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WRAP-UP: 18th May 2021

Joshua and Hugh’s fortnightly highlight of news from around the world is back! Join us as we discuss:

- The escalating situation in Israel and Palestine.

- An unprecedented cyberattack on the United States.

- Will the Tokyo Olympics take place in just two months?

- Is the Maduro regime ready to negotiate with Venezuela's opposition?

Topic #1 - Israel on the brink of civil war and a war with Palestine (Joshua)

Josh: Our first story takes place in Israel, where we’ve seen some of the worst conflicts between Israeli’s and Palestinians in years. In just the last few days, Israel has carried out major airstrikes in Palestinian territory, while Palestinian fighters in Gaza have launched thousands of rockets into Israel.

In Gaza, which is home to many Palestinians, 10,000 people have fled their homes. Tragically, at the time of recording, more than 145 Palestinians, including 40 children, have been killed. In contrast, 10 Israelis have died.

Israel has also assassinated senior Palestinian officials and carried out targeted attacks on roads leading to hospitals.  It’s even bombed the offices of news outlets in Palestine. You may have seen footage of journalists talking with Israeli officials over the phone, trying to convince them not to strike the headquarters of AP News and Al Jazeera.

The Israeli official on the other end of the phone refused to listen and the tower was destroyed. On top of the military conflict, major riots have broken out between Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

Synagogues, schools, apartments have been set on fire.  Shops have been looted and hotels ransacked. There’s even been some chilling footage of people being dragged out of cars and beaten by mobs.

Hugh: The stories that are emerging are truly horrific.  And we haven’t seen violence like this in years, so what’s triggered it now?

Josh: It’s the product of long-term and short-term causes.

In terms of the long-term causes, the violence has its roots in decades of conflict between Israel and Palestine about who should control certain areas of land. Palestinians have predominantly lived in two areas: the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

However, Israel claims these areas belong to the Jewish people, and has been ramping up efforts to take control over them. In the West Bank, the Israeli Government has evicted Palestinians from their homes and built huge Jewish settlements. And in Gaza, its blockaded the area and prevented crucial supplies from reaching Palestinian residents.

That’s led to deep, deep discontent among Palestinians.

Hugh:  Why has that discontent broken out into violence now? Well, tensions have been particularly high of late, because the Israeli government has been scaling up its eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

That’s led Palestinians to engage in multiple protests: In response to these protests, the Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa mosque, which is one of Islam’s holiest sites. To make matters worse, they did it on the last Friday of Ramadan, one of the most significant nights on the Palestinian and Islamic calendar.

Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, issued an ultimatum, demanding Isaeli troops withdraw from the Mosque.  When they didn’t, Hamas launched rockets into Israel, Israel launched massive counter-attacks and it quickly spiralled into the shocking violence we’re currently seeing.

Hugh: Where does each side stand at the moment?

The conflict has only escalated over the weekend, with some really distressing results. Despite tragic stories like that one, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has said the airstrikes will continue.

Worryingly, there’s a political incentive for Netanyahu to continue to maintain a hard line. Israel has just held its fourth election in two years -- and it’s returned a hung parliament.

Netanyahu is scrambling to hold onto government -- and he’s been trying to enter into a coalition with far-right parties. Those parties have supported a crackdown on Palestinians. The violence has also served as a distraction from an investigation into allegations that Netanyahu has behaved corruptly while in office.

Despite all of this, Egypt, Qatar and the UN are currently trying to negotiate a truce. President Biden has also spoken to Israeli and Palestinian leaders - and we can only hope that these efforts will be successful.

Topic #2 - [Unprecedented ransomware attack]

*Audio from BBC “Biggest US fuel pipeline shutdown in cyberattack”*

Hugh: Well this is going to sound like something out of a James Bond film but recently the US was hit with what experts are calling the biggest single, publicly-known cyber attack in its history. And instead of coming from a state actor, the attack was actually launched by a gang of cyber criminals.

You see Josh, on the 7th of May, a major US company known as Colonial Pipeline was brought down in one single cyber attack. And this is a big deal for two reasons. Firstly, looking at the short term impact, Colonial is responsible for transporting 45% of the East Coast’s fuel supply. That’s 2.5 million barrels of oil a day which is used to power cars, trucks, planes and a range of other vehicles and machines.

But secondly, thinking in the longer term, this attack is also emblematic of a new era of cyber security threats, where critical public infrastructure such as oil pipelines, can become the target of severe cyber attacks at a moment’s notice. I think you could argue that in a certain sense, the Pandora’s Box has just been opened on this one.

Josh: Yeah, this is clearly big news. But how do hackers even bring down such an important piece of infrastructure?

Hugh: Yep so in this case, the hackers deployed what’s known as a ransomware attack. And essentially, a ransomware attack involves gaining access to an entity’s digital systems and downloading as much sensitive data as possible. In the corporate world, that data might include payroll information, private details about employees, intellectual property, passwords, banking records, sensitive meeting minutes and so on.

