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Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Lawmakers in Tuvalu have named former Attorney General Feleti Teo as the Pacific Island nation’s new prime minister, weeks after a general election that put the country’s ties with Taiwan in the spotlight. In a statement on Monday, Tuvalu’s government said Teo was the only candidate nominated by his 15 lawmaker colleagues and was declared elected without a vote. The swearing-in ceremony for Teo and his cabinet will be held later this week. Teo’s elevation to prime minister comes after his pro-Taiwan predecessor, Kausea Natano, lost his seat in the January 26 election. Natano had wanted Tuvalu – which is home to a population of about 11,200 people – to remain one of only 12 countries that have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the self-governed island that China claims as its own territory. Natano’s former finance minister, Seve Paeniu, who was considered a leadership contender, had said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government. The comments prompted concern in Taiwan, especially as Tuvalu’s neighbour Nauru recently severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing, which had promised more development help. There had also been calls by some lawmakers in Tuvalu to review a wide-ranging defence and migration deal signed with Australia in November. The agreement allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other countries, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate to Australia. The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands. Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public. Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general and has decades of experience as a senior official in the fisheries industry – the region’s biggest revenue earner. Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post. “It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said. The naming of the new prime minister had been delayed by persistent bad weather that left several lawmakers stranded on the nation’s outer islands and unable to reach the capital. Jess Marinaccio, an assistant professor in Pacific Studies at California State University, told the AFP news agency it was too early to say whether Teo would maintain ties with Taiwan. But international relations will be high on the list of issues for Teo’s new government, she said. “It will definitely be something they talk about. They also have to choose high commissioners and ambassadors, so Taiwan will be in there,” she said. “It will be a high priority, along with climate change and telecommunications, because the coverage in Tuvalu is not fantastic.”

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Should Russia pay Ukraine to rebuild – or even to defeat its own invasion?

