News, Flashpoints, and Insights for May 2024


“Rafah can wait – hostages cannot,” wrote demonstrators on the street outside IDF headquarters during a turbulent demonstration in Tel Aviv on 29 April.  They were calling on the government of Bibi Netanyahu to finalize a deal with Hamas for the release of hostages who have been held in the Gaza Strip since October 7. 

Amid heightened preparations for the military to launch an offensive in the Gazan city of Rafah, thousands of demonstrators lit a bonfire on Tel Aviv’s Begin Road, near the IDF’s headquarters.  Relatives of hostages and captives who were released in the week-long truce last November took part in the sometimes-violent protest, calling on the government to stop the war and to bring the abductees home.

The rally came as Hamas was set to give a response to an Israeli offer that would see a 40-day pause in fighting and the release of potentially thousands of Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for 33 living hostages.  This would be followed by a second phase of a truce consisting of a “period of sustained calm” – Israel’s compromise response to a Hamas demand for “permanent ceasefire” — accompanied by the release of all the remaining hostages and the remains of others.  Both U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron have expressed their hopes that Hamas will agree to the “extraordinarily generous” offer. 

Comment:  A State Department source has told us that it is believed that 129 hostages abducted on October 7 remain in Gaza (at least 34 of these are believed to be dead).  105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during the truce in November, along with the four who were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, while the bodies of 12 hostages have been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the IDF.  She further told us that one reason why only 33 hostages are included in this first tranche is the belief that this approximates the number of live persons still in Hamas custody and/or easily accessible.  Others are believed held by the Islamic Front and other groups.

Regardless of numbers, Netanyahu finds himself between the proverbial rock and the hard place.  One the one hand, far-right leaders within his coalition threaten to bring down the government, if the Rafah operation is called off and the war is ended.  On the other hand, War Cabinet minister, Benny Gantz warned that if other ministers prevent a deal supported by the security establishment, he will leave the emergency government he joined days after October 7. 

And, while the PM has his erstwhile foreign allies and these nearly nightly demonstrations pushing him in one direction, Netanyahu has the Heroism Forum, formed by bereaved families who lost loved ones in the war, threatening to begin a hunger strike starting on April 30 until the IDF begins its operation in the Rafah.  They worry that their relatives’ ultimate sacrifices will be in vain unless Hamas is totally eradicated.  Netanyahu managed to forestall the hunger strike action by meeting with Forum members at the same time the IDF protests were being ended by forcible action by the security forces. 

The Prime Minister was subsequently reported to have affirmed his commitment to move into Rafah at one point in the future to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions believed to be positioned in the tunnel system located beneath the city.  How serious he is about this eventuality is not known, but Bibi’s words will be taken at his word by Yahya Sinwa and other Hamas leaders who may decide that, by calling his bluff and agreeing to the current Israeli proposal, they will gain critical time to find a more permanent life-line than the promise which a 40 day cease-fire and a longer term “period of sustained calm” may offer.  End Comment.


The International Court of Justice is reported to be considering seriously a proposal to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other senior government officials on multiple charges, including one that they have “deliberately starved Palestinians in Gaza.”  To refute this allegation, the IDF gave a rare briefing to international correspondents on Shabbat (last Saturday) advising them of Israel’s support for the U.S. and international efforts to establish an offshore pier to expedite the large-scale delivery of food and medical aid, plus its opening of new entry points from Israel through the existing land border.

A source with the U.S. National Security Council told us that the court’s reported proposed action was raised by Netanyahu and other senior Israelis at the most senior levels of friendly governments, especially our own.  She reported that several Israeli officials have expressed dismay at the damage that such arrest warrants issued by the International Court would have on Israel’s already tarnished international status.  They are calling upon the U.S. and other Israeli allies to take whatever action is necessary to deter the court from taking such “unwarranted” and “unjustified” actions.

CommentOur source indicated that the U.S. agrees that any arrest warrant for Netanyahu by The Hague is a step too far and will not be recognized.  Still the damage would be incalculable.  While she would not provide details, she said the U.S. is in consultation with countries who, unlike us, are parties of the relevant conventions and who may be in a better position to influence its actions.  End Comment.


State television in Mali reported on 29 April that a senior Islamic State (IS) commander, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, has been killed by a force comprised of troops from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.  The leader, named Abu Huzaifa (but usually known as “Higgo”), was described in this report as a Moroccan national who was a commander in the Islamic State’s self-styled Sahel Province.  He was reportedlykilled on 28 April in an operation in the northern town of Indelimane in the Menaka region of Mali.  Mali State TV described his death as “a victory against a bane of evil.”

Abu Huzeifa had been linked to several high-profile raids in the Sahel region resulting in the deaths of hundreds, including a 2017 attack which killed four members of a U.S. Special Forces unit and several troops from Niger, an action which warranted the hefty bounty on his head according to a U.S. Africa Command source.  Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have all suffered from relentless attacks by jihadi fighters, with thousands of casualties, and until recently, were receiving considerable assistance from the U.S. ((and, earlier, from the UN (in Mali) and the French)) in their efforts to uproot the IS insurgency.  

The UN withdrew its last remaining personnel from Mali (at Bamako’s insistence) in December 2023.  France’s diplomatic and military presence in all three countries was likewise terminated.  The U.S. military footprint (including a modern drone facility) lingered longer in Niger past its coup last year but was ended a few weeks ago, and last month the Americans also reduced their military presence in neighboring Chad, as well.


