presence at its border with Gaza as a “precautionary” measure ahead of the expected Israeli ground operation, Egyptian security officials told CNN. As part of its security buildup, the officials said, Egypt has deployed more troops and machinery in North Sinai, bordering Gaza.

Checkpoints leading to the Rafah border crossing on the Egyptian side were also fortified with more soldiers and the areas around the main road were being prepared for the deployment of tanks and military machinery, a witness told CNN.

Palestinians migrate to the middle parts of Gaza after attacks on Rafah intensify in Gaza on February 13, 2024.

RELATED ARTICLEIsraeli strikes deepen panic in Rafah as UN aid chief warns a ground offensive could result in ‘slaughter’

It comes as Netanyahu continues to rail against Egypt for not closing the Philadelphi Corridor – the strip of land between Egypt and Gaza and the besieged enclave’s only non-Israeli-controlled border. In a press briefing on January 13, Netanyahu said that Israel would not consider the war over until it was closed.

Israel has been accused of constructing its own buffer zone, but within Gaza, which would effectively shrink the enclave’s borders. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a February 8 statement that the IDF had been destroying Gaza buildings “that are within a kilometer of the Israel-Gaza fence, clearing the area with the objective of creating a ‘buffer zone.’”

“Israel has not provided cogent reasons for such extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure,” Türk went on to say.

Greece legalizes same-sex marriage in a first for an Orthodox Christian country

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters celebrate in front of the Greek parliament, after the vote in favor of a bill that approved allowing same-sex civil marriages, in Athens on February 15.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters celebrate in front of the Greek parliament, after the vote in favor of a bill that approved allowing same-sex civil marriages, in Athens on February 15. Louisa Gouliamaki/ReutersAthens, GreeceCNN — 

The Greek parliament on Thursday passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage, in a landmark victory for human rights in Greece and making it the first majority Orthodox Christian country to establish marriage equality for all.

The decision, supported by 176 out of 300 lawmakers in parliament and with 76 against, follows months of polarized political and public discourse, and has been welcomed as a long-awaited vindication by the country’s LGBTQ+ couples.

“This is a milestone for human rights, reflecting today’s Greece – a progressive, and democratic country, passionately committed to European values,” Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a post on X following the vote.

Andrea Gilbert a founding member of Athens Pride, now approaching its 20th year, told CNN: “We started as an invisible, marginalized community. We continued to vote. Paid our taxes. Campaigned. The legislation provides a legal basis to further build on. It is particularly significant for young couples.”

Parental and children’s rights are a cornerstone of the legislation, which will allow same-sex couples to adopt and receive full parental recognition.

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Although Greece introduced civil partnerships for gay couples nearly a decade ago under the left-wing Syriza government, only the biological parents of children in those relationships were recognized as legal guardians. Now, same-sex parents can both be recognized as legal parents to their children.

The new law will finally provide same-sex parents some peace of mind on fundamental issues including parental rights to a surviving parent in the event of their partner’s death,” said Katerina Trimmi, a member of the Greek National Commission of Human Rights and a lawyer from the organization Rainbow Families. She noted however that such parents will need to go through formal adoption procedures, saying that parental rights could have been established “in a simpler way.”

Same-sex couples can now also adopt in Greece, but not have a baby through a surrogate. Like in much of the EU, surrogacy remains a thorny issue and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who tabled the legislation as “a matter of equality,” clarified early on that this was not something he was willing to tackle. “The idea of women who are turned into child-producing machines on demand … that is not going to happen.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks at parliament on February 15.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks at parliament on February 15. Louisa Gouliamaki/Reuters

However the new legislation does recognize the status of existing offspring, including those adopted or born to surrogates abroad.

Outside Parliament in Athens on Thursdau, members of the LGBTQ+ community told CNN that they felt seen for the first time as lawmakers prepared to vote on the bill. Computer engineering student Sergio Berezovski, 20, described the vote as a “true historic moment,” adding that “I can actually go out, be myself and have the same rights as the rest of the people in society. I just feel seen – that’s the most important part.”

Divided society

The build-up to the vote has been an uphill battle with emotions running high. It was never going to be easy. In Greece the push came from a center-right party with many of its voters supporting traditional family values.

Fifteen of the European Union’s 27 members have already legalized same-sex marriage and Mitsotakis, empowered by a recent fresh mandate, stuck to his guns to see the bill through, signaling his intention for his government to be further aligned with the more progressive EU forces.

Polls show that Greek society at its core remains a country of traditional family values and structures, while it continues to lag other Western countries in issues of gender equality. In 2022, Athens placed last in the EU’s Gender Equality Index with only slight improvement in 2023.

A recent poll carried out by Metron Analysis showed that although 62% of respondents said they were in favor of same-sex marriage, 69% were against same-sex parenthood. Surveys directed exclusively at young respondents showed higher support rates.

The same-sex marriage bill has drawn the wrath of the influential Greek Orthodox Church to which more than 80% of the population belong.