Within days of invading Ukraine in February 2022, Russia lost control of the assets its central bank held in foreign currencies abroad. Some $300bn was frozen in the European Union, United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Japan – about half the bank’s holdings – as Ukraine’s allies sought to hobble Russia’s ability to wage war. Legally, the money belongs to Russia, but the EU, which holds the largest chunk – about $207bn – is struggling to find a legal way to use Russia’s money to rebuild Ukraine’s shattered infrastructure. Some experts believe Russia’s money could even be used to generate immediate benefits for Ukraine’s war effort – especially since $60bn of US military aid remains stalled in Congress. On January 29, EU leaders told European financial institutions to keep separate accounts for Russian-immobilised money, along with any profits made from investing it, pending a decision on what to do. “This decision paves the way for the council to decide on a possible establishment of a financial contribution to the EU budget raised on these net profits to support Ukraine and its recovery and reconstruction at a later stage,” said the European Council. The G7 supported its decision. “So far, the EU has been putting out into the public domain the idea of taxing this money,” Anton Moiseienko, an international law expert at Australian National University, told Al Jazeera. A ‘recognised debt’ Tax on the profits made from investing the money is said to amount to about $2.5bn. “What we’re seeing today is the beginning of a more ambitious approach … separating the profits suggests that the entire [proceeds] might be sent to Ukraine,” Moiseienko said. The proceeds could amount to between $15bn and $17bn over four years. The legal reasoning is that Russia will, at some point, be called upon to pay compensation for invading Ukraine. “What we have here is a recognised debt. Russia owes reparations to Ukraine,” said Moiseienko. “At some point, it does become rather perverse that we all know Russia owes the debt and we’re going to pay Ukraine to rebuild but we’re not going to touch the Russian money.” Some law experts go further. “I would invest it in the defence industry,” Maria Gavouneli, an international law professor at Athens University and director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, a think tank, told Al Jazeera. “We wouldn’t be buying bullets to send Ukraine, we’d be making bullets to send Ukraine. Under such a formula, you could use the entire principal [of $207bn] as well as the proceeds,” Gavouneli said. EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton last month floated the idea of a 100-billion-euro ($108bn) European Defence Investment Programme (EDIP), to revive Europe’s dormant defence industries, without specifying where the money would come from. Investing Russia’s money would enable the EU to plough vast resources into raising the production of artillery rounds and air defence missiles which Ukraine sorely needs. It would, perhaps, be the first time in history that an aggressor’s assets would be used to help the defender’s war effort, Gavouneli said. But, she said, it would not amount to a confiscation of Russian assets, which would be illegal. “When the war is over there has to be an accounting. It has to be clear that Russia’s property can be returned to Russia. If it is going to be kept against reparations [to rebuild Ukraine], that will be decided at that time,” she said. Ukrainian experts go further, still. Russian money could be leveraged and used as collateral for loans worth several times its nominal value, Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics, told Al Jazeera. “You can get much more than the proceeds if you need to,” Mylovanov said. “It also serves to bring a sense of fairness.” Why hasn’t it been done already? As attractive as all this sounds, there are also serious risks involved, bogging the discussion down in a legal and political morass of dissent and fear of consequences. The EU was meant to propose a legal formula to make use of Russia’s assets last December, but nothing of this emerged publicly. Another discussion was to be held earlier this month – but, again, there was no decision. One fear is the risk of retaliation by Russia which, on December 29, said it had a list of European, US and other assets it could seize. Russian state news agency RIA put their value at $288bn last month. RIA did not provide details, and it was not clear if this sum included assets Western companies have already written down or divested themselves of. For example, British Petroleum pulled out of a stake in Russian state oil company Rosneft, valued at $14bn, days after the war began. Shell withdrew from Russian gas projects valued at $3bn. The greater fear, however, is the reputational impact on the US dollar and the Euro, currently the world’s two most dependable reserve currencies, attracting vast investments from governments, central banks, corporations and individuals around the world. “It will undermine the confidence of other countries in the United States as well as in the EU as economic guarantors. Therefore, such actions are fraught with very, very serious consequences,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in December. The European Central Bank agrees. “The euro is the second most important currency in the world, and we have to consider its long-term reputation,” said ECB Vice President Luis de Guindos late last year. “Weaponising a currency inevitably reduces its attractiveness and encourages the emergence of alternatives,” Bank of Italy governor Fabio Panetta said last month. Despite all this, EU leaders have tried to hammer out a new legal theory that protects the reputation of the euro and deals a measure of justice for Ukraine. ‘Countermeasures’ Although states are obliged to respect the assets of other states, international law provides an exception known as countermeasures, Dapo Akande, professor of public international law at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera. “Countermeasures just means that you are taking action which is ordinarily unlawful, but is justified as a response to a prior unlawful action by the other state,” said Akande. In this case, Russia’s unlawful act was to wage a war of aggression, against the statutes of the United Nations Charter and its recognition of Ukraine’s borders in 1991. Countermeasures carry an important condition, says Akande, “that the object of it is to induce compliance by the other state with its obligations, which means countermeasures have to be temporary and reversible and inducing compliance”. In other words, if Russia withdrew from Ukraine, its money should be returnable, so any investments made with it should be reversible. The pricklier question is who can enforce countermeasures. “Can the states that are not the direct victims of the violation, ie states that are not Ukraine, seize assets?” asked Akande. “There’s been a growing number of lawyers who’ve come out and said yes, that would be perfectly lawful,” said Moiseienko. Still, by acting on Ukraine’s behalf, the EU would be breaking new legal ground that Russia might challenge in European courts. The impetus may ultimately be provided by unprecedented political circumstances. The longer US funding for Ukraine remains blocked by allies of presidential hopeful Donald Trump in Congress, and the more Russia challenges European sovereignty by pushing deeper into Ukraine, the less tenable it may become politically to hold in awe the untouchability of Russian assets.

