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Refugees in Italy bear brunt of coronavirus angst | News



Lampedusa, Italy – It is Saturday morning and Ahmed is squeezed onto a small Italian coastguard boat docked at one of Lampedusa’s ports.

There are about 30 other refugees and migrants on board. 

Officers, covered head to toe in white protective gear, are on the ground, buzzing around the boat to prepare it for the next stop a few miles away – the Rhapsody ferry.

There, almost 800 refugees and migrants will enter a 14-day quarantine period.

Like Ahmed, they have been removed from the overcrowded reception centre in Lampedusa due to a lack of space, and now must undergo the two-week quaranting on board the ferry.

“Of course I am happy,” the 23-year-old told Al Jazeera by text message. “It’s always better than staying inside the centre.”

Saturday would have been his seventeenth day inside Lampedusa’s only reception centre, in Imbriacola district. A so-called “hotspot”, the centre has been the focus of a heated debate between the far right, governing political leaders and civil society.

It was built to house no more than 192 people, but last week there were as many as 1,500 as the number of migrants and refugees landing on the island’s shores rose during summer.

“They treat us like animals, I would say worse than animals,” said Ahmed, who arrived on August 19 on a dinghy from the Tunisian town of Sfax. Each night, he and others used to sneak out just to get something to eat.

“Often there is no water or electricity, you sleep on the floor or on a dirty mattress, if you get one. There are no words to describe it … Some of them [staff] keep insulting us. I feel treated as we were terrorists,” he said.

What will happen to Ahmed once the ferry quarantine period ends?

Most Tunisians are considered economic migrants, and therefore are either returned to Tunisia – the Italian government established two charters for a total of 80 repatriations a week so far – or handed a seven to 30-day window period to return home by their own means. Often, once they arrive, they attempt to leave Italy in any way possible and reach northern Europe.

“I don’t care if they will send me back, I’ll come back again, and again, and again,” said Ahmed. “For me [it] is a question to either die or arrive.”

He is among 7,885 Tunisians who arrived in Sicily this year up to August 31 – a number almost six times higher than the same period last year.

As the coronavirus pandemic forced governments to shut their borders and halt activities, Tunisia is also paying a heavy price with its economy expected to shrink more than 4 percent this year, and the unemployment rate currently standing at 16 percent.

With Lampedusa’s hotspot overflowing and the threat of tourists being discouraged by the number of asylum seekers, far-right politicians are weaponising the pandemic in an attempt to advance anti-migrant policies.

On August 31, as more than 360 people were rescued at sea and brought to Lampedusa, a group of protesters – coordinated by a member of Matteo Salvini’s far-right party, the League – took to the port to stop their landing.

The previous week, Salvini praised Sicily’s Governor Nello Musumeci for ordering the closure of the region’s reception centres. Despite being immediately blocked by a court, the move greatly boosted the governor’s popularity.

In 2011, more than 50,000 Tunisians reached Lampedusa as they fled unrest in their country during the so-called Arab Spring [Antonio Parrinello/Reuters]

Lampedusa’s islanders are used to refugees and migrants landing on their shores. A southern tip of Europe, the island has for decades been the first point of entry to those crossing the Mediterranean.

In 2011, more than 50,000 Tunisians arrived. 

“We welcomed them bringing warm food and helping setting tents across town,” recalled former fisherman Calogero Partinico, 63, sitting on a bench watching tourists, many walking around with no masks.

Like many others, Partinico has drawn a link between the rising number of refugees and migrants and the coronavirus pandemic, despite refugees making up 3-5 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country, compared with 25 percent detected among tourists, according to Italy’s National Health Institute.

“Islanders live with an ancestral fear over sickness – given the isolation and lack of hospitals on the island – and over the potential loss of the summer season,” said Marta Bernardini, an aid worker from Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy based in Lampedusa. “The coronavirus combined the two, fomenting a more hostile attitude towards migrants.”

There are also growing concerns over the use of ferry boats to quarantine migrants – an operation which has so far cost the government at least six million euros ($7.1m) for the rent of five vessels.