Now, once the hacker has access to this information, they’ll then encrypt the data so that the entity can’t access it anymore. So that means that the data’s owners are essentially locked out. Then, the hacker will notify the entity of the breach and demand a large ransom that often totals millions of dollars. And if the entity doesn’t pay the ransom by the set deadline, the hackers will either delete the data or share it publicly.

*Audio from CNBC “The cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline is a 'Sputnik' moment”*

Josh: Scary stuff… what has the impact been for the US East Coast?

Hugh: The impact has been pretty severe. As I said earlier, a ransomware attack has never had such a significant impact, so this is also really the first time we’ve seen such extreme consequences after a cyber attack.

With four major oil pipelines shut down, the US Federal Government actually had to enact emergency legislation allowing for trucks to transport fuel along public roadways. But obviously, there’s never going to be enough trucks on the road to replace critical oil pipelines and so as a result there’s been some major fuel shortages up and down the East Coast.

A lot of people have been struggling to get access to fuel, and when they do, they find that prices have shot up as a result of the supply slump. Prices have even increased outside of the US, as international oil refineries move in to fill supply gaps.

*Audio from NBC “Gas Shortages Grow After Cyberattack”*

You might have even footage of fistfights at US gas stations as desperate drivers compete to fill up. It’s pretty crazy stuff.

Josh: It really is… but who is to blame?

Hugh: The attack has been attributed to a Russian criminal cyber gang known as Darkside. Darkside is known for its ransomware and extortion attacks, and it’s infamous for its professionalism and unique targeting approach.

Darkside maintains a publicly facing website on the dark web, where it actually issues press releases to be seen by international media organisations. It even has an ethics page, where it explains the types of organisations it refuses to target, including schools, hospitals and not-for-profits.

Despite being based in Russia, Darkside doesn’t appear to be backed by the Russian Government, although the fact that it deliberately and exclusively targets Western nations means that Moscow is probably leaving the organisation alone, knowing that it’s become a nuisance for Russia’s geopolitical rivals.

In this case Darkside actually put out a statement somewhat apologising for the attack and seemingly blaming Colonial for not paying up. But the scale, professionalism and audacity of groups such as Darkside, coupled with the unprecedented impact of May’s attack just goes to show that all of us really need to be paying attention to the cyber security domain, particularly our own personal cyber hygiene.

Topic #3 - Olympics in doubt

*Audio: Olympic anthem and news bulletin - Japan being named host of Olympics 2020*

Josh: That was the moment when, all the way back in 2013, the International Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo had won the rights to host the 2020 Olympic games. At the time, Tokyo was seen as a safe bet -- a wealthy city, capable of putting on a successful, problem-free Olympics.

BUT, as we all know, that hasn’t happened. And because of the pandemic, the Games were postponed to this year. But now, with just 66 days until the Opening Ceremony, pressure is mounting for them to be cancelled altogether.

That’s because Japan is facing one of its worst spikes in coronavirus cases.

Hugh: I feel like we’ve heard so much about the situation in India that Japan has slipped off the radar a bit.  What’s going on there?

Josh: Well, Japan is currently in the midst of its fourth wave of infections. Daily case counts are the highest they’ve been since March. Part of that is due to a highly infectious new strain that emerged .

As a result, just last week, the Tokyo city government extended its state of emergency and introduced tougher lockdown measures. The country is also beginning to face hospital bed shortages in some regions.

And, what makes the situation even more concerning, is that only about 2% of Japan’s population has been vaccinated. So, pretty much the entire population is vulnerable to Covid-19 -- and yet the country is about to be swamped by roughly 15,000 athletes from around the world.

Hugh: How are people in Tokyo feeling about that?

Josh: Many of them are not happy. Protestors have been enraged by reports that the International Olympic Committee is reportedly asking the Japanese Government to set aside 30 hospitals and 500 nurses for the Games -- despite existing hospital bed shortages.

Doctors and nurses have warned that fulfilling that request could mean ordinary Japanese people are left without medical care. As a result, several governors have said they won’t make room in their hospitals for athletes. And this seems to reflect the mood across the country.

*Audio from Arirang News “Survey shows nearly 80% of Japanese want Tokyo Olympics postponed or cancelled”*

Over the last few days, more than 350,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the Olympics. 31 Japanese towns have pulled out of hosting athletes. And even major business figures have said they’re “afraid” of the Olympics, because of the very real risk that it could push Japan into a full-blown covid crisis.

Hugh: How are the athletes responding to this?

Josh: They’re also expressing concern.  Some major sports stars -- including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal -- have said they’re tossing up whether they’ll attend. On top of that, the US National Track & Field team has cancelled its pre-Olympic training in Japan.

And you may have heard that Australia’s diving team had to pull out of a qualifying event in Tokyo because of health concerns.

Hugh: So is there a chance the games are going to be called off?