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Under new general, Russia’s Wagner makes deeper inroads into Libya

With the gaze of much of the world fixed on the carnage unfolding in Gaza, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin continues to expand his country’s reach in Africa. Russia, in the form of the private military contractor (PMC) Wagner, has been a growing presence in Libya since at least 2018, when the group was first reported to be training troops under renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, forces belonging to the eastern of the country’s two parliaments. But, following the death of Wagner’s founder and former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, after his failed coup in Russia last year, the fate of the paramilitary force in Libya and Africa seemed uncertain. Russia operates several PMCs. However, none is said to be as close to the Kremlin or to have been deployed as extensively as that founded by Prigozhin. At little cost to the Kremlin, Wagner has gained Russia financial, military and political influence across swaths of Libya and Africa. Given the stakes, the Kremlin was never likely to disband Wagner, despite its active rebellion last year. Instead, following Prigozhin’s much-predicted demise, his commercial and military interests were divided between Russia’s various intelligence services, a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released this week claims. Like other PMCs, like the United States’ Constellis (formerly Blackwater), Wagner allowed its government to operate in overseas conflicts at arm’s length: projecting power while maintaining a degree of deniability. That distance also allows PMCs to operate outside the typical bounds of state warfare, engaging in campaigns of terror and disinformation in a way that conventional forces cannot. Command of Wagner’s overseas presence has been assigned to Russia’s military intelligence (GRU), specifically General Andrei Averyanov. Through a series of intermediate PMCs like Convoy, established in Russian-occupied Crimea in 2022, and Redut, active in Ukraine, but established in 2008 to protect Russian commercial interests, maintaining legal deniability, Wagner’s Ukrainian operation is being retitled the Volunteer Corps, with other operations becoming the Expeditionary Corps. That its ambition remained undimmed was evidenced by its initial instruction to build a fighting force across Africa of some 40,000 contractors – since reduced to 20,000 but far larger than its current footprint. Some measure of General Averyanov’s intent can perhaps be gained from looking at past command of Unit 29155, the wing of Russian military intelligence reported to be responsible for overseeing foreign assassinations and destabilising European countries. African dreams Africa, one of the richest continents in terms of minerals and energy, is undergoing a “youth boom” that stands to change the demographics of the world. Within Africa, Libya boasts the largest oil reserves and gold deposits estimated to rank among the world’s top 50. In addition, its geographic location, linking Niger, Chad and Sudan to North Africa and Europe, makes it of vital strategic importance. Already Averyanov has been busy, travelling to meet with Field Marshall Haftar in September of last year, followed by trips to Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Niger. In all cases, the offer was largely the same: resources for security. Only in Libya did that rubric break. Russia’s lucrative oil extraction plants operate under the auspices of Libya’s other, internationally recognised government in Tripoli, meaning Haftar and his allies, claimed by the US Department of Defence to include the United Arab Emirates, would have to pay for the Expeditionary Corps’ deployment themselves. “Haftar needs Wagner,” Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations said, using the better-known name for the group. “Furthermore, while he’s hosting them in Libya, [Wagner] can use its position to prop up operations in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. “It’s a network,” he continued, citing reports. “It’s not just military support, either. They’re using their position in eastern Libya to transport [illegal narcotic] Captagon from Syria, shift gold to evade sanctions, as well as help traffic migrants from southern Africa and as far away as Bangladesh. “Libya is a hugely profitable area for Wagner,” he said. Presence By current estimates, the Expeditionary Corps is thought to have some 800 contractors deployed in Libya, with a further 4,600 dispersed across sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to its fighters, the Expeditionary Corps maintains three air bases – one in the oil basin of Sirte, one in al-Jufra in the interior, and one in Brak al-Shati – which analysts say allows both groups, (Haftar’s Libyan National Army and the PMC) to move goods between allies in Sudan and other sub-Saharan locations. In addition to its presence on the ground, talks are under way to give Russian warships docking rights at the port of Tobruk in exchange for air defence systems and training for LNA pilots. “The Central and Eastern Mediterranean is an incredibly important area for Europe and, by extension, NATO,” Ivan Klyszcz, an authority on Russian foreign policy at the International Centre for Defence and Security at Tallinn, said. “Russia already has a Mediterranean port at Tartous in Syria, a port at Tobruk would deepen that presence and potentially bring them into competition with Europe, not least the British, who maintain a large naval presence at Cyprus.” That the Expeditionary Corps could increase its footfall to 20,000, referenced in the RUSI report and widely discussed by military bloggers, already appears to be within sight. “That doesn’t sound unachievable, if you consider where they are now,” Jalel Harchaoui of RUSI said. “After all, we’re not talking about purely Russian recruitment, so much as ongoing recruitment across Africa,” he said, recalling Wagner’s transplanting of fighters from Syria to Libya in 2020. “Eventually, what we may be seeing is a PMC where local troops from one African state can be deployed to another, where they’ll be free to operate to whatever rules they see fit. For instance, in one state, it could simply be a case of providing security to a head of government or a facility. In another, they may be called upon to resort to rape, torture and anti-personnel mines. “The business model allows them to accomplish all of this, to build alliances … at little cost to what is, at the end of the day, Russia’s relatively small economy,” he said. End game However, while a significant player, Wagner is far from alone in a shifting and occasionally crowded Libyan battleground. In addition to the Tripoli-allied militias are the Turkish forces who allied with local commanders to counter and repel the Wagner-backed Haftar, when he attempted to take and hold the capital in 2020 and end the political deadlock in his favour. Moreover, with Russia’s extensive investment in Libyan energy protected and governed by the Turks’ allies in Tripoli, there are no guarantees that Moscow’s alliance with Haftar may not also fall victim to the cold pragmatism that has been constant amid the chaos in Libya since its revolution. “There is nothing to suggest that Russia is pledged to Haftar,” Klyszcz continued, “Haftar is important because of where he is, not who he is. It’s as much a marriage of convenience as it is anything else,” he said. “Likewise with Turkey. There is nothing to suggest that the PMC can’t cooperate with Turkey, as they have in other parts of the world. “You need to remember that Russia is engaged upon a global strategy with regional implications,” Klszcz said. “Putin’s intention is to create a multipolar world, with India and China all exerting power, rather than just the West as we have at present,” he said.