In a letter addressed to all 300 of Greece’s parliamentarians ahead of the vote, the Church’s governing body said the bill places the rights of homosexual adults above the interests of future children, by allowing them “to be parented by same-sex couples and grow up without a father or mother in an environment of confusing gender roles.”

Greek-Orthodox people participated in a protest against the legislation on February 15 in Athens.

Greek-Orthodox people participated in a protest against the legislation on February 15 in Athens. Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Senior bishops have threatened mobilizations. At a protest rally outside parliament, crucifix-holding protesters, including robed priests, joined far-right supporters in chanting: “Take your hands off our children.”

The center-right New Democracy government that sponsored the bill failed to garner the support of some of its own 158 politicians in the 300 seat parliament, requiring votes from center and left opposition parties for the legislation to pass.

IT student Alexis Rafailides, 21, said Thursday’s vote was important because there is “so much” discrimination against the community in Greece. “I didn’t feel like I could be myself for such a long time until I met more people that are like me,” he said.

Political boost

Days into his second term, empowered by a landslide election win which saw the centrist and center-left suffer catastrophic losses, Mitsotakis pledged his support for same-sex marriage legislation.

The rise of Stefanos Kasselakis, an openly gay Greek-American political unknown whose communication skills helped catapult him to the helm of Syriza, the main opposition party, in September, may have served as a political boost. “It felt to me like Mitsotakis was giving the progressive forces a carrot that he would use at a convenient time but without providing specifics,” Kasselakis said.

Accompanied by his longtime American partner Tyler McBeth throughout his campaign, Kasselakis kept his same-sex relationship in the Greek public eye.

Eric Dupont Moretti, ministre de la justice. Debat a l Assemblee Nationale l'inscription autour de l inscription de l interruption volontaire de grossesse (IVG) dans la constitution. Le vote solennel aura lieu le 30 janvier. Philemon Henry / SIPA Debate at the French National Assembly on the inclusion of voluntary termination of pregnancy (IVG) in the constitution. The formal vote will take place on January 30. Philemon Henry / SIPA//HENRYPHILEMON_pj0381/Credit:Philemon Henry/SIPA/2401241809 (Sipa via AP Images)

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In October, the couple married in the US. Addressing Greek media at the time, Kasselakis stirred further controversy: “We would like to have two boys, Apollo and Elias… through a surrogate mother.”

He said the new law was a step in the right direction “I’ve been very fortunate. I have lived in very open societies. But not everyone in Greece has.”

Stelios Pandazopoulos, 48, told CNN he had never considered marriage, “because I never had the opportunity. I was not allowed to think about it. It was a right for other people.” The vote is the “first time I feel a little bit more complete, a little bit more human, a little bit more equal,” the architect added.

Freedom to dream

The political timing is significant beyond Greece’s borders. The legislation brings the country in line with 20 other European nations and strengthens its human rights credentials ahead of upcoming European elections. It also helps distance the ruling party from recent allegations of wiretapping opponents, migrant pushbacks and a media freedom backslide. Greece came last among EU countries in Reporters Without Borders 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

Yet there is a political risk. The last Greek elections saw the far right surge, with three fringe parties entering parliament. Together they hold a bloc of more than 30 seats. All three voted against the same-sex marriage law, and the legislation could still push some angry voters to the right ahead of European elections in June.

For activists and members of the LGBTQ+ community like 24-year-old Angelo, who left his village near the agricultural town of Karditsa to live with his boyfriend in Athens and who declined to give his last name “to make sure his family does not find out,” a battle in their birthplace – the birthplace of democracy – has been won.

Speaker Johnson’s historically narrow House majority will shrink further after Democrats flip seat in New York

House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks after his election at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on October 25, 2023.

House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks after his election at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on October 25, 2023. Tom Brenner/AFP/Getty Images

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson is overseeing one of the smallest House majorities in history – and Democrat Tom Suozzi’s win in a New York special election will shrink it further.

Suozzi defeated Republican Mazi Pilip in a race for the seat previously held by former GOP Rep. George Santos who was expelled from Congress last year.

When Suozzi is sworn in, Republicans will control 219 seats and Democrats will control 213. With a breakdown of 219 to 213, House Republicans will only be able to lose only two votes to pass legislation on party-line votes if all members are present and voting.

After the swearing in, there will be three vacancies in the House. Former New York Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins resigned from Congress earlier this monthformer Ohio GOP Rep. Bill Johnson resigned last month and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy resigned at the end of last year.

In addition to the tight margin, there is always the possibility that absences could further impact the vote math.

The razor-thin majority presents an enormous challenge for the speaker, leaving Johnson with almost no room for error as he navigates demands from competing wings of his party.

Hardline conservatives have already shown they can hold major sway in the chamber with such a narrow majority – most notably when a group of hardliners moved to oust McCarthy from the speakership in a historic vote last year.

The exact size of the far right of the House Republican Conference can vary from issue to issue. A contingent of roughly a dozen hardliners staged a rebellion on the House floor last month, taking down a procedural vote to show opposition to a spending deal Johnson had reached with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The ever-shrinking margin has forced Johnson to put some bills directly onto the floor under a procedural move known as suspension of the rules as his right flank has increasingly taken to tanking rule votes on the floor in a show of protest.