Josh: Look, at the moment the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese Government are insisting the games will go ahead. Part of that is probably due to the fact that the Olympic Games bring in huge amounts of revenue.  The International Olympic Committee stands to gain at least $5 billion dollars from the broadcasting rights alone.

However, there are signs that the Committee is worried. Its president, Thomas Bach, was due to visit Japan this week to help with preparations but cancelled his trip because of the spike in cases.

Hugh: That’s pretty telling…

Josh: Yeah, it is. Further complicating matters -- the decision about whether the Games will go ahead could have huge political ramifications for Japan’s relatively new prime minister, Yoshide Suga.

He took over the role in September last year, after the previous PM, Shinzo Abe, resigned. For most of last year, Suga was really popular - opinion polls indicated 74% of the public supported him.  But the recent Covid spike and controversy over the Olympics have pushed that down to 32%.

That’s worrying for Suga, because an election is scheduled for October this year. It’s likely his chances of re-election will come down to how he handles the Games.

So, whether or not we’ll see the Olympics on our TV screens in just 2 months is riding on a whole lot of factors -- with huge financial, political and health implications at play.

Topic #4 - Political crisis in Venezuela

Hugh: Well Joshua as you would have just heard, the main opposition leader in Venezuela, Juan Guaido, has unexpectedly come out in favour of renewed negotiations with the Maduro regime.

Venezuela has been locked in a political crisis for several years now following the death of the infamous and charismatic socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2013 and his replacement by the current regime head, Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has ruled Venezuela with an increasingly authoritarian grip, seeking to model his rule on the reforms of Chavez, which notably included leveraging the country’s vast oil reserves to support ambitious social welfare spending. Drops in global oil prices has meant that this economic policy has become increasingly untenable, forcing Maduro to rely on corruption, organised crime, illegitimate elections and strong support from the military to stay in power.

Maduro has also had to rely on allies in Cuba, Nicaragua, China and Russia, making Venezuela a clear adversary for the United States, which continues to look suspiciously on far-left regimes in Latin America.

On the other hand, Opposition Leader Juan Guaido has enjoyed strong support from the West as he attempts to claw back Venezuelan democracy and topple the Maduro regime.

In early 2019, Guaido even declared himself Acting President of Venezuela and was recognised as such by sixty countries, including Australia and the US.

Josh: I’m getting some very Cold War-esque feelings hearing about this… Why is Guaido back in the news?

Hugh: Since declaring himself President, Guaido has been locked in a firm political stalemate with Maduro. Many nations have implemented sanctions on the Maduro regime, and it seems that a lot of Venezuelans are supportive of Guaido, but with Maduro continuing to enjoy strong support from organised crime, the military, his international backers and parts of the Venezuelan population, his position has looked pretty secure.

And that’s had a major impact on Guaido’s credibility. Since he hasn’t been able to make anything major out of his declaration as Acting President, it seems a lot of Venezuelans and international observers are losing interest in his political movement. In other words, it’s all been a bit anticlimactic.

Josh: Is that why he’s suddenly become open to negotiations?

Hugh: That seems to be the reason, yeah. Recently, the Maduro regime has begun negotiating with certain parts of the opposition as a means of dividing up Guaido’s support base. Venezuela’s post-Chavez opposition groups have always had a tendency towards disunity and so Maduro’s tactic of dividing and conquering seems to be working.

To increase his relevance and try to unite the opposition again, Guaido is asking for free, fair and internationally supervised elections to take place across the country, as well as for the regime to accept humanitarian aid, Covid-19 vaccines and to release certain political prisoners.

In return, he’s offered sanctions relief, which is really the only tool left to the opposition by virtue of its ties to the US and other Western states.

Josh: And how has Maduro reacted?

Hugh: In a televised address, Maduro said he’d agree to allow Guaido to participate in those existing negotiations I just mentioned, but he accused Maduro of essentially just being salty that he’s been excluded up until now...

… he actually said that Gauido shouldn’t QUOTE “believe that he is the supreme head of a country that does not recognise him”.

So the key to change might actually lie with the US, which is reconsidering its tough stance on Venezuela after Maduro started making some small concessions on humanitarian aid and political prisoners.

My guess is as good as yours but I’d say the US would need to promise some pretty significant sanctions relief to induce Maduro into entering into the kind of negotiations Gaudio is after, because right now, with the way Maduro’s responded, Gauido hasn’t received much of a good response.

Josh:  And that’s all for this Wrap-Up!  The first episode of Season 4 is done and dusted.

Hugh: Get keen for many more Wrap-Ups to come this season. We’re really looking forward to bringing you new and engaging content covering important international events.

Josh: Stay tuned for next week’s In-Depth episode. Emma will be chatting with Stephen Walt and Anet McClintok about the way climate change is fuelling conflict between countries.

Hugh: In the meantime, follow us, The Young Diplomats Society, on Facebook and Instagram for more great analysis and content.

Josh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye!

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