Itamar Ben Gvir takes the stage in Tel Aviv like a rock star, while a song praising him for saying that terrorists are going to die blares out. That is, after all, what he has become ahead of Tuesday’s elections in Israel, after which his Religious Zionist Party is forecast to become the third-largest political force in the country by increasing their number of seats in the 120-member parliament from six to 15, according to the polls. It matters little that Ben Gvir is the number two on the list: he is a sensation who eclipses all other debates and even sets the pace for his Arab and center-left detractors. Above all, he is a man who has gone from being a pariah to be avoided in public to a possible minister in charge of the Israeli police, if he is able to form a government with Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Ben Gvir’s ultranationalist and racist discourse and his “I have not come here to ask for forgiveness” attitude push all the right buttons in a society in which the proportion of the Jewish population that defines itself as right-wing has risen from 40% to 62% in just a quarter of a century. “We own the place” is one of his favorite phrases.
At the Tel Aviv rally, Ben Gvir chooses his words carefully, aware that an untimely slip could halt his unstoppable rise. He berates the audience for chanting “Death to the Arabs!” – “Don’t say that. Only the terrorists.” He senses disappointment, so he lights the fuse again by making it clear that anyone who throws a Molotov cocktail will face the death penalty. He also corrects a supporter who yells that Netanyahu “is a leftist.” “He is not. And I want to make him prime minister. In a fully right-wing government, of course.”
His predecessors on stage are less cautious. The number seven on the Religious Zionist list, Almog Cohen, walks on stage with a gun in his belt; the lawyer and commentator Yoram Sheftel – who last year compared the government to the Jewish authorities established by the Nazis – calls for “ending the dictatorship of the Supreme Court,” while anti-immigration activist Sheffi Paz rails against the “antisemitic left” for allowing South Tel Aviv to be “occupied by infiltrators and migrants.” At the entrance to the venue, detractors and supporters hurl slogans at each other. “Fascism will not pass,” shout the former; “You are the racists, there is not a single Black person in your kibbutzim,” respond the latter.
Ben Gvir, who lives in the Kiryat Arba settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron, where until recently a portrait of Baruch Goldstein – the settler who in 1994 entered the Hebron mosque during prayer and murdered 29 Palestinians by opening fire on the crowd – hung in his living room. “What do you tell your son about him?” He was asked in a recent interview. “That he is a just man, a hero,” he replied. He removed the portrait ahead of the 2020 elections. A year later, he was elected to the Knesset.
In 1995, when he was 19 years old, he appeared on television with a Cadillac emblem that had been stolen from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s official vehicle. Rabin was at the time the target of a hate campaign – including death threats – for having signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too,” Ben Gvir told the camera. Rabin was assassinated weeks later by an Israeli ultranationalist after an event in Tel Aviv in favor of peace.
Ben Gvir was exempted from mandatory military service due to his extreme-right political views. By his own count, he has been charged 50 times – for crimes such as incitement to racism or support for a terrorist organization – and convicted on eight occasions, which did not prevent him from becoming a lawyer. He has positioned himself as one of the leading defenders of the rights of settlers and of an organization called Lehava, which opposes personal relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
Much of Ben Gvir’s success has to do with exposure and a normalization of his presence in the public sphere. He is a regular on television and rarely out of the news. A day after brandishing a gun in Jerusalem, he laughed the incident off while making stuffed peppers on a cooking show.
Ben Gvir is a disciple of Meir Kahane, the American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi whose party, Kaj, was outlawed and designated a terrorist organization in Israel. Kahane advocated the deportation of Arabs and the outlawing of sexual relationships between Jews and Arabs. When he took the floor of the Knesset, even the conservative Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir left the room.
Ben Gvir still holds respect for Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian-American, but he no longer advocates the expulsion of all Arabs, only “disloyal” citizens such as those who throw stones or make statements “in favor of the enemy in time of war.” He recently suggested sending such citizens by train to Europe, “where workers are needed.” He also favors the death penalty for attacks with Molotov cocktails, prison sentences for throwing stones, immunity for soldiers and police, the annexation of the West Bank and the relaxation of the rules in place for legitimately opening fire. In the infamous altercation in East Jerusalem, he drew his own pistol while urging policemen to shoot at Palestinians who were throwing stones at them.