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Israeli delegation expected in Qatar for more Gaza talks

An Israeli delegation is soon expected in Qatar to continue talks on securing a pause in the war on Gaza that could see captives released. The talks began last week in Paris and were attended by the chiefs of Israel’s spy agency Mossad and domestic security service Shin Bet, along with mediators from the United States, Qatar and Egypt. The Israeli delegation returned from the French capital, with Israeli national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, saying during a televised interview late on Saturday that “there is probably room to move towards an agreement”. According to Israeli media, negotiators had a meeting with the Israeli cabinet, which agreed to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue negotiations. Al Jazeera’s Willem Marx, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said Israeli media are talking about the details of a framework for talks, which could potentially see a pause in fighting for up to six weeks if a captive is released each day from Gaza. “It looks like there will be around 40 Israeli hostages being released – that would be women civilians, female soldiers, older men with serious medical conditions – in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners currently held in detention or Israeli jails.” Marx said an agreement could also lead to a considerable increase in humanitarian aid going into the Gaza Strip and a potential return of Palestinians to the heavily bombarded and attacked areas in the northern part of the enclave. “Hamas, crucially, has not commented on any of this,” he said. Prior to the latest round of talks, Hamas had said it would accept nothing less than a complete cessation of fighting and an end to the siege of Gaza, something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had dismissed while emphasising “total victory” over the armed group. Close to 30,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been confirmed killed by the Ministry of Health in Gaza, with thousands more missing and presumably still under the rubble. More than 100 captives, including Israelis and other nationals, were released as part of a one-week pause in fighting in November, which also saw hundreds of Palestinians released from Israeli prisons. ‘We need a new government’ In Israel, pressure has been steadily building on Netanyahu and his war cabinet to strike a deal to secure the release of the captives. Thousands of protesters once more gathered at what has become known as “hostages square” in Tel Aviv on Saturday to demand swifter action and new elections, with police using water cannon to disperse the crowds. Al Jazeera’s Hamdah Salhut, reporting from Tel Aviv, said Saturday’s gathering was the “biggest show of force since the war began”. “Antigovernment protesters say they will continue coming out every Saturday in full force until their message is received by the Israeli government.” Neria Bar, a protester, told Al Jazeera that the government has failed and needs to be replaced. “We need a new government, new people, new leadership, someone that counts us in and thinks about us, not just about themselves,” she said.