But that strategy compels the need for a two-thirds majority to pass bills, requiring significant Democratic support, and further alienating Johnson and the right wing of his conference.

In addition to facing pressure from conservatives, Johnson must also balance the interests of more moderate members from battleground districts who are on the front lines of the majority and who will be under intense scrutiny this election season.

There were 18 Republicans in House districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020 – a number that is now down to 17 after the expulsion of Santos. The fate of these politically vulnerable members will be key to whether the GOP can hold on to its majority.

India celebrates release of eight nationals detained in Qatar on reported spy charges

A view of the skyline in Doha, Qatar, on February 8, 2024.

A view of the skyline in Doha, Qatar, on February 8, 2024. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Eight Indian nationals who were detained and sentenced to death in Qatar on reported espionage charges have been released, according to Indian authorities.

“The Government of India welcomes the release of eight Indian nationals working for the Dahra Global company who were detained in Qatar. Seven out of the eight of them have returned to India,” said the Ministry of External Affairs in a statement on Monday.

“We appreciate the decision by the Amir of the State of Qatar to enable the release and home-coming of these nationals.”

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The eight nationals were ex-servicemen of the Indian Navy, according to a letter dated to December 2022 by an Indian minister and posted by another parliament member on X, formerly Twitter.

They had been working for Dahra Global Technologies, a defense services provider based in Qatar, according to CNN News18.

Their conviction in Qatar was shrouded in secrecy, and it’s still not clear what offense they committed or what they were charged with. Qatar has not publicly addressed the arrest, sentencing and subsequent release of the eight Indian citizens.

CNN has previously reached out to Qatari authorities for comment.

CNN affiliate CNN-News18 reported at the time that the eight Indians had been detained in August 2022 on spying charges. CNN cannot independently verify the charges.

The Indian ministry has not shared details about the charges either, citing “the confidential and sensitive nature of proceedings of this case.”

The ministry announced last October that it had received information about a Qatar court passing the death penalty for the eight nationals, saying it was in touch with all the men’s families and were taking up the verdict with Qatari authorities.

In December, the ministry said the sentences had been reduced, with a detailed judgement to come. It did not elaborate on what the reduced sentences would be.

After their release on Monday, several of the men thanked the Indian government. “We have waited almost for 18 months to be back in India. We are extremely grateful to (Modi). It certainly wouldn’t have been possible without his personal intervention,” one told Indian news agency ANI on camera.

The case has garnered widespread attention in India and been framed as a test of diplomacy for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Jairam Ramesh, a general secretary of India’s main opposition party, demanded last year that the government “explain to the families and the people of India” why it had not yet secured the men’s release more than seven months after their detention. He also highlighted the strong trade relationship between the two countries, saying the Indian diaspora made up a quarter of Qatar’s population.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians provide a large proportion of Qatar’s more than 2 million strong foreign workforce – which accounts for 95% of labor in the gas-rich Gulf state, according to United Nations data.

The release of the eight nationals comes just a few months ahead of the start of the Indian election, with the country heading to the polls in the spring – a mammoth election that is likely to see Modi secure a rare third term in power.

Australia to allow workers to ignore unreasonable after-hours calls and messages from bosses

View of Perth's skyline. The “right to disconnect” is part of a raft of changes to industrial relations laws proposed by Australia's federal government.

View of Perth’s skyline. The “right to disconnect” is part of a raft of changes to industrial relations laws proposed by Australia’s federal government. Aitor Alcalde/FIFA/Getty ImagesReuters — 

Australia will introduce laws giving workers the right to ignore unreasonable calls and messages from their bosses outside of work hours without penalty, with potential fines for employers that breach the rule.

The “right to disconnect” is part of a raft of changes to industrial relations laws proposed by the federal government under a parliamentary bill, which it says would protect workers’ rights and help restore work-life balance.

Similar laws giving employees a right to switch off their devices are already in place in France, Spain and other countries in the European Union.

A majority of senators have now declared support for the legislation, Employment Minister Tony Burke from the ruling center-left Labor party said in a statement on Wednesday.

The provision stops employees from working unpaid overtime through a right to disconnect from unreasonable contact out of hours, Burke said.

“What we are simply saying is that someone who isn’t being paid 24 hours a day shouldn’t be penalised if they’re not online and available 24 hours a day,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters earlier on Wednesday.

The bill is expected to be introduced in parliament later this week.

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The bill also includes other provisions like a clearer pathway from temporary to permanent work and minimum standards for temporary workers and truck drivers.

Some politicians, employer groups and corporate leaders warned the right to disconnect provision was an overreach and would undermine the move towards flexible working and impact competitiveness.

The left-wing Greens, which supports the rule and was the first to propose it last year, said it was a big win for the party. A deal had been reached between Labor, smaller parties and independents to support this bill, Greens leader Adam Bandt said on Twitter.

“Australians work an average of six weeks unpaid overtime each year,” Bandt said.

That equated to more than A$92 billion ($60.13 billion) in unpaid wages across the economy, he added.

“That time is yours. Not your boss.’”