“The problem is not what he says, it’s what he doesn’t say,” says Gideon Rahat, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on the Israeli political system. Rahat believes the current popularity of the extreme right is a phase. “These are waves, like the ones that occurred in the 1970s or during the Second Intifada [2000-2005]. If we look at the past, it doesn’t mean it is here to stay. These are the fifth elections [since 2019]. People are looking for something new, and he knows how to say what works.”
The satirical TV show Eretz Nehederet riffed on the Ben Gvir phenomenon last week in a sketch. The leader of the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, and Ben Gvir enter a Zara store to support the Spanish clothing chain against the Palestinian boycott staged after the owner of the franchise in Israel hosted a candidacy event at his residence. One of the Palestinian shop clerks asks Ben Gvir: “Can I help you?” Ben Gvir replies: “Demographics and Bibi already did.”
Bibi, as Netanyahu is popularly known, opened the door to the mainstream for Ben Gvir last year. In need of support in his bid to regain power, the Likud leader has admitted that they meet on a weekly basis and that he will hand Ben Gvir a portfolio if they form a government together. It is a significant shift from a year ago, when Netanyahu ruled out including him in the cabinet. However, the former prime minister has spent the entire campaign avoiding being photographed with Ben Gvir, to the point of forcing him off a stage two weeks ago to avoid coinciding.
In terms of demographics, high birth rates among ultra-Orthodox families – who average almost seven children – and religious nationalists have increased their population weight over time. Both vote for the right en masse while the dwindling secular Israel is divided into one third left, one third center and one third right, with no party attracting more than 11% of its vote.
“In little more than 20 years, the number of Jewish Israelis who define themselves as right-wing has steadily increased, while those who define themselves as left-wing have decreased. If previously they were equal at 40%, today 62% consider themselves right wing and only 12% consider themselves left wing,” says Or Anabi, a researcher at the Israeli Institute for Democracy who has published an analysis on the subject.
Another revealing fact is that Jewish Israelis between the ages of 18 and 24 – a group that tends toward progressive positions until they are diluted with age – are today more conservative than the average at 70%. As such, Anabi believes the radical right “is not going to disappear, but will continue to play a determining role in the coming years.”
Clashes between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities in May 2021, in which there were deaths, beatings and attacks on houses, synagogues and a Muslim cemetery, have also fueled the ultranationalists. “The more time passes, the more we understand how significant it was,” says Anabi. Supporters of Ben Gvir often bring up the subject in conversation. The number of Jews and Arabs who view cohabitation as viable has since fallen in the polls.
At one point during the rally in Tel Aviv, the public chanted to Ben Gvir: “Who has arrived!? The next prime minister!” “Not yet,” he replied. “I am young, I am only 46 years old.”
Mobilising Assam’s ‘hargila army’: how 10,000 women saved India’s rarest stork | Global development
On a cool December afternoon a group of women dressed in brightly coloured mekhela chadors (Assam’s traditional handwoven clothing) sit in a circle on the grass at the Bhokha Beel wetlands, singing and clapping.
Some of the women are wearing papier-mache headdresses shaped like long-necked birds. As they sing, one of them gets to her feet and starts dancing.
They are part of the “hargila army”, a group of rural women in the Indian state of Assam who work to protect one of the world’s rarest storks: the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) – or hargila (meaning “bone swallower” in Assamese) as the scavenger bird is known locally. They are celebrating the recent UN Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth award, conferred on the group’s biologist founder, Dr Purnima Devi Barman.
Barman won the award for her achievement in mobilising more than 10,000 women to help save the stork. “They are the protectors of the birds and of their nesting trees,” says Barman, referring to the band of homemakers turned conservationists.
The greater adjutant, a member of the stork family that can grow up to 1.5 metres (5ft) tall, was once abundant across south Asia. But its distinctive features – a featherless head, dangling gular (throat) pouch, striking pale eyes and long skinny legs – and its foul-smelling droppings and dietary preference for carrion – won it few fans.