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Oppenheimer wins big at Screen Actors Guild Awards, boosting Oscar hopes

Oppenheimer has picked up three prizes, including the top honour, at Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, boosting the historical epic’s chances of grabbing the Oscar for best picture next month. Christopher Nolan’s portrayal of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, won the award for best movie cast, historically a strong predictor for the Oscars, at the star-studded ceremony in Los Angeles on Saturday. Cillian Murphy, who plays the titular character, won best movie actor, while co-star Robert Downey Jr picked up the best supporting actor trophy for playing his bitter rival. “This is extremely special to me because it comes from you guys,” Murphy said as he accepted his award. The ceremony was the first gala organised by SAG-AFTRA, which represents some 160,000 entertainment industry professionals, since the union held its longest-ever strike last year. The show was also streamed live on Netflix, a first for a Tinseltown ceremony. Kenneth Branagh, who plays Danish physicist Niels Bohr in Oppenheimer, recalled how the film’s cast staged a walkout from the London premiere last July as the strike was about to begin. “We happily went in the direction of solidarity with your good selves,” Branagh said. “So this, this is a full circle moment for us,” he said, to loud applause. Oppenheimer, which has already claimed prizes at the Golden Globes and the British Academy Film Awards, is the strong favourite for best picture going into the Oscars on March 11. The film has been nominated for 13 Oscars in total, including best director, best actor and best supporting actor, ahead of Yorgos Lanthimos’s steampunk fantasy Poor Things with 11 nods. At the past two SAG awards, all five top prizes predicted the eventual Oscar winners. Other winners on Saturday included Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, for which Lily Gladstone picked up the best actress prize, and The Holdovers, which earned Da’Vine Joy Randolph best supporting actress. Barbra Streisand, the winner of two Oscars and 10 Grammy awards, received a lifetime achievement award in recognition of her six-decade-long career in entertainment.

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Where ‘love transcends language’: Kashmir’s silent village

Dadkhai, Jammu and Kashmir, India – Dressed in their finest shalwar-kameez and sporting well-trimmed moustaches, a group of men deliberate over the terms of a dowry, as the women prepare halwa with dried fruit and a pot of traditional, salty Kashmiri tea, in the adjacent kitchen. In the modest home of Muhammad Sharief in Dadhkai, a tiny community nestled high in the Himalayan mountains, the two families have gathered to plan the upcoming marriage of Reshma Sharief, 19, and Mukhtar Ahmed, 22. Muhammad Sharief, 40, the father of the bride, waits patiently as the men continue their discussions. They ultimately agree upon a dowry of $1,200 in cash, plus a few gold ornaments. The elder men murmur prayers as sweet treats are brought out from the kitchen. The home’s rough-cut wooden roof, mud floor and bright walls, coloured in pink and green, hum with the sounds of celebration. But while the two families have followed all the customary nuptial rules, this marriage will be far from ordinary: Both the bride and groom, like dozens of others in their village, are deaf-mute. The condition has spanned generations of Dadhkai since the first case was recorded more than a century ago. Whenever a marriage takes place, thoughts inevitably turn towards the day the new couple has children. Even when the parents are not deaf-mute, there is always a fear that their children will be. “We confront this fear with unwavering faith, bravely pushing it back into the shadows,” says Muhammad Hanief, the village head attending the festivities at the Sharief household. Throughout the celebration, the bride-to-be remains in the kitchen, adhering to the traditional conservative values of her Gujjar ethnic group. Her fiance attends to the guests, helping to serve food as family members offer their congratulations. Outside in the courtyard, villager Alam Hussain, an elderly man with a white beard, deep wrinkles and a skinny build, quietly tends to a herd of cattle. At 63, he is among the oldest deaf-mute people in the village, and the only one in his family with the condition. “I don’t remember how many deaf-mute people there were during my childhood; memory betrays me in my old age,” Hussain says, pointing an index figure to his head while shaking his other hand in the air, conveying his struggle with memory loss. He communicates through a sign-language interpreter: his neighbour, Shah Muhammad, who treats Hussain with respect and deference, pointing to the high esteem in which elders in this community are held. But Hussain, who is unmarried, spends much of his time alone. The only work he finds is in the summer, when he takes cattle out to graze. In the past, he says, it was particularly challenging for deaf-mute villagers to find a partner. As the number of people unable to hear or speak has grown over the years, the social landscape in Dadhkai has shifted.

