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‘No place to hide’ in Gaza, as fighting escalates

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UN workers in Gaza feel at risk from airstrikes, as violence continues to spread across Israel and occupied territories.

“There was an airstrike just a few minutes ago in the neighbourhood next to my home, about 200 metres from where I live. They [Israeli warplanes] shelled a house, killing a man and his wife and another person,” Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for UNWRA, a UN refugee agency in Gaza, told EUobserver on Tuesday (11 May).

“There’s a dramatic change in what’s going on,” he said.

“In the past, they used to warn people [before striking their building], but now they’re just hitting houses directly without any warning,” he added.

“People are staying off the streets, but Gaza is the most densely populated place in the world – if you throw a stone here, you will injure somebody,” he noted.

“There’s no place to hide. Nowhere to escape,” he said.

Asked if he or other UNWRA workers were at risk, Abu Hasna said: “Yes. It’s dangerous”.

But staff were still providing primary healthcare and distributing food to the 1.2 million people in Gaza who depended on them to eat, he added.

“We have no alternative. It’s our job,” he said.

Hamas, the militant Palestinian group which rules Gaza, was also continuing to fire rockets into Israel, he noted.

“We can see them flying overhead,” he said, as Hamas targeted high-rise apartment blocks in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.

The three deaths of which Abu Hasna spoke brought the number of Palestinian fatalities in Gaza to 29 on Tuesday evening.

But by Wednesday morning, the figure rose again, to 35, with over 140 people injured, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Israeli soldiers also shot dead a Palestinian protester in the occupied town of Hebron, Israeli media reported.

And five Israelis have been killed by rocket fire since Monday, media said.

The Gaza fighting erupted following street clashes in Jerusalem, which began over Israeli plans to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in the Holy City.

“We’re just arriving at Sheikh Jarrah,” Inès Abdelrazek, an activist with the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, a Ramallah-based NGO, told EUobserver on Tuesday evening.

“There’s always lots of police here, but now they’ve locked off the streets on all sides to prevent solidarity protesters from coming in,” she said.

Solidarity protests by Israeli Arabs in the town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, also turned into riots on Tuesday night, injuring 12 people.

Deeply worrying

For its part, the EU foreign service in Brussels told press the same day the situation was “deeply worrying”.

The Hamas rocket-fire was “totally unacceptable”, an EU spokesman said.

“All sides must uphold international humanitarian law … this latest escalation just illustrates how necessary it is to restart negotiations” on a two-state solution, he added.

But EU diplomats on the ground in Israel were doing little more than “intensified reporting” of events, sources said.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem, Lod, and Hebron protests were being organised by young Palestinians on social media, making it hard for diplomats to find interlocutors who could call them off.

“This is spontaneous … it’s about young people who are thirsty for freedom,” the PIPD’s Abdelrazek said.

And popular feeling in Gaza was no different, UNWRA’s Abu Hasna added.

“Unemployment among young people in Gaza is 80 percent … there’s no dream, no tomorrow in Gaza. People feel they have nothing to lose,” he said.

But for Israeli authorities and commentators, Hamas’ political calculations were also playing a role.

Its rocket-fire came not just in solidarity over the Sheikh-Jarrah clashes, but also after Fatah, its rival political faction, recently called off elections in the Palestinian territories, which it looked like they would lose.

“This is Hamas’ way of wreaking vengeance on Fatah and showing Hamas as the main proponent of the Palestinian people’s struggle,” an Israeli source, who asked not to be named, told this website.

Daily violence

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday fighting could “continue for some time.”

The Israeli armed army also said it was in the “early stages” of planned strikes on Gaza.

But UNWRA’s Abu Hasna said a ground incursion was unlikely because there was a caretaker government in Israel, with no one to take responsibility for a major escalation.

His best guess was the exchange of rockets and air-strikes would stop in a few days.

But normal life in Gaza was so abnormal it would erupt again before long, he said.

“The EU should pressure Israel to lift the blockade [on Gaza]. Without this, you will see a round of fighting every couple of years,” he noted.

And for the PIPD’s Abdelrazek, the EU call for a return to talks on a two-state solution was “disconnected from reality”, because Israel was more interested in imposing “apartheid” on Palestinians.

“Suddenly, we’re back in the media … but when things calm down and the media leave, we’ll go back to what is daily violence of low intensity,” she said.

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Delta COVID Variant Reportedly Draws Biden’s Attention, Resources Away From Other Priorities

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Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.

The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.

The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.

“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.

The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.

At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden  last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.



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Sierra Leone abolishes death penalty | Global development

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Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.

On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.

Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.

A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.

Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.

Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.

Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.

“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.

“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”

Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.

“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.

Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.

Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.

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[Ticker] EU to share 200m Covid vaccine doses by end of 2021

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The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

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