“No one wants them,” Lampedusa Mayor Toto’ Martello told Al Jazeera, pointing to some regional governors’ refusal to take in refugees and migrants. “Because since there is the COVID-19, there has been a media campaign against migrants saying that they are those bringing the virus.”

Further deepening Italy’s refugee crisis, the country’s reception’s capacity has recently been halved, said Sami Aidoudi, legal adviser and cultural mediator for the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).

“Salvini’s security decrees cut funds, hence most services had been reduced,” he said, referring to the former prime minister’s 2018 anti-migrant policies. 

Prior to those rulings, as an example, social services used to receive about 35 euros ($41) a day per migrant – an amount which has dropped to about 19 euros ($22). With the changes, some cooperatives were forced to close, while the quality of services fell at others.

Despite pledging for a substantial U-turn from Salvini’s hardline policy over migration, the current government has made few changes.

“They are starting to establish floating reception centres – the dream of the Italian right wing,” said Aidoudi. 

Confining migrants to the sea, away from residents’ sight, “means absence of information for civil society, for those that can offer legal counselling and finally for migrants themselves”, he said. “We can’t assist them.”

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Palestinians in Gaza mourn loved ones killed in Israeli air raids | Conflict News




Gaza City – When Mohammad Saad heard that an Israeli air strike had killed his cousin Reema Saad, he says the news hit the family “like a lightning bolt”.

Reema, 31, her husband Mohammed Telbani, 29, and their two children were in their apartment in Gaza City’s Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood in the early hours of Wednesday when an air strike hit the residential building, destroying their apartment.

Reema, who was four months pregnant, and five-year-old Zeid died immediately, and Mohammed later died in the intensive care unit, but the body of their daughter, three-year-old Maryam, has yet to be recovered from the site of the attack. Saad said the family did not receive any warning before the air raid.

“I’m communicating with the fire department and civil defence crews in Gaza to help us find Maryam and have her rest and be buried near her mother, who would have wanted that,” Saad said.

The day before the air attack had been a joyous one, with Reem visiting her family to congratulate her brother on his engagement. “The next day, she went home and was targeted,” Saad said.

The family is hiding the news of the killings from Mohammed Telbani’s mother, out of fear she may suffer from a heart attack.

A man looks at the remains of a destroyed building after being hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City [Adel Hana/AP]

Death toll rises

Since Israel launched air raids on the besieged Gaza Strip late on Monday, Gaza’s health ministry says at least 103 people, including 27 children, have been killed, and 580 others have been wounded.

At least seven Israelis including a child have been killed in rocket attacks launched by armed groups in Gaza, which is ruled by the Palestinian group, Hamas.

The latest escalation in violence followed weeks of tensions in occupied East Jerusalem over a now-postponed court hearing relating to the forced expulsion of several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

Frictions in the city also spread to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which Israeli forces raided on three consecutive days during the final week of Ramadan, firing tear gas and stun grenades at worshippers inside the mosque.

Hamas on Monday issued an ultimatum demanding Israel withdraw its forces from the compound, the third holiest site in Islam which is also revered by Jews.

Shortly after the deadline expired, Hamas launched several rockets towards Jerusalem, with Israel launching air strikes soon afterwards.

Israel’s military says about 1,600 rockets have been fired from Gaza towards various locations in Israel since Monday.

Its spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters on Thursday that attacks on Gaza will continue as Israel prepares for “multiple scenarios”.

“We have ground units that are prepared and are in various stages of preparing ground operations,” he said. The Israeli defence minister, Benny Gantz, approved the mobilisation of 9,000 more reservist troops.

Sombre Eid

Thursday was the first day of Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday for Muslims marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But instead of joyous celebrations and gatherings for families and friends, funerals were held as Hamas sent more rockets into Israel and Israeli fighter jets continued to hit the besieged enclave, including in Rafah, near the border with Egypt.

Smoke billows from an explosion following an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip [Said Khatib/AFP]

In Gaza City, the mourners carried the dead from Al-Omari Mosque on Thursday morning to the graveyard in the far east of the city. Throughout the procession, the sound of bombarding air strikes and rockets firing were heard almost constantly.