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US pulls off first moon landing since 1972 with spacecraft Odysseus

The United States has pulled off its first lunar landing in more than half a century with a spacecraft built and operated by a Texas-based private company. Odysseus, an uncrewed robot lander built by Houston-based Intuitive Machines with funding from NASA, touched down near the lunar south pole at around 23:23 GMT, the company announced in a webcast on Thursday. The successful landing followed a tense final descent during which flight controllers had to switch to an untested landing system after a problem arose with the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation system. NASA administrator Bill Nelson described the landing as a “triumph for humanity” and a “new adventure in science, innovation and American leadership in space”. “Today, for the first time in half a century, the US has returned to the Moon,” Nelson said in a video posted on social media. “Today for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company, an American company, launched and led the voyage up there. And today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships.” Today, for the first time in half a century, America has returned to the Moon

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India’s demand to block accounts amid farmers’ stir curtails free speech: X

Social media platform X says it has taken down certain accounts and posts following an order by the Indian government, which local media reports say are linked to ongoing protests by farmers demanding higher prices for crops. The platform, formerly known as Twitter, did not provide details of the removals but on Thursday said it disagrees with the action and that the move amounts to curtailing freedom of expression. The action puts the spotlight again on the struggles faced by foreign technology giants operating in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which has often criticised Google, Facebook and X for not doing enough to tackle what it calls fake or “anti-India” content. Many users have complained their social media accounts are either blocked or face restrictions in India. X said its position on the matter was consistent with its ongoing legal challenge against the Indian government’s orders to block content. “We will withhold these accounts and posts in India alone; however, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts,” X’s Global Government Affairs team said in a post, without naming the accounts. The statement comes following a week of protests by thousands of Indian farmers who have camped 200km (125 miles) north of New Delhi after police blocked their march to the capital and fired tear gas at crowds trying to press forward. The Hindustan Times newspaper reported that the “emergency” blocking orders issued last week by the government cover accounts of some farmers’ groups and supporters. Jairam Ramesh, a legislator from the main opposition Congress party, said in a post on X the move represented the “murder of democracy in India”. The Indian government is yet to issue a statement on the matter. The X’s Global Government Affairs said legal restrictions do not allow it to publish government orders but the platform wants to maintain transparency. “Due to legal restrictions, we are unable to publish the executive orders, but we believe that making them public is essential for transparency. This lack of disclosure can lead to a lack of accountability and arbitrary decision-making,” it said, adding that a writ appeal challenging the government’s “remains pending”.

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Israel’s Netanyahu dismisses calls for early election as thousands protest