The birds were not just reviled, they were seen as a bad omen and carriers of disease. Villagers attacked them with stones, cut down trees where they roosted communally and burned their nests.
Today the greater adjutant is endangered, with fewer than 1,200 adult birds in its last strongholds – the Indian states of Assam and Bihar, and Cambodia. Most of the global population is found in Assam, making Barman and the hargila army’s work critical to its survival.
Barman grew up in a village on the Brahmaputra, a river that flows for 2,500 miles through Tibet, north-east India and Bangladesh. As a child, she learned about Assam’s wildlife from her grandmother, who took her into the paddy fields where she worked and taught her about local birdlife. “She didn’t know how to write but she had a feeling for nature and taught me lots of songs and stories about the birds,” says Barman.
Her love of the natural world stayed with her. She gained a first degree and a master’s in zoology and was about to embark on a PhD on the greater adjutant when a contact phoned to tell her that a villager in Dadara had cut down a kadam (burflower) nesting tree in his yard.
When she arrived at the site she was appalled to find the ground littered with nests and dead or injured chicks. “It was my mothering instinct. I wanted to do something to protect these innocent creatures,” says Barman, whose twin girls were two at the time.
Barman began teaching the villagers about the birds’ importance as “nature’s cleaning crew”, and why nesting trees should not be cut down. In response, she was taunted and asked to clean the foul-smelling mess herself. The hostility she faced made her realise that to save the bird, she first needed to change the community’s attitude to it.
She delayed her PhD and set to work: she organised public meetings where she honoured the owners of trees, mostly men, instilling in them a sense of pride in their role as guardians. The tactic paid off. “Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010,” she says.
But it was the women who Barman believed held the key to sustainable and community-led conservation. The problem was they were confined to their homes and household chores. So Barman found creative ways to bring them out where she could talk to them. She began organising cooking competitions of traditional sweets and snacks, where she befriended the women and talked about the birds.
She tapped into the women’s nurturing side by organising “baby showers” during the storks’ breeding season, inspired by a Hindu ritual for expectant human mothers, and “happy hatching” ceremonies to commemorate the arrival of the chicks. Slowly but surely, the women began to accept the birds as part of their world.
By 2014, the conservation movement had gathered momentum and the hargila army was born. “Conservation is all about uniting people and building ownership,” says Barman. “I’ve always believed that, if given a chance, women can make a big difference in conservation.”
Today, the once-maligned bird is now a cultural symbol, appearing on everything from towels to road-safety campaigns.
In the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari (all in Kamrup district), greater adjutants’ nests have increased from 28 in 2010 to more than 250 according to Barman’s last count, making the area the world’s largest breeding colony. “We now have more than 1,000 hargila birds in Assam,” says Barman, referring to recent but unpublished data collected by her team.
The conservation efforts have also transformed the lives of the women, who now go into other villages to raise awareness of the birds. “Joining the hargila army gave me a chance to show everyone that I could do something meaningful with my life,” says Daivaki Saikia, a young widow from Dadara’s marginalised fishing community, who has been a member for five years.
The UN award was for Barman’s “entrepreneurial vision” in using conservation to improve women’s economic status. Assam has a rich tradition of weaving, so Barman secured funding for 30 looms and provided training in weaving the hargila motif into fabrics, providing women with an independent income. Eighty women were also given sewing machines to make bags, cushion covers and other items from the handwoven fabrics.
In 2021, Barman established the Hargila Learning and Conservation Centre in a government school in Pacharia village, where hargila army members use songs, art and games to encourage children to protect the birds.
Juggling her job as a biologist at Aaranyak, a wildlife non-profit organisation based in the city of Guwahati, Barman continues to help preserve the hargila. In February the hargila army begins its work in the districts of Morigaon and Nagaon, with further expansion planned for Assam.
She also hopes to set up a nursery for kadam trees that can be distributed to those who want to plant them in their gardens (45,000 saplings have already been handed out). “This will help improve the back-yard biodiversity,” says Barman.