Due to the air raids, condolences for those killed were shared only by phone.

‘I hope they didn’t feel anything’

Some Palestinians have been sharing the news of their killed family members on social media, noting their status as civilians.

Bayan AbuSultan, 25, said her cousin Miami Arafa, 27, and her 50-year-old aunt, Hadeel, a mother of four, were killed while preparing for Eid in their house in the Amal neighbourhood of Khan Younis, when an Israeli air strike hit their home at about 3pm on Wednesday.

There was no prior warning of an imminent strike as Hadeel’s brother was on a call with her a few minutes before the bombing. AbuSultan said that she and Miami had been planning to go shopping together after Ramadan as she was supposed to get married a few days after Eid al-Fitr.

The last that she had heard from her cousin was when she shared her Facebook status, praying for those killed.

“Little did she know that soon after we’ll be wishing her exactly the same,” AbuSultan said. “I shiver every time I think of how terrified they were. I hope they didn’t feel anything.”

The Israeli air strikes have hit police headquarters and government buildings, three high-rise buildings, an ice cream factory in the east of Gaza and the Al-Salah school in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.

On Wednesday, Israeli air raids destroyed the al-Shorouq tower, which housed media organisations. Its ruins covered the streets of Remal, the busiest shopping street in Gaza City.

The Israeli military has said it only targets multi-storey buildings which are “military targets”. Other buildings it has struck are “strategically significant” sites belonging to Hamas, it said.

Rights group denounces ‘collective punishment’

In a statement published on Tuesday, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (EMHRM) said that Israel’s “widespread bombardment, including civilian objects without respecting the principle of proportionality … is utterly appalling”.

Israeli forces have “expanded their response to include targeting dozens of civilian objects, women and children and bombing densely populated gatherings, which according to the Rome Statute, is a war crime,” it said, adding that its targeting of civilian objects exceeds military necessities.

In one of the air strikes, Israeli forces killed Amira Abdel Fattah Subuh, 58, and her son Abd al-Rahman Yusef Subuh, 19, a disabled young man who suffers from cerebral palsy, the group said.

While the Israeli army announced later that it targeted the home of a battalion commander, field investigations confirm that no one was in the targeted flat during the bombing, according to EMHRM.

“This incident is an example of  Israel’s bombing policy that does not consider the principle of proportionality. Israel targets civilian objects deliberately to inflict damage upon victims and leave them with material losses as a form of revenge and collective punishment, prohibited by the rules of international humanitarian law.”

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DC police suffer ‘massive’ info leak after ransomware attack | Cybercrime News




Leak ‘possibly the most significant ransomware incident to date’ due to threat to Washington, DC officers, expert says.

The police department in the United States capital has suffered a massive leak of internal information after refusing to meet the blackmail demands of a Russian-speaking ransomware syndicate. Experts said it i the worst known ransomware attack ever to hit a US police department.

The gang, known as the Babuk group, released thousands of the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department’s sensitive documents on the dark web Thursday.

A review by The Associated Press found hundreds of police officer disciplinary files and intelligence reports that include feeds from other agencies, including the FBI and Secret Service.

Ransomware attacks have reached epidemic levels as foreign criminal gangs paralyse computer networks at state and local governments, police departments, hospitals and private companies. They demand large payments to decrypt stolen data or to prevent it from being leaked online.

A cyberattack last week shut down the Colonial Pipeline, the nation’s largest fuel pipeline, prompting petrol-hoarding and panic-buying in parts of the Southeast.

Fuel holding tanks are seen at Colonial Pipeline’s Linden Junction Tank Farm on May 10, 2021, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, after the pipeline was forced to shut down its oil and gas system after a ransomware attack  [Michael M Santiago/Getty Images]

Brett Callow, a threat analyst and ransomware expert at the security firm Emsisoft, said the police leak ranks as “possibly the most significant ransomware incident to date” because of the risks it presents for officers and civilians.

Some of the documents included security information from other law enforcement agencies related to President Joe Biden’s inauguration, including a reference to a “source embedded” with a militia group.

One document detailed the steps the FBI has taken in its investigation of two pipe bombs left at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee before the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6.