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for an early election as thousands of protesters take to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, demanding he step down. Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet in opinion polls since the October 7 attack that sparked the devastating war on Gaza. Calls for an early vote have been mounting since October when the Palestinian group Hamas launched a rare attack inside Israeli territory, killing some 1,100 people and taking more than 200 others captive, nearly half of whom were released during a brief truce in November. In response, the Israeli military launched unprecedented air and ground strikes on the besieged Gaza Strip, killing nearly 29,000 Palestinians so far and displacing more than 1.4 million people in a campaign many governments have termed a genocide. Antigovernment protests that shook Israel for much of 2023 had largely subsided during the war. Still, demonstrators again took to the streets on Saturday night, calling for new polls, which are not scheduled until 2026. Thousands defied a police ban on large rallies in Tel Aviv as they hit the streets, according to local media, though the crowd was much smaller than last year’s mass protests. “I’d like to say to the government that you’ve had your time, you ruined everything that you can ruin. Now is the time for the people to correct all the things, all the bad things that you’ve done,” said one protester, his head wrapped in an Israeli flag. A similar protest was held in Jerusalem outside Netanyahu’s official residence, reports said, as anger over the fate of more than 100 captives held by Hamas rises. The protesters said they were furious over Netanyahu declining to send a representative to Egypt’s capital Cairo for talks over ending the Gaza conflict. The United States, Qatar and Egypt have spent weeks trying to broker a ceasefire and captive release, but the talks have been hit by a wide gap between Israel’s and Hamas’s demands. Qatar on Saturday said the talks “have not been progressing as expected”. Hamas has said it would not release all of the remaining captives without Israel ending the war and “lifting the unjust siege” on Gaza. It is also demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Netanyahu has publicly rejected the demands, calling Hamas’s ceasefire call “delusional” and rejecting US and international calls for a pathway to Palestinian statehood. He said he sent a delegation to the talks in Cairo last week at US President Joe Biden’s request but did not see the point in sending them again. “Don’t abandon them to die!” screamed people into giant loudspeakers in Tel Aviv’s so-called Hostage Square. “Look us in the eyes, send Israeli representatives to the Cairo conference and bring the hostages home now,” read a statement from the families of the captives. Netanyahu was asked at a press briefing about calls within his own ruling Likud party to hold an early election after the Gaza war ends. “The last thing we need right now are elections and dealing with elections, since it will immediately divide us,” he said. “We need unity right now.” However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, more than two-thirds of Israelis believe the elections, which are not scheduled before 2026, should be held as soon as the war is over.

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Pro-Gaza feeling runs high in Lebanon, but Hamas presence is controlled

