Morning brief

Iran president, FM killed, intense fighting in southern Lebanon, Israel continues attacks on Rafah: Everything you need to know to start your Monday

Here is what happened over the weekend and what to expect today, Monday, May 20.

Want to get the Morning Brief by email? Click here to sign up.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Note from L'Orient Today editor, Olivia Le Poidevin

Good morning.

We are waking to the news this morning that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian have died after a helicopter they were traveling on crashed yesterday. Once again, our volatile region finds itself at the center of a new, major development – with potentially complex consequences, that we at L’Orient Today will seek to unpack for you.

It’s worth noting that this news comes at a challenging time for Iran. The country’s economy is in turmoil following years of heavy US sanctions and corruption; there is growing internal discontent – evidenced in the record-low voter turnout in the parliamentary elections. Plus, Iran is currently supporting the ‘axis of resistance,’ including Hamas and Hezbollah, in the war in Gaza and southern Lebanon. In the last months, red lines and precedents of how state actors may behave have been withdrawn – most notably with the direct (albeit brief) confrontation between Iran and Israel last month. For more than seven months the Middle East has been on the edge of regional conflagration, and though this news of Raisi would not significantly change the course of the conflict, we can be sure that any further volatility does not help.

Meanwhile, as intense exchanges of fire continued between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon over the weekend, protests have been continuing among university students to demand an end to the war in Gaza and for their universities to divest from companies that have economic ties to Israel. 

Some key things to watch today:

- Global reaction to the death of Iran’s president and foreign minister.

- The lines coming out of the meetings of US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan with Prince Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend. Meanwhile, Israel’s Rafah offensive continues.

- 8:30 a.m.: Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs receives the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense of Ireland, Michael Martin, at the head of a delegation and later at 10:00 a.m. he receives the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ivo Freijsen.

 Raisi helicopter crash – the latest:

President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several others are confirmed to have been killed in Sunday's helicopter crash in north-western Iran, state TV says. "President Raisi’s helicopter was completely burned in the crash ... unfortunately, all passengers are feared dead," an Iranian official told Reuters.

Overnight while the public was asked to pray, other Iranians had been welcoming the news on social media.

Raisi, a hardliner, is a divisive figure as he is accused of being behind multiple killings and human rights abuses. He was the subject of a lawsuit in Switzerland for crimes against humanity due to his alleged role as judge in the mass execution of dissidents in 1988 and, under his presidency, he led a crackdown on the "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement, which was organized in September 2022 following the death of Jina “Mahsa” Amini, resulting in the death of around 500 protesters, according to human rights organizations.

The stakes:

- The deaths of Raisi and Abdollahian come at a challenging time for Iran. The country’s economy is in turmoil, there is growing domestic discontent and Iran is currently involved in supporting Hamas in the war in Gaza, and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

- Raisi’s death could trigger a succession crisis. He had been seen as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the commander in chief, calling all the big shots.

- There will be a new presidential election within 50 days, according to Article 131 of Iran’s constitution. The vice president Mohammad Mokhber will serve as interim president until a new president is elected.

 Southern Lebanon

At least five people were killed and nine wounded since Friday Israel’s attacks kill and injure minors, civilians and Hezbollah and Hamas members: Israel struck a car in Najjarieh on Friday wounding five minors and killing a Hezbollah member at the wheel, a thirteen-year-old child and another civilian passenger. In Houla, the same day, early-day mortar strikes injured one person and an evening airstrike wounded two others. On Saturday, Israel targeted and injured a fisherman aboard a motorcycle. In the Bekaa, two Hamas members were killed in Israel’s attack on their car Friday near the Masnaa checkpoint bordering Syria, where another car was targeted the next day. An Israeli attack on Maroun al-Ras yesterday killed another Hezbollah fighter, raising the number of party members killed since Oct. 8 to 304, by L’Orient Today’s count.