If confirmed – and there have been multiple, false reports claiming Abu Hufaiza’s death before – this will be a considerable “win” for the militaries of the three countries involved.  The military regimes in each have become increasingly close allies in recent months.  Last September, they formed a mutual defense pact known as the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), withdrawing from an international force, G5, that was set up with key U.S. backing, to fight Islamists in the region – an exercise which had little progress to show for it.  In March 2024, they announced the formation of the first AES military contingent, and it appears that this is the force which combatted Abu Hufaiza’s troops in Mali last week. 

It would be interesting to learn if members of the Russian Wagner group or other Russian mercenaries who are now actively supplanting the UN, France and America in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso played a role in this action.  Regardless, the AES success should serve as a clarion call to the U.S., and other Western nations interested in Africa, that we may have to rethink our overt hostility to military regimes in African states, if only to find new ways to sustain those which are trying to maintain at least the semblance of democracy.  Russian, China, — and recently Iran, as well – have no qualms about moving into any void created by our unwillingness or reluctance – regardless of the principles involved — to deal with military dictators.  End Comment.

U.S. FERTILITY DROP.  The U.S. Census Bureau reported last month that the fertility rate in the United States fell to 1.62 births per woman in 2023, a drop of a full two percent from 2022, and the lowest figure since 1979.  The reasons cited include because more women are postponing motherhood as they build careers or have decided not to have children at all.  A drop in teenage pregnancies is another reason for this decline.  Most demographers suggest that births of around 2.2 per woman are necessary to sustain a country’s population, as China, Japan, Russia, and other countries facing dire birthrates have already discovered.  

If the current trend persists in the U.S., a shrinking population will also create serious problems for us which will include calls for increased Medicare and Social Security spending at a time when the trust funds for both plans are in dire straits.

COMMENT:  Alarm bells need not be sounded just yet.  While many native-born Millennials and GenZers may not aspire to motherhood, the same cannot be said for our significant immigrant population.  These include the nearly one million admitted legally each year, as well as the millions of people crossing into the country.  Both categories tend towards larger, nuclear families. 

Moreover, the Census Bureau estimates that there are around 11 million ‘illegal’ residents already residing in the U.S.  Most are working, contributing to the GDP, and paying taxes, including over $100 billion in contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund over the past decade alone (and which would have gone bust without their support).  They are never accurately counted by the Census Bureau.  As these individuals establish families in secure surroundings, they have children, and contribute to a higher fertility score.  More reason for the Congress and the Administration to find ways to resolve the myriad of outstanding border and broader immigration problems as a top priority in 2025.  End Comment.


Last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned employers from using non-compete contracts to prevent most workers from joining rival companies.  The measure, approved by the commission’s Democratic Party majority on a 3-to-2 vote, prohibits firms from enforcing existing non-compete agreements on anyone other than senior executives.  It also bans employers from imposing new non-compete contracts on senior executives in the future.  

The FTC declared in its ruling that the rule restores rights to Americans that corporations have taken away by imposing non-compete clauses in the workplace.  The decision is in line with a White House decision in 2021 to more strictly implement existing anti-trust legislation.  The restrictions hamper competition for labor, the commission says, and result in lower pay and benefits for workers.

COMMENT:  Removing non-compete clauses from company contracts has been a major policy goal for organized labor for years, and the decision is expected to face an imminent challenge from business groups concerned with their members’ ability both to retain workers and to protect trade secrets and intellectual property.  The vote also represents the first time, in more than half a century, that the FTC has issued a regulation which, in effect, mandates an economy-wide change in how U.S. companies compete. 

In the sense, the rule is the capstone of a larger set of moves at the FTC recently that seek to elevate the interests of workers in antitrust enforcement whenever this and similar clauses appear to violate the 110-year-old law that prohibits unfair methods of competition.  Our Washington trade contacts tell us the lower Federal courts are expected to endorse the latest FTC ruling.  However, if a case makes it to the Supreme Court, the decision could be reversed.  End Comment.


In a case that could make it harder for the federal government to sanction companies accused of interfering in unionization campaigns, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) appeared to side with Starbucks on April 23, 2024  when it challenged a lower-court ruling that mandated the coffee company to rehire seven baristas at its Memphis, Tennessee café after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that these employees were terminated for supporting unionization. 

In Starbucks Corporation v McKinney, the Seattle-based coffee chain argued that the move was legally justified, and that the seven were fired for security violations after they allowed TV news crews into the store after closing for interviews about their unionization efforts. But NLRB, the federal agency tasked with overseeing labor relations, sided with the workers and determined that they were illegally fired under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and issued a complaint against Starbucks

Justices noted during oral arguments that Congress requires the NLRB to seek such injunctions in federal court and said that the Act gives the courts the duty to consider several factors, including whether the board would ultimately be successful in its administrative case against a company and not just that the request is “just and proper.”  The NLRB countered that the NLRA does not require it to prove “other factors” and was intended to limit the role of the courts.  Several justices appeared to disagree.

Comment:  The administration has consistently pushed its strong, pro-labor agenda, and the NLRB is merely following suit.  Winning this case will not prevent Starbucks’ employees from trying to unionize (although it might also cost the five remaining baristas their jobs).  But, if the NLRB loses, then its request to be the final arbiter on what basis labor rules are enforced might be lessened considerably.  End Comment.



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