Beirut/Tripoli, Lebanon — The entrance to the Burj Barajneh refugee camp is covered in the small yellow flags of the Palestinian group Fatah displaying the faces of the late Yasser Arafat and his successor, current Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. But these are not the men of the hour. That honour is for a man whose face is unknown because he covers it with a red keffiyeh: Abu Obaida, the spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. Fatah and Hamas are opponents with presences in Lebanon, although they often have competing agendas politically or even militarily, but that does not filter down to the Palestinians there. “I’m not with any party, not Fatah or Hamas,” Hassan, a Palestinian refugee in his mid-20s, told Al Jazeera from under the sea of yellow. But, Hassan adds, he likes Abu Obaida because: “We’re with anyone who helps the Palestinian cause.” On October 7, Qassam Brigades and other armed Palestinian factions launched Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, an attack on Israel during which 1,139 civilians and Israeli security personnel died and another 240 or so were taken into Gaza. Israel responded with a vicious campaign of retribution that has now killed more than 28,000 people and displaced more than two million people, or 90 percent of Gaza’s population, to the horror of Palestinians and their supporters all over the world. Israel has also intensified attacks on southern Lebanon in recent days, amid heightened tension with the Hezbollah armed group that dominates the region. On Wednesday, Israeli strikes in Lebanon killed 10 civilians. Amid the destruction and death, Palestinians in Lebanon and many Lebanese have formed an affinity to movements they feel are standing up to Israel effectively. A Palestinian presence in Lebanon for 75 years After the 1948 Nakba, many Palestinian refugee camps were established in Lebanon and 12 remain today across the country, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with a handful in the capital, Beirut. Each camp has its political dynamics but, historically, Fatah has been the strongest political and social force. The group firmly established itself in the camps in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks in part to the Cairo Accord, which transferred control over the camps from the Lebanese army to the Palestinian Armed Struggle Command. By the time the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, Fatah had established what many considered a state within a state, with checkpoints and roadblocks that earned parts of south Lebanon the label “Fatahland”. But that ability to mobilise has faded a bit over time, with many Palestinians in Lebanon now disillusioned with the status quo and looking to emigrate rather than stay in camps with few political or economic rights or opportunities. “Many are with neither [Fatah nor Hamas],” said Marie Kortam, associate researcher at the French Institute of the Near East specialising in Palestinian groups. Is Hamas making inroads? Analysts say Hamas is trying to use its moment in the spotlight and the unhappy conditions in the refugee camps to recruit and grow its influence in Lebanon. In early December, Hamas announced “Vanguards of Al-Aqsa Flood”, a recruitment drive it said was to find new political and social cadres. “[They] are trying to form a cadre of politicians and supporters in order to instil in them morals, values and a political formation,” Kortam said. While the Palestinian camps support Abu Obaida, Hamas’s Yahya Sinwar and Qassam Brigades head Mohammed Deif, it is for the resistance they represent, not their party, Kortam maintains. “Hamas is not rooted in the camps like Fatah,” Kortam said. While it is perhaps not as historically strong as Fatah, Hamas “has gained popularity specifically among Sunnis in Lebanon” since October 7, Mohanad Hage Ali, an expert on Islamist groups at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said. In late October, Hamas organised a large protest in downtown Beirut. Thousands of people were bussed in from around the country to take part as green Hamas flags filled Martyr’s Square. While much of the crowd was Palestinian, many Lebanese were also present and some had travelled for hours to get there. On a cold evening in February, Abu Iyad, a 38-year-old Lebanese man, sat at a table in the corner of a cafe off Azmi Street in Tripoli. “We’re with the people of Gaza and if the border was open, maybe people would go,” Abu Iyad, who works as a sports teacher, told Al Jazeera. “Look at Syria and Iraq.” During the Syrian civil war, many young men from north Lebanon, including Tripoli, joined groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Yet, while many in Lebanon’s north are moved or outraged by the violence in Gaza and support the Palestinian cause, they have not mobilised politically or militarily. While there has been gossip about at least one Lebanese father naming his newborn son Obaida, so he can be called Abu Obaida, support for Hamas or the Palestinian resistance here is less steadfast than in the Palestinian camps. Smoking a cigarette outside his cafe near the Tripoli fairgrounds, Hajj Kamal said young people in Tripoli could offer little to the people of Gaza aside from solidarity. “What are we supposed to do, send them an OMT?” he asked mockingly, referring to a Lebanese money transfer service. In November, two men from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, were killed when the car they were in was hit by an Israeli strike in south Lebanon. Also in the car was a Hamas operative and two Turkish citizens who had recently landed in the country. Tripoli is a Sunni stronghold in Lebanon’s north not far from the border with Syria. The fact two men from there were killed along with a Hamas operative in the south, an area where Hezbollah holds military dominance, raised questions over whether Hamas was recruiting from outside their traditional base. But residents in Tripoli say there have not been any mass mobilisation drives in their city. Hezbollah controls military activity Hamas’s Qassam Brigades are militarily active in Lebanon, a presence facilitated by close relations with Hezbollah. Things were not always this close, as the relationship had fractured during the Syrian civil war when Hamas sided with forces opposing Bashar al-Assad, one of Hezbollah’s staunchest allies. When Sinwar took the helm of Hamas in Gaza in 2017, a rapprochement with Iran and Hezbollah ensued and some Hamas leaders, including the recently assassinated Saleh al-Arouri, the West Bank’s Qassam Brigades leader, relocated to Lebanon. Since October 7, Hamas has launched military operations from Lebanon – like 16 rockets launched at Israel that the Qassam Brigades claimed – but they remain under the Hezbollah umbrella. “It’s part of an agenda,” said Manal Kortam, a Palestinian activist in Lebanon (and Marie’s sister). “Hezbollah is hosting them. There’s no rocket if Hezbollah doesn’t give them the green light.”

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