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Spain-Israel relations: Spain seeks to improve relations with Israel after years of diplomatic distance | Spain

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It took Spain four decades to establish relations with the State of Israel, which was created in 1948, and nearly six years to end its recent protracted diplomatic distance with the country. After this long period of frosty relations, Arancha González Laya on Wednesday will become the first Spanish foreign affairs minister to officially visit Israel since 2015.

Relations between Spain and Israel began to deteriorate in 2017 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to take a strong stance against the Catalan separatist movement, which held an illegal referendum on independence in October of that year. Subsequent political crises in both countries, leading to a record number of consecutive elections, further complicated affairs.

But both countries now appear to want to mend ties. Diplomatic sources from Israel say that relations with Spain have improved in recent months. For example, according to these sources, Spain has adopted a more “balanced position” in the European Union, neither defending Israel’s right to expand settlements on occupied Palestinian territory at all costs nor proposing sanctions against Israel under the European Union-Israel partnership agreement.

Diplomatic sources say Israel appears to have appreciated “the different tone” in its communication with Spain

Unilateral steps like those taken by Sweden in 2014 to recognize the state of Palestine without the backing of the European Union have not been followed by Spain or other members of the EU. And it has been six years since Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies, approved with near-unanimous support a non-binding proposal in favor of recognizing Palestine as an independent state, within a two-state solution.

According to these diplomatic sources, Israel appears to have appreciated “the different tone” in its communication with Spain, a veiled allusion to Spain’s recent gestures of rapprochement. Last July, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo condemned antisemitism at the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, which represents around 45,000 people. The deputy prime minister also endorsed the working definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016. While concerns have been raised that the definition is being used to protect Israel from political criticism, Spain calls it a “useful tool of orientation in education” but not “legally binding,” according to an official document.

Importantly too, Spain abstained this year from a vote to condemn Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In 2018, it was the only EU country to call for an international investigation into the death of 200 Palestinians at the Gaza border, who were killed by snipers from the Israeli army. When the investigation was approved by the UN Human Rights Council, Spain’s ambassador to Israel at the time, Manuel Gómez Acebo, was called to appear before the Israeli Foreign Ministry to receive a formal complaint on the issue.

González Laya’s visit to Israel marks an important step toward improving relations, but it will not be a complete visit. Unlike her predecessor, José Manuel García-Margallo, who was received by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2015, González Laya will be received by the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. On Thursday, she will travel to Palestine, where she is expected to pass on a personal message from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Silence on Catalan independence

Diplomatic spokespersons from Israel described the Catalan breakaway attempt in 2017 as “an internal issue that must be resolved by dialogue.” Back in 2013, the then-premier of Catalonia, Artur Mas, said that Israel was “the travel companion chosen by Catalonia at a unique moment,” during a speech at Tel Aviv University.

When the Catalan government approved a unilateral declaration of independence on October 27, Spain called on Israel to express its position on the subject. But it was five days before the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry published an official statement. This ambivalence was further heightened when President Rivlin visited Spain. At an official dinner hosted by Spain’s King Felipe VI, Rivlin opened his speech by saying: “Spain for us is one country and the majesty of the king is a symbol of this unity.”

This timid message was in stark contrast to the statement issued by the US State Department on October 27 that said: “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain and the United States supports the measures adopted by the constitutional government of Spain to maintain a strong and united Spain.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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Funeral held for Roma man killed in Czech police custody

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The funeral of a Roma man killed while in Czech police custody was held over the weekend. Stanislav Tomáš died after a Czech police officer kneeled on his neck, in scenes reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis. Tomáš passed away 19 June, while being rushed to the hospital. The police have denied wrongdoing.

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‘Pelosi Republicans’: McCarthy Disses Cheney, Kinzinger Amid New Jan. 6 Committee Appointment

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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

Though it appears the January 6 commission will move forward, the House Minority Leader did not appear to change the GOP stance on the matter when approached by reporters on Monday. 

“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).

All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”

McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.

“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?” 

Moments later, the House Minority Leader informed reporters that he has not decided whether the two anti-Trump Republicans will be punished for joining the select committee amid the House GOP’s boycott of the group.

Word of McCarthy’s latest dig traveled fast to Cheney, who abruptly panned his remarks as “pretty childish.” 

“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.

Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance. 

Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee. 

McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee. 


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REUTERS / Elizabeth Frantz

U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021

“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.” 

Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.

“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.  



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How ‘super-detector’ dogs are helping free Iraq from the terror of Isis mines | Global development

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On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.

Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.

It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.

A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.

Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.

“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”

Dog and handler between two stakes on arid ground
Branco, with his handler Naif Khalaf Qassim, can do rapid searches either side of a known mined corridor

Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.

The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.

But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.

Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.

Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.

Land mine with pressure pad on top
Isis made workers at plastics factories in Mosul produce the so-called VS500, based on an Italian landmine

Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.

This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.

The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.

Woman in uniform and dog searching burnt out cars.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, with X-Lang, wants to clear landmines so families can return and farm the land

The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.

The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.

Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.

Vian Khaider Khalaf says some of her family, as Yazidis, are still in camps for displaced people
Vian Khaider Khalaf says some of her family, as Yazidis, are still in camps for displaced people

“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”

Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”

After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.

The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.

It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.

Dogs in circular pool with rotator arm in middle
After a morning’s work the dogs can go into a custom-made pool that allows them to exercise in the heat

The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.

Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.

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