Barman’s unwavering dedication has been recognised in India and internationally. Last year she was named World Female Ranger and in 2017, she received the prestigious Whitley award, known as the “Green Oscars”, as well as India’s highest civilian honour for women – the Nari Shakti Puraskar.
But Barman refuses to rest on her laurels. No opportunity to advocate for the bird is missed. “My intention is to involve everyone,” she says. “If people are concerned about the conservation of the hargila and its habitat, it will help other species as well.”
Video | The 10 deadliest earthquakes of the 21st century | International
The death toll from the Syria and Turkey earthquake rose Wednesday to more than 11,000, making it the deadliest quake worldwide in more than a decade and one of the 10 most lethal earthquakes of the 21st century.
In this video, EL PAÍS reviews, in chronological order, the quakes that have caused the largest loss of life since 2001. The list includes the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed 250,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless, as well as the 2004 quake that hit the Indonesian province of Aceh, triggering a tsunami that killed nearly 230,000.
Other major natural disasters include the 2003 earthquake in Iran, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan, killing 15,690 people. The video shows the devastating impact of these natural disasters. Earthquakes take an especially hard toll on countries that are ill-prepared to face an emergency of such scale. Japan and Chile, for example, have been hit by stronger quakes, but recorded fewer fatalities thanks to anti-seismic building norms.
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Uganda condemned for ‘shameful’ decision to close UN human rights office | Global development
Rights activists and campaigners have condemned the Ugandan government’s decision to shut down the country’s UN human rights office, describing it as “shameful”.
In a letter to the Office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) in Uganda dated 3 February, the foreign affairs ministry said it will not renew the host country agreement it signed with the OHCHR, which established its initial mandate in the country in 2005. The current mandate, signed on 9 February 2020, expires in August.
“The government of Uganda will now continue its cooperation with the OHCHR Headquarters either directly or through its Permanent Mission in Geneva,” reads the letter.
The development comes less than three months after the UN’s committee against torture adopted the concluding observations on Uganda, which raised concerns that torture and ill-treatment continued to be frequently practised, and called for investigation and prosecution of security officials accused of excessive use of force, violence and arbitrary detention.
“The closure of the @UNHumanRightsUG office proves that [the] government has lost all sense of shame. It no longer wants any close international scrutiny of its human rights record,” tweeted Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum.
“If the protectors are sent away, what then happens to those they were protecting? We are headed for tough times,” he added.
Bobi Wine, the reggae singer turned Ugandan opposition leader, whose supporters remain in unauthorised places of detention or “safe houses”, said it was no surprise that Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has closed the OHCHR. He tweeted: “In the face of growing international condemnation and isolation, tyrant Museveni has responded by shutting down NGOs, Facebook, DGF [Democratic Governance Facility] & declaring several internationals Persona Non-Grata or deporting them! Now he shuts down @UNHumanRightsUG.”
Wine added: “You’ll recall in the aftermath of the 2021 election and the hundreds killed or abducted by the Museveni regime, we petitioned the UN Human Rights Office & the military brutalised journalists right there. This UN Office condemned these actions. Not surprising it’s being closed.”
Human right activists and advocacy groups have called the decision a “mockery” and accused the government of running from international scrutiny on abuse and protection of human rights.
“This is unbelievable, and the reasons given by the government are a mockery of the real state of human rights in the country,” said Jjuuko. “To claim that Uganda no longer needs the office [OHCHR] because of its strong stand for human rights is ironic to say the least.
“A strong stand for human rights would imply opening up to the UN and other actors.”
David Livingstone Sewanyana, founder of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in the capital, Kampala, told the Guardian, “The decision not to renew the mandate deprives Uganda of a critical player in the field of human rights promotion and protection.”
At least 38 local and international staff at the head office in Kampala and two field offices in Gulu and Moroto stand to lose their jobs.
Jjuuko said: “Following closely on the closure of the DGF, this is a scary move which indicates that the government is no longer willing to have its human rights record scrutinised by international actors.
“This leaves local organisations at much more risk of being further silenced and their work curtailed without the government fearing close international security. It is a sad day indeed for the human rights movement in Uganda.”
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