That includes “big data pulls” of cell towers, and plans to “analyze purchases” of Nike shoes worn by a person of interest, the document said.

The police department did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment, but has previously said some officers’ personal information was stolen.

Some of that information was previously leaked, revealing personal information of some officers taken from background checks, including details of their past drug use, finances and — in at least one incident — of past sexual abuse.

The newly released files include details of disciplinary proceedings of hundreds of officers dating back to 2004. The files often contain sensitive and embarrassing private details.

“This is going to send a shock through the law enforcement community throughout the country,” Ted Williams, a former officer at the department who is now a lawyer, told The Associated Press.

He is representing a retired officer whose background file was included in an earlier leak.

Williams said having background checks and disciplinary files made public makes it difficult for officers to do their jobs.

“The more the crooks know about a law enforcement officer, the more the crooks try to use that for their advantage,” he said.

The Babuk group indicated this week that it wanted $4m not to release the files, but was only offered $100,000.

The department has not said whether it made the offer. Any negotiations would reflect the complexity of the ransomware problem, with police finding themselves forced to consider making payments to criminal gangs.

The FBI, which is assisting in this case, discourages ransomware payments.

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France asks police to ban pro-Palestinian protest in Paris | Gaza News




France’s interior minister has asked police to ban a pro-Palestinian protest in Paris this weekend against the recent escalation of Israeli air raids in the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza and crackdowns in the occupied East Jerusalem and West Bank.

“I have asked the Paris police chief to ban the protests on Saturday linked to the recent tensions in the Middle East,” Gerald Darmanin, France’s interior minister wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

“Serious disturbances to the public order were noted in 2014,” he said, referring to protests against an Israeli offensive on Gaza that year.

“Instructions were given to prefects to be particularly vigilant and firm,” he added.

Activists had called the protest in the Barbes district of northern Paris to demonstrate against Israel’s intensifying aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

More than 100 people have been killed in Gaza since Monday, including 27 children, according to the enclave’s health authorities, and more than 580 others wounded after heavy Israeli attacks.

At least six Israelis and one Indian national have been killed in Israel from rocket attacks by Hamas, the governing political entity in Gaza.

The escalation in violence came after weeks of tensions in occupied East Jerusalem about a scheduled court ruling on the forced expulsion of several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

In a circular seen by the AFP news agency, Darmanin also urged local police chiefs to assure the “protection of places of worship, schools, cultural centres and businesses of the Jewish community”.

Several demonstrations took place in France during July 2014 to denounce an Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip.

On July 19, 2014, several thousand protesters defied a ban on a demonstration at Barbes and the rally rapidly degenerated into violence that lasted for hours.

‘Demonstrating is a right’

The announcement by Darmanin was criticised by activists and politicians who said there was no reason to cancel the protests.

“Demonstrating is a right that you should be the guarantor of,” Member of French Parliament Elsa Faucillon said in a tweet in reply to Darmanin.

“And in this case, given the silence of our country on the reasons for the attacks, it even seems a duty to me!”

Sihame Assbague, a journalist based in Paris, said Darmanin’s decision to ban pro-Palestine protest was for two reasons, including that “there is French colonial solidarity with the Israeli occupation forces”.

“You do not support anti-colonial political mobilisations,” she added.

The head of the Committee for Justice and Liberties Yasser Louati told Al Jazeera from Paris that “we will march whether [French President Emmanuel] Macron and Darmanin like it or not”.

“Palestinians have the right to exist and to defend themselves. If they can resist bombs and ethnic cleansing, we can sustain tear gas and arrest for them,” Louati, who is also the host of the podcast Le Breakdown, said.

Solidarity group president arrested

On Wednesday, French authorities arrested the president of Palestinian solidarity group Association France-Palestine Solidarite (AFPS), who was planning to organise a peaceful rally in Paris.

Bertrand Heilbronn was arrested after attending a meeting at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. He was accompanied by members of parliament and union representatives, according to a statement by the AFPS.

The solidarity group had called for a demonstration on Wednesday in support of the Palestinians.

On Thursday, AFPS announced that Heilbronn had been released.

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