 Hezbollah strikes

Continuing its cross-border attacks since Friday, with at least 10 separate cross-border attacks Saturday, Hezbollah aimed anti-tank missiles, drones, artillery shells and rockets at Israeli soldiers, barracks, surveillance equipment and vehicles. Some of the party’s announcements dubbed the attacks overt retaliation for Israeli attacks, including a rocket salvo that, Israeli press Haaretz claimed, injured two people in response to the Najjarieh attack and an attack on a naval base over the Naqoura strike

 Modulating escalation

Keeping with the party line, Hezbollah parliamentary chief Mohammad Raad said increasing attacks aimed to “preserve the retaliation equation” and discourage Israel from attacking Lebanon – a threat pre-existing Oct. 8, by party chief Hassan Nasrallah’s claim. Hezbollah deployed new drone attack technologies Thursday, using air-to-ground missiles, continuing the gradual expansion of its arsenal – usually met with intensified and expanded Israeli strikes.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of border with Lebanon shows shells exploding over hills around the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab on Dec. 8, 2023. (Credit: Jalaa Marey/AFP)

 SOUTH LEBANON: White phosphorus fired in Marjayoun and Bint Jbeil

Fires under control: The Civil Defense quelled most fires caused by the white phosphorus shells igniting, devastating orchards, fields and farmers’ warehouses.

Key context: Extinguishing the flames of shells containing white phosphorus poses further risks to first responders than typical fires. They require special gear to mitigate risks of inhaling or coming into contact with the chemical which can be deadly even in small amounts. As of last November, at least nine firefighters had been injured in Israeli strikes, a source informed on the firefighting efforts told L’Orient Today

Incendiary weapon attacks on southern Lebanon since Oct. 8:

- As of Wednesday, at least 162 people have been injured from exposure to white phosphorus in southern Lebanon.

- On Nov. 1, Lebanon filed a complaint to the United Nations Security Council over Israel’s use of white phosphorus – a highly flammable substance that is prohibited from use as an incendiary weapon in the third amendment protocol to the Geneva Convention. Amnesty International in October dubbed “beyond horrific” Israel’s “indiscriminate” firing of white phosphorus, injuring civilians and setting their property ablaze. Israel denies they are using them unlawfully.

- 37 percent of fires recorded in the last year were caused by phosphorus-laden shells igniting. Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati earlier this month described an “agricultural disaster” with swathes of land and tens of thousands of olive trees scorched and 34,000 livestock killed.

- Three-quarters of farmers in the southern region of Lebanon have been stripped of their income. One-fifth of the south’s GDP comes from agriculture.

A Palestinian amputee makes his way on a street in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on May 19, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant Hamas group. (Credit: AFP)

 GAZA: Death toll since Oct. 7 mounts to 35,456 people

Unheeding international and domestic calls to stop the fighting, Israel intensified ground and air raids across Gaza killing at least 31 people in a Sunday strike on the Nusseirat refugee camp compounding a weekend of devastating attacks on Jabalia, Rafah and Gaza City. More than 800,000 people have been displaced from Rafah since Israel’s evacuation orders were issued.

Provisional measures deemed insufficient as fears of famine return to the forefront: After airdropped aid, a temporary jetty attempts to alleviate stark supply shortages imposed by Israeli restrictions and the war’s hampering of aid deliveries across Gaza, where famine and a total collapse to what remains of the devastated medical sector loom large. 

 In other news

- The Lebanese Order of Physicians held by-elections to replace four outgoing council members.

- Former editor-in-chief of political journal Magazine Mona Bechara, the first woman on the Lebanese press syndicate, died on Friday.

- Lack of quorum again postponed Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Ghada Aoun’s disciplinary hearing

Momen Faiz in Gaza. (Credit: Momen_Faiz/Instagram)

 Here is our must-read story from yesterday: 'I will remain here as a thorn in Israel's throat,' says photojournalist in Gaza

 Your daily 'light read'

A free and readily available press is the cornerstone of any democracy. However, for those who are differently-abled, this is not always the easiest thing to find. However, Lebanon's state broadcaster Tele Liban just made it a little easier for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A sign language interpreter translates a speech by caretaker Information Minister Ziad Makari during a news broadcast on Tele Liban, May 17, 2024. (Credit: Screenshot Tele Liban)

The state media outlet just launched a news bulletin in sign language, allowing an estimated 12,000 to 13,000 people to access the news. While this is only for one program, it is a step in bringing differently-abled individuals more access to information. 

Before you go!

Have a suggestion, feedback, or a kind word? You can write to us at this address:

Want to get the Morning Brief by email? Click here to sign up.Monday, May 20, 2024Note from L'Orient Today editor, Olivia Le PoidevinGood morning.We are waking to the news this morning that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian have died after a helicopter they were traveling on crashed yesterday. Once again, our volatile region finds itself at the center...